More Than Enough

Gospel of John  (1 of 1)United Methodist minister, Rev. Grace Imathiu tells a story about three young men who came to her office at the church she was serving in Nairobi, Kenya. Although cheerful, they looked tired and wore out. Dusty tennis shoes and dirty clothes. They asked her if they could sing “Amazing Grace.” They sang a cappella in parts. Then they told her their story. They were university students from Rwanda. Two of them had been medical students. When war broke out in their country, they had escaped with the clothes on their back and the song in their heart. They had walked for weeks without a change of clothes and no place to sleep. They had seen so much violence and death and cruelty that they could not find words to pray so instead they sang “Amazing Grace” as they walked.

On that particular afternoon in the pastor’s office, these three young men had come to church asking for assistance. They said they had found a room to rent for eight U.S. dollars a month. They were asking the congregation to help them with a month’s rent. Eight dollars and some money for food, a total of $12 a month. The pastor asked the three students to come back in a few days after she had time to speak with the church leadership. The leaders agreed to take on the $12 a month commitment but not without much discussion. Some said it would be a challenge because $12 each month would add up. Others suggested they do a special project or fundraiser. Then someone was concerned that word would get out that they were helping refugees and the church would be flooded with demands for assistance.

The pastor said in the discussion she learned a lot about the myth of limited resources. We often think there’s just enough for some of us. Some will have to just go without. Someone put it well, saying, “There is enough for all our needs, but there is not enough for all our greed.”

The story of feeding the five thousand is the only story recounted in all four gospels. A year has passed since turning water to wine at a wedding in Cana and this story of Jesus feeding the five thousand. The location of the story is on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee. John reminds us that at least from this side it is called Sea of Tiberias. Tiberias was founded in 20 AD by Herod Antipas and named in honor of Tiberias Caesar.  For the majority of devout Jews, it was considered an unclean city because it was built on top of an old cemetery. It because a transplant city for some Gentiles.

Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. The Jewish Passover Festival was near.

When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming toward him, he said to Philip, “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.

Philip answered him, “It would take more than half a year’s wages[a] to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”

Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?”

Jesus said, “Have the people sit down.” There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.

When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, “Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.” So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.

After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, “Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.” Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. (John 6:1-14)

The large crowd follows Jesus to the mountain and sits down. The passage seems to imply that Jesus was sort of in his own little world and when he looks up he realizes that this large crowd is following. Matthew and Mark give us more information about the timeline. According to the other gospels, Jesus took an opportunity to teach the crowd. “When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, ‘This is a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat” (Mark 6:36). In Mark, Jesus replies, “You give them something to eat” (Mark 6:37). The Gospel of John tells us that this dialogue happened between Jesus and Philip. Jesus says to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat” (John 6: 5)? We are told that he is asking Philip as a way to test him. But Philip doesn’t know he is being tested. Jesus asks, “Where we going to get the bread? What store has the best deal? Where can we buy by the bulk? Where is the quickest place to purchase and get back?” Philip doesn’t even get to the “where” question. He wants to know how Jesus thinks it is going to happen. Philip responds, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little” (John 6:7).

Andrew, another disciple, gets involved in the conversation, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people” (John 6:9)? Pointing to this kid with his snack, the disciples are like how is this going to help? It is a lost cause. It is barley loaves, the poor man’s bread.

How many times do we look at our resources and ask “How?” How am I going to pay the bills this month? How am I going to get through this year? How am I going to finish this project? How am I going to do make this work? If Jesus is in it, the “how” is already answered. Jesus knows how – God will provide. Where will we let our faith take us when we know the how is taken care of? When we know the “how” we won’t be surprised by the “where.” When we trust that God will provide, we will leave the other questions up to him. We are called to be faithful.   A little boy with five barley loaves and two fish is all that is needed to feed a hungry crowd of five thousand when God is in it.

Jesus encourages his disciples to tell the crowd to sit down. The Gospel of Mark tells us that Jesus ordered the people to sit in “groups of hundreds and of fifties” (Mark 6:40). This is the size of a large banquet. He takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to his disciples to give to the people. They gave “as much as they wanted” (John 6:11).  When they finished eating the disciples gathered up enough leftovers to fill twelve baskets. The disciples started with a mentality of scarcity but by the time they gather up the leftovers they discover they are working with a God of abundance. Jesus had been followed by a crowd but by the time the teaching and eating was over, he had a community.

When you are walking with Jesus, you got to throw out the expected. A hillside. A spiritual leader teaching. Hungry people being fed. It all happens near the Jewish holiday of Passover. What other biblical character do we find this episode similar? Deuteronomy 18:15 Moses says, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me among your own people.” Because John told us the Passover was near, the festival that celebrates Moses leading the people out of slavery and towards the Promises of God, Moses would have been on everyone’s mind. They would have been comparing Jesus to Moses. But Jesus wants to make it clear that he is greater than Moses. Later he says, “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:51). In case all they got out of the lesson is that God is a provider of bread, Jesus is saying he is the one who sustains life.

