Who Is This?

Scripture: Matthew 21:1-11

By Rev. Nathan Hill

I want to begin by repeating the question you just heard asked of the crowds:

“Who is this?”

“Who is this?”

This is the question asked by the crowds today as Jesus and his ragtag band of disciples made their grand entrance into Jerusalem.

As the city got overflowed visitors from all over with anticipation for the high holy celebration of Passover, the people had heard rumors and caught glimpses of what Jesus had done throughout his ministry. There was excitement building - excitement among some that Jesus was their long awaited Messiah, come to deliver them from oppression.

So, when Jesus began his little procession, they lined the streets, shouting these victory words from Psalm 118:

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the lord!

And the people went even further - they called him the Son of David, an heir to King David’s throne.

The people wanted a King. Desperately. They wanted relief from oppression - they wanted a restoration of the good old days - they wanted to be in charge. And a King could do that for them.

One of the themes that runs through the Gospel of Matthew makes clear that Jesus is King.

The gospel begins by telling us Jesus’ genealogy which is connected right back to King David himself. His birth stories are heralded by stars and celebrated by wise ones from the east. When the current King hears of his birth, he tries to snuff out baby Jesus before he could threaten his rule.

And then, as an adult, he begins saying strange things - that he is ushering in a new Kingdom, a Kingdom breaking in even now, a Kingdom already among us.

And so the people have gathered with their palm branches waving, symbols of victory that a people might wave to their conquering lord. They lay out the cloaks - the 1st century red carpet - in the gospel of John. They are excited and ready, ready for this King to march into the city, overthrow Pontius Pilate, kick the Romans out, and restore the Jewish government.

Of course, not everyone celebrated the arrival of this would-be King.

For the religious leaders, they saw Jesus as a threat to the fragile status quo that was in place. In fact, the first thing Jesus does after entering Jerusalem is to march into the temple and drive the moneylenders out, upsetting a steady flow of cash that filled the temple’s coffers. Uh oh. The Jewish stock market took a big hit that day.

For those in power - especially for Roman leaders, Jesus became another rebel that threatened the sovereignty and domination of the Empire. Another upstart who dared the threaten Ceasar who was the only one who could issue edicts of good news across the land.

And so by the end of the week - Jesus is as far from a throne as one could ever be - hanging, alone and abandoned, on a cross. Even the crowds that had once cheered him on now don’t claim to know anything about him.

And by the end of the week, Jesus’ words about ushering in a new kingdom seem to ring hollow.

By the end of the week, nothing has changed on the surface - Rome is still in power. The religious leaders have their status quo. And the movement Jesus was building has gone into hiding, and I am sure some of them wondered to themselves, “What happened? Was he really who he said he was? Who is this Jesus?”

In an article in the Christianity Today around Palm Sunday of last year, Jonathan Merritt reflected that the purpose of Jesus’ grand entrance into Jerusalem wasn’t to pump the people up - but to disillusion them. In Merritt’s perspective, a common thing that happens to Christians, especially in difficult times, that “we expect God to be something and then discover that God is not at all like that. Or we expect God to do something, only to realize that God seems to have [different] priorities.” When that happens - our faith is forced into a crisis. We have to search for God anew - we have to ask, “Who is this?”, again and again.

Merritt reminds us that to those cheering crowds, Jesus was not the King they expected.

“Jesus is a king, but not the kind they wanted. He will serve rather than be served. He will die and not be killed. He enters unarmed, waging peace. This makes a larger point that God does not intend to meet our expectations. Instead, [God] meets our needs.”

Right now, in this time of COVID-19, I admit to you as your pastor that even I am out of a lot of answers. My daughter complained to me last night that she has heard us adults talking about how unusual things are right now way too much. She is sick and tired of it - and I am sick and tired of it too. I am so ready for a return to normal.

Wouldn’t it be great for God to send us a new King, to march in right now, to make all of our problems go away and get things back to the way it used to be? I’d go outside right now and wave my palm branches and thrown down my winter coats on the street and shout at the top of my lungs if that could happen right now.

But maybe… maybe that’s not what we need.

Maybe Jesus is here among us - in ER units, in clinics, in hospital rooms, among grieving families, and leaders struggling to put aside their ego to lead. Jesus is a healer - so Jesus surely is among the healers right now, empowering and encouraging and weeping.

