The Concentrated Fire of Holy Week

We’ve entered Jerusalem with Jesus, and what a moving moment it was. And yet, the noise of the day has subsided. The crowds have dispersed. The colt, the beast that carried the Lord, has been returned to its owner. The palm branches once waved are now drying in the garbage. The garments once scattered along the road as a royal walkway for the King of kings are now piled in the peoples’ laundry bins.

This was not the D-Day landing of God’s victory, but merely the easy caressing of the ocean breeze, the pleasant undulation caused by the deeper tides, the sounds of lapping waves against a vessel on approach of a most violent shore.

Holy Week now begins. It is a vessel containing one man—the God-man, Jesus.

From Monday to Wednesday, it first makes its way to the shallower waters. Final preparations are made. On Maundy Thursday, its landing door will begin to open, and from its belly emerges the one soldier who, even as He was given and sent by order of the Father, willingly and humbly, He charges forth unarmed into Good Friday.

“This is your hour,” He’ll say, looking squarely into the eyes of the enemy at Gethsemane’s gate, “the hour of the power of darkness.” Those enemies will grin as they take to their guns, fully embracing the hour’s opportunity and giving Him everything their arsenals provide.

The razor wire of abuse amidst an imbalanced trial will cut Him. But He’ll press forward. The stinging shrapnel of Roman punishment—mocking, spitting, beating, a crown of thorns pounded onto His head with a staff, forty lashes minus one—all will tear through Him. But He’ll continue on. The speaking of the verdict and sentence will weigh heavily as it makes certain that He is alone in the battle. No reinforcements are coming. But He’ll pit Himself into engagement, anyway. The concentrated fire relentlessly spewed from the unholy weaponry of Sin, Death, and hell’s legions—Himself being nailed to a cross and propped in utter disgrace—these will pierce Him through. Still, He’ll keep on.

He’ll die on the shore of that cross. But by His death, the fuse to an extraordinary weapon will have been lit. With its detonation comes the complete annihilation of the enemy and the winning of the entire war.

Of course, victory in death makes little sense to any reasonably created mind. As the Palm Sunday hymn muses, even the angels look on in curiosity:

“Ride on, ride on in majesty!
The winged squadrons of the sky
Look down with sad and wondering eyes
To see the approaching sacrifice.” (LW, 105)

We’ll need the preaching of the Gospel to understand. It is the power for faith. We’ll need the Holy Spirit at work by God’s Word to interpret this blood soaked scene into our hearts. Only then will we be rightly positioned at a safe distance to see the One who died in the goriest of warfare suddenly take to His feet in a magnificent resurrection, shred the enemy, and plant the flag of victory.

This Gospel will be preached here at Our Savior in Hartland each sacred day of Holy Week. The effort began on Palm Sunday. It continues every day until Saturday. Monday to Wednesday this week, the services begin at 7:00 PM. On Maundy Thursday, the Triduum (“three days”) begins with a service at 7:00 PM. Good Friday continues the Triduum with a 1:00 PM Tre Ore (“three hours”) service and a 7:00 PM Service of Tenebrae (“darkness”). The Triduum comes to a conclusion at the Lord’s tomb with the Vigil of Easter service at 7:30 PM on Saturday.

My prayer for you is that you will make time in your schedule as a citizen of the Kingdom established by the events of Holy Week to receive God’s gifts for you. And if you aren’t a member of this congregation, then make plans to attend Holy Week services in your own church. If your church pays no mind to Holy Week, then go somewhere that does. As I’ve urged you before, you’re truly missing out. Be gathered together with the Christian family to hear the reports sent back from the frontline of God’s campaign on your behalf. Learn of the fierce combat. Know the cost. Understand exactly what it was that won your eternal freedom. And then from the Good Friday news of the divine Captain’s death, discover yourself equipped with a strange and wonderful hopefulness that will have you teetering at the edge of your seat in joyful anticipation of the Easter headlines: VICTORY! HE IS RISEN!

I promise it will be well worth your while.

Now He Took Courage

Holy Week is upon us, we know that the whole church is bound toward remembering the incomparable events of Good Friday and the joyous celebration of Easter. Still, as was preached yesterday, we make our way there having first followed the Lord into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

Yesterday’s Palm Sunday worship service was truly exceptional. This is true not just because we heard and received the gifts of God for faith, but because we had the opportunity to bear witness to that same faith being confessed by the five confirmands and confirmed in the midst of the Rite of Confirmation.

