Posts Tagged ‘Questions’

Let’s Get Ready To Rumble 10-20-19

In this sermon, based on Genesis 32:22-31, I explore the story of Jacob. Specifically we look at the brief story of his all-night divine wrestling match that results in a change in his identity to Israel.

You can listen to the audio of the sermon here:

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here:

May the grace and peace of our Triune God be yours, now and forever. Amen

I always wanted to develop my own catch-phrase…I have yet to accomplish this feat…but I still want to…because a great catch phrase is amazing.  I’ve heard a lot of them over the years…those simple phrases that immediately key you into something specific…and if the phrase is good enough, it always works.

Think about it…I’m gonna lay down a phrase, and see if you can name the product its associated with. (Tony the Tiger) “They’re GREAAAAT!” (pause)…Frosted Flakes. See how well that works? It just sticks in our minds doesn’t it?

Now there’s another catch phrase…it’s a little bit longer…but I’ve heard it SO many times…it is utterly engrained…and the second it begins I both picture the specific person…and I know exactly what coming next.  Now if I say the name Michael Buffer…a lot of you know what’s coming next don’t you?  But don’t worry if you don’t know the name, because you’ll probably recognize the phrase.

He walks out to the middle of the venue…and begins “Are You Ready?” And the crowd cheers…then after a pause, he repeats himself, a little stronger this time “ARE YOU READY?” And the crowd goes nuts…and then he really goes for the gusto… “To the thousands in attendance…and the MILLIONS watching…around the world…Ladies and Gentlemen…LET’S GET READY TO RUMBLE!!!!!!!!” (pause)

Don’t you just love that? Its exciting…and it’s the perfect opening to what comes next.  This phrase has been everywhere…its in movies and tv shows…but most commonly it happens at the beginning of sporting events…events like boxing, or MMA…and the one where it happens most frequently…and the one place where I actually heard it in person once…at the beginning of wrestling matches.

I don’t know quite why…but its perfect for this type of event…because it implies that the people involved…the opponents…they are gonna throw down…they’re going to battle…they are going to contend with each other for dominance.

And that my friends…is the perfect segue into today’s scripture lesson, the Old Testament reading of course…and the story of Jacob’s divine wrestling match…that’s our focus…but before we get into this oddball hours long, overnight main event…let’s get a little history about Jacob.

He’s one of the individuals that we tend call the Patriarchs…and that distinction starts 2 generations before Jacob with Abraham…you remember him…random dude, hanging out in Genesis…God tells him “hey, go somewhere, I’ll tell you when you get there…also, you’re gonna have tons of offspring.”  Abraham nods…years pass…he has a kid with his wife’s slave…weird I know…and then more years pass and he finally has a child of the promise in Isaac…but what’s weird is the way inheritance works in those days. The oldest son is the heir and gets everything…So Isaac should be out of luck…but God chooses him anyway.

The story sorta repeats, or at least has a lot of similarities. Isaac eventually gets married…he and his wife ALSO wait a long time for kids, but then finally have twin boys.  The first one is born all red and hairy…so they name him Esau, which is Hebrew for…anyone know? Red and hairy…keep in mind Hebrew names are usually pretty on the nose.

But when Esau is born, his twin brother is holding his heel…so when HE’s born a moment later…they name him Jacob…anyone know what it means? Yah, it literally means “He grabs the heel.” I know, Hebrew is weird but we’ll go with it.

Now Jacob…from the get-go, he’s crafty.  He cheats his brother out of his birthright…and later, when Isaac is about to die and he’s too blind to see the difference, Jacob tricks him into thinking he’s Esau, and so he gets the blessing of the heir.  Once again…God has shined a light on the younger brother…the one we wouldn’t expect…especially not this trickster.

But you know, it doesn’t stop there.  Esau is so mad at Jacob that Jacob hightails it off to his uncle Laban…promptly falls in love with Laban’s younger daughter…promises to work for him for 7 years so he can marry her…then Karma catches him ever so slightly as Laban tricks HIM into marrying his other daughter…then Jacob works another 7 years to marry the daughter he loved in the first place.

Once that’s done, he uses some sort of divine inspiration to start earning great numbers of livestock from his father in law…and even though Laban keeps changing his wages, it still works out pretty good for Jacob…but after a batch of years…he’s grown rich…he’s got 2 wives…he’s also got 2 concubines, weird but he did…he’s got a dozen sons and bunch of daughters…he’s got tons of servants…dude is doing well…

But always the fickle one, he decides to go home…pretty much running away from Laban in the process…Now Jacob remembers that Esau, his big brother…was REALLY mad at him and wanted him dead…and as they approach Esua’s land, Jacob finds out he’s on his way, along with 400 of His men…and Jacob gets scared…and he starts taking steps to outsmart his brother.

