Jesus teaches Nicodemus

Scripture: John 3:1-17

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

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

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

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

“How can this be?” Nicodemus asked.

10 “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? 11 Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. 12 I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? 13 No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man. 14 Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, 15 that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”

16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

The word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.


Picture this:

You’re in a classroom. Students filling the chairs all around you. 

The teacher at the front of the room – talking on and on…. until it stops. 

Oh no! The teacher is looking right at you. 

Your eyes connect…

And your name is called.

Silence fills the room. 

Heads and bodies shift to face you.

All eyes…. on you.


You blank. You do not know the answer. 

You flush red. Blood pounding through your body.

Your heart races. 

You know that normal amount of time has passed that you could wait. 

You have to say something.

You blurt out… a word, some word, not the right word. 

You can sense it. Disappointment all around. The bodies and eyes slowly move back up front. Just in time for everyone to see the teacher’s look of disappointment in you. 

* * *

This is a recurring dream for me — nightmare, I should say. 

Being in this particular moment. Heightened energy. My nerves and heart racing. 

Unable to come up with the right answer. The one the teacher expects. The one the whole room expects.

My heart goes out to Nicodemus in this story. In the moment when Jesus says to him:

“You are Israel’s teacher and do you not understand these things? 
“How can this surprise you?” Jesus says.

I imagine the look of pain in Nicodemus, acknowledging his failure, his wrong answer…. and Jesus’ disappointment in him. 

Nicodemus is a Jewish leader after all. People look to him for the answers. They follow him. He’s used to asking the right questions and giving the right answers.

It’s a good thing Jesus, the teacher, keeps talking after such a low blow. Going on to explain the right answer.

I imagine Nicodemus needed some time to recover. Time to pick his ego up off the floor. Dust it off a bit. 

* * *

What do we know about Nicodemus?

We know that Nicodemus is a wise and careful Jewish leader. 

He has heard about Jesus’ signs – healing people and performing miracles. Maybe he has even seen a few from the crowd himself…

And he decides to go meet Jesus. To see for himself if it’s possibly true… That this man is the Messiah.

I say Nicodemus is cautious and wise because he goes by night – when it’s dark – so that no one will follow him. Or worse, judge him. 

Nicodemus as a Pharisee, a Jewish leader, takes quite a risk to meet Jesus. Meanwhile the other Pharisee leaders are busy gossiping and conspiring against Jesus in the temple.

And when he meets Jesus… he barely gets a word out affirming Jesus’ connection to God when Jesus pushes him further than he expects to go.

Instead of confirming Nicodemus’ inquiry if he is the Messiah…

Jesus responds with bigger plans.

Jesus wants Nicodemus to see and understand the FULL picture of who God is and what God is doing for him. 

And Nicodemus fails to keep up.

Jesus says,

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

Nicodemus questions him:

“How can someone be born again? … when they are old?”

It doesn’t fit our world experience. This idea that we are born more than once.

But Jesus is pointing to birth in the spirit. What is offered to Nicodemus and to each of us through the triune God. 

I wonder if Nicodemus was an older leader in the church… wanting to get it right, but scared at the change it might entail. Perhaps wondering and confused as to if even he could be birthed anew. 

Its a lot to think about when Jesus goes on…

“Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.”

Flesh births flesh and spirit births spirit. 

Wind blows where it will.

Only those, only those, Jesus says, who are born again, birthed by the spirit can see the kingdom of God. 

It’s no wonder that Nicodemus stumbles in this theology. 

Nicodemus, a leader of the Jewish synagogue, knows about  God the father. “Abba.” Creator, God of Israel. 

And he knows his scriptures well enough to expect a Messiah. God born into the flesh. 

But he doesn’t know about the spirit. The Holy Spirit. He doesn’t quite understand how Jesus being here and about to be resurrected will have huge implications for his life. 

It will indeed make his life brand new. Different. Not the same as before.

* * *

The second to last verse – John 3:16 – is for most Christians the summary of the gospel.

16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

We memorize it and say it as the truth. 

But I’ll tell you, it’s become watered down. Most Christians just glaze over it without holding onto its great meaning and depth.

We have to pay attention a little more  – like Nicodemus – to what Jesus is saying to understand how God is taking root in our lives and hearts and rebirthing us. Making us new. 

Theologian George Stroup says this:

“In John’s gospel… being born from above or believing in Jesus has less to do with our mind as it does with our life and our heart.”

When we are truly born again of the spirit, we live completely new lives. Our personalities and lifestyles aren’t just tweaked by coming to church every once in a while or volunteering. 

What God has done and is doing for us in salvation is making us a completely new person.

