Marching towards the new birth of the world

File:Aivazovsky - Descent of Noah from Ararat.jpg


Matthew 16:21-28

21From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

We call this a passion prediction – a prediction of his suffering and death. It doesn’t require any special divine foreknowledge. It’s reasonable to think that Jesus was astute enough to recognize that the things he was saying and doing would eventually bring him into conflict with the Judean authorities – and that the outcome of that would be his death. But Jesus adds “and on the third day be raised.”

For a long time I rather ignored this portion of the prediction. Scholarship rightly understands the Gospels as works of the church, the faith community of Jesus’ followers. Jesus didn’t write the Gospels; his followers did. But scholars tend to then make a distinction between what they think came from Jesus and what came from “the church”.

So Jesus could have foreseen his death, but who could imagine his resurrection? The first part may have belonged to Jesus, but the second part surely belongs to the early church. They are the ones who added that Jesus would be raised, because they had seen it.

It’s a reasonable thought, I guess, though it requires a certain audacity on the part of his followers to put words into the mouth of Jesus. Moderns think ancients are willing to do that (and in many cases they were), but that we wouldn’t (though we do). I am always in support of a little humility about what we are certain we “know”.

For a long time, then, I saw in this text the passion prediction and just kind of ignored the resurrection prediction. But the truth is the resurrection prediction is a key element of Jesus’ prophetic word. Indeed, the entire bulk of the Biblical prophets is to warn of pending judgment and destruction, but then to affirm grace and restoration. The Biblical story is a story of sin and redemption. The wicked world drowns at the time of Noah, but from destruction a new creation rises. Israel is condemned to wander in the wilderness but a new generation rises to enter in to the promised land. Jerusalem is destroyed, but the prophet declares that springs will flow in the desert and a highway lead the people home.

The whole Biblical story is about death and resurrection, judgment and grace, suffering and redemption. So why couldn’t Jesus have trusted that his death would lead to resurrection? His message is about the dawning of the age to come, the reign of God where lives are healed and blind eyes opened and tears wiped away. Resurrection is at the heart of this ministry. Jesus is herald of the new. The dead shall give up its prisoners. The gates guarding the realm of the dead shall not stand. Life is at hand.

So I understand the skepticism of the scholars. And it is important to resist the notion that Jesus was some kind of superman who had powers greater than the rest of us mere mortals. Jesus was fully human. This is the ancient and persistent confession of the church. But the Spirit is upon him. He trusts God fully. He knows the sacred writings intimately. He understands God is a God who delivers – even from the wrath of Jerusalem’s elite. Even from the grave.

And because God is a god who delivers – he sets his sights on Jerusalem. Courageously, faithfully, obediently, he marches towards the new birth of the world.

Image: Ivan Aivazovsky [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Trees, parables, and the dominion of God

File:Csontváry Kosztka, Tivadar - Pilgrimage to the Cedars of Lebanon - Google Art Project.jpg

Pilgrimage to the Cedars of Lebanon, Csontváry Kosztka, Tivadar (1853 – 1919)

Watching for the Morning of June 14, 2015

Year B

The Third Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 06 / Lectionary 11

Perhaps the farmer in Jesus’ parable of the growing seed is a lazy and worthless farmer, sleeping instead of tending his fields, but though he sleeps, the seed wondrously grows and a harvest will come. Just so the mustard seed seems like nothing, but it will become a great shrub sheltering the birds of the air. Jesus may seem like nothing, now, a peasant preacher and wonder worker in a land occupied by a great empire – but the reign of God comes.

The parable evokes the promise of God in our reading from Ezekiel about a twig that will grow to become a great cedar in which “every kind of bird” will find shelter – the promise of a just king in whom all nations will rest.

And the image of the noble tree is taken up by the psalmist to declare that the righteous – those who show fidelity to God and to others – are like the noble cedar whose beautiful, aromatic wood lines the temple of God, and like the date-palm whose fruit adds sweetness and joy to life, year after year.

Enriching such reflection are the words of Paul in our second reading declaring that Christ “died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” In Christ the new creation is at hand, the dawning of God’s realm of grace and life, the reconciliation of heaven and earth.

