The 7 “I am” sayings of Jesus

The 7 “I am” sayings of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel

Right from the beginning, any reader of the Gospel of John will notice that it is different than the three Synoptic Gospels. Many of Jesus’ discourses in John are rich with mystery and riddles that hook readers to think more deeply about the primary Christological question: Who is Jesus Christ? Jesus answers that question and much more in a variety of ways, including the seven “I am” sayings.

 

In the next while, I plan on posting my humble attempts at exploring Jesus’ “I am” sayings in my sketch pad, using oil pastels. They shall also appear here as blog headers. The first in this series is: “I am the bread of life.” (John 6:35, 41, 48-51)

35, 41, 48-51

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Sermon 20 Pentecost Yr A

20 Pentecost Yr A, 28/09/2008

Matt 21:23-32

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Questioning authority and doing God’s will”

 

In Arabia, shortly after colts are born, they are entrusted to a trainer who uses only a bugle to lead them to water, food, and back to the corral. Never a word is spoken. All training is done with the bugle. After several months, the test is made. The horses are locked in the corral. They are kept there for four days without food and water. By the fourth day, they claw the fence and the sides of the walls, inflicting wounds on themselves, as they smell a freshwater breeze blowing in their direction from a nearby stream. After four days, the bars are let down and the horses stampede toward the stream. Just then, the bugler sounds the retreat. Those horses, which, despite their terrific thirst, turn back into the corral are used for breeding purposes. They only are deemed worthy of perpetuating the final strain of Arabian horses.1

In today’s gospel, Jesus’ authority is questioned by some of the Jewish leaders at the Jerusalem temple. In a way, Jesus’ authority is like the bugler and its sound of retreat. For those who recognise Jesus as the Messiah and listen to his voice, there is life abundant now thanks to his authoritative teachings and acts of grace; and a wonderful future in God’s eternal realm. Those who do not accept Jesus’ authority and teachings; according to Matthew’s account of this incident; are headed for a collision course with Jesus. According to these religious folks, Jesus was likely an unorthodox, unqualified fanatic, trying to wow the people by leading them away from the traditional teachings and authority of these Jewish leaders. They felt threatened by Jesus, his authority and teachings, which were drawing crowds and influencing them. Who was this Jesus to challenge and threaten their security, authority and teachings?!

In many respects, these Jewish leaders are not all that different than professional, qualified, credentialed leaders today. Leaders with impressive credentials gain authority and their teaching is respected by virtue of that hard-earned authority. The general public, when they turn to leaders and professionals, want to know that those they are confiding in and trusting have proper training and credentials giving them legitimate authority—whether it’s a medical doctor, a psychiatrist, psychologist, a dentist, a lawyer or a clergyperson.

Yet, Jesus in today’s gospel turns this kind of authority upside down. Here is, as far as we know, this fellow named Jesus who hasn’t even studied at rabbinical school; doesn’t even have an undergraduate degree; never underwent a colloquy examination; refused to take a clinical pastoral education unit; totally alienated the committee for theological education and leadership; and to the best of our knowledge hasn’t even written one single theological paper let alone an academic book; this Jesus, this itinerant teacher-preacher-miracle-worker-upstart-rabble-rouser invading our turf; threatening to turf out us respectable religious leaders! Moreover, what makes him even more unorthodox and obnoxious is that he is even able to beat the religious elite at their theological word games of putting him on the spot and trapping him with a fool-proof question that not even Solomon in his wisdom could weasel out of! Now that really got their goat! Pushing the envelope, he tells them, “I’ll answer your skill-testing trick question only on the condition that you answer my question first: “Was John’s baptism of human or divine origin?”