Being born again is just that – a fresh start – a completely new life in which we are centered on Jesus Christ and enlivened by the Holy Spirit. We start over again and we intentionally live for God in our new life and not for ourselves. 

The gospel – our salvation – is not and cannot be a mental exercise. An attribution to a theological doctrine memorized in one verse. 

In order for the gospel to take root in us, to TRULY believe in Jesus – we have to live it out in our lives. In our actions. 

* * *

This week I heard a musician on the radio talk about his reason for writing a song. He shared that his teenage son was diagnosed with a rare kidney failure. In just 6 months his 16 year old lost half of his kidney function. 

The onset of the disease put his whole family in turmoil. The greatest questions of life came to the forefront. 

How will we spend our time?
What do we value?
What are we currently taking for granted?

Those questions helped his family see that they wanted to put all their time left toward being together, laughing, hugging, saying “I love you.” Those moments were what he was taking for granted…and they were the most important – of most value – to his life. 

The song he wrote is about taking time every day to show our love. To not take it for granted. To give a hug, or a smile. In each decision, in every day to ask whether it is worth your time and energy because there are so many things and people worth that precious time and energy.

This man’s story got me thinking about what life anew looks like.

What this rebirth Jesus talks of is really like….

It made me consider what the joy of new life in Christ looks like for me and why I wouldn’t do everything in my power to live into it today.

* * *

Living for Christ means worship. Not just once a week or once in a while, but worship every day. Giving thanks and praise to my creator. For my life. 

Living for Christ, life anew,  means caring for creation. For my neighbor. For my family. For myself. It means seeking to help those in need because Jesus says so.

Living for Christ, life anew, means seeing the kingdom of God. Looking for the ways the spirit is birthing new life. Expressions of joy and creativity. Within us. Around us.  

I see us reclaiming this new birth in baptism. 

In water and spirit, we are born from above and welcomed into the family of God. 

In baptism, we claim each other as God’s claims us and we open our eyes, our minds, our hearts, our ENTIRE LIVES to Christ.

We proclaim this biblical truth:

For God so loved the world, 
For God so loves US
that God gave us God’s very self. 
So that we would not be condemned, but saved through him.

Let us truly believe in the gospel by living our new lives found in Christ. Let us be born of the spirit and see the mystery of God’s kingdom with us now and forever. 



As four of us sat in a car last Sunday evening, looking for an escape from the harsh, bitter, piercing, San Francisco wind, I couldn’t help but think we had made a huge mistake. Holding worship outside in the park sounded like such a great idea. The sun would be shining, we would have a nice little picnic complete with cake, and we would be present in the community that surrounds us. What could possibly go wrong? While setting up the area, the wind began to pick up and we quickly discovered that everything we brought would need to be weighed down or we would have to chase it. Tables were flipping, balloons flying away, and our chairs decided to try and cross the street. After an incident with a dog that was very interested in the communion elements, we finally asked the question, should we just go back inside?

This week serves as a stark reminder that it is hard to go out. It is hard to leave the comfort of our sanctuaries. It is hard to leave the familiar to go to the unknown. Our original intent for gathering outside, in the community, this week was to emphasize our call to reach beyond our walls. God calls us out into the world to continue the ministry of Jesus. At Pentecost, the disciples were locked in an upper room, hidden, scared, trying to escape the harsh conditions they found themselves in. Jesus, risen from the grave, had been with them again, and left them again. And now they waited…again. The good news is that the story doesn’t end there. The disciples are filled with the Holy Spirit and emboldened to go out. Tongues of fire rest on their head and they go out preaching the good news of Jesus in the languages of everyone gathered. Their previous inhibitions are so absent that observers called them drunk! This is truly an event worth celebrating, but then we have days like Sunday, and we remember the 1st chapter in Acts. We remember that the work God calls us to is hard for so many reasons.

So we ended up back inside. I don’t like calling it the church, because I don’t believe the Church is a building. After all, the passage we read this week doesn’t mention breaking ground on the first sanctuary, and yet Pentecost is known as the birth of the Church. In this case; however, I think I can make an exception. I’ll say we ended up back in the church. I make this exception, because this week the church provided shelter. It provided a place where we could be in fellowship with one another. It provided a place where we could worship God together. It provided a place where we could be comforted. It provided a place where we could hear good news in our lives where there may be none. It provided a place where we could be filled with the Holy Spirit. This is what we do as the Church in the world. We ended up back in the Church because WE are the Church. May we find hope and courage knowing that the Holy Spirit will continue to strengthen and comfort us as we go out to be the Church in the world.

