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Ash Wednesday

black cross on person's forehead
 
“Rend your hearts and not your garments.” Joel 2:13

Today is Ash Wednesday.  This reading from Joel is one of the standard readings for the day, especially because it causes us to focus on the deepness of our sin and the right way to consider it.

As most know, there was a custom among the ancient people in times of mourning.  If someone was in mourning over the loss of a loved one or a dire circumstance in their life, they would often tear their clothing as a visible demonstration of their sadness.  People would see them perhaps in tears, hear their loud wailing, and see the ripped clothing, knowing full well what kind of frame of mind they were in.  God wants more than the outward appearances.  “Rend your hearts and not your garments.”

On Ash Wednesday we purposefully commit ourselves to thinking of our sin, our most grievous sin.  Often this is accompanied by wearing ashes on our foreheads, but not as the substance of the mourning, just the symbol of it.  It’s in our hearts where the real action is taking place.  We think and feel how we daily disobey God.  We think and feel how we take Him for granted.  We think and feel how casually and cavalierly we go in our own direction without concern for what God would want or what might be best for others. 

The world looks at people like us on a day like this and they mock.  After all, why would anyone purposefully get all sad about how bad they are?  The reason is paramount.  The way we appreciate to its fullest the greatness of Christ’s sacrifice is by understanding clearly just how necessary it was.  “Ah, I also and my sin wrought Your deep affliction.  This indeed the cause has been of Your crucifixion.”  Far from merely rending our garments, on this day going forward, we rend our hearts.  We rightly mourn how sinful we have been precisely so that the cross of Christ actually matters to us.  This is faith.  This is the center of faith.

As we begin this season of Lent, we do so sorrowfully, so that we may do so joyfully.  We are sorrowful that Jesus had to suffer and die for us because of our sin.  We are joyful that He did!

Prayer: Lord Jesus, we confess our sinfulness and acknowledge our unworthiness before You.  And yet, we are filled with thanks that your forgiveness covers all our guilt and makes us worthy again.  Amen.

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Tenacity. Humility. Faith.

woman holding Holy Bible
 
“And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.”  He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.”  And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”  She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”  Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.”  Matthew 15:21-28

te·nac·i·ty  /t??nas?d?/:  the quality of being very determined
 
This woman had tenacity.  Jesus’ disciples were just trying to get rid of her, and Jesus Himself had just compared her and her fellow Canaanites to dogs.  But that didn’t deter her.  Her poor daughter needed help, and she wasn’t giving up.
 
hu·mil·i·ty  (h)yo?o?mil?d?/:  a modest or low view of one’s own importance
 
Instead of taking great offense at Jesus’ dog comment, the woman displays amazing humility.  She accepts her “dog status,” and reminds Jesus that even the dogs get crumbs from their master’s table!  Tenacity is not often paired with humility.  This incredible woman displays both.
 
faith /f?TH/:  complete trust or confidence in someone or something.
 
She had “complete trust or confidence” in Jesus.  She knew that He was the One who could heal her daughter.  She knew that He was the Son of David, the Messiah. 
 
The Canaanite woman displayed these three seemingly diverse characteristics in her relationship with Jesus.  How about you? 
 
Sometimes we give up too easily.  Other times we think too highly of ourselves.  And quite often we don’t have enough trust or confidence in Jesus’ ability to help us. 
 
God help us by His Spirit to emulate this Canaanite woman: her tenacity, her humility, her faith. 
 
Gracious Heavenly Father, You teach us by the example of so many of your faithful people.  Thank you for teaching us through the amazing tenacity, humility, and faith of the Canaanite woman.  By Your Spirit, give us the same.  In Jesus’ name and for His glory, Amen.

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The Transfiguration

white cross under blue sky during daytime
 
After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.  There he was transfigured before them.” Matthew 17:1-2 

It is no accident that the account of the Transfiguration of Jesus is featured on the Sunday before the beginning of Lent.  In many churches, this account is the Gospel reading prior to Ash Wednesday because of the poignant reminder that it gives us as we enter the season where the focus is the cross of Christ.

It’s easy for people to get used to amazing things.  Couples who have been married for many years understandably get used to each other.  They’re not quite as enamored when the other walks in the room as they were, perhaps, when they first met or were first married.  Is that a reasonable turn of events?  I mean, the fact that there has been and remains an enduring love between two people is an incredible thing.  Yet, we just kind of get used to it all.  We get used to people, circumstances, all sorts of things that are worth noticing and reflecting upon.

