Tag Archives: Lent

Notes on a Saturday (Re-upped)

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.
Harrowhell4

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.

Harrowhell3

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.

Give Him Another Year

022816wordle

Biblical Text: Luke 13:1-9
Full Sermon Draft

Today is one of those days that stuff happening in the service is real important. We had a baptism this morning, and when you have a baptism you have an invaluable object lesson. That is absent from the recording, but you will hear it used a couple of times in the sermon.

From the text there is an overriding theme in the spirit of Lent – repentance. But the gospel text itself is abrupt. A report of a happening, a strong reaction to that report by Jesus and then a parable. This is one of the places where we as readers and hearers of the gospel really have to puzzle it out. Why would they bring this report to Jesus? What was their point? Jesus’ response gives us some clues, but the larger context of Luke which last week’s sermon look at as gives us a good idea of what was being asserted.

The crux of the issue is line drawing. Where is the line drawn that creates the division Jesus claims to have brought? Jesus’ answer is grace. The sermon examines the difference between mercy and grace and attempts to show why grace is that line of division. But the people of that day, just like the people of our day, like drawn their own lines. We draw lines that place us on the deserving side. Whether those are lines of race, or class or language or people or behavior. It can’t be grace, because we are on the right side.

Jesus answer is a clear nobody is on the right side. “Unless you all repent, you likewise will perish.”

The application of this is my attempt at encouragement and example of a proper repentance.

Worship Note: I have left in two of the hymns sung today. Lutheran Service Book 611 Chief of Sinners Though I Be, and LSB 610 Lord Jesus, Think on Me. It was a day of rich hymns because I loved our opening hymn and the baptismal hymn as well which all spoke the same gospel, but I left these two in the recording in their places as hymns of the life of repentance.

Every Division is a Gathering

022116wordle

Biblical Text: Luke 13:31-35
Full Sermon Draft

The gospel text for the day by some commentators is the exact center of Luke’s gospel, or the center of what is called the travel narrative. The commentators that mention this find in this central text the key to interpretation. While not 100% buying that exegetical move or reading method, this sermon tip its hand in that direction. In five short verses there are a couple of gospel deep contrasts. The first is the fears of the Pharisees and Jesus. The second is the love of God in gathering vs. the rejection of that love that divides.

This sermon explores that contrast between the Pharisees and Jesus as the basis of our salvation and freedom. It then moves on to understand the moral choice that difference places on us. Do we accept the love of God in Christ, or do we demand our house be left to us? Finally it explores a frightening implication of that moral choice and how the doctrine of election in a Lutheran understanding should be pure gospel.

On a personal note, I am rarely happy with the outcome of the sermon when election is a doctrine explored, but I still like this one. I think it makes the actual connection between the eternal reality of that election, and the temporal means. The eternal reality is a mystery held by God, but the temporal means are the sacraments.

Lenten Valentine

021416wordle

Text: Luke 4:1-13
Full Sermon Draft

Easter is so early this year we have an odd confluence. The first Sunday in Lent happens to be Valentines Day. So this sermon attempts to reclaim a bit of St. Valentine for the church.

The traditional text for the first Sunday in Lent is the temptation of Jesus. We read the rest of Luke chapter 4 just a couple of weeks ago. The entire chapter in my reading is an interesting study on our three great enemies: the devil, the world and our sinful natures. What today’s text does, much like a couple of old testament texts (Adam and Eve & Job), is give us a view of that first enemy, Satan. It lifts the veil to the reality behind those temptations.

On a literal level of the story, this temptation is the reversal of that one in Eden. But the devil withdraws until the appointed time. That appointed time is a temptation not like Adam and Eve, but like Job. The devil’s two forms of trial – enticement and suffering. But both forms are based on the lie that God does not love us. The cross is Jesus demonstration once for all that He does. The cross stands as God’s complete gift of love, a complete giving of himself.

And that is where we start to move from lent to Valentine. Love is a giving of ourselves. In this world that love might not come back. But love is never lost, because it all finds its fulfillment in Christ. St. Valentine is an example of such love. The reason Valentine is a saint is because he was a martyr. He loved God and the people he was bishop too enough to witness, in red blood. Valentine gave himself away. in such love. But it is only in so losing our life, a life expended in self-giving love, that we actual find it. We find that all that love have been made full in Christ.