Were you listening to the questions being asked of the confirmands? Do you recall that I asked the question twice about adherence to God’s Word as the inerrant and inspired source of faith, life, and practice? I did this because of the current enormity of that one particular part of the Christian life as it meets with our world today. In my opinion, the confirmands answered it somewhat rotely in that moment, and I wanted them to hear the question again and to know the immense nature of its gravity. I—we—needed to hear from them that they truly confess and align to the Word of God with all their heart. The world is seeking each and every day to snatch it away more and more each day.

Further into the rite, Even as I was the one asking the questions, the words still pierced through my own heart to a sense of remembrance. I’m a long way from my confirmation, and yet part of the point is that I’d answer the questions the same way today as I did then. And perhaps most stunning are those two sequential questions that ask the students if they intend to remain faithful to the Lord, even to the point of death.

I hope the Rite of Confirmation was a chance for you to consider and ultimately do the same. There’s a reason it has been a longstanding tradition on Palm Sunday in the midst of the worshipping community.

Lastly, I wanted to share a something I wrote and shared on Facebook last Thursday. It’s the result of last Wednesday’s midweek reading of the Passion narrative, and I thought it might be edifying to you.

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I don’t know about you, but the reading of the final portion of the Passion Narrative drawn from the four Gospels is always an exceptionally moving event for me during Lent. As the one called to stand before God’s people and read it, I sometimes struggle. Every year I choke a little at certain moments, doing my best to keep the sadness from seeping over and into my voice and facial expressions. I mean, what use is a weeping clergyman in the middle of a service? Although, I’m sure it’s a sight well worth experiencing for some. It certainly has the potential for displaying your pastor’s sense of God’s Word.

Anyway, last night’s reading, which began with Jesus being assigned to His cross and ends with Pilate shooing away the Pharisees who continue to pester him even after the body of Jesus is in the tomb and the stone has been sealed, this time asking for guards to be stationed at the sepulcher lest the disciples come and steal away the body and tell everyone that Jesus arose. In between these monumental book ends, there were two moments in particular that caught my attention.

The first came by way of the phrase, “Those who had known Him stood at a distance, as also the women who had followed Him…”

Even as I kept reading, I sorted through to the thought that we are to know by these words that Jesus went into the battle of all battles completely and utterly alone. The disciples had scattered, and if any had turned back to brave the scene, they did so from a place of personal safety, a place where they could see the Son of God on the cross, but they couldn’t see the blood-soaked details, the immensity of the sacrifice as He gave Himself over in totality for the sins of the world. Even the women who had gathered near to the cross, and the disciple John, whom Jesus, in shortness of breath, gave as a son to His mother Mary, even they had moved away into the distance, unable to bear the event.

The dreadful enormity of Jesus’ cry “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” comes into incredible focus. The incredible pull of the scene’s gravity is felt.

The second phrase that caught my eye came a few paragraphs later. Joseph of Arimathea is unfavorably noted as not having consented to the purpose of the Sanhedrin and yet was one who kept his faith in Jesus a secret for fear of what his fellow Jews might do to him if they discovered it. We are to know by this that Joseph did nothing to defend the innocence of Jesus. We are to know that when the mocking and spitting and pummeling began, Joseph was there, but he turned away, too.

And then suddenly, just as the hope in this description of Joseph is snuffed, the tenor changes and we learn something happened to Joseph when he saw the Savior sentenced and ultimately killed. We read, “Now he took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus.”

Now he took courage…

Again, still standing there last night and reading to God’s people, I managed to sort through in that moment to the realization that even as the cross is a stumbling stone of offense, it is also the moment of moments situated at the heart of a message with the power to turn the world backward on its axis. Even before the resurrection could be added to its glory, it penetrated Joseph’s fear and it gave to him a valor for streaming past what would have been the Sanhedrin’s desire for an irreverent disposal of the criminal Jesus’ remains and go straight to the civil authority, Pilate, to request the body for burial.

The Sanhedrin would know what he did. The ruling civil authority already in disposition against Jesus and His followers would have his name and know who he was. His life of safety and respect and honor and comfort in the community was about to come undone.

Now he took courage…

Most merciful God, grant that I would not keep my distance from the Lord and his cross, but that it would be well known that I am a believer who fears not the principalities of this world but only unfaithfulness to the One who so faithfully won my eternity. In the holy and most precious name of Jesus I plead. Amen.

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.

Life is Short. Eternity is Not.

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job 1:21

God is good. Even when the terrors of mortality are befalling us, He is good. That’s what this whole week is about—the fact that Jesus has stepped into the darkness for us.

