Lent and the Sacrifices of God

Text: Psalm 51:15-17

Today marks the first Sunday in Lent, and many Christians who did not grow up practicing the liturgical calendar are now becoming very interested in it. Some are madly in love with all things liturgical, seeing Lent as one way to rediscover lost roots. Others are critical of it as faddishness, a sort of picking and choosing of one’s piety according to whatever seems interesting. And then there’s always the perpetual fear of subtle Romanizing. Lent can be abused in a legalistic way. I would be more than happy to talk about each of those concerns at another time, but it is my belief that each of those conversations actually distract us from the real point of what Lent is supposed to be. Like all forms of liturgy, Lent is meant to be an aid in worship, a way of assisting our thoughts and devotions in focusing on God’s majesty, our sinfulness, and the salvation we have in Jesus Christ.

What would you think if you saw a man staring at his own glasses? He might be adjusting them or fixing something that had broken. That would make sense. But what if he never seemed to finish? What if he just kept staring and commenting on his glasses, asking other folks to admire his glasses, but never got around to actually wearing them? You’d think he probably didn’t know what glasses were for in the first place or that he had some other serious disorder. You certainly wouldn’t be inspired by wonderful blessing of cured vision! Liturgy works the same way as a pair of glasses. You are not supposed to look at it. Instead you are supposed to look through it to see something else, namely Jesus. Lent is a waste of time and spiritual failure unless it points us to Jesus. How should it do that? During Lent, we ought to remember the significance of our sin, the guilt which we bear before God, and the great price paid by Jesus on our behalf. We have no thought of atoning for own sins at this time. That would be insane, an impossibility that would only leave us in perpetual despair. No, instead we remember the death of Christ, the curse which he bore for us, and, in response to that saving act, we put to death the remaining sin within us in order to show our gratitude towards Jesus.

Psalm 51 is particularly fitting in this light. Continue reading

It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Advent

Text: Isaiah 64:1-4

My wife hates it when folks play Christmas music before Thanksgiving. And so you can imagine how it has been to learn that people here in Central Florida begin celebrating Christmas on the second week of November. Lights are up and trees and wreaths are hung all over town well before Thanksgiving. And the really remarkable thing is that nobody feels at all bad about it. You people are totally unapologetic in your Christmas creep. And you know what, I’m kind of ok with that. That’s right, I’ll come out into the open with my secret. I’ve been quietly singing Christmas carols to myself for weeks now. One of my favorites is “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas.” You know how it goes:

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you go. Take a look in the five and ten, glistening once again with candy canes and silver lanes aglow. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, toys in every store. But the prettiest sight to see is the holly that will be on your own front door.

The song goes on to mention “A pair of hopalong boots and a pistol that shoots” as well as “Dolls that will talk and will go for a walk.” It concludes by saying “Soon the bells will start, and the thing that will make them ring is the carol that you sing right within your heart.” That imagery reflects the classic Americana Christmas. It’s all about shopping, sweets, and feeling that warm spirit down in your heart. And I don’t mind this sort of American Christmas too much. It’s a lot of fun, and it reminds me of my childhood. But you know, none of those things have much to do with the Biblical picture of Christmas. Now, I’m not talking about the problem of consumerism or greed. I’m sure we could talk about those things some other time. I’m just talking about the general picture. What I’m talking about is Advent. Continue reading

He is not here but is risen

320px-Matthias_Grünewald_-_The_Resurrection_(detail)_-_WGA10756Luke’s account of the resurrection is unique in several ways. He emphasizes the role of the women at the empty tomb more than any of the other gospels. He also tells us that there were a great many women, more than just a few. Luke’s gospel is the only gospel that doesn’t mention Jesus appearing to the women before they relayed the story to the disciples. In fact, Luke’s gospel seems to emphasize doubt, on the part of the disciples but even on the part of the women.

