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January 19, 2014–Who Needs Christ?

Contributed by Scott Mims, Virginia Beach, VA


Warm-up Questions

  • Who is the most famous or important person you have ever met, and what was the experience like? Or alternatively, if you could spend an afternoon with any one real person, currently alive or from the past, who would it be and why?
  • What is the most meaningful part or worship for you?  What makes it so meaningful?

Who Needs Christ?

shutterstock_124884124editAmidst all of the holiday advertising last month, one Times Square billboard drew national attention.  Sponsored by American Atheists, its message sparked a lot of coverage and debate, both in the news and online, with one New York State Senator calling for it to come down. The following is an excerpt from the press release which accompanied the billboard’s launch:

Using motion graphics, the billboard proclaims, “Who needs Christ during Christmas?” A hand crosses out the word “Christ” and the word “NOBODY” appears. The display then says “Celebrate the true meaning of Xmas” and offers a series of cheery words: family, friends, charity, food, snow, and more. The commercial ends with a jovial “Happy Holidays!” from American Atheists and displays the organization’s website.

Now that January has come and our schedules and lives are getting back to some sort of post-holiday “normal,” it may be hard to think in terms of Christmas. But the question posed by the billboard is an important one for us to think about.  “Who needs Christ during Christmas?”  Or even more simply, “Who needs Christ at all?”  Increasingly people in our culture agree with the sign’s message.  Roughly one fifth of adults in the U.S. – and a third of young adults under 30 – claim no religious affiliation. Yet the witness of the Scriptures is that God is indeed present and active in our world and in our lives, and so during these Sundays after Epiphany we focus on exploring who the baby in the manger is and why and how his birth is good news for all people.


Discussion Questions

  • What are your reactions to the message of this billboard?  What do you think its sponsors are trying to say and how do you feel about that?
  • Many people these days claim to be “spiritual but not religious.”  What do you think that means?
  • What are some of the reasons that people might have for not being “religious?”  For not being spiritual?
  • Can you be a follower of Jesus without being religious?  Without being spiritual?
  • Have you ever experienced a negative reaction or “push back” from other people because of your faith?  If so, how did you handle the situation?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, January 19, 2014 (Second Sunday after Epiphany)

Isaiah 49:1-7

1 Corinthians 1:1-9

John 1:29-42

(Text links are to Oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year C at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.


Gospel Reflection

Who is John the Baptist?  Who is Jesus?  Who are we?  These are some of the questions that John (the gospel writer) addresses today as we continue our journey through the Epiphany season.

So first, who is John the Baptist?  Despite his great popularity and powerful appeal as a preacher and prophet, John is not the Messiah.  We hear this quite plainly, both in the opening words of the gospel (Jn. 1:6-9) and in John the Baptist’s own reply to those who come seeking to know what he is up to (Jn. 1:19-23).  Rather, John is “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” As such, his divine purpose is to reveal to Israel – and ultimately to the world – the Messiah (Jn. 1:31)

What then does John reveal?  First, that the person whom he was sent to make known is Jesus and that Jesus is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Two times John uses this image to describe Jesus in today’s gospel.  It is an image that has connections both to the sacrificial system surrounding the Jewish Temple and to the Exodus event in which the blood of a lamb caused the final plague to pass over the households of the Israelites.  What’s more, Jesus will be crucified for the sake of the sin of the world on the day in which the Passover lambs are slaughtered (Jn. 19:14, 31, 42). This central part of Jesus’ identity is what we often sing about during Holy Communion after the bread and wine have been consecrated: “Lamb of God, you take away the sin of the world, have mercy on us….”

Jesus is also the one upon whom the Holy Spirit descends and remains.  Unlike last week’s gospel reading from Matthew, we do not actually get to witness Jesus’ baptism in John’s gospel.  Instead, we hear John the Baptist’s witness – his testimony about Jesus – as sort of a flashback.  For John himself, this was the sign that he was looking for (Jn. 1:33).  Not only is the Holy Spirit the marker of Jesus’ true identity and the power of God at work in and through him, the Spirit is the gift the Jesus gives to those who believe and follow him (Jn. 20:21-23).

Finally, in terms of who Jesus is, John makes an astounding claim: “And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.”  In my congregation we read the opening section of John’s gospel as part of our candlelight services on Christmas Eve.  In a darkened sanctuary illuminated by the glow of a hundred or so candles we hear about the Word of God becoming flesh, about the One who is the “true light” of the world, about God’s only Son through whom we have all received grace upon grace.  John the Baptist points to Jesus as being this One.  It is a claim, of course, that many today deny.

