There is a special sort of energy to this saying, isn’t there? When a believer says it, there is a sense of the world spinning in the opposite direction, as if what was once undone is now being turned back, as if our view of Eden has become a little less blurry.
Amen. The resurrection of Jesus changes everything.
“He is risen” is the cheering of the Church of all ages. She sings out to the world in praise of her Savior who died, and yet, did not fall short of His goal, no matter the apparent dreadfulness of the Good Friday wreckage. Jesus gave Himself over into Death. He did it willingly and without our asking. He turned His face toward the events with an unmatchable steadfastness, and like a juggernaut, He could not be stopped. He pressed through and into Death’s deepest hideousness, ultimately defeating it for all time from the inside.
Saint Paul makes clear for those who may still be wondering what the resurrection has to do with God’s plan of redemption, saying, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:26). He says this so his readers will know there’s nothing left to be accomplished between sinners and God. Christ has done it all.
How do we know? Indeed, Paul warns of the concern if Christ hasn’t been raised, having already announced, “And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (15:17).
But Christ has been raised. Paul is a witness. And not only Paul but hundreds of others were visited by the bodily-resurrected Jesus (15:3-8). Would Paul lie? Would he trade his life of promise and ease for prison and execution? Would they all lie? Would they all be able to maintain such deception, keeping the story straight among such a large number? Perhaps like Paul, when the lives of these firsthand witnesses, and the lives of their families, were found teetering at the edge of grisly death, with their only safety being found in recantation, would courage built on a lie be able to see them through the moment?
Of course not, because they saw Jesus.
So, rejoice. It’s all true. Christ is risen, and your Easter faith is secure. You have staked a claim in the Lord who faced off with Death and won. His labor removed your Sin, and His resurrection victory justified you before the Father (Romans 4:25), granting to you the first-fruit spoils of eternal life (1 Corinthians 15:20).
God bless and keep you in this peace, not only today but always.
There is the saying that goes something like, “Until it matters, no man can be sure of his courage.” I appreciate those words. Indeed, one can hardly be considered courageous from ease’s protective tower. Knowing this, I suppose that’s why each year on Good Friday, the words by the Gospel-writer Mark to describe Joseph of Arimathea are piercing. Each year they find their way deeper into my contemplation of the Lord’s sacrificial death on the cross.
It’s not long after the Lord’s final breath that we read:
“And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus” (15:42-43).
Why are these words so resonant? Because they describe a man who, for the most part, has kept his faith in Jesus an unchallenged secret. And why would he do this? Because as a member of the Sanhedrin—the primary human force in opposition to Jesus—Joseph knew what would happen to him if it was ever discovered. He and his family would be utterly undone economically, socially, and religiously. But then suddenly, none of these things appear to matter anymore. Mark writes that Joseph “took courage,” having been moved to act beyond the boundaries of his fears and request custody of the Lord’s body from Pilate.
What caused this? He witnessed the death of His Savior, Jesus.
The actual deed—the very intersecting act of God’s redeeming plan in this world—that’s what sits at the heart of faith. Joseph saw it. Whether or not he fully understood what had happened, it would certainly appear that his faith knew the significance of the gory details. In that moment, his faith became a daring powerhouse more than ready to flex the divine muscles the Holy Spirit had granted it. It moved him to go before Pilate and do something that would very soon thereafter become public knowledge.
What does this mean for us?
If anything, it means none of us ought to take Good Friday for granted. It means there’s something to be said for a day that’s spends itself thinking on the epicentral event of our Lord’s work to win us back from Sin, Death, and the power of the devil. It means if ever there was a day for doing something that might unmask our oft-hidden commitment to Christ—such as missing an extra-curricular activity or asking for time off from work to attend worship—Good Friday is that day. In one sense, that’s what the Greek word for “took courage” (τολμήσας [tolmēsas]) insinuates. At its root, it means to take a chance, to dare, to be bold in a way that lowers one’s defenses, maybe even in a way that provokes evil to attack.
Joseph took courage. He did this knowing that to do so could result in trouble. But he did it, anyway. Maybe you can, too. You certainly have less to lose than Joseph, even if only to give up some time to attend one of the two services occurring here at Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan. The Tre Ore service occurs at 1:00pm, and the Tenebrae service is at 7:00pm. I’m preaching at both, and I can’t wait to do so.
Today is Palm Sunday, also called “Passion Sunday.” Palm Sunday is the doorway into the arena of Holy Week. For those who know, today is a pivotal day in the Church Year. By “those who know,” I mean those who know what’s coming. They celebrate by waving palm branches. Later today, some will fold those branches into the shape of a cross while studying the worship schedule and making plans to return for services during the week. They do this because they’ve learned the value of pondering each of our Lord’s words and actions as He makes His way to the cross and empty tomb—even the ones that may seem inconsequential. From His washing of the disciples’ feet to a mid-trial glance at Peter, everything becomes important, and believers don’t want to miss any of it.
The first few days—Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday—are days of intense preparation underpinned by a passionate awareness of what’s looming. Then comes the holy Triduum—the three days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.
In the evening on Maundy Thursday, our Lord knows He’s in the final hours, and so He establishes His Holy Supper, a divine meal that both gives and assures us of His presence and forgiveness. Establishing this, it truly is as the Apostle John describes:
“Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1).
Indeed, He loved them to the end. If we somehow get distracted from this on Maundy Thursday, it’s likely we won’t on Good Friday. Good Friday demands the attention of all. It is the battle royale—the conflict of all conflicts on a cosmic scale. Jesus goes into the powers of darkness, not for Himself, but for us. It’s there that our salvation is exacted. Moving into the evening of Holy Saturday, or the Vigil of Easter, believers endure the darkness of what appears to be the Savior’s terrible defeat. And yet, they do this by holding to the ancient promises given throughout the scriptures, finally coming face to face with an angel who declares, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you” (Mark 16:6-7).