The Prayer June 14, 2015

Lord of All,
your reign of grace and life moves towards its consummation
when all shall find shelter in your arms.
Increase in us faith and hope
that we may live and serve you with joy;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for June 14, 2015

First Reading: Ezekiel 17:22-24
“I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar.” – Building on the metaphor of the lowly vine planted by Nebuchadnezzar (the king of Judah) who broke his covenant with Babylon and brought destruction on the nation, the prophet proclaims God’s promise of a great cedar, a noble king, in whom all the nations will find shelter.

Psalmody: Psalm 92:12-15 (Appointed: 92:1-4, 12-15)
“The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.”
– Those who are faithful towards God and others are compared with the long-lived and noble trees: the cedar that adorns the temple, and the date-palm that brings sweetness.

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:14-17 (Appointed: 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17)
“if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
– All things have changed in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The new age is at hand, the creation set free from sin and death, and those who are in Christ are part of that new creation.

Gospel: Mark 4:26-34
“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” – Jesus uses the metaphor of the sown seed growing towards harvest and the mustard seed become a great shrub to give insight into the mystery of the reign of God. What is now hidden moves inexorably towards its fulfillment.


Image: By Csontváry Kosztka, Tivadar (1853 – 1919) (Hungarian) (Painter, Details of artist on Google Art Project) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

God loved the world in this way


John 3:7-21

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Interior of the Church of the Light, designed by Tadao Ando, in Ibaraki, Osaka Prefecture.

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.

I can’t think of any other Biblical reference that is held up as a sign at a football game. It is recognized as a simple, concise summary of the Christian message. God, love, Jesus, eternal life – it’s all there. But something of the power and glory of this verse is lost when it gets separated from the rest of John’s Gospel.

First, we should note that there tends to be a grammatical misunderstanding in the way we hear this verse. It doesn’t say God loved the world ‘so much’, but God loved the world ‘in this way’. The manner in which God shows his fidelity to the world is in giving his Son.

But does the word ‘give’ mean offer him up on the cross as a redeeming sacrifice? or does it mean sending him from above to grant us new birth ‘from above’? These are not entirely separate ideas, but the accent is very different. A sacrificial lamb may carry off my sins, but it doesn’t abide in me and I in it. I am still very much a child of the earth not a child of the heavens. Water is not turned into wine. Eyes are not given new sight. I am not reborn as a citizen of heaven.

This Jesus is not a mere sacrifice that happens out there on Golgotha to change God’s attitude to me or the debt I owe; he is the light shining in the darkness that illumines and transforms the human heart, my heart.

God loved the world in this way: he brought us light and new birth. He brought us the breath of God. He brought us the imperishable life of God. In his Gospel, John piles up the metaphors for us: bread of life, living water, light of the world, gate of the sheep, the way, truth and life – all pointing not to an objective act of sacrifice on our behalf (with a promise of life after we die), but a new and transformed existence as members of heaven’s household now.

God loved the world in this way: he sent the incarnate word to abide in me and I in him.

And we haven’t yet come to the truly surprising element in this simple little verse: God did this for the world. We take this for granted, that God’s love is for everyone. ‘The world’ just means ‘everyone’ to our ears. But this word, ‘the world’, in John’s Gospel is not morally neutral. The world does not know this word from above (1:10). It hates him (7:7). Its deeds are evil (7:7). It doesn’t know the father (17:25). It cannot receive the Spirit of truth (14:17). It rejoices when Jesus is killed (16:20). And yet, it is for the sake of this world that Jesus comes and that the believers are sent.

God loves a hostile and rebellious world, God shows fidelity to this hostile and rebellious world, and shows it by sending Jesus as light into the darkness.

God shows fidelity to the Oklahoma SAE chanting racist chants by sending his son. God shows fidelity to the Syrian regime dropping barrel bombs on its people by sending his son. God shows fidelity to a world largely ignoring the Syrian refugees by sending his son. God shows fidelity to the drug gangs in Central America by sending his son. God shows fidelity to the privileged elite protecting their wealth by sending his son. God shows fidelity to every torn and tormented home by sending his son who is the voice of heaven and the light of Grace and the possibility of new birth. God shows his fidelity to every grieving heart by sending his son who is the life of the age to come. God shows his faithfulness, his allegiance to us, his passion for the world, his love, in this way – a man who is the embodiment of the face of God, who is the path to life, who is the resurrection.