Maybe Jesus is in this discomfort and uncertainty around our economic reality, challenging us to figure out whether we love God or our economy more, suggesting to us that there is more to life than eight hour shifts everyday, trying to look busy and productive. Maybe the discomfort is learning that we are dependent on more than our paychecks to survive.

Maybe Jesus is even here at work in our churches, casting off our limited vision for ministry to help us realize that there is a vast world out there where the gospel needs to go. Jesus is saying - I’m not in your buildings. I’m out here among hurting, broken people who are struggling to breath. Get online. Get outside. Expand your vision to a new generation.

Maybe Jesus is where we need him - not where we necessarily want him.

Even a time such as this, we are invited to ask - “Who is this?”

Who is Jesus today?

And what kind of Jesus will we reflect as we live out our call as the Body of Christ this week?

Will our neighbors see in us a longing for a kind of Jesus who will solve all of our problems so we can go back to being comfortable?

Or will our neighbors discover a witness, a testimony, to a living, resurrect Messiah who is so compelling, they too will ask, “Who is this?”

(posted 4/6/20)

Do you believe this?

Scripture: John 11:1-45

Today, in our scripture passage, one that I invite you to return to over the course of the week because of its power and relevance to our time, Jesus asks Martha a question. In the past few weeks of our Lent series called Questions Welcome, we have explored questions that were asked to Jesus and about Jesus. But today, Jesus gets to ask the question of Martha and of us.

"Do you believe this?"

The word believe can be a problematic word in our faith and in our culture.

Going back to its Gaelic or Germanic roots, belief is defined as placing confidence or trust in someone or something.

Right now, in our culture and in this time of crisis, we are being asked each day to place our confidence in people and markets and businesses and government institutions - and certainly in our faith.

But what do you do when your government leaders do not inspire your trust in them? No matter how highly they talk of their accomplishments?

How do you feel confident when different news channel address the facts of the day with their own particular spin?

How do you trust in the stock market when it seems to fluctuate on fears and anxiety and the flapping of a butterfly wing around the world?

How do you place your hope in our economy, which we were told a few months was a strong as it ever has been, and now discover how fragile it always has been?

Right now, we are also rediscovering how much trust we have placed in so many people around us - sometimes without realizing how important they are to our lives.

For families like my own, we are now going on 15 days since our children were last dropped off at school or put on the bus. I mean, 15 days - but who’s counting? With each day, we realize how much care and skill we entrusted to those teachers and school staff. How much we need those teachers, how thankful we are for them, even the mediocre ones.

We are having to be confident that when we stay home and order in our groceries and delivery that some complete stranger isn’t going to take our money and do whatever - but drop said items at our front door. That requires trust.

We are being asked to trust our doctors and nurses for our very lives - and we are so grateful for their sacrifice, for those who are spending all days setting up beds and providing care, those who are going into the ICU rooms to fight alongside those who are struggling to draw breath, and for those who are racing to find a vaccine.

And of course, we are being asked to have faith in our God - which can be hard when the death count from this virus spike every few days.

Ultimately, are we placing our trust in fragile things or on sure foundations?

When Jesus came to Bethany, he entered into a fragile situation, a traditional period of mourning for this Jewish community. There were weeping people. Martha came running to see him, overcome with grief, still wondering and hoping against hope for someone or something to bring her confidence. Someone or something to change the reality.

Jesus had known Lazarus well. They were close. The news hit him hard. Our scripture says that when he received the word, Jesus didn’t leave right away. I’ve never understood why, until I am reminded that losing someone close and someone dear often makes it hard for us to get out of bed, to eat, to muster the energy to face the day. Some of you have been there.

It took him a couple of days for he and his disciples to carefully make their way back to Judea, which was also dangerous - there were powerful people plotting to have Jesus arrested. So, they took their time and took the back routes to Bethany.

About four days later, they arrive near Mary and Martha’s house - and Martha is the first to run out to meet Jesus at the edge of their land.

When she confronts Jesus, she reveals something remarkable about herself.

She believes. She believes that Jesus, no matter how late to the scene he is, is capable of changing the course of their lives. 

