Chosen Ones

“You did not choose me, but I chose you.” – John 15:16

It was August of 1988 and it was my first week as a fourth grader at Bonita Springs Elementary School. My family and I had just moved to the area, so I was the new kid. I didn’t know any of the other students. I didn’t know the routines of the school. And I don’t remember very much about that first week, except for the fact that on Friday afternoon, our PE coach took us outside to one of the athletic fields and announced, “Everybody line up! It’s time to choose your kick-ball teams!” And my heart began to beat a little bit faster. Because nobody knew me and no fourth grader wants to be the last one chosen for a kick-ball team. Of course, it’s awesome to be chosen first or even second. It’s respectable to be chosen third, fourth, or fifth. But it’s utterly humiliating to be chosen last, because at that point it’s no longer even a choice.

Now most of us are probably no longer worried about being chosen last for a particular kick-ball team. But the same dynamics that played out in my fourth grade PE class play out in so many other facets of our lives. We all have experiences of being chosen. Experiences of being acknowledged and desired. However, the paradox is that all our experiences of being chosen are inextricably link to experiences of not being chosen. We live in a world characterized by competition and comparison. We live in a world in which there are winners and losers. There are those who are “in” and those who are “out.” There are those who celebrated as successful and those who are rejected as failures.

In the midst of the competition and comparisons of this world, there is something deep inside each one of us that longs to be chosen, to be acknowledged and desired simply for who we are. No strings attached. No expectations. No judgements. But simply chosen for who we are. 

If we step back into the world of the first century, the disciples that were following Jesus found themselves in a similar world of competition and comparisonA world of winners and losers. Masters and servants. Lords and subjects. Now the followers of Jesus were fishermen and merchants. They would not have been considered the most qualified, the most skilled, or the most educated.And throughout their time with Jesus, the disciples seemed to get things wrong way more often than they got them right. If Jesus was the team captain choosing the best players for his team, these guys are not the ones you would expect Jesus to choose first.And yet, on the night before Jesus died, he says the most remarkable thing. He says, “You thought all this time that you were the ones choosing me. The fact of the matter is I’ve been the one choosing you.” No strings attached. No expectations. No judgements. I simply choose you for who you are. 

In that moment with his disciples, Jesus articulates one of the most profound spiritual promises in the entire Bible, the promise that we have been chosen by God. The promise that God acknowledges and desires to be with us. The promise that God chose to enter into the brokenness and messiness of our lives in order that we might have life and have it abundantly! Jesus chooses you! But there are some things I want you to understand about what it means to be chosen. 

Being chosen is foundational to our sense identity and purpose. In other words, this goes to the core of who we are. The Apostle Paul says, “before the foundation of the world, God chose us.” Psalm 139 says that “God knit us together in our mother’s womb and every day of our life was written in God’s book before even one came to pass. Spiritual author and teacher Henri Nouwen says, “To be chosen means we have been seen by God from all eternity and seen as unique and special and precious in his sight.” To know deep within you that you are chosen is foundational to understanding who you are and the depth of God’s love for you.

Being chosen is irreversible. In a world in which we inevitably experience the pain of rejection and isolation. The promise of being chosen by God can never be undone. It can never be canceled. It can never be lost or reversed. Because the fact of the matter is you and I can never stray or wander so far from God that his grace cannot track us down. There is nothing we can do to make God love us more or love us less. Our chosenness is permanent spiritual reality. And to drive home this point, think about the fact that in our gospel reading, the fellowship of disciples to whom Jesus declares, “I choose you” includes Peter who would deny him and Judas who would betray him. Our chosenness is foundational to who we are, and it is utterly irreversible!

Being chosen is relational. In the economy of God’s grace, to be chosen doesn’t result in someone else being rejected. Contrary to our world of competition, to be chosen as God’s Beloved is something radically different. Instead of excluding, it includes. Instead of dividing, it unites. Instead of separating, it draws us together. In the kingdom of God, there are no winners and losers. There’s no “in” and “out.” Because in the kingdom of God it’s not about competition; it’s about compassion. It’s about seeing one another as God’s Beloved.

