Tag Archives: lent

Looking for Jesus in the wrong places

John 12:20-33

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, …And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die. (Read the whole passage)

This is our final step along the way in our wilderness journey. We have heard the story of Lazarus, watched as Peter objected to Jesus watching the disciples feet, and then we spent two weeks with Jesus on trial. Today, we hear again a story from Holy Week, but we are not so deep into the story this time. We preview what is coming next Sunday on Palm Sunday. Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem. They are there for the passover festival. They are there on Sunday, the first day of the week, first day of Holy Week. This piece of John’s gospel takes place just after Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey. It should really be told next Sunday, sometime in the afternoon. But we hear it today, on the last Sunday of Lent, for a reason.

It begins with Greeks. Greek who are from elsewhere. Jews who speak greek because they live in greek lands, far from Jerusalem. And they have come for passover, they have come to have their sins forgiven, they have come to see the great spectacle of Jerusalem at festival time. But the way these greeks approach Philip suggest they are looking for something more, something that is more than entertainment or show.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus”.

Sir they say to a lowly fisherman. Sir they say a pilgrims wealthy enough to travel far just for a festival.

We wish they say. We hope. We long. We Yearn. We desire. We need. They express their want to see Jesus as wishing. Wishing which implies a need for change, a hope for something different.

Sir, we wish to see Jesus. They want to see and know Jesus. The man who’s name means God Saves. The man who has been healing people, exorcizing unclean spirits, who has been teaching and preaching. The man who raised someone from the dead in Lazarus.

The greeks have come looking for something, someone. And maybe they don’t know what or why or who. But Jesus might fit the bill, fit their need for something deeper, something mysterious, something bigger than themselves.

The polite request by the Greeks to see Jesus is a feeling we know well. We too long for something more. For things to be different. We hope that our lives could be other than the way they are.

As human beings, we have this longing deep within us. We want to know that there is something bigger than us out there and we want to know where we fit in the cosmic order. Churches try all the time to bring this sense of “more” to worshippers.

Some churches search for that sense of euphoria, that spiritual high. Praise songs and hand raising, long sincere prayers and wonderful fellowship.

Others try to bring people closer to God by serving others. Soup kitchens and food banks, giving money to far way countries and for starving orphans.

And still other churches try to show the mystery and grandness of God. With big stone cathedrals, powerful organ music and reverent liturgy.

And indeed all are ways in which God is experienced. We see God in these places.

But that desire to see God also expresses itself in other ways. We look for the divine in buying and consuming things. We look to make ourselves secure and safe from the the things that would harm us or that make us fearful. We seek out power and control over our world and others.

We look for God in all the wrong places. We look to be like God. We look to be God in God’s place. And we do it because of original sin, of that desire within us to ourselves first.

When the Greeks and Philip and Andrew finally get to Jesus, he doesn’t answer their question in a way that any of them expect. He doesn’t offer himself to the greeks, he doesn’t say, “See I am here!”.

As we pass through this final week of Lent, we have been prepared for what is to come. Jesus has gone into the wilderness, Jesus brought Lazarus back from the dead, he has reminded Peter that there is no share in him unless Jesus washes us clean, Jesus has stood firm in the truth while Peter denied him, and Jesus has confronted the powers of the world in Pilate and in death. Now, after 4 weeks of preparation, four weeks of wilderness, four weeks of having our failing and faults revealed, we are finally ready to ask that question that the greeks ask, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus”.

And Jesus points us to a time and place. “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” It takes a while, but Jesus does answer our longing, our hope, our desire for something different, something bigger than ourselves. But it is not at all in the way we expect. We are longing and hoping for a glimpse of the divine, to see past the veil. We want to see the world as it should be, as we would like it to be. We want the spiritual high, the feeling of gratification after helping someone, the reverence of divine mystery. And instead Jesus gives us a cross. A cross where we will see God.

Imagine if someone came here looking for a church home, looking for some truth bigger than themselves, looking for a place to belong, a place to be fed, a place to meet God, a place to see Jesus. And instead of doing all the things we normally do when a visitor comes seeming interested in us, like giving them a newsletter or a mailbox or pointing them to the pew we know isn’t unofficially saved by a regular… Imagine if we instead simply pointed to the cross.

Imagine if someone said to us,

“We wish to see Jesus.”

And we just turned and pointed at the cross on the wall.

It is absurd.

The cross is an absurd place for God to be found.

Yet the cross is the place where God is revealed.

Yet the cross is the place where Jesus reveals God to the world.

Yet the cross is the place where God is visible to us in plain sight.

And the cross, the place of suffering, humiliation and death is the very place where God gathers all people to Godself.

The cross is the place where we see Jesus.

In just less than two weeks, on Good Friday, the glory of God will be revealed on a cross and no matter what we are looking for, no matter the places the we search, churches, shopping malls, schools, places of work, places of power, places of escape. And on the cross God is making room for all of us beneath it arms. God is gathering us all up to show us that in the least likely of places, God is revealed.

And we will see Jesus. We will see Jesus in all his glory. We will see God changing the world. We will see God changing us.


