November 19, 2018- Beyond the Valley of the Shadow of Death, Psalm 23, Job 19:25-27

valley of shadow

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.

He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Psalm 23 (ESV)

For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth.
And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another. Job 19:25-27 (ESV)

The valley of the shadow of death is not a popular destination, but mortality is a reality.  No one gets out of this life alive…except…those who believe by the grace of God in Christ will share in His resurrection.  In spite of the really bad pop theology that is rampant in American Christianity, Jesus never was about “your best life now.”   Even though televangelists and “Christian” authors may try to sell us a Cross-less Christianity, Jesus teaches us, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)

True Christianity holds to a theology of the Cross, one in which we die to our own selfishness and sins- not to earn points, but in response to the extravagant grace and the undeserved favor God has already given us.

Psalm 23 has been beloved among believers for millennia, precisely because God’s inspired words from David’s pen underscore God’s promise that death and the curse is not the end. We who are baptized into Christ are not alone.  This world and its valleys of shadow are not the end.

God with us, Emmanuel, does not shield us from suffering, but He is in it with us, ever present with his comfort, walking with us through the valley of the shadow of death, (Psalm 23:4) and leading us away from evil.

God so loved the world that He sent Jesus, His only Son to be a man- fully God and fully man- and live in this world with us. (John 3:16) When the time came for Jesus to give His life for us, He struggled with the cup He was given to drink, but the only way for Him to accomplish our salvation was through His suffering and death. Jesus was not spared the bitter path of the Cross.  The sin of the Garden of Eden could only be overcome on by Jesus’ suffering in the Garden of Gethsemane, and ultimately His sacrifice on Calvary.

God does give us challenges that are way over our heads and way over and above our capacity to overcome.  We do not have life in our own strength. On our own we have no strength.  Apart from Jesus we have nothing to look forward to but despair, hopelessness and death in our trespasses and sins.  Yet in losing ourselves and relying on Jesus we can endure anything.  He has already overcome death and the grave.

As the church year is drawing to a close, we become aware of the groaning of all creation, awaiting the restoration of all things that the apostle Paul speaks of in Romans 8:18-25.

Those who are familiar with the musical work The Messiah, by George Fredric Handel, will recognize the verses from Job 19 above.  I know that my Redeemer liveth / and that he shall stand /at the latter day upon the earth./ And though worms destroy this body/ yet in my flesh shall I see God.

As we are very quickly coming upon the season of Advent and celebrating the arrival of the promised One, we put our focus on Jesus, the living Redeemer, the conquering King.

We can trust that we will endure the suffering that is simply a part of this life here in the now, but not yet. We will stand with Jesus, in our own bodies, on that great and glorious day when all tears are wiped away and there is no more suffering or mourning.

March 20, 2019- The Promise is Still Real- God Provides the Lamb-Genesis 22:1-18, 1 John 4:10

abraham isaac

After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.”  So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac. And he cut the wood for the burnt offering and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar.  Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you.”  And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son. And he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together.  And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?”  Abraham said, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.

When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son.  But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”  He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns. And Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son.  So Abraham called the name of that place, “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the Lord, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son,  I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” –Genesis 22:1-18 (ESV)

Abraham has got to be completely confused. God gave him Isaac, the long-awaited child of God’s promise, then God turns around and asks Abraham to sacrifice this child?  It’s a bit hard to imagine God demanding child sacrifice such as the believers in the false god, Molech, practiced, and that God Himself had emphatically forbidden His people to do. (Leviticus 20:2) Even though he was being asked to do something that seemed unimaginable, Abraham trusted God and set out to do what God told him to do.

When we read this account today we have the advantage of reading it in the light of what we know about Jesus. We understand that Abraham is a type and shadow of God the Father, and that Isaac is a type and shadow of Jesus, who sacrificed Himself for us.

Our first hints of that type and shadow begin with Abraham being asked to sacrifice his only son. Of course, we know Abraham had an older son, Ishmael, by Sarah’s slave girl, Hagar.  But Isaac was the true child of Abraham, in that he was the child of God’s promise, whereas Ishmael was a child born of human “problem solving.”

On the third day of their travel to the mountain Abraham finds the place where God told him to go. On the third day, God provided the lamb for the sacrifice.  Some scholars and theologians believe that the angel of the Lord named in this reading is actually Jesus Himself before His incarnation- the One who would actually be the sacrifice- actually stopping the sacrifice of Isaac.