In a former church appointment, we had a lot of fellowship meals. Every other month, we would gather in the fellowship hall after worship and feast on casseroles, potlucks, and homemade desserts. There was a family that lived near the church but did not attend. A large family who lived crammed in a house surviving on food stamps and welfare checks. Whenever we had a fellowship meal they would show up to eat. They wouldn’t come to worship but they would be right in line for the meal afterwards. One Sunday a group of church leaders called me aside and told me that I was going to have to tell this family of eight that if they couldn’t come to worship and participate in the life of the church they could not attend the fellowship meal. A little boy of one of the church leaders was sitting at the table as we were having this discussion. After it was settled that the preacher would kick them out of the fellowship meal, the little boy interrupted by asking, “Where they going to get food like this at? Don’t we have enough to share?” Yea, we let them keep coming. We kept sharing and we kept having plenty.

Jesus is the bread of heaven. He can turn a crowd into a community. When he is leader of the banquet there is always room for one more. Jesus is the bread of heaven. When he is received as the lord of our life, there is always abundance. Jesus is the bread of heaven.

In a world starving for forgiveness, Jesus sets a table of grace. In a crowded world, Jesus creates community. The gift is limitless. Jesus invites you to his table, a table where you will never go away hungry.

Woman at the Well

Gospel of John (1 of 1)An old well. A tree or two to provide shade. Different paths leading to and from the well. Jesus comes from one direction (not the English-Irish pop boy band). The woman of Samaria travels from another. The disciples pass her on their way to find food. It never occurred to them that the next time their paths cross her life would be radically different. Was it a chance encounter? Was it just two strangers who happen to be at the same place at the same time?

Never underestimate the grace potential found in random moments. The unexpected has within it the seeds of potential new life. Chance encounters are pregnant with possibility. We are told that Jesus “had to go through Samaria” (John 4:4). It may have been the shortest route but for a Jew, travelling through Samaria was not really an option. With their complicated past, Jews tried to stay away from Samaritan territory. Jesus is in Jerusalem when he met Nicodemus. He was celebrating the Passover. After a while he goes to the Judean countryside. But now it was time to head back to Galilee.

Samaria is between Judea and Galilee. It makes sense to travel through Samaria but sometimes it is better to set a route that stays away from bad blood. In high school we stayed away from the hallway where our ex-girlfriend went to her locker. As grown ups, we take the long way to the restroom so we don’t have to go past the cubicle of the one who beat us to the promotion.

When the kingdom was divided Samaria becomes the capital of the Northern kingdom. In 722 BC the city falls to the Assyrians. They carry most of the leading citizens to places in Syria and Babylon. The Assyrians replace the deported Israelites with foreign colonist. These newcomers intermarry with the remaining Israelites. Eventually begin to call themselves Samaritans. They worship the God of Israel but we are also told they continued to import pagan gods from Assyria, “Every nation still made gods of its own and put them in the shrines of the high places that the people of Samaria had made” (2 Kings 17:29).

A group of Jews, led by Zerubbabel, return from Babylonian exile, the Samaritans offer to help rebuild the temple. The returning Jews refuse their help. The Samaritans write a letter to the Persian king convincing the king that the temple in Jerusalem should not be rebuilt. The Jews are forced to cease work until King Darius of Persia comes to reign (read it in Ezra 4). Later, Nehemiah was opposed by the Samaritans in the rebuilding (Nehemiah 2 – 6).  In an attempt to restore the racial purity of the people, Ezra, the priest, pressures all the Israelite men who marry foreign wives during the captivity to divorce their wives (Ezra 10:18-44). As you can imagine, all of this presents a huge challenge for the Samaritans and the Jews to live together in harmony. The final straw is that eventually the Samaritans build a rival temple on Mount Gerizim.

Jesus going”through Samaria” speaks to his mission more than his travel itinerary. Following Jesus means we are not afraid to do the hard things. We are not afraid to ask the real questions. Following Jesus means we are willing to be boundary-breaking radicals for the sake of peace and reconciliation. It means we are not afraid to go into territory that no one else dares tread. If Jesus would have followed his religion and culture, he would have went another way. If Jesus would have listened to common opinion, he would have stayed away from Samaria. Instead he did the right thing. He did the one thing necessary so that a bridge of reconciliation might be crossed between a Jew and a Samaritan.

What right thing is being asked of you right now? What bridge is waiting to be crossed toward the way of reconciliation? What boundary-breaking step needs to be taken so that forgiveness and mercy can be received? What hate must be destroyed? What prejudice must be removed? May it be said of all of us who follow Jesus, “She had to go through Samaria. It was where her faith led her.”