All we have is a man hanging on a tree

John 18:28-40

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” (Read the whole passage)

It has been quite the journey through the lenten wilderness. We began not in the wilderness of temptation, but the wilderness of grief, loss and death with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. And then we skipped forward to Maundy Thursday with Peter as objected to Jesus’ washing of his feet. Last week, we saw the parallel stories of Peter and Jesus as each was put on trial – where Jesus stood firmly rooted in the face of the moving target of truth, and Peter denied his master and teacher to save his own skin.

These stories have not been the usual stories of Lent – the Narrative Lectionary that we are exploring this winter is taking us through a different lenten wilderness than normal. And today we skip ahead again to that chaotic time between the Last Supper and Crucifixion as Jesus is arrested, tried and sentenced to death.

Today, we go along with Jesus to see Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea. The crowds and temple authorities demand that Jesus be put to death for the crime of heresy. And the interaction that follows is one we will hear again on Good Friday… as part of the passion. We know where this is heading, each trial, each set of questions marches Jesus and us forward to the cross.

But it is not Good Friday today, we are still in Lent. There are still a few weeks left in our lenten journey. So we hear this story not as just one step on the way to the cross, but rather with lenten ears listening out in the revealing wilderness.

As Pilate and Jesus’ speak today, their exchange is unusual. Unusual in the sense that Pilate’s approach and reaction to Jesus is unlike what has come before. From the moment that Jesus processed into Jerusalem on a donkey, to his arrest and questioning before the temple authorities, the anger and rage against him builds. The crowds and mobs are out for blood, and the temple authorities are stoking the rage in order to rid themselves of a threat to their power.

So when Jesus finally ends up before Pilate, it is the top of the food chain. There is no one in Judea with more power than Pilate. Pilate might answer to Caesar, but Caesar is far away in Rome.

Knowing his power, Pilate seems nothing more than mildly curious about Jesus, if not annoyed by having to deal with someone the local religious zealots call a heretic. Pilate tries to figure out who Jesus is,

“Are you the King of the Jews?”

Not a question of religious doctrine, but a question of political power. Pilate’s concern is whether or not Jesus might represent a threat to peace in Judea. But Jesus turns the question back on Pilate and steers the conversation back to matters of doctrine and faith. Jesus states he is has come into the world to be a king but not an earthly king, and not king of an earthly Kingdom.

Certainly listening to Jesus, Pilate must have wondered why he had been woken from sleep to deal with this guy. Pilate could care less about Jewish religious beliefs, yet here he is dealing with some zealot who claims to be the King of the heavenly kingdom of truth. Pilate probably thought that Jesus was nuts.

“What is truth?” he asks.

Pilate, a good son of the empire, would have been schooled in greek philosophy. He would have believed that truth is not something found in flesh and blood, in the abstract unknowable things of the universe.

But Pilate isn’t debating philosophy. He is dismissing Jesus.

Pilate isn’t asking what truth is, but pointing out Jesus’ predicament,

“What does the truth really matter here buddy, you are about to die.”

It is often the case that we can see ourselves in the people around Jesus. Whether it is disciples who sometimes struggle to get it, people who are in need of healing and reconciliation encountering Jesus, or religious folk who get upset with Jesus as he upsets our ways to doing things.

But Pilate’s apathy and dismissal of Jesus is probably not something we easily see ourselves in. Yet, there is something familiar about it.

As Pilate seems to be asking Jesus, “Why does any of this matter, what good will it be to you when you are dead?” we know what it is like to be asked that question.

As 21st Century Christians, our world has been pushing back on us with that question for a while now. And just as Jesus appeared like a nut to Pilate, Christians too have begun to seem a bit nutty to a lot of the world.

Whether it is the culture wars over morality questions that the rest of the world seems to have settled, like gender roles, abortion, same-sex marriage and so on. Or whether it is our propensity over the past decades to condemn and judge non-believers. Or whether it is how many Christians these days have abandoned all those strongly held beliefs in order to cozy up to power…

And while we as Lutherans night not identify with that kind of Christianity, our credibility is equally challenged when it comes to the core parts of our faith, like Jesus being God, and the resurrection and salvation.

The world is saying just as much to us as any Christian group, “Why does any of that stuff matter, what good is it to you when you are dying?”

It is easy for us to wonder what our role in the world is anymore. It is easy for us to feel as though this faith of ours has no impact, that we are gathering together in order to proclaim things that no one cares about.

And all of a sudden, this lenten wilderness journey of ours, the one that strips back all the covers that hide our flaws and failings finally reveals to us our own questioning, our own doubts, our own apathy. If the world says that our message, our truth doesn’t matter because we are dying… maybe all the trouble we go to believing this stuff isn’t worth it. Maybe Pilate is right.

Pilate tries to send Jesus away, to make him disappear, to suggest that those overly religious jews should stop caring about this guy who claims to be king of a heavenly kingdom.

But mobs and religious authorities won’t allow it…. they want blood. And they will have it.

