Taking Away the Stone
5th Sunday in Lent – A LSB #’s 649, 358:1-3 & 8, 770
Text – John 11:39-41a
Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said, “Lord, by this time there’s a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone.
TAKING AWAY THE STONE
I’m not much of a fan of the King James Version of the Bible, but if there is a verse in it that I love, it has to be the words of Martha as she replies to Jesus’ command to take away the stone: “Lord, by this time he stinketh!” (John 11:39 KJV) From her reaction it’s very evident that she had no clue what Jesus was about to do.
A resurrection from the dead after four days was apparently the furthest thing from her mind. Looking back in hindsight, as we have the privilege of doing, it seems like a no-brainer. Martha, relax! Jesus is going to raise your brother from the dead. He’s not going to stinketh.
Yet how commonly, when we do not have the privilege of looking at something in hindsight, do we react exactly as Martha did? Lord, those members haven’t been to church in years & we’ve made a lot of effort to get them active. There’s no use in visiting them again. Their faith stinketh.
Maybe it’s Sunday School. Lord, what’s the use, we’ve tried it & the parents don’t bring their children. It’s not worth the trouble. Finally there’s the classic struggle that so many churches battle with – not having enough money, or not knowing where it will come from. Lord, we can’t possibly afford to do that. We’re such a small congregation. We stinketh.
If you look for them, there’re hundreds of examples of how we protest against what the Lord intends to do, because we don’t have the strength of faith or courage to follow Him & find out where it is that He’s leading. Maybe He’s not leading those inactive members to come back to church, but through your visits with them, God may be leading you somewhere you don’t expect to go. God might not be leading the congregation to a thriving Sunday School, but that doesn’t mean that attempts in that direction are total failures. Who knows what blessings those involved will recognize once 20/20 hindsight gives them a clearer view of the big picture.
Lots of things were happening to me during the six years I struggled with whether or not to attend seminary, but it wasn’t until after those years that I realized how many of those fit so neatly into the big picture of my becoming a pastor. I’m thankful now that I stuck around to endure the struggle even though at the time I had no idea why God was testing me like He was.
You need to realize that my struggles weren’t simply about whether or not to become a pastor. The six year process was not just a Yes or No proposition. My struggles were also about God’s preparation of me in order that I’d be able to fulfill the roles which He had already prepared in advance for me to play.
In the Gospel lesson, Jesus is not only raising Lazarus from the dead. He is also preparing Martha for whatever role God had prepared for her to play in the drama that was to follow. Lazarus had been buried in Bethany – about two miles from the scene of Jesus’ own soon to follow death & resurrection.
So Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha protested, & so do we. During the times of struggle in our lives we should examine ourselves in order to find what stones are blocking the work of God’s Spirit through us. Could one of those stones be that you expect too little of God? Martha did not expect Jesus to be raising Lazarus from the dead that very day.
When I attended my 1st church convention, I never expected that God would be calling me to become a pastor. When you joined the congregation of St. Matthew Lutheran, what was it that you were expecting? What has God since called you to do that you never expected? What stones has God been removing from your life? Have they been the stones of low expectations? Stones of unbelief? Stones of lack of commitment? Stones of fear, or of mistrust? Stones of selfishness or of pride? God promises that His Word never returns to Him empty. The Holy Spirit is always at work in our lives taking away the stones.
However, in that, God is not only preparing you for roles to come. He is also testing you, like He tested Martha & all those with her, who witnessed the resurrection of Lazarus from the dead. You may ask, “How is witnessing something like that a test?” We’ll look at the Gospel lesson for answers:
“The man who had died came out, his hands & feet bound with linen strips, & his face wrapped with a cloth. ‘Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, & let him go.”’ Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary & had seen what He did, believed in Him, but some of them went to the Pharisees & told them what Jesus had done.” (John 11:44b-46 ESV)
Do you see the test? Many put their faith in Jesus. They passed the test. Some of them went to the Pharisees. They failed. The result of God’s miracles, as always, is division. Because Jesus is who & what He is, He inevitably divides people. He takes away the stone from everyone, but some believe the truth of being set free & others do not.
As God has removed stones from your life, what’s been your reaction? Have you put your faith in Christ, or have you run to the Pharisees? Running to the Pharisees is always driven by fear, & by a lack of trust in God. We see that illustrated clearly in the text:
“So the chief priests & the Pharisees gathered the council & said, ‘What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, & the Romans will come & take away both our place & our nation.’” (John 11:47-48 ESV) So from that day on they plotted to take His life. They plotted out of fear!