In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation (propitiation: appeasement, atoning sacrifice) for our sins. – 1 John 4:10 (ESV)

Because Abraham believed God and trusted God even to the point of being willing to sacrifice his beloved, promised child, God provided the sacrifice. By faith, Abraham was justified.  By faith, we become the children of Abraham. By being given the gift of faith in the sacrifice of Jesus, we become children of God.

By faith, God kept his promise to Abraham. God did not take Abraham’s offspring as a sacrifice, even though we (also counted to be Abraham’s offspring) are the ones who have inherited the penalty of death.

God gave His own Son. He provides the Lamb.   His promise to Abraham through Isaac, the child of the promise, extends to us and to all who trust Jesus.

March 17, 2019 – The Promise is Real- Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 Philippians 3:17–4:1 Luke 13:31-35

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After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.”  But Abram said, “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”  And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.” And behold, the word of the Lord came to him: “This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.”  And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.

And he said to him, “I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” But he said, “O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?”  He said to him, “Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.”  And he brought him all these, cut them in half, and laid each half over against the other. But he did not cut the birds in half.  And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.

As the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram. And behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him. Genesis 15:1-12 (ESV)

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Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.  For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.

Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved. Philippians 3:17–4:1 (ESV)

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At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” And he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.’ O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’” Luke 13:31-35 (ESV)

How do we know the promise is real? Especially when everything we see and feel and experience would imply that God’s promises are as empty as the promises of the world?

One can gather up a wealth of bad news just by cruising the Internet news for a few minutes here and there. The sky has been falling for a very long time…but might it just fall today?  Jesus said we don’t know the day nor the hour (Matthew 24) of His return, but the end of days will come.  It could be today, tomorrow or thousands of years from now.  The timing is not for us to speculate on, but Jesus tells us there will be a final judgment, as well as God will remake the heavens and the earth.   In Revelation 21:3-4 we learn in the new creation: that the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.

The world tells us that we are making progress and getting better day by day, but the reality is that the world is dying and slowly decaying. The further human history gets away from the Fall, the weaker and further from God our society and the world at large becomes. Just look around for any length of time and this degradation and decay becomes clear to see. Jesus, who wept over Jerusalem and for those who would not believe in Him, understood the brokenness of the world that came after the Fall.

Science has a word for this process- entropy- which is the gradual but inevitable process of all matter returning to its elemental and basic state.  The Biblical explanation of entropy is found in Ecclesiastes 3:20- “All go to one place. All are from the dust, and to dust all return.”

The world can’t promise us anything that doesn’t fall under the universal fate of entropy. Everything the world can give us is eventually going to turn to dust. This world is not permanent.

Abram couldn’t help but to think God’s promise of offspring was a cruel joke. God promised him descendents that would outnumber the stars in the sky, yet Abram’s heir was some guy who wasn’t even a relative.  Abram was old.  His wife Sarai was barren and well past the age of fertility.  Even so, he (Abram) believed the Lord, and he (God) counted it to him as righteousness.

Faith in God is a gift of the Holy Spirit, but it is not a blind trust, or a trust that abandons logic and never questions the obvious. It’s OK to ask the questions, “Why must I deal with chronic pain, or depression, or terminal illness?”  When we pray the Psalms we see that the human condition is laid out in those prayers. The Psalmists cry out for repentance, they lament, they pour out their supplications, they beg for relief, and they long for solace, just like we do.  The ancients had the same basic issues we have today.

The wisdom of the world says that we should live for instant gratification and that the highest aim is the pursuit of more and more stuff. We want the latest and greatest technology, the latest styles of clothes and shoes, and oh, how lovely it would be to have the adjustable bed.  Stuff is not inherently bad, because material possessions are good gifts from God.  The issue and the place where sin gets involved is when we value the gifts more highly than God, the Giver.  We engage in idolatry (remember the First Commandment) when we think that we sustain ourselves by the pursuit of and the acquisition of stuff.

If we can ponder and understand the reality of our true citizenship being in heaven, and the temporary nature of material things, how does that change our perspective regarding life here on earth?

Jesus talked about laying up treasure in heaven – “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” Matthew 6:19-20 (ESV)

This doesn’t mean we spend our lives trying to rack up brownie points, or hoarding up stuff, but that we live in response to the fact that we have life with Jesus. We are set free to live in a way that we can serve others in response to what God has done and is doing for us.

Jesus gave His life for us to save us from our sins, because we are powerless to save ourselves.  He took the punishment of death we deserve so that we can have the treasure of eternal life with Him. So why would we set our hearts on temporary things?

It’s easy to lose sight of the promise. It’s easy to become so preoccupied with what we want here and now that we forget to value and practice the things that have lasting value such as the time we spend in worship, study and prayer, or the acts of love that we do for our neighbors.