Jesus doesn’t respond to Pilate’s question, but they both know that this situation is leading towards one end.

Jesus’ silence is an answer to Pilate’s dismissive comment,

“What does this truth matter if you are going to die.”

It is as if Jesus is saying,

“The truth matters precisely because I am going to die.”

In fact, it is what Jesus has been saying all along.

He is going to die for the truth.

And Jesus is going to die because everything is going to die.
Pilate, the mobs, the disciples.
The Jews, the Romans.
All humanity and all creation.
All of it is going to die.

The truth matters precisely because Jesus is on the way to the cross.

The truth of God’s love and mercy and grace given to dying people, given to a dying creation.

The power of death that the mobs and temple authorities cry out for.
The power of death that Pilate holds over Jesus’ head.
The power to kill that is humanity’s greatest power… isn’t really power at all.
The power to kill isn’t truly power when we are all dying anyways.

But God’s mercy.
But God’s forgiveness.
But God’s love.
But God’s life.

That is the truth that matters.

Because, as Martin Luther said, all we truly have is a man hanging on a tree.

Because the only thing that means something to the power of death, is the new life that God brings into the world.

So what is truth, even when we are dying?
It is truth of empty tombs and terrified women.
It is the truth of fearful disciples meeting their master behind locked doors.
It is the truth of lost and lonely followers recognizing the risen One in the breaking of the bread.

And on the days when we almost might agree with Pilate, when we feel like giving up to a world that doesn’t think we matter.

Jesus reminds us that the church is dying indeed.
And that we are dying, and the world is dying.

But Jesus reminds us of the only truth that matters,
The only truth that means anything to a dying world,
The truth revealed to us in the Lenten wilderness.
The truth of God’s mercy and absolution given to sinners like us.
The truth of God’s Word of life proclaimed to the walking dead like us.
The truth of Christ’s body given to a dying a church like us.

What is truth?

Christ crucified and dead with us, with all of creation.
And Christ risen and alive with us, making all creation new.

Lenten Wilderness and the moving target of truth

John 18:12-27

19 Then the high priest questioned Jesus about his disciples and about his teaching. 20 Jesus answered, “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret. 21 Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.” 22 When he had said this, one of the police standing nearby struck Jesus on the face, saying, “Is that how you answer the high priest?” 23 Jesus answered, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” (Read the whole passage)

We are coming to the half way point of our Lenten pilgrimage. We entered into the wilderness two weeks ago, and we will have two more weeks to go after this. But this year, as we have been using the Narrative Lectionary and the Gospel of John, we have been hearing different stories than the usual ones. We began in the wilderness of grief and loss with the story of Lazarus. We then jumped forward to a moment familiar to us in Holy Week, Jesus washing the disciples feet. This week, we hear a story of Peter and Jesus again… yet not as they interact with one another, but as they are contrasted.

As we continue our wilderness journey today, we are thrown forward again. This time we hear a story from Good Friday, a nighttime story of the chaos between Maundy Thursday and the cross. And it can be an odd moment for us to consider in the middle of Lent. Yes, we know that Holy Week and passion are place that we are eventually headed, but the Lenten wilderness is still very much before us. And Lent isn’t quite the intense chaos of Good Friday. Instead, it is slower, quieter, toned back place. And so again, we hear this story with new, Lenten ears.

After Jesus is arrested in the garden of Gethsemane, only a few hours after washing the feet of the disciples and sharing in the Last Supper, he is brought to the high priest Annas. While Jesus is questioned in the court of the high priest, Peter is outside in the courtyard with the common folk around the fire. And each is questioned, Peter and Jesus, about their identity and relationship to the message that they have been proclaiming together for three years.

As Jesus responds, he does so grounded and firm in the things that he has been preaching and teaching. He asks for the wrong that he is accused of to be pointed out to him. But as he is struck by a solider, it becomes clear that he is in the middle of a game of power. A game where truth is a moving target, a game of politics and manipulation, a game of self-interest and control.

The temple authorities are not expecting Jesus to stand firm. They are expecting Peter instead. Peter plays the game. They know that when most people are faced with he power of the temple, they will recant and deny their heresy… even if they aren’t heretics.

The high priests want Jesus gone, but they also want to take away the power of his message. They don’t want a martyr, they want a disgraced prophet who took everything he said back before he was put to death. They want Jesus to grovel and to admit that he was just seeking power too.

And so, Jesus’ trial is just a game, a sham. Jesus is doomed from the beginning because the temple authorities don’t care about the truth… or at least the truth isn’t their main concern until Jesus starts speaking it.

They want Jesus to do what Peter does. When faced with accusations of being one of Jesus’ followers, Peter denies even knowing the teacher, master and friend that he has been following. He chooses to save his own skin, rather than stand for what he believes.

But instead, Jesus doesn’t play the game.

We know this game well. It is the game that plays out on the news, in parliamentary chambers or capitol hill, in board rooms of fortune 500 companies and on twitter. But is also played in PTA meetings, church committees, between neighbours and in families.