Well now, they hadn’t thought about that kind of situation—they were supposed to be the ones in control, asking all of the questions. Now this Jesus surprised them and took control with this, even more fool-proof question. What were they to do? They were literally damned if they said “yes, it was from God,” or damned if they said “no, it was from humans.” In their huddle they decided to evade the question, even in their hearts they did not believe John’s baptism was from God. So, they said, “We don’t have a clue what the answer is to that question.” Strange, is it not, that these defenders of the Jewish faith and traditions evade the question by saying that they’re stumped. Well, no, not really. Why? Because they knew they’d lose their authority and teaching influence if they said yes to the question—then Jesus would ask them why they had failed to believe John and accept his authority and baptism. And if they said no to the question—then they’d be in for it from their own people, the crowd would be insulted, because many of them had been influenced by John’s ministry. So, to preserve their power and security, the best answer was the politically expedient answer “we don’t know.”

Jesus then tells them that because they’ve failed to answer his question, he will not answer their question about his authority.

The irony of these Jewish leaders answering as they did is that the educated elite come across as the fools, not Jesus whom they were trying to humiliate. This is an important lesson for us too, is it not? It is a reminder of the truth of what Paul said in his first letter to the Corinthians that the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom; the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

No sooner had these Jewish leaders lost round one of this encounter with Jesus, than now, the tables are turned on them for a second round—this time Jesus takes complete control of the situation and tells them the story of a man with two sons. He tells the first son to go and work in the vineyard. The first son says “no,” only a little while later he changes his mind, repents, and goes to work. The father told the second son to go and work in the vineyard too. The second son provides the correct words, the right answer, however, his actions, make his words out to be false. He promised the father, ‘I go, sir,’ but fails to follow through and ends up not going to work in the vineyard. Then Jesus asks the Jewish leaders which son did the will of the father? The Jewish leaders answer correctly, by saying “The first,” however, their answer and lack of acceptance of both John and Jesus ironically makes them like the second son in the story—they have all the correct words, yet they fall short on actions. Least we point our fingers at those Jewish leaders, it is instructive that we take this story to heart and look at ourselves. Who are we in the story? Are we too at times not like that second son? Do we too not fail at times to follow through on our actions so that our words, though correct, and full of promises, convict us of our sins and failures? Moreover, do we too not fall into the trap that Jesus is teaching us to avoid? Do we judge others by their surface appearances rather than what’s inside? Are we blind to the faithful acts that they do in obedience to the LORD? Do we condemn the modern-day tax-collectors and prostitutes when, according to Jesus, they may very well be going into the kingdom of God ahead of us?

Tough questions, I know, and I admit that I’m just as guilty and sinful as the worst offender here today. The yes and no of the two sons is happening everyday. You and I have likely been both the first son and the second son on occasion—we’ve said no, then changed our mind, repented, and did what our parents told us to do. And we’ve spoken the right words, given our parents the correct answer, yet failed to follow through by doing what they told us to do. Plus, we who are parents likely can identify with the father—our children may have done as these two sons did when we asked them to cut the lawn or clean up their room or take out the garbage or wash the clothes. Then, maybe to our surprise when they flatly refused and answered with a firm ‘no,’ we were sorry for having judged them too harshly when we discovered that they had actually gone out and done the very thing they said that they would not do.

Or perhaps we’ve had the experience of prematurely judging a social outcast like a tax-collector or prostitute, thinking that they were incapable of being faithful to Christ and outside the realm of God’s grace, only to discover that we are the ones being judged by our premature judgement—since they actually were more faithful and obedient than we were. We all know from our own experience that it is foolish to judge prematurely and by outward appearances. We all know that outward appearances can be deceiving—after all, that old adage, “You cannot judge a book by its cover” is very true.

There is a beautiful story about this very important lesson, and it goes like this: The name of the Rev. W. Colvin Williams was probably known to few people outside the small American town where he was minister. Williams was blinded by an exploding land-mine during the Last War, but he did not allow this to stop him from fulfilling his cherished ambition to train as a minister for the church he loved.