– Christopher Smith, Music Leader


Scripture: Acts 2:1-21

New International Version (NIV)

The Holy Spirit Comes at Pentecost

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

[ break for chaotic reading. John 3:16-17 in various languages ]

John 3:16-17
16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!”12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
Peter Addresses the Crowd

14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

“‘In the last days, God says,
    I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
    your young men will see visions,
    your old men will dream dreams.

Even on my servants, both men and women,
    I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
    and they will prophesy.

I will show wonders in the heavens above
    and signs on the earth below,
    blood and fire and billows of smoke.

The sun will be turned to darkness
    and the moon to blood
    before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.

And everyone who calls
    on the name of the Lord will be saved.’”

The word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.


Today is Pentecost! Happy Birthday to the Christian Church!

It’s on this day that we retell this wild story of loud wind and images of fire which symbolize for us the coming of the Holy Spirit into the world. 

The Holy Spirit is certainly wild – more wild and on the loose than even the risen Jesus who randomly showed up and ate with people. The Spirit comes with full force, filling the entire house and the people in it. Causing them to do surprising and weird things. Like speak in other languages. Like drawing together and forming a community movement – the church – that seeks to share the gospel story with the world for years and generations to come. 

There are a lot of similarities between the birthdays we celebrate each year and the birthday of the church.

We gather together, 

we celebrate, 

sometimes there are surprising things that happen… maybe not tongues of fire and violent wind… but there usually is a cake with small candles and fire and we use our own wind – our breath to blow them out. 

Sometimes birthdays cause us to be amazed…

sometimes perplexed and confused. It usually depends on the year we’re celebrating… 

* * *

If you think about it….birthdays are kind of a funny thing to celebrate…

We didn’t DO anything to deserve a party.

Really, if anyone should be celebrated on our birthdays, it should be our parents and loved ones… those who waited, uncomfortable, excited, maybe fearful of the birth that is about to take place. 

I’ve always wondered why birthdays seem to be future-oriented. 

How old are you going to be? What’s coming in the year ahead? How’s that anxiety or fear about getting older? Being considered old?

Perhaps birthdays should be an opportunity to go back to the date of our birth and remember the story of our birth with our parents and loved ones.

This scripture text certainly takes us back. 

Back to the chaotic day God breathed life into the church. We remember the wild events, the confusion, the utter excitement of this birth.

What was it like for the disciples? 

We remember from last Sunday that Jesus has ascended into heaven. And right before he does, he tells the disciples to STAY PUT. Stay in Jerusalem… for soon they will be baptized with the Holy Spirit and with fire! 

The disciples obey. The few verses in between the ascension text Acts 1 and todays text in Acts 2 tell us that the disciples used that time to replace Judas with Mathias as the twelfth disciple. They know what they are waiting for – some sort of miraculous event – some kind of baptism with fire. 

* * *

Pentecost, the birthday of the church, is a crazy day! Ask anyone outside the church – or even in the church – and they will say that this is crazy talk. There’s no way it could have happened. 

And yet, it did. This big, beautiful, magic-like moment is how God chose to send the Holy Spirit to the world, to shake us up and draw us together as one…. to BIRTH the church of Jesus Christ. 

My favorite question in this text is voiced by so many:

“What does this mean?”

What does it mean that we are brought together as one – as a church for Jesus Christ? 

What does it mean that we can hear and understand each other despite our differences?

What does it mean that this obscure presence – the Holy Spirit – is now among us?

Peter gives us some interpretation of these events. He looks back to the prophet Joel proclaiming that God has promised to pour out the Holy spirit on all people and ALL will prophesy.

God will show wonders in heaven and on earth, fire…. “and everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Peter is telling us through Joel, that the Holy Spirit is coming so that the gospel can move. Through the church. 

The Holy Spirit fills each one of us – the church of now – the living church – and enables us to prophesy, to speak the gospel, to communicate in a diversity of ways.

So that others can hear the saving power and grace of Jesus Christ. So others – nay ALL – will hear and believe. 

[enter Sam]

Today we celebrate a birthday. And we celebrate the church’s unity in diversity and chaos.  

At Pentecost, that diversity came through language. There were all sorts of folks from all across the region that for the first time in forever, finally understood God’s message together. 

That hadn’t happened before. 

Language is how we express ourselves. It’s how we understand the world around us. It’s how we make sense of pretty much everything. Language is a foundation for how we think, feel, and act. 

But today I want us to go a bit further than that. If language is how we express and interpret the world, then it goes far beyond just the words we use. 

Think about those moments you’ve had when you’ve said, “Man, that person just finally gets me.” That’s because someone is just speaking your language. You’re connecting. 

So start thinking about those moments. About those languages. There’s lot of them.

What do I mean by this?