Last week, I attended a virtual clergy conference on the topic of preaching. And one of the speakers reflected on the things that have changed for him as a preacher during the pandemic. And one of the things he said resonated deeply with me. He said, “People are not looking for more information; they are searching for meaning.” In the midst of the competition and comparison of this world, people are searching for meaning and purpose. They’re literally searching for a reason to live. They’re searching for hope. They’re searching for joy. They’re waiting for someone to point to them and say, “I choose you.” No strings attached. No expectations. No judgements. I simply choose you for who you are. That is promise that has been revealed to us through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We have been chosen since before the foundation of the world. But this is a promise that cannot just be believed; it must also be received. So, if you would stand with me this morning. Extending your hands out in front of you. And just receive the promise of your chosenness this morning.

Choosing JOY

Good morning and happy Good Shepherd Sunday! Every year, on the fourth Sunday of Easter, the gospel reading for the day calls our attention to the image of Jesus as our Shepherd. Every year, we read Psalm 23 and are comforted by the promise of God’s faithfulness and care and provision in our lives. Every year, on this Sunday, we are reminded that Jesus as the Good Shepherd was willing to lay down his life for the sheep. Every year, preachers around the world turn to the richness of these well-known biblical passages to craft their sermons and prepare to preach the good news.

But this year, I am willing to bet that more than a few preachers will be starting their sermons this morning by referencing a short video that went viral this week on Facebook. The video is only 20 seconds long, and its shows a lone sheep stuck in a ditch. A young man, let’s call him the shepherd, is working to rescue and set the sheep free. Amazingly, the sheep is set free from the ditch. Enjoying his newfound freedom, the sheep frolics and jumps, and frolics and jumps, and would you believe me if I told that about 20 yards up the path, that same sheep frolics and jumps right back into the ditch! Now, as of seven o’clock this morning, the video had been viewed about 8 million times and had generated over 12 thousand comments. And I think the reason the video has gained such traction on social media is because in the course of just 20 seconds, the video conveys so much truth about the human condition, about our propensity to stumble over and over again, and, ultimately, about God’s faithfulness in our lives. As I scrolled through the comments, it was interesting to see what people focused on in the video, what caught their particular attention.  

There was one group that seemed to focus on the reality of the ditch. The ditch is deep. It’s dark. It’s confining. And it’s abundantly clear that the sheep cannot free itself from the ditch. No matter how hard the sheep struggles. No matter what how many times the sheep twists and turns. No matter what he does, it is clear that the sheep cannot free itself from the ditch. Somebody is going to have to help that sheep! So, often I think we find ourselves in the ditch, and we believe that somehow we are going to get ourselves out of the ditch in our own strength. We believe that somehow we are going to be able to set ourselves free. The reality is that no matter how hard we struggle. No matter how many self-help books we read. No matter how many seminars we attend, we can’t set ourselves free from the ditch. Whether it’s grief or depression or unforgiveness or addiction or just sheer exhaustion. Someone is going to have to help us out of the ditch! And more often than not, we need to be pulled out of the ditch more than once. Because just like the sheep in the video, we frequently end up falling into the same patterns of pain and brokenness over and over again. So, it doesn’t surprise me that many people who watched this short video could relate to the reality of the ditch.    

But there was another group of comments that focused on the persistence of the shepherd. The sheep falls into the same ditch over and over again. And the implication of the video is that the shepherd is the one who will rescue the sheep over and over again, no matter how many times we fall into the ditch, no matter how many times we stumble and fall. The image of Jesus as our Good Shepherd is one that conveys that same persistence, that same tenacity. Jesus is the One who will leave the 99 to pursue the one lost sheep. Jesus is the One who knows his sheep by name. Jesus is the One who lays down his life for his sheep. And so, even though we fall into the same patterns of sin and pain and brokenness in our lives, Jesus never stops pursuing us. He never stops seeking us out. He never stops rescuing us and pulling us out of the ditch.So, when it came to this 20 second video, there were those who noticed the reality of the ditch. There were those who noticed the persistence of the shepherd. 

But do you know what I noticed? I noticed the joy of the sheep! The sheep doesn’t look back at the ditch and dwell on the past as if to say, “That was a horrible experience.” The sheep doesn’t look forward to the future with fear and anxiety,as if to say, “I really hope I don’t fall into the ditch again.” Instead, the sheep simply enjoys his newfound freedom. Now I know I am almost certainly attributing more emotional and intellectual sophistication to this sheep and he is capable of,but I think his reaction is exactly how Jesus is calling us to live. We are going to fall into the ditch. And quite often, we going to fall into the same ditch over and over again. But we have a Shepherd who is so persistent and so tenacious that he pulls us out of that ditch, sets our feet on solid ground, and says, “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly. I have come that my joy might be in you, and that your joy might be complete!”

