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December 15, 2013–A Step Forward or Backward?

Contributed by Brian Hiortdahl, Overland, KS


Warm-up Question

What are you hoping for this Christmas?  What are you expecting?  Are your hopes and expectations the same, or are they different?

A Step Forward or Backward?


photo by marco rubino /shutterstock

Last month, a coalition of powerful world nations struck an initial deal with Iran, setting limits on its nuclear program while easing economic sanctions against the country.  Reaction to this breakthrough step has been mixed, with some praising it as a step forward toward stability, transparency, and peace, and others condemning it as a step backward that allows Iran to become more volatile, establishes a worrisome negotiating precedent, and makes the world more dangerous:


Discussion Questions

  • Do you think this historic deal is a step forward or backward?  Why?
  • What do you think Jesus would have to say about this development?
  • Is there a comparable situation in your local community?  Who or what threatens peace and safety in your school or your neighborhood or your church?  What should be done about it, and who needs to talk together to work on a just solution?


Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, December 15, 2013 (Third Sunday of Advent)

Isaiah 35:1-10

James 5:7-10

Matthew 11:2-11

(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

John the Baptist wasn’t sure whether he could trust Jesus or not.  John held high ethical standards of righteousness and high expectations of a purifying Messiah who would clean house, clearly and decisively separating good from evil.  John’s undiplomatic clarity helped land him in prison when he preached against the adulterous shenanigans of the royal family, so he was unable to experience Jesus’ ministry firsthand.  He did get rumors and reports, however, of Jesus’ teaching and healing, which were full of power but not punishment.  John focused on an ax lying at the root of the trees; Jesus preached about sowing seeds.  John warned about a winnowing fork and a consuming fire; Jesus blessed the humble and warmed the heart.  John’s preaching was direct and confronted political power brokers; Jesus told strange stories that invited people without power into mysterious hope.

John sent his students to Jesus, therefore, with a typically direct question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  Jesus sent back a typically indirect, what-do-you-think reply:  “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to themAnd blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”  He then praised John to the crowds and pointed to a new reality, “the kingdom of heaven,” which would surpass anything John could imagine, even though he was the greatest prophet ever to prepare its way.

John is left to wonder:  Is Jesus a step forward, or a step backward?  Is his bottom up, lift the lowly approach the surprising way that God has chosen to right the world, or is it an exercise in naive futility?  Is he bringing peace or being too soft?

Discussion Questions

  •  Read Matthew 3:1-17 and 4:12-23.  What do the preaching of John and Jesus have in common?  How do they differ?  What does each preacher teach us about God?
  • Would you rather have Jesus or John at the negotiating table with Iran?  Why?
  • How is Jesus portrayed in media and popular culture?  What are our present day expectations of him, and are they realistic?
  • If someone asked you about Jesus, what would you tell them?
  • Traditionally, the season of Advent stresses the second coming of Jesus.  What do you think Jesus will look like when it happens?


Activity Suggestions

  • As a group, make a list of typical holiday expectations.  Do these lead to hope and joy or to disappointment?
  • Write a letter to your senator expressing your opinion about the deal with Iran, grounding your position in your Christian faith.

Closing Prayer

Come, thou long expected Jesus.  Prepare us for the kingdom of heaven, set us free from misguided expectations, and open our eyes to see the surprising gifts of grace you bring to us and to all the world.  Amen.

August 11-17, 2010–Speaking of Jesus…In ALL times

Contributed by Sylvia Alloway, Granada Hills, CA

Warm-up Question

What would you do or say, if you came face to face with someone who wanted to rob you? 

Speaking of Jesus…in All Times

 “I really hate to do this…” began the man with the gun.

 The clerk behind the counter at the wireless phone store did not panic. She began to tell the robber about Jesus.

 “I know you can do whatever you want, but let me tell you about the Jesus I have…Jesus my God.” Nayara Goncalves continued to talk to the man, after he claimed to be a Christian himself, encouraging him to go back to church. They discovered that they had attended the same church in Pompano Beach, Florida and both knew the pastor.