Maybe it doesn’t seem like enough. But what if those students could have seen at the front of their bus an African American with arms outstretched, covered with the spittle of their hate, yet radiant with light and truth and love? Do we not, at some point, begin to regret the hammer and nails in our hands?  How many does it take on that bus, how many must begin to see, before the song loses its voice?

Jesus is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life. But he is more. He is the good shepherd who calls us by name and leads us out to good pasture. He is the gate that leads us into life. He is the vine to us, the branches, who through us bears much fruit.

God loved the broken and rebellious world in this way: he sent a son to bring us birth from above and make us children of heaven, sons and daughters of God.


By taken by Bergmann (ja:Image:Ibaraki_Kasugaoka_Church_Light_Cross.JPG) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

For a world in rebellion

Watching for the Morning of March 15, 2015

The Fourth Sunday of Lent

File:Klu Klux Klan1922.jpgThe term ‘world’ is not morally neutral in John’s gospel. The world is the Judean society that has refused the invitation to be born from above. It is ‘the world’ that cannot see and denies what the blind man now sees. It is ‘the world’ that has decided that anyone who confesses Jesus is to be put out of the synagogue. It is ‘the world’ that ‘hates’, that shows no allegiance to, Jesus or to his followers. It is ‘the world’ that did not receive the Word made flesh, the true light that the darkness cannot extinguish. And yet, it is because God loved this rebellious world that he provided his only-begotten. Because of God’s steadfast love, his faithfulness to his promise, the Word came down from heaven that we might be born of heaven.

The author of Ephesians recognizes this. We were dead in our trespasses but have been made alive in Christ. We were following the powers of this age, we were driven by our passions, we were inheritors of wrath – but now, now God who is rich in mercy made us alive with Christ.

The people of Israel in the wilderness were in open rebellion from God – refusing to take the land (there are giants there!) and then, when they hear that message about forty years, they rebel again and try to take the land without God. Beaten down they are headed back towards the Red Sea, mouths full of bitter, poisonous words. And then there are poisonous snakes. But God in his mercy offers them healing – if they will trust and obey. God in his mercy delivers them, as he delivered the sick in our psalm.

Faithful to a world in rebellion. Merciful to a world without mercy. Light for a world in darkness. Love for a world enmeshed in hate and hardness of heart. Jesus didn’t come to judge – we are already in the realm of wrath. Jesus came to heal, to save, to grant us birth from above.

For our daily Lent devotion from Los Altos Lutheran church, and for sermons and other information on Lent see our Lent site.

Our theme this Lent is Renewal, and for Lent 4: Renewing Communities of Faith


The Prayer for March 15, 2015

In the lifting up of your Son, O God,
you revealed your glory
to bring your imperishable life to all.
Watch over us,
renewing our lives and our communities of faith
that, rooted in Christ, our trust in you may be deepened,
and we prove faithful to you and to all;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever

The Texts for March 15, 2015

First Reading: Numbers 21:4-9
“And 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.’” – Having failed to trust God in God’s first attempt to lead them into the land of Canaan, the Israelites must turn back towards the Red Sea to come to the land by another way. Their words become poisonous as they turn against God and against Moses. Met by poisonous snakes, they cry out to God and God answers – and in trusting God’s word (to look upon the bronze serpent) they are saved.

Psalmody: Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
“Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction… Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress.” – A psalm of praise for God’s faithfulness to his covenant, shown in his acts of deliverance.

Second Reading: Ephesians 2:1-10
“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”
– By God’s Grace we have been brought from death into life.

Gospel John 3:7-21 (appointed, verses 14-21)
“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” – Jesus speaks with Nicodemus about being born “from above” and testifies that he alone has come from above (the heavens, the realm of God) and returns there. Just as seeing the bronze serpent “lifted up” brought healing and life to the Israelites in the wilderness, looking to Jesus “lifted up” grants the life of the age to come.


