Thursday, April 19, 2018

Thursday Thoughts on the Readings for Sunday, April 22nd, 2018

Last week, I mentioned that two funerals in two weeks has put a note of sadness within our celebration of Easter.  Within 24 hours of that post, another member of the congregation died.  As a congregation, we are going through many emotions of joy, grief, thanksgiving, shock, and sadness as we gather on Sundays.  We mourn for those who are no longer physically present among us even as we proclaim that we are still connected to them through the Body of Christ.

This week is the so-called "Good Shepherd Sunday," the Sunday of each year that reads from John 10 as Jesus proclaims that he is the good shepherd.  There is much to say about the other readings as well.  If you would like to add to the conversation, use the comments below or comment on my Facebook post where I share this blog entry.

Thanks for reading!  I would love to hear your impressions and discuss your questions.

Acts 4:5 - 12

5The next day [the] rulers, elders, and scribes assembled in Jerusalem, 6with Annas the high priest, Caiaphas, John, and Alexander, and all who were of the high-priestly family. 7When they had made the prisoners stand in their midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” 8Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, 9if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, 10let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead. 11This Jesus is 
 ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders;
  it has become the cornerstone.’
12There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”

Acts 4 is a continuation of the story from last week (Acts 3, where Peter heals a man in Jesus’ name and proclaims the Gospel among the people at the Temple who react to the miracle).  The religious leaders are offended that Peter and John are invoking Jesus’ name in connection with God, so they arrested them and are trying them within the Sanhedrin (Jewish religious leadership council).  The council would like to kill Peter and John for heresy, but they know that the people will turn against them if they do so.  The council warns Peter and John to not preach in Jesus’ name and then releases them.  Peter, John, and the rest of the disciples prayed for the strength to continue proclaiming the Gospel in the face of opposition.  In response, the Holy Spirit entered the room and strengthened them.

“There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:12, spoken by Peter)  This is the key claim from Peter’s speech.  We still wrestle with this particular claim: we may profess it with our lips, but in our hearts and minds, we wonder whether this is enough.  So we turn to charismatic leaders, who tell us to follow their teachings so that Jesus will love us enough to save us.  We listen to our inner voice which wants to feel like we did something to deserve salvation.  But salvation is not something we earn; it is a gift from the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit that we can only receive by the faith provided by the Holy Spirit.

Psalm 23

 1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters;
 3 he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name's sake.
 4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff-- they comfort me.
 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.

Psalm 23 is one we hear at least once a year on Sundays.  We also hear it at 3 out of 4 funerals (2 out of the 3 I have presided over this month).  I always wonder whether we are so awash in sentimentality that we do not reflect on the claims within the psalm.  The Lord will lead us to all that we need (hence the green pastures and still waters).  We take comfort from the Lord’s rod and staff because they can be used to fend off attackers as well as gently guide us on our journeys.  The Lord welcomes us at the Lord’s banquet table.  We are currently dwelling with the Lord and we will continue to dwell with the Lord.  Each of these is a significant claim in its own right; together, they form an expansive vision of the Lord’s provision and blessing.  Do we miss this when we hear this psalm in worship because it is so familiar and we have memories attached to it?

1 John 3:16 - 24

16We know love by this, that [Jesus Christ] laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?
  18Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.
  23And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24All who obey his commandments abide in him, and he abides in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit that he has given us.

When 1 John 3 talks about sin, does it mean all sin or does it mean failing to uphold the two great commandments: love the Lord and love your neighbor as yourself?  Such love must be expressed in all forms including word, speech, truth, and action.

I can read this in such a way that we would take away from this passage a promise that the Lord will give us whatever we pray for if we are good enough or perfect.  I do not believe that is the point of the passage, but I can see how someone might walk away with that impression.

John 10:11 - 18

[Jesus said:] 11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. 16I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. 17For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. 18No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”

John 10 is the “Good Shepherd” chapter because Jesus calls himself the “Good Shepherd” multiple times.  In this part of the chapter, Jesus claims that he is the Good Shepherd because he is willing to die so that the sheep may have life; this is something that the hired hand is not willing to do because the hired hand cares more about the salary than the sheep.  Jesus will lay down his life for the sheep…and he will pick his life back up again.  In society, we praise those who risk their lives or give up their lives so that others may have life; the difference between them and Jesus is that Jesus was raised from the dead and that Jesus accomplished many things through his death and resurrection.

