Archive for March, 2015

God Loves the World!

Rebecca Sheridan

Sunday, March 15, 2015

John 3:14-21

            We see it on billboards, license plates, on signs at sporting events – it’s probably the most-often quoted, well-known Bible verse of all time:  John 3:16.  Say it with me, “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.”  It’s a good one!  I’m tempted to just sit down now and let the gospel speak for itself. But when I read this passage from John this week, a question came to my mind…Do we really believe it?  Do we really believe that God LOVES the world?  Or, let’s start smaller – can we simply believe that God loves us, that God loves me – “Yes, Jesus loves me”, we learned when we were kids, right?  Do we believe that sinners though we may be, God loves us enough to give his only Son for us so that we might have eternal life? And if that is true for us – are we living it, and sharing that good news so that the world may know?!

For God so loved the world…We could look at what is happening around the world today and think that perhaps God has forgotten the world that God supposedly so well-loves.  ISIS continues to promote a message of hate and violence, dramatically beheading Americans and Christians around the world, recruiting and brainwashing vulnerable young people to propagate its message.  Politicians in Washington continue to refuse to work together for the good of American citizens and instead cater to lobbyists and their own political interests.  We celebrated the 50th anniversary of the march on Selma amidst perpetuated racism across our country in Ferguson, in Oklahoma, and yes, even here in Omaha.  God loves the world, huh?  God’s willing to give his only son to die on a cross for this mess?  It may seem, if we watch and listen to the news, that God has abandoned us, that God’s love has reached its limit.

And then there’s our personal relationship with God – regrets about the past that we can’t get over, the ways we’ve neglected to tend to our relationship with God through regular worship, scripture study, prayer, and service to our neighbors, things about ourselves that we wish we could change or situations in our lives that are so difficult we start to wonder if God is still there – if God has given up on loving us.  God’s willing to give up his only son to die on the cross for this mess?  God loves me enough to die for ME?  It can be a hard thing to believe.

For as many times as we have read and heard John 3:16, we may not have paid attention to what it truly means for us.  That’s something I am totally amazed at with scripture – we can read the Bible over and over again, and yet God continues to speak to us so that we hear and see new things through the same old verses and stories.  This time, I noticed that God’s action is past tense.  “For God so LOVED the world that he GAVE his only son…”  Already happened, already done.  The verse doesn’t say, “IF you behave and measure up to all that God wants you to be, then God will love you, “ or IF you can fully comprehend and rationalize in that tiny human brain of yours how it might be possible for God to love you, THEN God actually will love you.”  God did, and God does already love you and this world.  God sent his only son Jesus not because the world was good enough and the people were ready enough to receive him, but precisely because we were sick, dying, and in need of a savior.  After all, Jesus goes on to say in verse 17 that God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  A Christian once said (we don’t know who, exactly) that “a church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.”  And Jesus says in three different gospels, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.”  This is the awesome, astounding grace of God, that God so loved us, that God so loved the WORLD, that he sent Jesus, healer of the sick, savior of us all.  That means that eternal life is not just a future hope that if we’re good enough and smart enough God will like us enough so that we can get into heaven, but eternal life is a current reality, a gift from God through faith that God already loves us, already walks with us night and day, and will be there with us and for us forever –  not because we have it all together, but because God knows we need him.

Jesus is essentially saying to us in this passage of John that HE is how we know that God loves the world:  God sent his son Jesus to die for us and be risen for us so that we would know we are already loved.  God has already shown us how much he loves us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  In the first congregation I served, there was a woman who was very active at church.  She was in worship every Sunday.  If there was a special church event, she was there.  Her husband, John, had Alzheimer’s.  He was on the prayer chain, and we prayed for him every week.  I didn’t meet him until he came for the Christmas Eve service – but his wife had told me that he never had come to church regularly and with his deteriorating condition probably never would again.  But one day in the spring, after church John’s wife said that he had asked for the pastor to come visit him at home, so I did.  As we talked, it was clear that he was wracked with guilt.  He confessed to me that he thought God was punishing him with this terrible disease of Alzheimer’s because he had not been a more faithful Christian.  He was not good enough for God, he thought.  I told him basically that that was hogwash.  I told him that God forgave him, God loved him, and that he was good enough because Jesus said so.  Every month, I would come visit and tell him the same thing, because unfortunately, because of his Alzheimer’s, he would forget.  That monthly ritual of hearing John’s confession and telling him God loved him anyway was incredibly powerful for me, because it was also a reminder for myself: God loves me, God loves John, God loves all those people out there –“for God so loved the world.”

There are plenty of people in our world who have trouble hearing and seeing that God loves them.  The news likes to show us God’s absence, so it’s our job as Christians to notice God’s presence for ourselves and for the world God so loves.  At Pastor Rich’s internship congregation, every week at the beginning of worship we had a time for sharing “God sightings.”  People would share how they saw God that week – whether it was a beautiful sunset, in a stranger’s kind words, in unexpected healing of bodies and relationships.  Every week, we heard different, powerful stories about God being there for people.  If we had forgotten in those six days between Sundays, the church community was there again every week to remind us of God’s presence.  In Jesus Christ, God has shown us how much he loves the world, and to what extent he is willing to go to save us.  God sends us reminders daily of that love – we only have to open our eyes and pay attention, so we can help others notice and believe as well.  For God so loved the world.  Amen.