It’s easy to get depressed when our health fails or we experience loss. We get sad when our friends move away or die, or when the world as we know it changes.  We are readily susceptible to the distractions and the sin that would distance us from God, brought on by the weakness of our own flesh, the trials and expectations of this world, as well as Satan and the powers that serve him.  Apart from the grace of God we are powerless against all of these things.

But by His grace, for the sake of Jesus, God gives us the strength to stand firm. Jesus teaches us in the Gospel of Luke: “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you? Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great.”Luke 6:46-49 (ESV)

Jesus is our foundation. We don’t have to get caught up in the worry and uncertainty that this world throws at us.  We can have confidence and solace and peace even though we may be suffering now.  The apostle Paul found comfort in Christ even as he was shipwrecked, stoned (with real stones…) starved, left to die, and thrown in prison.  Hopefully none of us will suffer as Paul did, but we can take confidence in Paul’s words as he was writing to the church at Philippi:

“Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him (Jesus) who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:11-13 (ESV)

By faith, we, like Abraham, are children of God’s promise. Jesus was faithful in fulfilling God’s promise to us by giving Himself to take our punishment in our place. By faith, we trust that what God says is true and that Jesus is who He says He is.  By His grace, through faith, we are citizens of heaven, set free to be content with the provision that God gives us, and to serve our neighbor out of response to God who has provided and does provide for us. (Abram) believed the Lord, and he (God) counted it to him as righteousness. This is our promise too.

March 14, 2019 – Faith in the One Who the Wind and the Sea Obey – Mark 4:35-41, Matthew 24:24, John 1:1-5

jesus calms the sea

On that day, when evening had come, he (Jesus) said to them (His disciples), “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. And other boats were with him. And a great windstorm arose, and the waves were breaking into the boat, so that the boat was already filling. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion. And they woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” And he awoke and rebuked the wind and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” And the wind ceased, and there was a great calm.  He said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?”  And they were filled with great fear and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” Mark 4:35-41 (ESV)

All of us face anxiety over circumstances in our lives. Everyone has been through some form of calamity, uncertainty or distress, whether it is something as trivial as running out of coffee, or as catastrophic as a natural disaster or an untimely death of a loved one.

Even though Jesus had chosen these men as His disciples, and they had Jesus right there with them, they were still terrified. They still cried out to Him- “Do something!”

Does it seem to us as if Jesus is sleeping at times- that He is not aware of our need, or that He doesn’t care about our suffering?

The disciples struggled with fear and a lack of faith just like we do- even though they could see, walk with and touch Jesus. The evidence was right there with them, visible, audible, tangible, and they still struggled with faith. No wonder our faith is often weak.

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Ghost has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith; even as He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting life. This is most certainly true. – Martin Luther, from the Small Catechism, Explanation of the Third Article of the Creed

Faith is a gift from God. Jesus is right here with us just as He was with His disciples in the boat during that storm on the Sea of Galilee.  The difficult part for us is that we can’t see Him or reach out and touch Him.  Faith is not rational.  Some people will claim that, “If I could see Jesus then I would believe in Him.”  Others are looking for Jesus to send us supernatural signs. Yet Jesus warned us that false prophets will display signs and wonders in an attempt to deceive His people (Matthew 24:24).  Faith does not always see the object in which it believes.  We can trust that in our baptism, by the water and the Word we are named and claimed as Jesus’ own, and we are given the gift of faith.  As we hear the Word taught, we learn about Jesus and grow in our faith.

The wind and the sea are subject to Jesus and His sovereignty just as all of nature is subject to Him. We have no control over the winds and the waves.  We have no control over the chemical and electrical processes in our bodies, let alone any process or machinery outside of us.

“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” This man is God of very God, the Word who was with God, through whom all things were made, and without him was not anything made that was made. (John 1:1-5)

Jesus does know our suffering, intimately. Jesus does not just stand aside as a passive observer.  Nothing came into being without Him. Nothing exists without Him.  We can trust that He is in control of the storms and the tragedies as well as our triumphs and accomplishments.  We may not know what comes next but He does, and He is with us.

March 13, 2019 – Sowing Seed, Faith and Good Soil- Mark 4:1-9, 1 Peter 3:14-16

Jesus teaching by the sea

Again he (Jesus) began to teach beside the sea. And a very large crowd gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat in it on the sea, and the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. And he was teaching them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them:  “Listen! Behold, a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it.  Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil.  And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” And he said, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Mark 4:1-9 (ESV)

The apostle Paul teaches us in Romans 10:17: So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ. This is the reason why churches do VBS and Sunday School or Kids’ Worship.  This is why we do adult Bible studies and have Catechism for middle schoolers and teens.  How can we have faith in Someone we have never learned about?  Ideally parents will bring their children to the baptismal font as early as possible, for baptism is a means of grace and a tangible proof that God names, claims and chooses us.  In baptism we are given the hunger and thirst to hear and receive God’s word- but we are still in need of someone to teach it, and we need to be brought to hear it.