It is the game where truth and honesty are moving targets and information is controlled, but information is power. Truth is dolled out in small bits by those on the top, because when it comes out too much at a time it often spells the end of power, it embarrasses and shames.

But here is the most insidious thing about this game of the moving target of truth that we play. Often, we don’t even realize it. Sure there are some out there who know the extent of their manipulations, and who are only seeking power. But so often we aren’t even aware of the game. We are instead trying to the right thing, we are attempting to be faithful, yet as we seek to do the right thing at all costs, we end up doing the wrong thing.

And it might be only in this Lenten wilderness that we are in that the truth our game playing is finally revealed.

A the church gathers together week after week for worship, we begin by confessing our sins. It is a moment in community that sets us apart from much of the world. As we confess, we speak truths about ourselves that the game of power and the moving target of truth would never allow. We admit that we have done wrong, that we have failed to do right and that the truth is not in us. Our confession is very much a lenten wilderness moment, a moment when the truth is finally revealed about us.

If we listen closely to Jesus’ words today, we notice that he too gives a confession. But his is different than ours. Jesus says:

I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret.

If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong.

Jesus speaks things that sound almost opposite to our confession of sin. Jesus confesses the truth.

As Jesus is in the middle of this stormy game of human sin and the moving target of truth, does something that neither Peter nor the rest of us can do.

He stakes a claim and tethers himself to the ground. Instead of the truth being a moving target, Jesus roots it in place.

And all of a sudden the game that is being played looses some of its power. The temple authorities cannot undermine Jesus. They cannot destroy his credibility, they cannot brush his teaching under the carpet.

Jesus is standing firm in his message.

In his message of the Kingdom of God coming near.

In his message of God’s love for creation, for humanity, for us.

Even at the height of the game… Jesus is still preaching about God’s mercy and forgiveness by demanding this errors be revealed.

It is a similar thing Jesus does here week after week. As we all blow in from the stormy chaotic world, where the game of power and the moving target of truth is constantly being played, the very first thing that Jesus does for us is root us. Stake us to the ground in confession.

We confess our sins, we admit our faults and failings. And the game is banished from us for a least a moment.

And then along with our confession, comes absolution. The promise of God’s mercy and forgiveness given to us. Mercy that holds us in place. That lets us breathe and live and let go.

It might feel uncomfortable for us to be so honest. Every week, we might feel like we are wandering into the lenten wilderness when we confess our sin and the games of power are left at the door. But God’s forgiveness is what we need and what we are given.

Jesus roots us in God’s love and all of a sudden the game of the moving target of truth doesn’t matter anymore. It doesn’t matters because human power means nothing next to God’s love.

The truth that Jesus proclaims, that Jesus confesses changes everything, changes us. And the vulnerable, honest, revealing wilderness that we have entered into becomes a place where God is also revealed to us.

The truth is proclaimed today, but it won’t be until Good Friday and the empty tomb that the temple authorities, that the mobs and crowds, that Peter and the fearful disciples will discover that it isn’t just Jesus teaching that cannot be undone. And with that truth revealed, Jesus will deal the other issue of his trial – his condemnation to death

Soon God will show us that life itself cannot be undone, and that the power of death means nothing next to God’s love and new life promise to us.

You only need to wash your feet

GOSPEL: John 13:1-17 

[He] 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” (Read the whole passage)

We are taking our next step into our Lenten sojourn. Last week, we ventured out into the wilderness, not the traditional wilderness of temptation, but the wilderness of grief, confusion, and death as we heard in the story of Lazarus.

Today, the Narrative Lectionary skips us forward again, this time past the end of Lent into Holy Week itself. The washing of the disciples feet is a Maundy Thursday story. A story that begins the Triduum, the Great Three Days of the church that take us to Easter and resurrection.

Still today, we aren’t there yet. We are still just setting out on our Lenten journey, only having begun it last week. And so this story of foot washing becomes something different. Rather than the beginning of a bigger story, it is a moment between Jesus and the disciples that tells us something all on its own.

When I was in high-school as a cello player, I was recruited to play in the orchestra in a large scale production called Love According to John. It was an annual passion play/musical that had been running for decades. Sitting in the orchestra pit was one of the best spots to be able to see the actors just above us on stage.

And one particular scene still lives freshly in my memory nearly 20 years later.

It is this moment of foot washing. As Jesus washes the feet of the other disciples, the actors playing them, would put confused looks on their faces, but would dutifully play along with their master.

Yet Peter was different – to see Peter with my eyes and hear his voice, rather than reading them on a page… Peter always was reactive and brash, frustrated and clearly insecure. Almost as if he didn’t really know what was happening until Jesus was about to pour water over his feet.

And to watch Peter’s body go from withdrawing in one moment to offering his whole self up in the next, you could see that Peter’s problem was in interior one, a problem deep within himself.

Peter is longing for control… Peter cannot help himself. The same Peter who wanted to build a house for Jesus on the mount of transfiguration, yet who rebuked Jesus for speaking about dying. The same Peter who jumped from the boat to follow Jesus, yet who wanted Jesus to put a cap on the number of times he needed to forgive. The same Peter who hopped out of the boat to walk on water, yet sank when he saw that we has walking on water.