What’s very telling is that 40 years later; the Romans took away their place & their
nation anyway. In spite of the best-laid plans of men, & in spite of their killing one man for the whole nation, the death turned out to be for God’s plan & not for theirs. And God’s plan included killing His own Son, not just for the Jewish nation, but for the whole world.
The real meaning of Jesus’ miracle, as well as His entire life & death, is accessible only to those with faith in Him as their Lord & Savior. The entire crowd would see the miracle, but only believers would perceive the significance. Jesus said to Martha, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” (John 11:40 ESV)
In our way of thinking, we might figure that God’s glory was revealed as He brought a very dead man back to life. Yet in God’s reality, Jesus’ crucifixion was His ultimate moment of glory. That’s because God’s glory does not consist in sparing the faithful of life’s difficulties. The true glory is in suffering & in the cross. That is where love given by God is revealed.
Because of the miracle in which Jesus gave life to a dead man, the Pharisees decided that Jesus must die. Yet in the death of God’s Son – He decided that all who believe this must live. In verse 25 of John 11, Jesus comments that he who believes in Him will live, even though he dies. To illustrate that paradox, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.
The paradox brings out the great truth that physical death is not the important thing. The moment God creates faith in our hearts we begin to experience that life of the age to come, which cannot be touched by death. Just as Jesus had the stone taken away & raised Lazarus from the dead, we too have been raised from the dead. The test is whether or not we believe this.
The Pharisees saw evidence that Jesus is the Messiah, & refused to believe. In their own hardness of heart they continued on their own chosen path. They refused even to consider the evidence before their eyes. Instead, they feared what they could lose of this world. When confronted with fear & disappointment, when we see & hear the evidence of death & decay before our eyes & ears, we too can become so absorbed in our worries & anxiety, that we no longer think to lift up our hearts to the King of Life. We forget to look for the good, the glory, that He would bring out of our struggle & out of our suffering.
Jesus has taken away the stone from your life. What is holding you back from living that life which He’s given you? Jesus has unwrapped the grave cloths of your sin. What else is keeping you from giving your entire self, your entire being, & your entire life to God? PAUSE
Know this, eventually God will destroy that temple of yours, whatever it might be. Consider the Rich Fool – his wealth was keeping him away from God, so God took his wealth away from him. Jesus knows what you truly need. He allowed His entire life to be destroyed that you might live. The greatest stone He has taken away from us is the stone of our sins.
Jesus said to Martha, & He says to you, “I Am the resurrection & the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.” (John 11:25 ESV) Satan & his demons have already been defeated at the cross & at the empty tomb. The OT lesson is a picture not only of the final resurrection that awaits us, but of life in Christ already today.
Those bones represent all the people who’ve given up hope; who are dead & stinketh in their sins. In the vision, Ezekiel saw how God would put them back together again & breathe into them the breath of life:
“Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, & our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ Therefore prophesy, & say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will open your graves & raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, & raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will put my Spirit within you, & you shall live, & I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken, & I will do it, declares the Lord.” (Ezekiel 37:11b-14 ESV)
Where is it that God is leading you today? What new doors is He waiting to open for you? What good work has the Holy Spirit prepared in advance for you to do tomorrow? Through His death & His resurrection, Jesus Christ, the Almighty Son of God has, in your life, taken away the stone. He has called you out of the tomb of sin & has set you free. Amen.
From heaven above to earth I come to bear good news to every home; glad tidings of great joy I bring, whereof I now will say & sing: To you this night is born a child of Mary, chosen virgin mild; this little child of lowly birth shall be the joy of all the earth. This is the Christ, our God Most High, Who hears your sad & bitter cry; He will Himself your Savior be from all your sins to set you free. Amen. LSB #358:1-3.
Midweek 5 – 2020 LSB #730
Text – Exodus 20:17
You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.
Of people who’ve raised children, & survived, all are familiar with the Toddler Property Laws. They go like this: “If I like it, it’s mine. If it’s in my hand, it’s mine. If I can take it from you, it’s mine. If I had it a little while ago, it’s mine. It must never appear to be yours in any way, because it is always & forevermore mine!” Even if I haven’t played with it for days.