I come from a pretty traditional, Midwest household. That’s a language I speak. I’m someone who’s fascinated by and makes a living exploring arts and culture. Another language. I design things so I often think about how people will interact with things. Another language. 

Everyone is multilingual. You might be able to speak from how it feels to be a woman in the 21st century. Or what it’s like to be Latino in California. Maybe you are a businessperson or a lawyer. Those are languages. For others, they might speak different spiritual languages because of their own tradition. Or maybe they have a specific life experience – they’ve moved a lot, they’ve been through a certain crisis, they’ve dealt with an illness. Those are all languages.

And there are countless others. 

All of these languages are valuable. And we can speak and hear God through all of them. 

Today we celebrate the church’s birthday. And today we are going to celebrate and decorate with balloons. Red balloons which symbolizes the fire and power of the Holy Spirit that birthed the church that day. 

As we pass out balloons, think of the languages you speak. Whatever they might be. Write them down with these markers on the balloon, symbolize that those languages have God’s power in them. 

Then I invite you to share your balloon with a neighbor and read their languages. If you’re so inclined, talk to each other about what that means. How have you connected with others with that language? 


As Dawn said… And as the prophet Joel said… And as Peter said… “All will prophesy.” That means everyone — EVERYONE — has the power to speak the gospel in whatever language is theirs. In business. In speaking to others through your own experience. In music.

You CAN and SHOULD speak to people. 

The language doesn’t matter. The message does. And that message is love.


We Have a Plan

Scripture: Acts 1:1-11

New International Version (NIV)

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them.11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

The word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.


Today is the day we observe Jesus’ ascension. The day he ascended back into heaven. We confess in the Apostles Creed:

“Jesus rose from the dead ….AND he ASCENDED into heaven.” 

This particular text – Acts 1 – tells us where we are in the story. In God’s story.

The author of Acts is the same author of the gospel of Luke. Thus, he begins by addressing Theophilus and reminding him of what he wrote about in the gospel of Thomas:

Gospel Story

Birth: God breaks into the world in the form of a baby. 

Ministry: Jesus teaches, works miracles, draws people to himself, heals, loves.

Death: Jesus is accused, betrayed, and killed as a criminal. 

Resurrection Jesus’ is raised from the dead and into new life. 

Appearances: In his risen form he appears and eats with his followers, revealing the truth of his resurrection to them.

Ascension: And now, on this day at the ascension, Jesus, in risen form, “is taken up” into heaven. This concludes the visits of the risen Christ. He is now in Heaven…not wandering around, showing up, convincing us that he is indeed alive. He is going back to heaven.

God’s verb in this passage is “to be taken up.” Jesus is taken up to heaven. It’s a passive verb “To be taken up” and we know that it is Abba, God in heaven in action, doing the taking. The Greek verb “to be taken up” can also be translated “to receive up.” Jesus is taken up to be received by God.

Jesus knows that when people leave, we get anxious. So, he gives us the plan. 

“Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

Of course he doesn’t give us a detailed timeline… but he does tell them what to look for. What to expect as we wait. 

That’s our verb – to wait. While Jesus is taken up… we are to wait. 

Waiting is not my favorite thing to do. And by spending time in airports or traffic or in a line for a cup of coffee… I realize it’s not anyone’s favorite thing to do. 

Waiting feels like wasted time. 

Time we could spend doing something productive.

Making change.

Or at least having a few extra minutes of time at home to relax. 

So why then does Jesus tell us to WAIT? In Jerusalem, away from our homes, our families, our work. 

Why would we wait? 

Why does Jesus want us to wait?

Jesus tells us to wait for the Holy Spirit. To wait for something that is about to happen in Jerusalem where we will be baptized. Some sort of baptism, not with water, but with the power of the Holy Spirit. And the entertainment factor alone of that promise is enough to peak our interest. To wait around with these strangers we’ve traveled with for a little longer and see what Jesus is talking about. 

I wonder if people went to sleep after the ascension…

Or if they just waited up… looking for something to happen… like some of us do on New Year’s Eve. Or the night an election is announced. 

We wait with great anticipation. Ready for things to get started. Maybe some of us fearful of what it will be… or what it will mean..

We’re given a few more verbs while we wait:

– stay 

– watch

– gather together

– witness

I like that Jesus tells us to gather together. It makes waiting a little more doable when we know we’re not alone. 

This last week I was at a conference with a few friends of mine who are fellow pastors. I was the one with the rental car and so I shuttled people around from one event to the next. 

My colleagues learned pretty quickly that I don’t like to wait. 

At one point we had finished one seminar and had planned to meet at the car at 2:30 to travel to the next place together. One of my friend’s sessions ran late and by 2:38 I was getting antsy, starting the car and ready to start circling the block. 