 Still the fellow insisted that he needed $300 for his rent, or he would be evicted. Only when the young lady explained to him that the money he took would be docked from her own wages did he finally relent and back slowly out the door.

 “God bless you!” he said, just before he made his exit. Less then an hour later he was arrested for robbing a nearby shoe store.

 Newsmen from a popular morning TV show [Good Morning America] who reported the incident were impressed by Goncalves’ calm courage.

Discussion Questions

  • Have you ever been the victim of a robbery or burglary? What would you say to the criminal if you were to meet him?
  • Why do you think a person would choose to commit a robbery instead of finding an honest way to get the money he needed?  Are there always honest options?
  • Do you think you could ever “witness” (tell someone about Jesus) in a dangerous situation? Why or why not?

 Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, August 15 (Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost) [Some congregations will use  texts observing the lesser festival, “Mary, Mother of our Lord]

Isaiah 61:7-11

Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Luke 12:49-56

(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

Jesus spoke of bringing peace. Yet here he talks about division and family strife. Is this contradictory?  No, Jesus recognizes that his vision is challenging; many will reject it.  Division between those who commit to following him and those who refuse to embrace his distinctive type of peace is inevitable.

The signs are everywhere, as obvious as the weather. Jesus is doing everything the prophets said the Messiah would do. Conflict with those who resist God’s coming kingdom has been building to the crisis point.  He has one more act to complete, what Jesus calls his “baptism,” that is, his crucifixion and resurrection. When this work is finished, it will be time to choose sides, either worshipping Jesus as Lord, or rejecting him as a fraud. There is no middle ground. 

Talking about Jesus brings division, sometimes even to the strongest family ties. There is no room here for “don’t make waves,” or “anything to keep the peace.” We are to show our devotion to the Lord in thought, word, and deed, no matter what the consequences. They may be good – we may turn away robbers, inspire faith, spread joy. Or we may upset people.

If you looked at the courage of Nayara Goncalves and thought, “I can’t do that,” you’re right, you can’t – alone. But we are not alone. We have the Holy Spirit, who has promised to give us words. We have the example of those who have gone before us (see today’s New Testament lesson, Hebrews 11:29-12:2). And we have each other, fellow Christians, for strength and encouragement. Those abiding in the love of Jesus cannot be divided.

Discussion Questions

  • Have you ever had to risk rejection or unpopularity because of your faith? What did you do? If you could go back to that incident, would you change your actions?
  • Are you or do you know anyone who is the only Christian in his or her family? What kind of support can the Body of Christ, the Church, give such people, so that they can live out their faith and not feel alone?
  • When and where do you find it most difficult to behave like a Christian? What suggestions do class members have for staying true to Christ in these situations?

Activity Suggestions

Practice responding to those who question or ridicule Christian belief. List some of the arguments you have heard against belief in Jesus (I don’t understand it.  Following the Christian way is too hard.  It’s only for stupid or weak people, etc.). Come up with answers to those arguments. If time permits, act out some scenarios, with one person playing a skeptic and another, a believer.

Suggested Songs: Onward Christian Soldiers, Lift High the Cross, The Battle Belongs to the Lord (contemporary)

Closing Prayer

Father, we humbly admit that we are weak in our desire and ability to speak out for you. Let us pray for and encourage one another. We ask for your Spirit to inspire in us the words and actions that will best glorify you.  In the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

May 19-25, 2010–An (Increasingly) Open Book

Contributed by Daniel Wiessner, Tacoma, WA

Warm-up Question

To whom do you turn when you’re not sure what to do?

An (Increasingly) Open Book

Turns out everyone’s Facebook privacy is getting a lot less private all the time and, unsurprisingly, a few feathers are getting ruffled.