In last night’s sermon (Holy Wednesday), I preached, essentially, that a major theme of the whole Bible is the affronting knowledge of human beings’ inabilities to get free from the darkness. I even gave my humble opinion, sharing that I truly believe that the myth of human moral progress or longevity or innate goodness dies more and more when we behold events like sarin gas attacks on civilians, or situations involving a father having to put his son’s body parts into a plastic bag after a bomb goes off in a Palm Sunday worship service. I could add cancer to those examples. I shared rather straightforwardly that the most valuable thinkers in the Christian communities are the ones who can admit to the fact that any optimism about the capability of human nature against the darkness of Sin, Death, and the Devil is, as the Book of Ecclesiastes says, “the sacrifice of fools.”

And so, when we consider the darkness, when we look into it, we are taught by the Word of God to understand it rightly. It permeates not only the world, but also our very selves, and we are helpless against it.

But now, Jesus steps onto the scene. God takes upon Himself human flesh and reaches out to us. Serving us, loving us, caring for us, He calls Himself the Light of the world. He makes sure that we know—and He proves it over and over and over again—that He is the only One who can venture into this darkness and dispel it. And He does. His life, His suffering, His cross, His resurrection, His ascension—these events change everything; almost as if the world was spinning in one direction and then suddenly it was reversed.

Because Jesus changes everything, faith in Him changes everything, too. Terror isn’t dominating. Hope is there. We have hope because we have Jesus.

This is the message of Holy Week and Easter, and this same message is the good word that we need each and every day of our lives. Before I gave you an update, I wanted to share that Good News with you, and not just because what I need to share is tough, but because I love you in the Lord and I want you to be steadied with the same muscle that has steadied every true believer throughout the history of man.

Pastor Heckert, our dear friend, has stage four lung cancer. Without sharing all of the details, the doctor has indicated that without treatment, we are looking at a window of mortal life of about three to six months. And yet, the doctor also indicated that with an immediate beginning to some aggressive radiation, as much as two years may be gained. As it stands, Pastor Heckert will begin the radiation this week, starting first with the tumor on his hip.

I want you to know that when I was at his home yesterday, he expressed his love for the Lord so very clearly—as always—and that he is trusting firmly in the will of God. This is the Holy Spirit alive and well in a Christ-centered Christian human being. I dare say that in that moment of pastoral care, being that I love the man so very much, it was almost more difficult to serve him the comforting Gospel as opposed to seeing that he wanted to serve me, too, so that I would not be sad. This is a testament to his calling as a pastor and a witness to the fruits of faith being borne and shared.

Please keep him in your prayers. As I learn more, I will communicate with you.

In this, God grant to you His eternal peace as you cling to the Savior and His promise of love, forgiveness, and eternal life.

Also, come to church tonight. If you had something planned, put it aside. Reschedule it. Come and be strengthened by the Maundy Thursday proclamation and the reception of the Lord’s Supper. Join your Christian family in the pews and at the Lord’s Altar.

Life is short. Eternity is long—timeless, in fact. Receive what surpasses all understanding and keeps the heart and mind of the believer in Christ Jesus, our Lord, for and into this eternity.

In Jesus,

Pastor Thoma+

Old Hat Gospel

Before I get to the news, I wanted to share with you something from my morning devotions. Maybe you remember that I read from Luther each morning, and each of the readings focuses on a particular text from God’s Word. This morning, the text was from Isaiah 53:4, which reads: “Surely he hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows.” Luther offers so succinctly in connection: “These are powerful words. The sufferings of this king are our griefs and sorrows. He carries the burden which ought to be ours forever. The stripes and bruises which we have merited, namely, that we should suffer thirst and hunger, and die eternally, all this is laid in Him. His suffering avails for me and for you and for us all; for it was undertaken for our good.”

Luther has a way of cutting through any fog we might have when it comes to God’s Word. He’s right. The words are powerful. In a very short sentence, we are told that as Jesus suffered and eventually ended up on the cross, all our burdens were His to carry—both the natural consequences of a world coming undone in sin, but also the very real punishment we deserve because of our active disobedience. Jesus didn’t shrink from these things, but He embraced them, taking them into Himself and paying the price in our place.

This all sounds like old-hat Gospel, but each time I hear it, most especially before venturing out into a world wracked by these realities, it changes me. It changes my perspective on the people I run into, the people that I serve and the people that, in some ways, serve me. It helps me to realize that each and every person was on the Divine mind while He hung on the cross. It’s impossible to fully comprehend, but He was thinking of you. He was thinking of me. He was thinking of the people around us.