And the women who had come with Him from Galilee followed after, and they observed the tomb and how His body was laid. Then they returned and prepared spices and fragrant oils. And they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment. (Luke 24:55-56)

Who were these women? Continue reading

And they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment

It is well known that Jesus’ empty tomb was first discovered by women. We know that these women were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, Joanna, and Salome. But Luke’s gospel, unique among the canonical gospels, tells us that there was a large group of women at the tomb, and it also tells us that this group of women had been following Jesus for some while. “And a great multitude of the people followed Him, and women who also mourned and lamented Him” (Luke 23:27). After Jesus died, Luke says, “all His acquaintances, and the women who followed Him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things” (Luke 23:49). These women– the ones who had followed Jesus to the cross, the ones who watched to see where he was buried, and the ones who rushed to his tomb on Easter– did one other thing as well. They waited.

And the women who had come with Him from Galilee followed after, and they observed the tomb and how His body was laid. Then they returned and prepared spices and fragrant oils. And they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment. (Luke 23:55-56)

Can you imagine having to keep this Sabbath? After seeing Jesus die, after mourning him throughout the day, and after watching him be taken away to be buried, these women had to go back to their homes, and they had to rest. They could not mourn properly. They could not stay at the grave (which we know they would have liked to have done). They could not even complete the burial preparations, since we see them bringing extra spices on the Easter morning. Their funeral was cut short for the Sabbath. This is Holy Saturday.

Holy Saturday is about waiting. It is the final Old Covenant Sabbath. From the human point of view, nothing is happening. It is a test of faith. Did it work? Is Jesus victorious? What will happen? Can we keep the faith?

But invisibly, something else is going on. Jesus is in Hades proclaiming His victory. He is preaching to the spirits below, binding the Strong Man, and taking captivity captive. Jesus is standing on the neck of Death even now.

This is Holy Saturday.

And yet here, lonely and sorrowful, we wait. We pray. We keep the Sabbath.

We look for tomorrow.

What further testimony do we need?

One of the chief ways Biblical Christianity is unlike other philosophies and world religions is that it does not merely teach us how to be free of “the bad guy.” It tells us that we are the bad guy. This isn’t simply because of our limited natures, our lack of knowledge, or our being at the mercy of some other bigger bad guy. No, this is because we have chosen to like ourselves more than God. The Apostle Paul writes, “although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful” (Rom. 1:21). And this is especially true of Good Friday. The religious leaders of Israel were not simply upset with Jesus for who he claimed to be. It was not as if they simply didn’t believe him. No, they actually recognized who Jesus was. They knew, deep within themselves, that he was the messiah. And they hated him for it.

As soon as it was day, the elders of the people, both chief priests and scribes, came together and led Him into their council, saying,  “If You are the Christ, tell us.”

But He said to them, “If I tell you, you will by no means believe. And if I also ask you,you will by no means answer Me or let Me go. Hereafter the Son of Man will sit on the right hand of the power of God.”

Then they all said, “Are You then the Son of God?”

So He said to them, “You rightly say that I am.”

And they said, “What further testimony do we need? For we have heard it ourselves from His own mouth.”

(Luke 22:66-71)

Continue reading

“He found them sleeping from sorrow”

One of the most prevalent misconceptions that people have about the gospels is that the disciples of Jesus were dummies. They’re always misunderstanding things, coming to the wrong conclusions, and even showing moral failure. But this isn’t true at all. When the disciples misunderstand things, it isn’t because they are dummies. It is because the situation was mysterious and the teaching of Jesus was challenging. When the disciples exhibit moral failure, it is because the situation was difficult and nearly-overwhelming. The disciples were fallible men, to be sure, but they were men who had been trained by Jesus and walked with him for three years. They would have been impressive to us. And we need to remember this when we read about them falling asleep in Gethsemane:

When He rose up from prayer, and had come to His disciples, He found them sleeping from sorrow. Then He said to them, “Why do you sleep? Rise and pray, lest you enter into temptation.” (Lk. 22:45-46)

Continue reading

Confessions of a Non-Asher

AshWednesdaySo I saved this post for after Ash Wednesday. Well I saved it for nearly after, because I have had just about all of the Lenten apologetics that I can handle. All of us catholic-minded Protestants seem to have just discovered Lent, and we’re very committed to talking about it, whether in favor or against. But I couldn’t quite stay out of it fully, which brings me to this post.