Let’s be honest. We’ve all been there, just like Daffy Duck: “It’s mine, mine, mine, mine, mine, mine, mine!” Deep down within there exists an insatiable desire to look at someone’s snow blower or lawnmower, bike or boat, patio or porch – indeed, just about anything & everything that belongs to someone else – & long for it all to be mine!
In this series on the Book of Exodus, tonight we come to the most famous section – the Ten Commandments. Two of them address the sin of coveting. Not one, two! What gives? God repeats what is most important. The 9th & 10th commandments are the most important of the Ten. Why? Because every sin – which means all sadness – begins with coveting.
Coveting is not about wanting things. That’s natural. There is nothing wrong with wanting things. Nothing wrong at all. Coveting, on the other hand, says, “I’ll do whatever it takes to get that. I’ll break any commandment, any statute, any rule, just to make it mine.” Woody Allen famously put it this way: “The heart wants what it wants.”
Translated, that says, “I want it all to be mine!” Coveting is why we worship other gods like our job, our paycheck, & our social status. Coveting is why we fail to honor our parents. It’s why we kill people with our words, & look with lust, lie, cheat & steal. I want it all to be mine! How are we to deal with our titanic desire to acquire? How can we become more obedient to God’s Word & will? How can we break the stranglehold of looking at things & people, always thinking, “Mine”?
The fact is, coveting is natural. Coveting is how we are wired. Coveting comes with being sinners. Being content, though, does not come naturally. Being content is something that is learned. As St. Paul wrote: “I have learned the secret of being content in any & every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:12).
Being content conquers coveting. Being content conquers coveting – every single time. How does that work? It begins when we:
Realize the Sequence. Usually we rationalize the sequence. “Coveting? No big deal!” This is how to realize the sequence: “Then the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food & pleasing to the eye, she coveted it for gaining wisdom, then she took & ate” (Genesis 3:6). See. Covet. Take.
In Joshua 7:21 we hear, “I saw among the spoils a beautiful mantle from Shinar, & 200 shekels of silver, & a bar of gold weighing 50 shekels, then I coveted them, & then I took them.” See. Covet. Take. This sequence appears five more times in the OT. See. Covet. Take.
How often do we rationalize our coveting? We say, “I’m just lookin’!” Lookin’ leads to coveting. Coveting leads to taking. What does taking lead to? James 1:15 tells us, “After desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, & sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.” Realize – don’t rationalize – the sequence! See. Covet. Take. Death!
When we covet our neighbor’s spouse it brings death to marital joy. When we covet each other’s skills, intellect, popularity, family connections – you name it – it brings death to inner peace. When we covet our neighbor’s BMW, Rolex watch, looks, pick your poison – it brings death to our relationship with Jesus. When the author was in the 4th grade, his parents gave him a bike Christmas. It was a stingray bike, flared handlebars, chrome on the side & get this – it had a banana seat. Remember that song by Steppenwolf? “Get your motor runnin’ Head out on the highway Looking for adventure In whatever comes our way! …Born to be wild.”
The author was born to be wild – until he went to Greg Heistand’s house. For Christmas, Greg’s parents gave him a red Schwinn ten-speed bike! When he saw Greg’s red Schwinn ten-speed bike, his motor died!
Left unchecked, coveting drives a stake into our heart & kills us. Just ask Eve. Just ask Achan. Just ask James: “After desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin, & sin, when it is fully grown, gives birth to death.” Being content conquers coveting. So here’s the first step to being content. Realize – don’t rationalize – realize the sequence. See. Covet. Take. Death!
To Personalize Your Salvation is the next step. Usually we generalize our salvation. We say, “Salvation? No big deal.” Wrong! Personalize your salvation. Exodus 20:2, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”
Not her God; not his God; not their God; not some God; not any God. Yahweh, the LORD, is your God! Exodus 20:5, “I, the LORD your God, am a zealous God.” Your zealous God will do whatever it takes to save you! Your zealous God will do whatever it takes to save you! He did it for you, but not with fleas, flies & frogs. There was a Passover lamb.
Christ’s blood wasn’t splattered on the wood of a house, but on the wood of a Roman cross of death, mingled with sweat, soldier’s spit, & cheap wine. He ended up “crucified, died & buried.” Watch as Joseph of Arimathea places Christ into the garden tomb. Smell the stench of death. See the confines, the darkness, the sealed stone. Feel the utter hopelessness.
Then, witness the charred marks of a divine explosion to life! There is nothing dead
about our Jesus! He lives so He can speak these words straight from His heart to yours – “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of sin & death, out of the house of slavery. I, the LORD your God, am a zealous God. I will do whatever it takes to save you!”
