Road Signs

Here we are at the edge of Lent. I say “edge” because we haven’t quite crossed over its border.

This past Sunday, Septuagesima, is the first of the three Pre-Lenten Sundays. The word literally means “seventy days,” and it’s pointing to the fact that we’re about seventy days from Easter. Next Sunday, the one that always makes a select few of the school children giggle when I say its name, is Sexagesima—sixty days. The Sunday after that is Quinquagesima, or fifty days. Lent doesn’t actually begin until Ash Wednesday. It lasts for forty days, which is mindful of the Lord’s forty days in the wilderness, Noah and his family’s time in the ark before being delivered, and the forty years the Israelites spent in the wilderness before finally entering into the promised land. Of course if you do the math, realizing that Sundays are in Lent but not of Lent, then you’ll discover that Lent lasts right up until the Vigil of Easter, which is the Saturday before Easter Sunday.

So why the Pre-Lenten Sundays? Isn’t Lent long enough already?

I suppose. Although, if you’re in tune with the seasons of the Church Year, you’ll already know that while each one has something to teach us, they’re also doing something to prepare us for what’s coming next. But the stark contrast between the brightness of Epiphany’s powerful miracles is almost too strange for dropping us right at the doorstep of one of the most sobering events of the year—Ash Wednesday—which begins the season for more intently meditating on the approaching sacrifice of Jesus. The Pre-Lenten Sundays help ease the jolt. They’re kind of like a very slow immersion into a really cold swimming pool. You need a little time to ease into something that has the potential for shocking your system. Lent isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s a solemn and deeply penitential time. Every single bit of its very visceral fervor is aimed at that one particular Friday in the Church Year that Christians call “Good.”

And by the way, I mean no offense when I say that if Lent is treated as being no big deal at your church, then go somewhere else. Your pastor isn’t doing it right and you’re missing out. Again, no offense, but you need to ditch the place. You’re being starved of one of the most vigorously focused times in the Church Year.

That reminds me… I had a conversation last week with a few of our school kids about a text in 1 John 5 where the Apostle asks sort of rhetorically: “Who is it that overcomes the world?” (v. 5). I spoke to them about how the world is actively warring against us, and strangely, its assaults aren’t really all that off-putting. It entices us. It reaches to us and convinces us into beliefs and behaviors that are counter to Christ and His holy will. Essentially I said that the world offers up a whole lot of road signs pointing to no real destination, at least none of any real or truthful value leading to eternal life. In fact, everything the world sets before us has the potential for leading to condemnation. But then in the very next sentence, John answers his own question: “Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” In the verses immediately following this answer, John encourages the reader toward the means for not only discerning this, but for being equipped to withstand and ultimately overcome the world—the Spirit, the water, and the blood—which are really just first century synonyms for the Word of God and the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. John presses his readers to look to road signs that actually lead to something good know, road signs that actually give what they communicate. And he urges us to never become disconnected from these means by which Jesus takes up residence among His believers to feed and strengthen them for overcoming the world.

Thinking back on the conversation, I realize that this is a very Lenten text. Lent is a time filled with spiritual road signs. For example, in the midst of Lent’s penitential atmosphere, there’s a long-standing Christian practice of wrestling with the worldly flesh through fasting, which means folks deliberately set aside or give something up for Lent. In a sense, the act is meant to be a road sign (not at the same level as Word and Sacrament, of course), and it’s done for a handful of reasons. Hopefully one of the principle reasons is so that each and every time they experience the craving for the thing they’ve set aside, the very yearning itself will direct their attention to what the Lord set aside in order to accomplish our redemption. He set aside His divine majesty, and in utter humility, He submitted Himself to the powers of Sin, Death, and all that hell could raise to destroy us. And what did He give up? His life. He didn’t do any of this for Himself. He did it for us.

Ash Wednesday, the very first experience of Lent, is an incredibly potent road sign. The ashen mark smeared on our foreheads to remind us that we are dust and to dust we shall return (Genesis 3:19). And yet the mark—a cross—it points to the singular event among all others in human history that had the muscle for defeating death at its own game and setting us free from its curse. When that mark is made, it is formed in the same way a pastor crafted it on us when we were baptized. Ash Wednesday points to the fact that all who have been baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ (Galatians 3:27). We were buried by baptism into His death, and by His resurrection, we rise, too (Romans 6:4). Death has no hold on us because it has no hold on Christ (Romans 6:9).

Lent is full of these types of road signs, and the Pre-Lenten season is helping to hone our senses for seeing them.

Lent itself will lead us through a forty day journey of carefully absorbed and distinctly precise meditation on the suffering and death of Jesus for the sins of all. I hope you’ll engage in it. As a Christian, I guarantee it’ll be well worth your while.

Don’t Avoid Ash Wednesday

Lent is on the way, and it begins next week with Ash Wednesday—the day in the Church Year when the nave and sanctuary are draped in black, and we are, perhaps more so than any other day, drawn to penitent recognition that within the divine courtroom, God has a case against all of us in our Sin.