He divides his whole household into two camps…he then sends tons of bribes to his brother ahead of him…then he sends his wives and children out in front of him…all the while thinking that if Esau is out for blood, Jacob will be able to figure it out and get away.  Nice guy huh?

And yet, this is the one that God has chosen to carry on the ultimate blessing that originated with Abraham. This crafty trickster who has taken every advantage he could finagle his way into to bring him right up to this particular moment.  A moment in which he’s tried to utterly separate himself as much as possible in order to ensure his own personal safety…right down to sending his family and property across a river towards his brother…and he’s gonna the spend the night on the far side.

But as soon as night falls…Michael Buffer shows up with the divine announcement “LET’S GET READY TO RUMBLE” and Jacob finds himself in an overnight test of wills…in what the scripture describes as wrestling match.

Now all thoughts of Professional Wrestling with its light shows and pyro technics, not to mention high flying aerial acrobatics between contenders aside…this wrestling match seems to be a little different. They aren’t try to pin each other…they aren’t going for the coveted 3 count or a tap out due to a submission hold.

It actually seems like they are scrounging around, trying to maintain a grip on one another…and it lasts all night.  To be honest, I can kinda relate…my son is every bit as big as me now…and in the rare moments when we get into a wrestling match, I’m to the point of simply trying to hold him off as long as possible because eventually I’ll get tired, he’ll get me in some sort of a choke hold and its over…I just try to last as long as possible.

Jacob and this divine being…seems to be the same thing…and somehow, they appear to be evenly matched.  It must be a pretty violent struggle, as we hear Jacob’s hip gets wrenched out of place…but as it goes on, neither can get away from the other…and as day begins to break…its time to be done and this divine being begs him to be let go.

Jacob refuses…because he wants another blessing…apparently every other blessing that he’s finagled his way into, all the tricks that he’s pulled off, or the mental battles he’s won and benefited from…those weren’t enough…and he wants this one to.

But before he gets the blessing, this divine being asks his name.  Jacob…the one who grasps the heel…the trickster…And now here’s the thing…he gets a new name…before he is blessed…there’s a change in identity…and Jacob becomes Israel. (pause)

Now, what have we already established about Hebrew names?  They mean something right?  Israel is no exception…this name means “he who contends” or “he who wrestles” And specifically…he who wrestles with God. (pause)

Now of course, Israel is also the name of the culture and the eventual kingdom that his descendants will ultimately become…and just like the man Israel who has contended with everyone including the divine…we later hear that the entire culture continues to wrestle with God in one way or another…and so this name is fitting.

But…what do we take from this whole deal?  Is it just some story? Some oddball little moment that the author decided to stick in there?  Or is there something for us to learn?  And I think there is.

Nowhere in Jacob’s story, do we hear him condemned by God because of his behavior…as we’ve already mentioned, he’s just one of the line of recipients of God’s ultimate blessing…even if he’s the unlikely choice.  And so maybe, just maybe as we hear that God GIVES him this identity as one who contends with God, maybe God is actually in favor of this type of thing.  Not the cheating…not the swindling…not the craftiness…but the actually wrestling…the contending.

And so what does that mean? (Pause) I think it means that in our encounters with the divine…wrestling…contending…questioning, seeking, wondering…battling…these are not bad things…but rather, we are encouraged to do just that.  These are not signs of weak faith. These are not indicators of issues in your spirituality…doubt, fear, questions…they are indications that you are paying attention to the reality you are a part of…and that you care enough to go to the source with it.

And you know what, you’re not alone in this…and we find this in the biggest batch of prayers that we have in our faith tradition…the psalms. The psalms are prayers and they cover the gambit. Joy, celebration, praise, questions, concerns…laments…and the laments…are the biggest batch of them. So if we find the psalms pointing out the legitimate nature of questioning God…and we find Jacob rewarded with an identity that LITERALLY means he battles with God…maybe we see that its okay when we need to do it to…and those moments happen in our lives and for some of you, I know these moments are happening right now.

But there’s one more thing we need to take note of…this encounter with the divine…this moment that results in a new identity…it leaves a mark on Jacob. And he limped for the rest of his days.