Easter Sunday is the first step from Holy Week into an entirely new season—one of victory, one that celebrates the conquering of Sin and Satan, as well as the death of Death itself; all of it accomplished by the Son of God, Jesus Christ, who was dead but is now alive, and who now reigns for all time.
Today, Palm Sunday, we celebrate. Again, we wave palm branches. We sing with festive voices. Next Sunday we celebrate, too. We’ll sing just as brightly. Our Easter suits and dresses will match the day’s tenor. In between these two Sundays, things aren’t so easy. Holy Week isn’t easy. Rest assured Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan, is a church that’s mindful of this. Knowing this, you’re invited to be present for each of the worship opportunities provided. You’re invited to hear the Word of God read and preached. You’ll want to hear this Word. It saves. You’ll want to take in the rites and be immersed in the ceremonies, all of which are born from the devotion of countless generations of Christians before you who knew something in particular about Holy Week.
And what was it they knew so well?
Well, as Pierre Corneille once observed, “We triumph without glory when we conquer without danger.” This saying is useful to Christians if only to remind us of how easy it is to be robbed of something’s truest value when we don’t know its truest cost. Holy Week spends itself revealing the cost. Without taking time to consider the immensity of it all, without taking at least a few strides alongside our suffering Savior, it’s possible to arrive at Easter without a sense of its worth.
Don’t do that. Pay attention to Holy Week. In my many years as a pastor, I’ve never met anyone who has regretted it.
I coined a phrase a few years back, one I’ve never heard anyone else say. Since its realization, I share it with regularity among the students in my theology and catechetical classes, both young and old. It almost always comes up while studying the 8th Commandment and its explanation in Luther’s Small Catechism.
Before sharing it with you, I think the best way to tee up the phrase’s instantaneous formation in my mind is to compare it with the process of information transference in the film “The Matrix.” If you’ve seen the film, then you’ll know what I mean. In one scene, Neo doesn’t know Kung Fu. In the very next, he’s a Kung Fu master. Everything necessary was instantaneously downloaded to his brain.
In my case, the phrase came to me in the middle of realizing a troubling situation had grown beyond my abilities to solve it. All along the way, my intentions were good, even Godly. I had followed the Word of God the best I knew how. I’d maintained confidences. I’d spoken to the right church leaders. I’d reached to both friend and foe alike through steady communication, all along the way doing what I could to navigate toward peaceful shores. But things didn’t work out as I’d hoped. The harder I tried, the worse things seemed to get, eventually coming undone altogether. As it would go, there was one moment when I knew I’d become infected by the undoneness.
It happened in a small meeting room in our school. It involved me and three other people. In short, what started as a calm conversation became heated, and at one point in the fray, a rather nasty word was used to describe my wife, Jennifer. Almost without hesitation, I rose from my seat, put my finger in the face of the person who’d spoken the word, and with a shout, I warned that if such a word used to describe my wife ever passed through the lips of that individual again, the results would be unforgettably severe.
In all my twenty-three years in ministry, that was the first and last time I ever lost my cool and shouted at anyone.
Unfortunately, the room and its uninsulated door are along a primary thoroughfare for church and school staff traffic, and it just so happened that a longtime staff member was passing by the room. Having no idea what I said or why I said it, but only that it was me who was shouting, the word spread quickly among my detractors, serving as evidence that I was a ruthless dictator more than capable of measuring the pastoral office against others in a threatening way. Less than a day later, when I realized what that single moment had produced among the people I was attempting to bring to repentance, a thought surged into and through me as if I’d touched an electrified wire. I was alone in my office when I heard my voice say as if in conversation, “Chris, your reputation is the only thing you own that everyone else keeps for you. Guard it.”
Since that moment, I fight for my reputation and the integrity that underpins it as if they were gold. Say something nasty to me. No problem. Post derogatory comments about me across the span of social media. I’ll brush it off and continue forward. But recast my credibility in a way that undermines my ability to serve, and things are going to get rough between us. Why? Well, not only because God’s Word describes pastors as ones who must be above reproach (1 Timothy 3:2), or because one of the lessons I’ve learned in ministry is that the people willing to exert energy in this way must be dealt with firmly, but primarily because, as I already said, if my credibility becomes questionable, who am I to bring God’s authoritative Word of correction to anyone? For example, who am I to say that shouting at someone in anger is sinful if I live my life doing the same thing? With that, I’m a firm believer that one’s credibility is tied to his or her own integrity; or as I was moved to write on social media this past week in response to Will Smith smacking Chris Rock, “An act’s integrity is relative to the moral soundness of the one performing it.” I wrote this because Will Smith hit a man who insulted his wife, Jada. And yet, Will Smith lives in an open marriage, meaning he and Jada allow one another to have sex with others. Because of this, I’d say Will Smith has very little credibility when it comes to defending his wife’s honor.
This is an incredibly important thing for all of us to consider as sometimes we, too, discover ourselves required to rebuke someone else’s behavior in defense of what’s right. What’s more, it has me thinking about something else.
Do you remember that commercial from the 80s in which a mother shouts at her son after discovering drug paraphernalia in his room? Essentially, she asks him in a rage where he got the stuff, but more importantly, how he learned about any of it. Frustrated by her hypocrisy, the boy shouts back, “I learned it from you!” The camera then pans and refocuses on her bedroom, revealing a bag of marijuana beside an ashtray full of ashes. For as hokey as the acting in the commercial was, the message was stingingly true. If you’re doing it, you have no credibility for dissuading a child from doing it, too. And this matters to more than just drug use. If you are willfully living together with someone outside of marriage, don’t be surprised or angry if your child does the same one day. And if you try to dissuade them from doing it, what can you say to them when they reply, “I learned it from you”? Not much, that’s for sure. The list goes on from here. If you swear a lot, don’t be surprised or angry when your children swear a lot, too. If you speak abusively to your spouse, don’t be shocked when your daughter-in-law reveals the man she married, your son, is verbally abusive to her.