The sun is directly above. Jesus is weary from his travel. She comes to the well at the wrong time. Most women came early in the morning before the sun had time to heat up the desert. For some reason, she comes alone in the heat of the day to draw water. Jesus asks, “Give me a drink” (4:7). “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria,” She replies. (4:9)? Other words, “Are you an idiot! You know our past. You know we don’t associate with one another. And you are a man and I am a woman. Plus, you didn’t even bring a bucket. How can you hang out at a well and expect something to drink and not bring a bucket?” As the conversation continues and Jesus speaks to the core of her identity, she replies, “Sir, I see that you are a prophet” (4:19). The Samaritan woman is making a confession of faith by declaring she has “seen” Jesus. She understands him to be more than a thirsty Jew who just so happened to be hanging out beside Jacob’s well in the middle of the afternoon. Throughout the Gospel of John, the idea of light and “seeing” stood for those who came to believe in Jesus. In John 8:12 Jesus says, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” The Gospel begins by affirming Jesus as the light that “shines in the darkness” (1:5).

Her realization of who Jesus is has led her to ask the central question that has divided her people from the Jews for centuries, “Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem” (4:20). I disagree with those who say she is trying to change the subject. I believe she realizes that she is standing in the presence of the one who speaks truth and because of that she needs to know what is true about one of the core foundations of what she believes about herself and her people. The light of Jesus creates a hunger to know truth.

He responds, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem” (4:21). The Samaritans believed God’s presence was on Mount Gerizim. The Jews believed that God’s presence was experienced in Jerusalem at the Temple. Jesus says, “The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him” (4:23). Don’t think we can pin God down in a building or a specific location. Jesus says, “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth” (4:24). If Jesus believed God could be wrapped up in a specific religion, he would have never gone into Samaria. If Jesus was convinced that God could only reside in one place, he would have stayed in Jerusalem. But as we have seen in his conversation with Nicodemus, “the Spirit blows where it wants.”

Now this doesn’t mean that Jesus believes God is universal and can be worshiped in any way that someone desires. Jesus does believe in the particularity of salvation. There is a true way and that way is through him. He says, “For salvation is from the Jews” (4:22). Salvation through Jesus is a part of the narrative of the Jewish story because Jesus is a child of Abraham.

She sees Jesus because Jesus has seen her. He recognizes her. He speaks to her. Her offers her a gift of living water that quenches more than her physical thirst. Jesus sees her worth. He sees her value. He sees her significance. All of which she probably didn’t see in herself. Jesus spoke to her past with truth and yet, with compassion. Jesus is inviting her to not be defined by her circumstances. He offers her an identity that lifts her above the shame that she carries. As a result, she recognizes she is in the presence of someone special. Jesus sees us beyond our shame. He has the power to remove our guilt. He adds value to our life. He reminds us of our worth.

In the presence of someone so great we can’t help but be excited. She leaves her water bucket and goes back into town. She says, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he” (4:28, 29)? The town folks go and see for themselves. Jesus stays with them for two days. After the two days, the people say to the woman, “It is no longer because of what you have said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world” (4:42).

Everyone who has been touched by Jesus has a “come and see” story. The woman of Samaria can’t wait to tell her neighbors about Jesus. She invites them to “come and see.” After Jesus calls Philip to follow him, he invites his friend Nathaniel to “come and see” (John 1:46). When you have truly experienced the grace of God, you will want to invite others to “come and see” for themselves the one who offers this grace. When you have tasted the forgiveness of God, you will want others to “come and see” this one who offers forgiveness. Being a witness is a response to encountering the love of God in Jesus. When was the last time you invited someone to “come and see” what Jesus can do for them? When was the last time you said to someone “come and see” as a response to a changed life that can be found in Jesus?

The woman was so eager to get back to town that she leaves her bucket behind, “The woman left her water jar and went back to the city” (4:28). The bucket is the thing that carried her need. It is her security. It represents her sense of identity. She is the woman at the well. After meeting Jesus, she leaves it behind. The water he offers is a spring of living water that cannot be kept in a bucket. It flows from the inside. It is an eternal water source that quenches the deepest of thirst.

If her bucket represents all that is important to her, then she has reason to leave it behind after meeting Jesus. What do you need to leave behind? What are some things that you are carrying in your bucket that you need to no longer carry after encountering Jesus? What are you trying to quench your thirst with? It will never satisfy. It will always have you coming back to the well. It will have you always trying to run in shame, hide in guilt, and ignore the truth in front of you.

Late Night Conversation

Gospel of John  (1 of 1)Some of the best conversations happen at night. When the noise has been put to bed and the distractions are low, the mind is free to contemplate deep things. Take away the chaos of the day and you are left to focus on things that matter.

But no matter how much clarity you have, sometimes it still seems that the conversation is a dead end. We can be direct and to the point and people still misinterpret what we have said. We can say one thing and they hear something else.