When he was ordained he said, “I feel my blindness may actually be an asset in my work. I can never judge by appearances and be prejudiced. My blindness keeps me from cutting myself off from a person because of the way he (or she) looks. I want to be the kind of person to whom anyone can come and feel secure to express (herself or) himself.”2

That kind of judgemental blindness is what we all need to be blessed with—for Jesus is Friend and Saviour of even the most rejected and despised of outcasts and, as his followers, he gives us the ministry of loving and caring for such people too. Amen.

1 Cited from: Emphasis, Vol. 26, No. 3, September-October 1996 (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc.), p.37.

2 F. Gay, The Friendship Book 1987, meditation for November 27.

 

 

Sermon 19 Pentecost, Yr A

19 Pentecost Yr A, 21/09/2008

Exod 16:2-15

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“God provides bread and meat in the wilderness”

 

James and the Giant Peach is a fairy tale about an orphan boy, James, who is forced to live with his two cruel aunts. He dreams about escaping to a wonderful place across the ocean his parents had told him about—New York City. When a sympathetic stranger appears with a bagful of magic, James (played by Paul Terry) begins his journey with a giant peach and bizarre, life-size insects.

In one scene, James and his insect friends float on the giant peach as they cross the Atlantic Ocean. A flock of birds holds and propels the peach, each tied to it with string. The centipede says desperately, “Want food. Food.” He looks at the grasshopper, who suddenly turns into a block of cheese and a bottle of wine. The centipede rubs his eyes in disbelief and then looks at the worm, who suddenly turns into a mustard-covered hot dog. He shakes his head and looks up at the birds, one of which abruptly turns into a whole cooked chicken. Salivating, he grabs the bird’s string and pulls it down. As he attempts to bite into the now live and struggling bird, the ladybug hits him with her purse and insists that he put the bird down. The centipede lets go and complains, “But I’m dying of hunger.”

The ladybug responds, “Oh, perhaps I have a bit of soda bread in here.” She takes a chunk out of her purse.

Seeing this, the grasshopper says, “Food?” and grabs the bread. He insists, “I need the food. I have a much higher metabolism.” He takes a bite as the angry centipede lunges at him. They struggle comically for the chunk before it accidentally bounces off the peach and falls into the ocean.

The worm laments, “We’re going to starve. Waste away. And not quickly. Miserably. Painfully.”

James, who has silently been watching the feud, presses the peach’s surface, which gives way just a bit. He raises his hands and happily announces, “Nobody’s going to starve! Don’t you see? We have enough food here for five voyages.”

He climbs down a small hole in the peach, then quickly reemerges with a big chunk of peach. “The whole ship is made of food.” He gives some to the centipede, grasshopper, and ladybug.

The centipede rejoices, “It’s the best thing I’ve ever tasted. And I’ve tasted a lot.”1

In today’s first lesson, we have a similar situation as this fairy tale. The Israelites grow impatient, tired and become cranky as they wander about in the wilderness. It isn’t long before their discontent is aired, they start to complain to their leaders, Aaron and Moses—blaming them for leading them on what they think is a pointless journey to nowhere. They even lament that things were much better back in Egypt when they were slaves—at least they had food there that they enjoyed.

How quickly the Israelites and we too forget! Far too soon, the Israelites panic and fear. Their panic and fear leads them into complaining about their situation. They have forgotten what the LORD had recently done. Had the LORD not just spared their lives from Pharaoh’s army and the waters of the sea? Had the LORD not provided them with the leadership team of Moses and Aaron? Had the LORD not perfectly prepared Moses as a leader for this specific task? Earlier in his life Moses had learned the traditions of Pharaoh’s court; he had also learned as a shepherd how to survive in the wilderness. Had the LORD not been with them in the pillar of fire by night and pillar of cloud by day?