God willing, Lent is helping to calibrate our thoughts in such a way—that is, to know the actual cost for sin and death, so that we might be made ready to rejoice—to be truly joyful—in the Easter victory. This has been my prayer for you, and I know that God hears the prayers of His people.

The Throes of Lent

We are in the throes of Lent.

“I don’t like Lent,” one person said. “There’s too much doom and gloom.”

I get it. I really do. But Lent is in place for such comments as this. Lent keeps such a perspective from becoming the regular pace of the Christian life. Lent makes sure that we know the measure of the cost, and the significance of our inabilities in the face of that cost so that we don’t lose sight of the wonder of the cross and the empty tomb. I’m pretty sure you’ve heard me say this before… if you do not know the seriousness of the bad news—if your church and her preachers and teachers shy from the topics of Sin and Death and the stranglehold of Satan for the loftier clouds of spiritual sentimentality—you will be robbed of the joy and depth of the good news, the Gospel. Lent feels heavier than Epiphany. It feels heftier than Christmas and the Trinity season. Just know that while we may dodge this kind of stuff the rest of the year, it’s nearly impossible to do so during Lent. Each Sunday in Lent, you can count on hearing from the heavy hitters of Scripture—the texts that really clobber us—sometimes leaving us feeling as though we may be getting a lot more Law than Gospel. This coming Sunday is one of those Sundays. The Gospel reading is one that takes stamina to get through; that is, if you are really listening.

But not to worry. As far as it concerns me, the Gospel will always be there in the preaching. Yes, you will hear the bad news, but I won’t keep the Good News from you. If you hear of Jesus’ death and resurrection for your rescue, you’ve heard the powerful Gospel, and that message has the power to convert and convince the heart and bring a joy unequal to anything else this life has to offer.

Listen for it. I promise it will be there. I can make a promise like that because God has already promised and implanted it in His Word. I just plan on giving to you what He’s already given.

Our Grieving Hearts

For a good number of you, I’m confident in saying that it probably feels as though there is an unfillable hole in our hearts from the loss of our dear Lorraine Haas. She was so vibrant and lovely in her life of faith in this place—not only serving her Lord and His people with such joy, but doing so with what seemed like and unearthly stamina. She was always ready and on call to meet the needs, no matter what they might be, and she did so with a smile that could peel back even the thickest shell covering the hardest of hearts.

I know you miss her. I do, too.

I want you to know something about her that I, as her pastor, knew and really rather appreciated. Next week, we will be stepping into Lorraine’s favorite time of the Church Year. Of course, like most faithful Christians, Christmas is a favorite time, but Lorraine made sure that I knew that she adored the seasons of Lent and Easter. And why? Because of what sits at the heart of these pinnacle seasons: The precise spectrum of the death of the sinless Son of God for her sins and for the sins of the whole world, and the cracking open of a tomb at Easter that was powerless to hold that same Lord bound to everlasting darkness. Lorraine loved the very potent imagery of Ash Wednesday—the palling of ash upon man as a reminder of the need for rescue—and the 40 days that follow, having at their core the somber reality of what our loving Lord would do so that we would not be lost to sin, but rather would be delivered through His person and work. Lent is a sobering time for us here at Our Savior. We don’t handle it carelessly. We go into it with deep meaning, intending everything we say and do as we keep our eyes on the Lord and we follow Him to Calvary. And when Good Friday is at its deepest and darkest, the Baptismal flame of the Easter Vigil is kindled the very next day and we go forth into a new time, a new day, one that is given to us by faith in Jesus, the risen and victorious Lord.

In the resurrection of Jesus, everything is different now. Death is disarmed. We are no longer its hostages. No wonder Lorraine would so dearly love this apex of the cosmic drama. It’s the very work of Jesus on display for our eternal life!

I encourage you to reflect upon these things and make plans to be with us next Wednesday (March 1) for Ash Wednesday at 7:00 PM. In fact, I am willing to say that Ash Wednesday, apart from Holy Week and Easter itself, is one of the most important Divine Services all year long. You will hear the hardest most gripping news, but it will be counter-punched by the most joyous response and action of God on your behalf. Your heart will be well-served, and I dare say you’ll experience for yourself just why someone so dear to us—Lorraine Emma Haas—held these sights, sounds, and gatherings together with all of you and her Savior so dear to her heart.