Worship note. The hymn of the day in the recording is Lutheran Service Book 424, O Christ You Walked the Road. Unfortunately the text is again copyrighted, but here is a source that has the words. I always find this tune a haunting introduction to lent and an invitation to live the love that Christ has shown us.

Zero to One – An Ash Wednesday Sermon

LSB Ash Wednesday Icon

The following is the text of the sermon delivered today…

Text: Joel 2:12-19
Peter Thiel was one of the founders of PayPal and one of the first investor in Facebook. But unlike most highly successful businessmen, he has a philosophical disposition. He attempts to distill his experience not into phrases that are clichés the minute they are uttered meaning nothing, but some of surprising depth. His recent book title is the example I want to steal for a second – Zero to One.

At a simple business level what he throws out of his venture capital office is any business pitching 1 to 2 or 1 to any number. If the presentation can be reduced to “I want to be the next Facebook”, Mr. Thiel isn’t interested. He wants to invest is businesses that are going from zero to one. If you want investment, come up with an idea that nobody is really doing.

But then start asking questions about how you do that. Going from 1 to 2 can be a process – picking a somewhat useful cliché – it can be a process of continuous improvement. Microsoft might be the example of the ultimate 1 to 2 company. Xerox PARC did all the 0 to 1, Microsoft just made it better, and sold it better, faster. They used to be famous, and in some ways still are, for getting is right on the third try. The surface 3 is getting raves. Going from zero to one is not a process. What is half of a new idea? half a vision? You either have one, or you don’t. Like Louis Armstrong said about Jazz, “Man, if you gotta ask…”

Now how does this apply to on Ash Wednesday?

There are lots of religions and even lots of Christian churches that are about 1 to 2. And by that I mean they are preaching a gospel of self-improvement. Do this, do that, have your best life now, the power of positive thinking, and every other cliché. You never get THE ONE in that method.
Clinging to the zero, The ONE is given by grace.

Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust. You don’t get much more zero than that. I know my transgression, and my sin is ever before me. Create in me a clean heart, O God. No continuous improvement there, but creation. You only get God, the ONE, when there are no others before Him – not even yourself, maybe especially ourselves. Hence on Ash Wednesday the ashes, a clear expression of our personal spiritual zero.

And when we remove the other Gods, when we cling to the zero, God is pleased to take up residence with us. To restore to us the joy of His salvation, and uphold us with a willing spirit. To take us from the last seat at the banquet to a seat of honor. To give to the prodigal the coat and the ring and the fattened calf.

The reading from Joel is interesting in this way. Israel had been hit by a plague of locusts. It wasn’t just any plague, but everything had been eaten and destroyed. So much so that the elements of the sin offerings – grain and wine and oil – had be removed. It was a very literal demonstration of Israel’s zero. There outward circumstance reflected the state of their hearts. Would they embrace the truth, or continue in pride? “Rend you hearts and not your garments. Return to the Lord, for he is gracious…abounding in steadfast love…who knows…he might relent and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering.” In other words the Lord might leave the sin offering for them.

And that is exactly what He did in Jesus Christ. For all who cling to their zero, he’s given THE ONE, our sin offering. Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. Grace and truth go together. The ONE, God is found in the weak places – contrite hearts and crosses. Amen.

What We Leave Out

roman-swordsHe said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one. Luke 22:36

And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed(and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” Luke 2:34-35

“Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. Matt 10:34

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Heb 4:12 ESV

There are the official approved readings from the lectern every week, and then there are those bits that we leave out. This is one of the reasons I like our Good Friday Service so much. It is a communal reading of the entire passion narrative interspersed with some hymns for reflection and the gradual darkening. Once a year the congregation hears the story in its entrancing entirety. And hearing it out loud by your fellow congregants is meaningful in a way you might not expect. But if you don’t go to Good Friday, and you don’t read it yourself, you won’t find Luke 22:36. You will get those other verses I put up front once every three years. I’d suggest you take out you concordance and look at the word sword. See where else it is used and how it is used.

