Gathered Around the Cross
Verse: Isaiah 43:19
Fifth Sunday in Lent
Isaiah 43:19, Philippians 3:13, John 12:1-8
"God's Vision for Our Future: A 3-Part Series on Vision & Mission for St. John's Lutheran Church Part 1: Gathered Around the Cross"
"I am about to do a new thing" - that word of the Lord surely must have rung in the ears of those who first heard this message through Isaiah (Isaiah 43:19). God was going to do a new thing for his people now living in exile in Babylon. In fact, this "new thing" would surpass the "old thing" God did for his people of old when He had delivered them from slavery in Egypt. He would perform an even greater act of deliverance! What about the new thing God did in Paul's life - the author of today's second Scripture lesson (Philippians 3:4b-14)? God transformed Saul the persecutor of Christ into Paul the proclaimer of Christ - that's a pretty radical thing! In the Gospel lesson (John 12:1-8), Mary is moved to anoint Jesus' feet with expensive perfume. That new and extravagant thing - that act of devotion - met with resistance as Judas (and probably the rest of the disciples) complained, "What a waste!" Jesus interprets Mary's action as preparing his body for burial - this is the new thing God in Christ is doing: the Son of God offering up his own life to purchase us back for God. So, what is the new thing God is doing in our midst? You heard the message from the Mission & Vision Team: how a number of compelling factors have caused us to re-examine what we are doing as a congregation. Those things include celebrating St. John's fiftieth anniversary last year - a milestone not just for looking back, but also for looking ahead; the plans we had for extensive renovation and construction, Building Our Vision for Tomorrow. It became pretty obvious that "our" vision wasn't God's vision for our future, and so our plans have gone in a whole new direction to acquire the adjacent 1.8 acre property. God spoke to us pretty clearly through this, telling us that his plans are "far more than all we can ask or imagine" (Ephesians 3:20). We have a new associate pastor in our midst, sent to us by the Lord of the Church, for the equipping of God's saints. The mission field is on our doorstep with people coming to us! When we step back and look at all these things, we see that God is indeed doing a "new thing" in our midst.
I give thanks to God for the new thing He is doing here. I give thanks to God for graciously helping us discern what He is calling us to do. And what He is calling us to do flows out of who God calls us to be. Our identity determines our mission. Today begins a 3-part sermon series that begins to share with you, the members of St. John's, what God's vision and mission for our congregation looks like. This hasn't been some "quick fix" - something that we knocked out before lunch one day. This has been a prayer-filled, Spirit-led, months-long process. The Mission & Vision Team has taken input from you, the members of St. John's through various congregational surveys, through your elected leaders on the Church Council, through feedback received from small groups. At the heart of it all, though, is prayer.
Today, I want to share with you the first part of our proposed Mission, and that is "Gathered Around the Cross." You might think this is a no-brainer, but it's not. We live in a very me-centered and individualistic culture where gathering together, especially at church, is seen as optional. It's a negotiable. We don't have to do it. God's Word tells us otherwise: "And let us consider how we may spur one another one toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another - and all the more as you se the Day approaching" (Hebrews 10:24-25). The early Church understood the importance of gathering together as we are told: "Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke brad at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts" (Acts 2:46). The Word of God is clear: gathering together is vital! It goes deeper than just gathering together for the sake of gathering. We gather around the cross - the cross of Christ. That's at the center of our gathering. That's why we come together, so that we might lift high the cross, just as we sang ("Lift High the Cross," Lutheran Book of Worship #377). Here at St. John's, we literally gather around the cross - the cross before us here in the sanctuary. More than this, we gather spiritually around the cross - for this is how God comes to us, in the cross of his beloved Son. The cross is the tree of life - something we've been singing about at the close of each of Sunday morning services in Lent. That sending hymn, "There in God's Garden" (With One Voice #668) is also called "The Tree of Life." Listen to stanza 4 about the cross, that tree of life: "See how its branches reach to us in welcome; hear what the Voice says, 'Come to me, ye weary! Give me your sickness, give me all your sorrow, I will give blessing." That's why it's so important to come together and gather around that cross, so that we can lay down our weariness, our sickness - lay it all at the cross of Christ. In the community, St. John's is known as the "Church of the Three Crosses." So, when we come here to the house of the Lord, we are literally gathering around the cross. That's a landmark in our community; it's our "brand," if you will. And we gather around that cross.
We've had some recent gathering images from Scripture: the hen gathering her chicks under her wings (Luke 13:34). Jesus used this image against Jerusalem because of their stubborn refusal to be gathered together. Could Jesus say the same thing about his people today, people who say they are his but stubbornly refuse to be gathered under his wings? Could Jesus be saying that about us? Just last Sunday, we heard about the prodigal son being gathered back with his waiting father (Luke 15:11-32), and how this joyful gathering is a picture of our heavenly Father's joy over those who return to him.
Gathering is one of the four key words of our proposed vision, and it is the first. We gather from many different backgrounds and locales. We're from all over, but as Paul tells us: "There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28). It is our common faith in Jesus Christ as Lord that causes us to come together, for love's sake. God's love in Christ Jesus is what gathers us around the cross, but that love then must be known through us: "Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another" (1 John 4:11). God's love comes down to us in Jesus, and then his love moves out through us to one another. We gather around the cross! As we gather around the cross, we give thanks to God for the past, but we cannot live in it. In today's first lesson, God speaks: "Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old" (Isaiah 43:18). Paul says the same in today's second lesson: "... forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead" (Philippians 4:13). We give thanks to God for the past. We strive to serve Christ in the present, and we are passionate about mission possibilities for the future. With Paul, we keep our eyes on the prize. We "press on toward the goal of the heavenly call in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:14).
There was a man, a church-going man and a believer in Christ, who came to the conclusion that gathering together around the cross was not necessary for his salvation. He could worship God just fine at home, thank you very much. After a noticeable absence from worship and Bible study, his pastor called on him. It was in the evening, after dark, and the man had a fire going in his fireplace. He explained to his pastor why it was not important for him to be in church, and the pastor listened for a good long while. Then, without saying a word, the pastor took the tongs by the fireplace, removed a small ember and placed it on the hearth all by itself. It didn't take long for that ember to lose its glow and become cold. After a long silence, the man said: "I understand, pastor. I'll be back in church on Sunday." You see, unless we gather around that cross, we, too will lose our glow and become cold. May the Lord who gathers us around the cross keep us strong and steadfast in Christ Jesus to life eternal. Amen.
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