My buddy was in the passenger seat and he just starting laughing. “You really are impatient! It’s 2:38. Chill!”

He said, “If you start circling in this traffic, what good will it do? She’ll come here looking for you and you won’t be here. You’ll be putting yourself in more traffic for no reason.” 

“Be patient. Wait a little longer. It’s better this way.”

Of course he was right. A few minutes later, she hopped in the car apologetically and we were on our way. 

It can really help to have a friend beside you reminding you of the plan. Reminding you that your job right now is to wait. That’s your verb. That’s all you need to do, Jesus says. Wait and watch for what is next. 

* * *

Though the early followers got a plan… they were definitely confused by it. 

They couldn’t understanding WHY they couldn’t go with him. Why is Jesus being “taken up” alone? Shouldn’t we, adopted as God’s children through him, get to go, too?

They also couldn’t understand WHY he was leaving when the kingdom of Israel STILL has not been restored?

Wasn’t that why we needed a Messiah? To restore the kingdom of Israel?

To reestablish peace and justice and love as the values of our society instead of empire?

And as far as we can see, that has not happened. The world is still a mess. The empire still has power. Violence and execution are still daily news. 

WHEN will the Kingdom of Israel be restored?

Why Are you being taken from us? When God’s work is clearly not finished?

There’s a song in the musical Godspell that is really moving. Jesus has told the disciples the plan. He is going to die and be raised and this one follower begins to sing this song:

“Where are you going? 

Where are you going? 

Can you take me with you? 

For my hand is cold and needs warmth. 

Where are you going?”

The emotions of the song open up for us the depth of this moment. The confusion, the sadness, the fear and realized pain of abandonment. 

Jesus tries so hard to tell us the plan, to help us be patient in our waiting and trusting with our future. He tries so many times to tell us the whole story…and we still are stuck with the questions that affect us –

Where are you going? 

Can we go with you?

Is it time yet?

The question of where has always piqued interest for people inside and outside of the church.

Where exactly is Jesus going? Where is God “taking him up to?”

My question for us to consider today is this one: What is heaven? Where do you think Jesus ascended to?

  • – A place with no evil or heartbreak or violence. A place of ultimate peace.
  • – Where my scars on earth will be gone
  • – Customized for each person’s personality. Extroverts get to be at a party with all their friends. Introverts get alone time. 
  • – I like the way it’s portrayed in a movie where we all get a lawyer and go before a judge to see if our overall life was faithful. Specifically to replay parts of our life where we acted out of trust and courage and the parts where we acted out of fear. 
I heard author Diana Butler-Bass speak this last week at the Festival of Homiletics about heaven. She’s writing a new book called Grounded due to release this Fall and in it, she claims that the hierarchical understanding of salvation no longer makes sense in our 21st century context. 

This idea that heaven is above us, earth is here and hell is below us was shattered in the World Wars with the darkness of the Holocaust. 

All of a sudden during the war, we didn’t need the images of lakes of fire in our scriptures to imagine Hell and use fear to gain salvation. 

Now, we just turn on the daily news. Our minds filled with images of destruction. Hell is here. 

So, what does that mean for Heaven? She claims that we can get glimpses of Heaven here as well. Glimpses of the kingdom being revealed… being made new. 

As we focus on our verbs:



draw together


We may catch glimpses of the kingdom being renewed or of God’s very self with us through the Holy Spirit. 

* * *

We could spend all day pondering this question… Where is heaven?

But we must be careful not to miss the good news. 

The GOOD NEWS is that “taken up into heaven” means that Jesus was received by God. Reunited with God.

We, like the disciples, might be sad or confused because we’ve gotten used to God being here. With us. God Emmanuel. 

But, Jesus doesn’t really belong here… in human form on Earth. He belongs with God, our Creator, his “Abba.” We just got to borrow Jesus for a short time so that we ourselves could be redeemed. 

It is GOOD NEWS that Jesus is taken up into heaven. 

Because Jesus is God. Comes from God. Must return to God. 

And it’s good news that Jesus isn’t done with us yet. There’s a plan.

We wait and watch and draw together because God is not done with us or redeeming the whole world yet. We must wait and watch for what is next.

The GOOD NEWS is that we don’t have to think of the earthly realm and the heavenly realm as completely separate non-permeable boundaries. 

Jesus breaks those boundaries open. The first to travel from God (heaven) to us (earth) back to God. And he paves the way for us… to be forever connected and reunited with God. To trace glimpses of heaven among the glimpses of hell. 

* * *

At the end of our story today, the two men (maybe angels, maybe bystanders) say, “Why do you stand here looking into the sky?”

…. Don’t you know Jesus can cross the barrier? Don’t you know this same Jesus going to heaven will come back?