The same Peter who said he was willing to die with Jesus, yet denied evening knowing him just a few hours later.

This Peter is grasping for control, grasping for power and security, for the smallest sense that the world around him isn’t careening chaotically about him.

Peter wants to be the one who will dictate to Jesus how this whole faith relationship is going to work. First Peter will not let his master and teacher wash him… and then if he must be washed, Peter will be the most washed, every inch of him.

Peter can’t help himself, Peter tries to control Jesus every chance he gets.

Sound familiar?

We have a similar habit of trying to control things in our world. We long for security and and power, safety and predictability too. We don’t like that Jesus seems to be constantly changing his mind, doing things differently, and operating outside of our acceptable parameters.

Control and being in control is something that we naturally long for as human beings. We try to control the world around us, whether it is at home, work or church. We don’t like it when things don’t go as we expect, and just like Peter who is stopped in his tracks by his teacher, we can lash out when things come at us unexpectedly.

We often try to control Jesus. As Christians we have been guilty of withholding Jesus from people that we think are the wrong people and then in the next breath telling others that they need more Jesus. The church has controlled access by selling indulgences that granted a little bit of God to those with money… a practice that sparked Martin Luther and the reformation. And more recently, prosperity televangelists have tried to sell Jesus, with tracts or little green cloths or miracles… dolling out Jesus as if he was a Home Shopping Network product.

And of course most recently, many churches hold on to control, wanting Jesus to bring in more people and more resources, as if the point of the gospel was to bring butts and wallets into the pews, rather than forgiveness, life and salvation into people’s lives.

Like Peter, we flail about searching for control, even in the face of Jesus offering himself to us.

The season of Lent is the season in which the church remembers baptism. Those who are preparing to be baptized complete their preparation in this seasons while awaiting baptism at great vigil of Easter. Those are already baptized often take the opportunity to remember our baptismal identity.

And if there is anything the church does that reminds us that control is an illusion it is baptism. In baptism, God claims us, names us, and gives us new life. God does all this, and there is nothing we do to earn any of it.

So as Peter stands there before Jesus, protesting his feet being washed at all, and then asking for is whole self to be washed… we cannot help but imagine ourselves standing (or being held as babies) before the font.

When Peter finally submits, Jesus takes his disciple’s feet, one at a time, and washes the mud and dust from feet that have travelled far. He washes them clean, and dries them with a towel.

And what is normally a perfunctory act that happens between house slave and guest, becomes an intimate moment between teacher and student, between beloved friends.

And perhaps just for that moment Peter got it.

The washing of the his feet is not about control.

It is an act of Love.

Jesus washes Peter’s feet and the feet of disciples not to demonstrate who is in control, but to show them that he loves them.

Jesus washes our feet in Holy Waters not to demonstrate who is in control, but because he loves us.

The tension of our Lenten journey is this one.

In our wilderness journey, we struggle with things like being in control, with power, with fear and insecurity. And the wilderness of this journey reveals them to us, even as the rest of the year we can keep things under the surface.

And yet, as they are revealed, Jesus bends down with water and towel, and washes these things from us.

And Jesus shows us love.
Love that holds us,
love that forgives us,
love that renews us,
love that gives us life.

And as we are washed by Jesus’ hands, by Jesus’ body, we become part of the Body of Christ, forever grafted on to a body that isn’t about control, but about love.

For Jesus, it has never been about control, it is about bringing the kingdom near, about showing us God in flesh, by coming close to us.

Close enough to wash our feet,
close enough to reach out to us in the wilderness,
close enough that we might forget our fear for just a moment,
close enough to show us love.

Today, Peter’s story is a lenten story. Just as our own baptisms are Lenten stories.

Stories that reveal our flaws, and faults, our failings and insecurities.

But also stories that reveal Jesus’ love.
Jesus’ love for Peter.
Jesus love for us.

Into the Lenten Wilderness

John 11:1-45

Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.” But when Jesus heard it, he said, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”(Read the whole passage)

Last week we witnessed a Transfiguration moment, the Blind man having his sight restored. It was like the revelation on the mountaintop, eyes were opened to see the world, and see God, in a new way.

But by Wednesday, the euphoria of transfiguration was over. And we descended to the ashes, to the signs of decay and death around us, the evidence that sin and suffering still hold much sway in our world.

And now we begin Lent.

Lent always begins with wilderness. Usually we hear the story of Jesus’ temptation. After Jesus’ baptism, the spirit takes Jesus into the wilderness in order to be tempted. This begins Jesus’ ministry in Matthew, Mark and Luke. But as we explore John this year, through the narrative lectionary, we hear a story that normally comes at the end of Lent, a story that foreshadows Holy Week, a story of death and resurrection.

But with all of Lent still laying before us, there is still a long way until we are ready for Holy Week. We are just entering the wilderness.

So we hear this familiar story of Lazarus with different ears.