Being content conquers coveting. The 1st step to being content is this. Don’t rationalize the sequence. Realize where it all leads – death! The second step? Don’t generalize your salvation. Personalize it. Jesus is the Passover Lamb who saved me! Repeat that with me.
The last step is to internalize Segulah. Exodus 19:5 says, “Out of all nations you will be my treasured possession [segulah].” God’s desire to acquire us is infinitely greater than ours! From the depths of His loving heart the LORD says, “You are always & forevermore my segulah!” God wants us – warts & all!
This isn’t always the case. Two years ago, just a few minutes before the author officiated at a wedding, the groom leaned over to him & said softly, “You weren’t my 1st choice.” “I wasn’t?” “No, the pastor I wanted couldn’t make it.” “Oh.” “But thanks for filling in.” “Sure. Anytime.” His marriage license was signed, “Your Replacement Reverend!”
God always says, “You are my first choice!” When you were baptized God made you His 1st choice. His choice was not obligatory, required, compulsory, forced, or compelled. God chose you because God loves you. Yahweh looks at you in great love & says, “You are my prized, priceless possession! Segulah!” Imagine that!
The temptation, though, is to trivialize segulah. “What’s the big deal?” Don’t trivialize – internalize – segulah. Let it go deep down into your bones, into every fiber of your being! You are God’s prized, priceless possession! What else tops that?
We’ve considered the heart of the Ten Commandments. “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet anything else that belongs to your neighbor.” How does that work? Realize the sequence – see, covet, take, death. Then, personalize your salvation. Internalize segulah. Where’s the power to do this? The strength? The “want to”? It’s in this, “I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are always & forevermore lovingly, passionately, eternally mine!” Amen.
4th Sunday in Lent – A LSB #611
Text – John 9:2
And His disciples asked Him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
This is now the 3rd Sunday we’ve focused on the Gospel of John for the sermon, so I’m wondering if you noticed this. Instead of giving an overview of Jesus’ ministry, or focusing on the big things, like His birth, death & resurrection, John takes us into the heart of Jesus’ work. He’s practical & down to earth. He gets into the details of personal encounters with Messiah.
Two weeks ago it was Jesus & Nicodemus. Last Sunday was Jesus & the Samaritan woman. In the Gospel lesson today, it is Jesus & the man born blind. In these small, intimate moments, John offers a vision of how God works in the world, personally & individually, then & now. Today’s lesson began simply: “As He passed by, He saw a man blind from birth.”
I’d like you to stop & think how profound this is. The almighty God sees a man. We struggle to ‘see’ a person. We see things – not people. We see the Rolex watch yet fail to see the broken marriage. We see the permanent smirk, like that of the Covington High School student, at the 2019 March for Life, but how many saw him as a person?
It’s difficult. When the disciples see this blind man, what do they see? They see a problem, not a person. Listen to what they tell Jesus: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” For the disciples, he’s only a teaching moment, a topic of discussion that has reduced this human being, one of God’s creation, to a theological dilemma.
The disciples believe they’re contemplating a great theological question. Yet, their theology takes them away from the world. So, they stand at a distance from a person, observing the man, but not seeing him; talking about him but not with him. They do not see him. They do not speak to him. They don’t touch him. They don’t put shoes on his feet or a piece of bread in his hand. They do not lead him to Jesus. They stand apart from the world & attempt to talk theology with their teacher. But Christ, the very Son of God, does something different. He sees the man & He sees this man as part of a larger story.
The disciples were writing a story that was far too small. It was a only story of sin & punishment from God. This man was blind, & someone must have been at fault. Either he sinned or his parents, & God punished the sin with blindness.
I don’t know if you’ve encountered people who tell the Christian story that way. It is only a story of sin & an angry God. We become the morality police in the world. We’re here to tell people how everyone sinned, & God is punishing them. We’re here to discipline rather than to disciple. We police the world instead of participate in the good life God has given.
On the other hand, Jesus sees this man as part of a much greater story, one of creation & restoration. Jesus knows that history does not begin with sin but with creation. It does not end with punishment but with restoration in Christ. When the story begins in creation & ends in restoration, all the moments in between are filled with the working of God.
Yahweh sends His Son to take His broken creation & fashion it into a new one. Jesus looks at this man & sees him as part of that greater story. Jesus says to the disciples, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:3 ESV) Then, Jesus stops talking theology & begins living it.