Likewise, we cannot expect to wrestle with God, in the good stuff and the hard stuff…and not be changed by it.  These divine encounters do leave their marks upon us in one way or another…but thanks be to God that they also result in a new identity…one given by the divine.

Jacob ceased to be the one who grabs the heel, and he became the one who contends with God.  And in our encounter with the divine, we are claimed as God’s beloved child…and this is made possible through the ULTIMATE divine wrestling match…when God became flesh…and took on death itself…

That encounter left its marks too…which we know because Jesus himself told his followers to put their fingers in the nail marks and their hands in his side.  Not even God can escape being marked by divine encounters…but thanks be to God…that this has all been done for us.

And so, today and every day…don’t be afraid to contend with God…God’s got broad shoulders…God’ll take it…but don’t be surprised…if you ultimately…end up changed by it.

What do you think everyone?   Let’s get ready to rumble. Amen.

Its Okay to Doubt 4-27-14

In this sermon, based on the story of Doubting Thomas in John 20, I explore the tension of living with doubt. Thomas felt this for a week before Jesus appeared to him. Likewise, we experience it as well.

You can listen to the sermon here:

You can also follow along with the text of the sermon here.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Risen Lord and savior Jesus Christ. Amen

One year ago…to the exact day…I woke up in Sioux City. As the single seminary graduate to be assigned to the Western Iowa Synod, I was present at synod assembly as a guest to be introduced. In addition, I was invited to sit in on assembly business in the plenary sessions for the duration of the assembly.

As the morning passed, we all walked into a ball room at the Sioux City convention center for lunch, and I was invited to sit at a table along with the synods other “first call pastors.” As we sat there conversing, we were joined by the ELCA’s big cheese. You may remember that a year ago, Western Iowa elected a new bishop, and as is the custom, the presiding Bishop of the ELCA is on hand for these elections…and so, in his wisdom, our former Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson, a man I’ve had the privilege of meeting a few times…chose to sit with us.

Following lunch, the plan was for Emily and I to jump in the car and head south…because my interview with the call committee of Underwood Lutheran was scheduled for late that afternoon. Upon hearing this in conversation, Bishop Hanson made the joke “Oh, first call interview huh? Let’s grill him folks…get him ready for it.” (pause) What better way to prepare…while at the same time getting extraordinarily nervy…than to have the Presiding Bishop of the largest Lutheran church body in the United States give you a mock interview.

Be that as it may, Emily and I followed our plan for the day, and after lunch we headed this way…and we spent the next 2 hours in the car going back and forth, discussing various things…but both of us clearly exhibiting nervous energy. (pause) And perhaps this is not unexpected…after all, it was my first call interview…not just with Underwood, but anywhere. This was the only congregation that I was in conversation with…but it was in a relatively unknown corner of an area, that while I’m familiar with, I was completely foreign to this particular small town…might as well have been on the moon…because other than a destination on mapquest, and a final location on the gps, the only other exposure I’d had to Underwood Lutheran was a blurry picture on Google Earth…and a couple of phone conversations with Gary Leaders…not a lot to go on.

As the time passed in the car, its safe to say that we were both getting more and more nervous…and it escalated when we pulled off 680 up by Neola, and drove south the 6 or 7 miles on Railroad highway…the tension was palpable as we rounded the curve about a mile or so north of town…it got even worse as we caught the first glimpse of the church from about half a mile away…and peaked as we pulled into the parking lot.

We sat there for a brief moment, looking around…and surveying the cars in the parking lot…no doubt members of the call committee…and just as we were taking a deep breath before reaching for the door handles, I noticed…and joked that there was car on the south side of the church that supports Iowa State…Joyce Tiarks I’m guessing…while on the north side was Nancy Dose’s car…clearly a Hawkeye fan…and we saw that Underwood is a “community divided.” (pause) You never know what will break the tension do you? After that, we walked up the sidewalk, through the front doors where Gary Leader’s greeted us, and we headed down into the fellowship hall for my interview…the rest, as they say, is history.

But for a long time, both on that particular day as well as quite a bit of time leading up to it…we were living in the tension…the tension of unknowns…the tension of questions to which there were not yet answers. And it is in remembering this tension that I found a connection to today’s Gospel story.

Now in a bit of an odd situation, today’s Gospel story includes the passage of time. Typically, our daily lesson includes one particular story, which marks a single action in the story of Jesus…but today…time passes…did anyone catch that?