By now, I’m guessing that some, if not all of you have already whispered to yourself something that sounds a little like, “But I’ve done these sorts of things, so what credibility do I have for steering anyone else toward what’s right?”
Well, the answer to this is relatively simple. When your sinful deeds are your only history, then you have no credibility. However, when through confession and absolution your sins are snatched away from you for all time, having been instantaneously consigned to the shoulders of Christ through faith in His sacrifice on the cross, you are no longer who you were before. Things begin again. You are remade. Or better yet, re-created as one whose credibility is not his or her own history, but Christ’s. Such newness has no baggage, at least nothing God could ever conjure up to use against you. Don’t believe me? Listen to the Psalmist speak of God’s forgiveness in a remarkable way, saying, “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (103:12). Just as potently wonderful, God reminds us by His Word that when He forgives us, He also forgets the sins completely (Hebrews 8:12). Do you know what that means? It means that the only way for God to recall them will be for us to remind Him. And why? Because He looks upon us through the blood of His Son. He sees us adorned in the white baptismal garment of His love fashioned from the threads of the Law-fulfilling credibility of Christ’s perfect righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21; Galatians 3:27; Revelation 7:14).
Knowing this, no matter what you’ve done, through humble contrition met by God’s mighty redemption, you can say to an onlooker accusing you of having no credibility due to the same sins, “I was wrong. I shouldn’t have done that. It was a sin against God and the ones involved. I know this. Thanks be to God that my Lord paid the price for this and all my failures by His death and resurrection. Now, by the power of His Holy Spirit, I want to be faithful to Him. This faithfulness moves me to want to warn you from falling into the same destructive traps I fell into. I don’t want that for you in the same way Jesus doesn’t want that for you.”
Believe it or not, such a confession can be disarming.
Of course, even such sincere communication might not win the heart of someone holding tightly to his or her transgressions. Trust me, I get it. And yet, that’s where the right handling of God’s Word, the divine courage promised to believers by that same Word, and the viscera for trusting that God will bless your efforts for faithfulness all come into play.
I need to remind myself of this regularly, especially as one who works to guard his own credibility with ferocity. The fact remains that no matter how hard I try, I won’t always succeed. I’m a sinner. But through genuine confession resulting in absolution, the script gets flipped and I can keep on keeping on. As I do, I know there will always be people out there laboring to defame me, doing all they can to bring me into the same state of despair and lostness in which they dwell. In the end, I don’t have to take it sitting down. But I also know that no matter what happens, ultimately, God’s forgiveness cements my credibility to Christ. With that knowledge, my work becomes less about trusting myself, and more about being confident in Christ, the One who’s always running point. From my perspective, that’s an impenetrable place from which to launch an offensive against this world and its terrible armies.
I probably shouldn’t admit to it, but I’ve been watching TV, mostly Netflix, far more than I should these days. Honestly, I should be working on homework, or perhaps, looking ahead to the sermon texts for Holy Week and Easter. I have a couple of papers coming due at that time, so it would be wise to get a jumpstart on sermon preparation. The problem is, by the time I roll into the garage most evenings, the level of my zeal only seems capable of a routine involving a two-finger pour of whisky, a seat beside Jennifer, and an hour-long visit before bedtime with TV shows of the past.
For the record, our current reminiscence is Knight Rider.
I loved Knight Rider as a kid. Watching it now, I can attest to the terrible acting, not to mention the very little effort that appears to have been placed on the scripts and special effects. Apart from the real reason Jen and I have gravitated toward such shows, we’re also watching them for amusement. The dialogue is hilariously hokey. The storylines are riotously worse. And as I hinted, the special effects are often laughable. Take for example a particular scene that sees K.I.T.T., the artificially intelligent car, driving itself into a parking lot. As K.I.T.T. comes to a stop beside Michael Knight (played by David Hasselhoff), it’s easy enough to see that the car isn’t driving itself, but instead, the driver’s seat has been removed, and a man dressed to look like the seat is in its place. The man’s hands can be seen on the steering wheel.
Jen and I rewatched and laughed at that scene a few times.
In another episode, Michael gets shot in his left shoulder. While pursuing the bad guys, he covers the wound with his right hand. The scene shifts to the dashboard as K.I.T.T.’s blinking voice indicator encourages him to go to the hospital. The scene turns back to Michael still nursing the wound, except now it’s on his right shoulder and he’s using his left hand.
We re-watched that scene a couple of times just for fun, too.
I suppose apart from the humor, nostalgia is the real reason we started watching the show. We long for the days when television scriptwriters, directors, and producers knew better than to allow certain words or behaviors to be portrayed as normal. We miss the time when shows had a clearer understanding of right and wrong, truth and untruth, good and evil. I say this thinking that perhaps like me, you were troubled by the news that a man won the women’s NCAA 500-yard freestyle championship. Yes, you read that sentence correctly. A man won the women’s title. And by the way, a man won the distinction of USA Today’s “Woman of the Year.” Yes, you read that sentence correctly, too. And so, how are these things possible? Well, Lia Thomas (formerly Will Thomas) and Rachel Levine (formerly Richard Levine) are both transgender females. Or is the term “transgender male”? I don’t know, anymore. It’s becoming rather difficult to keep pace with the latest wokisms being imposed upon us by this Sin-sick world.