Not everyone has the advantage of being born to Christian parents or of being brought to the font as an infant. Even so, grace and faith also comes from hearing God’s Word. The only problem for us is we have no way of knowing if the seed we sow in preaching and teaching will fall on good soil or not.  It’s discouraging for parents and teachers when we teach God’s Word and it seems as if we are being ignored or outwardly mocked for teaching what we know is true.  However, Jesus warns us that not every seed we sow will fall on good soil, and that’s to be expected.  Sometimes we will get discouraged by the indifferent or hostile responses of others to the Word of God.

The fact that the seed of good teaching doesn’t always fall on fertile soil does not mean we should be silent, or that we should cherry-pick our audience as if we could know who will hear and believe and who will hear and scoff or ignore. How do we know if the Holy Spirit would use our words and witness to bring another person to saving faith in Jesus?  How do we know if He would work faith in a person by them remembering something we said many years prior?  People are still coming to faith in Jesus by the Holy Spirit-inspired words of the apostles and other human writers of Scripture, thousands of years after they died.  So how can we stay silent even if we know some people aren’t going to be “good soil?” Especially when we know that faith comes by hearing?

There will be people who will openly dispute or mock us when we share God’s Word with them. The apostle Peter tells us what to do when we are confronted or mocked:

But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. 1 Peter 3:14-16 (ESV)

Some of the seed of good teaching will be snatched away before it hits the ground. Some will fall on rocky soil. Some of it will start to grow and then wither away.  But the seed that catches in good soil is worth all the sowing and then some. God promises us that there will be seed that falls on good soil even when most of it might not, and that he will make that harvest very, very good.  In faith, we teach, we explain, we live as best we can, and in faith we trust the Holy Spirit works in and through our lives and witness.

March 11, 2019- The Beatitudes, For Us- Matthew 5:1-12

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Seeing the crowds, he (Jesus) went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.

And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons (children) of God.

 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.  Matthew 5:1-12 (ESV)

The Beatitudes are difficult in the way that the Ten Commandments are difficult. They are beautiful. They are good. And there is no way that any of us can live by them perfectly.

We teach our children to be independent almost from day one. Independence and autonomy are ingrained into Western culture, but in God’s economy, we are blessed by our trust and dependence upon Him.

We can’t even believe in God and trust Jesus on our own. Faith itself is a gift of the Holy Spirit.

When we come to a place where we have no tangible reason to believe- when we are abandoned, ill or destitute, Jesus sustains us with the reality that He is with us, and that we are already citizens of the kingdom of God.

In Jesus’ resurrection we have hope that death is not the end. We will be reunited with the vast cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, and all tears will be washed away, when Jesus returns to remake heaven and earth.

When we are at the end of our strength and powerless, we are reminded that powers and principalities and governments are temporary, and that corruption in governance will eventually be overturned.

In the new heaven and earth there will be no more evil. We will have incorruptible bodies free from the curse of sin.  We will no longer endure injustice, unfairness, and mistreatment.  There will be no illness, violence, or suffering.

As Jesus has forgiven us, so we are able to be forgiven and to forgive others. We will no longer have to carry the burden of past injuries and grudges- nor will those things be held against us where others have failed to forgive us.

The veil will be removed from our eyes, so that we can love God with a purity that is not marred by our fear or desire for self-preservation.

In Christ we will have peace, not as the world gives but as only He can give. As the apostle Paul encourages us: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:4-7 (ESV)

Even as Christians are persecuted and ridiculed for our faith more and more, we are in good company. No one can take away the promise and the hope that we have in Christ.  It’s not always easy or popular to do the right things (and we are by no means perfect at this) but by the power of the Holy Spirit we are blessed to stand and we are given the courage and the confidence to stand.

As we examine the Beatitudes, it is not a “to do” list for us, but a “God does through” us list. We are not the engine behind our transformation, and we cannot make ourselves holy through our own efforts.  It is only by the grace of God that He gives us the faith to believe and trust Him.  Christ alone redeems and transforms us.

This is good news.