Ryan Singel at Wired noted the private interests which are unavoidably public via Facebook. He wrote, “I’d like to make my friend list private. Cannot. I’d like to have my profile visible only to my friends, not my boss. Cannot. I’d like to support an anti-abortion group without my mother or the world knowing. Cannot.”

The recent addition of Facebook’s new “instant personalization” is getting particular attention due to its sharing of your personal information with Pandora, Microsoft Docs, and Yelp, in order to help those sites tailor their advertisements to fit your interests. Users can opt out, but the process is apparently complicated and confusing. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), among other organizations, is rallying against Facebook with claims that “Instant personalization violates user expectations and reveals user information without the user’s consent.”

Mark Zuckerberg, the guy who started this crazy Facebook thing, stated earlier this year that  Facebook is constantly being updated “to reflect what the current social norms are.  A lot of companies would be trapped by the conventions and their legacies of what they’ve built… doing a privacy change for 350 million users is not the kind of thing that a lot of companies would do. … But we viewed that as a really important thing, to always keep a beginner’s mind and what would we do if we were starting the company now and we decided that these would be the social norms now and we just went for it.”

Main article from:
Wired quote from:
Zuckerberg quote from:

Discussion Questions

  • Are you on Facebook? (Show of hands, for curiosity’s sake.)
  • How do you feel about these privacy changes? Does it really matter to you?
  • Some people argue that Facebook is causing these shifts in social norms that Zuckerberg spoke about. Do you agree with Zuckerberg (that Facebook is just following the trend) or do you think that it is a driving force in the change? Why?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, May 23, 2010 (Day of Pentecost)

 Acts 2:1-21

Romans 8:14-17

John 14:8-17 [25-27]

(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

I’m afraid I can’t “tsk” Philip too harshly for his opening line in this week’s gospel lesson because, really, he and I have something in common here: We don’t always pay attention so well. Fortunately for the both of us, we have been blessed to hold the company of some very kind and very patient people who are willing to explain things to us again and again.

If you remember, Jesus is going to be leaving his disciples, Philip included.  Reading the rest of John 14 reveals pretty clearly that the disciples are uncomfortable with the idea. The disciples general response is “But-but-but.. Wait! Where are you going? We feel kind of low on definite instructions. Is there any way we could maybe text you if we have questions?”

Jesus calmly and patiently reassures his disciples that things are going to work out just fine. In fact, he even leaves them a number to call, so to speak, in case they get confused. Jesus promises another advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will “teach [them] everything, and remind [them] of all that [Jesus has] said to [them].”

In the same way, by reminding us of Jesus’s teachings and instructions, The Holy Spirit acts as our own divine guide. This is a great gift when our easily confused moral compass might mistake North for East.

With this promise of the “Spirit of truth,” Jesus closes this week’s lesson with some of the most wonderful, calming words we could ever hear from our Lord and Savior. “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Amen, Lord Jesus.

Discussion Questions

  • Go back and explore the rest of John 14. Think about how the disciples felt before and after this week’s Gospel lesson. What do you think your reaction would have been?
  • Looking back at the news for today, do you think that Zuckerberg’s moral compass is confused? Or is the Facebook privacy issue a moral issue at all? Explain.


Activity Suggestions

Texting Treasure Hunt:

In this exercise, there is one leader and a group of hunters. (For youth groups, I recommend there be an adult leader acting as the “leader” as well as another adult leader in the group of “hunters.”) The leader of this exercise must know the surrounding area well. To assist in delivering accurate directions, it may be helpful for the hunters to have  a GPS-enabled phone  while the leader tracks them via Google Latitude or a similar service.

The leader tells the group of hunters that he or she will be waiting for them somewhere nearby before suddenly leaving them. The hunters then petition text messages from the leader in order to help find their way. The leader may be as cryptic or simple as he or she desires.

After the hunters find the leader, they should explore how they felt during the exercise. Was it unnerving to be unaware of where they were headed? Was it reassuring to know that they could ask and receive directions whenever they needed it?

