A Reading for Advent Four

In the Beginning was the Word

The Word was With God

The Word was God

All Things were Made by Him

Including a World that He so Loved

He was a Light in that World

And He so Loved the World

He Became Flesh and Made His Dwelling with Us

We light the first candle for the hope of the coming of the Lord. We light the second candle for the peace of knowing God has always wanted to be with us. We light the third candle for the joy of this Good News. Today we light the fourth candle for the love God showed us at Christmas!

A Life Changing Event

Our family would like to thank so many people for kind words and kind gestures. We especially want to thank you for loving Mom and Dad.

Every once in a while we hear of or experience a life changing event. At the risk of understatement, the death of my Dad is one of those. Who knows what to say at times like these? I surely do not. If I were asked about the chance of this happening at this time I would have guessed somewhere around zero percent.  In my eyes, Dad was one of the strongest people I could even imagine. I am pretty sure my siblings thought the same thing. For much of my life I thought he could do nearly anything. It is not that we thought Dad was a super hero. Though he did successfully convince one of our cousins that he was superman. Maybe he could not leap tall buildings in a single bound but he did have skills. There is a story about a boy who could walk on his hands and used those skills to attract the attention of a girl in sixth grade. That boy was Dad and that girl is my Mom.

The stories will live on. The fact is we love telling stories about Dad but they will never be the same without him sitting there adding to them or trying to deny them. To be honest, I have no idea what life will be like without him being a part of it. Have I mentioned that this was a life changing event?

Dad taught us things like bike riding and fishing and fielding a fly ball. Dad taught us how to sharpen a knife and appreciate the outdoors and to drive a car. My sister Jennifer wanted to make sure that I highlighted the role he had in teaching us how to love.

That love was evident in his role as Grandpa.  With some irony, on the day of Dad’s funeral, I became a Grandpa. If I am able to even utilize some of his Grandpa skills, I will be successful.

Later in life Dad became a gardener and a bird watcher and a photographer and a traveler to Florida. He loved living near the black bears that played in his yard in PA and the alligators that lived near the house in FLA. And there are plenty of photos to prove his love of both. Dad became an inventor of sorts as evidenced by a contraption we used to pick tangerines from high in the trees last spring and another that he used to hang bird feeders in unlikely places.

We love telling stories about Dad, whether true or not. We can tell stories about him shooting at squirrels in the bird feeders and at mice in our living room. We can tell stories about Dad with gun and holster practicing his quick draw.

His death may be a life changing event. But only because his life had such a significant influence on us. It is largely because of Dad’s influence that we know that God is interested in these stories and memories and the way they make us feel now. There is a room at the house where Dad sat and scribbled notes as he read and watched out the window. His most recent notes include references to the scene in the Gospel of John chapter eleven. For anyone not familiar with what is said there, John chapter eleven includes a scene where Jesus shows up at a funeral. A reminder that God does not shy away from times of darkness or even death. There is some comfort in that, knowing that God is interested in those of us who mourn. Yet this scene is not about comfort. In this scene, God looks death in the eye and begins to talk about resurrection and life. That is exactly what Dad would want us to do today.

The Ways of God

“It is Finished…” (John 19.30)

The final word Jesus speaks in John’s Gospel is “It is finished.” This is not a resignation. Walter Brueggemann calls it “God’s victory cigar.” Things still look bleak. Jesus is still on the cross. It is not yet Easter Sunday, still Jesus declares victory. His work is done. Jesus has completed the commitment made when the Word became flesh.

Perhaps we are prompted to ask “What is finished?” Part of what is finished is the dying and there were no efforts to make the dying less painful like we moderns might claim to do. Mostly, what is finished is the victory of God’s way in the world. Jesus has performed an enactment of the way God works. It was successful. It is finished. God’s sacrificial way of love, peace, generosity, grace, and forgiveness has been demonstrated. On that Friday, at the place called skull, death gave its best shot but could not defeat the plan of God. This is noteworthy since what happened on the cross appeared to have been a defeat.

The power of death and everything that tries to convince us that God’s way is not the way have been defeated. The power that tries to convince us it can coerce us into compromise is defeated. The power that tries to convince us we can manipulate our way to our own salvation has been defeated. Selfishness, greed, hostility, anxiety, hate, and violence have no power over us. Everything influenced by death is defeated. It is finished.