We start off on Easter Sunday…the day that Jesus has risen from the dead. Now directly before this passage, Jesus has appeared to Mary Magdalene, conversed with her for short amount of time, and then she has found the disciples to report what happened…that was in the morning…and now we pick up that evening…so if you would…imagine that we are a week ago…and the disciples…minus Judas who is gone by this point…and Thomas who is simply absent for reasons that we don’t know…They are gathered in a room behind locked doors out of fear…fear that they would share Jesus’ fate…and perhaps, due to Mary’s confession of the risen Lord, afraid that Jesus might not be overly happy with them…having abandoned him to his fate a few days prior.

And yet…Jesus is able to pass the locked doors, and is suddenly standing among them…quieting their fears…Peace be with you…you do not need to be afraid of me…I am neither angry with you, nor am I a ghost…look, see my hands and my side…I was dead…but I am dead longer…and with this he breathes upon them…and the Spirit of God…the Holy Spirit itself comes upon them.

But Thomas…dear old Thomas…missed the party…and though he hears about it…seemingly later that evening after Jesus has departed again…he falls short in believing the testimony given to him. And so Thomas gets saddled with the nickname that has stuck with him for 2000 years…Doubting Thomas. (pause)

Its almost funny for us now…2000 years later, knowing the story…knowing what we know…believing what we believe…its almost laughable to think that one of Jesus’ own disciples would fail to believe the testimony of both Mary Magdalene and the other disciples…and yet we hear his famous words…Unless I see the marks of the nails, put my finger in them, and put my hand in his side…I…WILL…NOT…BELIEVE.

And Thomas lives in that tension…that lack of knowledge…that lack of belief…with all the questions that come with it…for an entire week…and so, now, in the second half of today’s story, we’ve finally caught up with the timeline. The first part happened a week ago…but the second part…happens today…right now…because as we hear…a week later the disciples were again in the house…and Thomas was with them…when once again, Jesus passes through the locked doors with the same greeting. Peace be with you…don’t be afraid. (pause)

And then…Jesus…turns his eyes towards Thomas. (pause) Now think about Thomas for a moment…think about the tension that he’s been living in for the past week…perhaps you can relate to it. A week ago we gathered together and heard the proclamation…even shared in the proclamation that JESUS IS RISEN FROM THE DEAD! But…has anyone physically seen him? (pause)

Interesting…and in that my friends, you share something with Thomas the proverbial doubter…because Thomas had not yet seen Jesus, only heard that he was alive…what on earth must have been going through his head during those 7 days? (pause)

Maybe I missed my only chance to see the Lord…Maybe he’s unhappy with me which is why he appeared when I wasn’t there…Maybe I’m not worthy of him…or maybe…just maybe, the thought went through his mind that Jesus…didn’t really…rise from the dead after all.

Ever had that thought? Even for a brief moment? Ever experienced the doubt that…since you haven’t physically seen him…maybe, just maybe the stories aren’t really true? (pause) If you answer those questions with a no…then I’m jealous…because the tension of the unknowns…the questions of “is it all real or just a nice story,” I think they catch of us at one time or another.

Doubt happens…and if you deny that…I’m calling you out on it…because its in our natures to want proof…we want physical evidence…just like Thomas…and you know what…I’m going on record right here and right now as saying…that’s not a bad thing. (pause)

Because it’s a human thing…and especially when we are looking at matters of faith…we all experience the occasional crisis of doubt…the experience of questions…we all do…and its not a bad thing to admit it…it doesn’t make you a bad person…it doesn’t make you less of a Christian…and it doesn’t make you unworthy to walk through these doors and come into worship with fellow believers. (pause)

Because in today’s lesson Jesus himself puts this to rest…In what may, at first glance, seem like a rebuke for Thomas, Jesus says these words “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (pause) And Jesus makes this statement in response to Thomas’ expression of faith…Thomas calls Jesus “My Lord and My God.” And he does so without actually touching him…Thomas doesn’t place his fingers in the holes or his hand in Jesus’ side…he merely experiences Jesus and declares him Lord, which you may recall from a few weeks ago is the name God gives Christ, the name above all other names…Lord.

Thomas…though he has lived in the tension and doubt for the last week, has come to faith and Jesus acknowledges it…just as Jesus acknowledges everyone else who comes to faith…calling them blessed…blessed are those who have come to believe…having not seen.