Closing Prayer

Dearest Jesus, thank you for the gift of the Holy Spirit to guide us along your pathways. Thank you for the reassurance you give us every day, through the remembrance of your great sacrifice, that we need never let our hearts be troubled. Amen.

May 5-11, 2010–Faking It and Forgiveness

Contributed by Steven Alloway, Granada Hills, CA

Warm-up Question

How do you feel after you do something you’re not supposed to do? Do you worry about whether or not someone will find out? Do you worry about what kind of trouble you’ll get into?

Faking It and Forgiveness

Tatiana Khan of Los Angeles, CA paid an art restorer $1,000 to make a forgery of Pablo Picasso’s 1902 painting, The Woman in the Blue Hat. She then turned around and sold it for $2 million.

Then the FBI got involved. Khan first told the authorities that she had gotten the painting from someone else and didn’t know it was a fake. She also told the painter of the forgery to lie to the FBI, to claim he only does restoration work, not copying. But the truth soon came to light. Khan is scheduled to plead guilty next month to felony charges of witness tampering and making false statements to the FBI. Her crimes carry a maximum sentence of 25 years in prison, but a plea bargain, based on her cooperation, recommends a maximum sentence of only 21 months.


Discussion Questions

  • Why do you suppose Khan tried to sell a phony Picasso? Why do you think the art dealer went along with it?
  • Considering that the charges Khan now faces do not concern the painting itself but her subsequent dealings with the FBI, why do you think she lied and tried so hard to cover her tracks, when she knew she was caught?
  • If you were the judge, how would you sentence Tatiana Khan? Which sentence do you think is more appropriate for her crimes, 21 months or 25 years?  What sentence should the forger/art dealer receive?


Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, May 9, 2010 (Sixth Sunday of Easter)


Acts 16:9-15

Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5

John 14:23-29

(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

“Those who love me will keep my Word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” Familiar words from a familiar verse. But upon closer inspection, the interpretation becomes a little more daunting.

“…and my Father will love them.” But what if we don’t keep God’s word? Won’t he still love us? Because, try as we might, none of us can keep God’s word all the time. And what about the next verse? “Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.” But we do love Christ! We may mess up.  We fail to keep his words the way we should. We may even flat out deny our relationship with Jesus, as Peter did. But that didn’t mean Peter loved Jesus any less, nor do we. Though we love him, we are prone to sin. So what can we do?

Well, Jesus covers that too. “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you.” God sent us the Holy Spirit to help us in our spiritual lives. He will keep us on the right track, be our help in times of trouble, and guide us when we stray from the path. Everyone strays from God’s word sometimes. The Holy Spirit is our advocate—someone who intercedes on our behalf when we fail to measure up, a reminder that God still loves us, even when we sin.

Jesus also gives us something else: Peace. When we sin, it can weigh heavily on our conscience and tear us up inside.  We worry about what we’ve done and wonder what others will think of us if they find out. But Jesus gives us his peace, so that our hearts need not be troubled. Knowing we are forgiven, that God still loves us, we can rest easy. But we do more than just rest. With the Holy Spirit to guide us and Christ’s peace to comfort us, we can get back on the right path, seeking to love God and keep his Word.

Discussion Questions

  • Since we know that we’re forgiven and God still loves us, even when we sin, does that give us a free pass to sin whenever we want? Why? How would that attitude reflect on our love for God?
  • What are some ways the Holy Spirit has guided you back to God’s path when you strayed?
  • How is our situation like Tatiana Khan’s? How is it different? Do you think the FBI cut her a deal for a reduced sentence out of forgiveness or for some other reason?

 Activity Suggestion

Look in the Bible for other mentions of the Holy Spirit (The Spirit, Comforter, Advocate, etc.). Write about how the Holy Spirit is active in our lives.

Closing Prayer

Holy Spirit, watch over me in all that I do and keep me on the right path.  When I stray, lead me back to you. Give me your peace, so that my heart may not be troubled.  Help me always to love you more and more, that I may keep your Word. Amen.

