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Faith Lens

December 31, 2008-January 7, 2009 – Show me a sign

Warm-up Question: Are your expectations for 2009 mostly positive or negative?

As we begin a new year, in especially trying times, many Americans are looking for a sign of the things to come. Will it get better, or worse? Can we know before it happens?

We wonder if we’ve seen the worst of the economic crisis, or if the worst is still to come. Will more people find jobs than lose them? Will gas prices keep going down of zoom back up? Will consumers once again be able to get loans to buy homes and cars and pay for college?

Our president-elect has promised change, but will it really be the change we need? Will our elected officials find ways to stop fighting and work together on our behalf? Will the election of an African American signal an improved era of race relations in the country? Will we find a way to improve the lives of the poor, neglected, and most vulnerable in our society?

Do the recent attacks in Gaza and the Middle East suggest a year of greater violence, or is there still hope for peace? Will people with affordable medicines reach the sick that so desperately need them? Can we slow or reverse the damage we’ve done to our planet?

Some of our questions are more personal. Will I graduate? Will I find love? Will I find meaning in my life? What will happen to my family and friends?

It seems that only time will show us the answers to these and many other pressing questions.

Discussion Questions

  • What questions are you hoping 2009 will answer?
  • What signs may give you an early hint of the outcomes?
  • Can you, or anyone, reliably predict the outcomes? Can you affect these outcomes? Why or why not?
  • What does your faith lead you to expect in 2009?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, January 4, 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.)

Jeremiah 31:7-14 or Sirach 24:1-12
Psalm 147:12-20 (12) or Wisdom 10:51-21 (20)
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:[1-9] 10-18

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

Gospel Reflection

The first thirteen verses of John’s Gospel form a sort of executive summary of the Christian story. Jesus — the Word, the Light — was of God, not a recent creation, but present at creation. He came to earth born as a human as a witness to God, but he was rejected by many. For us, the good news is that some did believe, and those that do have new life and hope as children of God.

Then John begins his story of Jesus’ life and ministry with the witness of John the Baptist. The oppressed people of Israel had hoped for the promised Messiah, and were watching for a sign that he had come. They also had many questions. John’s witness was foretold in Isaiah 40:3, one of many signs that would confirm for believers that Jesus was the promised one. God had said, through Isaiah, that this is how Jesus’ ministry would begin.

In John’s message, we also have the first sign from God of the revolutionary new covenant with all humankind that was Jesus Christ. He is not, like Moses, an instrument for God to declare his law. Instead, through Jesus, God fulfills and demonstrates his truth and grace. As John says in verse 18, no one could see God, but through Jesus, we can know and develop a closer relationship with God.

Discussion Questions

  • Why was it necessary for John to “prepare” people for the coming of Christ?
  • Imagine yourself in first century Judea. What might influence you to believe or disbelieve John?
  • Few, if any, could imagine the events of the next three years of Jesus’ life. Based on the sign from John, what do you suppose most people expected of Jesus?
  • In what way are contemporary Christians like the Jews of Jesus’ time?
  • If God’s message through John is as valid today as it was in the time of Christ, what should we expect in 2009 and the years to come?
  • Based on these expectations, how should we behave and prepare ourselves as people who profess and follow Jesus as the Son of God — the promised Messiah and Savior?

Activity Suggestions

  • On a piece of paper, write down 2-3 questions that you hope will be answered, or problems you hope will be resolved, in 2009.
  • For each item, list the signs that will let you know in advance how they are likely to turn out. (For example, if you’re applying to colleges this year, your grades in school, SAT scores, information from colleges, or scholarships might be early signs that your hope will become a reality.)
  • Then, list the things you can do to affect and influence the outcomes, and the role of faith in each. What is beyond your control?
  • Share your list with the group.

** You can take this exercise one step further by putting it someplace safe (like the box you store your Christmas ornaments in) for a year. Next year at this time, review the list. How predictive were the signs you identified? How effective were your actions in securing the desired outcomes? And, most important, where do you see God’s hand in shaping the year you had?

Closing Prayer

Almighty God, we recognize in Jesus a sign of your great love for us. Help us every day to see the many signs of your loving presence in our world and bless us to be signs of your love for those who need your light and hope. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Contributed by Jocelyn Breeland
Fairfax, VA

October 1-8, 2008 – After 85 years, Yankee Stadium closes

Warm-up Question: Have you ever thought you did a good job following directions only to find out that you missed the bigger picture or objective? What were you doing? What were you were missing that was right in front of you the whole time?

Derek Jeter stood on the mound with teammates to begin the final farewell. Over 54,000 fans listened, as many had for decades to the voices of great baseball players like Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle. The pre-game celebration included 21 retired players, six who are Hall of Famers, and the 92-year-old daughter of Babe Ruth who threw out the ceremonial first pitch.