Do you think it’s possible that the disciples, now two years into the ministry of Jesus, could have been getting used to Him?  They had by now seen some of the greatest of miracles.  Demons had been cast out, water had been walked upon, the blind could now see.  “What’s Jesus going to do today?”  “Oh, probably heal some more people and preach, like he usually does.”  We get used to Jesus don’t we?  He’s always there.  It’s not like we get up every morning and do cartwheels because Jesus is in our lives.  We read the Bible and see Him performing those miracles, saying wonderful things…and we get used to it.

Well, this Transfiguration ought to shake us out of any Jesus-doldrums, just as it most certainly must have for the disciples.  He becomes dazzlingly bright white! Elijah and Moses appear!  God the Father speaks from heaven!  If there was any complacency on the disciples’ part leading into that scene, how quickly it must have evaporated when seeing how Godlike Jesus was looking that day.

And this is one reason why it is so significant that the Transfiguration reading leads us into Lent.  As we walk with our Lord to His cross, let there be no mistaking just who this is that is laying down His life for us.  This is God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God who appeared that day with all the glory of God, soon to be bloodied and beaten and crucified to take our sins away.  As we experience Lent, we remember the Transfiguration and understand for the next six weeks just that this is God Himself, sacrificing Himself for us and for our salvation.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, forgive us for our complacency concerning you.  May we always recognize you as true God, especially as we consider your suffering and death for us all.  Amen.

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Valentine’s Day

pink and white hearts illustration
 
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.”  1 John 4:7-12
 
Happy Valentine’s Day! Ok, you might be reading this a few days early, but Valentine’s Day is right around the corner, February 14th. Many Christians may not realize it, but this is not just another Hallmark holiday. Instead, February 14th is the commemoration of St. Valentine. According to church tradition, he was a physician and priest who lived in Rome during the third century. While many stories exist about his life, what is fairly certain is that he was arrested, beaten, and beheaded, because of his faith in Jesus.
 
Known as a man who preached about the incredible love of God in Christ, and who shared that love with others, he received in return hatred and persecution from the Romans. What were they threatened by? What was there to fear?
 
Evil hates goodness. Though Christ has won the ultimate victory, until He returns, Satan and his allies will continue to fight to the very end to drag down as many as they can and to hinder the message of the Gospel at every turn.
 
While writing this, the words of Luther’s great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” came to mind. In the third verse we sing,
 
“Though devils all the world should fill, All eager to devour us,
We tremble not, we fear no ill; They shall not overpower us.
This world’s prince may still   Scowl fierce as he will, He can harm us none.
He’s judged; the deed is done. One little word can fell him.”
 
As the hymn concludes in the next verse, “Our victory has been won. The Kingdom ours remaineth.”
 
Men and women through the centuries have given their lives for the sake of the Gospel. The battle wages yet today, but the victory is ours in Christ. We need not fear, only hold on to Christ.
 
Prayer: Heavenly Father, the apostle John declares that God is love. Fill us up with love for you and for one another despite the assaults of the enemy. Make us strong in faith and in our witness to your saving grace for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

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Human Traditions

open book
 
Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.”  Matthew 15:1-2

This wasn’t a concern over hygiene.   This was a concern over religious rules. The Pharisees and scribes were upset that Jesus’ disciples didn’t pay homage to their human traditions. 

In the verses following, Jesus not only didn’t pay homage to their human traditions, he attacked them. 

We all have our opinions about the way things should be in the church.  Maybe we prefer the way things “used to be.”  Maybe we prefer things change to accommodate our culture’s tastes and preferences.  In either case, we must be careful that God’s Word take priority over everything.  A desire for the modern and the new can be as dangerous as hanging on to the old if our motivation isn’t to proclaim the true Word of God, with Jesus Christ at the center.

Our vicarage in Ghana rid me of a slavish view of churchly traditions.  Worshipping under a tree will do that:  no pipe organ, no kneelers at the simple wooden altar, no stained-glass windows.  In fact, no windows at all (or even a roof!).

But the Word of God was there.  Jesus was proclaimed.  His body and blood were received with thanksgiving.  And the faithful praised him in songs that still reverberate in my mind, more beautiful than any church choir I’ve heard since.

Traditions aren’t bad.  They often tie us to the past in wonderful and meaningful ways.  But our calling in the church is to connect people to the unchanging Word of God with the unchanging Savior at the center.  If our traditions are hindrances, distractions, or obstacles, then it’s time to move on.

You don’t have to wash your hands before dinner.  Jesus says so.

Gracious Father, in our sinfulness we often care more about human traditions, rules and ideas than we do about Your Word.  Forgive us.  Give us passion, by Your Spirit, to connect people to the live-giving Word that proclaims our Savior from sin.  When we are distracted by human traditions, bring us back to Your Word.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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