We like to preach on the love of God. We preach on the acceptance of God. We preach on the resurrection. We don’t spend much time on swords. And isn’t that exactly what our culture, encouraged by our prevailing church culture, leaves out? Even when your heart is pierced with a sword, God loves you. In fact those swords might be exactly the time you draw the closest to God. Christ came to bring a sword. He came to divide soul and spirit. He came that the thoughts of many hearts my be revealed. It is only in those times of the cross, when we are asked to carry the cross and follow our Lord, that we find the truth of faith. When every earthly prop gives way, He then is all our hope and stay.

If we are always running to the next promise of love or prosperity or whatever bit of magic is being pushed this month as the hallmark of a true Christian, we never draw near the heart of Christ. It is only in submission to the cross that we find ourselves with Christ. And I don’t want to take this is a masochistic direction. Lord, take this cup from me is a common prayer. And many do get taken. But some are not. Sometimes the prayer is simply your will be done. As Jesus told the disciples in that Garden – “rise and pray that you may not enter into temptation”. Your will be done…and deliver us from evil. Because we fall asleep too easily. We don’t like contemplating swords.

If it produces, well and good; if not, cut it down…

3313wordtree

Biblical Text: Luke 13:1-9
Full Sermon Draft

Sometimes data visualizations just get it. The word tree above gets its. We are in the middle of lent which is a penitential season, a season for repentance. Now there are some really good questions that we might ask about that. What is repentance? What does it include? How do we do it? Why? Who?

This text is at its core about answering those questions.

Who? Everyone.
Why? Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Because the assumptions that we have been taught by the world are not what the Word of God tells us. Hear the Word.
What does that Word assume? No one is good. The word itself accuses us (the law), but that same word is our salvation (gospel).
What does repentance include? A change of assumptions from the world’s to the Word’s. A fruitful living according to the Word.
Where do I go to understand fruit? Look it up in the Word.

Leaven & Lenten Practice (March 2013 Newsletter Pastor’s Corner)

leaven iconThis articles owes a debt to an article in Touchstone – Dylan Pahman’s The Yeast We Can Do. Unfortunately right now it is behind the paywall. You could always subscribe.

He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.”Matthew 13:33
Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.”Matthew 16:6

Yeast or leaven must be one of the most powerful metaphors in the bible. It is used both as a parable for the Kingdom itself, and for the forces that oppose the kingdom. If I were the disciples I might have asked Jesus to stop and tell us which. You can’t have it both ways. Nevertheless, I think there is a common thread in both cases that Jesus was calling to the disciples’ attention. It only takes a small amount of something compared to yeast to make or ruin the entire creation.

Passover, the Jewish festival that Holy Week fulfilled, contains an interesting additional law and practice. The Jews were commanded to eat unleavened bread. We know this from Exodus with the comment that it is bread made in haste. But the standing law given for Passover for succeeding generations was that for seven days they should eat unleavened bread, and on the first remove all leaven from the house. Anyone caught eating leavened bread would not just be ceremonially unclean for the Passover, but would be “cut off from Israel”. (Exodus 12:15) The old housewives’ tale is that this is the origin of “spring cleaning”. The Rabbis, thinking like Eve in the garden and observing the severity of the penalty, have erected even higher walls. To avoid even the slightest possibility of owning leaven under their roof, some Jews will sell their household for a day to a trusted agent buying it back after the Passover. The law always encourages following the letter and not the spirit.

Coming into Christianity, the ritual laws were no longer binding. The Passover week became Holy Week. The Christian’s preparation became the 40 days of lent. And the historic practices of lent were: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. One of the Desert Fathers, Evagrios, made the connection between good leaven and bad leaven. Reflecting on 1 John 2:16 – “For all that is in the world– the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life– is not from the Father but is from the world” – he called out gluttony, avarice and pride as the “frontline demons”. These were the bad yeast to watch for. When simple gluttony held sway, it would not be long before lust would follow. The person given to greed is easily swayed by wrath and envy. Whatever you might think of Evagrios’ progression of sin built around the seven deadly sins, the metaphor of leaven makes sense. It is certainly easier to laugh off a small indulgence. It is a lifetime of laughing off small indulgences that builds to greater sins and ruin of the entire life. A lifetime of disrespecting the Word is built upon that Sunday where sleeping in just felt better. A deathbed of terror and not knowing what to say is constructed from a lifetime of neglecting even our bedtime prayers.