Since the ascension and all Jesus has done for us, we do not have to fear what is next. We don’t have to get anxious or remain sad or confused.

For we know that Jesus is not yet done with us.

We know that Jesus is preparing our place with him.

We know that Jesus has already crossed our perceived barriers between heaven, earth and hell and invites us to do the same…

Next week is Pentecost – the birthday of the Christian church… when we remember that the Holy Spirit does come, just as Jesus said, and the Holy Spirit fills the followers with the breath of God. Baptizing them with fire to be Christ’s witnesses and live out the story – God’s story – in this world.

But this week….we WAIT



and we WITNESS what God is about to do. 

Because Jesus has told us the plan.

And for this, we give thanks.

Salt and Light

Scripture: Matthew 5:13-16

Jesus says,
13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.

14 “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.


On Instagram, Madison Holleran’s life looked ideal:
Star athlete,
bright student,
beloved friend.

But these photos hid the reality of someone struggling to go on.

Madison was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania when she chose to end her life.

She had always been a high achiever – succeeding in school and in sports. Her family and high school community were used to seeing her name in the newspaper – a beautiful photo with stats of how many goals she had scored or track awards she took.

To the outside world, it appeared that she could do no wrong. She succeeded in everything that she did.

But on the inside, she was crumbling to pieces.

On January 17, the last day of her life, her dad called her and asked if she had found a therapist at school. She said, “Not yet.” As her biggest supporter and close father, he knew she struggled with perfectionism and finding happiness in herself. He was proud, but worried, too.

When news spread of Madison’s death, her family, friends and sports community rallied together – wishing they could breathe her back to life, to somehow communicate to her that they loved her simply for being Madison, not because of her achievements, or looks, or success.

In reflection on the disconnect Madison experienced between her online image and her inside one, five of Madison’s friends decided together that they would begin to share their unfiltered lives online.

“Intentionally, they peeled away the filters (literally and metaphorically) from their social media accounts to disclose their true feelings during shared moments in their lives.”
 Source – (

They use the hashtag #LifeUnfiltered with the message – “It’s ok to not be ok. It’s ok to let people know that you’re not ok.”

#LifeUnfiltered is an invitation to be more real in the image we portray online.

It’s an invitation to be vulnerable with our insecurities, failures and fears and find support in others.

It’s an invitation to find peace in who we really are instead of the image we feel like we have to create to fit in…

John Steinbeck once said, “and now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.”

Now that you don’t have to be perfect…

You can be good…

You can be who God intended you to be.

* * *

Today’s scripture passage is so important because Jesus tells us who are to be. He gives us our identity.

Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth.”

“You are the light of the world.”

What does he mean?

You are the salt of the earth.

I’m going to pass around salt and I invite you take a piece. Hold it in your hand. Consider it.

…..Salt is a catalyst for change.

We use salt to enhance or change the flavor of our food. We put it on all sorts of things – vegetables, fruits, meats, chocolates. And the salt changes the flavor of the food.

I invite you to put the piece of salt in your mouth. Feel it dissolve. Taste how it changes the flavor of your mouth.

Consider the change one granule of salt has on your mouth.
The change is noticeable. It fills your whole mouth!

Salt is an important resource to us.

We use salt to preserve foods.
It creates a hostile environment for certain microorganisms, keeping them from spoiling our food.

We also use salt to change the substance of our food.
—-My favorite example is the use of rock salt to create ice cream.

Salt also has played an important role in our history by being a sort of currency.  The word “salary” was derived from the Latin term “salarium” which was the name for a soldier’s pay in the army of ancient Rome. The pay included a large ration of salt, which was a spice of high value and also a medium for exchange; thus the origin of such expressions as “salt of the earth” and “worth your salt.” 
Source –

So what is Jesus trying to tell us by saying WE ARE the salt of the earth?

(long pause)

He’s saying that we are good. (pause)

Theologian Dietrich Boenhoeffer points out:

Jesus doesn’t tell us that we WILL be salt or that we CAN be salt.

But that we ARE salt. Right now, in your very being: “You are the salt of the earth.”

Jesus is telling us that we are good. Simply because we are of God. We are created by God… we have all the goodness we need to change the world around us.

Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth” and he’s saying that you are worth something. You’re worth a lot!  To God, to yourself, to the world.

Not by anything that you are doing or becoming, but because of who you are.

* * *

Jesus says, You are the light of the world.

Again, we are a catalyst for change. Light changes things. Makes them better.

If we think of a completely dark room, and then one candle lit….we are aware of just how much change one flame can have.

Light gives us vision. It allows us to see things that we otherwise could not see.
It gives things color.