There are plenty of things people choose to avoid seeing and hearing. They do so for various reasons. We all know the reason people avoid the discussion on Sin. It hurts. It’s the one thing in this life that none of us can escape—not through ducking and covering, not through quick witted and convincing talk, not by all out avoidance. Sin finds us, and it does so easily. Why? Because it’s already in us. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). We take the sin-nature with us wherever we go, and like a spiritual slime, we prove ourselves capable of leaving a trail of it behind.

Some might say that to try to avoid this reality is the depth of Sin’s reflection, but I’d say that to knowingly avoid it is the deeper point in Sin’s dark trench. If you know you need rescue, but are equally unwilling to admit it and seek after help, you are an accomplice to your own unfortunate demise.

God would not have it this way. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). This is the deeper, lovelier dimension to what is one of the most somber events in the Church Year. On Ash Wednesday, the job of the preacher is to make sure that you know—unequivocally, unmistakably, unreservedly—that you are a sinner, and the wage for Sin is nothing less than eternal death. You will be staged for this truth by an ashen mark in the shape of a cross on your forehead while hearing the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). But then you will hear how in the deepest reaches of your forsakenness, by a cross, Jesus Christ reached down and took your place in the divine courtroom. He stepped forth from eternity and took the judgment into Himself in every single way, with all of its brute force, and He rescued you.

He would not have you lost, but found. He would not leave you dead, but alive. He would not see you punished for your crimes, but rather freed to be His child of grace in this world.

I encourage you to come to the Lord’s house on Ash Wednesday. If you have other plans, cancel them. This is more important. Participate in the ancient ceremony of the Imposition of Ashes. Gather with your church family to recall the common and worldwide dreadfulness of our fall into Sin, but do so prepared to receive the Good News of deliverance through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the sins of that same world. Be there to consume that same Good News by way of the Lord’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, a meal that actually delivers the forgiveness of sins as it reaches in all directions and ages, flowing unbound to you from the divine Son of God who hung on that cross.

Don’t avoid Ash Wednesday. In fact, if you don’t have a church home and you’re feeling the tug to find one, come to Our Savior in Hartland at either 8:10 a.m. or 7:00 p.m. on Ash Wednesday. Kneel beside us. Come forward and be marked with a gritty cross. Hear the preaching of the Gospel. Be moved to know the depth of the Lord’s efforts of love. Embrace it. I guarantee it will change you on the inside, and it will be well worth your while.

Ash Wednesday: Well Worth Your While

Well, Lent is on the way, and it begins with Ash Wednesday, the day in the church year when the nave and sanctuary are draped in black, and we are, perhaps more so than any other day, drawn to penitent recognition that within the divine courtroom, God has a case against all of us in our sin.

There are plenty of things people choose to avoid seeing and hearing. They do so for various reasons. We all know the reason people avoid the discussion on Sin. It hurts. It’s the one thing in this life that none of us can escape—not through ducking and covering, not through quick and convincing talking, not by all out avoidance. Sin finds us, and it does so easily. Why? Because it’s already in us. We take the sin-nature with us wherever we go, and like a spiritual slime, we are quite capable of leaving a trail of it behind.

Some might say that to try to avoid this reality is the depth of the action’s sinful reflection, but I’d say that to knowingly avoid it is the deepest point in Sin’s dark trench. If you know you need rescue, but are equally unwilling to admit it and seek after help, you are an accomplice to your own demise.

God would not have it this way. This is the deeper, lovelier dimension to what is one of the most somber events in the Church Year. On Ash Wednesday, the job of the preacher is to make sure that you know—unequivocally, unmistakably, unreservedly—that you are a sinner, and the wage for Sin is nothing less than eternal death. You will be staged for this truth by an ashen mark in the shape of a cross on your forehead while hearing the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” But then you will hear how in the deepest reaches of your forsakenness, by a cross, Jesus Christ reached down and took your place in the divine courtroom. He stepped forth from eternity and took the judgment into Himself in every single way and with all of its brute force, and He rescued you.

He would not have you lost, but found. He would not leave you dead, but alive. He would not see you punished for your crimes, but rather freed to be His child of grace in this world.

I encourage you to come to the Lord’s house on Ash Wednesday. If you have other plans, cancel them. This is more important. Participate in the ancient ceremony of the Imposition of Ashes. Gather with your church family to recall the common and worldwide dreadfulness of our fall into sin, but do so prepared to receive the Good News of deliverance through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ for the sins of that same world. Be there to consume that same Good News by way of the Lord’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper, a meal that actually delivers the forgiveness of sins as it reaches in all directions and ages, flowing unbound to you from the divine Son of God who hung on that cross.

Don’t avoid Ash Wednesday. Embrace it. It will be well worth your while.