Lent Devotionals: Ash Wednesday
March 2, 2022
“The Day of the LORD is coming; surely it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness…there has never been anything like it, nor will there be again after it for many generations… ’Yet even now,’ declares the LORD, ‘return to me with all your heart; with fasting, weeping, mourning. Rend your hearts open instead of your garments.’ Now return to the LORD your God, for He is gracious and compassionate; slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting of evil.” - Joel 2:2, 12-13
I’m standing with my friend outside, watching his kids make laps in the church parking lot, when he speaks out of nowhere, “It feels like war is everywhere, conflict is everywhere. It’s like a crushing presence that I can never completely get away from anymore. How will I help my kids hold on to their innocence and love in a world pushing us toward division and violence?”
It’s a stark contrast in my mind; kids playing, blissfully unaware of freedom convoys, Russian invasions, nuclear defense networks, and COVID death counts. Yet both their innocence and this present entropy of being we find ourselves in are tangible realities.
“We are but dust; and to dust we shall return.”
“What?” He turns his gaze away from the children, fixing me with a quizzical stare.
“I’m not sure if this is totally the right answer,” I admit, “but I think we hold on to those things by realizing this is all temporary. As good as things are for our kids right now, we can’t shield them from the pain that life is going to bring; we just can’t. Pain, fear, loss, conflict, anxiety, defeat; these things are an unavoidable piece of being human. We can’t get away from them anymore than we can stop ourselves from returning to the dust.”
“You’re not inspiring much peace in me here…” he says.
“I know. But the thing is, none of those other things gets to last either. This conflict in Ukraine is going to end at some point; it must. The divisions of people over pandemic procedures are going to end; they must. Whatever the next pain, sorrow, conflict, or fear is that’s coming, it must end, too. It all goes back into the dust as well. None of those things gets out of this alive, not even death.”
“But there are some things that will stick around, right?”
“Yes. There’s plenty that will outlast all of that; the love of God for us, the love of God in us, the love we have for one another, the legacy of doing what is purposeful and praiseworthy, the gratitude of the blessings God gives. But it’s even more than that. Some things don’t just outlast death; they get transformed by death. They come out of the dust stronger than when they went in. That’s the promise Jesus makes; I bury my life in Him now, even while I’m still living, and He has enough love and enough power to outlast whatever it is that comes for me, even death. So, I can enjoy what is good without fear of losing it, because its temporary. I can endure the horrible without losing heart because it’s temporary. And I can be grateful that God is working out lots of things in humans and this world, even in you and me and your kids, that aren’t temporary. Those things are going to last forever in His Kingdom.”
Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent with a reminder; there’s a lot we hold onto like its eternal that is only temporary. And there are lots of things we forget are eternal in pursuit of the temporary. Even more, this life is temporary, so we make the most of it by making sure we prioritize the eternal over the temporary.
This Ash Wednesday has some different overtones to it; we are moving into the third year of laboring under a pandemic that has altered our daily lives and priorities and has changed some things that may alter the rest of our lives. We are currently witnessing the largest military invasion since World War 2, magnified by all the nuclear possibilities that defined the Cold War Era. All of it makes us feel small, powerless, infinitesimal. Grains of dust.
And yet God makes promises; He is not small, powerless, or infinitesimal. And we, grains of dust though we may be, are His children, His own. His compassion and grace will outlast our post-pandemic languishing and weariness. His relenting of evil will overpower any invading force. His steadfast love is a bulwark nuclear weapons cannot penetrate or obliterate.
And so, we do the difficult business of turning back toward our God and tearing open our hearts; we open them wide to let the pain, fear, and loss flow out into His hands. For He can heal. He can raise up what is dead in us, can bring it out of the dust and make it whole again.
“Our prayers break on God like waves,
and He an endless shore,
and when the seas evaporate
and oceans are no more
and cries are carried on the wind
God hears and answers every sound.
As He has done before.
Our troubles eat at God like nails.
He feels the gnaw of pain
on souls and bodies. He never fails
but reassures He’ll heal again,
again, again and yet again.”
Luci Shaw in “Love, Remember: 40 Poems of Loss, Lament and Hope”
Prayer: God, you who are eternal and near, have mercy. We are small, we are frail, we are dust. We need your repentance and rest in our hearts. Call us nearer to you, and give us the courage to open our weary, overfilled hearts to you, that you may remove the things that are dragging us down into the dust. Restore us over this time of Lent with your compassion and your steadfast love. Restore to us the joy of our salvation in You. Amen.
Lent Devotionals: First Sunday of Lent
March 6, 2022
“When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, he saw heaven being torn open, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’ Now Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry. He was the son, it was supposed, of Joseph… Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the desert and wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry… Jesus then returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He taught in the synagogues, and everyone praised him.”
Luke 3:21-23; 4:1-2, 14-15
This past Thursday I was in a workshop with Conor Wilkerson talking about viewing the practice of Lent as a mirroring of Jesus’ movement through his baptism, his temptation in the wilderness, and the beginning of his public ministry in Galilee. As we turn ourselves toward God, we allow ourselves to take the same journey Jesus did, beginning with the proclamation of Ash Wednesday – “Yes, you are frail and small, you are from the dust, and you will go back to the dust. But you are also my Child, my Beloved; in you I am well pleased.” We acknowledge that when we were baptized into Christ, the blessing of the Father and the resting of the Spirit that happened to Jesus now extends to us and defines who we are.
From there, it gets a bit more interesting; while we might like to jump straight from that beautiful blessing and right into proclaiming the Good News in Galilee, there’s an important road that seems to go to nowhere. Instead of heading into the action we would expect, the journey of Jesus with the Spirit leads out into the lonely places, the quiet places, the hungry places. The places of doubt and struggle and pain and temptation. This is jarring to us; why would the fullness of the Spirit lead Jesus out into these kinds of experiences? What purpose could it serve? Moreover, why would I want to follow the same path? Because let’s be honest; I don’t want to go there to the places where I must acknowledge the lonely, dry, hungry places of my heart. I don’t want to have to sit in silence and be confronted by all my inner noise, that cacophony of doubt and insecurity. I don’t want to have to face my pain honestly or confront the areas where I’m feeling compromised.
And yet, this is where the Spirit leads. It is a stark reminder to us that not all experiences with the Spirit are the same. Contemporary Christian culture doesn’t always help us here; the common expectation is that if we are encountering the Holy Spirit it is going to feel positive; a runner’s high, a rock concert, a yoga session, a beach sunset. Lent asks you and I to reconsider that assumption; to expect that these hungry and dry places where our Rabbi’s footsteps lead might be just as full and rich of an experience in the Holy Spirit as anything else. Maybe you’re not doing it wrong after all.
The Bible actually wants to normalize this idea for you and I; this journey of baptism, wilderness, and proclamation is shot throughout the narrative of Scripture. Walter Brueggemann, in his commentary on the Psalms, invites us to look at both the individual Psalms and the entire direction of the book as a holy journey of orientation, disorientation, and finding new orientation. Try it on for size; read through a Psalm of David and see if there isn’t this path of “I know who God is…but there’s this thing shaking everything up… O God, reorient things back to you, I have put my hope in you.” David’s not the only one this happens to; walk in the steps of Abraham or Hagar or Sarah. Jacob or Rachel or Leah or Joseph. Moses or Miriam. Deborah or Gideon. Elijah or the Widow of Zeraphah. Mary or Joseph. Peter, Paul, Mary Magdalene. Orientation, Disorientation, Reorientation – sometimes for their whole lives! Through their stories and the story of Jesus, God invites us to learn how to confidently meander with the Spirit through these revolutions, to even welcome them.
“Deconstruction” of faith is a hot topic right now; it’s still kind of a nebulous term in Christian culture, but my best understanding is that it is the process of pulling apart your assumed systems and beliefs in order to honestly examine and question them. That’s not always what we do, but that’s the idea, and God isn’t against that idea. In fact, what Luke seems to be saying is that Jesus himself needed to head out into that place of disorientation in order to become the person He needed to be to stand in the synagogue in his hometown and say “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me to proclaim Good News to the poor…” The writer of Hebrews seems fairly convinced of this as well; “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers an petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Even though he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered, and being made perfect by it, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him…” (Heb.5:7-9)
I’ve been through deconstruction (though I wouldn’t have had that language to describe it) at least five times in my faith journey. My parent’s divorce forced me to see them as human, and to inherit a human faith from them rather than an unrealistic one. Three painful job transitions in ministry have broken down and rebuilt my trust in God and made me come to grips with why a pastor loves and cares for God’s flock, even when you get hurt by them. My daughter Emery’s death was more of a bomb blast than a dismantling, shattering just about everything I believed. Some of those things may not ever come back the same way. Maybe they’re not supposed to.
But here’s a thought; what if, instead of avoiding these times of disorientation, trying to hold it all together until it bursts at the seams, we started expecting them? What if, led by the Spirit, we went looking for them instead? If we were unafraid to go into the wilderness because we knew we were being cared for by God, and that He knows what He’s doing, who know what we might find out there?
I think the most dangerous thing I see about how deconstruction is currently being practiced is that it wants to place you and I in the driver seat; driven by desperation at the dissonance we’ve been trying to ignore or endure, we take our faith in our own two hands, tear it down to the ground, and find we don’t know how to put it back together. The number of voices out there who are “experts” on faith deconstruction opposed to those who are talking about faith re-construction speaks volumes to this.
That is why we need the invitation of Lent: the call to go meandering out into the dry and hungry places led not by our desperation, but the song of the Spirit’s promise to refresh us. That there are streams out in the desert if we will let Him show us where to go.
“Find me, O my Father.
Take me back to You.
My throat is cracked
But thirst is more
My stomach craves
A food that feeds only this –
So I walk
Close to falling
- Chris Goan, from “40” (Images by Simon Smith, Verse by Chris Goan)
Lent Devotional – Wednesday March 9, 2022
“Join with others in following my example, dear sisters and brothers, and take note of those who live according to the model we gave you. For, as I have often told you before and now say again even in tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven! And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!” – Philippians 3:17-4:1
I was listening to a playlist of hymns associated with Lent this past week, and I came across a powerful hymn I had never heard before called “My Song is Love Unknown”, written by Samuel Crossman, a minister and songwriter from Suffolk, England, in 1664. It is a masterful work, and it captured my heart immediately with its honest and perplexing lyrics.
The hymn intertwines two stories – that of Jesus’ passion and love and the story of our humanity. It is a hymn of mystery; mystery at how Jesus could do such sacrificial things. Mystery at how we as humans could respond to His love and actions the way we do. Mystery at how God keeps loving us when we are so messed up at times.
“My song is love unknown, my Savior’s love to me
Love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be.
Oh who am I that for my sake my Lord should take frail flesh and die?
He came from His blest throne salvation to bestow;
The world that was His own would not its Savior know.
This is my friend, my friend indeed who at my need His life did spend!
Sometimes we strew His way and His sweet praises sing;
Resounding all the day “Hosannas!” to our King.
Then “Crucify!” is all our breath and for His death we thirst and cry.
Why, what hath my Lord done? What makes this rage and spite?
He made the lame to run, He gave the blind their sight,
Sweet injuries! Yet we at these ourselves displease, and ‘gainst Him rise.
With angry shouts they had my dear Lord done away,
A murderer they save; the Prince of Life they slay.
Yet willing he to suff’ring goes that through His name all might be free.
Here might I stay and sing of whom my soul adores!
Never was love, dear King, never was grief like Yours.
This is my friend, in whose sweet praise I all my days would gladly spend!”
Let’s be honest; some days I am living as though I am still an enemy of the cross of Christ; I shift between “Hosanna!” and “Crucify!” on a dime. It is so easy to move back into my old ways – toward destruction, self-serving appetites, and thinking that shameful things will somehow make my life more glorious.
“But we… But our…” there is no more refreshing interruption. Who we are is not who we were; our identity is now rooted in that mystery of Christ’s love, rather than the mystery of how we don’t always see or comprehend what God is doing through Him, how we don’t recognize our Savior in our midst. Jesus, not we, says Paul, is the one who wields the power that enables Him to bring everything under his control. He is transforming us from lowliness to glory. Never was love, never was grief, never was redemption like His.
And there is that phrase again, not in Ephesians this time; stand firm. “This is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends.” How? By committing ourselves to the true narrative of Jesus, rooting ourselves in His reality. “Love to the loveless shown, that they might lovely be,” flows from Jesus to me, and from me to you, and from you to the one around you who needs to know that they have been made lovely. “This is my friend, my friend indeed, who at my need His life did spend.” The crowds then and now may respond to God’s grace with rage, spite, or even worse, indifference. Maybe we do sometimes as well. Lent draws our gaze back to Christ Jesus, renews our focus, and connects us to that place of strength again so that we can live and move and be out of His transforming love and power.
Prayer: Jesus our redeemer, you have given us the great gift of the story of transformation. Please continue your work in us; you know the ways we resist your will, and you know the deceptions we entertain about ourselves and you. Transform our vision, to see your consistent love intermingling with our inconsistency, creating faith out of faithlessness, loveliness out of lovelessness. Help us to see that your story is winning. Give us the courage to share our stories so others may hear of your transforming love and power and take it as their story, too. Amen.
Second Sunday of Lent – March 13, 2022
“At that time some of the Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”
Jesus replied, “Go and tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day – for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!”
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you! How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, yet you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate! I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the
name of the LORD.’” -Luke 13:31-35
Just like Jesus, the journey of Lent sets our face toward Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). There is no deviating from the path that inevitably leads to the Cross, for our Saviour or for us. We don’t know whether these Pharisees are acting as friends, foes, or something in between, but the warning is clear; at the end of this road is suffering and death. Turn back. Repent. Even though Jesus knows the path, it doesn’t mean it’s easy to walk it; he’s tempted, tested, and made to suffer along the way, even though he doesn’t give up.
I’m both surprised and thankful for the wide range of emotions Jesus displays in this short passage. He expresses frustration, determination, sorrow, longing, lament, grief, and not a small bit of sarcasm in his response. Jesus is telling the truth about who God is and how He is reconciling the whole world to Himself. He’s
going to the one place where people should know the truth about God and His desires, and yet they will not receive the prophet who is more than a prophet – the Word of God made flesh and walking among us.
There’s a Greek word “thelow” that features prominently here – it means desire. Herod desires (thelow) to kill Jesus and eliminate any challenge to his pseudo-kingdom, but it will not work. He’s just a “little fox” nipping at the heels of God Himself. Jesus desires (thelow) to gather in the people of God, to do the work Isaiah foretold the Messiah would do – bring Good News to the poor, sight to the blind, release to those held captive, freedom for those oppressed, and to proclaim the time of God’s favor over them (Luke 4:18-19). But there’s a third desire – the desire of Jerusalem, those who think they speak for God and know the mind of God but don’t – and they do not desire what Jesus the Prophet does (literally – “but you will not desire (thelow) it.”)
There is a battle of desires that Jesus has come to put to death, and it will take His own execution to finish it. They are telling Jesus to repent, literally “turn around and seek another direction.” Jesus is begging Jerusalem to repent, to changetheir minds, seek a new direction, and seek shelter under His loving care. In the meantime, there are no threats, no difficulties that are going to keep Jesus from giving himself fully to God’s purposes at work to loosen the hold of evil on the world and to heal and restore those who have been marked and marred by the sickness of that evil. Perhaps things aren’t so different today as they were then.
So what’s the message for you and I at Lent, in 2022, from this difficult word of Jesus? First, that He longs to draw us into Himself, like a mother hen’s attempt to protect her brood with extended wings, no matter the threat, no matter the harm to herself. Jesus’ plea for repentance in us comes not out of some authoritative
judgment, but a desire to put Himself in harm’s way to save us. But are we willing to change, to come under Him fully in that way? Which desire wins out? I think this passage speaks to one of my greatest fears as someone who has grown up in a “Christian” environment my whole life: that I’m so comfortable and so certain of
who God is, what He wants, and how all this works, that I don’t see who He really is, what He really wants in me, and how I can move in step with His heart. Or worse, that I do see it, but I am not willing to change direction to accommodate to it. Lent invites you and I to a beautiful repentance – to refuse to repeat the same mistakes,
to not wait to say “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD to me today.”
Prayer: A Litany of Repentance (optional – pray this with a group as a litany: leader group responds with the underlined text)
God, all loving and all caring,
We come before you with hesitant steps and uncertain motives
Our hearts are parched from wandering in a desert of sin
We want to sweep out the corners where sin has accumulated
And uncover the places where we have strayed from your truth
Our hearts are parched from wandering in a desert of sin
We ask for courage to open our eyes and unstop our ears
That we may be aware of all that distracts us
from a whole-hearted commitment to Christ
Our hearts are parched from wandering in a desert of sin
We want to see ourselves as you do and live our lives as you intended
Expose in us the empty and barren places
where we have not allowed you to enter
Our hearts are parched from wandering in a desert of sin
Reveal to us our half-hearted struggles
Where we have been indifferent to the pain and suffering of others
Our hearts are parched from wandering in a desert of sin
Create in us a clean heart, O God, and put a right Spirit within us
Nurture the faint stirrings of new life
where your Spirit has taken root and begun to grow
Our hearts are parched from wandering in a desert of sin
We long for your healing light to transform us into the image of your Son,
For you alone can bring new life and make us whole
In your mercy, shine upon us, O God, and make our path clear before us.
- From “Litanies of Repentance”, Patmos Abbey
Lent Devotionals – Wednesday, March 16
“Now on the same occasion, there were some present who reported to Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus said to them, ‘Do you suppose that these Galileans were somehow greater sinners than anyone else in Galilee because they suffered this fate? I say to you, no, yet unless you repent you will all likewise perish. Or do you suppose that those eighteen people upon whom the tower of Siloam fell and killed were somehow worse than all the other people living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, yet unless you repent you will all likewise perish.’
And He began telling them this parable: ‘A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. He said to the caretaker of the vineyard, ‘See here, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this tree without finding any. Why even waste the resources of the ground on it? Cut it down immediately!’ Yet the caretaker answered the owner, ‘Please, sir, leave it alone for this year as well, until I am able to dig around it and put in fertilizer; if it bears fruit next year, all well and good, but if it still does not, then we shall cut it down.’” – Luke 13:1-9
I’ll warn you ahead of time, this devotional is being written on an excessive amount of coffee and a significant lack of sleep. I found myself awake at around 4am this Tuesday morning (better known as the new 3am, since I’m still lagging behind our springing forward an hour), my mind chewing furiously on all the challenges, big and small, that seem to surround us at this point in history. I decided to come up to the office to spend a bit of time praying and reading scripture, with the hope that if I couldn’t relax my mind enough to get a bit more sleep, I might at least find a bit of solace in the voice of God. I looked at my reading plan I’m working through for Lent, flipped open the Bible…and read this passage.
Not exactly the uplifting Word I’m longing for here, Jesus.
As I read and reread this passage, trying to get through the fog of early morning and the ghosts of my anxious thoughts, I realized that Jesus is addressing current world events that could have been ripped from modern headlines or the subject of conversation around the water cooler. “Did you hear about the civilians that were killed in that Russian missile strike on Kyiv the other day?” “Oh yeah, and I heard there was another outbreak of COVID at the care facility down the road, killed quite a few folks.” “And the flooding over in the mainland! So much damage and loss…” Jesus seems comfortable wading into the middle of current world affairs to give a theological perspective on kingdom living, and this makes me uncomfortable, and I find myself wondering why?
The purpose of engaging in the season of Lent, much like Advent or other times in the year, is to renew our focus. To help us see clearly what is going on both inside us and around us in a wider frame. I can’t help but wonder how closely these events, especially the execution of the Galilean pilgrims might have impacted Jesus. These are people from His neck of the woods; did He know them? Was it like hearing about his cousin John all over again? I can’t know, but the events certainly foreshadow that Pilate isn’t some spineless lackey; he is more than willing to resort to fear-inducing brutality, and he’s even willing to spit in the face of the gods, mixing the pilgrims’ blood with their ritual sacrifices to what he considers a backward and impotent deity. And the tower in Jerusalem that randomly falls on eighteen souls and snuffs out their lives? Tragedy and violence; sounds like our newsfeeds, honestly.
What I hear Jesus saying in response to these tragedies is very applicable. Life can be a capricious thing, and Hobbes (the philosopher, not the tiger) may just be right when he calls it “nasty, brutish, and short”. But Jesus wants us to look deeper: it is life’s fragility that gives it urgency. These people in tragedy or violence have done nothing to deserve their suffering; neither is our good fortune any indication that we somehow possess special blessing or status.
I think it’s important to note that if Jesus has just emphatically said twice that we can’t equate tragedy with divine punishment, He’s not going back on Himself when He twice says, “unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” Instead, He simply points out what tragedies remind us of all the time; we are very small beings in a very uncertain existence, with very little knowledge and practically no control about what is around the next bend. Just as the victims of both Pilate and the tower don’t get the luxury of choosing the time their life ends, those who won’t alter their steps to match God’s cadence tend to find quite suddenly the music stops and they’re out of place.
But Jesus also isn’t some sensational street evangelist spouting fear mongering through a megaphone either; if the fragility of life demands urgency, that urgency has a safehouse in God’s graciousness, if we’re willing to carpe gratiam (seize the grace!). That’s why He dives into the parable about the fig tree. The first half reinforces everything we just heard about; just because you haven’t been cut down, don’t presume you’re bearing fruit. But the hopeful other side of the coin in the parable is that you and I aren’t being left to our own devices; we have a Gardner who is patient and merciful, willing to give us all the resources we need to encourage repentance, and a Father who, unlike the landowner, isn’t eager to “clean house”, but is “patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” I think I know where Peter gets that line from now (2 Peter 3:9). Jesus is pouring out as much grace as He can muster to help us come around to His way of thinking and living, and the Father continues to push things back, saying “just one more, just one more, and just one more after that, as many children as we possibly can bring in…”
Like you, I think I’m getting a bit tired of experiencing “once in a lifetime” events every other week; they’re exhausting. But they do shake us out of the complacency of ordinary life, and they impress upon us the fragility of our existence, and that clarity is a good thing. It’s not so we can drown under a weight of anxiety (or lose sleep from it). It’s not given to us so that we can frantically wall ourselves up behind rationalizations or false assurances or desensitize ourselves with a steady drip of round-the-clock newsfeeds. It’s a chance to check our fruit; to open ourselves up to the Gardener’s hand as He tends to us, and rather than being consumed by what cannot be controlled, to change what we can – our minds.
Prayer: God of change, direct us on a pathway of
new possibilities: Christ Jesus, fill us with your
compassion and healing presence; and Holy Spirit,
embolden us to understand. Amen. (Luther Lenten Devotional 2022)
“Then the LORD said to Joshua, ‘See, today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.’ So the place has been called Gilgal to this day. On the evening of the fourteenth day of the month, while camped at Gilgal on the plains of Jericho, the Israelites celebrated the Passover. The day after the Passover, that very day, they ate some of the produce of the land: some unleavened bread and roasted grain. The manna then stopped the day after they ate this food from the land; there was no longer any manna for the Israelites, for that year they ate the produce of Canaan.” – Joshua 5:9-12
This weekend marks the Spring Equinox, the balance point where the days start to get longer than the nights on our half of the globe. We’re also at the balance point of Lent – halfway through our journey of introspection and refocus as we move toward the Cross and the Tomb. One thing I’m reminded of is that whatever the journey we find ourselves on – 40 days in the wilderness, 40 years in the wilderness, or anywhere in-between – the promises of God can sustain us. This is especially important to remember when it looks like things we need or desire for our sustenance are being removed.
Our reading today finds Israel at a balance point – they are in the Promised Land, just barely. The Jordan River, small as it is in comparison to the Red Sea, is behind them, a symbolic transition from one place to another. In front of them is the largest, most fortified city in Canaan, with all the danger and difficulty it represents. It doesn’t seem like a time when you want to 1) take all your fighting men and put them on…um…injured reserve (see vv. 1-8), and 2) take away the food supply that you’ve relied on for years now. But that’s exactly what God decides to do at Gilgal. The Israelites heal up and observe Passover, and as they do, they bake their first unleavened bread from the grain of Canaan. And the manna stops coming the next day.
It doesn’t take long on this earth for us to experience distress or displeasure at having something we care about removed from our lives. If you want an object lesson, please come over to my house when it’s time for me to turn off the Paw Patrol episode Bennett has been watching. You will see copious amounts of both. I think about the things that we’ve had removed from our lives the past couple of years, and the list gets pretty long. Probably the top thing on my “loss list” is people; friends that have moved away, mentors that have gone to be with the LORD, brothers in ministry that have been called elsewhere, church members who haven’t come back. I’m a relationship guy, so those things ache more in my soul than it might for others, I guess. You’ve got your list as well, I’m sure.
What I’ve come to realize is that these things we cherish often feel like support structures – pillars of normalcy or security – and when they get knocked out, we feel like our stability is under attack. I assume if I had grown up my whole life knowing that I go outside in the morning and gather my food that shows up like clockwork, and then it just stopped, I would feel like my normalcy was being upended. I think if I was asked to camp at the foot of this impenetrable fortress and asked to ritually sideline my army, I would feel like my security and stability were being attacked.
But then I notice that the manna isn’t all that God is taking away.
“Today I have rolled back the reproach of Egypt from you.” This word God uses for “rolled back” carries weight – literally, like exerting yourself to push a heavy load or a large boulder out of the way to clear a path. The children of Israel aren’t coming into the Promised Land squeaky clean; they’ve got the burden of golden calves, quarreling, complaining, and rebellion against the covenant that they made with God still hanging on them as they cross the Jordan. So God is going to take that away, too, and give them a fresh start as they face the new challenge of coming into the Land. It’s a weight that maybe they never knew they had hanging on them until God tossed it aside, but it’s so significant they name the place Gilgal – the place where God takes things away. And the manna? Its absence is evidence of something greater: promises fulfilled and new life. By letting go of the manna and trusting that they don’t need it anymore, Israel is now free to take hold of the new promise; that from now on, they will not be aimlessly wandering anymore, but will tend their own crops in their own homes. And not even Jericho can stop that.
Lent is often a time of removal. Maybe you’ve been fasting from eating, or something else. The reason we engage in that removal is an act of trust – that if we allow ourselves to let go of this thing we are used to or take comfort in, God can sustain us without it, and give us new, better things in its place. So as you continue to walk this wilderness journey of Lent, ask yourself – what things am I holding on to that might best be let go of? What things am I leaning on that might be poor supports compared to God’s faithfulness? And what might happen if I were willing to let Him roll them away? What else might He remove and replace, in His great love and power?
Find a quiet, comfortable spot.
Reflect on this question: What am I devoting my time, energy, or control to? What am I holding on to for security, stability, or normalcy right now? What would it look like to loosen my grip on it and allow God to take it instead and guide me?
Close your hands into fists and bring to mind those areas of your life you are holding onto in unhealthy ways. Places where you know you are seeking control or power. Places you are afraid to loosen your grip on.
As each of these things come to mind, slowly open your hands and release them to God. Imagine them floating out of your grasp and into His.
Pray these words: “I love you LORD, with all my heart, and soul, and strength. For the kingdom and the power and the glory are Yours forever.”
Repeat this exercise with each thing that comes to mind. Finish with a short prayer of thanksgiving to God for hearing and holding these things and for guiding your steps.
“How blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered!
How blessed is the person whose sin the LORD does not count against them
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
When I kept silent about my sin, my body wasted away
Through my groaning all day long
For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me;
My strength was drained away as though I were fainting in the heat of the summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity.
I said, “I will confess my transgression to the LORD.”
And you forgave the guilt of my sin!
Therefore let all the faithful pray to you while you may be found;
And surely even the rising of the mighty waters will not reach them
You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble
And surround me with songs of deliverance.” - Psalm 32:1-7
I was hunting last week for articles talking about the relationship between physical, mental, and spiritual health as an interconnected system, and I ran across a study about the science of shame. A panel of Psychiatrists had run tests on individuals that were asked to actively write about their long-term feelings of shame and guilt; the results showed that how we think about ourselves affects our health more than we know. For those who identified as holding on to shame or guilt for a long time, the doctors found elevated levels of Cortisol, the hormone that helps throw your body into fight-or-flight mode during stressful situations. It has numerous negative side effects when we’re exposed to it long term; everything from sleep problems and weight gain issues to impairing our memory and concentration and enhancing our tendencies toward anxiety and depression. If that wasn’t bad enough, they also found elevated levels of a chemical receptor called sTNFαRII (an abbreviation for a really long name) that is part of your immune response system. This receptor is the identified thing that HIV makes run wild in your system, so that your immune system gets overloaded, and you are unable to fight off disease anymore.
Literally, guilt and shame, when they are held within us, make our body start attacking itself.
“…my body wasted away…all my strength was drained from me…” Maybe David is on to something here about the importance of confession and forgiveness in our lives.
I’ll admit, I either have the tendency to make too much or too little of confession and forgiveness. There are tons of little things I should acknowledge that I try to ignore, hoping that God and others will turn a blind eye to. But those little things add up, don’t they? If we hold them inside us and don’t acknowledge them not only does our mind secretly keep score, but our body does also.
On the other hand, there are things in my life that I still feel so ashamed of, things I think are unforgivable because of the weight of their guilt. Somehow, I’ve convinced myself I’m more powerful than God; that I could do something that He, in all of his infinite love and compassion, can’t reconcile inside of me or reconcile with Him. And if I can’t allow myself to let go of those things, they will literally eat me up from the inside.
I just want to remind you and I of something really important here as we examine ourselves during Lent; God is for you, not against you. That “heavy hand upon you” that is from the LORD (v.4) isn’t there to hold you down or crush you under the weight; it is Him lovingly, consistently prodding and pushing you to come into His presence and be freed from all the little and the huge things that tug at your soul. He loves you and I too much to let us keep going on the way we are, so He keeps coming at us to move us to confession, that He may delight in forgiving us, and we may delight in Him.
May His presence be a refuge for you from guilt and shame. May His forgiveness be a sweet song of deliverance in your ear.
Declaration of Forgiveness – Pray this one out loud!
Our Lord, Jesus Christ, we praise you,
For you are gracious and compassionate.
Though our sins bore the sting of death,
Through you, God has given us victory over both sin and death.
Because of your saving work on the cross, our sins have been forgiven!
We praise you gratefully as we remember the psalmist’s words:
“The LORD is merciful and gracious; slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse, nor will He keep His anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His lovingkindness to those who fear Him
As far as the east is from the west, so far He removes our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion for his children, so the LORD has compassion for those who fear Him.
For He knows how we were made. He remembers that we are but dust.”
Praise and thanksgiving, glory and honor be to you, Father, Son, and Spirit
For your love is great, and your forgiveness is faithful! Amen!
“…meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called to one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has returned,’ they replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in, so his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
“’My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’” – Luke 15:25-32
When I preached this parable over the course of two weeks last year, we dug deep into the dynamics of honor and shame that underscore many of the features of this parable – the audacity of both sons, in their respective ways, toward their father. The unmerited, even questionable, generosity of the father, the way he disregards the standards of the community and places himself, and his household, as an object of scorn out of the love he has for both his children. We also uncovered some of the ambiguity in the parable (one of the reasons I love this and all the parables of Jesus – they force you to think!) and left our questions out there: Is the younger son truly repenting or just being savvy? We don’t know! Is the older son being “right” in the eyes of the community, acting as the social conscience the father is ignoring? We don’t know! Does the father actually forgive the younger son in the parable, or is he just welcoming him home as is? Again, we don’t know!
Jesus leaves these pieces of the parable open for a reason; to invite the listener to be drawn into the story and wrestle with what is happening, what should be happening, and ultimately to have to decide who they are in the story. That’s also why the biggest ambiguity of the parable is the open ending. What will the older son do? What happens to him? We don’t know. Does he end up participating in the celebration, a celebration where custom dictates that he jettison his concepts of fairness and be the host for the guest of honor, his younger brother? Does he refuse further and ultimately say “no” to the pleadings of his father? And what exactly is he saying no to in order to hold on to his principles, even if he is technically in the right?
I was reading some reflections this week from Karoline Lewis, a professor at Luther Seminary, on the questions in this parable. She keys in on how much celebration appears in this chapter of Luke, whether it is over a sheep, a coin, or a son. Joy, celebration, cheering, gladness; multiple words communicating aspects of joy tying these three parables together. Ultimately, she finds the question that captivates her is how the older son might be resisting joy, and the times we do the same.
How present or absent is joy in our lives these days? There have been times in my life recently where I should have been able to join in the music and dancing with the fatted calf on the grill, but I couldn’t. Or wouldn’t. Sometimes it was convincing myself that I hadn’t earned the right to be joyful; there were things I needed to justify or achieve in myself before I could be worthy of the pleasure of joy. Sometimes it was because I still have problems remembering that joy doesn’t preclude having problems or pain – it’s not an either/or equation, and a person who is wise and fears the LORD realizes that. Sometimes it’s been the imbalance of the world around me, the hurt and discord of the billion global problems that I can do nothing to avert or solve, that make me feel guilty for engaging joy. And let’s be honest; sometimes I’m just a disgruntled older son that is complaining about the lack of fairness in the world, or specifically how it’s not working the way I think it should, and resist the joy that God offers. In being critical of other people that I think should be more repentant and less joyful, I am self-sabotaging, robbing myself of the opportunity to be joyful instead of being right.
I find myself standing next to the older son and asking– why is it still so hard to choose the joy of the LORD, even now? Yes, there is just SO MUCH going on right now – professionally, personally, communally, nationally, globally, you name it. There’s a piece of my brain that tells me it’s almost irresponsible to take joy in life right now. But isn’t now when we need it the most? Isn’t now when we need to immerse ourselves in the grace of God – not as a reward for repentance, not as forgiveness, but grace as fuel for living, letting go of our reasons for refusal and resistance, refusing to stand far off and watch?
Maybe the younger son isn’t the only one who was dead and needs to be brought back to life again. Maybe he’s not the only one lost needing to be found. Dr. Lewis sums it up well: “Moments of joy are fleeting and often demand fearless acceptance… [God’s] grace helps us walk through the door and sit down at the banquet when it’s the last thing we can imagine doing.” My prayer for you, church, and for myself, is that we can relax our resistance to the joy God has for us, especially when we are feeling weary and worn out. That we will choose to let Him lead us by the hand into the celebration life of the Kingdom.
“O Heavenly Father, I pray that you would cheer and refresh my spirit. Gladden my heart and mind so that I may know Your heart for me and for others. Even when I feel overwhelmed by despair and difficulty, guide me into Your presence as a light and refuge. I place my anxieties, worries, frustrations, and sorrows at Your feet; draw me into Your love and restore the joy of my salvation. Where I am resisting you, increase your Grace toward me, that I may surrender to your peace, and be able to celebrate You. May Your joy give me gratitude for Your creation and Your children again. You are a better friend to me than I am to myself, and so I place my trust in You rather than my own understanding. Give me a fearless acceptance of the joy You are offering me in my current circumstances, whatever they may be. May I rejoice in You always, to the praise of Your glory. Amen.”
“When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,
We were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
And our tongue with shouts of joy;
Then it was said among the nations,
“The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes once more, O LORD,
Like a downpour of water in the Negev.
May those who sow in tears
Reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping
Bearing the seed for sowing,
Shall come home with shouts of joy,
Carrying their sheaves.” - Psalm 126
I’ve made no secret of my love for this Psalm, and the worship song we sing that is borne out of its lyrics. I can resonate quite a bit with the song of a people looking backward to God’s faithfulness in the times of current distress. I think you probably can two, and perhaps these last two years have been punctuated by those times of weeping. There’s been a lot to grieve; cancelled plans, postponed celebrations, layoffs and other financial insecurities, strained or broken friendships. And there is the loss of people we love; family, friends, neighbors, even strangers all around the world. We grieve the loss of control we feel as we watch the world stage and the death that conflict is bringing. It is heavy, and it makes us long for that redemption and freedom of days gone by; to cry out for it again.
What is so enriching and hopeful for me is how the psalmist envisions these tears like seeds being planted in the ground. We assume they are just lost water; we can’t see where they go, can’t see what they might produce. But they are producing, slowly but surely, the heart that is softened to God. The heart that is ready to participate in true joy. “Shouts of joy” sprout out of the heart that is well-watered with bringing our suffering to God. The promise is that He can bring an abundant harvest of joy into our lives.
Lent continues to be a time of returning, returning to our identity in Christ, returning to the pivotal moments of the Passion Week and all its painful events. There is much weeping here, much suffering here, much crying out for deliverance, that the cup would pass from Jesus. And it does not. And yet, out of this most intense suffering, the most intense the world has known, out of this suffering our greatest joy grows. The story is a story of death and resurrection: a seed that dies, falls into the ground, and is covered up, only to sprout up a salvation that we could never have imagined on our own.
I was introduced this week by another writer to a poem by Mary Oliver called “Lead”. It is a poem about tragedy, the unseen hand that steals plans and security, but it is also a poem about how these things propel us to meaning and to life. The poem ends with this line: “I tell you this / to break your heart, / by which I mean only / that it break open and never close again / to the rest of the world.”
Though we might want to close up and close off in our times of suffering, there is a different path; when we allow our suffering to break us open. If we are willing to be opened up, we are allowed to imagine possibilities again. We are allowed to experience the world, and those around us, and God, in new ways.
Lord, Thank you.
Thank you for who you are. Thank you for the peace that is to come.
Help us to know something of that peace now, even as our fear and doubts threaten to overwhelm us.
Come near to us! Lord, you see us!
You see us as we’re grieving:
Grieving loss of connection from community that is not what it once was.
Grieving our own impatience and frustration, that we are constantly surprised at how easily inconveniences seem to break us.
Lord, we are hurting in the quiet moments, when we feel alone, forgotten, stranded.
You see us even in our outrage! Over injustices in the world, as we long for our brothers and sisters, our neighbors, to be well and to be safe and to be at peace with one another; grieving over how much loneliness and lack of love is in the world.
But mostly Lord, we grieve because we are tired.
We are weary, searching for something to make it day to day.
Come near to us!
As we run, stumbling in search of refuge and strength – rise up to meet us!
Look, now, at our tear-streaked faces and treat us with gentle hands.
Gather us together at your nurturing breast and give us comfort.
Pick us up – and carry us along with you as you work.
Our longing is to be near you, to be near one another; you know the right desires of our hearts, Lord.
As we grieve what we took for granted, we know that you grieve alongside us.
Father, your light shines in the darkness and we have not understood it.
Your light shines in the darkness and it cannot be overcome!
Give us eyes to see you.
Teach us to see with the eyes of Christ, that we may be renewed as one, as your body and your people.
Your Kingdom come.
- Aubrianna Pennington, Regent College Chapel December 1, 2020
“Six days before the Passover celebration began, Jesus arrived in Bethany, the home of Lazarus – the man he had raised from the dead. A dinner was prepared in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, and Lazarus was at the table with him. Then Mary took a twelve-ounce jar of expensive perfume made from essence of nard, and she anointed Jesus’ feet with it, wiping his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance.
“But Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would soon betray him, said ‘That perfume was worth a year’s wages! It should have been sold and the money given to the poor.’ Not that he cared for the poor – he was a thief, and since he was in charge of the disciple’s money, he often stole some for himself.
“’Leave her alone,’ replied Jesus, ‘She has done this in preparation for my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.’”
“And the house was filled with the fragrance.” Our girls have been picking bunches of daffodils from the ones that grow up in the hills above our house. They sell them down at Beckwith Park for the past couple of years to raise funds for the Shelbourne Community Kitchen, and so our kitchen was filled with them last week. Besides the normal yellow ones, there are some ones with a deep orange center, and some that are almost white, that are very fragrant, and it would hit me the second I came upstairs in the morning. I’m glad I’m not allergic! That smell is now tied to a very beautiful memory for me – of my girls working hard to be extravagantly generous to people who can’t always afford to buy their daily bread.
No one can ignore what’s happening between Mary and Jesus in this vivid passage, although it seems no one actually understands it except Mary and Jesus. Read this passage carefully a few times and note just how excessive both the actions and the reactions are, and especially how it characterizes Mary’s devotion to Jesus. If Martha was losing her mind earlier when Mary was taking her place at the feet of Rabbi Jesus instead of “staying in the kitchen” (and all the implications of that), I can’t imagine what her reaction would be when she starts wiping those feet with her undone hair. Maybe she just left the house, that’s why we don’t hear anything from her.
It would be easy to misunderstand what Mary is doing, because it is rooted in so much intimacy; the perfume is most likely Mary’s dowry for marriage, handed down to her both as a means of financial security and intimacy with her husband. The plant that this perfumed oil would have come from is native to the Himalaya regions of India and beyond; it would be something both pleasurable and valuable. So if we’re prone to think this is something Mary does out of some kind of emotional impulsivity, that’s not the case; she is intentionally doing the extravagant, and placing both her present love and future security at the feet of Jesus, quite literally.
It would not only have been extravagant, but it would also have looked scandalous. Mary doesn’t care about what the rest of the people think, even her older brother, who would have been acting in the role of patriarch, reclining at the table. Her devotion to Jesus is hyper-focused and isn’t built on appearances. John contrasts this with Judas’ words about “doing the holy and righteous thing”, while reminding us that Judas’ whole identity is built on a lie – appearing faithful while secretly being devoted to himself. Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in “the things we do” as Christians, but John makes it clear to us that the line isn’t so fine between playing at being a disciple and actual devotion. Actual devotion to Jesus requires a trust that is willing to look foolish or be misunderstood by those that do not know Him or are not willing to understand.
Jesus’ words at the end are both sobering and curious to me. Jesus dismisses all doubt that His journey to Jerusalem for Passover is for any reason besides becoming the Passover Lamb that delivers the people of God; this anointing is not for a conquering King, but a buried Sacrifice. It is an extravagant sacrifice that’s honoring an even more extravagant sacrifice that’s coming, and Mary is willing to experience all of it. People that are smarter than me have said that it’s likely this oily perfume would cling to the skin and clothes much longer than an alcohol or powder would; it’s possible that the fragrance of Mary’s gift is still clinging to Jesus as He endures the Garden, the Trial, the Beating, the Cross. It’s also likely that Mary’s hair is still fragrant as she goes to the foot of the cross with the Beloved Disciple and the other women. Perhaps even as she comes, unknowing, on that Sunday to finish the burial preparations she started in Bethany. How far am I willing to journey into that experience with Jesus? How far are you willing?
“You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” Jesus obviously cares about the poor; a great portion of His ministry and proclamation are about freedom and care for the poor. So what is Jesus’ point? I think it goes back to devotion; there is a not-so-fine line that separates doing good toward others out of our own conscience or resources and doing good because we have extravagantly devoted to ourselves to our King. There are a million good things that church people could do, and then there are those few irreplaceable things that only the church can do out of the well of extravagant devotion; when we become the sign of Jesus’ love, an instrument of His peace, and a foretaste of His Kingdom.
“And the house was filled with the fragrance” of our extravagant devotion as we journey closer to the Cross of Christ together.
“If only there were a neutral zone, a space between your will and mine,
Where I could give and you receive, or you refuse and I retrieve
And we could both get up and leave and no one think I’d crossed a line.
“If only there were a neutral gift, that made no claim of worth or cost,
That no one would contrast, compare, or look upon with hostile stare,
That would not leave my heart so bare, or speak of what will soon be lost.
“If only there were a neutral time, when to act or not are both the same,
When history books will never judge and neither you nor I nor they will grudge
The response I make to this holy nudge that softly speaks my name.
“But a neutral day, there will never be.
And a neutral hour, I will never see.
So I give this flower, that it may be
A memorial, between you and me.”
- Christine Woolgar, from “Faith in Grey Places”
“The Sovereign LORD has given me his words of wisdom, so that I know how to comfort the weary.
Morning by morning he wakens me and opens my understanding to his will.
The Sovereign LORD has spoken to me, and I have listened.
I have not rebelled or turned away.
I offered my back to those who beat me and my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard.
I did not hide my face from mockery and spitting.
“Because the Sovereign LORD helps me, I will not be disgraced.
Therefore, I have set my face like a flint rock, determined to do his will.
And I know that I will not be put to shame.
He who gives me justice is near. Who will dare bring charges against me now?
Where are my accusers? Let them appear!
See, the Sovereign LORD is on my side! Who will declare me guilty?
All my enemies will be worn out, like old clothes that are eaten up by the moths.” - Isaiah 50:4-9
I got yelled at in traffic a couple of weeks ago. More specifically, I got yelled at in the Starbucks Drive-through at Gateway Village while we were waiting in the lineup to order. I had arrived during one of those magical times when the line is so backed up that it’s curving around past the intersection, and you have to drive the opposite way back up into the office areas to turn around and get to the end of the line.
Being among that many non-caffeinated people stuck in a long line is not for the faint of heart.
The essence of the person’s disagreement was that they felt I should have moved up past the entrance intersection, and I felt I would be blocking it with my truck, so I waited and left a sizeable gap. I will allow that they might have been right; I tend to be extra cautious when I’m in a big truck in a tight area. They rolled down their window and let me, and pretty much anyone in earshot, know their opinion about quite a lot of things about me. I could feel the heat creeping up the back of my neck and ears, and it took about all I could muster not to make eye contact or respond in kind. As Isaiah would have put it, I had to “set my face like a flint rock” and not let their anger or insults distract me. It may not have been that long before I got my coffee and left, but it felt like the longest 5-10 minutes of my life. Now, I would like to say that afterward, I did something super holy like pray for their heart to be strangely warmed by Christ’s love, but I didn’t; I just prayed for God to help me forget them and move on with my day.
How do you respond when someone dumps their anger or negative emotions on you? How do you respond when you are insulted, or threatened, or criticized? How do you respond when God asks you to do the difficult, or the humbling?
I admit that Isaiah’s description of the Servant of the LORD, a prophecy that eventually points to Jesus, is one of the most beautiful and daunting pictures of the Messiah, at least for me to model. The confidence of the Servant is unwavering; nothing is going to distract him from his goal; not injury or insult, not threat or accusation. But he never considers himself to be vindicated by his own actions; it’s always the LORD who helps, who instructs, who speaks and gives wisdom for his steps. And when faced with difficulty, The servant not only does not rebel or turn away, but is willing to endure things like mockery, disrespect, and the like.
Why? Because the LORD has given him a listening heart, and a word to comfort the weary.
There is so much weariness around us right now that is being expressed as anger, frustration, and a multitude of other things. It’s because, just like the Servant was sent to a people in exile, you and I are among a people in exile from their Father and God. And God has given us just what people need: words to “sustain and comfort the weary.”
So if it seems at times that darkness and difficulty are in your face, at least you know you’re going the right direction, and that the LORD, who guides you, will never stop helping you if you seek His wisdom and strength. You might even learn that those angry ones are just weary to the bone. They might even hear the word you offer in the wisdom of the LORD – and be comforted.
God, You have given me a mouth and ears; to hear Your comfort and to grant it to others. And You have given me a people to serve, people who may not even know how to be comforted by You. Help me to be faithful, knowing that You keep me safe and strong to the task of being a disciple in the face of difficulty. Give me all Your grace, that I may be sustained and help sustain others in Your Name. Amen.
“After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here. If anyone asks you, ‘Why are you untying it?’ say, ‘The Lord needs it.’” Those who were sent ahead went and found it just as he had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They replied, “The Lord needs it.” They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it. As he went along, people spread their cloaks on the road. When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!” “I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.” – Luke 19: 28-44
Two weeks ago, my family and I finished the two-year long process of becoming Canadian citizens. Under normal circumstances, we would have been invited to a ceremony downtown at the convention center; pomp and circumstance would abound, we would take pictures with Mounties, lots of great stuff. Instead, we attended a Zoom meeting, which seemed somewhat anticlimactic by comparison. The focal point was still the same, though; at the critical moment, we were to publicly pledge the Oath of Citizenship, which declares:
“I swear (or affirm) that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada, including the Constitution, which recognizes and affirms the Aboriginal and treaty rights of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples, and fulfil my duties as a Canadian citizen.”
We then cut up our permanent residency cards, sang “O, Canada” for the first time as Canadian citizens, and that was that! By the way, we had to pledge and sing in both English and French. I’m sure you can imagine the train wreck of 80+ people from all over the world trying to sing over Zoom together in at least one language they were almost completely unfamiliar with; I’m kind of glad we weren’t allowed to record it!
Can I be honest with you? I’ve aced the citizenship test; I understand the civic structure of Canada and the Queen as head of State. I’m still not sure why I swore allegiance to her, other than out of respect for tradition. This has started becoming an issue in recent years; many naturalized Canadians are recanting part of their oath that swears allegiance to the Queen, some scant minutes after reciting it, because of the implications of oligarchy or something that seems opposed with democracy. “I came here to be a citizen, not a subject.” Is a common sentiment. For others, it seems a pointless formality; you say the words, do the thing, and reap the benefits. For whatever reason, though, there have been many who swore allegiance to a monarch without any tangible connection or sense of purpose behind it, or didn’t understand the significance of it.
I hesitate to make any connections between a human monarch and the King of the Universe, but here he comes to us once again this Palm Sunday, meek and gentle with the restrained power of the universe in hand, riding not on a warhorse, but on the foal of a donkey. Tradition takes over; palm branches are cut and wave in the air, cloaks are spread across the dusty road entering Jerusalem, and the voices begin raising the pledges of allegiance: “Hosanna, blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!” “Shalom and glory to His name in the Highest!” It’s the thing you do when a new Messiah (there have been many in the recent past) comes into Jerusalem; you follow the words, you say your “Hosannas”, and you hope that this time, you will reap the benefits of swearing allegiance to the true Messiah, the one who will remove the boot of Rome from the back of your neck once and for all. Sure, there are naysayers who say it’s a bunch of troublemaking, but it is what it is, right?
And Jesus weeps over them, even as Scripture is being fulfilled. Because crowd and Pharisee alike don’t recognize what’s really happening; that God truly is among them, and His Anointed One has come to the seat of Zion not to kill for freedom, but to die for it. And so they will either oppose Jesus or climb on the bandwagon of Hosannah, until he turns out to be different than what they imagine him to be, until they decide they want the Kingdom without having to be subject to the King. Then the shouts of “Hosanna” become “Crucify!” (#notmy Messiah).
Unlike our earthly leaders, Luke wants us to be sure of one thing; at no time does Jesus feel out of control or abandoned by the lack of understanding or steadfast support of almost everyone around him. He agonizes, but He is not in despair. He is betrayed but is not beguiled. He is mocked, beaten, and killed, but never stops being King and Lord, regardless of what the other players in the story may think. Even at the end, Jesus takes control; he cries out in 23:46 “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Palm Sunday confronts us with our actions as we head into Jerusalem with Jesus on the way to the Cross; why are we saying our “Hosannas”? It is just because everyone else around us is doing it? Are we cognizant of that part of us that “wants to be a citizen, but not a subject” of this Heavenly Kingdom? One person, in explaining their decision to recant their oath, said “I realized it is undemocratic to force a new citizen to swear allegiance to an unelected and unaccountable hereditary ruler who doesn’t even reside here.”
If I’m talking about the Queen, I might have a point; but that is exactly what Jesus is calling us to do when we acknowledge Him as Christ. Will we?
Merciful God, as we enter Holy week, turn our hearts again to Jerusalem, and to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. Stir up within us the gift of faith, that we may not only praise Him with our lips, but may follow Him in the way of the cross.
-From the Book of Common Prayer
“For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
“So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.” - 1 Corinthians 11:23-32
Sometimes you can get so familiar with a passage of Scripture that it loses its punch. Being a native in the Churches of Christ, growing up with weekly communion, I’ve probably heard this passage rattled off hundreds of times, the majority of which happened (I think) when the person giving the communion thoughts had been thrown in last minute and didn’t have anything prepared (full confession, I’ve been that guy).
Our journey through Lent takes us with Jesus through the palm branches and Hosannas, the clearing of the moneychangers in the temple, and the decisive events with the Jewish leaders that finalize the coming betrayal and crucifixion. Now we find ourselves in a relatively quite moment in the upper room. While our traditional thought is that this is Jesus and the twelve (taking our cues from Leonardo Da Vinci), it’s likely we also have other disciples, especially the women, who may have been left out of the accounts but were no doubt present. Passover is a family event, and Jesus is bringing together his “family” to share in both a meal of remembrance, anticipation, and transformation. The entire room is being invited to reimagine the salvation story of the Exodus in Jesus; now there is a new sacrifice, a new deliverance, a new people of God, and a new journey into freedom.
It seems that our ability to lose the plot and power of communion is not a new thing; the church in Corinth has individualized and divided themselves with preferential treatment and lack of regard for their fellow brothers and sisters in many areas, and it seems that the Supper is no different. I have often heard the exhortations of Paul about “examining oneself” cast in a purely individual and intellectual light; it can run the full range from “confess your sins to God before you take the elements” to “make sure you aren’t doing this carelessly or distractedly, be present with Christ in the moment.” This is solid advice, and we need the space of communion to reestablish our identity and relationship in Christ. But there is an entirely other dimension to the communion meal that the Corinthians, and we, need to remember; communion is about discerning the Body of Christ.
What does that mean? Most simply, Jesus is reminding us through Paul that the Lord’s Supper is not defined by “like people” with “like clothing” and “like status”; it is for anyone who calls Jesus Lord. It is the great leveling of the field, the place where, as John the Baptist prophesied, “every valley is raised up, every high place made low, becoming a highway for our God.” (Isa. 40:3-4). So that means when I come to the table and I take the bread and the cup, I cannot do so “in a worthy manner” if I am doing it in a way that separates me from you, or a way that elevates me above you, or a way that allows our unresolved hurts or differences to fester. It also means that as we are each taking on the character of Jesus internally, we are taking it on toward one another. Think about the dynamics of some of the people in that upper room:
- The rough Galilean fishermen and the wealthy family from Bethany.
- The learned Torah scholar from Bethsaida and the young woman who shouldn’t be allowed to sit at the feet of the Rabbi, but does anyway.
- The former corrupt government official and the former political terrorist (look up Zealots and tax collectors if you don’t believe me.)
- The enthusiastic friend who swears he would die for you (and will not accept the idea that he is going to let you down) and the thief that you know already has betrayed you, even while he is saying “surely you don’t think I would do that, Lord?”.
Those are just the ones we know are there. What if the gathering is larger? What if there are prostitutes and cripples, lepers and addicts and demon possessed people there as well, all manner of poor, powerless, outcasts drawn together and made family by the Son of God? Are there any of those you wouldn’t be willing to break bread with and call equals, family members in the eyes of God? Is there anyone else?
Discerning the body, I think, means that you and I are keenly aware of the presence of Christ in the act of communion. Not only is his presence in the symbols of bread and wine, not only is his presence in the act of taking them in and the remembrance and reaffirmation that comes with it, but his presence is also in those around you, and in you. And that is one of the most critical and compelling pieces of the good news; it really doesn’t matter how together or not together you are this particular day, week, month, year, or decade, or ever; Jesus has a spot at the table for you.
And all those other people you didn’t expect to be there.
I was reading a piece by Nadia Bolz-Webber about Palm Sunday, and our tendency to scoff or cringe at the folks yelling “Hosanna!” one day and “Crucify!” five days later. There is this tendency to think we know better, she says, that we wouldn’t do the same thing. But the Gospel is that we would, and Jesus knows it, and claims us anyway. “God did not become human and dwell among us as Jesus to save only an improved, doesn’t-make-the-wrong-choices kind of people. There is no improved version of humanity that could have done any differently. Because we, as we are and not as some improved version of ourselves…we are who Jesus FOR SURE looks at (in all our cringe-worthiness) and says, ‘yep, these are mine.’”
If I forget that about me, then I forget that about you. And then we’re back at Corinth; arguing about who has the best theology, or who has the right opinions, or is the MVP (Most Valuable Parishioner) in the congregation. And we start putting ourselves first, and our ideas and preferences first. And then we fail to discern the Body. The natural consequence, Paul says, is that we individual and collectively become spiritually “weak and sick” and can even “fall asleep”. Failing to recognize Christ’s presence in one another is a spiritually isolating and weakening practice that the Lord’s Supper is meant to correct in us.
There’s a song by The Highwaymen called “Crowded Table”, and the lyrics say “I want a house with a crowded table/and a place by the fire for everyone/Let us take on the world while we’re young and able/and bring us back together when the day is done/The door is always open/Your picture’s on my wall/Everyone’s a little broken/and everyone belongs/yeah, everyone belongs.” Jesus’ response to the faithlessness of Palm Sunday and the pain of Good Friday is to pull up an extra chair at the table for you, for me, for anyone who wants to come, look us in the eye, and say “You’re one of mine. Remember me and remember my Body.”
Loving God, thank you that your invitation to the table does not make distinctions. Help us to do the same as we seek to gather at the table in your name. May our breaking of the bread and drinking of the cup truly be a remembrance of you. Amen