There is an old word that has fallen into disuse. That word is exhort. As I type this, it has fallen into such disuse that Microsoft is questioning my grammar. It would accept exhorted in the past tense, but questions the present tense use of that verb. Our grandfathers and grandmothers exhorted, but we no longer exhort; at least according the Microsoft Word.
Another Word does use exhort. I imagine that it has fallen into disuse because it carries the connotation that there is an objective moral standard. Coaches do not exhort, they coach, because while sports do have an objective standard (scoreboard!) that standard is not a moral one. Politicians, preachers, generals and teachers would be your standard exhorters. And while it might have a negative connotation in our lawless age, exhortation in the bible is used always as a positive.
Peter at Pentecost, with the sermon that brought in 3000 souls: “And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” (Act 2:40 ESV)
Paul writing to the Thessalonians, “we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith.” (1Th 3:2 ESV)
That same Paul to Timothy giving him his charge, “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” (2Ti 4:2 ESV) And giving the same charge to Titus, “Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.” (Tit 2:15 ESV)
The writer of the Hebrews to all Christians, “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Heb 3:13 ESV)
And Peter at a later date, “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ” (1Pe 5:1 ESV)
I have an exhortation for you today. I am a hoarder of numbers and statistics. I keep all kinds of things. Numbers don’t tell everything, but I do believe a couple of things about them. First, if you don’t have any numbers, you probably don’t really care about it. In the business world we use to say “if it isn’t measured it isn’t real”. That saying captures the ditch on the other side of the road. What happens there is that only the number is real and hence if you can fake it easier, “who cares, we made the number”. At a certain point of complexity it is easier to “game the system” or to “rob Peter to pay Paul”. The number wasn’t meant to drive either of those activities, but that is what the law encourages, a spiritless conformity. Instead what the numbers help you do is paint a picture. Blood pressure, body temperature and blood oxygen level paint a very simple picture of the health of a body for a doctor. I want to share some numbers from last year with you.
On Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the start of the penitential season of Lent, we served 12 pounds of bacon. We as a congregation ate our way through a 10 pound bag of pancake batter. We ate at least three quarts of Mrs. Butterworth’s. When you are making pancakes at the same time it is hard getting an exact count, but I think we had around 60 people come to our little pancake carnival. This is healthy, maybe not the food, but the gathering. The following morning for imposition of ashes we had roughly 12. We made the minyan, but the numbers paint a picture.
As a society, as a people, we love the carnival. We might even be at the point where we claim carnival as a right. We’ve got to fight for our right to party used to be ironic. But the somber registers of a penitential call are quickly put out of mind. Even suggesting the need for something as bloodless as personal reflection, as compared to the full throated call of Repent, the Kingdom is near, is beat back with cries of anti-fun bigot, puritan, Pharisee and the ever popular “look at the log in your own eye”. Yes, the devil can quote scripture to full effect.
What the Christian faith exhorts, what the watchman on the wall exhorts, is and always has been the same:
Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers. (1Ti 4:16 ESV)
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. (Gal 6:1 ESV)
Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. (2Jo 1:8 ESV)
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Gal 5:22 ESV)
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Phi 4:8 ESV)
So, this exhortation is one about priorities and necessary rhythms. It is not a call to skip the pancakes. But it is a call to remember the ashes the next morning (or evening as well this year). To truly feast requires a fast. To receive the gospel in its sweetness requires the sour scouring of the law. The way to Easter passes through Calvary.