When one looks at what took place on Good Friday at the place called skull, it appears the weakest was the one with nails in his hands. John wants us to understand otherwise. This Gospel wants us to recognize Jesus as in control on the cross, as he has been all along. Like the conductor of an orchestra he continues to determine what happens next. Whereas Matthew and Mark ask the question “where is God” during crucifixion, John leaves little doubt where God is when Jesus dies. God is on the cross proclaiming “It is finished.”

God’s strange new world is coming at us. Business as usual is bad business. Business as usual is just participation in ways that have already been defeated. The ways of God have been turned loose in the world. Following Jesus is to follow one who has defeated death. The ways of God have been demonstrated and they are victorious. It is finished.

A prayer of response from Pastor Susan Vigliano: “Jesus, there are no adequate words to express my gratitude for your victory on the cross. Yet, at times, I feel compelled to thank you with the words I have. I am compelled to gratitude that sometimes feels like groans instead of words and sometimes expresses itself as uninhibited worship. Thank you, Jesus, for your victory of obedience that paid the price for my sin and that brought me into eternity. Thank you for welcoming me as your co-laborer to spread the Good News that you have been victorious over sin, death, and satan.”

What are We Thirsty For?

“I Thirst” (John 19.28)

The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus said “I thirst” and then goes on to tell us he said it because of an old psalm. Yet, considering the circumstances, we might imagine it did not require an old scripture for Jesus to know he was thirsty.

Interestingly, this is not the first time Jesus claims to be thirsty in John’s Gospel. Chapter 4 tells us of a time when weary from a journey he was seated by a well and said to a Samaritan woman “Give me a drink.” The conversation goes on until we learn “Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst.” The further the conversation goes the less the Samaritan woman seems to understand about thirst, but the more she began to believe Jesus was the one who could quench it.

In response to his words on the cross he was offered a sponge of sour wine. Earlier, John has already told us that Jesus rebuked Peter (18.11) “The cup which the Father has given me – shall I not drink it?” Here on the cross, we find the same determination to drink the cup – Even if that cup is full of sour vinegary wine.

John keeps giving us glimpses of “The Word was God” mixed with “The Word became flesh.” Jesus was a real human in need. On the cross, God subjected his own self to the reality of human need. This was no pretend job. Jesus is reduced to the most helpless. And he is thirsty. We are reminded that at the beginning of the Gospel we are told “The Word became flesh.”

At the same time, the soldiers divided Jesus’ clothes the way they did and onlookers responded to his statement of thirst “that scripture be fulfilled” because Jesus possesses the authority of one who was with God from the beginning. Those in attendance that day had no idea that Jesus was the one making decisions. And we are reminded that at the beginning of the Gospel we are told “The Word was God.”

It is ironic that one who offered living water and walked on water and who turned water into wine is now thirsty. We may wonder, can he now turn sour wine into water? But John says he mentioned his thirst to fulfill an old scripture. People always take Jesus so literally in John. “Sir, you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep…” The Samaritan woman didn’t know he had access to the actual stuff from deep in the well of creation. Maybe it is not literal water he is thirsty for. Maybe he is thinking about something else.

The Gospel appears to be interested in both literal thirst and figurative thirst. The more we try to discover what Jesus is talking about the more the waters flow back and forth from literal to figurative. Perhaps John wants us to ask why we are content with sour wine when living water is readily available. Perhaps Lent asks us to give up our sour wine in order to enjoy what Jesus offers. Following the one who said “I thirst” is to follow one who knows the weariness of the journey. At the same time, it is to follow the one who offers water which after will cause us to never thirst again.

A prayer of response by Pastor Susan Vigliano: “Jesus, the water I drink is often sour because it is old and stale. Instead of the fresh, living water that you offer me daily, I often choose the encounters I have had with you in the past. Help me, Jesus, to remember that there is fresh living water to drink every day. You are a Father who meets all our needs. The needs of my human body are met according to your will, even if you need to send a raven or provide manna from heaven, I believe your promise that you will meet my needs for sustenance. You will care for me when I am suffering. And you have living water that I need every day.”

Family Forming Words

“Woman, Here is Your Son” (John 19.26)

John leads up to this saying by talking about the crowds calling for crucifixion, the interaction between Pilate and the chief priests, and the soldiers who were gambling for his clothes.  However it is almost as if Jesus is looking for someone. John tells us that “When Jesus therefore saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, He said to His mother ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ‘Behold, your mother!’” Whatever else we think of these words, we can consider them “family forming.” Jesus says something that sounds like a formal introduction between two who have likely already met. But they have not known one another like he wants them to know one another.