The first thing to say is that Ash Wednesday and Lent are definitely in the “non-essentials” category. Adiaphora, or things indifferent, are things which are neither morally commanded nor morally prohibited. There may be good things about them or bad things about them, and they may be pastorally wise or not-so-wise, but they are not absolutely sinful or righteous. I know that’s an uncomfortable category, but it is the mark of maturity be able to judge and apply such cases.

Secondly, the practice of the imposition of ashes in the manner of today’s Ash Wednesday celebrations dates back to 10th cent. Spain. Continue reading

A Season for War

The primary ascension text from the psalms comes from Psalm 110:1.  “The Lord says to my Lord: Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.”  The Psalm continues with the restoration of the Melchizedekian priesthood, and the worship of the people of God.  Melchizedek was, you will recall, a priest and a king.  But the Psalm concludes with a statement about the Lord shattering kings and judging the nations.  Indeed, he fills up the land with corpses, according to David.

It doesn’t get any better when Pentecost comes around.  Sure, the Spirit gives us good miracles like prophecy and visions.  But He also turns the sun to darkness and the moon to blood.  If you cry out you will be saved, it is true, but don’t forget that this is in the context of bloodshed.  Joel 3 continues the same line of thought as chapter 2, and it is all about war.

Proclaim this among the nations: Consecrate for war; stir up the mighty men.  Let all the men of war draw near; let them come up.

Joel 3:9

It doesn’t look good.  The prophet has critiqued the Gentiles for selling God’s people and the treasures of the temple.  That payment is about to returned upon their own head.  But then something surprising happens:

Beat your plowshares into swords,
and your pruning hooks into spears;
let the weak say, “I am a warrior.”Hasten and come,
all you surrounding nations,
and gather yourselves there.
Bring down your warriors, O LORD. 12Let the nations stir themselves up
and come up to the Valley of Jehoshaphat;
for there I will sit to judge
all the surrounding nations.

Put in the sickle,
for the harvest is ripe.
Go in, tread,
for the winepress is full.
The vats overflow,
for their evil is great.

Multitudes, multitudes,
in the valley of decision!
For the day of the LORD is near
in the valley of decision.
The sun and the moon are darkened,
and the stars withdraw their shining.

The LORD roars from Zion,
and utters his voice from Jerusalem,
and the heavens and the earth quake.
But the LORD is a refuge to his people,
a stronghold to the people of Israel.

There’s a strange mix of fear and gladness.  The warriors show up for a fight, but they end up turning their weapons into farming tools.  But the LORD is still roaring.  We’re taking refuge, though there’s still a storm coming.

Joel ends his prophecy with good news for Israel, but there’s also warfare all the way.  “Egypt shall become a desolation and Edom a desolate wilderness.”  We could allegorize this and ask, “What’s the Edom in your life?” but the original is pretty clear.  The enemies of Israel are vanquished.  God takes vengeance.

When Peter says that Joel’s prophecy is fulfilled in Acts 2, you have to bring in all of this with it.  The end of the world is here.  The Book of Revelation unfolds throughout the Acts of the Apostles.

And I suppose it is still doing so in the life of the Church now.  Paul says that we fight the very powers of the air.  Angel war, or something.  Thankfully, Paul also tells us that this means we can’t use sticks, clubs, swords, guns, machetes, or voting booths.  We’ve to to get out our other weapons.

So Pentecost is about war.  Get out your flaming swords and get to it.  Oh, but by the by, you will most likely get killed in the process.  A few times, actually.  But that’s the way it goes.