But for all I don’t understand, what I do know is that Lia Thomas, someone who is dominating women’s competitive swimming, and Rachel Levine, Joe Biden’s first and favorite choice for Assistant Secretary for Health, are both biological males in every way. For starters, I can say this because when Thomas and Levine die, if their mortal remains were ever exhumed, two male skeletons would be discovered. How do I know this? Because, apart from the fact that these two men’s biologics are written into every bit of their DNA (the distinction being that male DNA contains one X chromosome and one Y chromosome, while female DNA contains two X chromosomes), but also that without some seriously inventive reconstructive surgery, a male’s bone structure is very different from a female’s. In other words, gender isn’t a system of belief. It is an objective, biological fact, no matter the clothes worn, or the hairstyle donned.
You may dress yourself to look like the seat of a car, but you aren’t a car’s seat. You need special effects and the world of fantasy to be a car’s seat.
Interestingly, Joe Biden’s Supreme Court nominee, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, was asked this past Tuesday by Senator Marsha Blackburn, “Can you provide a definition for the word ‘woman’?” Jackson’s answer: “No, I can’t. I’m not a biologist.”
Three quick observations in this regard. Firstly, Jackson is a woke progressive Democrat. There’s no hiding that fact. She’s on record for stating such things rather proudly. Secondly, if the term “woman” is undefinable to anyone other than biologists, then how do we know for sure she holds the honor of being the first black woman nominated to the Supreme Court? Even further, why is everyone everywhere using feminine identifiers like “she” and “her” when referring to her? Lastly, for as much as she wants to allow for truth to be anything to anyone, her answer affirmed gender is rooted in biology rather than an individual’s perception of “self.” If it weren’t this way, her answer would’ve been, “No, I can’t. I’m not a psychiatrist.”
Still, Thomas and Levine continue believing themselves to be women, which, as it meets with basic human autonomy, is tolerable to some extent. I suppose this is true in the same way that mental illnesses must be mildly accommodated during treatment. However, the problem is no longer that they’re convinced of something that isn’t true, but that they’re insisting the rest of us believe and live according to this untruth, too. Thomas has imposed his fantasy upon the entirety of women’s sports to the detriment of genuine female athletic achievement. Levine, on the other hand, has not only forced his fantasy on the entire nation, but as one of the first-face representatives of health science, he embodies the acceptance of pseudoscience. Perhaps worse still (albeit expected), the LGBTQ militia, along with its compliant voters and media, are jackbooting through America insisting that we allow ourselves to be assimilated into the mental constructs of these two very confused men. And if we refuse—if we speak up, if we push back, if we share opinions counter to the acceptable ones—we’re labeled as loveless bigots worthy only of cancellation. You should read some of the things that have been written about Senator Blackburn since Tuesday’s hearing. It’s telling if not also frightening.
For the record, I’m not buying into it. I discourage you from buying into it, too.
Last Sunday was a powerful day for understanding this here at Our Savior, especially considering the Epistle lesson from Ephesians 5:1-9, which is a text that doles out uncomplicated instructions to Christians for handling situations of sexual immorality. After six descriptive verses, in verse 7, Paul speaks prescriptively:
“Therefore do not associate with them.”
In the Greek text, the word translated as “associate” is συμμέτοχοι(symmetochoi). However, I’m not so sure “associate” is the best interpretation. συμμέτοχοι means “co-partaker.” “Associate” conveys a simple connection to someone or something, but συμμέτοχοι implies a link that includes willful engagement and active participation.
Verse 7 sounds like Saint Paul’s way of saying, “Don’t buy into it.” I’d say he gave us a hint to his seriousness in this regard when he back in verse 3 that sexual immorality “must not even be named among you.” The word for “named” is ὀνομαζέσθω (onomazesthō), which carries the sense of not even mentioning such things out loud. Paul wants Christians to stay as far from sexual immorality as is humanly possible, which means we shouldn’t even leave the slightest impression we might be okay with it. Instead, we are to give a clear enunciation of truth while also making an effort to bring the errant back into the boundaries of God’s moral and natural laws. Paul aims in this direction for a reason. Right after warning against being co-partakers, he reminds Christians in verses 8 and 9:
“For at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light, for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true.”
Paul’s words echo the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:14-16. He teaches that because of who we are in Christ (Matthew 5:14-16), we can bring the light of goodness, rightness, and truth right into the middle of the darkness. Continuing to verse 11, we hear Paul add:
“Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.”
It’s not a Christian’s role to be silent, but rather we are called to expose the darkness. How is darkness exposed? Light. When the lights are shining, darkness is dispelled. When the lights are hidden, darkness maintains its grip.
The photo I’ve shared here, especially the uppermost image, hints at everything said so far. In it, the three young ladies who competed against Thomas have elected not to be associated with Thomas’ meritless victory. I like that image a lot. I may even get it framed. Why? Because these girls have earned my respect. Risking their reputations, they’ve communicated the difference between right and wrong in a stunningly visual way. They’re not being cruel. They’re not being bigoted. They’re conveying truth adorned with smiles to a confused and erring media that’s applauding a confused and errant man.
I’m hoping these girls, their families, and all their friends will continue along in stride with Saint Paul’s words, eventually finding the courage to put their concerns into words.
I ask the Lord for this courage almost every day. I ask Him regularly to provide the same courage for you, too. I know so many of you are enduring challenging situations in your own families, friendships, and workplaces. As you stand in the middle of these things, I pray the Lord will strengthen you to be lights in the darkness, not seeking to disown anyone, but instead, to beam brightly for all the truth of God’s Law and Gospel—both His loving warning against Sin and His incredible promise of forgiveness and restoration through faith in Jesus Christ.