Looking at the Sermon on the Mount and specifically Matthew 6, Evagrious countered that bad leaven with what he put forward as the good. Jesus there recommends direct almsgiving in private where the Father issues the reward. He follows that with the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer which in Matthew he precedes with “go into you private closet”. Like yeast, you don’t see this working publically. And following that prayer, Jesus issues the expectation to fast. Also in secret, adding “when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face”. The Lenten practices of almsgiving, prayer and fasting are connected as the small things that counteract those frontline demons of avarice, pride and gluttony. The greedy are called to give it away, the prideful to bend the knee in prayer, the gluttonous to fast for a time.

The Church Fathers were much more comfortable than most Lutheran ministers with directing works. But truth be told, so was Jesus. And there is definitely a way that these things can be made into a new law. When almsgiving, prayer and fasting would become the outward magic that we never let touch our hearts, we are being as pharisaical as selling our possessions for a day. These things become the metaphor for the Kingdom when we allow them to work on us, when that Spirit kneads into our heart the message of the gospel. Because we have received mercy, we are able to be merciful. Because Christ is our mediator, we can call God our Father. Because we have the promise of the Kingdom and the New Jerusalem, this world and its kingdoms’ glory can be turned away. Our abundance and our food comes not from mere bread.

Our faith, our families, our congregations, and our society might seem very brittle because we have not kneaded that lump of dough. We’ve let the leaven of the Kingdom sit on the surface. We’ve foresworn the spiritual practices in our lives. As James says, “be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in the mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.” (James 1:22-24) Jesus might put it somewhat differently, “some seed fell on hard packed ground where it was quickly devoured”. (Luke 8:5) Working the leaven through the dough, preparing the soil, changing the hard heart is not magic. It is like leaven. It starts small, and then works throughout the dough.

Ash Wednesday Meditation

ash-wednesday_t

Text: 2 Cor 5:20b-6:10; Psalm 51:1-12

“We implore you, on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God…we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain…behold, now is the favorable time, behold, now is the day of salvation.”

Not to receive the grace of God in vain, isn’t that a strange string of words? What does it mean to receive the grace of God in vain?

We are not talking about pure unbelief or the enemies of the gospel. They do not receive the grace at all but deny that it exists. Instead we are talking about someone who has received it, but it does no good, or it doesn’t do what it is supposed to do. So what does the grace of God do?

It breaks down and it builds up. It kills and it makes alive. It cleanses and creates anew. Both the law and the gospel are a grace. By the law we know our sins. As the psalmist says, “I know my transgression, and my sin is ever before me.” That is the peculiar grace of the law. But the overwhelming grace of the gospel follows, “create a clean heart….renew a right spirit…restore to me the joy…the joy of you salvation…uphold me with a willing spirit.”
So what does it mean to receive grace in vain? The core of it is to have heard the law, but never applied it to ourselves. Our ears have heard the 10 commandments. Our intellect has turned them over, maybe even memorized them along with a bunch of scripture and catechism answers. Our parents, physical or spiritual, have led us in green pastures. But the terror of that imposing law has never got to our hearts.

To receive it in vain is to receive the grace as if you don’t need it. To stand in the light of the law and think as the Pharisee, “Thank God I am not like that publican”. To stand in the light, and not see the darkness of our natural heart. To be put next to purity and think oneself not to shabby. To be shown just how lost we are, and not ask for directions thinking we are fine. We are rich, we have means, we have years, we will get out of this and be the stronger for it. We appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.

The entire passage, maybe like the ashes of today, might seem a little overboard. We implore…we appeal…behold, now….a second time, behold, now. To the one who receives in vain, why all the histrionics? We’ve got this under control, calm down. But we don’t. The proclamation over the ashes, dust you are and to dust you will return is true. We don’t have this under control. We can’t add a single hour to our given time. Yet, we can receive that in vain. Never let that sink into our hearts.

Yet God holds out his grace for us. He proclaims it in many and various ways – as Paul talks about in the rest of the passage. In Christ God has declared us reconciled. God has stopped counting. He’s drawn up unilateral terms of disarmament with the most beneficial terms imaginable. We get the kingdom, as long as we don’t think it is ours by right, it is only ours by grace. And now is the time to sign that peace treaty. Now is the time to let that grace move our hearts. To break our stone hearts…and to receive new clean ones.

We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God…now is the favorable time…a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Amen.