My wife and I are not always on the same page. Sometimes I feel that my children are speaking an alien language. My friends at times speak a code language. Carrying on a conversation with some of my co-workers is like two ships passing one another in the dead of darkness.

In John 3 we have two religious professionals attempting to carry on a conversation. One hears “born again,” and what the other means is “born from above.” They speak the same language. They have the same cultural perspective. Their frame of reference is religion and God. But the one totally does not get what the other is saying.

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signsyou are doing if God were not with him.”

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.”

“How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!”

Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

“You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (John 3:1-21)

Our first clue that this conversation will be in trouble is when John tells us, “He came to Jesus by night” (3:1). Rabbi’s studied at night because that is when the distractions are at a minimum. But I believe the author with his use of light and darkness metaphors, wants us to see that more is going on. Earlier, Jesus is said to be “the true light which enlightens everyone” (1:9) who believes in Him. Nicodemus is not at a place of believing, yet. He is still in darkness.

Jesus is in Jerusalem when Nicodemus comes to see him. We are told, “Many believed in his name because they saw the signs that he was doing” (2:23). Nicodemus acknowledges Jesus based on the signs. He says, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (3:2). For those who believe based on signs, it is said that Jesus “would not entrust himself to them” (2:24). Following Jesus based only on what we can get out of it isn’t being genuinely committed. Is your faith a circumstantial faith or a surrender all to Jesus kind of faith? Do you follow only because of the signs or the relationship He offers?

The religion that Nicodemus and Jesus both grew up in had a good deal to do with being born into the right family. For the people like Nicodemus, what mattered was being born a child of Abraham. Jesus comes along and implies that this natural birth selection is not enough. It is going to take more than just being a part of the right family. Jesus says, “You got to be born from above” (3:3).

Nicodemus understands the kingdom of God in relation to being in the right bloodline. So, he hears, “born again.” And the confusion ensues. The Greek word for “born again” and born from above” is “anothen.” It carries both meanings. Nicodemus wants to know how an old man can go back into his mother’s womb. Jesus is saying in and through me God is doing something new and in order to understand it you must be born from above. Nicodemus hears physical and Jesus speaks spiritual. Two ships passing in the dark.

Judaism as interpreted by the Pharisees like Nicodemus was an orderly religion. It had structure. It was stable. The laws were laid out and God had people like Nicodemus around to interpret them for you. Jesus comes along and it all gets carried off by the wind. For those who want their religion to be ordered, labelled, and sorted into neat categories, following Jesus will be a challenge. When you think you have him figured out, he throws things into sorts by talking about loving enemies, praying for our persecutors, and turning the other cheek. When you think you got him pinned down in a corner, his resurrection presence shows up in another room. Religion as followed by the Pharisees and those who think they can manage God is born of the flesh. But those truly born of God are those who have been caught up in the windstorm of the Spirit. The Greek word for “spirit” and “wind” is the same. It is “pnuema.” God’s kingdom is opened up to anyone. No religion, family, tribe, or country can keep up with it. The Spirit of God blows where it will.

Nicodemus, the good and orderly religious expert, asks, “How can these things be” (3:9)? This is the last time that Nicodemus will speak in this episode. Jesus responds by saying, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things” (3:10)? From this point on Jesus will refer back to Nicodemus with a plural “you.” Jesus speaks to the whole religious system.

In Numbers 21 the wandering Israelites became rebellious against God and starting to be critical of God’s leading. As a result, poisonous snakes begin to bite the people and many died. They repented. The Lord instructs Moses to make an image of a snake and elevate it on a pole, so that the rebellious Israelites might look on it and live. What was a sign of judgment on a rebellious people became a sign of healing and restoration.

“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” (3:14, 15). There is an evil that is deep rooted in all of us. We have all been bitten by the snake. We have become poisoned with the deadly disease of sin. Our only cure is to believe in the one who has taken upon himself all our sins and been lifted up on the cross. When we see Jesus on the cross, we are seeing the result of God’s very best taking upon himself all the evil of the world. On the cross, God’s only Son has taken the poison of our sin. On the cross, Jesus has been lifted up for our healing.

As a response to what God has done in and through Jesus, we are told, “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” (John 3:16). On the cross we see what love looks like. On the cross we are seeing what God has done about sin and evil in our world. For those who believe in him, there is eternal life.

If Nicodemus still doesn’t get the way God loves, Jesus has more. Or the author of John, depending on where you put the quotations. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (3:17). When you spend your days teaching who is out instead of who is in, this is hard to swallow. Because God loves the world, not a specific group of people, and the Spirit blows where it will, your neat and tidy who is in and who is out religion just got a big blow.

Nicodemus came to Jesus at night. Will he stay there? If so, he condemns himself. He doesn’t need a religious expert or religious system to condemn him. If he chooses to stay in the darkness and ignore the light that is before him, then he has chosen the path of disbelief. The light reveals what is already inside of people.