It seems that the Israelites had forgotten the bountiful provision and protection of the LORD in their recent past. It seems instead that they were in a rather romantic mood, longing to be back in Egyptian slavery rather than here in the Sinai Peninsula freed from Pharaoh’s slavery and on their way into a new, Promised Land. They were trying romantically to convince themselves that Egyptian slavery wasn’t so bad—in fact it was the golden-olden days, “Weren’t they great!” they opined. I wonder if we are not like the Israelites a bit too when we look at the past? Do we too romanticize and idealize it like the Israelites, longing for the past rather than trusting God to provide for us in the present and the future? Do we, like ancient Israel, overly romanticize and idealize the past by complaining to our leaders and to God? Do we, like Israel complain so much that we are blind to how God is at work in our midst to abundantly provide for us and protect us in the present and in the future?

It is rather instructive how the Israelites’ complaints are dealt with. First of all, Aaron and Moses do not take their complaints personally. They rightly discern that the Israelites were complaining not against Moses and Aaron, but that their complaints were really against God. This is an important lesson for us who are pastors and leaders in the Church. We too need to be discerning and recognise not to take all the complaints of God’s people personally. Rather, we like Moses and Aaron need to recognise that at times the complaints actually need to be addressed directly to God. Not all complaints should be taken personally—that’s an important insight from this passage beneficial to all pastors and other leaders.

Notice too that God does not respond to the Israelites’ complaints by becoming angry with them or punishing them, or hitting them over the head with law. NO! Rather, God, through Moses and Aaron answers the Israelites as if their complaints were an SOS prayer for help. God has compassion on the Israelites and their plight. God answers their prayers of complaint with mercy, love, and grace. God answers by promising them provision and protection. God provides them with meat in the evening in the form of quails and bread in the morning in the form of manna. God promises to be with them in their journey through the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night.

Israel’s story is also our story. We at Grace Lutheran can trust in God and God’s mercy, love and grace. We can trust that God in the Person of Jesus provides for all of our needs, protects us, and is with us as we journey into the future. May we respond to God’s faithfulness and grace by remembering with thanksgiving God’s abundant provision, protection and presence. May we also trust in God’s faithfulness today; and pray that God’s will be done as we move forward in trusting that whatever our future, Christ is with us.

 

1 Craig Brian Larson & Lori Quicke, Editors, More Movie-Based Illustrations for Preaching & Teaching: 101 Clips to Show or Tell (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan & Christianity Today International, 2004), pp. 154-155.

Kudos to our Medicine Hat Folk Music Club

Last night—Friday, September 12—our Medicine Hat Folk Music Club kicked off this season’s Songwriter Night. What a lovely evening it was! Our small city has a lively folk music scene with much talent, including up and rising artists who have recently recorded CDs of their original compositions and are even receiving international acclaim. I thoroughly enjoyed last night’s gathering—kudos to our Medicine Hat Folk Music Club members! You can visit the club’s website here to check out the up and coming concerts as well as the annual January Tongue on the Post Folk Music Festival artists. You can also visit their myspace site and have a glimpse of the talent showcased at the Songwriter Night here

Sermon 17 Pentecost, Yr A

 

 

17 Pentecost Yr A, 7/09/2008

Rom 13:8-10

Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson

Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &

Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s

South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta

 

“Love’s Debt”

 

An anonymous person tells the following story: Twenty years ago, I drove a cab for a living. When I arrived at 2:30 a.m., the building was dark except for a single light in a ground floor window.

Under these circumstances, many drivers would just honk once or twice, wait a minute, then drive away. But I had seen too many impoverished people who depended on taxis as their only means of transportation. Unless a situation smelled of danger, I always went to the door. This passenger might be someone who needs my assistance, I reasoned to myself.

So I walked to the door and knocked. “Just a minute,” answered a frail, elderly voice. I could hear something being dragged across the floor.

After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman in her 80s stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like somebody out of a 1940s movie.

By her side a small nylon suitcase. The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets.

“Would you carry my bag out to the car?” she said. I took the suitcase to the cab, then returned to assist the woman. She took my arm and we walked slowly toward the curb.

She kept thanking me for my kindness.

“It’s nothing,” I told her. “I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother treated.”