I finished a book this past week by Andrew Murray entitled Humility: The Beauty of Holiness. It was an interesting read, although not necessarily one I’d likely recommend. My reason for dissuading you is not because the book had nothing to offer, but rather, I feel as though the author spent the energy of his zeal in some of the wrong places. It seemed that every time he got close enough to see Calvary—the truest image of God’s love and the demonstration of His humility—he jerked away from it to a synergistic interpretation, implying that Jesus was merely demonstrating something He wanted us to emulate in order to cooperate in our eternal rescue.
But that’s not what the events of Calvary were about. Jesus was accomplishing there what we could never accomplish. And to think that somehow we might be able to cooperate in any way that might compare with the salvific work of the Son of God on the cross is a gross miscalculation, a miscalculation that will have dire consequences, one of which is the dreadful pall of uncertainty regarding our eternal future.
How will we know if we’ve done enough? How will we know if we’ve held up our end of the agreement?
Admittedly, there are plenty of aspects to the Christian Faith that Jesus wants us to demonstrate. Humility is one of them. Love is one of them, too. In fact, He demonstrated both in a practical way as He washed the disciples’ feet the very same night that they would betray Him into death (John 13:1-17, 34-35). Still, He did this knowing His followers could never do it the way He could—perfectly. Even in a shallow sense, He washed their feet without ever experiencing the sensation of complaint or disgust. On our part, even the slightest hesitancy, even the minutest thought of revulsion, disqualifies us, betraying our inadequacies in comparison to Jesus’ perfect love. What’s more, the fact that we may actually follow through with such a filthy form of servitude as washing someone’s feet isn’t a testament to our goodness, but rather serves as proof of the Spirit’s influence within us as He produces the fruits of faith (Ephesians 2:8-10). We don’t want to wash someone else’s feet. But somehow, we muscle through it, anyway. Why? Because even as we’re more inclined toward “self,” Christ has promised us the Spirit to equip and enable us to serve in love.
It’s the sinner/saint on full display in everything we do.
All of this might sound somewhat critical of human ability. It’s meant to. That’s where genuine Godly humility begins—the recognition that of ourselves, none of us has anything to offer God, and even our greatest worldly achievements will always be as brittle as sun-dried autumn leaves by comparison. One touch and they break into nothing. Only Jesus has what it takes to apply an overabundance to our red-filled ledgers, canceling the debts and setting us free.
The events of Calvary demonstrate this.
On the other hand, the satirist Jean de La Bruyère said that criticizing goodness “robs us of the pleasure of being moved by some very fine things.” There’s a hint of truth to what he said. Who among us will slight an enemy for feeding a homeless person? On the contrary, observing such things through the lens of faith, such a demonstration might cause an unbeliever to see his enemy in an entirely new light, one that might even stir him to reach out for friendship.
Could that be a hint to what Jesus meant in Matthew 5 when He said that onlookers “will see your good deeds and give glory to the Father in heaven” (v. 16)? Could that be a clue to what He meant in John 13 when He said to the disciples after washing their feet that by serving in such ways “all people will know that you are my disciples” (v. 35)? Could that be a nod to what Saint Paul meant in 1 Timothy 4 when he encouraged young Timothy to keep a close eye on both his doctrine and life. “Persevere in them,” he said, “because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (v. 16).
The good deeds a Christian performs never precede salvation. We don’t partner with Jesus in our rescue. However, the good things we do follow along as products of His grace and are born from thanksgiving. Amazingly, they are more than capable of steering the doer into acts of joyful humility that God says bears the potential for leading onlookers to the only One who can save them. This Lententide, may God grant for you to consider these things.
My daughter, Madeline, mentioned being tasked by one of her teachers with reading A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Having two editions in my office, I shared one with her so that she wouldn’t need to wrestle with acquiring it from the school library.
I adore Charles Dickens—his skill with characters, his dexterity with language, and his prowess for telling a good story. Few writers compare. Maybe I’ve shared with you before that I have a first edition set of his complete works in my office. My favorite of his volumes is The Cricket on the Hearth. If you haven’t read it, I’d encourage you to do so, especially if you’re a fan of his infamous A Christmas Carol.
In my humble opinion, pitched against the ever-growing list of worthless garbage our present-day public schools are calling literature, Dickens’ works are golden. I was glad when Madeline told me the assignment, and I knew if she could just get through the first few pages of the story, she’d be in for a real treat. Among all Dickens’ works, it’s one we might call a thriller. It’s very much a three-part story held together by perilous action, and it all ends at the guillotine.
I remember watching a film version of it when I was a kid, except I didn’t necessarily know what I’d seen until I read the book in high school several years later. As a bored eight or nine-year-old who was, as you’d expect, thoroughly unappreciative of the value of Sunday afternoon black-and-white matinees, I recall tuning in and sticking with the film only because, as a fan of scary movies, Christopher Lee was in it. As it would go, he played the cold-hearted Marquis St. Evremonde. To this very hour, I can imagine the possibility of a fanged Christopher Lee emerging from his horse-drawn carriage to bite someone’s neck. Of course, He didn’t. But I do remember a stake-through-the-heart moment his character experienced while sleeping. Either way, the film, like the book, had an aura of unpredictability.
I like unpredictable storytelling. Just ask Jennifer. The movies I find myself enjoying most are ones that keep me guessing. When it comes to all others, I’m as annoying as annoying can be. I think this is true because, as Hollywood continues to sew its recycled and under-considered plots into the sleeves of fast-food characters, there’s a good chance before a movie’s end that I’ll have already shouted out what’s going to happen. I’m not always right, but I certainly am more than the people sitting beside me would prefer. Annoying? Yes. So be sure to commend Jennifer for enduring my predictability.