(Tying John 10 to 1 John 3) What does it look like for us love our neighbors enough to lay down our lives for the sake of someone else?  There are many stories and songs that depict this, but this is the one that came to my mind: Nickel Creek, "The Hand Song"

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Wednesday Thoughts on the Readings for Sunday, April 15th, 2018

In most congregations, this is a joyful season.  We are still shouting "Alleluia!" and "Hallelujah!" as we celebrate Jesus' resurrection from the grave.  Our hymns are joyful and upbeat.  Our readings and sermons proclaim the good news and wonder what happens now that Christ has risen.  The congregation I serve also uses this time to celebrate the planting season and ask for the Lord's blessing on this year's grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and flowers.

This year, however, there is a note of sadness within the celebration.  On two occasions since Easter Sunday, the congregation I serve has gathered to commend one of the congregation's members into the hands of God following the members' respective deaths.  In the midst of our celebrations, we also grieve the loss of these two members from our families and from our shared community.

Both the celebration and the grieving are on my mind as I look over the readings from the Revised Common Lectionary for this Sunday.  Below, you can see how these things influence how I read the chosen readings for this Sunday.  After each reading, you will find my thoughts in italics.  If something in the readings or in my reflections grabs your attention and/or leads you to ask a question, I invite you to share your thoughts and questions in the comments below.

Acts 3:12 - 19

12[Peter] addressed the people, “You Israelites, why do you wonder at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by our own power or piety we had made him walk?13The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus, whom you handed over and rejected in the presence of Pilate, though he had decided to release him. 14But you rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, 15and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. 16And by faith in his name, his name itself has made this man strong, whom you see and know; and the faith that is through Jesus has given him this perfect health in the presence of all of you.
  17“And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. 18In this way God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer. 19Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out.”

We do not get the entire story in Acts 3.  We do not hear the encounter between the man who was “lame from birth” and Peter and John.  What we get is Peter’s comments to those who witnessed the miracle.  The man was healed “on the basis of faith in His name” (New American Standard Bible translating the Greek preposition ‘epi’) and restored to perfect health.  We can think of our future resurrection as having the same outcome: we will be raised from dead and decayed or dead and completely consumed/absorbed by the Earth to perfect health (physical, mental, emotional).  Peter also testifies that Jesus is the Messiah and references the prophecies that the Messiah must suffer to answer the (non-asked) question of how Jesus could be the Messiah if he had died on the Cross.  The reading cuts Peter off in mid-sentence; perhaps we can extend the reading to verse 21 so that we also hear Peter’s proclamation of Jesus’ future return and how Jesus’ death and resurrection does more than just wiping out our sin.

Psalm 4

Answer me when I call, O God of my right! You gave me room when I was in distress. Be gracious to me, and hear my prayer.
 2 How long, you people, shall my honor suffer shame? How long will you love vain words, and seek after lies? Selah
 3 But know that the LORD has set apart the faithful for himself; the LORD hears when I call to him.
 4 When you are disturbed, do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent. Selah
 5 Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the LORD.
 6 There are many who say, "O that we might see some good! Let the light of your face shine on us, O LORD!"
 7 You have put gladness in my heart more than when their grain and wine abound.
 8 I will both lie down and sleep in peace; for you alone, O LORD, make me lie down in safety.

I don’t get much from Psalm 4, though I recognize that verse 7’s claim that the Lord has “put gladness in my heart, more than when grain and wine abound” may speak to the farmers of this community.

1 John 3:1 - 7

1See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. 3And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
  4Everyone who commits sin is guilty of lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5You know that he was revealed to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6No one who abides in him sins; no one who sins has either seen him or known him. 7Little children, let no one deceive you. Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.

The first paragraph of the 1 John 3 reading is an Easter reading (the second is a works-righteousness reading).  We are children of God NOW, not later, because we are baptized (my extension of the thought). When Jesus is revealed, we will be like him, for we will (be raised from the dead like Jesus was and, with our newly-restored bodies, we will) see him as he is.

Luke 24:36b - 48

36bJesus himself stood among [the disciples] and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate in their presence.
  44Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things.”

The Gospel reading is Luke’s account of the first post-resurrection meeting between Jesus and the disciples; we heard John’s account of this meeting last Sunday.  While John focused on the blessing Jesus gave to the disciples, Luke focuses on Jesus’ efforts to prove that he is not a ghost.  Jesus asks for food and eats in their presence to prove that he is present in bodily form.  He then reviews the OT prophecies that he has fulfilled through his death and resurrection.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Thursday Thoughts on the Readings for Sunday, April 8th, 2018

My apologies to all of you for not keeping up with this over the last couple of weeks.  The end of Lent and Holy Week are a very busy time for any pastor, especially a solo pastor.  Unfortunately, I was not able to share my sermon preparation process with you over the course of the last two weeks due to my busy schedule.  After a funeral this week, I am attempting to get back on track.