“Oh, you’re such a good boy,” she said.

When we got in the cab, she gave me an address, then asked, “Could you drive through downtown?”

“It’s not the shortest way,” I answered quickly.

“Oh, I don’t mind,” she said. “I’m in no hurry. I’m on my way to a hospice.”

I looked in the rear-view mirror. Her eyes were glistening.

“I don’t have any family left,” she continued. “The doctor says I don’t have very long.”

I quietly reached over and shut off the metre. “What route would you like me to take?” I asked.

For the next two hours, we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator. We drove through the neighbourhood where she and her husband had lived when they were newlyweds. She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl. Sometimes she’d ask me to slow in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing.

As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, “I’m tired. Let’s go now.”

We drove in silence to the address she had given me.

It was a low building, like a small convalescent home, with a driveway that passed under a portico.

Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up. They were solicitous and intent, watching her every move. They must have been expecting her.

I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase to the door. The woman was already seated in a wheelchair.

“How much do I owe you?” she asked, reaching into her purse.

“Nothing,” I said.

“You have to make a living,” she answered.

“There are other passengers,” I responded.

Almost without thinking, I bent and gave her a hug. She held onto me tightly. “You gave an old woman a little moment of joy,” she said. “Thank you.”

I squeezed her hand, then walked into the dim morning light. Behind me, a door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life.

I didn’t pick up any more passengers that shift. I drove aimlessly, lost in thought. For the rest of the day, I could hardly talk.

What if that woman had gotten an angry driver, or one who was impatient to end his shift?

What if I had refused to take the run, or had honked once, then driven away?

On a quick review, I don’t think that I have done anything more important in my life.

We’re conditioned to think that our lives revolve around great moments.

But great moments often catch us unaware—beautifully wrapped in what others may consider a small one.

In today’s second lesson, the apostle Paul instructs the Roman Church and us to: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” Here Paul is following the teaching of Jesus and the Torah—namely, that love of one’s neighbour is fulfilling the law and involves keeping the second table of the Ten Commandments, the commandments dealing with our relationships with other human beings.

We may think or believe that we are debt free, that we owe no one anything—however that is not true. Even if our public taxes are faithfully paid and we are financially “debt free;” nonetheless we are, says the apostle Paul, indebted to our neighbours. No human being is an island—or “self-made.” It is thanks to the love of our parents who gave us life and looked after our basic needs when we were helpless and vulnerable that we are here today. It is also thanks to countless neighbours—people from all walks of life who contribute to society in so many ways that we can continue to live and enjoy our life. Most of us do not live on a farm or have vegetable gardens or fruit orchards—we depend on others for such food items and we depend on countless others for all of our goods and services. Many of these folks, who are our neighbours we shall not likely even know or meet. However, we are indebted to them for our basic necessities and, in our society all of the extra luxuries that improve the quality of our lives.

Professor W.A. Poovey tells the following story: A certain miserly man got tired of being asked to give for charitable purposes. So he demanded of his pastor: “Must I always keep giving to the church and to missions? Can’t I ever stop?”

“Oh yes,” replied the pastor. “You can stop. As soon as God stops giving to you, you are under no obligation to give any more.” That was the right answer. For God’s gifts to us are new each day. And he asks us to pay our obligations to him by showing love to his children in this world.1

So, if we are faithful followers of Jesus, we shall love our neighbour out of gratitude for all the many blessings that we receive from others. When we stop to think about all of the times that a neighbour has loved us; hopefully our hearts and lives shall respond by agreeing with the apostle Paul that we do indeed owe a life-long debt of love to our neighbours in appreciation for all that has been given to us. The apostle Paul writing elsewhere reminds us that love is the greatest gift. Moreover, it never ends and always finds ways to make itself real through generous giving. For that, thanks be to God through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ who continues to give us his unconditional love without end. Amen.

 

1 W.A. Poovey, Faith Is The Password: Meditations on Romans (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1979), p. 111.