Photo: By National Photo Company [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Nets not fishing poles


Mark 1

File:Large lift net (In Bengali-Veshal jal).jpg17And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”

Nets. Not a fishing pole. Nets.

We think of Peter and Andrew, James and John as rugged individuals providing for themselves and their families, fishermen on the sea. We see independence, self-reliance, all those wonderful American virtues. And so we subconsciously translate “fishing for people” as each of us out there throwing out the line to bring someone in to Jesus. We think of salvation as personal. We tend to think in terms of individual salvation. A fishing pole.

A colleague of mine years ago hauled his bass boat into the center aisle of his sanctuary and gave his sermon with rod in hand, casting a bob down the aisle. You can’t push that metaphor very far without troubling questions about fake bait and barbed hooks.

But they fished with nets. They caught whole shoals. They were starting a movement. They were gathering crowds. Peter’s Pentecost message gathered 3,000 people ready for God to come and reign among them. In that wonderful story at the end of John there are 153 fish in a net bursting to contain them. But let’s be clear, bursting nets doesn’t mean there are too many people for the seats in church; it means three million people in the streets declaring “Je Suis Charlie.” – Or, in this case, “I follow Jesus.” “I choose the reign of God over the dominions of men.” “I choose the reign of mercy and justice over the tyrannies of power.” “I choose the governance of God’s Spirit over the governance of social convention.” “I choose generosity over greed, service over power, compassion over hardness of heart.” “I choose courage in the face of hate and fear, rather than more hate and fear.” “I choose boldness for the truth over silent consent to what is false.” “I choose forgiveness over revenge, even seventy-seven times.”  “I choose a shared table.”

When Jesus walks along the shore and summons Peter, Andrew, James and John, he is summoning them away from an imperial system where the right to fish was granted by the empire for something that worked much more like a bribe than a fee for the protection of the fishing stocks. They were licensed to fish, but the fish didn’t go to the market or their own table, it went to a middleman who carried it to a factory where it was converted into fish sauce, a delicacy for the Roman elite (and the Judean elite who shared their table, their values, their allegiances to Roman Imperium.)

It was time for change. The social compact was no longer justice and mercy but wealth and power. So Jesus gathers his friends and sets off to change the world, to call the people of God back to the path of God, to bring God’s spirit to reign in their hearts and their world.

It is the beginning of the March on Washington. The beginning of the Freedom Riders. It is the beginning of Non-Violent Resistance Training and the decision to not participate in a corrupt system. Jesus doesn’t move to the back of the bus. They head to Jerusalem, bearing witness along the way to the true generosity of God, the work of reconciliation, the healing of lives, the raising of the dead. Blessed are the pure in heart, the peacemakers, those persecuted for the sake of what is right and faithful. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness – the right and proper observance of our obligations to one another (Matthew 5:1-12).

At the center of all this is a man of extraordinary spiritual power, a man anointed of God, a man who faced demons in the wilderness and will face pain and betrayal in Jerusalem. But from that sorrow the world is born anew; from that grave the world is born from above.

Photo: By Balaram Mahalder (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons

“A new covenant”


Jeremiah 31

Sharing the first ring of the Kransekage, a Danish wedding cake

Sharing the first ring of the Kransekage, a Danish wedding cake

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.

It is difficult to communicate how profound a declaration this is. It is the word of a marital partner repeatedly betrayed and, at the end of a brutal divorce, declaring: “We will yet have a happy marriage. There will be a new wedding. The day will surely come when perfect love is written on the heart.”

If it were not the voice of God, we would give the spurned spouse a “Denial is not a river in Egypt” award.

God will start again. A people created by a promise to Abraham, led out of bondage, wondrously delivered into a new land and provided with every blessing, turn instead to the gods of the land, the gods of fertility and prosperity, the gods of the surrounding nations, the values of ancient cultures built on wealth and power,

God let it fall to dust, crushed by yet greater wealth and power. Temple, priesthood, kingship, city, all destroyed.

But God will start again.