Speaking of predictability, there’s an oft quoted opening line from the third chapter of the first part of the book. It reads:
“A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.”
In a volume filled with twists, Dickens refers to something in humans that’s universally predictable. Strangely, he points to every person’s hidden, namely, unpredictable side. In other words, the only thing you can predict with humans is that they’re unpredictable. Or to dive a little deeper, for as well as you might know someone, there will always be the side you don’t know and couldn’t have expected—the secret self that would surprise you if it were suddenly revealed.
As this meets with the season of Lent—a time when we’re exceptionally attuned to our need for a Savior—my Christian mind wanders to what this means for me. As it roams, I discover how I’m more than capable of concealing my sinful tendencies. And yet, the writer to the Hebrews untangles all misconceptions of this in relation to God when he offers that “no creature is hidden from [God’s] sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (4:13).
And therein is a path to something incredibly wonderful that we may not have predicted.
Yes, God knows the real you. He knows everything you’ve done. He knows all your horribleness. He knows all your dreadfulness. He knows your soiled intentions. He knows the worst of your thoughts, words, and deeds. And yet, even with all these horrendous things on display before His divine omniscience—things that He knows and sees and has every right to account as hell-worthy—still, He tells us by His Word that He looked on us in love and sent His Son to save us (John 3:16-17). He makes clear that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). The predictability of God’s right to judge us accordingly is unpredictably turned on its head by His divine passion for our rescue. He does not give us what we deserve. Instead, He heaps our unfortunate dues upon Jesus, and by His wounds, we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).
I already told you just how much I love an unpredictable story. Well, it doesn’t get any better than the Gospel. And by this, I not only mean the death of God’s innocent Son for the dreadfully guilty, but also the unpredictable nature of the resurrection. That itself was a world-altering event. No one expected an empty tomb. No one expected to see Jesus alive. Not even the disciples. And yet, there He was, is, and remains. Sure, I like Dickens. But his stories are fiction. The Gospel is real, which makes the Bible that carries and communicates it, with every twist and turn of both the Old Testament and New Testament, the greatest volume in human history.
I happened upon a familiar portion from Saint Paul this morning. At first, it seemed strangely out of step with the season of Lent. That is, until I gave it a more thorough examination. Paul wrote:
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8).
A deliberate thrust to Lent is its cognizance of Sin. It draws us to the admittance that we are dreadfully inadequate in every way for extricating ourselves from Sin’s lethal grip. However, it’s very important to remember that Lent doesn’t labor to adjust us in this way without a clear sight of the Gospel—the Good News that we have been rescued from all that would bar us from heaven. If we lose sight of this, the season can very easily become six weeks of debilitating gloom.
But again, Lent isn’t meant for melancholy. It deals in the solemnity of perspective. In one sense, it’s working to help us identify and understand what’s bad so that we can rejoice rightly in what’s good. This makes Saint Paul’s words in Philippians 4:8 that much more resonant. Knowing the reality of our condition—fully aware of our undeserving nature—we have a better view of the external evidence of God’s gracious care.
Here’s what I mean in a very basic way.
We don’t give much thought to the fact that the same sun that was shining on Adam and Eve is shining on us. It continues to this day with its warmth. By grace alone, God makes this happen. The earth continues to spin from one season to the next. By grace alone, God sees to this unending sequence (Genesis 8:22). The birds continue their sing-song melodies. By grace alone, God continues providing their twittering voices (Matthew 6:26). The soil continues to present each day with bouquets of splendor. By grace alone, God adorns each flower’s petals with magnificence (Matthew 6:30).
His world betrayed Him, and yet God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). When we know the depths of our undeserving nature in comparison to God’s generous care, almost everything around us becomes a gift—an unmerited bestowal teaching us of God’s love.
Since I mentioned flowers, Ralph Waldo Emerson said these dainty blossoms are the earth’s laughter. Maybe he was onto something, because he also warned the preoccupied bystander to “never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God’s handwriting.”
Paul said the same thing in Philippians 4:8, only far better. How so? By disassembling creation’s beauty to reveal its graspable materials.
Truth. Honor. Justice. Purity. Loveliness. Commendability. Excellence. Praiseworthiness. These are beauty’s divine ingredients, the scribblings of God traced on the recipe pages of goodness in this life.
Inspired by the Holy Spirit, Paul knows that by sifting our thoughts and behaviors through these filters, we’ll be equipped for discerning the bad. We’ll know hateful people using vicious words aren’t lovely, no matter how attractive they may be physically. We’ll know living together before marriage isn’t pure, no matter how sensible the world might make it seem. We’ll know that so-called critical theories that demand diversity and equity according to the premise that certain races are innately unforgivable, or ideologies that threaten people’s lives with cancellation unless they accept dysphoric behaviors, are not praiseworthy or just, and we shouldn’t commend them.
On the other hand, and extending from the same awareness, Paul knows we’ll discover ourselves attuned to and desirous of what God considers good. We’ll know the honorable nature of holding fast to truth. We’ll know just how commendable God’s design for “family” truly is. We’ll observe others through the lens of God’s Word, thereby being enabled to navigate the confusion of this age in love. And I suppose I’m suggesting an active byproduct of all of this is a Christian’s ability to behold and be uplifted by God’s grace demonstrated in so many wonderful ways throughout the natural world.
For good reason, Paul insists that we think in this way. And Lent’s fasting certainly helps us to pay closer attention. In fact, the whole season is the perfect time for practicing such behavior so that it becomes habitual.