I wonder what Nicodemus was thinking when he walked away that night after having this conversation with Jesus. For some reason, he was drawn to Jesus. When others among his sect where trying to find reasons to dismiss Jesus, he found him intriguing. His whole religious world was rocked after this conversation with Jesus. His worldview was shaken. He approached Jesus with the confidence of a teacher of the law who had spent his entire life studying the ways of God. Now, in one conversation with this travelling rabbi, he begins to ask questions, “How can these things be?”

For many of us, we self-identify as a Christian. Just as Nicodemus self-identified as a Jew. You believe certain things about God and you hold those beliefs with a level of certainty. Here is what I want you to consider: instead of orienting your faith around a religion or a system of belief, re-orient yourself around the person of Jesus. Consider what it means to follow Jesus, not a religion. It is a radical way to live. It comes with a risk because Jesus cannot be tamed or controlled. But it is a risk worth taking because it is the only way to discover a life worth living.

I am convinced on this night in John 3 that the Spirit begin to stir the heart of Nicodemus. He shows up only two more times in the gospel. When the chief priests and Pharisees wanted Jesus arrested, Nicodemus comes to his defense in John 7. When Jesus’ body is taken off the cross, Nicodemus is there (John 19:38-42). We don’t know if Nicodemus ever became a follower of Jesus but he continues to show up in crucial times in the life of Jesus. Something happened on that fateful night in Jerusalem in John 3 that would forever change the trajectory of Nicodemus’ life. Will you let the Spirit blow where it will and reveal to you the depth of God’s love for the world and for you?

The depth of God’s love for us is demonstrated on the cross. It is a love that knows no boundaries. A love where God gave of God’s very best. If we will believe in the depth of this love, a love demonstrated on the cross, then we will discover new life; a life that steps into the light of grace and forgiveness and leaves behind the darkness of hate. “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. 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” (3:16, 17).

A Wedding at Cana, A Celebration of Something New

Gospel of John  (1 of 1)Cana is not Judea. Galilee is not the place that a prophet would want to launch his revolution – or so it seems. Standing on the steps of the temple in Jerusalem seems a better fit than at a wedding for an unknown couple. And yet, with his followers chosen, Jesus first public act is turning water to wine at a wedding on the outskirts of Galilee. There is no wonder he will be accused of being “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Matthew 11:19).

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”

“Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”

His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.

Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.

Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”

They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom asideand said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. (John 2:1-11)

The first clue we get that something more is going on here is by John calling the miracle a sign. In the gospel of John there are seven signs that take us through the story. In John 1:14 the author tells us that he has “seen his glory.” The signs serve to reveal the glory of God’s Son. A sign points beyond itself. The purpose of a sign is to refer to something/someone else. Towards the end of the book we are told what the purpose of Jesus’ miracles are and why he calls them signs. He says, “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But 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” (John 20:30-31). For the gospel of John, the miracles of Jesus (the signs) serve as markers along the road of faith pointing us toward the one who reveals to us the nature of God.

At the age of thirty, Jesus shows up with his small band of followers at a wedding. He may be here at the request of his mother. Maybe this is a friend of the family. Nevertheless, he is there along with the rest of the village. A wedding is a community affair that last seven days. We are not sure when Jesus arrived. The wedding celebration has been going on for a few days. The wine is running out. This was not a situation where you could send Uncle Andrew to the store to pick up more bottles of wine. There is a crisis on hand.

Wine is important. It is the normal beverage at meals. It is especially important at festivals. Running out of wine is more than an inconvenience, it is a social disgrace. In turning the water to wine, Jesus rescues the honor of the host of the wedding. Jesus cares enough to get involved.

Of course, it takes some encouragement from Mama Mary. As emergencies go, this one doesn’t seem to rank among healing the sick or raising the dead. But Mary, the mother of Jesus, felt that it was important enough that her son ought to do something about it. She says, “They have no wine” (2:3). He replies, “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me. My hour has not come” (2:4). In his response Jesus demonstrates that he is free from all human control. No one, not even his mother, has claim over him. No one else can tell him what he can and cannot do. And yet, Mary continues to say to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (2:5). She expresses complete confidence in her son and his ability to resolve the situation. She believes in her son. But she will not interfere with his freedom to act in a way that fulfills his purpose. She tells Jesus the problem. She doesn’t tell him how to fix it.

We like telling Jesus our problems. We also like to tell him the best way to fix them. As we read through the gospel of John, we will discover that Jesus has the proven track record on how to deal with people and their issues. We just need to give him the freedom to act. He promises that he “came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). If that be the case, then I am sure he knows how to best handle the struggles we face. His solutions to our problems will always be better than any resolution we can offer.