The wilderness experiences throughout this story are varied and different, yet they are all about the experience of being vulnerable and exposed. The wilderness is a place where safety and comfort is taken away, it is a place of wandering, a place of isolation.

The wilderness begins with news of Lazarus illness. He is in a wilderness that we all know, the wilderness of suffering. Suffering which leads to death. We have all seen this story before, whether it is a friend or family member. A life threatening illness strikes, yet there is hope for a cure. But the treatments don’t work, the prayers seem to be unheard and death is inevitable. A common wilderness experience.

Mary and Martha are helpless care givers for their brother, and his death brings them into a wilderness of grief. Martha’s a frantic and searching grief, Mary’s an overwhelming and debilitating grief.

Martha meets Jesus on road, she wants answers, she wants to point the finger, she is lashing out. Her grief is a wild and untamed wilderness experience, a roller coaster of emotion.

Mary also meets Jesus on the road, but her grief is different. She collapses at Jesus feet. She is crushed and falling, falling deeper and deeper into despair.

The disciples are also in a wilderness of sorts… they are lost and confused about Jesus’ actions. They have seen Jesus heal and care for strangers, yet here he is delaying to care for a beloved friend.

And finally Jesus, just like the stories of his temptation, is also in the wilderness. This time the temptation is again there, the temptation to rush in and save the day, to use his power to avoid all the pain and suffering of his friends and disciples.

As we enter in Lent, this year bouncing from vignette to vignette, hearing these examples of different wilderness journeys, we can recognize ourselves. We have been there too, we have all been tossed out into the wilderness in just the same ways.

We have been in the wilderness of grief and loss. We have been there in the midst of broken relationships, in the midst of addiction, in the midst of job loss or difficult times making ends meet. We have been through wildernesses of illness and disease.

And we all know that our world and society creates wildernesses of suffering and isolation because of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, class, and whatever other arbitrary divisions and categories for people we create.

And it isn’t just individuals who wander in the wilderness.

This week an entire nation is once again wandering in a wilderness of gun violence, after 17 people were killed in a Florida high school.

And of course, many churches find themselves in wildernesses of decline, wondering about the future, wondering how to keep on with fewer resources and few people to carry the load.

With all these wilderness experiences around us, it may seems strange to practice one as the church… to create one that begins Ash Wednesday and ends on Good Friday.

Yet, we rehearse this Lenten wilderness journey year after year because avoiding the realities of life will not help… we can only pretend everything is okay for so long.

Rather, as the body of Christ, we practice going through the wildness year after year so that we learn how to navigate them when we encounter them in life. We practice so that we know how to make it through. We practice so that we can see the other side…

But even then, there is a deeper message that the Lenten wilderness gives us…

In the wilderness, God finds and gathers us.

As Jesus waits to go to his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus, he does so knowing that his purpose is not to heal people and make them feel better. Jesus has come to announcing the Kingdom of God coming near… and that rushing to make any suffering just go away does not really deal with the true issues of our world.

And so when Jesus finally goes to Bethany, he brings his confused disciples with him. He brings them so that they see that aren’t just wandering around with a gifted healer. Jesus has called them to follow a deeper purpose… to take up their crosses and find new life.

On the way, Jesus stops to collect Martha. He promises her even in her frantic grief that he is the resurrection and the life.

And then he collects Mary, and with her, he simply weeps, he comes along side her in her despair to let her know that she is not alone.

And finally, he comes to Lazarus. Lazarus who has entered into the last wilderness waiting for us all… the wilderness of death.

And here standing in front of the tomb, is not the end of wilderness, not the escape. But rather the farthest out, most vulnerable, most isolating moment of any wilderness journey.

Jesus has gathered Mary, Martha, Lazarus and his disciples as the moment when all hope is lost, when nothing makes sense, when safety, security and healing cannot be imagine.

Surely, the disciples couldn’t have been more confused than when Jesus commands the stone to be rolled away.

Surely, Mary couldn’t have been born the thought of seeing the body of her dead brother once again.

Surely, Martha couldn’t be expected to believe that Jesus was the resurrection and the life in this moment.

Surely, Lazarus couldn’t have been anything but dead, since it had been four days.

Surely, Jesus couldn’t have waited this long to heal Lazarus.

“Lazarus, come out!” Jesus commands.

Who but Jesus could know that the wilderness leads to this place?

It is not the escape or exit from a wilderness journey. Rather, this moment, this Lenten moment at the tomb is the revelation that all the things we think give us safety and security, the things that may protect us and prevent us harm are all but illusory.

We practice Lent year after year because the wilderness is life. It is where we always are.

And it is where Jesus gathers us up. Lost and alone and vulnerable to a world of sin and suffering, Jesus comes and gathers us up.

Jesus comes and gathers up and brings us to the cross and to the grave, to the very places where sin, suffering and death seem to have won and Jesus declares their power over. Jesus declares that the Kingdom of God has come near to us, here and now.

Because in the face of confusion, suffering, grief and death, in the face of human sin, brokenness, failures and faults, in the face of more mass shootings and the inexorable power of decline…. what else is there but to be gathered around Word, Water, Bread and Wine.