John wants us to know that Jesus continues to make decisions even from the cross.  And here is no small decision.  It is “After this,” John says “knowing that all things had already been accomplished.”  The scene is simple.  Not everyone at the cross is hostile. There are sympathetic viewers at the cross.  Jesus saw his mother.  Jesus saw the disciple he loved.  He speaks to his mother.  He speaks to the disciple.  “From that hour the disciple took her into his own household.”  Here a new family is set in motion.

Relationships have changed. Family is defined differently. We are known, not by biological traits or proper names, but by our relationship to Jesus. At the cross a new community emerges. Not one of blood connection but a connection even more significant. Mark 3.32-33 helps us to see a family that embraces what Jesus is talking about. There Jesus tells us that family is not determined by blood. Instead those who do the will of God are his mother and brothers. Here is a surprising new relationship that violates old boundaries. We are called to meet new brothers and sisters, new mothers and fathers.

Relationship changes in the presence of the crucified Jesus.  Two individual followers become family.  When we gather together in our groups of two, three or more, we gather at the cross.  When we choose the way of the cross, we join others who are in relationship with Jesus.  We are not spectators, we are participants.  God comes near when we participate in His plan, even when we do not understand.

It is interesting that the two people at the cross are not named but identified only by their relationship with Jesus.  As his mother and the disciple whom he loved lose Jesus physically, they find a new family.  On account of what happened at the cross, we define ourselves differently.  Our identity is no longer determined by relationship with mother and father.  Instead we are defined according to our relationship with Jesus.  We are identified as part of a community that meets at the cross in relationship to a crucified King.

During Lent we want to remember that following Jesus includes joining this community gathered at the cross. No longer individuals we are identified by our relationship with Jesus as a family formed by Jesus. Lineage, DNA, and other traits do not tell the entire story. We can only know our identity and significance in relationship to the one who died on the cross.

A prayer of response from Pastor Susan Vigliano: “Jesus, it’s not easy to see every beliver as my own family. It is clear that you place a higher priority on love and relationship than anything else. There are times that I create distance with peopple I don’ like , or can’t seem to relate to, instead of finding ways of communicating that we are part of the same family. I pray that you will help to see my brothers and sisters in Christ the way that you want me to see them.”

A Gathering at the Cross

The first century view of crucifixion makes John’s account somewhat surprising.  The Gospel of Mark includes darker and more disturbing parts about the death of Jesus.  Ben Witherington suggests that Mark’s gospel provides “gut wrenching feelings.”  Some of the things that provide such feelings include darkness at noon, earthquake, additional mocking, splitting the temple veil, and the cry “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  The Gospel of John includes none of these and Witherington concludes that John’s telling of the crucifixion as a moment of triumph is intended “to produce different emotions and reactions.”  I agree.

Such a victorious version of the crucifixion leads us to ask whether John is guilty of leading readers astray.  If crucifixion is the final chapter, then the answer is yes and Billy Joel’s sermon “Only the Good Die Young” is the one we should be singing.  But we have “the benefit of hindsight and insight.”  The crucifixion is followed by resurrection and in that context triumph and victory are in play.

John wants us to know that Jesus continues to make decisions even from the cross.  And here we have no small decision.  After this, John says that “all things had already been accomplished.”  The scene is simple.  Sympathetic viewers were at the cross.  Jesus saw his mother.  Jesus saw the disciple he loved.  He speaks to his mother.  He speaks to the disciple.  “From that hour the disciple took her into his own household.”  Here a new family is set in motion.

In the presence of the crucified Jesus, relationship changes.  Two individual followers become family.  When we gather together in our groups of two, three or more, we gather at the cross.  When we choose the way of the cross, we join others who are in relationship with Jesus.  We are not spectators, we are participants.  God comes near when we participate in His plan, even when we do not understand.

The two people identified at the cross are identified only by their relationship with Jesus.  As his mother and the disciple whom he loved lose Jesus physically, they find themselves a new family.  On account of what happened at the cross, we define ourselves differently.  Our identity is no longer determined by relationship with mother and father.  Instead we are defined according to our relationship with Jesus.  We are identified as part of a community that meets at the cross in relationship to a crucified King.

We participate in a community with other unlikely participants.  A tax collector, a fisherman, a farmer, a barista.  The guy who shakes your hand tightly, the girl who sings off-key, the family with the noisy children, the lady who wears too much perfume.  At the cross, we participate with a family that we do not choose.  We participate in a family where the only thing we have in common is relationship with a crucified Jesus.

