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

ashwednesday

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)

November 1, 2018- For All the Saints, Together in Christ- 1 John 3:1-3, Revelation 7:9-17, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

 

saintsSee what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.  And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. 1 John 3:1-3 (ESV)

The celebration of All Saints’ Day traditionally is a somber holiday in which we remember the saints (meaning all who lived and died in Christ) who have gone before us. On Ash Wednesday we are made aware of our mortality as we remember that we are dust and will return to dust. (Genesis 3:19)  On Good Friday we are reminded of our mortality again as we remember Jesus sacrificing Himself, taking the punishment of a cruel death and paying the penalty we deserve for our sins in our place.  As Jesus breathed His last and gave up His Spirit, the curtain of the Holy of Holies in the Temple where the Presence of God lived was torn open as salvation and redemption was bought and paid for all, once and for all.

The celebration of All Saints’ should make us aware of our own temporary existence and mortality but this remembrance should also point us to the joy that those who have gone before us are already living in. We are in Christ now, but we are still living with one foot in the “not yet,” in hope of the promise to come.  While we are on this earth we will always grieve those who we loved, but we can take comfort in knowing that they have stepped over into the Kingdom of God in all its fullness.  We can take confidence and radiant hope in the knowledge that death is not the end for those who are in Christ.

While the Book of Revelation is apocryphal literature and it uses great imagery and allegory, it also gives us a vision of the new world to come in which we will be with our fellow saints again, but with an important distinction. We will be made holy and whole and clean, without sickness, sin or death, in the presence of God forever. The simul Justus et peccator (saint and sinner at the same time, as we are now) will finally be made a pure saint.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

 “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Revelation 7:9-17 (ESV)

Even though our hearts hurt when we think of those who have gone before us in Christ, we thank God for their witness and for the legacy they have given us. Death is not the end and we are not in the same position of despair as people who do not know of hope in Christ. As the apostle Paul teaches:

“But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.  For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.  Therefore encourage one another with these words.” 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 (ESV)

It’s easy to be discouraged in this life. The older we get, we are more touched by the deaths of our loved ones and it is easy to get mired in grief and longing for them. There is no shame in grief. Yet we have confidence that those who have lived and died in Christ are already in the joy of eternal life with Him. We thank God for their witness and example, and we take great hope and joy in knowing that death is not the end. We will be with Jesus and we will be together again.

January 25, 2018- Hezekiah Prays With Shameless Audacity- 2 Kings 20:1-6, Romans 3:19-26

hezekiahvisitedbyisaiah

In those days Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz went to him and said, “This is what the Lord says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover.”

 Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, “Remember, Lord, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly.

Before Isaiah had left the middle court, the word of the Lord came to him: “Go back and tell Hezekiah, the ruler of my people, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will heal you. On the third day from now you will go up to the temple of the Lord. I will add fifteen years to your life. And I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria. I will defend this city for my sake and for the sake of my servant David.’” 2 Kings 20:1-6 (NIV)

Hezekiah was one of the few “good Kings” of Judah – kings who tried to live as God wanted them to.  When he was faced with his own mortality, Hezekiah was not afraid to pray with shameless audacity.

One can argue that today we would not want to bargain with God based upon our own merit or perceived “goodness” because we really don’t have any. Hezekiah really only had the argument that he was “good,” because God gave him the heart to live God’s way. Even before Jesus walked the earth, God’s grace was still in action for Hezekiah, who came to God in faith, prayed with shameless audacity and had his prayer answered in a most unexpected and generous way.  He believed God is who He claims to be.

We can only protest our case with God on the merit of Jesus, who became our righteousness. Because of Jesus, we too can pray with shameless audacity- as Jesus tells us to do.

So what does that mean? The apostle Paul explains:

Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God. Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.

 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. Romans 3:19-26 (NIV)

The apostle Paul demonstrates an important concept in Lutheran theology here too: the juxtaposition of Law and Gospel. The Law shows us our sin and our desperate need for Jesus.  The Gospel is the Good News that Jesus has justified us by His perfect sacrifice and His limitless grace.  We need to hear both the Law and the Gospel.  Without the condemnation of the Law, how do we know and appreciate our desperate need for Jesus?

No, we are not good. God doesn’t hear our prayers because we are good.  He hears our prayers for Jesus’ sake. We are sinners and lawbreakers, every one.  But we are also saints, because we cling to Jesus and believe He is Who He claims to be.  In His name and by His merit, we can pray as Jesus tells us to, with shameless audacity.  Anything and everything is fair game for prayer.  God already knows our hearts.  Prayer that comes from believing Jesus brings us closer to the heart of God.