Light is also a kind of energy.
Light allows vegetation to grow.
Light can be captured as solar power for electricity.

Light is an energy, a power, a catalyst for change and growth.

Later in the gospel of John Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” Christ’s life and ministry among us brought us out of darkness and into a path of light. The light that provides warmth and direction and comfort.

So the fact that Jesus is including US in this identity is significant. Jesus is the light of the world. And we, too, are the light of the world. We, as disciples of Christ, have the light of Christ within us…. a light that can change the world.

* * *

These identities sound pretty good….

They are given to us as our identity in Christ and we don’t have to DO anything to be them.

But… there is something at risk.

Jesus goes on and says that we can LOSE our saltiness. If we lose sight of who we are.

If we put our light under a bowl instead of on a stand… our light will go out.

If we lose our identity –

not only are WE no longer good, but we no longer have the ability to add flavor and light to the world around us.

* * *

Jesus is making an important point for us that we have to accept our identity as salt, as light, so that our lives and discipleship will benefit the world around us.

We have to accept our identity, our goodness, and through it allow God to create change through us. 

We are the catalyst, God is the movement. It seems straightforward, but the implications are huge.

When we truly claim our identity in Christ… Salt. Light. We can not hide who we are. We cannot seek to become something other than ourselves.

Like Madison, the star athlete, successful student – we have to find our identity and our worth in our being. In our one identity as people of God and NOT in the identities uplifted by our culture. Not in other people’s perception of us or of who we should be or of who we think we need to become.

Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth.”

So, be the salt of the earth. Be good.

Be the light of the world. Don’t hide true self, but bring that to the forefront… to your online image… so that Christ’s light may shine through you.

* * *

There’s a classic movie, often played around Christmas time, called It’s a Wonderful Life

In it, there’s a main character George Bailey, a business man who has given up his dreams time and time again to help others. On Christmas Eve, George learns that a deal has turned sour and that there will be a warrant out for his arrest. In despair, he considers the worth of his life. 

An angel in the form of a man named Clarence distracts him by drowning in the river. George saves him and Clarence takes the opportunity to show him the impact his life has had on particular people and his town.  He shows George what life would be like for the town and all the people George loves had he not been born.

His brother, his uncle, his wife, the poor in his town – all would have had negative experiences, had it not been for the one life of George Bailey. The one light of George Bailey.

The movie puts into perspective for us what really matters. It’s not the exquisite dreams of stardom and fame. It’s not the perfect life portrayed in instagram feeds.

It’s the goodness we share in our very existence. The light Christ shines through us simply in our being.

* * *

The challenge of discipleship today is getting back to our identity. Pushing away the expectations of the world, of other people, of ourselves…. to find the expectation of Christ.

To accept and simply live our identity.

To BE THE salt of the earth.
The Light of the world.

This identity will shape our daily lives and relationships.

And our light will shine. Our light will allow others to see the good deeds of God. Our light will give glory to God.

So, let your light shine. Stay salty. Allow the goodness God created in you to change the world.


The Good Shepherd

Scripture:  John 10:11-18

New International Version

11 “I amO)” data-cr=”#cen-NIV-26493O” style=””> The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away.13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

14 “I am the good shepherd;S)” data-cr=”#cen-NIV-26496S” style=””> and my sheep know me– 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the FatherU)” data-cr=”#cen-NIV-26497U” style=””> 16 I have other sheepW)” data-cr=”#cen-NIV-26498W” style=””> and one shepherd.17 The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord.


What are you associations with the word “shepherd?” What comes to mind?

  • our Christmas pageant
  • one person in an expansive landscape
  • leading us to abundance to be fed
  • protector
  • guide

We have to reach a bit to a different context where more shepherds exist to learn about a shepherd. 

I want to show you a video of a pen of sheep in Harestua, Norway. It’s time for the sheep to be fed and there is a specific call the shepherd uses to draw them near. In the video, a tour group has come to see the sheep and they want to test the theory that sheep only obey their master (shepherd)’s voice. Let’s watch what happens:

As we see, the sheep won’t just come for anyone. They KNOW the voice and call of their shepherd and they respond only to him/her.

I learned this week that sheep will not go anywhere that their trusted shepherd does not first go to show them everything is ok. “Sheep seem to consider their shepherds part of the family and the relationship that grows up between the two is quite exclusive.” As we saw in the video, “they often develop a language of their own that outsiders are not privy to.”

They do so because it’s a dangerous world for sheep. There are all sorts of predators that go after them. Wolves, Bears, Lions. Thieves and bandits even that will try to separate and steal them. 

In the world of danger, they look to one trusted leader – the shepherd – to help them navigate the world. 