We could read her questions and statements as someone who is in the throes of grief and is talking out of their mind - but I think Martha knew. More than knew, she had confidence in Jesus. She trusted him and the power he had access to through his connection with God, even if she did not always understand it.

And so the first words out of her mouth aren’t - “Hey, Jesus, come in and take a load off. I’m so glad you made it. Let me get you something to eat.”

Rather, she says, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

What a bold way to get the Son of God’s attention. If only I - or we - had that kind of confidence, right? (Lord, if you had been here…)

She lays it right on Jesus' feet, and Jesus doesn’t back down.

Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’ (Vss. 25-26)

What follows next is incredible - in the most powerful verse in the entire gospels, “Jesus weeps” (V35). He is overcome with emotion as he gathers in with the mourners, those wailing in despair at the loss of their dear friend, a wailing at an unjust world that can claim lives so quickly - the lives of basketball coaches and high school teachers and nurses and doctors and children and artists and retirees and on and on. Jesus too weeps for a world that is too often marred by death and despair.

Greatly disturbed, Jesus comes to the tomb.

And there he commands the stone to be taken - and of course for those of us who have read ahead into Easter, we already resonate with what is about to come. The stench begins to waft out of that dark hole. You can hear the shocked cries of the gathered crowd. Jesus turns back to Martha and says with a face stricken with tears, angry and determined, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

And then he cries out to Lazarus - calls him out of that dark pit - that place of hopelessness and despair and dread and loss. And Lazarus comes out, still bound up in the trappings of death, but altogether alive once again!

The word believe is the word that draws us deeply into those whole scripture passage - it is the question that sits with us as we read this and the narrative of death and loss are so powerful.

So powerful that some of us are losing our damn minds in fear and anxiety.

So powerful that some of us have placed our confidence and trust in news channels, conspiracy theories, stock markets, guns and ammo, kombucha, and borders.

So powerful that some of us are wanting to turn this moment of “physical distancing” into sealed up tombs of death and destruction.

Through the wailing cries of anxiety, Jesus asks us, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”

The Raising of Lazarus is not a story that if we just believe hard enough - God will answer our prayers.

Rather, Jesus’ question asks of us each of us - what or who are we placing our confidence and trust?

Are we placing our trust and confidence in the things of this world, that no matter how important they are to enable us to do work and flourish, will never have power over the pits of darkness and despair?

Or do we place our trust and hope in a God who speaks such a word over our lives and even this pandemic that life somehow emerges?

Dr. Melinda Quivik writes, "Jesus creates the ability to believe by causing death again and again to turn to life.”

Jesus is worthy of our trust and confidence.

God is able through God's own Son to do the impossible - the impossible sometimes looks like miracles, like dry bones taking on flesh, and sometimes, it looks like strangers and neighbors and community on Zoom calls, handcrafting masks at home, praying for each other across fences, and organizing brown bag lunches to serve those who are hungry. It looks like love in a season of pandemics and uncertainty.

I wonder what it looks like for you and your family right now. Why not share with me in the livestream chat or send me a note this week?

We still will weep and grieve with those who hover at death’s door, but Jesus’ power is such to unwrap our eyes to see the impossible - a new world, a new way of life, a new way of being in community.

A colleague shared an article with me this week that revealed that after the devastation of the Spanish Flu in 1918 that wiped out millions across the planet, the ranks of the religious clergy swelled as people, grappling with their fear and their loss of trust in life, went to seminary to study and seek answers to make sense of what all of this tragedy and loss could mean.

This never implies that the tragedy we experience is God’s plan. No! Rather, it suggests that out of these experiences we often see and know God in a new way. And as Jesus unwraps our eyes, we work together for a world where “there will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev. 21:4)

Do you believe this? Do we believe this?

(Close in Prayer)

O Mighty God,
We are so fearful and uncertain.
We have placed so much trust and confidence in temporary things.
Now, Lord, help us believe.
Help us believe even in times of sorrow that your life-giving power is at work.
Comfort the families who suffer now by sharing your tears.
And command us to come out of our hiding places
To live with courage and compassion,
To see in every moment an invitation to join in your dance from death to life.
In the name of the One we call Jesus, Messiah, Resurrection and Life,

(posted 4/1/20)

How were your eyes opened?