Lent begins tomorrow. We enter into it by way of Ash Wednesday’s gritty gate. The branches from last year’s Palm Sunday procession are reduced to cinders, cooled, and set aside to be daubed upon the foreheads of Christians. The smear is a cruciform one. It’s in the shape of a cross. It is this way as it marks an honest self-inventory that hopes in the Savior, Jesus. It signals a genuine repentance toward something deep, something that cannot be uprooted by human hands, but by God in Christ alone.
Mind you, Ash Wednesday leaves no room for the kind of repentance described by the poets inclined to mock it, men like Ybarra who so flippantly look at it as something we do on Sunday out of sorrow for something we did on Saturday, and yet, intend to do again on Monday.
Although, I should say, if this is your practice, then the shoe fits and you must wear it. I’d also suggest that perhaps you are more needful of the direction Ash Wednesday and Lent provide than you realize.
Still, such shallow religiosity does not beat in the heart of genuine Christian repentance just as it could never be the cadence for Ash Wednesday and Lent. In humility and faith, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are found sorrowful for our Sin against God and neighbor. We know we are as guilty as guilty can be. And yet, by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, we are forgiven, made new, and sent forth into the world as His own. As we go, we take the message of the cross with us.
When it comes to participation in the Imposition of Ashes, regardless of what those who poke fun at the practice might think, its partakers will carry the Gospel out into the world in a uniquely visible way. The cross will be seen on their faces, and by it, there will be opportunities for onlookers to know that Jesus still matters to some. Perhaps a passerby will, in kindness, let you know you have dirt on your face, and when you tell them it isn’t dirt, but an ashen cross, they’ll ask what it means. It’ll then be for its bearer to say with confidence to the inquisitive stranger, “I’m a sinner. I need a Savior. But, I know Jesus shed His precious blood on the cross for me, and by His sacrifice, I’ve been set free from Death and its end in the dust.”
Maybe you’ll be blessed with such an opportunity. Either way, I hope to see you tomorrow at one of the Ash Wednesday services here at Our Savior in Hartland, Michigan, whether it be at the brief service in the morning at 8:10am, or tomorrow night at the 7:00pm Divine Service.
Lent comes in for a landing this week. It touches down with Ash Wednesday.
For many of us who take the passion of our Lord seriously, it’ll be a day begun and/or ended with an ashen cross smeared on our foreheads. Unfortunately, I’ve already seen people mocking this incredibly solemn practice. One employed a photoshopped meme of the Dos Equis spokesman from a few years ago with a black cross on his head and saying, “I don’t always fast, but when I do, I make sure everyone knows it.” The person who shared the image was implying that anyone participating in the imposition of ashes is a hypocrite. How do I know? Because he cited the text of Matthew 6:16-18 above the meme.
Too bad he’s wrong in almost every way, not only because he’s mocking the same kind of ceremony demonstrating community-wide repentance recorded in Joel 1:13-14, but because even in the Prophet Joel’s day, the actions were not for the viewer. They were for the bearer. If their intent was to reveal to the viewer the bearer’s self-righteousness (which was Jesus’ point in Matthew 6:16-18), then my critical friend would be right. But that’s not their purpose. They were starkly tangible signs meant for stirring the bearer toward and into repentance, to a recognition of the need for rescue from Sin and the admittance of complete reliance on God for accomplishing such rescue. And by the way, I should add that the Christian continuation of this Godly practice—one that employs the image of a cross—does have some benefit for an unbelieving onlooker. The cross will always be an unspoken, and yet powerful, proclamation to the world around us that Jesus is Lord.
How could that be a bad thing? Well, I’m guessing only a self-righteous person might be offended by a ceremony that puts the cross before the broader community. A cross preaches the need for a savior. A self-righteous person doesn’t need a savior.
But apart from the annual misinformed heckling of Ash Wednesday’s rich tradition, its rites and ceremonies continue to teach what I’d surmise is a two-pronged—and maybe even three-pronged—reminder. Firstly, we’ll remember as the pastor speaks the words of Genesis 3:19 that from dust we were taken, and because of this world’s fall into Sin—because Sin’s wage is Death—every citizen of this globe shall return to the dust. The carbon soot is a tangibly filthy reminder of this. Secondly, we’ll be reminded by the smear’s cruciform shape that the Rescuer has come. By His death and resurrection, He destroyed the last enemy, Death, and now through faith in His sacrifice, it is for us to be raised to live eternally with Him in glory (Hebrews 2:14; 1 Corinthians 15:26; John 11:25). I suppose thirdly, it’s no insignificant ceremony that most will, before laying down to sleep, clean the grit from their faces with water. Martin Luther taught by his Flood Prayer that for believers, all waters can now serve as reminders of the lavish washing away of Sin in Baptism. Ash Wednesday provides a particular potency to this observation, both as it meets with Sin’s filth and our entering into the sleep of Death having first been cleansed.
Beyond these things, I’m sure the conflict in Ukraine is on everyone’s minds. It’s on my mind, too. Like so many of you, I’m praying for peace daily. And while I’m not necessarily a geopolitical Einstein, I am an observer of history and behavior. I know that actions reveal deeper things. As I already shared on social media this past week, I know that America’s military has been readying for war through sensitivity trainings that assume masculinity is toxic and focus on the virtually non-existent specters of white supremacy, microaggression, gender sensitivity, and the like (or in other words, the social justice ideologues have essentially commandeered the military’s leadership in the same way they’ve commandeered our colleges and universities). In the meantime, Russia has continued gearing its powerful military for commanding and conquering everything in its path through force. (By the way, to see the ideological differences between America and Russia, take a look at this video comparing the two nations’ recruitment commercials.) I know that Biden sent no small number of troops to the Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia, and the like), along with attack helicopters and fighter jets. I know that NATO has activated its Response Force and is readying them in the Baltic region. I know Putin’s singular demand was that NATO not bring Ukraine into its fold, thereby putting an unfriendly force on one of his most crucial borders. I also know Putin has said publicly within the last few months that he believes the Baltic States are Russian territories by right. I know that he has a history of telegraphing his moves to test the mettle of anyone who might try to stop him, which is probably why he said what he said about the Baltics. He did that with Georgia. He did it with Crimea. I know that for as little cognitive ability as Biden appears to have, it’s likely he’s at least been warned by someone that the Baltic States are Article 5 countries in NATO, and if Putin feels threatened enough by one of them and attacks, NATO partners—which includes the United States—are obligated to join in a multinational war against Russia.