This week, the congregation celebrates Rogation Sunday, a traditional celebration in rural communities that asks the Lord's blessing on the crops that are being planted in this season.  This typically happens on the Sixth Sunday of the Easter season; however, the congregation I serve holds their Rogation Sunday earlier in the Easter season so that the congregation can conclude worship with a blessing of tractors and other large pieces of farm equipment.  Local farmers are invited to bring their large equipment to the parking lot and their hand tools indoors as part of the service.

For those who are new to my posts or just need a reminder, I will share the Bible readings that the Revised Common Lectionary designates for our upcoming Sunday worship service.  After each reading, I share my initial thoughts and responses to each reading.  I invite you to share your thoughts, responses, and questions in the comments below.

Acts 4:32 - 35

32Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. 33With great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. 34There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. 35They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.

Acts 4 is a second community of disciples that sounds like a commune (compare to Acts 2:42 – 47).  The people are united in Christ to the point where they share all property/resources from the sale of property.  While there are no claims of miracles, we do explicitly hear that the resurrection was proclaimed within the community (Easter focus).  Curiously, the reading stops short of the positive example set by a member of the community; this person sold a piece of land/property and gave 100% of the proceeds to the community.  Perhaps the RCL creators did not want us to start drawing in the Acts 5:1 – 11 story…

Psalm 133

 1 How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
 2 It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes.
 3 It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the LORD ordained his blessing, life forevermore.

How good and pleasant, indeed!  Unfortunately, we have a tendency to disrupt such communities from within due to jealousy and selfishness.  But when we get to experience communities like this (I got to experience this while serving on camp staff and while attending seminary), the experience sticks with you for the rest of your life.

1 John 1:1 - 2:2

1We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—2this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us—3we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. 4We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.

  5This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. 6If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; 7but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

2:1My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.

1 John 1 answers the question of where we find some of the language within “The Brief Order of Confession and Forgiveness.”  The first chapter seems all over the place, like we have missed an organized introduction to the letter.  But 2:1 – 2 gets to the point: Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for all sin and the advocate for all people before the Father.

John 20:19 - 31

19When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

  24But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
  26A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

  30Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

The verse before this Gospel reading is Mary Magdalene reporting her encounter with the risen Christ to the disciples.  Question: was Thomas with the disciples when Mary told them of her encounter?  If so, then what held Thomas back after hearing about a second, separate encounter?  I imagine that it would be harder to dismiss the disciples’ story if Thomas was present to hear Mary’s story.

Who in our lives tells the most/biggest “tall tales?”  How do we receive stories from this source?  How do we confirm/refute such stories?  If the story is confirmed by another, trustworthy source, what do we do?

Monday, March 12, 2018

Monday Thoughts on the Readings for Sunday, March 18th, 2018

This coming Sunday is the final Sunday of Lent before Palm/Passion Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week.  Our Gospel reading suggests that Jesus is ready for what is about to happen.  Throughout the early chapters of Gospel of John, we hear that Jesus' hour has not yet arrived.  But now, Jesus declares, the hour has arrived, and we begin the final journey to Jerusalem and to the Cross.  What else do we need to hear before we get to Holy Week?

As always, you will find the Revised Common Lectionary readings within the post.  In italics, I add my thoughts after each reading.  If you would like to add your thoughts, ask your questions, or critique my response(s), you can do so in the comment section below.

Jeremiah 31:31 - 34

31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

The covenant referenced here is the Lord’s covenant with Moses, which re-established the covenant with Abraham for Abraham’s family (the Israelites) to live in the Promised Land.  This covenant also came with a series of laws and regulations for the Israelites to live within this covenant.  The Israelites were not able to live up to this covenant, and so the Lord sent them into exile.  But the Lord will return the Israelites to Jerusalem and will establish a new covenant with them.  In the short term, this covenant is the restoration of the city and the Temple.  From a New Testament (i.e. a “New Covenant”) perspective, the new covenant is recalled within the sacrament of Holy Communion.

Psalm 51:1 - 12

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
 4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
 5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
 6 You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
 7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
 9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
 10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
 11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.

 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

Psalm 51 is the psalmist’s confession of breaking the covenant and violating the Lord’s laws.  The psalmist asks for forgiveness and for the Lord to cleanse the psalmist from these sins.  The psalmist also asks for a new heart, which connects with Jeremiah 31’s mention of the Lord writing the new covenant on our hearts.