Scripture: John 9:1-41

In this past week, as we have continued to grapple with our life disrupted by COVID-19, as we have refreshed our social media foods and watched TV, there has been too much to digest.

So many questions. So many perspectives. So much information.

And mixed in, of course, are a lot of bad takes. A lot of bad ideas. A lot of bad information.

- We’ve seen images of young Spring Break partiers shrugging off their concerns over getting sick.
- We’ve seen fear and anxiety over this virus get placed on the shoulders of an entire group of people - Asian Americans or Chinese Americans.
- We’ve witnessed conflicting messages from those in charge or seen rumors spread in our inboxes about conspiracies.
- And there are even those who are hawking miracle cures to get rid of the coronavirus.

On one level, I know this is a confusing time. There is so much information coming at us, and there are reasons to ask questions of our news media, our leaders, and the things we hear. We are sorting through all of this, trying to figure out a sense of meaning. Why is this happening? Where is God in all of this? Or, as Robin Apparicio sent to me in an email this week, what are we supposed to learn from all of this?

And on the other level, there is a lot of plain ol’ goofy thinking out there.  Several months ago, I had a great conversation with the President of our church’s board, Ramona Crawford, where she told me that it is the job of those of us who are sometimes older or just more level-headed and wise to shut down “bad thinking” when we see it. It is a Christian act to do.

- When we see some young person shrugging off this pandemic as no big deal, we need to shut them down to save lives - even their life.
- When we witness someone hoarding toilet paper, eggs, cleaning supplies, or heck, even delicious Ledo pizza, we need to shut them down so that there is enough for those behind us in line.
- Especially, when we witness fellow Christians giving into narratives of scarcity and fear and hate, we need to shut that bad thinking down.

What if instead, when we feel those feelings and fear about to take hold, we asked Jesus instead?

Jesus knew how to shut down bad thinking.

In our scripture this morning, Jesus and his Disciples are in or around Jerusalem when they come upon a blind man who has been blind since birth.

Jesus’ disciples ask their rabbi, “Who sinned to cause this man to be blind - him or his parents?”

The disciples were working with a bad theology that they had likely picked up from teachers and leaders and family members around them as they had witnessed a world filled with suffering and struggle. The theology was based on a misreading of wisdom traditions in the Torah. Basically, this shallow way of understanding the world was that if you were successful, you must be righteous, because God always blesses the righteous. And if you are struggling or poor or sick, it’s because God is punishing you - because those who mess up and sin and do wrong are always punished by God.

And look, if the world was that simple, it would be so easy to vote for a President, right? It would be so easy to pick leaders and know which church to go and who to avoid. It would be so easy to judge good Christians from bad Christians.

So, the disciples see this blind man and think, he must be in this situation because he was really bad or his parents were really bad.

Jesus, however, shuts down their bad thinking. He says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

Let’s be careful - the second part of that is not suggesting that God makes people suffer so God can show off.

Rather, Jesus is reminding his disciples that God is glorified not when people are successful and at the top - but rather when lives are made whole. (May want to sit with this or repeat it.)

Jesus then takes some mud to make his point (pick up some mud) - places it over the man’s eyes, and then ironically, sends the man to wash himself in the Pool of Siloam. The pool itself in Aramaic means “sent”. The one who is sent by God commands others to go and be healed. Wow.

When the man does so, suddenly, he can see. He is healed. No longer will we have to spend his days begging to get by, no longer feeling like a burden for his family, no longer stepped over and avoided by busy people on their way to Costco. His life has begun again.

A peculiar thing happens. The people in the neighborhood don’t get it. They look at this now healed man and can’t believe their own eyes. Is this the same guy, the blind guy who used to be a beggar? Nah, must be fake news. Must be a hoax. This man’s own neighbors who have known him since birth cannot see him, cannot understand the good news right in front of them.

They ask him, “Then how were your eyes opened?”

And he says, “A man named Jesus.”

There are two themes I want to draw out for you today from this passage are this -

First, Jesus isn’t afraid of our bad questions or our bad theology or our bad way of thinking.

The disciples were unafraid to put their bad thinking out there when they saw this blind man, and Jesus didn’t hold back from correcting their understanding.