April 1-8, 2009 – Parade ends 30+ year run

Contributed by Erik Ullestad
West Des Moines, IA

Warm-up Question: What’s the coolest parade you’ve ever attended? What made it so great?

The 2009 St. Patrick’s Day parade on Chicago’s South Side was the most violent in its 31-year history. It was also the last time the parade would be run. The South Side Irish Parade Committee met a week after the St. Patrick’s Day debacle. The committee announced, via a news release on their Web site, that they are discontinuing plans to hold the parade in 2010. One of the determining factors was the violence that broke out along the parade route. When it was all said and done, nearly a dozen police officers were assaulted and 54 people were arrested.
The parade had become increasingly popular in recent years. Over 300,000 people crammed into the 24-block route in this year’s event. According to eye-witnesses, many of the people who gathered for the parade had been consuming alcohol.

From the South Side Irish Parade’s official Web site:

“This decision was not arrived at lightly. For 31 years, this parade was a staple of the Beverly/Morgan Park and Mt. Greenwood communities — a celebration of faith, family, and heritage that was cherished by thousands.”

The feast of St. Patrick is celebrated on March 17, in honor of the Irish saint. It is also the national holiday of the country of Ireland. 

Discussion Questions

  • How did you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day?
  • St. Patrick is recognized as a patron saint by the Catholic Church. What do you know about saints? How many saints can name and describe?
  • Do you agree with the decision to cancel the parade in future years? Why or why not?
  • What kinds of restrictions would you put in place to allow the parade to continue?

Scripture Texts (NRSV) for Sunday, April 5, 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 for Mark 11:1-11 

It’s homecoming time in Jerusalem. After three years of preaching, teaching, healing, and stirring up all sorts of trouble, Jesus finally returns home. He has amassed quite a following in this time. Everyone wanted to see what Jesus was doing. They wanted to know if what they heard about him was true. Could he really walk on water? Was he able to raise the dead back to life? Was he really the Son of God, or just the latest fad who could do a few magic tricks?
Jesus knew that his return to Jerusalem might be a big deal, so he sent one of his disciples ahead to get a colt for Jesus to ride in to town. Why a colt? Back in the day, if a military hero came home, he arrived on a horse. If a peace messenger came, they rode in on a donkey. Some other gospel writers (Matthew and John) say Jesus came on a donkey, thus conveying a peaceful entry into Jerusalem. Perhaps Mark felt that, though Jesus wasn’t coming with a message of military might, his return home wasn’t necessarily peaceful.

Jesus was a rockstar among the people in his hometown. Everyone wanted a piece of him. They threw their clothes and palm branches on the ground to keep the dust from stirring up in his face. The people formed lines along the side of the road. They showered him with praises. He was even allowed to enter the temple, even though the hour had grown late.

In many churches, Palm Sunday has morphed into Palm/Passion Sunday. We are reminded that, even in the midst of our jubilant celebration, we are only a few days removed from the drama that unfolds on Thursday night. 21st century Christians are aware of this. Jesus was aware of it at the time, but the people who were shouting “Hosanna!” likely had no idea. Their joy couldn’t be contained. Jesus — the Son of God and an ancestor of David — came home. It was time to party!

Discussion Questions 

  • What do you think is the significance of Jesus riding an UNridden colt?
  • Imagine you had only one cloak. Why would you throw it on the ground for a donkey to walk on?
  • What kind of celebration or parade would take place in your community if a famous local celebrity returned home?
  • How can you celebrate Jesus’ arrival in your life throughout the coming week?

Activity Suggestion

Take the palms that were used in worship and make crosses out of them. (For suggestions on how to make them, click here, here, here, or here.) Find a prominent place in the church to hang them, so people who return for Holy Week worship services can be reminded of how the celebration of Palm Sunday quickly turns to mourning and sadness.

Closing Prayer

God, thanks for sending Jesus into our lives. Help us to celebrate his presence and reflect on his passion this Holy Week, and always. Amen.