Which brings us to the third question this passage addresses: Who are we?  In the second part of our gospel reading John the Baptist’s witness – his sharing of his faith in who Jesus is – moves two of his own followers to find out more about this “Lamb of God.”  Seeing them following him, Jesus asks them, “What are you looking for?” For all who read John’s gospel, this is more than simply a casual question.  It is a question that we are asked, too.  When it comes to the future, when it comes to our lives, when it comes to Jesus, what are we looking for?  And, like the two disciples, are we ready to accept Jesus’ invitation to us to “Come and see?”

So, what did they “see” when they were with Jesus that day?  We aren’t told, only that, whatever it was, it led these two seekers to a point where it was no longer John’s witness but their own experience of being with Jesus that caused them to follow him.  One of them, Andrew, is so moved that he, in turn, also becomes a witness, inviting his brother, Simon to come and see.  Simon, who we also know as Peter, became one of the most central disciples in the whole gospel story.  At this point there is a lot yet to happen before he truly begins to understand what it means for Jesus to be Lamb of God and Messiah.

Perhaps that is also something for us to take away from our gospel for this week.  It is not perfection in understanding or completeness of knowledge that John (the gospel writer) is aiming for in his account of God’s great love for us in Jesus.  John is aiming for faith – that we might come to believe in Jesus ourselves and, in believing, to discover true and abundant life.  Here, by the Jordan River, he looks back to the very beginning, to the mysterious and powerful proclamation of his opening words, and, at the same time, forward to the cross, to the very place where the image of Jesus as Lamb of God finds its fulfillment.

Discussion Questions


  • The following are some of the titles and epithets that people have given to Jesus.  Which one(s) is (are) most meaningful to you? Why?


Son of God           Emmanuel                   Prince of Peace           Man or Sorrows

Good Shepherd     Lamb of God              Friend of Sinners        Teacher

Lord                      Light of the World      Bread of Life              Messiah


  • Who in your own life has shown / brought you to Jesus?  In what ways have they witnessed to their faith?
  • John the Baptist’s role was to point other people to Jesus.  If, as they say, actions speak louder than words, what are some practical, real-life ways that you might help other people know about Jesus and experience his love?
  • Why do you need Jesus?

Activity Suggestion

Act out the gospel lesson.  Try to imagine why Andrew is so eager to introduce others to Jesus.  What about Jesus do you think made him so excited that he couldn’t wait to tell Simon Peter?  Have you ever had the chance to invite someone else to “Come and see?”  If so, how did it go? Have those acting other parts give typical reactions to talking about Jesus with friends and acquaintances.  Talk about how this story might be seen as a model for doing evangelism.

Closing Prayer

Gracious and loving God, in the waters of baptism you name us and claim us and make us your very own.  Thank you for your love and for the forgiveness and new life that is ours through Jesus. As we seek to be his followers in our often messy and complicated world, place into our lives people and events who will remind us of who and whose we truly are.  Help us, in turn, to be living signs of your love and grace in the lives of those around us.  In Jesus’ name we pray.  Amen.

March 11-18, 2009 – Atheist ads on British bus

Contributed by Sylvia Alloway
Granada Hills, CA

Ariane Sherine, a British comedy writer, was shocked when she saw an ad on a London bus, placed by a Christian Web site. She decided that religious ads needed a “corrective.” She organized the “Atheist Bus Campaign” (link to BBC News article) and was soon joined by others who objected to religious sentiments expressed in public, notably famous atheist Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion.
Two-hundred thousand dollars later, this advertisement for atheism appeared on London buses: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” The American Humanist Association took up the theme by posting an ad on a Washington bus with a picture of Santa Claus that read, “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.” Australians came up with “Atheism: Sleep in on Sunday mornings.”

While some believers are outraged by these notices and demand that they be retracted, others look upon them as a good way to start a conversation about God. Since most of the Western world grants its citizens free speech, it is unlikely that the “Atheist Bus Campaign” will die down at any time soon.

Check out the ELCA ad campaign developed for sharing our mission and ministry.

Discussion Questions

  • Do you think that city buses should run atheistic ads? Christian ads? Why or why not? Are there any kind of ads or messages that shouldn’t be given/sold public space?
  • Under what circumstances could a Christian use the same “stop worrying” ad language to talk about his or her faith?
  • Discuss the bus ads (both Christian and atheistic) in the context of free speech. Does free speech mean anything goes, for instance, ridicule or personal attacks on a person for their beliefs or racial/ethnic identity, or use of cruel, violent, or obscene language? Where do you draw the line? Who should make such decisions?
  • Think about the message, “Stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Would atheism really eliminate worry and make life more enjoyable? Why or why not?
  • Atheists say that there is no factual support for the message of salvation through Christ, or for God’s existence. What do you think? How would you respond to them? 

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, March 15, 2009.