What I believe Jesus is really saying here is that there are a multitude of ways to come to faith in Christ as Lord. For some, its by seeing him…Thomas wasn’t the only one…the disciples and Mary all saw him before expressing their faith in him. Others believed because of what they heard proclaimed to them. (pause) Jesus isn’t rebuking Thomas here…he’s just acknowledging the blessing that we receive when we come to faith through hearing the proclamation…and that faith meets us in the midst of our doubts and questions.

And let me also go on record to say that faith doesn’t erase these questions…they still occur and I believe that God himself desires for us to ask them…he desires that we ask them of each other and that we ask them of him…and we are not condemned for this…we are only encouraged to believe that Jesus is Lord…and in that belief, even with the presence of questions, our sin is no more.

And so, we share in the mission given to the disciples when Jesus says that if you retain the sins of any they are retained. But make no mistake, Jesus isn’t placing the judgment of sins in our laps, because we aren’t worthy of that…rather, Jesus is instructing us to go out and proclaim that Jesus has risen from the dead, and because of his sacrifice our sin is no more…people can’t believe it if they don’t hear it…and Jesus is telling us that by failing to proclaim this amazing truth, we are holding them in sin.

And so today…a year after I walked into Underwood Lutheran for the first time…it is my hope and prayer that this is a place where we do not condemn questions…it is my hope and prayer that this is a place where together we can live in the tension and the questions and the doubt that is a life of faith in what we have heard, but what we have not ourselves…seen.

Thomas may have been a doubter…and you know what…I’ll claim that too…I’ll claim my doubts and my questions and my fears…and I’ll acknowledge yours…but I darn sure won’t condemn you for them…and it is my hope and prayer that you take the same stance…acknowledging your own doubts and questions…while at the same time rejoicing in your own belief in our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Confirmation Question Responses 9-15-13

Last Sunday, I preached on the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. See that posting here.

This was the first Sunday that my confirmation students have been working on sermon notes, and several of them asked questions. I will do my best to field those questions here.

Why would a person leave 99 sheep to find 1 that might be dead?
Excellent question…and that’s exactly the point of Jesus’ parable. You might remember that I said that when Jesus calls something “lost” in this passage, it means destroyed or dead…and so we can assume that the lost is in fact dead.  Now remember that Jesus isn’t trying to be literal here, he’s not actually talking about lost or dead sheep. Rather, he is talking about us. In the book of Romans we hear that the wages of sin is death and since we are all sinful, we know that we are dead in sin. Jesus is the shepherd going in search of the lost (or dead). For us, it is impossible to find something that is destroyed or dead and bring it back, but God is able to accomplish the impossible.

Will God always find us, or will there be times that he won’t?Another great question, and one that I personally struggle with. Unfortunately, there are individuals that never receive the Holy Spirit and the saving grace of Jesus Christ. I don’t know why that is, but it does seem to be the case, but it is not God’s intention that there be anyone that is not found. John 3:16 tells us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” I wish I could answer the question of why some people are not saved, but I can’t. But the one thing I can cling to is that when we are found by God, nothing can take that away. Romans 8:38-39 tells us “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” So once he’s got you…he’s got you for good.

Why does God make us lost if he is just going to leave everything else and look?
Another good one. To start, God does not create us lost…but rather we become lost (dead) due to our sinful nature. Sin has warped God’s creation and caused death. It’s not quite accurate to say that God leaves everything to go searching for us, though admittedly that’s what the parable sounds like. Remember though that it is a parable. It’s a metaphor. What its actually pointing at is that God entered into our reality…the reality where we were lost in sin and death. Jesus (God the son) entered that reality to bring back the lost (us).

Will God always be there for me, even if I do something bad?
You better believe it. This is precisely what the parable is talking about. There is rejoicing in Heaven over every sinner that repents. We all do bad stuff…every single one of us. That’s sin, try as we might, we make mistakes all the time. But God tells us that if we repent…if we confess what we did and are truly sorry, then Jesus washes those sins away. It’s like they never happened. That’s what happens when God finds us.

How does God know where you are?
Great question. Simple answer, God knows everything and he sees everything. But what’s important to note here is that the parable is not talking about being physically lost (like the sheep in the story). Rather, its about being lost (destroyed or dead) in our sinfulness. That’s not a physical place, but its a state of being…like saying its “what” we are, not “where” we are. Jesus (God the son) saves us from what we are…dead in sin.

Thanks for all the great questions from the students. I hope this is helpful in clearing them up for you.