I know all of this. And I know it’s very bad stuff. For us here in America, I know it already means inflated expenses. I know people’s investment portfolios took a hit last week. I know gas prices rose above $100 a barrel almost overnight. I know increased costs for goods and services will continue to follow along in tow.
I also know that as I face these terrifying things, I am well equipped for dealing with the fears they stir. I am a Christian. I’ve changed. I’m someone who’s been lifted from the jagged landscape of hopelessness and set down in the verdant pasture of hope-filled faith. This also means I’ve become someone capable of working as hard as I can to change the things within my control, while at the same time submitting to God’s divine care in the things I cannot.
I can’t change the behaviors affecting Ukraine. I can’t change someone’s inclination to mock confessional Christendom. But I can labor to change myself.
Beyond Ash Wednesday, the season of Lent speaks to this, especially the season’s tradition of fasting, which is a biblical behavior geared for spiritual training. For many it involves going without something, or it can mean being resolved to spending a prayerfully selected portion of time working to improve faithfulness. Fasting isn’t required for salvation, of course, but it is hard to argue against Saint Paul commending it as good, saying that just as physical exercise benefits the body, so also do spiritual exercises aimed toward Godliness benefit a Christian both for this present life and the life to come (1 Timothy 4:8).
Thinking about this, and considering what I mentioned above, I’m willing to say that behavior is one of the best indicators of a human’s innards, both physiologically and mentally. If a person is hunched over in pain, something on the inside isn’t right. I just spent a good part of yesterday in Urgent Care, the third time in four weeks, and it’s looking as though I may have kidney stones. It’s the same with the mind and soul. People’s actions demonstrate the fundamental workings of what they believe, what they think of others, how they discern, what’s important to them. Observe a person’s actions and you’ll get a pretty good idea of his or her innermost intentions and substance.
This isn’t a hard saying. Jesus taught it in Matthew 7:17-18 when He said, “Every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.” Of course, the Lord speaks this way throughout His Word. So do the Apostles. Take a little time with the Epistle of Saint James. Visit with both of Saint Peter’s epistles. Or Paul’s Epistles to the churches at Rome, Corinth, and Ephesus. You’ll see. Humans betray what’s on the inside by what they do.
I spent some time this past Tuesday in my religion class examining this premise with the 7th and 8th graders. We took time with the Book of Isaiah, 1 Corinthians, and Luke’s Gospel. By the time we were done, not only had we concluded that faith given by the power of the Holy Spirit through the Gospel saves us, but also that it changes us—that it has a noticeable influence in our lives. For one, it chases after opportunities to repent and make amends for the sake of faithfulness to its Lord.
As it would go, one student dug more deeply than the others, suggesting that if a person claims Christ but has no desire, no inclination, no inner longing to wrestle against the flesh, then it’s entirely possible the person isn’t a believer. I agreed to this possibility. Why would I say this? Because again, faith produces the fruits of righteousness, just as Jesus said it would. It doesn’t remain settled in ungodly action or inaction. It has the inherent will to change, to align with Christ, to produce good fruit. This means that when, by the Spirit, we become aware of our failings, faith engages. It steers the human will into the fleshly fracas intent on waging war—and not just to fight, but to win (John 3:6; 1 Peter 2:11; Ephesians 2:10; Galatians 5:16-17).
What does all of this mean?
It means that if you are a Christian, and yet you are a serial gossip, by the power of the Holy Spirit you have what’s necessary for fighting this tendency. If you have no interest in changing, then you need to ask yourself why.
If you are a Christian, but you are short-tempered and cruel with your words in ways that regularly cause strife and division, by the power of the Holy Spirit for faith, you can be one who wrestles against these urges. If you persist in this behavior with little effort or interest in amending, then serious self-reflection is necessary.
If you are a Christian, but still your mind and body wander to mates beyond the borders of marriage, by faith, know you have what’s necessary for taking action against such ungodliness. Faith rises up to barricade against this behavior. If you have no interest in stopping—or you make excuses for continuing in it—there’s a problem.
If you are a Christian, and yet you continue to stay away from worship for fear of illness while at the same time visiting crowded grocery stores, enjoying social gatherings with friends and family, and other such things, take a moment to consider the contradiction in terms and what it might mean to Jesus.
My point: Fight the good fight of faith (1 Timothy 6:12)!
Use the muscle of God at your disposal and actually compete against Sin, Death, and the devil. Take action. Do something to defeat these things, knowing that God is not only on your side, but He is with you in the fray. The pale, bludgeoned, and bloody proof is staring at you from the cross. Jesus has done all that’s required for winning you, not only from Death and Satan, but from yourself—from the Sin-nature—which does all it can to consume and digest you, which uses every weapon in its arsenal to hold you in bondage to who you were before faith.
Wrapping this up, this student was assuming that, at a bare minimum, faith would reveal itself through some sort of effort by the Christian to fight against fleshly desires. She had concluded that to rest contently in Sin is an action implying a completely different set of human innards than what Christ promises.
I happen to agree with her. And she doesn’t know it yet, but I gave her an A for the day. It’s likely I tell her as much when I see her at the Ash Wednesday service.