(Text links are to oremus Bible Browser. Oremus Bible Browser is not affiliated with or supported by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can find the calendar of readings for Year B at Lectionary Readings.)

For lectionary humor and insight, check the weekly comic Agnus Day.

Gospel Reflection

God’s will and law in both our physical and moral world has not been a popular idea throughout history. Yet the Bible is full of stories and admonitions that have to do with the truth and necessity of God’s law in all areas of life. In today’s Old Testament lessons, we have the Ten Commandments and a rousing picture of God’s sovereignty over nature (“The heavens are telling…”) and humanity (“The decrees of God are sure…”). But the New Testament lessons warn us that these laws are not obvious to everyone. In fact some will consider them foolish, while others will simply disobey when it suits them—believers and nonbelievers, alike.

Jesus does not go easy on this latter group who know better but still choose to disobey. The moneychangers in the temple are not just disobeying God’s law, which they probably know very well. They are corrupting God’s temple and leading others into sinful behavior by reducing worship to the act of buying the right sacrifice for the right amount of money so that God will hear their prayers more clearly or treat them more favorably, rather than worship God as they are with what they have. But there can be no tolerance or compromise here. God’s law clearly describes what belongs in the marketplace and what belongs in the temple, and cheating people out of their money (Mark’s account of the same incident, Mark 11:15-17) is wrong in any place and at any time.

When Jesus mentions destroying the temple, the Jewish leaders think he is talking nonsense. Jesus simply leaves them in their ignorance, knowing that they want only to argue, not to learn. At this point, the gospel writer zooms ahead and reminds us that the disciples remember these words of Jesus, after he is resurrected, and then find that they make perfect sense. As believers and followers—imperfect as they are—the disciples have become more open and receptive to God’s truth and word, while others remain resistant or closed off in mind and heart to the truth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

How, then, can we be more Christ-like in the matter of God’s law? We need to study, know, and have faith in God’s word, and apply it boldly to every situation of our life. We must resist compromise or messing with the truth to break or bend the law for our own benefit. And we need the presence of the Holy Spirit to guide us in our public witness with others and remind us of the great love and forgiveness that God wraps us in because we are imperfect and not always obedient.

The bottom line: We all need God’s mercy, even in our good works and obedience, because none of our actions are pure. (a paraphrase of Martin Luther)

Discussion Questions 

  • What specific modern examples can you think of in which people think God’s law is foolish, unrealistic, or can be ignored? What examples can you describe of people who claim to know and trust God, but act or do something contrary or seemingly hypocritical? (e.g., a minister scamming a congregation, TV evangelist preaching one thing and living another, a friend in youth group posting lies about someone online, cheating on a test or stretching the truth on an application because it could mean getting into a highly respected Lutheran college, etc.) How does God’s love, grace, and forgiveness enter into all of this?
  • In what way, or under what circumstances, might a bus ad influence a person to accept, reject, or want to know more about God?
  • You never know when you are going to have an opportunity to speak up for Christ, or when you might unknowingly be a witness. In what ways can Christians prepare themselves for such opportunities? Think beyond just spoken words and consider creative writing, videos and photography, actions, Web pages, relationships, decision making, etc.
  • A discussion for more mature students: Atheists claim that human beings can be truly good, caring, and generous without God’s law. What do you think? (Martin Luther talked about several different kinds or righteousness, one being a moral or “civil righteousness.” He described the possibility of people who are not Christian, in the context of obeying government and social laws and expectations, being good citizens who are caring, working for justice, good, and serving people in need. But he is clear in asserting that these works, no matter how good they are, do not earn us favor or salvation with God… that’s where the idea of “heavenly righteousness” or “righteousness of faith” comes in. We give ourselves over in faith that our forgiveness and redemption is God’s work and gift to us through Jesus Christ.)
  • Discussion Extension: Act out a few responses to the news article discussion questions 2 and 5. 

Activity Suggestion

  • Creating bus ads: Use art materials to make one or more Christian bus ads that respond positively (even humorously) to the “Stop worrying” ad or one of the others mentioned in the story. (Remember, the point is not to rip apart or smear the other ads or organizations.)
  • Work in your congregation or synod to use some of the media ads from the ELCA ad campaign. We have a message of good news, hope, and invitation to share with everyone.

Suggested songs

  • “Great is the Lord” (contemporary)
  • “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #858
  • “O, Sing to God Above” (“Cantemos al Señor”), Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #555
  • “Earth and All Stars,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #731

Closing Prayer

Almighty God and sovereign Lord, we thank and praise you that your law and your saving grace rule every corner of creation. We need never worry or fear that you are absent or that you have stopped caring for us, your people, your creation. Keep us surrounded by and grounded in your love and will, God, and show us the true freedom that comes from obedience and trust in you. In the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.