It is the pattern found throughout the Biblical narrative from the very beginning: Garden and betrayal. God appeals to Cain, but Cain chooses murder. God gives Adam and Eve to one another in perfect love, and Lamech chooses multiple wives, Sodom chooses rape, the daughters of Lot choose incest. Judah chooses prostitution. Gibeah chooses rape and murder. David murders Uriah and takes his wife. Prostitution, pederasty, adultery, God’s precious, intimate, life-giving gift is sacrificed to the gods of power and pleasure. Self-giving love becomes selfish love.

War, pillaging, slavery, hunger, everywhere God’s gift of a good and bountiful creation is corrupted and abused.

But God will start again. A new heaven and a new earth – not meaning God will discard the old, but God will heal the broken and wounded world until the soiled becomes pure, like a bride adorned. Though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.”

God will birth us from above. God will pour out his holy Spirit. God will conform us to the image of Christ. The deserts shall blossom. A holy city.

“I will make a new covenant.” There shall be a new wedding. Our rebellious, defiant hearts shall be made free. We shall learn love and fidelity. The will and purpose of God will be written on our hearts.

Come, Holy Spirit, Come. Come and begin your work now in me.

33But 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.

Born of the Spirit


John 3

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Detail of a statue at St Bartholomew’s Church in Orford, by Ziko-C

3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

I like the fact that Jesus answers Nicodemus before he asks a question.  I know the Greek doesn’t necessarily require the sense of “answer”; it could be acceptably translated, “responding, Jesus said…”  But there is something delicious in the way Jesus cuts to the heart of the matter before Nicodemus can say anything but a greeting.

This is, after all, why Nicodemus has come.  He has seen this strange band of followers and the solidarity that binds them together.  He has heard of this community that washes feet, that shares bread, that regard themselves as sons and daughters of the Most High, participants already in the life of the age to come.  He has seen the works: blind eyes opened, the lame walking, the strange transcending of ancient animosities: Judean and Samaritan together.  It is a compelling mystery, an unexpected reality in their midst.  What lies at the heart of this?  So he comes to Jesus in the darkness, secretly, searching – not quite sure how to begin.

Nicodemus starts with a generous complement.  Such complements normally require the recipient to abjure, and turn the complements back on the speaker, but Jesus plays no polite games here.  He sees the seeker.  He answers the question Nicodemus hasn’t yet formed: “I give you my word of honor, it is not possible to see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

Nicodemus sees but the shadows on the wall.  The healings, the deeds, the words, the actions are but signs pointing to the light.  The truth is not found in these; the truth is found in the light.  And to see, he must be born of the light.

But Nicodemus is in darkness.  He hears the word ‘from above’ in its alternate meaning, ‘again’.  And he hears in the language of birth only the physical birth of the body.  How is it possible to enter the womb a second time?  The words of Jesus make no sense to him.

He is not alone.  If we listen carefully to Jesus, listen for what he says and not just what we assume he says, what we’ve learned to think he says, we will struggle, too.  He speaks in parables and riddles.  Sometimes it seems like he is trying to be obtuse.  But there is no other way to lead people through a paradigm shift.  No other way to help people through a conversion – not a moral reform, but a transformation of their thinking and experience of God and self and the world.

How can Jesus be bread of life?  We’ve heard it so often before it doesn’t puzzle us.  If he had said, “I am pizza,” we might get some better sense of the confusion he engenders.  That’s why the leaders said he was crazy.  “I am flour and yeast and salt.”  Huh?

Or maybe not yeast, because Jesus will start to talk about manna.  I am the true manna from heaven.  Poor Nicodemus.

You have to be born anew.  You must be born of the wind.  You must be born from above.  You must be born of the Spirit to see and understand and grasp the true reality of God.

Nicodemus struggles – and we struggle, too – to see past the daily realities of life into the ultimate truth of the world.  We are not masters and slaves, but children of God.  We are not sweat and tears and labor and sorrow but partakers in the light and love that are the true fabric of the universe.  We are not our possessions, our jobs, our honors, our roles; we are branches in the vine that is Christ.

Jesus gives Nicodemus no simple formula for his transformational ‘birth’.  Only the promise that ” 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 – a sentence we should probably hear something like this: “God shows his allegiance to the world in this way: he gave his only son that everyone who abides in him may not perish but share in the life that is the source and goal of all things.”