When there is nothing else for us,

Jesus gathers us around Wilderness words like, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

Jesus gathers us around water that washes our dead bodies, heals us of our suffering, and unbinds from our sin.

Jesus gathers us around a table of bread and wine, a table that sits next to an empty tomb and has room for all.

Jesus gathers in the wilderness because the wilderness is where we are, and so the wilderness is where God will give live to the world.

The wilderness is where God gathers us around new life.

How can there be anything but death in the ashes?

Matthew 6:1-6,16-21

Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you… (Read the whole passage)

Just a few days ago we along with Jesus and the disciples as they came across a Blind Man. Jesus spoke words reminiscent of creation, “I am the light of the world.” And then reached down into the mud, touched the eyes of the blind man. And then after washing in the pool of Siloam, the Blind Man’s eyes were opened.

The light streamed in. The world was revealed to him in a brand new way.

He could see.

It was a story of Transfiguration. A mountain top revelation.

But that was then.

Because here is the thing about shining a light… it reveal things that we might not want to see.

Everything looks great from the mountain top, everything looks great when there has been only the dark ness for so long.

But it isn’t long until, when we go down into the valley, when we get up close to the difficult and challenging places of the world… that we begin to see the flaws and faults.

The scratch and chips and cracks reveal themselves.

And the perfect beautiful world that we could see from the mountain top, the brilliant colours streaming through to eyes that had so long been dark, the vibrant wold that seems to be so full of good… becomes tainted.

The longer we look the more something seems off. The more see, the more truth is revealed.

The world is good but it is also bad. There is goodness and righteousness out there. But there is also evil and suffering.

And then, after we have been looking long enough, after we come close to the reality of the world too many times, after we have been hurt, and burned, and sinned against… we realize that most of what we are seeing is the bad stuff, the hard stuff, the tragic stuff.

And that is when we see them.

And what is when we see the ashes.

The ashes of a scorched world.

The ashes of broken relationships, broken promises, broken people.

The ashes show us death.

And then we find ourselves searching. Searching for the incredible light we once saw. Searching for the bright and vibrant colours. Searching to see like we did from the mountaintop.

So we end up here.

And when we keep showing up here, week after week, year after year… we begin to see some mountain tops. The Angels singing to shepherds, the magi coming searching after the star, and of course a transfiguration on the mountaintop.

And then somehow, inexplicably, we end up here.

We end up here, on the night of ashes.

The night that reminds of all the things we don’t want to remember.

Sin and suffering and death.

How can we ever see the light again on this night?

How can we find life in the scorched earth of this world?

How there be anything but death?

How can there be anything but death in the ashes?

And so we come and confess our sin. We hope for mercy.

It is here, on this night of death and ashes that God says,

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

We are not the ones who find the light.

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return”

We are not the ones who bring life to scorched and ash filled world.

“Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”

We cannot conquer death.

Christ does.

Christ is the light. Christ brings life from the ashes. Christ conquers death.

You see, God does something on this night that is not found in the light or on the mountaintop.

God finds us in the ashes.

In the very thing thing, the dark, mucky, staining residue of death…. God finds us.

Remember that you are dust.

Because in the very substance of suffering, sin and death… God finds us in order to something that we could have never imaged, something that our eyes would never let us see.

In the ashes of lenten sin and repentance and wilderness.

In the ashes of our demand for a warlord messiah.

In the ashes of our cries for crucified blood.

In the ashes of cross.

God finds us… God finds us with forgiveness for sin.

God finds us… with Messiah who brings peace.

God finds us… with a God willing to die on a cross.

God finds us… in an empty grave.

We come here tonight, looking for light, looking for the mountaintop, looking for goodness and hope in the midst our darkness.

And we find ashes.

Ashes that remind us that we are dead. Dead people walking.

And yet, in the ashes of death… in the dark, grimy, lifeless ashes…

God finds us

And God re-members.

God re-members us to life.

Only the Blind Man Could See

John 9:1-41

When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (Read the whole passage)

Out of the sun and into the mud.

We have been on journey this lent through various familiar places of Jesus ministry. The wilderness of the desert of temptation. The darkness of Nicodemus’s questions by night. The bright noon day heat of the woman at the well and her isolation. Jesus continues on his journey through the lives of unsuspecting people, moving towards their questions, breaking their walls, and today helping them to see.

This Lenten season has shown us the movement of God towards creation. We have seen that God is beginning a new thing in the identity of Christ, despite the tempter’s wondering if Jesus is the Son of God. We have seen Jesus adjust course and move towards Nicodemus, who needs his deep questions of faith answered. And we saw last week, the persistence of Jesus whose living water broke down the well walls of the Samaritan woman’s dead water.

john-9-healing-blind-man-mosaicThe next instalment in the Lenten journey is the story of the blind man. It is a familiar story, yet, it is hardly just about helping a person without normal sight to see the world around him. As Jesus and his disciples come a cross a blind man in the streets, presumably begging in his community, the disciples want Jesus to help them identify the punishments of God. Disability was considered a divine curse, and the disciples were most likely trying to be sure that they would avoid such a fate. Yet Jesus stops, and spits in the mud, covers the man’s eyes with the mud. Then Jesus tells the man to go and wash in pool of Siloam. Jesus says this man’s blindness has nothing to do with God’s curse.