John does not call us to the cross that we might feel pity for an innocent who died an undignified death.  John invites each of us to stand at the cross to witness the crucified King.  John wants us to know that Jesus remains in control.  Even on the cross, he is able to complete the work he was sent to accomplish.  Like adding the final pieces of a portfolio, he establishes a new family and fulfills scripture.  Only then does he submit his work to the Father “It is finished” and give up his spirit (it was not taken from him).

At the cross, Jesus joins us as a new family of disciples who will continue to follow together.  Following Jesus will now include interdependence on one another.  We are not isolated followers, we are not called to be.  Instead, we join others.  We join people who are not like us in any other way except that we gather at the cross of Christ.

A Look at the Cross reminds us that when we come into relationship with the crucified Jesus, we come into relationship with a collection of others who participate in that relationship with us.

A prayer of response by Susan Vigliano; “Lord, I invite you to shape and form my identity in such a way that I reflect your new order of family.  Who is my brother, mother, and sister in my new adopted family?  I have a natural God-given love for my natural family and close friends, but I need your agape love to love the unknown, different, sometimes unloveable people whom you now call my brother.  Help me, Lord, to love like you love.”

Christmas Conversation

Matthew and Luke are interested in specifics about this birth we celebrate this time of year.  They want us to know that this specific birth occurred at a specific time in history.  They want us to know that Caesar Augustus was ruling the world and a census was being taken.  They want us to know details like Joseph considering a divorce and that Mary was a virgin.  They want to be sure that we are aware of other details as well.  Shepherds were working in the fields and Magi were watching the skies.  The baby was wrapped in cloths and laid in a manger.  King Herod was worried and asked priests and teachers to reread the prophecies.

Mark does not talk about the birth or infancy of Jesus but he asks a number of questions about Jesus along the way.  I am certain that if he shared a birth story it would have included the question “what child is this?”  John wants us to be aware that the one we celebrate and was born in this way has been there all along.  We celebrate Christmas as the time He entered the world that he created.  He is the Word who became flesh.

This has implications for all of us whether we choose to celebrate or not.  As history moves along and details continue to fill up our days.  As Caesar continues to believe he is in control.  As a host of activity continues to take up our time.  As we reread the prophecies.  As we become consumed with giving and receiving, baking and decorating, working and worrying – there was one born and laid in a manger.  During the course of the activities of our lives, the Word moved in among the very people he created.  This is the story of one who entered the history of our world.  This is not unfamiliar territory for the Gospel.  You and I can be grateful.

John: a Gospel of Light

The Gospel of John tells us that the world was made by God.  Yet, that world, according to John, “knew Him not.”  John finds the world to be a dark place.  The world is presented as being blind to the ways of God.  The world is in opposition to God.  There is a sense of blindness vs. sight, of darkness vs. light.

But, John goes on to tell us how God responds when He looks at this dark, blind world.  What does God do when he looks at this place that is opposed to His ways?  John tells us that God so loved this world that He gave His only Son.  We learn this while Jesus is in conversation with Nicodemus.  Interestingly, a conversation that occurs in the dark.

The Gospel of John wants to bring the reader from out of the dark and into the light.  (It is also of interest that the next time we find Nicodemus it is daylight).  John wants us to know that there is only one way out of this darkness.  So, we are introduced to a man who was born blind.  We watch as the man born blind is introduced along with Pharisees who seem to see clearly.  As the story progresses, the one born blind gains his sight.  At the same time, the Pharisees are declared to be spiritually blind.

John seems to suggest that while physical blindness may be unfortunate, spiritual blindness is a real danger.  But, he also insists that as surely as Jesus healed this one born blind – He is also able to save the spiritually blind.  It is strongly implied that giving sight to one born blind is impossible, “since the beginning of time it has never been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind.”  Yet, such things arre not impossible for the One who is the Light of the World.

A Walk in the Dark

This week in Nashville, Barbara Brown Taylor took us for a walk in the dark.  Walking in darkness wakes you up to the use of your senses.  In the dark, we become more alert and aware than we may have been in some time.  Still, we try hard to stay out of the dark.  In many places we have done a good enough job with light that we are not able to see the stars even at night.  Brown Taylor comments that the poor of the world are far richer in stars than we are.  And she cautions that before we replace the lights and the fixtures to make them more lasting and efficient we should ask ourselves if we have become too dependent on artificial lighting.  Brown Taylor is wondering if our fear of the outer darkness is just a reflection of the darkness that is inside us.