Shepherds are rich symbols in scripture. 

They are tasked with many things:

  • feeding their sheep 
  • strengthening the weak
  • healing the sick
  • binding up the injured
  • seeking out the lost
  • bringing back those who have strayed

In our passage today, Jesus identifies himself as a shepherd. — though not just any shepherd. He repeats that he is the GOOD Shepherd.

In greek, the word used here is “kalos.” Jesus is the kalos shepherd. 

This word, most often translated “good,” is frequently understood by Americans as the opposite of “bad.” While not inaccurate, kalos means “good” more in the sense of model. The very best. Jesus models what it is to be a good shepherd.

In verse 11 Jesus tells us what it means to be a kalos shepherd. He says that the kalos shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

And in verse 14 Jesus tells us that the kalos shepherd knows his sheep and they know him. Thus, kalos shepherding means a deep bond between shepherd and sheep. 

The shepherd will protect their sheep at any cost.

* * *

There’s a story in the Old Testament (1 Samuel 17: 34 -35) when King David is a young boy. The Israelites are under attack by a Philistine giant and David wants a chance to fight the giant and to protect his people. 

Saul is concerned for David’s well-being since he is “just a boy.” But David says, “Your servant [David] used to keep sheep for his father. Whenever a lion or bear came and took a lamb from the flock I went after it and struck it down rescuing the lamb from its mouth.”

What an image…. a young boy…. striking down a lion… a bear… in order to rescue one lamb from it’s mouth… 

This is the image Jesus creates for us in describing himself as the good shepherd. He is willing to go to any length, to sacrifice himself, to save us….. from the mouth of danger. 

* * *

Jesus compares the good shepherd to the hired hand. The core difference he points out is that the good shepherd OWNS the sheep and thus will do anything to protect them. Whereas the hired hand, sensing danger, will run away in order to save himself. 

There are hired hands out there who will leave the sheep. Let them be attacked, scattered and eaten… while they run away.

I wonder what it feels like to be a sheep in THAT sheep pen. Under the care of a hired hand. Unable to trust your leader because they just might abandon you… when facing danger. 

….How could you live? 

In that kind of fear….?

* * *

The news was hard to consume this week. 

Everywhere we looked – 

New York Times
USA Today


My eyes flashed over violent images of fire, destruction, police and rioters throwing rocks at each other.

I found myself thinking about how we are led by hired hands. 
Who often do not have vested interest in each other’s well-being. 

We ourselves are sometimes hired hands. People given voice and power who instead of jumping to action, look away so we ourselves won’t be harmed.

I found myself searching for the shepherd. The GOOD shepherd. To go after the sheep that are lost. The sheep being carried away in the mouth of the wolf. 

I found myself like a sheep, searching desperately for my shepherd. In fear, sadness, looking for my savior… to come… and to save them.

* * *

Then on top of images from Baltimore, there were more images  of rubble in Nepal. Thousands of people brutally wounded in immediate need of medical attention.

The flock that is scattered. Injured. Destroyed.

I found myself searching like a sheep for my shepherd… to go after the other sheep in danger. To save them from the predator’s mouth…

…and bring them back into the flock. 

…bind up the injured.

…strengthen the week.

…carry and comfort them.

I found myself wondering if our brothers and sisters who are experiencing such violence and pain BELIEVE there’s a good shepherd anymore. 

Can they believe that a good shepherd exists who knows them? 
who loves them?
who has the power to save them?

* * *

The prophets Zechariah, Ezekiel and Isaiah warn that some of us are sheep led by hired hands… who do not care about our well-being. Who will not lay down their lives for ours… 

And to these sheep, God speaks through the prophet:

“I became the shepherd of the flock doomed to slaughter.”

Throughout the Old Testament scriptures and in our text today through Jesus, God promises to seek out the sheep doomed to slaughter – and to be THEIR shepherd. 

Jesus came into this world – to know us – to feel our pain – and to lay down his own life in order to rescue us.

* * *

There is a video circulating online of a baby being rescued from the rubble after a bombing in Syria. 

The baby in this video was trapped for some 20 hours and is now alive and well. 

The footage of this community rescuing the baby trapped under rubble is a modern example of what Jesus does for us.

Jesus comes into the danger, digging away, Not giving up… to rescue us out of the rubble.

* * *

Jesus is the good shepherd. Our shepherd. 

He knows us and we know him. 

He has laid down his life for us – and continues to do so – saving our lives out of love. 

Friends, this bond Christ shares with us is deep. Like the sheep to their shepherd, it is built on intimate trust and knowledge. 

It’s a bond that cannot be broken. Jesus, Our Good Shepherd, will not break that bond. 

Thanks be to God. 


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