Jesus kneels on the ground & begins to create again. He spits & makes mud from the dust of the earth. Forming it. Fashioning it. Putting it on the man’s eyes. Then speaks to him & says, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.” (John 9:7 ESV) This one who said, “Before Abraham was, I Am,” now shows just how far back He goes. He was there at the 1st creation, forming a world that was fantastic, & fashioning beautiful creatures to live in that world. The One, who was there at the original creation, has become part of creation. He’s working to restore His broken world. He will take this man & give him sight. That is His work, & He’s willing to die to accomplish it. In fact, by dying He will do even greater things than these.
Jesus did not come to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him. He will capture our sin & condense it into His death. Then He will rise to create new life – life for this man who was born blind, & life for you.
What a blessing it is for Jesus to reveal Himself like this today. And how easy it is, in our sinfulness, to reduce God’s story to sin & punishment; to see problems instead of people. How effortless & 2nd nature it is to take a colorful world & reduce it to black & white until the only thing people hear from the Church is sin & punishment.
In our sinfulness, how easy it is to see the disruptions caused by the virus & do nothing but complain or point fingers. How effortless it is to question God’s love in a time when the world we have constructed is so disrupted. How quickly we forget that God uses our struggles to turn us away from what we have created, so that we finally return to Him.
Through His personal interaction with the man born blind, Jesus today comes to you through His life-creating Word & gives you a glimpse of a much greater story. By the application of God’s water to our dust, you & I have been baptized into the death & resurrection of Jesus. His Word & His water have made you & me into a new creation – children of God.
In Jesus Christ, you are dead to sin & alive to the heavenly Father. You are not slaves to sin but children of God, recipients of His righteousness. In this Gospel reading from John, Jesus opened the door of His Father’s Kingdom & gives us a glimpse of His greater work. He teaches us to live, not by the littleness of our minds (talking about people), but by the greatness of His Kingdom, talking & working with people, “…that the works of God might be displayed.” By now, all of us have been affected by the coronavirus, even if we haven’t gotten the disease. The events of the Gospel of John are recorded to reassure us that Jesus sees each one of us, not as problems. Jesus sees you & me personally, as individual children of the heavenly Father.
Yes, He might not be miraculously healing you as you wish, but God your Creator, does not simply see you as a problem. He called you His child at baptism & is still calling you His child today. He may not have erased your illnesses, or the trials you face, but He has erased the end result of them. The only death that truly matters is the eternal one, & it has been defeated.
On Easter morning, Jesus crossed over to the other side of death. The new creation has begun. Death can no longer hold you. When you are born of the Spirit, the new you has begun, even before you physically die. Once born of the Spirit you are then part of that greater story which our heavenly Father is writing. He is writing names in the Book of Life.
Since God is in control of everything, even the coronavirus must submit to the will of our Lord & Savior. The goal of His will on earth is not that we discover “who sinned,” but that the world will one day know “who is saved.” At the resurrection that will be made known to all.
The man who was born blind was given sight, but the even bigger deal, is that through Jesus he was born of the Spirit. So was the Samaritan woman, & Nicodemus as well. Jesus sees your heart & soul too, not just your problems. He longs for you to turn back from your ways & follow Him to eternal life. That is a giant & beautiful & yet very personal story. Amen.
Chief of sinners though I be, Jesus shed His blood for me, died that I might live on high, lives that I might never die. As the branch is to the vine, I am His, & He is mine. Oh, the height of Jesus’ love, higher than the heavens above, deeper than the depths of sea, lasting as eternity! Love that found me – wondrous thought! Found me when I sought Him not. O my Savior, help afford by Your Spirit & Your Word! When my wayward heart would stray, keep me in the narrow way; grace in time of need supply while I live & when I die. Amen. LSB 611:1-2, 5.
 John 9:3
Strike the Rock
Midweek 4 – 2020 LSB #803
Text – Exodus 17:5-6
And the Lord said to Moses, “Pass on before the people, taking with you some of the elders of Israel, & take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, & go. Behold, I will stand before you there on the rock at Horeb, & you shall strike the rock, & water shall come out of it, & the people will drink.”
STRIKE THE ROCK
When we don’t get enough water, we confuse our thirst for hunger. What happens then? We eat when we don’t need to eat! What’s that mean? Weight gain! When we don’t get enough water, we also become tired, dizzy & anxious; our joints & muscles start to ache. What’s that mean? A bad life! The point? We all need water – lots & lots of water!