My friends, so often we spend way too much time looking back at the ditch and dwelling on where we have been. There are also times when we walk in fear and anxiety waiting for the next thing to go wrong. And even if we find ourselves in the midst of ditch, we can fall into the trap of believing that the darkness and despair of the ditch is all there is. Jesus came to show us a different reality. He came to show us a different way of seeing the world. He came to show us a different way to live. 

So, what would it look like for you and me to choose joy as the lens through which we see the world? I’m not talking about looking through rose-colored glasses. I’m not talking about naively overlooking the pain of the world and the brokenness of our lives. Jesus never denied the sin and pain and brokenness of the world. In fact, he called it out. He named it. He exposed the reality of the human condition. And yet, at the same time, he said, “I am the Good Shepherd. I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly. I have come that my joy might be in you and that your joy might be complete! As one 20th century theologian put it, “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.”

My friends, we can allow the reality of the ditch to control our lives and shape our mindset, or we can live into the reality of God’s abundance. We can be driven by fear or empowered by love? We can be hindered by hurt or inspired by joy? The choice is ours to make. 

Restoring Relationship

Every year on the Second Sunday of Easter, we hear the story of Thomas, the disciple who refuses to believe in the resurrection unless he first has an encounter with Jesus and is able to place his hand and fingers into the wounds of the One he knew had been crucified.  The encounter between Jesus and Thomas occurs exactly one week after the resurrection, which is one of the reasons why this story is read every year on the Sunday following Easter. Unfortunately, because of this one particular event, our poor friend Thomas has become permanently known to history as “doubting Thomas.” I say that this is unfortunate, because the essence of this story is not really about Thomas’ skepticism or his doubt. This is not ultimately a story about the need for proof or the need for some kind of empirical evidence for the resurrection. Rather, the story of Thomas and Jesus is primarily a story about the restoration and renewal of relationship.

Now, in order to see this story in terms of relationship, we have to step back into John’s gospel and review what he means when he uses a particular word, and that is the word believe. Believing is really important in John’s gospel, but he is using this word believe quite differently from the way we often use that same word in our modern context. In our contemporary, post-enlightenment context, to believe that something is true usually implies that we have some verifiable, empirical evidence. That which is true and real is that which can be observed and measured and proven. And so, we tend to divide our experience into two categories. On the one hand, we have the experience of belief, which is our intellectual assent to that which is verifiable and provable and on the other hand, we have the experience of doubt, which is our questioning and wrestling and uncertainty when we don’t have evidence or proof that something is true. We can think of these experiences as being the two ends of a spectrum – belief at one end and doubtat the other. 

But these are not the categories that are at work in John’s gospel. In John’s gospel, belief is not primarily a matter of intellectual assent. Belief is not about correctly interpreting every line of the Nicene Creed. Belief is not ultimately a matter of information or understanding. In John’s gospel and throughout the New Testament, to believe is to enter into relationship with Jesus. This begins to make sense when we realize that in the New Testament, the words believe and faith and trust and fidelity are all derived from a single Greek word. 

And so, to believe is to have faith! To believe is to trust! To believe is to enter into relationship! To believe is much more a matter of the heart than of the head.

Let’s go back to the story of Thomas and Jesus. Thomas is a disciple. He is a believer. He has spent at least three years of his life following Jesus and participating in his mission and ministry. So, for Thomas and all of those first disciples, the crucifixion was a devastating and crushing blow – emotionally, spiritually, and even physically. They were afraid. They were grieving. They were angry. And all they could think of to do was to lock themselves up behind closed doors and wait. Thomas, perhaps because of the depth of this own grief and disillusionment, didn’t even stay with his fellow discipled, and therefore, he missed the encounter with the risen Christ that took place on that first Easter night. Given his emotional and spiritual state, is it any wonder that when the disciples share their experience Thomas is guarded? Why are we surprised that Thomas is resistant and hesitant given the pain and hurt that he has experienced? His heart has been broken once, and he’s not about to allow it to be broken again!