Hebrews 5:5 - 10

5Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, 
 “You are my Son,
  today I have begotten you”;
6as he says also in another place, 
 “You are a priest forever,
  according to the order of Melchizedek.”
  7In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. 8Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; 9and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, 10having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

Hebrews reads as if it suggests that Jesus was not fully divine when he was born (see verses 8 and 9: “Although he was a son, he learned obedience…and having been made perfect…).  The appeal to the order of Melchizedek (see Genesis 14:17 – 24) is a traditional appeal to authority: in Hebrew culture, authority came with age; the older, the greater the authority.  If Jesus is a “high priest according to the order of Melchizedek,” then the authority of his order is greater than the authority of the Levites (goes back to Moses and Aaron) and the Pharisees.

John 12:20 - 33

20Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

  27“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” 29The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” 30Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” 33He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

Philip and Andrew are still sitting there, wondering “Will you receive these Greek visitors who wish to see you or not?”  (a facetious thought, I know, but I notice that Jesus did not answer the question that they asked)

In the Gospel of John, we do not get the full story of John baptizing Jesus; instead, we get John the Baptist telling others about that event.  John the Baptist mentions seeing a dove and hearing a voice, but there is no sense that others heard the voice.  Here, the crowd also hears the voice of God/Holy Spirit.  Some dismiss this voice as thunder.  Others say it is the voice of an angel.  Jesus declares that this voice is for us so that we may trust and believe Jesus’ message that he will draw all people to himself after his crucifixion.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Wednesday Thoughts on the Readings for Sunday, March 11th, 2018

After a weekend during which I did not preach on Sunday because I was traveling to a continuing education conference, we return to look at the readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent.  This is traditionally known as "Laetare Sunday," a day of hope within the dark season of Lent.  "Laetare" is Latin for "Rejoice!" (in the vocative case, meaning that it is a command or an order).  On this day, we rejoice and celebrate, pushing aside the gloom of Lent and looking ahead to the joy of Easter.  So as we read these reading for Laetare Sunday, we can look for themes and ideas within the readings that we can lift up as causes to celebrate with the Lord and rejoice.

Below are some of my initial thoughts: many of them were recorded last week, and some of them I have added as I typed up this post.  I invite you to share your thoughts, questions, and celebrations in the comments below.

Numbers 21:4 - 9

4From Mount Hor [the Israelites] set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way. 5The people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food.” 6Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. 7The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. 8And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” 9So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live.

Numbers 21 provides a number of places to run with an idea.  The people grumbling about the lack of good food and water remind us that many will not be able to hear our testimony about Christ before their need for food and water are satisfied.  The serpent on the pole was the inspiration behind the internationally-recognized symbol for medical personnel, two snakes wrapped around a pole.  We could also focus on the power of confession and repentance (which fits the season of Lent and is likely the reason why the story is included in the Lenten season) or the power of prayer.

Some will wonder why the Lord used a tool (snakes) that caused death.  I don’t have a good answer to this; we know that God has changed since this time, because God no longer causes the death of members of a community or nation to inspire (force) the confession and repentance of that community or nation.  But we cannot say why God chose to act in this way in the early years of the nation of Israel.

Psalm 107:1 - 3, 17 - 22

O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever.
 2 Let the redeemed of the LORD say so, those he redeemed from trouble

 3 and gathered in from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south.

 17 Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction;
 18 they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death.
 19 Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress;
 20 he sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from destruction.
 21 Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind.

 22 And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices, and tell of his deeds with songs of joy.

Psalm 107 reads like a poetic retelling of the Exodus story.  We have narrowed the psalm down to the parts that echo the first reading.

Ephesians 2:1 - 10

1You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Ephesians 2:8 is the theme verse for the 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering, so that suggests that I should look here for the calling of the Holy Spirit to preach this Sunday.

There is a question of what is meant by “dead” and “alive.”  I notice that, in this telling, we are made alive NOW and we are raised up to sit with Christ in the heavenly places NOW.  Where and how do we experience this?

Does “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God…” mean that we are saved through the faith of Christ (which would not conflict with Paul’s theology even if we believe that Paul did not actually write this letter to the Ephesians)?  In this line of thinking, our good works do not save us, but we are created and saved so that we may do good works as a way of life.  That does change everything!  This frees us to do good works solely for the benefit of our neighbor(s) rather than concern ourselves with what reward in heaven we might earn through our good works.  And, in working for the benefit of our neighbor(s), we have the opportunity to demonstrate and share the love of Christ for all people.  This is something worth celebrating!

John 3:14 - 21

[Jesus said:] 14“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
  16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
  17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. 19And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”

John 3 is a well-known passage up through verse 17.  We don’t really like verses 18-21 because they talk about condemnation and judgment.  Verses 19-21 could be the inspiration behind the popular phrase about sunlight as the greatest disinfectant, meaning that removing evil deeds from their dark hiding places tends to end the deeds and bring the perpetrators to justice.