Jeter encouraged the fans to take the memories from the old stadium to the new, which will be completed across 161st Street at a cost of $1.3 billion. While the new stadium will also be called Yankee Stadium, it just won’t be the same for longtime fans, who lingered in the stadium after the game. Even Yankee staff and interns stayed as late as 4:00am the next morning as they struggled to let go of the traditions and past.

Every aspect of the night was full of nostalgia, from Yogi Berra, now 83, appearing in a full vintage uniform, to the 1922 American League pennant being unfurled in center field. The Yankees have won more World Series than any other baseball team. The marquee outside the stadium simply read, “Thanks for the memories.”

Roger Clemens was not invited to attend, nor was his name mentioned during the ceremonies. His name has been clouded by accusations that he used performance-enhancing drugs.

But there was more to celebrate than not, and by the time the grounds crew dug up home plate in the early morning following the game, a picture of Babe Ruth winking played on the video board, “See you across the street!”

Discussion Questions

  • Do you care about or pay attention to baseball traditions and history? Why or why not?
  • What traditions in your personal family have changed since you were young? Why did they change? Were the changes positive or negative for you? Why? How have you handled or adapted to the changes?
  • Name three rules or routines you have to follow on any given day — because you choose to or are required to do so. Why do you follow them? What seems to be important about maintaining the rules or routines?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, October 5, 2008.
(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 A at Lectionary Readings.)

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

Gospel Reflection

Change is in the air. In the world of professional sports, where financial sponsorship is essential to survival, old stadiums are being torn down and replaced with new facilities named after corporate sponsors in most cases. (Even some public schools are using corporate sponsorships to fund buildings and programs.) One does not have to be a New York Yankee fan, or even a baseball fan to understand that one era has come to an end and a new era has begun.

One thing is for certain, no matter how exciting games may be at the new Yankee Stadium, cries will come from those who attended games at the old stadium: “It’s just not the same.” And with the Yankees missing the playoffs for the first time in 13 years, the legacy and history of success truly gives way to a new beginning. There is a tremendous opportunity to be a part of the new face of success, a new future. Still, there will be people who don’t understand and won’t participate in or support the new direction the organization is going, even in a beautiful brand new facility.

In our Gospel lesson today, we probably identify with the answers given by the crowds to Jesus’ question (vs. 40). Everyone understood that the wicked tenants mentioned in the parable were deserving of punishment; the point of the parable was so obvious!

The people listening felt connected to Jesus’ message, but they didn’t seem to realize that they were in the presence of the living, promised savior. How surprised they must have been, especially the chief priests and Pharisees, to realize that Jesus was talking about them when he said the kingdom of God would be taken away and given to those who produced the fruits of the kingdom.

These leaders who had been charged with keeping of the long history of Jewish tradition and teaching the rules missed the point though. Change wasn’t coming; change was present and happening. The fulfillment of God’s promises, and the continuation of God’s new relationship with his people, was standing right in front of them — Jesus.

Their role in the history of God’s chosen people was in jeopardy. They knew their duties and routines, but they did not yet know the savior and fulfillment of God’s promise, who was teaching right there in their midst. They thought Jesus was just another prophet, and that nothing had changed.

You and I have the benefit of living in a post-resurrection world. We are guided by the Holy Spirit to understand God’s will and relationship with us, and to produce the fruits of the Spirit. Even more so, we live as forgiven servants, met by Christ at every moment in every day. Christ finds us were we are and guides us to participate in the promises of his resurrection: new life, hope, and the ability to dramatically change how we live knowing that we are forgiven children of God.

How will we respond?

Discussion Questions

  • The chief priests and the Pharisees were the caretakers of Jewish law and traditions. How do you view their desire to arrest Jesus as he told the parable of the wicked tenants? Read Matthew 21:43-44. Does that change your opinion in any way? How?
  • Have you ever questioned the authority of someone else? What motivated you to stand up against them? Why was it important to speak up? Thinking about it now, would you handle it the same way today? Why? Why not?
  • If it is our responsibility to ‘produce the fruits of the kingdom’ (vs. 43), how do we define them; what are they? What are you/we called to do with the help of the Holy Spirit in this day and age?

Activity Suggestions

  • Split into two groups. Role-play the parable and the reaction of the chief priests and Pharisees. One group watches and one listens. Switch groups and act out the parable and reactions a 2nd time. Does your opinion change depending on the role you played? Why? Why not?
  • Find out what your congregation’s mission statement says. Take a moment to quietly write your interpretation of the mission statement. Share your comments as a group. How do the actions of individual members and the entire congregation compare to the statement? What are you doing well? What might need to change?
  • Take a few moments to quietly write your own mission statement as it relates to your faith in action today. Share your individual mission statements. Keep them, and check in at a later date to see how your everyday life compares to your intended mission. Do some rewriting and revising, if you need to.

Closing Prayer

Merciful God, speak to us daily through your Spirit and guide us through your sacrifice in Jesus to be productive and loving servants in your kingdom. Amen

Contributed by Matthew R. Nelson
Walla Walla, WA