And I want you to notice that in that moment, Thomas doesn’t try to hide his brokenness he doesn’t try to be strong or religious or pious. He’s brutally honest, and he says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe. I will not have faith. I will not trust. I will not enter back into that relationship.

But one week later…once again, the disciples are in the house. Once again, the doors are shut. Once again, Jesus appears. But this time Thomas is present and accounted for. Jesus doesn’t condemn or judge Thomas. He simply says, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side.” In other words, “Look, Thomas, it’s really me!”

Now the very next line is where most translations get it wrong, because the word doubt does not actually appear in the original Greek. The literal translation is “Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” What Jesus is saying to Thomas is essentially, “Do not be without belief. Do not be without faith. Do not be without trust. But believe. Have faith Trust me. Come and renew your relationship with me. Because, I’m not dead, I am alive, and I am here with you!

And Thomas responds, My Lord and My God! Not only is this one of the most profound and complete theological statements in the entire New Testament, it is also one of the most personal. This is not simply a theological declaration; this is a relational declaration – my Lord and my God.  

Notice that the story never tells us whether Thomas actually touches Jesus. I personally don’t think he did. Because it is not proof or empirical evidence that leads Thomas to a restored relationship, it is the presence of the risen Christ and the gracious offering of himself to Thomas. It is the power of the resurrection as a present reality in Thomas’s life that leads him to a restored and renewed relationship with Jesus. 

My brothers and sisters, this morning, I would like to invite us to reflect for a moment and to think about how often in our lives to we find ourselves identifying with Thomas. Times when we are afraid, grieving, angry and disillusioned – when the doors of our lives and our hearts are locked tight. In those moments believing and trusting can be difficult. Those are the times in our lives when we, like Thomas, need resurrection more than ever. Those are the times when we need the power of the resurrection as a present reality. And in those moments, it’s okay to be brutally honest with God. To express our frustration and brokenness. To release our anger and disillusionment.

Because somehow, often in the most surprising and unexpected ways, resurrection breaks through. You might be sitting in church or sitting in your car. You might be feeling spiritual strong or utterly defeated. It doesn’t matter. Resurrection life breaks through. Jesus walks right through the locked doors of our lives and offers himself to us. He says, “Come, renew and restore your relationship with me. I am not dead. I am alive and I am here with you.” And in those moments when the power of the resurrection becomes a renewed reality in our lives, we can boldly proclaim with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”

Nothing Is Normal Anymore

Imagine a time long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away. A time when life was different. A time when life was simpler. A time when life seemed normal. I’m talking, of course, about February 2020! Just fourteen months ago! Just fourteen months ago, our world seemed like a much different place. Worshippers filled many of our churches – like normal.Students filled classrooms and hallways – like normal. People attended concerts, went to sporting events, and socialized with their friends – like normal. In other words, everything was normal until suddenly it wasn’t. Now we learned some things over the course of the past year, right? We learned that the supply chain of toilet paper is not as reliable as we thought. We learned that with Zoom all things are possible or at least we like to think so. We learned that binge watching your favorite show on Netflix is officially the new great American pastime. But, if we’re honest, when our normal was disrupted, we were also reminded of some of the more serious problems that still plague our world. We were reminded that we are still deeply divided as a nation. We were reminded that we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to issues such as racial injustice and political discord. We were reminded that we are still struggling to live into the ideals we have for ourselves and those we love. My friends, the past year has been one long disruption of our normal. But when our normal is disrupted, that’s precisely when we are given the opportunity to learn about ourselves and to see the world differently. And so, today, on this Easter morning, I want to invite us to reflect on how we deal with disruption, with change and reorientation in our lives. Specifically, what do we do when God is the one who disrupts our normal? 