By the time the party got low on wine there would have been empty wine containers lying around on the ground. These are large ceramic jars. Why did Jesus not pick up one and do his miraculous work in them? Instead he notices the six stone water jars used for the Jewish rites of purification. Each of the stone jars held thirty gallons of water. The stone jars are to be used only for water. Anything else would contaminate the jars and they were no longer fit to be used for the purification rite of cleansing. By turning the water to wine from the Jewish stone jars, Jesus is demonstrating that he is doing something new. The steward is so pleased with the new wine that he pulls the bridegroom aside and says, “You have saved the best for last!” It is a way of saying that Jesus is better that what came before. He is the defining revelation of God. As a Jew, he comes through the Jewish system, but he is greater than what has come before him. Jesus is greater than what has come before.

The prophets of old told that in the coming of God’s new age, “The Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines” (Isaiah 25:6a). The prophet Amos tells of the coming Messiah as the day when “the mountains will drip sweet wine, and all the hills shall flow with it” (Amos 9:13). Wine is a sign of the joyous arrival of God’s messiah. It symbolizes that God’s salvation has arrived. In turning water to wine in the purification jars, Jesus is demonstrating the arrival of God’s salvation.

And what day does John tell us this all happens on? “On the third day there was a wedding” (John 2:1). Yes, the author wants us to read the resurrection into this story. And yes, he is saying that when the joy is gone and when it looks like the party is over, God can still show up. But there is more. In Exodus 19, the people wandering in the desert have reached Mount Sinai. Moses goes up to the mountain to speak to God. God says to Moses on behalf of the people, “If you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples” (Exodus 19:5). Moses goes down and tells the people all that God says and they agree to commit themselves to God. As a result, God decides to visit the people. They are told to consecrate themselves and on the third day, “The Lord will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people” (Exodus 19:11) (italics mine). On the third day, God reveals God’s self to all the people. When the people begin to question if there is a purpose for their wandering, God reveals Himself.

When the joy seems to be leaving, Jesus shows up. When the party seems to be over, Jesus arrives. When the glass is empty, Jesus fills it to overflowing. We arrive at the wedding at Cana of Galilee not as guests, but as the host who knows what it is like to be embarrassed, disappointed, and ashamed.  He makes something new. It is, after all, the third day, the day of resurrection. The day of new life.

Jesus is great to have around when the party seems to be over. He is the person you want around when the situation looks shameful. When the joy is diminishing, invite Jesus over. If your cup seems empty don’t try to tell Jesus how to fill it. He knows better than we do on what we need. We may think all we need is for things to get back to normal. But Jesus comes and offers a new way.

The Word Became Flesh

 

Gospel of John  (1 of 1)Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? On December 15, 2015, Wheaton College, evangelical school in Chicago, placed a tenured professor on administrative leave for making comments that they felt were contrary to their Statement of Faith. Dr. Larycia Hawkins, political science professor, wanted to show solidarity with her Muslim neighbors by wearing a hijab as part of her Advent discipline. It wasn’t the stand of solidarity that brought her the attention of the school board. It was her Facebook post. She says, “I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book and as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”

As of current, it appears that Dr. Hawkins will be terminated by the school for her refusal to recant her statement even though she says she continues to adhere to the school’s Statement of Faith. Is she right? Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God? After all, Muslim’s profess belief in God who created Adam and Eve, who rescued Noah from the flood, promised Abraham many children, helped Moses escape Egypt, who gave a child to the Virgin Mary, and who sent Jesus into the world. Is this not the same narrative of the God of the Christians? Does the finer details of Christian theology disrupt any talk of unity? Does it matter that Christians believe in the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus and Muslims are diametrically opposed to this type of thinking about God?

For the sake of solidarity many are saying that there is one Creator whom Muslims and Christians worship. For example, in some parts of the country soda is called pop, and in other regions all pop are referred to as Coke. No matter what name we call it we are referring to the same thing – a carbonated soft drink. This is the approach many take to understanding religion. There is one God being called by different names depending on where you are from and what religion you follow.

Difficult times come with challenging questions. Our current culture context is asking us to answer some difficult questions. There is enormous pressure on followers of Jesus to know what they believe and the ability to articulate that belief in a convincing, non-threatening way. The cost of getting it wrong has huge implications on how we come to translate the gospel for the next generation.

For centuries, Christians in Malaysia have been using the word Allah for God. That is until 2006 when the Islamic-influenced government prohibited non-Muslims from using the word Allah to refer to the creator God.  The Muslims wanted a clear distinction to be made between the god of Islam and the god of the Christian. The Christians countered by pointing out that the word precedes Islam. It was used to describe the Supreme Being by the Arab tribes in Northern Africa long before Islam. Christians in Malaysia have lost the legal battle and can no longer use the word.