She takes us to the Gospel of John where we find Nicodemus in the dark.  The Gospel where we learn about the Light of the world (she adds that this is the Gospel where it seems every noun is capitalized to describe Jesus).  She asks whether Jesus met him there to enlighten him or to “en-darken” him.  To help him to recognize that he was in the dark.  The Nicodemus dialogue can be confusing, it is for Nicodemus.  As with wind and rebirth, we do not often know where we are going or coming from.  But, Jesus’s words remind the reader that there are things we do not know first.

She reminds us that Moses was caught up in the dark cloud of God’s presence.  Accepting this divine darkness is to be willing to live in the cloud of unknowing.  Brown Taylor wonders if it is time for us to be walking in the light and soaking in the dark?  After all, we walk not by sight.  But by faith.  Perhaps it is time to recognize that walking in faith means walking in places where it is difficult to see what comes next.  There is much here that we do not understand.  And she uses the term “theolatry” as something we choose to worship because we do not understand God.

Brown Taylor leaves you asking questions like whether living in the spiritual dark is a bad thing.  After all, God has done some of His best work in the dark.  Do day and night, light and darkness contradict one another?  Or complement one another?  Certainly, we cannot have one without the other.  Besides “when the sun goes down, God does not turn the world over to some other deity.”  So then, can walking in times of darkness strengthen faith?  Is there a better way to learn to walk by faith than when we are not able to see the way?  She adds that it is ok to admit that you do not know where you are going but you are going anyway.

This discussion reminds us that Nicodemus encountered more than an answer.  He encounters one who reveals that he is walking in the dark.  Interestingly, after the lecture, we stepped out into the night.  It gave some immediate time to think about what it means to find your way in the dark.

A Disciple in Context

In the Gospel of John we meet an unnamed character “the one whom Jesus loved.”  We first find “the one you love” in 11.3.  It follows again in 11.5.  And again to get the point across in 11.36, “how he loved him.”  After a reading of  John 11, we know that Jesus loves Lazarus.

Interestingly, in chapter 13 we again run into a disciple whom Jesus loved.  Without jumping the gun, it is possible that at least some early readers immediately assumed that this one whom Jesus loved was Lazarus.  After all, he had already been introduced to us as “the one you love.”

Perhaps this is especially true after reading chapter 12 where Lazarus is reclining at a table with Jesus.  This is exactly where we find the disciple Jesus loved in chapter 13.  This at least prompts the question whether Lazarus could again be the one Jesus loved (as he was in chapter 11).

Another point of interest is that in chapter 12 Jesus is anointed on the feet.  In chapter 13 Jesus washes the feet of others.  Ben Witherington notes that both  share in common a foreshadowing of Jesus’ coming death.  In chapter 12 Lazarus is present.  In chapter 13 the beloved disciple is present.

The multitude learned that Jesus was in Bethany.  They came to see for themselves Jesus and the one he had raised from the dead – Lazarus.  Chapter eleven tells us that the chief priests were planning to kill Jesus.  In chapter twelve they begin plotting to kill Lazarus also “because on account of him many of the Jews… were believing in Jesus.”  At the very least, remembering  that they also wanted Jesus dead, we notice a connection between Lazarus and his Lord at this point.

The unnamed other disciple shows up again with Simon Peter.  This other disciple is known by the high priest.  Witherington notes that this would be  problematic if he were a Galilean fisherman.  On the other hand, there were Jewish officials at Lazarus’s funeral.  Being known by Caiphas’s entourage  could have given him access to the high priest’s house.

At the cross, we again find “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”  On this occasion, the dying Jesus speaks to two unnamed disciples.  Both are identified by their relationship to Jesus; his mother and the disciple he loves.  If the Beloved Disciple took Jesus’ mother “unto his own” home this likely suggests a location closer than Galilee.  (Perhaps Bethany, home of Lazarus)?

Before the Gospel concludes, we again find “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”  On Easter Sunday, he “saw the linen wrappings… and the facecloth.”  There is  another place, just one other place, where these things are found in the Gospel.

It was Lazarus that was “bound hand and foot with wrappings; and his face was wrapped around with a cloth.”  In any case, when this unnamed disciple entered the empty tomb of Jesus “he saw, and believed.”  I can not help but think that if this is Lazarus he is linked even closer with his Lord.

It is obvious that the signs are demonstrated that you might believe.  The introductions of Jesus reveal not only who he is but what he is up to.  In John,  even the beloved disciple progresses to the point where “he saw, and believed.”  We might say that he discovers who Jesus is and what he is up too.   John desires that we do the same.