We’re in a series on the book of Exodus. This week we consider Exodus 17 using these questions, who, what, where, why, how & when. Who, what, where, why, how, & when. What’s the point of this sermon? We all need water – lots & lots of water!
“Who?” is the question. The Israelites lived in Egypt, near the Nile River, for 430 years. Each generation probably said something like this: “Eating leaks & onions by the Nile. Oh, what breath, but dining out in style!”
Even as the Israelites left Egypt, they had no problems with water. Need it to form into walls? No problem! Need it to crash down on Pharaoh’s horses & chariots? Easy as pie! If anyone deserves the title, “The Wonderful Wizard of Water Works,” it’s Moses.
His name literally means to draw out of water. As a child, he is placed into water for safety & drawn out of water for salvation. In Exodus 15:25 – when confronted with bitter water – Moses throws a piece of wood into the putrid pool & presto, instant purified water!
“What?” is the next question, & the answer: “There was no water for the people to drink.” (Exodus 17:1 ESV) The Israelites left Egypt in chapter 14 & they’ve been in the desert for a month. They’ve seen nothing but rocks, sand & dirt! Rocks, sand & dirt! You know what it feels like to have no water. There’s emotional thirst: “It hurts so bad, sometimes it feels like I’m eating glass.” There’s spiritual thirst: “God, if you are so good, why do I hurt so much? God, why do you seem so far way? God, do you even exist?”
Moses had some emotional thirst going on: “Moses cried out to the LORD, ‘What should I do with these people? They are ready to stone me!’” (Exodus 17:4) What do we do when we’re overcome with thirst? Just like the Israelites we want to stone people. We resort to rocks!
Remember in Forrest Gump when Jennie begins throwing rocks at her childhood home? When she runs out & falls to the ground what does Forrest say? “Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks!” Forrest is confirming that Jennie’s emotional thirst is not being satisfied.
Yet, on another level Forrest Gump is dead wrong! We thirst so much for love, that, when we don’t get it, we begin throwing rocks. Verbal missals. Nuclear words. Silent stares. Angry texts. Sometimes there are plenty of rocks! And this breaks God’s heart.
It’s time for the where? question. “They camped at Rephadim” (Exodus 17:1). Where’s that? No one knows. Scholars don’t; archaeologists don’t; all people can say is that it’s close to Mt. Sinai. But you know the exact location of Rephadim! So do I!
It’s that place in our lives where we are burned out with fear too deep to manage, loneliness too heavy to bear, doubts too many to number. Rephadim is that place where relationships are dehydrated, dry & almost dead. Rephadim is where mothers are ready to throw in the towel, children don’t have friends, & husbands are working 75 hours a week.
Others have spotted Rephadim on the job – where it’s always the same ol’, same ol’. Boring! And Rephadim is in every church. It’s that place where – try as we might – everything stays dry as dust. At Rephadim we cry out with Psalm 42, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God!” At Rephadim we echo the anguish of Psalm 63, “O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you in a dry & weary land where there is no water.”
Why? Why do we become so thirsty? Four words, “It might have been.” That’s what the Israelites are saying in Exodus 17:3, “You brought us up out of Egypt.” Translated, “If we had stayed in Egypt, it might have been so much better.” “It might have been.” These words were made famous in 1856 when John Greenleaf Whittier wrote a poem he called Maud Muller.
It’s a poem about a young woman named Maud Muller who one day meets a young man. After their encounter, each of them ponders what it would be like to marry the other. But the moment passes & both Maud & the man end up in sad marriages. And both anguish over what was lost on that day so long ago.
At the end of the poem Whittier writes, “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.’” Who? What? Where? Why?
We’re down to how? How can we get water? How can we get water? Well, I guess we could get a staff. Wait! That’s it! We can get a staff! But it can’t be any ordinary run-of-the-mill, Wal-Mart kind of staff. It has to be the staff! You remember! The staff of Moses!
The staff that goes back & forth from a stick to a snake. The staff that struck the Nile River & turned its water into blood. The staff that stretched out over the Red Sea to divide its waters so Israel could walk through on dry land. “Take in your hand the staff & strike the rock & water will come out of it for the people to drink” (Exodus 17:5–6; 1 Corinthians 10:4).