March 6, 2019 -Ash Wednesday, Marked With the Cross of Christ, the Promise of Baptism- Mark 1:1-13, Psalm 23:4

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The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

 As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,

“Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”

John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.  I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him. Mark 1:1-13 (ESV)

The Gospel of Mark omits the genealogy of Jesus and the Nativity narrative and goes straight to Isaiah’s prophesy of John the Baptist. John the Baptist was considered by scholars to be the last of the Old Testament prophets. He was the one who prepared the way of the Lord and baptized his followers for the sake of repentance. Jesus gets baptized by John, was called beloved by God, and then He was plunked into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. There’s a whole lot of action packed into 13 verses, and it’s not even the end of the first chapter of Mark.

Jesus’ baptism is different from our baptism in an important way. He had no sins to be washed away, rather, for Him, in His baptism He took on the sins of humanity and the burden of the human condition. He showed solidarity and unity with those who would become part of His body, the church.

Our baptism serves as a tangible seal and constant assurance that we are marked with the cross of Christ forever.  As we are tempted by our own flesh, the world and the machinations of Satan, we can have confidence that Jesus not only has been tempted like we are and far worse, but we also know that He is with us no matter what temptation or trial we face.  We will face trials.  Jesus taught us in Matthew 10:24 -“A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master.”  The difference is those who trust in Christ have hope. All of humanity is subject to the consequences of sin, suffering and death.  But those things are not the end, and even through all of our suffering and trials we are not alone in them.

The liturgical season of Lent begins today, Ash Wednesday, and lasts 40 days not counting Sundays. (Sundays are “in Lent” but are not counted as part of Lent.  Sundays in Lent are like mini-Easters spread out through Lent, so that we still get to celebrate and worship the risen Jesus, even in this penitential season.)  Many liturgical churches impose ashes on the foreheads of believers in the sign of the cross.  This symbolism reminds us that we are marked with the cross of Christ forever (the ashes just make it visible for a time) even as we are made of dust and will return to dust.  Mortality is the reality of life on earth, but there is life beyond this life in Christ.

These 40 days of Lent are an opportunity to remember our mortality, to consider that time Jesus spent in the wilderness, and to remember His Passion and His sacrifice to save us from the curse of sin. Jesus has done it all for us.  We can’t earn or deserve our salvation, as it is a gift given by faith alone. There is no circumstance too difficult for Him to resolve, no wound too great for Him to heal, no suffering too great for Him to bear.

Even though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.- Psalm 23:4 (ESV)

March 5, 2019- Shrove Tuesday, Extravagance and Love – John 12:1-8

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Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.  But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?”  He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” John 12:1-8 (ESV)

Shrove Tuesday is also known as Mardi Gras (literally: Fat Tuesday.)  Being the day before Ash Wednesday, which is the beginning of Lent, in liturgical traditions, (especially Roman Catholicism) Shrove Tuesday is traditionally a day to eat up all of one’s sumptuous food and to live it up before embarking on the somber, penitent, fasting season of Lent.  Of course, the Mardi Gras tradition is also one of theoretically getting all one’s sinning out of one’s system so one can be “shriven” or forgiven all their sins.  Of course, we all need to remember our baptisms and confess our sins daily.  We may be God’s saints, but as long as we are in these bodies on this earth, we are also sinners in need of God’s grace.

Jesus was sinless, so He had no sins to get out of His system before the Passover- or at any other time. The only sin problem Jesus ever had is when He took on the sins of the world- so that He could defeat the curse of death, cover us in His blood, and forgive our sins.

He was treated to a dinner with His disciples and friends. Mary saw the opportunity to be extravagant in her care for Jesus while He was with them.  Before He had to embark on His lonely journey through Passion Week, taking on the burden of our sins, and ultimately dying for us on the cross, He was cared for and richly anointed.  She had no idea what lie ahead of Jesus in the following days, but she responded to Him out of love.  Mary did not realize that she was preparing Jesus for the journey ahead of Him and she was anointing Jesus for His burial.

Yes, there are times for prudence and frugality. There is always a need to care for those less fortunate than we are. It can be said in this text that Judas had an ulterior motive for pointing that out. Charity does not always come from a heart with pure motives. There are also times in our lives in which we should celebrate and be extravagant with each other.  We do not know how long we will have our loved ones with us.

Traditionally Lent is a time of penitence and sacrifice. It is not just a time to give up bad habits or to get rid of unnecessary things.  It is a time to contemplate the life and Passion of Jesus.  It is a time to consider taking up good habits such as regular Bible study, giving, or serving others.  As we enter the season of Lent- whether we participate in Fat Tuesday traditions or not- perhaps we could make time to appreciate our loved ones, while they are with us, and we with them.  We do not know where this life’s journey may take us.