Sometimes, we are like the people saying “then how were your eyes opened?” How can this be? How does this work? Is it possible for God to move in a way we do not understand?

In this time of uncertainty and anxiety, we who follow Jesus are called to go back to the source to figure out how to navigate and be good neighbors in this time. I’m here to help you, but nothing beats opening up your Bible to read and reflect on these stories. Nothing beats taking your questions to God in prayer. Nothing beats asking “I wonder” questions like we heard in our awesome Worship & Wonder story.

An encounter with Jesus opens our eyes. An encounter with Jesus gives us a better understanding of how we are to operate and endure in a world where pandemics claim lives, especially of those who are vulnerable and not well. An encounter with Jesus opens our eyes to see that even those who are struggling around us deserve to be seen, not as failures or sinners, but as targets of God’s energy and love.

Maybe this time when we are working from home is a perfect time to ask Jesus some questions, even if we have a hunch they are some bad thinking. Maybe this season of Lent can be an opportunity to gain new understanding.

Next, God truly desires our wholeness.

Healing stories are so important. In our worship and wonder story, we heard a similar encounter with Jesus and blind Bartamaeus. In both of these passages, we understand that a central part of who Jesus was - his mission and ministry - was healing. He did not come to simply observe how bad things are and report back to God. Rather, he came to get his hands - literally - dirty.

In John 9, if you continue to read the story, you will find a lot of argument and disbelief over what Jesus did. The Pharisees come along and question the now healed man. They are certain that Jesus is a sinner, and in the same bad thinking that the disciples had, these Pharisees are certain that sinners are incapable of good. They tell the healed man, despite the good news he had experienced, “God does not listen to sinners.”

In whatever bad thinking they had, they could not see with their own eyes the very heart of God in display in front of them. And they could not see how far their own bad thinking had pushed them from God’ heart.

Jesus as God’s Beloved over and over again reveals who God loved - those who suffered, those who were waiting for ICU beds, those who silenced, those who are most vulnerable and afraid. God did not send Jesus to just tell them, “Poor thing, everything’s gonna be better soon.” Rather, Jesus came to continue God’s healing work in restoring a broken Creation and broken lives.

Why else would Jesus use mud in this beautiful healing encounter?

Jesus sought to witness to God’s vision for a restored Creation and restored humanity.

That we all might see and know the glory and wonder of our Creator.

For centuries, that meant for Christians, for followers of Jesus, to open their homes, their wallets, their gifts to start hospitals, care facilities, and support for those who were suffering from physical and mental and spiritual ailments. In this time, do we have courage enough to continue that work? Are we still called to it? Are we being sent to go and wash ourselves so that we might see and imagine a new world?

How can we live that out in the coming weeks?

How can we turn to Jesus to let him shut down our bad thinking and help us see anew?

How do we renew our call to live and work for a whole Creation and whole human lives?

I’d really like to hear what you are thinking as your discipleship response in this time - send me an email. Let’s talk.

My friend and colleague, the Rev. Karen Shoecraft-Robu, shared a story on her Facebook profile this past week that exemplified how she is working to open our eyes to God’s healing light.

One year, she and her family left their blue-lighted Christmas tree up well into February, even though they would occasionally get some flack for it. They lived out far in the country, and one night, a woman and her daughters were making their way out that way when they got stuck in mud. They got out and began to walk, looking for help. They passed by houses here and there, spread out in the country, but were afraid to knock. The lights were off.

Then the mom looked up and saw it - a blue glow from a Christmas tree shining in a window.

She told her daughters, “A Christmas tree in February! It must be a sign that this is a safe place to stop and ask to use the phone.”

Karen wrote, “This week, I put our blue-lighted Christmas tree back up in the front window as well as the hand carved nativity I purchased in Bethlehem this past January. They will remain up until we are through this crisis to remind myself and others that the light of God shines in the darkness and the darkness can not overcome it.”

Friends, this past week and the weeks ahead may feel like darkness, but we serve a Savior who came to shine a light bright and open our lives to a love and wholeness that will turn our lives around. How will we let our lights shine?

The how were your eyes opened?

A man named Jesus.


(posted 3/24/20)

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