The reason I bring this up is because it is not as clear-cut to say Christians and Muslims worship different gods. We could be using the same argument that the Islamist are arguing in Malaysia. At the same time, we have to admit that there are some crucial differences in the way the two religions have come to speak of God. It remains unfaithful to both traditions to simply say we are all talking about a carbonated soft-drink but calling it a different name.

The Gospel of John was written for such a time as this. The book was written between 80-90 AD during a volatile time for Christians. The gospel is attributed to John, the son of Zebedee. He and his brother is one of the first disciples called by Jesus. They are fishermen. The three letters of John and the Book of Revelation are also attributed to the same author. Reading through the book gives the appearance of someone who has an intimate friend with Jesus and who spends the rest of his life reflecting over what that friendship means for him and his community.

He writes from Ephesus, a cosmopolitan city on the coast of modern-day Turkey. The Christians in John’s community find themselves in an odd predicament. They have been kicked out of the synagogue accused by the Jews of heresy. There is a story in John 9 where Jesus heals a blind man. He and his parents are brought before the Jewish leaders and asked about the validity of the healing. His parents respond, “Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself” (John 9:21). The author gives us some commentary on the passage by saying, “His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue” (John 9:22). By the time the gospel of John is written, the Jewish-Christians were getting kicked out of the synagogues. A Jewish benediction from this time period reads, “Let the Nazarenes (Christians) and the Minim (heretics) be destroyed in a moment and let them be blotted out of the Book of Life and not be inscribed together with the righteous” (Twelfth Benediction “Blessing of the Heretics). Jesus predicted this would happen, “They will kick you out of the synagogues” (John 16:2).

They live in a world hated by those they called brothers and sisters. Jesus reminds them, “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you” (John 15:18). They were good Jews. They trusted in the narrative of the Hebrew bible. Abraham, Moses, David were their people. And now they are being excluded from this narrative and told that they can no longer be connected to their own story because of their belief in Jesus as the Messiah. The post-resurrection Jews would say that the Christians worshipped a different God, or at the very least, a distorted view of God. The Christians argued that the God they worshipped was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. What the Gospel of John does for the people is to tell the people who in and through Jesus, Yahweh is doing something new. It is nothing short of the creative act of God.  In and through Jesus, God is doing a new thing and they are participates of God’s creation.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

(John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. John 1:1-18

Most scriptural characters are introduced by genealogies. Matthew and Luke begin their story of Jesus by tracing his origins to his biblical ancestors. John begins the story of Jesus in the eternal heart of God. At the beginning of creation, God spoke the world into existence. God’s speech served as God’s creating power. By referring to Jesus as the Word, John is implying that Jesus gives visible expression to the invisible power and presence of God. The Greek for Word is Logos. The Greeks understood Logos as the rational force at work in our world. It was the unseen presence that brought stability and order to our world. It is what links the human mind to the mind of God. The philosophers of John’s time, and of ours, would say there is a “force” or “principle” at work in our world creating and bringing order. If you want to find purpose, get in touch with this life force. It is a Greek philosophy meets Star Wars meets Oprah Winfrey kind of thought process. John says there is a force at work in our world bringing life but it is not an abstract principle, it is a person. The Word has taken on flesh and made his dwelling among us.

Jesus is the one who has come to make known to us the Father in heaven. In verse 14 when John says, “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” he is making a powerful statement about Jesus’ role in revealing God. The Greek word used for “lived” or “dwelt” means “to tabernacle.” It means that God has taken up residence among us. It is the word used in the Old Testament of the tent of meeting where the Lord’s presence dwelt in the wilderness and the people encountered God. “The Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting” (Numbers 1:1).

Once the people settled in Jerusalem, the Temple served as the place where God’s presence dwelt. It was at the Temple that the people went to encounter God. The Temple was the place where heaven and earth interlocked. It was the place of divine encounter. John is saying that place is now a person. It is in and through Jesus that God promises to be present with his people. This is a good thing because the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed in AD 70. John wrote his story of Jesus after the destruction of the Temple. The Jewish people are in the process of redefining their religion based on the fact that the place where they meet with God no longer stands. Eventually, the Torah takes the sacred place of encounter for Jews. The Torah is God’s word and is eternal and unchanging. It is normative for life. The Jews believed that where the Torah was read, continues to be read, God’s presence is felt. In a Jewish commentary it is written, “Where two who sit and exchange words of Torah, the Divine Presence rests amongst them” (Pirke Aboth 3.2). Sounds familiar to Jesus’ words, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matthew 18:20).

Jesus becomes the place where people will meet with God. He has become the visible presence of God. “We have seen his glory,” John declares (1:14). The presence of God is no longer in a temple, but in a person. Jesus rather than the Temple is the place where the living God is present. No longer must one go to the Temple to seek forgiveness for their sins. Now forgiveness is found through Jesus. If we want to know the character of God, we look to Jesus. “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18). As we go through the Gospel of John, we will see how Jesus makes know the Father in heaven. Only Jesus can lead people to the heart of God because He is the only one who has come from the heart of God.