Moses did, & water flowed. And the people of Israel lived! Paul reflects on this & connects the rock to Christ. How so? Matthew wrote, “They put a staff in His right hand & knelt in front of Him & mocked Him. ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’ they said. They spit on Him, & took the staff & struck Him on the head again & again.” (27:29) For Jesus any ordinary run-of-the-mill staff will do. Any stick that remotely looks like a king’s scepter is just fine – any piece of wood that won’t break if it’s slapped repeatedly on someone’s head.
And make sure that the piece of wood is carved to make a sharp, pointed end – because finally the Rock has to be split & opened up. As John wrote, “One of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood & water.” (19:34) Water!
Water flowing from the one whose lips are cracked & swollen. Water flowing from the one whose body burned under the hot Palestinian sun. Gushing water from the parched mouth of the one who cries out, “I thirst!” “Strike the rock, & water will come out of it for the people to drink.” And they did. And it flowed. And we live!
Isaiah describes God’s soul-quenching love with these words: “The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs” (35:7). Ezekiel sees it as a river teaming with life, “Wherever the river flows everything will live” (47:9). Joel writes, “A fountain will flow out of the LORD’s house” (3:18).
Who? Israel & Moses. What? There is no water! Where? Rephadim. Why? It might have been. How? Jesus, the Rock of Ages. What are we missing?
When? We’re missing when. When does this water flow? When does it come to me? When does it quench my longing, aching heart? It’s because Jesus loves you so very, very, very much that His living, life-giving, soul-renewing water flows from the cross for you. When, you ask? Right now! Amen.
In Spirit and Truth
3rd Sunday in Lent – A LSB #808
Text – John 4:24
God is spirit, & those who worship Him must worship in spirit & truth.
IN SPIRIT & TRUTH
If I say 2, 4, 6, 8 – which number comes next? If I say 11, 9, 7, 5 – which number comes next? Challenging you a bit more, let’s switch to months of the year. February, April, June, August & then comes? Finally, how about do, re, mi, fa?
Now that you have the concept of progression in your mind, last Sunday we focused on the idea of being Born of the Spirit. This morning we’ll be looking at In Spirit & Truth. There’s a progression going on in the Gospel of John. It’s just not as obvious or predictable as those I quizzed you on moments ago.
Because of what sin has done to us, everyone instinctively understands that we need improvement & some kind of progress. What sin has done to us also gives the impression that we can improve ourselves if we just find the way. It’s a notion that’s hard to shake, because it is not learned behavior. It is in fact part of our DNA as sinful creatures.
The essence of our sinful nature is rebellion, & how rebellious can you be if you truly believe that you can’t get by on your own? The essence of rebellion is that the authorities that be are not getting it done. They aren’t doing right by me. They’re corrupt & looking out only for themselves. They deserve to be overthrown because I can do better.
Rebelling against authority is the ultimate “self-help” program. At least, until you end up in a position of authority. In last Sunday’s Gospel lesson that’s where Nicodemus was. In today’s Gospel reading, the woman of Samaria is in anything but a position of authority. The only rung lower on the ladder of her society would have been reserved for the lepers.
She had given up on progress & self-improvement as a hopeless fairy tale. She was just
trying to survive. There was no need for her to rebel against authority because no one in those shoes even cared that she existed. She was irrelevant, & powerless to do anything about it. She could have been the poster child for the feminist movement. Men had only been doing her wrong for her entire adult life.
So John brings us people from opposite ends of the spectrum. Both need progress & they realize it. Nicodemus thought he could achieve that on his own & figured Jesus might explain how. The woman of Samaria thought it was a hopeless pipe dream. It took her most of the Gospel reading to finally believe that Jesus really did want to help her.
It’s like we heard in the OT reading & sermon this past Wednesday. Nicodemus & the Samaritan woman both had their backs to the Red Sea. The Satanic army was bearing down on them, ready to swoop in for the kill. Nicodemus was still trying to live a perfect enough life to escape on his own. The Samaritan woman never imagined that escape was possible.
The truth is that God had designed an exodus to deliver them, just as He delivered the Israelites of old, as they literally sat with their backs to the Red Sea. Through the Samaritan woman & Nicodemus, St. John, in his Gospel, invites the reader or hearer to participate in the new exodus which will occur in the Sacrament of Baptism.
St. Paul makes that connection between the Exodus & Baptism in 1 Corinthians 10:1-2, as he wrote: “For I do not want you to be unaware, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, & all passed through the sea, & all were baptized into Moses in the cloud & in the sea.”
