Category Archives: Lent

Notes on a Saturday

HarrowingofHell1The scriptures are rather silent about today. The Nicene creed goes from “he suffered and was buried” to “and on the third day he rose”. Notice how the Nicene creed even skips the flat declaration of Good Friday, he died. The apostles creed though states it “was crucified, died and was buried”. The east, the seat of the Nicene dealt with what we would call Nestorian sensitivities. The west, the seat of the apostles, was clearer. That apostles creed continues with the line “he descended into hell”. It is a line that has baffled moderns for a long time. A bafflement that I think stems from an obscuring to the scriptural teaching. Not a loss but a shift of emphasis. The creedal hope is resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. The obscuring is something like my eternal soul goes to be with Jesus. Going to be with Jesus is true, and it is comforting, but it obscures the real hope. Our hope is that in Christ we will attain the resurrection of the dead and life in the age to come. The descent into hell, only really attested to scripturally in 1 Peter 3:18-20, is for a single purpose.

Like I often say about Pentecost, Easter did something. It actually did many things, but I’m focusing on one thing here. What Peter says is Christ “proclaiming to the spirits in prison”, the artists have a very clear image of. My favorite is the hymn verse from Hark the Glad Sound. He comes the prisoners to release/In Satan’s bondage held/The gates of brass before him burst/the iron fetters yield. (Hark the Glad Sound LSB349). But visually the iconographers have it.Harrowhell2 I’ve placed a few around this post. This is the harrowing of hell. The psalmist would talk of “going down to the pit”. The word that usually stands behind that is sheol. And it is one of those difficult to translate words because our conceptual framework has shifted. The KJV often just translated it as hell. Except for the pagan undertones you might say underworld or abode of shades. Before Good Friday and Easter that flaming sword keeping us out of Paradise was there. We were in bondage to the spirits of this dark realm. What descent into hell means is the victory parade of the faithful souls out of sheol to be with Christ. Adam and Noah and Abraham and Jacob and David and Sarah and Ruth and Leah and Rahab and you get the picture. In fact look at this picture and you see the crown on the one soul. That is not the “crown of life” which would simply be the nimbus or the halo, but the representation of David, freed by his Royal Son.
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The is the harrowing of hell, a term I think that needs to come back into everyday usage. If we talk of a harrowing, it is an escape, a jailbreak by divine means, from situations that we got ourselves into and can’t get out of. When we confess that he descended into hell, we confess that Christ has come to our lowest point and brought us out. That lowest point is death to sin. Appropriately Peter continues in that next verse (1 Peter 3:21-22) to talk about baptism. Baptism is our harrowing. Every remembrance of our baptism (confession & absolution, confirmation, awakenings through life) are a harrowing. We have been harrowed out of the chains we often put ourselves in. This last painting I think gets at the core of this victory parade. That carved out tomb was deeper than we can imagine. But Christ has knocked in the doors. Satan is beaten to the side, and the saints marched out from the tomb with Christ. We too will rest in that tomb. But unlike those in former days, we rest with Christ. And we rest in the certain hope of a resurrection like his. A Harrowing is a victory parade. It goes past Calvary and the grave, but like going to Jerusalem it is uphill all the way singing the Halleluiahs.

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Two Parades

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Biblical Text: Luke 23:1-56, Luke 19:35-40
Full Sermon Draft

Palm Sunday has the best hymns, they even rival Easter in my mind. Since the lectionary (the assigned readings for the day) have pushed Palm Sunday toward the Sunday of the Passion it sets up an interesting dynamic. There is a juxtaposition of the Palm Sunday parade which we re-enact in a small way with the via dolorosa. The hymns capture this changing dynamic. Hosanna, Loud Hosanna (LSB 443) and All Glory, Laud and Honor (LSB 442) are more pure Palms and celebration. But then No Tramp of Soldiers Marching Feet (LSB 444) starts perceiving the irony of the Palms and another parade. (For my opinion, this is a classic of what hymns are supposed to be – sung meditation. And it does it from a modern viewpoint.) And then Ride On, Ride On in Majesty (LSB 441) ends with the eschatological note. These parades of palms and cross are not the final word.

I don’t have the hymns on the recording. (The sad truth is we just don’t have the equipment for that sort of thing.) But the sermon attempts that sort of motion. It starts off with thinking about what parades are actually about and hopefully demonstrating that these biblical parades are the same as we can understand from our own time. It then moves on to the heavy irony, here defined as the difference between human and divine perception, that covers these parades and all of holy week. In that irony it perceives what Christ has done for us. It attempt to align our perception with the divine. We do that through the moral burden that comes with knowing the divine view, and knowing that we don’t measure up. It concludes with that eschatological view. We accept the moral burden because that is how we live out faith. We believe this is what God had done. And we believe that he will do as promised. So we walk in this parade.

The Hour of Sacrifice

From Dag Hammarskjold…
“For the sacrificed-in the hour of sacrifice-only one thing counts:faith – alone among the enemies and skeptics. Faith, in spite of the humiliation which is both the necessary precondition and the consequence of faith, faith without any hope of compensation other than he can find in a faith which reality seems so thoroughly to refute.

Would the Crucifixion have had any sublimity or meaning if Jesus had seen himself crowned with the halo of martyrdom? What we have added later was not there for him. And we must forget all about it if we are to hear his commands.”

That is what the author of Hebrews is getting at when he write about Jesus being the “author and perfector of our faith (Heb 12:2).” For the inheritors of tradition, any religious tradition, there is the halo of martyrdom. Your life in its end transcends and becomes about your testimony. Martyr after all just meant witness. But Jesus was paraded through Jerusalem and hung on the cross rejected by everybody. His co-religionist, the Jews, were the ones who pressed the case. His state, only concerned about power and its maintenance as all states are, perverted justice to the louder voices. Even his friends betrayed and ran. Nobody saw or accepted his witness, except the Father. And even that was behind the darkness from the sixth to the ninth hours, the last breaths. He hung there in faith. For the joy that was set before him that only he could see and only through the eyes of faith. The joy for us is more visible, because we see Him. He gave the true offering, believing the absolute love of the Father. Even for one condemned and forgotten.

They Have Taken My Lord Away

From John Donne

“…To lose Christ may befall the most righteous person that is; but then he knows where he left him; he knows at what time he lost his way, and where to seek it again. Even Christ’s imagined father and his true mother, Joseph and Mary, lost him, and lost him in the holy city at Jerusalem. They lost him and knew it not. The lost him and went a day’s journey without him and thought him to be in the company. But as soon as they comprehended their error, they sought and they found him, when as his mother told him, his father and she had sought with heavy heart.

Alas we may lose him at Jerusalem, even in his own house, even at this moment while we pretend to do him service. We may lose him by suffering our thoughts to look back with pleasure upon the sins which we have committed, or to look forward with greediness upon some sin that is now in our purpose and prosecution. We may lose him at Jerusalem, how much more, if our dwelling be a Babylon in confusion and mingling God and the world together, or if it be a Sodom, a wanton and intemperate misuse of God’s benefits to us. We may think him in the company when he is not; we may mistake his house; we may take a conventicle for a Church; we may mistake his apparel, that is, the outward form of his worship; we may mistake the person, that is, associate ourselves to such as are no members of his body.

But if we do not return to our diligence to seek him, and seek him, and seek him with a heavy heart…we ourselves cast him away since we have been told where to find him and have not sought him.”

John Donne highlights a big difference between the pagan who knows not Christ and Mary Magdalene for whom Christ was taken away and most of what we might call the post-Christian world. It is not post-Christian in that it does not need Christ, or even that it can’t understand him, but that it finds other roads more amenable. Christ has chosen to be found in bread and wine, in water, in words of absolution. He chooses no other bride than the church. If you do not seek him them, you will not find him. Other roads might appear more amenable, but only one is The Way. Only one continues past the horizon.

Authority of the Cross

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Biblical Text: Luke 20:9-20
Full Sermon Draft

All of Chapter 20 in Luke is Jesus teaching on proper authority. It is set in the conflict between Jesus and the Temple, and this text is the parable that Jesus uses as the loadstone of the entire teaching. You find true north in regards to authority by pondering this parable.

It happens to be a fortuitous text as the political season moves in strange ways this year. It also comes up at the same time as a situation I have been pondering simmers. This sermon attempts to think through the text and those situations. What it emerges with I hope is a picture of what authoritative leadership looks like. In this world authoritative leadership looks like the cross.

I don’t bring it up in the sermon itself, but Luther once attempted to talk about the marks of the church, how you would find it. His biggest mark was the cross. You will know you’ve found the church when what you are looking at bears the cross. It is only that type of authority and leadership – a leadership that is directed toward God and neighbor willing to bear the burden – that is truly fruitful.

I hope that this is helpful in your meditation. Also, I want to add a note about the recording. This is a re-recording after the fact, because the recording at the time something went wrong. Which is a shame, because the choir sounded wonderful, and we sang one of my top-5 hymns. LSB 423, Jesus Refuge of the Weary. The words are by the original Bonfire of the Vanities Girolamo Savonarola. The author is a cautionary tale. He rose is acclaim and fortune castigating a corrupt authority. He was later hung and burned at the same time. I believe the text of the hymn comes from his prison meditations. It might not be true, but I hear the confession of a man who got lost but came to see the cross anew. A historical support for the limits I attempt to point out in the sermon.

Watching & Being Upset

“The first woman (let’s call her Sally) told me she was having trouble finding an Episcopal Church that she liked. I suggested she try St. Such and Such, ‘Oh no,’ she exclaimed. “I could never go there.’ ‘Why not?’ I asked. To my amazement she said, ‘I would have to look at that big cross they have behind the altar with that figure of Christ hanging on it. It would upset me terribly.'” – Fleming Rutledge

Fleming Rutledge is a great preacher. I say that with a bit of envy at her skill, but also with the recognition that her style is just not something I could pull off. That quote is just the shortest from an even better string of stories making her point. (It is in the book Bread and Wine, a great little Lenten reader.) I could never pull her style off because of two reasons: a) something guilty about using specific people at their worst and b) I always think these are “preacher stories” which are just a little too good to be true. But she makes it work, and stick, and if she used me I’d thank her for putting me on the narrow path instead of being mad (that is her greatness by the way). And her point here is simply that we are told to watch, and that biblical injunction is really to watch ourselves. Because when we do, we don’t like what we see. It is much easier to look away. To look at our neighbor. And to draw that line of grace for thee, but I don’t need it. Staring at a crucifix is recognizing that I put Jesus there. And there is only one way out. His grace, alone.

All Found

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Biblical Text: Luke 15:1-32
Full Sermon Draft

The assigned lectionary text for today was the parable of the Prodigal Son, but one of the things that I found out in preparation is that the church fathers never really treated the prodigal separately from the two parables preceeding it. And when you do the translation, they do seem to roll together with specific roles for a point. So, this sermon attempts to address these parables as the church fathers did.

We’ve focused on the theme of division in Lent so far, but Luke 15 turns that focus around. It assumes the division, and starts portraying reunion. THe question these parables focus on to the church fathers was not evangelism or restoring a wandering brother. That is a valid moral lesson. We are the body of Christ and have those responsibilities. But instead, these parables were about God’s action on behalf of his elect. The perfect number will not be broken. There will not be 99 sheep, or 9 coins, or 1 brother. God will gather all of the elect no matter where they find themselves and through whatever troubles.

And how God does this is first through the good shepherd who has carried us on his shoulders on that cross. Then he calls, gathers and enlightens us through the church – the woman with a lamp looking for that coin with the image of the King. And the purpose of this is to reunite us with the Father. All that the Father has is ours. That doesn’t change regardless of our actions. He has chosen to give us the Kingdom. It is just necessary that we come in and rejoice.

Atonement

“The image of a sweet, gentle Savior, like the thought of an all-loving God, is wonderful, but it is only a small part of the picture. It insulates us from the real power of his touch. Christ comforts and heals, saves and forgives – we know that; but we must not forget that he judges too. If we truly love him, we will love everything in him; not only his compassion and mercy, but his sharpness too. It is his sharpness that prunes and purifies.

There is something in modern thinking which rebels against the Atonement. Perhaps our idea of an all-loving God keeps us from wanting to face judgement. We think that love and forgiveness is all that is needed, yet that is not the whole Gospel – it makes God too human.

Christ’s love is not the soft love of human emotion, but a burning fire that cleanses and sears…” J. Heinrich Arnold

I might change the metaphor slightly. The judgement of Christ is like a skilled surgeon offering to cut out the growing cancer and set the broken bones. These will make us better. Allow us to live lives as we were made to. Yet we cling to our cancer and broken bones. Fearful of the snap into place, or worrying about life without that lump and the near tissue that goes with it.

Followers not Admirers

…To want to admire instead of to follow Christ is not necessarily an invention by bad people. No, it is more an invention by those who spinelessly keep themselves detached, who keep themselves at a safe distance. Admirers are related to the admired only through the excitement of the imagination. To them he is like an actor on the stage except, this being real life, the effect he produces is somewhat stronger. But for their part, admirers make the same demands that are made in the theater: to sit safe and calm. Admirers are only too willing to serve Christ as long as proper caution is exercised, lest one personally come in contact with danger. They refuse to accept that Christ’s life is a demand. In actual fact, they are offended by him. His radical, bizarre character so offends them that when they honestly see Christ for who he is, they are no longer able to experience the tranquility they so much seek after. They know full well that to associate with him too closely amount to being up for examination. Even though he says nothing against them personally, they know that his life tacitly judges theirs…”

Soren Kierkegaard

For a secular buffered existence age that demands no judgement, even admiring Christ is getting tough.

5 Paths to Repentance

I’m just stealing this in total from Richard Beck’s site. It is a great piece of spiritual wisdom from St. John Chrysostom…

Would you like me to list also the paths of repentance? They are numerous and quite varied, and all lead to heaven. Saint-John-Chrysostom

A first path of repentance is the condemnation of your own sins: Be the first to admit your sins and you will be justified. For this reason, too, the prophet wrote: I said: I will accuse myself of my sins to the Lord, and you forgave the wickedness of my heart. Therefore, you too should condemn your own sins; that will be enough reason for the Lord to forgive you, for a man who condemns his own sins is slower to commit them again. Rouse your conscience to accuse you within your own house, lest it become your accuser before the judgment seat of the Lord.

That, then, is one very good path of repentance. Another and no less valuable one is to put out of our minds the harm done us by our enemies, in order to master our anger, and to forgive our fellow servants’ sins against us. Then our own sins against the Lord will be forgiven us. Thus you have another way to atone for sin: For if you forgive your debtors, your heavenly Father will forgive you.

Do you want to know of a third path? It consists of prayer that is fervent, careful and comes from the heart.

If you want to hear of a fourth, I will mention almsgiving, whose power is great and far-reaching.

If, moreover, a man lives a modest, humble life, that, no less than the other things I have mentioned, takes sin away. Proof of this is the tax-collector who had no good deeds to mention, but offered his humility instead and was relieved of a heavy burden of sins.

Thus I have shown you five paths of repentance; condemnation of your own sins, forgiveness of our neighbor’s sins against us, prayer, almsgiving and humility.

Do not be idle, then, but walk daily in all these paths; they are easy, and you cannot plead your poverty. For, though you live out your life amid great need, you can always set aside your wrath, be humble, pray diligently and condemn your own sins…

Now that we have learned how to heal these wounds of ours, let us apply the cures. Then, when we have regained genuine health, we can approach the holy table with confidence, go gloriously to meet Christ, the king of glory, and attain the eternal blessings through the grace, mercy and kindness of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

–from a homily of St. John Chrysostom