As a Christian, if someone asked you about God, that is why we tell them about Jesus. We don’t get the luxury of talking about God in abstract language or as some generic Universal Being. We can’t refer to some force at work in the world bringing order and meaning to people’s lives. If you want to know God, discover forgiveness, walk in truth, then follow Jesus. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6).

One Word

34456My youngest son has become a fan of Back to the Future. Yes, the movie. He has a fantasy of being Marty McFly traveling into the past and jetting to the future in a DeLorean time-machine. Santa Claus even brought him a hat that glistens with an array of colors worn by McFly in the future that my son insists on wearing everywhere. Santa Claus is definitely getting a disgruntled-parent letter as a response.

It would be nice to travel to December 2016 and have a conversation with our future-self on what we need to look out for this year. We could be more prepared for the potholes and roadblocks that might hinder our progress. But the time-machine DeLorean is only a thing of make-believe.

What if your present-day self could travel into the future and bring back a message? The way into the future is not by settling into a time-machine. Instead it is by setting our course today. It is the New Year. Time to set resolutions and new goals. The wisdom of Proverbs declares, ““In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). We plan out the path with goals and resolutions but ultimately the gift of new beginnings is from the Lord. “If anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

Most resolutions are the same. We want to be less mean, more lean or more wealth and better health. And if we are honest, by March we have given up on trying. The push to do better, be better, and live better is ever before us the days after December but once the long nights of winter set in, the motivation becomes a drag.

Let’s forget resolutions. I want you to think of one word. One word that sums up who you want to be and how you want to live. Choose one word to focus on all year along. One word to ground you through the dreary nights of winter to the lazy days of summer. What will it be? Hope? Love? Fun? Alive? Courage? Focus? Grace? Laughter? What will be your word?

God gives us the gift of new beginnings. New beginnings are new opportunities. New beginnings are times of renewal. New beginnings are times to realign ourselves. Through the prophet God promises, “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.  See, I am doing a new thing!  Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?  I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland” (Isaiah 43:18-19). Don’t get bogged down in resolutions. Claim one word. Ask the Lord to give you one word to set you on a path of a new you.

What will be your word in 2016?

Do Not Fear

22609_Fear In 1868, standing on the hills of Palestine, looking down on the town of Bethlehem, Philip Brooks wrote the words to O Little Town of Bethlehem. A line from the song says, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Bethlehem, a town where even today hope and fear collide, becomes the birth place of God’s light.

For many, it has been more of a year of fear than hope: a loss job, a failed marriage, broken dreams, and streets of violence, bad health, and death of someone we love. Political leaders want us scared to death because it is easier to control with fear than it is with love. Addicted to fear, presidential candidates buy votes on scare tactics. When the question up for debate is, “Are you okay with killing innocent children,” we have a fear problem.

What do you say to the fears that loom over Christmas, “pass more egg-nog” or “give me another slice of pie?” “Place more presents under the tree” or “switch aging-cream brands?” What do you do when the latest breaking news is louder than the angel’s announcing good news?

Pretend this happened: An angel gets back to heaven, rushes up to God, and says, “I’ve got good news, and I’ve got bad news.” God says, “Well, give me the good news first.” “The good news is,” says the angel, “mission accomplished. I’ve visited all the people you told me to visit and told them all that you told me to tell them.” God says, “So what’s the bad news.” The angel responds,“The bad news is that the people are afraid. Every time I visit someone I have to start it off with “do not be afraid.” God says, “That is the reason I must give them my love. Perfect love casts out fear.” The message of Christmas is that you can never defeat a monster, especially a monster as ugly as fear, by becoming a monster. Unless we let love drive out our fear, our fears will drive out love.

Christmas has its effect because it is God’s love for us. Christmas is God’s assurance to a frightened world that God is with us. “The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). Immanuel – God with us. In a world manipulated by fear, God dwells.

I know it is easier to hide under the covers, to try to drown out the fears in a bottle, or take more pills, but when you wake up the fear is still there. We don’t like to admit it but we are afraid. We’re afraid of all sorts of things. We are scared to admit our fears.

No matter who you are, no matter where you live, no matter the circumstances, hear this message: Do not be afraid. From the streets of Paris to the streets of San Bernardino, California, do not be afraid. From the surgery room of Northside Hospital to the cemetery on the hill, do not be afraid. From the halls of congress to the White House, do not be afraid. To the father without a job, kids split by divorce, do not be afraid. To the sick and suffering, lost and lonely, do not be afraid. To those feeling abandoned, do not be afraid. The angel’s message, do not be afraid, means that fear’s grip on our hearts is going to have to give way to the greater power of love. Do not fear! Love has been born and it has a name – Jesus.

There were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” (Luke 2:8-15)