Our gospel reading this morning can help us answer that question, Because, when the women went to the tomb on that first Easter morning, everything they were doing there that day was normal. Their friend had just died a horrible and tragic death, so, it was normal for them to be grieving. They were following the traditional Jewish custom of anointing the body after burial, so, it was normal for them to bring spices early in the morning. They were concerned about the size and weight of the large stone in front of the tomb, so, it was normal for them to be questioning, “Who might roll away the stone for us?” Everything they were doing there that day was normal until suddenly it wasn’t. They arrive at the place where Jesus was buried, and the stone is already rolled away. The tomb is empty. Where they expected to see the body of their Lord, they encounter a stranger who announces that Jesus has been raised from dead. Suddenly and without warning, nothing is normal anymore! Now, if you think about it, Jesus had been in the habit of disrupting things all along the way. There was that wedding in Cana that was pretty normal, until Jesus showed up and turned water into wine. There was a funeral in Bethany that was proceeding as planned, until Jesus showed and called the dead man out of the tomb. There was a worship service in the village of Capernaum that was perfectly normal, until Jesus started casting out demons, healing the sick and proclaiming the kingdom of God had come near. Jesus has been disrupting things all along the way. But Easter is different! The events of that first Easter morning changed everything. The whole world was changed. Everything was turned upside down. Nothing was normal anymore! For us, two thousand years later, it’s easy to shout “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” But for the women who were standing in front of that empty tomb, it was an experience of profound disruption and disorientation. And they were afraid!

That’s where the gospel reading ends: “they were seized with terror and amazement, and they told nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” That’s a rather strange way to end a gospel reading on Easter Sunday, don’t you think? In fact, the ending of the Gospel of Mark was so dissatisfying almost from the very beginning, that later on someone added not one, but two alternative endings trying to smooth things out! But the ending we heard this morning is almost certainly what Mark intended for us to hear, because I don’t think Mark wants us to move past the fear too quickly. I don’t think Mark wants us to shout “Alleluia!” right away. I think Mark wants us to sit with and to acknowledge the fear. Because when everything has been turned upside down, when God has disrupted our normal, a healthy amount of fear and discomfort is probably appropriate. In fact, if we hear the Easter story and don’t tremble just a bit, I don’t think we have really heard the message. If we too casually proclaim, “Alleluia! Christ is Risen!” without realizing the implications of that reality for our lives, I don’t think we fully understand what we are saying. Because Easter changes everything! Nothing is normal anymore!

My friends, God is in the habit of disrupting our normal in order to open our eyes to a different reality. God disrupts our normal in order to stretch and deepen our faith. God disrupts our normal in order to shake us out of our complacency. God disrupts our normal in order to make us more like Jesus. It’s uncomfortable. It’s unsettling. It’s disorienting. And guess what? That is exactly the point!

But in the midst of the disruption, there is a promise. Because when God disrupts our normal, there is always a promise, and it’s the same promise that was given to the women on that first Easter morning. The stranger in the tomb declares to the women, “Jesus goes ahead of you!” Do not be afraid, because as you press on into your future, it is there where you will encounter the very presence and power of the risen Christ! That’s the promise of Easter! That’s the promise of resurrection! Fear doesn’t have the last word! Hopelessness doesn’t the last word! Disruption doesn’t have the last word! Not even death itself has the last word! Because the risen Christ goes before us and our hope and our future are found in him! No matter what you’re facing in your life. No matter what challenges may lie ahead of you. No matter how uncertain the future may seem. Jesus has already gone before you.

And so, this morning in the midst of the disruption, may you and I have the courage to let go of what has been in order to embrace what will be. In the midst of fear and confusion, may we trust that God is always working for our good. In the midst of change and disorientation, may we have confidence that God is in charge and our future is his hands. My friends, Easter changes everything! And because Jesus is alive, nothing is normal anymore! 

Sunday Ready – April 4

This week, we are launching a brand new video podcast called Sunday Ready. The purpose of this new podcast is to provide insight and background that will help you be ready to hear and respond to God’s Word when you come to church on Sunday. So often, we come to church and listen to the Bible being proclaimed, but we don’t really understand what we are hearing. We don’t know the background or the context. Our hope is that this new podcast will give you the information and insights you need to be “Sunday Ready!”

Here is the video for Easter Sunday, April 4. Enjoy!

Lenten Series – The Garden

Tonight, we come to the conclusion of our virtual pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Appropriately, our final pilgrimage site is the Garden of Gethsemane, the place where Jesus spent his last night in prayer before his crucifixion. It was in the garden that Jesus prayed to his Father that “the cup might pass from him.” It was in the garden that Jesus fully surrendered himself to God’s will. It was in the garden that Jesus experienced betrayal and rejection by those who loved him and had been his followers. So, take some time this Holy Week to reflect on the experience of Jesus in the garden. The Powerpoint slides below also include a series of photos from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the traditional site of the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.