And then Jesus disappears.

But we stay with the blind man and hear his story. Now, I am pretty sure, if this story was really about a blind person gaining sight were to happen among us, we would be amazed by this person who was blind and now could see. Yet, that is not what happens to the blind man. Once this man can see, and Jesus is long gone, the man’s community reacts badly. They just cannot see the miracle or the transformation. They doubt the identity of the man, they doubt that he is actually healed, they doubt that the miracle is from God.

Instead of rejoicing and celebrating, the community puts the healed man on trial. He is called before the religious leaders to explain what happened. To explain how someone healed him on the sabbath. The Pharisees declare that the blind man has not been healed by God, and instead they summon his parents to see if there has been some kind of trickery. But his parents have no answers, so the formerly blind man is summoned again in front of the pharisees. So incredulous are the Pharisees that they declare no only has the formerly blind man not been given a miracle, but that he is sinner being punished by God. So they drive him away, out of the community and on his own.

And throughout the course of the story, the blind man comes to realize something. We can see it too… it isn’t that the blind man can see, it is that he is the only who can now see. The whole community is blind to the transformation that has taken place. Only the man can see what Jesus has done for him. And no matter how many times, how many ways he tells the story of his own healing, the community around him just cannot understand or accept this new reality.

They remain blind.

Blindness to the effects of Jesus in our world is something we know about. Perhaps we are like the blindman, seemingly alone in the world surrounded by unbelievers. Maybe we now feel like most people simply do not see what we see, or know what we know about Jesus. Maybe we are the only ones who feel as though our eyes have been opened to by Jesus passing through our lives and giving us healing, renewal and life. Friends and neighbours just cannot see the good news, they simply don’t are or won’t accept this story of faith and healing that we share. No matter how we tell it, or no matter how the transformation that we now know is apparent to us… people around us just seem blind to God in the world.

Or perhaps we feel more like the blind community. We know the faith, we know what God is up to, and so the zealous believers who claim that God is doing a new thing in their lives are just too much. We cannot see how God is doing something so unexpected in the world, according to suspicious and obviously self-involved people.

Regardless of who we may identify with, the blind man or his community, identifying the gospel, knowing God’s work in the world is not always straight forward. The community cannot believe that this man would be healed by God. The man himself only has a vague sense of just what his experience with Jesus means. And isn’t this our experience too? Jesus passes in and out of out community, causing just as much confusion about faith and church and God, as helping us figure out what is happening.

As we already know, the blindness of the man is not just about physical blindness, but John’s gospel is hinting at the spiritual blindness of the community that Jesus encounters today. But blindness is not the only metaphor that John is playing with. As Jesus reaches down in the mud today, we cannot help but think all the way back to Genesis and God in creation. As God reached down into the mud of the earth to create Adam, breathing life into him, so we see God breathing life into this blind man. It is as if Jesus is saying, “Let there be light” and the blind man sees, not just with his eyes, but with his whole being.

And, still not quite. The blind man doesn’t see Jesus first, but rather only has an experience of Christ before he sees.

But just when it seems that the man has been left to carry on in faith alone, that he has been left to sort out his new place in the world where he knows that the Messiah has healed his blindness, but the rest of his community doesn’t see what he sees… Just as the man is driven away… Jesus shows up again. And we learn something important about what Jesus has done in healing the man of his blindness.

Just as Jesus told the tempter in the wilderness that God is about to do something new in creation…

Just as Jesus changed course and moved towards Nicodemus so that Nicodemus could hear the gospel that he needed to hear in the safety of darkness…

Just as Jesus kept lapping at the well walls of the samaritan woman until she was broken open by living water…

Jesus comes back to the blindman.

And finally, finally the man who was born blind, whose sight was restored, whose story was not enough for his community to see… the blind man sees the One who has given him this new faith.

The One whom meets us in the wilderness, finds us in the dark, who makes us alive with Living Water…. this One comes back and restores and fills us up with faith.

Like the blindman, we can only last for so long in a world of blindness. We can only tell the story so many times for unseeing eyes before we run out of persistence. And so Jesus comes to us and meets us again, fills us with a word of light and hope.

The blind man’s story is our story. We experience new life and renewal in Jesus who comes to us, creating something new and incredible inside us. And then we go out in the world and into our community with this gospel of life, only to find blindness. Yet, still we are called to tell the story.

And then when we cannot tell it anymore, Jesus shows up again. And Jesus keeps coming back and coming back. Jesus keeps giving words of mercy and forgiveness, the light of God’s word, the renewal of our faith in the Body of Christ.

Our story of faith is one where Jesus keeps coming back to us. Week after week, year after year. And all of sudden, when we all we knew was wilderness, darkness, and isolation… Jesus makes us see for the first-time.

Jesus opens our eyes to faith.