Jesus Has Left the Building

Rebecca Sheridan

Sunday, March 8, 2015

John 2:13-22 

            I’d like to start my reflection on the gospel this morning with this short video. (Start by watching this video:  Write on a piece of paper, if you’ve got one, some of your reactions to what you saw.  As you’re comfortable, go ahead and turn to your neighbor and share some of those reactions.  What did you think?  We originally watched this video as a church council a few months ago, and one person said that the video was “convicting.”  It’s convicting, because we know that the Christian church – not just Lutherans, not just Protestants, but all churches of all denominations are in decline, yet sometimes we keep doing the same old things the same old way expecting different results.  This is not just a Bethel issue – this is a capital – C – Church issue.  Do you know what the only growing denomination in the United States is?  The Mormons!  And they tend to have lots of kids and require every person after they graduate high school to serve as a missionary for two years!  This video for me is convicting because it tells me that as a church we cannot keep doing things the way we’ve always done them – directing all of our energy and resources toward getting people into a building.

In the United States, an average of 20 Christian congregations close every month.  The church building is no longer at the center of our society and culture, as the video points out.  Only about 30% of millenials and younger describe themselves as churchgoing folks.  People do not just go to church anymore – we know this.  Jesus reminds us today, however, that he has not abandoned the church.  Jesus reminds us of what the church really is, and how we can start moving those arrows from a focus inward – from sustaining our building and programs inside the church, to sharing the good news of Jesus Christ wherever we are. Jesus helps us turn those arrows outward.  Did you notice, in today’s gospel that  Jesus leaves the temple – Jesus leaves the building, to help people worship and serve God outside of the temple walls? Jesus has left the building, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

What struck me as I was studying this gospel passage from John this week is that moneychangers and livestock in the temple were NOT unusual for your average faithful first-century Jew.  This marketplace was simply a part of the temple religious practice.  People understood that these services contributed to funding and caring for the large, impressive temple structure and making the daily sacrifices possible.  In driving out these moneychangers, then, Jesus was insulting and challenging a long-held structure that helped maintain the building and traditional worship practices.  Over the years, faithful Jews had forgotten that the temple was built as a place of worship, not as a place to sell things.  And ever since the first temple was built in Solomon’s day, faithful Jews also thought that the only place to REALLY worship God was in the temple – that was where God lived.  The temple was God’s house.  If you remember from the Christmas story, even Joseph and Mary bring Jesus to the temple for his dedication, because that was what faithful Jews did.  If you really wanted to worship God, you went to the temple.

In today’s gospel, Jesus makes the radical assertion that we don’t need a building to worship God.  In fact, he refers to his own body as God’s temple – Jesus takes the church out of the building and instead asserts that the church is made up of people – the body of Christ.  In talking about the temple being destroyed, which really did happen in 70AD, Jesus is turning those arrows around, from pointing inward to a building, to outward.  Jesus completely changes people’s ideas about how and where God can be worshipped.  In essence, Jesus says that God can be worshipped anywhere, at any time. Jesus takes the church out of the building.

Now, I think the Holy Spirit is at work here today, because we really need to hear these words from Jesus this morning here at Bethel, right?!  As we deliberate together on how to take care of this gift of a beautiful building that God gave us almost 100 years ago, we could easily get stuck into arguing about boilers, doors, and money.  We could easily forget that the main purpose of the church is not to sustain a building.  God gives us the power to worship and to share the love of Jesus wherever we go, 24/7.  Jesus reminds us today that WE are the church, not this building.  We are the body of Christ, equipped by God with hands, feet, and voices to worship and praise God not just here on Sunday mornings, but all of the time.

Do you remember that old Sunday School song?  The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is the people.  I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together…all who follow Jesus, all around the world, Yes we’re the church together!

The church is the people.  PEOPLE are the best resource God has for making disciples of Jesus.  We can pour money into our building and host the “greatest event ever” as the video suggests, but nothing is as effective an evangelism tool as being in relationship with other people who do not go to church.  We can be the church anywhere, and it doesn’t cost one red cent.  Not that it doesn’t cost us anything, though, right? As Paul reminds us, the message about the cross is foolishness to some.  We may be ridiculed or rejected, turned down time and time again.  I heard a statistic last week that a person needs to be invited to a worship service an average of seven times before they’ll take you up on your invitation. I think it’s important for us to listen to Jesus this morning and remember that even if this temple of Bethel were destroyed today, our CHURCH would continue to exist, because you all make up what we call the church.  God wants to use you, and me – US together, as the church, to make a difference in the world.

We’ve been talking a lot this Lent about practicing our faith.  Faith takes practice, and people, like the church, are never perfect.  When you watch someone in the NBA make a free throw, it looks effortless, right?  But how many times do you think that person has practiced throwing free throws?  Thousands of times.  As the church in the world, we need to practice sharing our faith – it’s not easy the first time, or the tenth time, but the more you do it, the easier it becomes.  So, here’s my challenge to you all this month: for the rest of March, I’d like you to try using two words:  “my church” in a conversation with someone else – start with once a week, and then see if you can use it even more often.  So for example, if someone at work asks, “How was your weekend?”  you could respond, “Well, on Sunday morning, my church’s choir sang a beautiful song that really inspired me.”  Or…”My church hosted a group of nice young college students that were engaged in community service in Omaha  for their spring break, and I just thought that was really neat.”  See what conversations open up from those simple two words, “my church.”  See how Jesus is helping you take the church out of the building, helping you be the church, be the body of Christ to someone else in your daily living.  Let’s be the church together!  Amen.



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