Ever since Christ was baptized, it is in baptism that a person will be Born of the Spirit. It is there that a person will begin to worship in Spirit & Truth. It is there that we receive freedom from sin because we receive the life of the Spirit. Jesus came, in His flesh & blood body, to reveal that life to His creation. The resurrection of His once dead body was the 1st fruit in Yahweh’s plan of salvation. Those who trust in Jesus as Lord & Savior will be the many that follow, in flesh & blood. We will see that life fully & completely in heaven, but it is already alive now in those who follow Jesus. Yes, our sins hide that life. The brokenness of this present world, because of sin, hides that life, but it is real nonetheless.
Going back to the exodus, the descendants of Abraham became the nation of Israel as God delivered them from Egypt. But that nation was unfaithful to God, & their bodies were scattered across the wilderness. Whoever is born from God through water & the Spirit becomes thereby a member of the new Israel, united to Jesus who is Life.
As we remain in Christ, we remain alive eternally, even though we will die physically here on earth. You become a child of God not according to the flesh, but from God & from His Spirit. That was the lesson to Nicodemus. The lesson to the Samaritan woman is that the place in which we worship does not matter. What matters is that we worship the true God.
Since He is Spirit we must worship Him in Spirit & Truth. In the particular Gospel lesson for today, there is a progression occurring. The Samaritan woman is progressing from worship as an external action – a going through the motions, & a matter of the flesh – to an internal attitude – a matter of the heart which is truly in relationship with her Father in heaven.
Our earthly life here is precious & a gift from our heavenly Father, but sin has tied our thoughts far too tightly to what we can see, our life in this world. That’s why the coronavirus is the center of everyone’s attention right now. Here, all that we experience is tainted by Satan’s lie. He wants to interrupt the progression of the faith we have in Jesus as Savior & Lord.
Our life, as children of God, is not forever tied to the times & the places we know from our experiences of this life. The Samaritan woman demonstrated her confusion, where her progression had been interrupted, when she says, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” (John 4:19-20 ESV) She was tied too tightly to the times & the places of her life, her experiences.
Jesus answers her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. But the hour is coming, & is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit & truth…” (John 4:21 & 23 ESV)
Worship, or submitting to God’s will, is not about location, but about the heart & about relationship. This woman has not had good relationships in the earthly life. Mary on the morning of the resurrection doesn’t recognize Jesus, until He calls her name. Here, Jesus also has to reveal Himself to the Samaritan woman.
Jesus is the shepherd who knows when a sheep is weary & He comes to offer care by sharing the water of life. “The Lord is my Shepherd,” we have learned to say. “He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.” Today, we see Jesus, coming as a shepherd, sitting beside still waters, restoring a soul.
Jesus begins a conversation with this weary woman. He offers her water – living water. She does not understand. How can He offer a drink when He does not even have a bucket? Is He greater than her father Jacob? Well, yes. He is greater, because He is Jacob’s Lord. The water He offers does not come from any well. It comes from Him.
Jesus is the source of all living water. His life, His death & His resurrection are a life-giving stream. Only in the gospel of John does Jesus cry out, “I thirst,” at His crucifixion. He becomes the thirsty one, longing for life, bearing our suffering, enduring our shame.
He enters the depths of Hell itself & dies in our place that He might rise & offer us His eternal, life-giving stream. Jesus sits by the well as a shepherd, coming to offer this woman a life-giving stream. For a moment, think about her experience. For once in her life, this woman meets a man who gives rather than takes & what He gives… oh, what He gives makes her a child of God. The honor she finds in Jesus frees her to speak in hope of the Messiah. The life she finds in Jesus is a gift that will never go away.
He still sits there, our Shepherd, by that well where, with a splash of water & God’s word, you are made a child of God. The words of our Lord run deep, deeper than any of your troubles, deep enough to conquer Hell itself that He might rise from the depths with life for you.
“Come to me all you who are weary & heavy-laden,” Jesus cries. That is the progression which Jesus desires for you. Today, the Son of God comes to restore your soul. Amen.
O sing to the Lord, O sing God a new song. O sing to the Lord, O sing God a new song. O sing to the Lord, O sing God a new song. O sing to our God, O sing to our God. For God is the Lord! And God has done wonders. For God is the Lord! And God has done wonders. For God is the Lord! And God has done wonders. O sing to our God, O sing to our God. Amen. LSB 808:1-2.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet