Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Midweek Lent 4 - "The Whip" - Mark 15:15

“The Whip”
Mark 15:6-15
Midweek Lent 4, March 27, 2019

6 Now at the feast he used to release for them one prisoner for whom they asked. 7 And among the rebels in prison, who had committed murder in the insurrection, there was a man called Barabbas. 8 And the crowd came up and began to ask Pilate to do as he usually did for them. 9 And he answered them, saying, “Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?” 10 For he perceived that it was out of envy that the chief priests had delivered him up. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release for them Barabbas instead. 12 And Pilate again said to them, “Then what shall I do with the man you call the King of the Jews?” 13 And they cried out again, “Crucify him.” 14 And Pilate said to them, “Why? What evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Crucify him.” 15 So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas, and having scourged[a] Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.

If you’ve ever watched the movie “The Passion of the Christ”, you probably have the scene in which Jesus was whipped burned into your memory.  I don’t recommend it for the faint of heart or stomach.  But it probably approaches the gruesomeness of this particular part of Jesus’s suffering.  Christians have long remembered this part of Christ’s suffering as one of the many bitter moments he endured on our behalf.  There’s even a church in Rome today that claims to have the original column upon which Christ was tied while he received his lashes.

We say whip, or sometimes scourge or flogging.  The actual Roman practice was flagellation, a far more brutal form of whipping than you’d find in the synagogues.  In the Jewish synagogues, whipping was limited to 40 lashes, and so 39 was customarily applied, just to be sure.  But the Romans made no such limit.  The Jews used a whip made from simple leather straps.  But the Romans used bits of bone and lead attached to the tips of it, to also lacerate the flesh.  Under Roman law, flagellation was done publicly, and usually in the course of death sentence. It likely made those who were crucified die much more quickly.  But Roman citizens were exempt from this form of punishment, as it was considered too degrading and humiliating. 

And so Jesus is flogged and whipped as part of his work of humiliation.  Treated as a slave or a foreigner, shamefully, for all to see. The flogging Jesus received was not to motivate him or persuade him to do or say anything.  There was no real desired goal other than to inflict pain and suffering, sorrow and humiliation.  It was, it seems, purely a punishment for the sake of punishment, though of course he truly deserved no such thing.

Punishment.  That’s what the scourge especially represents as a symbol.  The punishment that Christ endured.  Now, of course, we aren’t so acquainted with punishment, at least not anymore, in our sensible and respectable modern world.  Although, at one time it was more a part of everyday life.  Even our own constitution mentions it – when it prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment” (the 8th Amendment).  We’ve moved away, in many instances, from even the idea of punishment under the law.  Take for instance, the penal system – a system that imposes penalties and punishments –  but do we even call it that any more?  Now it’s the Criminal Justice system.  We see it less for punishment, and more in terms of rehabilitation of criminals and prison as simply a way to protect the public from potentially dangerous individuals. 

We don’t often think of people receiving punishments for when they do wrong, but instead we talk about the “consequences” of “unwise actions”.  Even when it comes to the fashionable methods of rearing children – the place of punishment has changed in our culture, to the point that some parents will never say a harsh word to a child, never say no.  And that does not make for good parenting.

To think in terms of punishment, you have to have a moral framework to begin with – an idea of right and wrong – and these very foundations have been under assault in our prevailing culture.  We don’t speak in terms of absolutes when it comes to morality, but relativism reigns. We say things like, “Oh, that’s true for you, or right for you, but maybe not for me.”  “I would never do something like that, but you should be free to choose.”  “Who am I to judge- I haven’t walked a mile in their shoes”.  And so forth and so on.

Perhaps the closest most of us can remember to facing earthly punishment is when we were children.  Maybe you even got the belt or the switch or even just a spanking as a child.  Stand in the corner, or have a “time out”. Wash your mouth out with soap. The simplicity of childhood punishments might be a better window into spiritual realities than all the antiseptic veneer we place over it in the grown-up world.  When you do something bad, you deserve to be punished.  Or, in scriptural terms, “the wages of sin is death” and “the soul that sins shall perish”. 

But oh, dearest, Jesus, what law have you broken?  If there was ever an innocent man, it was Jesus.  If there was ever a miscarriage of justice, it was here.  If there was ever an unjust punishment, it was upon him.

The irony is thick.  Here at the whipping post is the God of Gods.  Here under the scourge is the one who will judge the nations.  Here under punishment of men is the Creator of all.  Here, receiving not what he deserves, but what we deserve.  Temporal and eternal punishment.

Temporal – in time – in the here and now.  Physical punishment is a very temporal.  It happens.  And while as brutal as it is, the scourging of Christ is not the entirety of his physical suffering and punishment.  The crown of thorns, the beating, the nails in hands and feet – all of these added even more, heaping up on this man of sorrows.

But even all of the physical suffering Christ endured was only a glimpse at the true burden he bore.  It was a window, but a foggy one.  For here, in his passion, and especially when on the cross, God poured out his wrath upon Jesus.  He made him who had no sin, to be sin, and put sin to death in his body.  And so in a mystery beyond pondering, God the Father turned his back on his only begotten Son, and Jesus cries in torment, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”  Truly Jesus bore all the pangs of hell, for that is what eternal damnation is – being separated from God.

And yet, as we well know, this is God’s purpose.  This is his plan of salvation for his wayward creatures.  This is the intention from the foundation of the world – that the Lamb is slain, that the Son is sacrificed, that Jesus would take our place under punishment.

And so Isaiah would prophesy, “he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” (Is. 53:5)

The chastisement that brought us peace.  The wounds or the stripes that bring us healing.  All that Jesus did, he did for you.  Even this, submitting to the punishment of a criminal, at the hands of evil men, for the sins of evil men, in the place of evil men.  To heal them.  To heal us.  To bring us peace.

Now, in Christ, we need not fear God’s punishment.  No storm cloud of wrath is foreboding.  No fires of hell are being stoked for us.  God’s anger and wrath are put away.  We don’t even see a frowning face.  But rather a loving embrace, the welcome of a Father, a table prepared and a feast awaiting.  A joyful reunion with God and our fellow saints in glory.  And a home in his courts forever.

He was punished to free us from punishment.  He was made guilty to take away our guilt.  He bore the awful load, to give us a yoke that is easy and light.  And he died to bring us life.  Glory be to Jesus.  In his holy name.  Amen.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Sermon - Lent 3 - Luke 13:1-9

“A Murder, a Calamity, and a Patient Vinedresser”
Luke 13:1-9
Lent 3, March 24, 2019

Lent is a good time to think about things more deeply and seriously, especially those things of the faith.  It is a time to ponder and meditate on deeper truths, perhaps more than we do even the rest of the year as Christians.  There is a serious tone.  A sober awareness of our sins that the Lenten scriptures place before us.  And of course, always, we have an eye on the destination – the Cross of Christ, Holy Week, Good Friday, etc.

Today Jesus discusses the topic of suffering in our reading from Luke.  Suffering is an experience that is common to all human beings, at one time or another, in one form or another.  Living in this fallen and broken world, you simply can’t escape it.  And yet we seem to think otherwise.  It is in times of suffering, it seems, that people tend to either grow deeper and deeper in faith, or else at times suffering becomes a cause for despair, and can even lead people to turn away from God in anger.

And so one point that Jesus raises with his examples here – of the people murdered by Pilate and of the people who were crushed when the tower of Siloam fell – one point is this:  Suffering and Evil come upon all people in various ways – and it’s not necessarily because they’ve done something particular to deserve it.

The people whose blood Pilate mixed with the sacrifices were not greater sinners than anyone else (nor does Jesus say they were less so).  Likewise, the people who died under the tower hadn’t done any particular sin to deserve such a death, though Jesus doesn’t deny they were sinners at all.

When we humans consider the causes for sufferings, however, we often want to imagine a scorecard – as if we can even keep score of our many sins.  And we want to suggest, sometimes at least, that this sinner or that sinner had it coming.  He really got what he deserved.  She really was asking for it, anyway.  And sometimes even with a hint of schadenfreude – that glee at the misfortune of others.  But what’s behind that is an implication:  That don’t deserve the same, or worse.  That I, myself, am a better person, more worthy of God’s favor, more upright and righteous and yeah well maybe I’m a sinner but I’m not as bad as THAT guy.  Chief of sinners though I be, at least I’m not as bad as thee!

But Jesus comes to that sort of thinking, and he knocks it all down.  He says, “No.  They weren’t worse sinners than you.  But unless you repent, you too will perish!”  Wait a minute, Jesus, you can’t do that!  I was busy using someone else’s suffering to make myself comfy in self-righteousness!  You can’t come and pull the rug out from under me!  You can’t point out that I deserve punishment like that, and worse!  And Jesus says, “Oh yeah, just watch me!”

There is no room for dancing on the grave of other sinners in the Christian faith.  There is no cause to revel in the calamities and sufferings of others, even of the most wicked among us.  And the reason is this.  We deserve the same and worse.  If God treated us justly and only justly…. If he gave us what our sins deserve…  If he counted against us everything that is right and fair…. We would have bigger problems than wicked rulers and towers falling upon us.  We say it well when we confess we deserve both eternal but also temporal punishment.  That means, in time, here, now. 

So Jesus says, “Repent!  And unless you repent, you too will perish!” Jesus doesn’t answer the “why” of the question, why some suffered this calamity or that evil.  He tells us, though, to stop looking for the reasons why – and start looking at our own predicament.  Rather than playing judge and marking our scorecard, we have our own house to clean, our own sins to address.  Repent!  Mind your business, Christian!  And your business is always repentance.  Confess your sins.  Turn from them.  And turn to Christ in faith and live.

Why then do so many of the wicked, the outwardly wicked, the unrepentant – why do they get away with it?  Why doesn’t a tower fall on every bad guy?  Why doesn’t God just smite the unbeliever and the enemies of his people?  Why doesn’t he bring the temporal punishment so richly deserved?  Jesus’ next little parable addresses this question, but again, not in the way we might expect:

He tells of a fig tree which isn’t producing figs.  It’s not doing what it’s supposed to do.  It’s useless, and taking up space, for three years not doing anything useful.  So the owner tells the gardener to cut it down, tear it out; burn it up.  But for whatever reason, the gardener begs for patience.  He says, “Give it another year, master, just one more year.  Let me fertilize it, and then let’s see if we get some fruit”.  The assumption is, the master grants such patience.

So the lesson the parable is this:  God is patient;  He’s giving extra time for repentance.  He doesn’t want to destroy anyone he’s created, and patiently, faithfully, calls people to repentance.  But there is a limit to his patience, and so the best time to repent is always today!

And what of the gardener?  Some have suggested this is Christ himself, the one who stands between the sinner and God the Father and begs for mercy, the intercessor, the mediator.  Or, perhaps, and maybe also, Christ’s pastors – who carry the message of Christ forward even in this day, and who spread the fertilizer of the Gospel liberally. 

The point is, that God wants repentance from you, and he gives you multiple opportunities and occasions to turn from your sin, and to turn to him in faith.  And some of those, are even the sufferings of this life.

Martin Luther tells a delightful dialogue about what a vine might say to the gardener if it could speak:

The vine sees the vinedresser, or gardener, coming with his pruning shears and other tools to work around it and says: "What are you doing? That hurts, don't you know that? Now I must wither and decay, for you are removing the soil from around my roots and are tearing away at my branches with those iron teeth. You are tearing and pinching me everywhere, and I will have to stand in the ground bare and seared. You are treating me worse than any tree or plant."

And the gardener would then reply: "You are a fool and do not understand. For even if I do cut a branch from you, it is a totally useless branch; it takes away your strength and your sap. Then the other branches, which should bear fruit, must suffer. Away with it! This is for your own good." Then the vine would say: "But you do not understand! I have a different feeling about it!" The gardener declares: "But I understand it well. I am doing this for your welfare, to keep the foreign and wild branches from sucking out the strength and the sap of the others. Now you will be able to yield more and better fruit and produce good wine."

The same thing is true when the gardener applies the cow manure to the root of the vine; this, too he does for the benefit of the vine even though the vine might complain and say: "What in the world are you doing? Isn't it bad enough for you to hack and cut at me all day long, trimming this and cutting off that branch? Why, now are you putting that foul smelling stuff at my roots?! I am a vine, to yield delicious grapes to make wonderful wine, and you are putting that terrible smelling stuff near me, it will destroy me!" Of course, we know well that the badly smelling manure does well to put fertilizer and nutrients into the soil so that the vine might grow and prosper and produce an even better crop.

What Luther is saying here, indeed, what Christ is saying, is that sometimes life hurts. Sometimes life stinks. But God the patient gardener knows better than we the branches. And he has our best interests in mind, though it may not always seem so to us.  He does his work, in sometimes mysterious ways, always to bring about repentance and faith.

Sometimes the process is unpleasant – stinking like manure. But the fruit of faith is sweet indeed, when the sinner sees the grace of God in Jesus Christ. And the point is not so much, “get busy making fruit” as it is, “wonder at the patience of the gardener”, whose wrath at your fruitless tree is put away in the tree of the Cross, and the one who was there cut down for you.

Repent and believe, for our Lord is patient.  He works even through calamity and sorrow to draw you to himself.  Even as he has done through the cross of Jesus Christ our Lord.  May we take up our little crosses and follow him who bore the cross of Calvary for us.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Midweek Lent 3 - Matthew 26:15 and 27:3-10 - Thirty Pieces of Silver

“The Symbols of Lent”
Thirty Pieces of Silver
Matthew 26:15 and 27:3-10

[Judas said] “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” And they paid him thirty pieces of silver.

Then when Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus[a] was condemned, he changed his mind and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders, 4 saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” They said, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” 5 And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself. 6 But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since it is blood money.” 7 So they took counsel and bought with them the potter's field as a burial place for strangers. 8 Therefore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day. 9 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken by the prophet Jeremiah, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him on whom a price had been set by some of the sons of Israel, 10 and they gave them for the potter's field, as the Lord directed me.”

Perhaps no figure represents the bitterness of our Lord’s passion, aside from Jesus himself, as the one who betrayed him, Judas, the man from the town of Carioth, that is, Ish-Carrioth, Iscariot.  His very name, Judas, is a byword, a synonym for betrayal.  You don’t find many children named Judas nowadays, much more than you find many Adolphs or Jezebells running around.  And for good reason.  What’s more bitter and painful than the betrayal of a friend?

Maybe you’ve experienced this in your own life.  Someone who was once close to you, who shared your table, shared your secrets, maybe even a spouse – turns on you in an act of betrayal, stabs the knife in your back, and breaks your trust in a way you never imagined.  It’s one thing to suffer the wrongdoing of an enemy.  That, you pretty much expect.  But when a friend does you wrong.  You not only suffer from the wrong itself, but from the broken trust.  You end up going back and re-thinking your entire relationship.  How long has this person been against me?  Why didn’t I see the signs sooner?  Was it something I did that made them act this way?  And all this doubt and regret rubs into the wound as if it were salt.

Well in the case of Judas, Jesus knew he would do it.  I don’t think that took away any of the bitterness.  Maybe it made it even worse.

Then take the 30 pieces of silver themselves.  This was the traditional price of a slave.  Particularly in Exodus 31:20, it is the price paid to a master for a slave that is accidentally killed, gored by an ox.  So it is the price of a dead slave.  How fitting for Jesus.  He who is greatest among us because he makes himself to be a slave of all. He who is killed, not by accident, and not by an ox, but according to God’s own divine purpose and plan, and pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, and crucified for our salvation.

Moreover, there is an unusual prophecy in Zechariah 11, in which wicked rulers paid the prophet 30 pieces of silver for his work of prophesying their doom.  The price was considered an insult, the price of a dead slave, that’s what they thought of him.  Zechariah then says, “so I took the thirty pieces of silver and threw them into the house of the Lord, to the potter”  Just as Judas later returned the money, throwing it into the temple, and it was used to buy the potter’s field.

That Jesus was sold for this prices is also intended as an insult by his wicked foes.  A further humiliation among all the humiliations and sufferings he endured – both to his body, and to his honor.

And what a great reversal, that he who was sold for mere silver, comes to redeem us from death with a far greater treasure.  He “has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sin, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with gold or silver, but with his holy precious blood, and his innocent suffering and death.”

Jesus is betrayed, Jesus is sold, Jesus suffers and Jesus dies…. Precisely for the Judases of the world.  Precisely for all those who would betray him, sell him out, exchange the truth for a lie, and the eternal treasures for the earthly bric-a-brac of sin.

For while you may well identify with Jesus in this case, as someone who has been betrayed, won’t you also consider how you are like the Judas who does the betraying?

Don’t think you have?  Think you’ve always been faithful to God?  Then think again.  For Christian, you betray him every time you sin.  You sell him out every time you decide your own comfort and pleasure is worth more than his holy law.  When you despise preaching and his word, or hurt or harm your neighbor, or rebel against rightful authority, or covet your neighbor’s stuff.  When you speak ill of your neighbor and harm his reputation.  When you put some other thing, some other idea, some other anything before the one true God.  And often the price is not even worth 30 pieces of silver.

We are no better than Judas.  We can’t stand in judgment over him, wagging our fingers, “shame, shame, Judas, how could you betray Jesus?” That finger needs to point back at ourselves.

Judas, for his part, at least felt bad about what he had done.  He repented, in a way.  He got the contrition part.  He tried to take it back, but it was too late.  You can’t take back your sins.  You can’t buy your way out of your debt.  You can’t throw the sins back where they came from, for the evil comes from you!  Judas was right to regret his grievous betrayal, but as the coins clinked down on the temple floor, sadly, his story ended in tragedy.  For he lacked the second part of repentance.  He knew his sin, but he didn’t trust his savior.

Take for a contrast, Peter, who we heard about last week – Peter, who in his own way also betrayed Jesus – denying him three times.  Judas fell into despair, but Peter was restored and forgiven.  Both played a bitter role in Jesus’ passion.  But only Peter would receive redemption in faith.

And so for you, dear Christian.  Consider your own little betrayals of Christ, but do not despair as Judas did.  Hear the comforting and forgiving words of Jesus, words of restoration, like Peter did.  Do you love me?  Feed my sheep.

And look at what happened with those pieces of silver.  The blood money.  Tainted and corrupted by the sin they were used to commit.  Given and received by both the betrayer and the enemies of Jesus.  And yet, from these, God worked even some good.  Besides playing their part in bringing Jesus toward the cross, these coins purchased a field for the burial of foreigners.  It was called, “The field of blood”, in Hebrew, “Akeldama”.  In reference perhaps to the blood of Judas that was spilled when he killed himself there, or perhaps also to the blood of Jesus, who was betrayed with it.  Unclean foreigners, unclean corpses, and unclean blood money.  And then the bloody hanging corpse of Judas as the finishing touch of this picture of betrayal and sin and what it brings – ugly, ugly death.

But the bitter sufferings and death of Jesus lead to something else.  In Jesus’ death, by Jesus blood, there is hope.  Consider also the allusion to Jeremiah, which Matthew mentions.  It references an incident where Jeremiah (at God’s direction) bought a field with some pieces of silver.  For the people of Jeremiah’s day, it was a prophetic action that there was hope for the future – hope beyond the invading armies of Babylon and the troubles of the day – hope that God would remain faithful to his promises, and return the people from their exile, plant them in the land again.

In Jesus there is hope for the future, for you and me.  Even when we suffer, even when we suffer the betrayals of friends, or even if our own flesh should betray us (and it surely does), we have a friend in Jesus who will never double-cross us.  Even when our own betrayals weigh us down, we are not driven to despair, because the cross of Jesus and the blood of Jesus restore us, and bring us even from the grave, to a life in the world to come.

This Lenten season, repent and believe.  Exchange the silver coins of betrayal for the precious blood of Jesus. And rest assured that you are redeemed by him from slavery to sin and death.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Sermon - Luke 13:31-35 - Lent 2

Luke 13:31-35
“O, Jerusalem”

In 2007 I had the opportunity to visit the Holy Land.  It was a typical sight-seeing trip geared toward Christian pilgrims.  We saw all the usual sites, many of them churches.  One of the sites we stopped at was a church named “Dominus Flevit”, in Latin, “The Lord Wept”.  It was founded in the mid 1950s by the Roman Catholics to mark the location, half-way down the Mount of Olives, where Jesus stopped as he was approaching Jerusalem, the place where he wept over the city that would ultimately reject him.  It is one of the few churches that faces West instead of East, the same direction Jesus faced.  It is shaped like a teardrop, to symbolize Christ’s weeping.  And it also has, prominently featured, a beautiful mosaic of a hen gathering up her chicks, echoing these words of Jesus in our Gospel reading for today. 

It’s a powerful image, a mother hen, brooding over her chicks.  Gathering them up to lead and protect them from harm.  Of all the images that God uses to describe himself – husband, father, king – here is one that is actually a feminine picture.  It speaks of the deep and compassionate love that Jesus has for people, and for this capital of his own nation, his earthly tribe.

It’s all the more powerful, knowing the slaughter that was to come, as Jesus surely did.  Throughout the Gospels he predicts the destruction and desolation of Jerusalem that would come to pass in 70 AD under the Romans.  They finally tired of Jewish rebellions and destroyed the Holy City, even its temple.  Josephus, the Jewish historian, tells the history of those days, describes the horrors, as the Romans laid siege, and built a hill of dirt surrounding the city – and ringed the entire city with crosses.  No wonder Jesus weeps.  No wonder he describes these events and weaves it all in with his description of the end of the world.  For those ancient people, it must have seemed very much like the end of the world.

But the judgment poured out on Jerusalem is just a shadow of the final judgment that is coming to this corrupt world, and to all those who reject their savior.  This is not what Jesus wants.  He weeps over those who have gone astray, who have given up the truth for a lie, and have gone after false gods. 
What a great text this is for the season of Lent!  Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, and so are we.  We are setting our face toward the cross, toward our annual observance of his suffering and death and resurrection – all to take place at Jerusalem.

And as we look toward Jerusalem in this penitential season, look also at the tender heart of Jesus, longing for the repentance and salvation of his people.  Look at his compassion.  He wills to gather them up and protect them, cover them from all harm, and keep them safe.  But he does this without force, without compulsion.  He says, “but you were not willing!”  No, we are not saved, nor do we come to faith of our own will.  But we can willfully reject the gifts he offers and brings.  Even repentance is a gift of God, brought about by the Spirit working in the word, and without any merit or worthiness in me.  But those who refuse to repent have to answer for that themselves.

So, repent!  Turn from your sins, again, even today, and find shelter under the wings of your Lord Jesus.  He will gather you up, keep you from death and devil and judgment.  And there, with Jesus, you can rest safe and secure.

And he laments, weeps, mourns for those who would turn away from him and from his salvation.  Not because his feelings are hurt.  But because he knows the judgment they face.  He’s much like Jeremiah, who shows up through no mere coincidence, in our Old Testament reading today.  Jeremiah is known as the “weeping prophet”, because he had the bitter calling to preach repentance to Jerusalem, a Jerusalem who would not repent.  A Jerusalem who would not hear.  And Jeremiah would live to see its destruction in 587 B.C., and himself be carried off to exile in Babylon.

Jesus also mentions that Jerusalem is the city that kills the prophets.  And while not every prophet is killed there, Jerusalem in this sense stands for the whole nation of Israel, and really, for all who oppose the Gospel.  Jesus elaborates in the parallel text to this from Matthew 23:

Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, 35 so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. 36 Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation.

The fate of a prophet, all too often, in Scripture, and in every day and age, is persecution, and often death.  Jesus even says in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:11-12)

And if this is true for the prophets, it is certainly true for the Prophet of all Prophets, Jesus himself.  He knew his destination, and his destiny.  He knew the cup that he must drink.  He knew the betrayal was coming.  He knew his friends would abandon him.  He knew they’d let a murderer go instead of him, an innocent man.  He knew both Jews and Romans would conspire.  And he knew it would be a cross. 

Think of the parable of the wicked tenants, who mistreated servant after servant, until the master sent his own son, saying, “they will respect him”.  But the tenants murdered him.  The master then returned and destroyed them.  Yes, Jesus knew exactly what awaited him at Jerusalem.

And yet he weeps and laments, not for himself, but for Jerusalem.  For his people who would reject him, who send him to the cross.

The cross.  It is the center of gravity in all things for us Christians.  It is the chief aim and focus of Jesus’ earthly work.  It is the culmination of the Old Testament and the foundation stone of the New.  It is the fruition of the first promise, and the basis for all other promises God makes.  The Lamb of God is slain from the foundation of the world, and the people washed in his blood will sing his praises into eternity.  The cross, the death of the prophet of God in the city of God for the people of God. 

The Jews tried to shoo Jesus away from Jerusalem by threatening him with Herod.  “He’s out to get you Jesus!  Run away!”  But Jesus isn’t afraid of Herod or death.  Jesus is not deterred, and calls Herod a “fox”.  A sly and deceitful politician won’t stand in the way of this plain-speaking prophet with a mission. Death is precisely the thing.  And Jerusalem is the place.

And isn’t it interesting that Jesus has “three days” in his mind – he says, “I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course.”  Certainly he means that his work of preaching and healing must precede his work of suffering and death.  But this talk of the third day seems an oblique reference to Easter, the resurrection of the third day – the necessary epilogue to his passion and death.  Jesus outfoxes his enemies on earth, and even the devil himself, by turning death into life – both for himself, and for all he gathers up.

If it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for you – a prophet’s reward, a prophet’s death, and a resurrection that was both prophesied and fulfilled.  So, you, bear your own cross, whatever it may be.  Repent when you sin.  Remain faithful in all things.  Take comfort under his wings of protection.  His cross was not for nothing.  And it is your everything. 

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem.  He who wept for you has died for you.  Repent and believe.  And take comfort under his wings. 

Thursday, March 07, 2019

Sermon - Ash Wednesday - Genesis 3:19

Ash Wednesday
Symbols of Lent
“Ashes”  Genesis 3:19

This Lenten Season, for our midweek series, we will ponder some of the symbols of Lent.  These are some of the tangible things, the items that we associate with this season of penitence and reflection.  They are taken mostly from the Passion narrative of our Lord – markers in the text that accompany different aspects of his suffering on our behalf.

We will consider the crowing rooster, the 30 pieces of silver, the whip or scourge, the crown of thorns and the seamless coat of Christ.  May these images from the text of our Lord’s passion serve as windows to draw us in and consider the depth and breadth of both his suffering for our sin, but also of his great love for sinners.

Today, however, Ash Wednesday, a slight departure from that.  The image before us is not directly from the Passion account, but rather it is in the name of the day – Ashes.  The symbol that marks the beginning of this season for us.  A symbol that we even wear on our brows in a ceremonial expression of repentance. 

This is from the pages of Scripture.  But as we chase down this symbol and how it has been used, we will see several things:  Yes, ashes were a sign of deep sorrow and repentance.  Ashes were what was left after God’s wrath and judgment are poured out, even with fire. But ashes were also what remained of a sacrifice – a burnt offering.  And that draws us to consider the once-and-for-all sacrifice that Jesus made for us all.

Ashes as mark of repentance:  Consider some of the passages in which ashes are used as an outward expression of a deep inner sorrow over sin:

The people of Nineveh used ashes in their expression of repentance – when the prophet Jonah preached, “40 days and Nineveh will be destroyed”. 

Mordecai and the Jews in Babylon expressed their sorrow and repentance by sackcloth and ashes in the book of Esther.

Likewise Daniel speaks of his use of ashes in Daniel 9; “Then I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.” Job also repents in “dust and ashes”.  And Tamar, after she was violated, put ashes on herself, in an expression of deep shame and sorrow.

Time and again, ashes serve as an outward sign of inner sorrow, remorse, shame, guilt, grief and mourning.  While we express our thoughts and feelings with words and now emojis and other various ways, the ancients used these types of symbolic actions in a powerful display, just as they tore garments and donned sackcloth.

Today, as we partake of a similar ritual, and receive ashes on our foreheads – let it not be for show as if to impress other people – but rather as a community of faith to remind ourselves and each other that we are dust – and that because of our sins, to dust we will return.  Death is the wages of sin, and that we have each earned well.  When you see the ashes on your fellow Christians – let it remind you – that you are one of them – and that together we bear the same sin, together we mourn our own shame.  Just as together we make confession of it.

But that same community is also the baptized – so that the filth of sin is daily washed away.  This body is connected to each other and to Christ in a blessed communion, and so we will also come forward to receive the remedy – the blessed Sacrament of Christ’s body and blood.  The ashes are a temporary reminder.  But the blessings and promises of God are everlasting.

Ashes as leftovers of judgment:
Another use of the image of ashes in Scripture is to show what is left after judgment comes.  And since judgment is often served or at least pictured by fire, ashes are all that remain.  When an invading army conquers a city – they burn it to the ground.  When the hot anger of the Lord breathes from his flaring nostrils, the wicked are burned up like stubble.

Daniel 3:  [the king decreed that any] who speak anything amiss against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, shall be cut in pieces, and their houses shall be made an ash heap.
One of Isaiah’s more colorful threats is that those who have a deluded heart will feed on ashes (Isaiah 44:20)

2 Peter 2:
[God] condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly.

Ashes are a reminder that the judgment of God is fierce and thorough.  His punishment is serious.  This is no slap on the wrist.  For the wicked, no hope remains. 

And this is also a reminder to us when the ashes are applied to our foreheads – remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.  Adam was formed from the dust, and because of sin Adam returned to the dust, the ashes.  You are a child of Adam, born in sin and continuing to sin.  And so one day your body will return to the ground, return to the dust, ashes to ashes.  (Genesis 3:19)

It’s a sign of repentance but also an acknowledgment of death – we wear it on our foreheads today.  But we wear it in our bodies every day.  The aches and pains, the sniffles and coughs, the conditions and diseases – all are signs of what sin has wrought.  Death is the real problem.  Only Christ has a solution.

And finally, ashes may been seen as the results of a burnt offering, a sacrifice.
Ashes as remnants of a sacrifice:

The burnt offerings of the Old Testament were some of the most important sacrifices.  There, the fires burned upward – as if lifting the sacrifice up to heaven to God himself.  A pleasing aroma to the Lord. Bulls, Lambs, Rams, small birds, all sacrificed for sins.  Abraham almost sacrificed Issac as a burnt offering, until God provided the substitute – a Ram caught in a thicket.

But not all the blood of beasts on Jewish altars slain could give the guilty conscience piece or wash away the stain – of sin.  Not all the burnt offerings we could imagine, not thousands of rams, could satisfy God’s fierce and hot wrath over sin.  Shall I give him my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?  Shall I do like Abraham almost did?  Will that suffice?  No, not even that.

But also like with Abraham and Issac, for us, God himself provides the lamb for the offering.  He provides his own Son.  And Jesus willingly offers himself on the altar of the cross.  He is consumed by the wrath of God – he becomes the one sacrifice for sin.  The cross.

Now, normally crucifixion victims were burned, as was the custom of Pagan Romans for disposal of bodies.  It was the Jews who buried their dead.  So when Jesus predicts that he will be buried (and therefore not cremated) it is a notable point about his sacrifice.  Unlike all other sacrifices, which end only in a pile of ashes – Jesus has a different destiny, a burial but also a resurrection.  Not hopelessness, but the source of all hope.  Not sadness and sorrow but joy that springs eternal.  A body that died and was buried but would rise again in glory, appear to many, ascend to heaven, rule at the right hand of the Father, and will one day come again to judge the living and the dead, bodily.

Adam died, and death brought him to ashes.  All of Adam’s children follow in his deadly footsteps.  And dust you are, and to dust you shall return.  But that’s not the end of the story for you. Instead it’s, “Ashes to Ashes, dust to dust… to resurrection.”  Jesus died and conquered death, bringing death and sin and hell and devil to nothing.  And so in him you have a future far beyond the dust of death.  In him you have life, and have it abundantly.

Repent and believe.  For Jesus’ sake.  Amen.