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.

“I Am Concerned to Know Nothing Else…”

We’re nearing the endpoint of Lent. This coming Sunday is Palm Sunday, and with that, we’ll begin the journey through the city streets of Jerusalem in Holy Week and we’ll find ourselves situated at the foot of Good Friday’s cross.

That’s where we’re going.

In a sense, as Christians, that’s always where we’re going, to the foot of Good Friday’s cross. Each and every day, by way of our baptism into Christ, we are those who stand alongside the preaching of Saint Paul when he declares, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2).

Why does he say it this way?

Because there on the cross, we not only see the results of Mankind’s innermost nature in Sin—the immense cost of all that we are as fallen creatures—but we also see in that terribly grotesque sight the most beautiful of occurrences: the Hope of the nations, the Rescuer of the lost, the Redeemer of the entire cosmos willingly submitting Himself to being spiked to wood as the perfect sacrifice.

This image will never be fully mined of its significance in this life. Countless theologians throughout the ages have tried to get to the absolute bottom of Calvary’s depths, but in the end, have all been forced to settle with the vocabulary and limitations of human language. Still, the power of the image, as it feeds faith, has provided for the right words to be put into the right order in order to create opportunities for the Church to sing hymns like “Jesus, Priceless Treasure.” By such sacred hymnody, the Church calls out words like, “Yet, though sin and hell assail me, Jesus will not fail me,” followed by, “Satan, I defy thee; Death I now decry thee; Fear I bid thee cease!”

Only by way of Christ’s outpouring on the cross can we sing these things with the confidence they intend.

Like other theologians in history, Luther tried to simplify the image when he wrote things like:

Look at this picture and love it. There is no greater bondage or form of service than that the Son of God should be the servant and should bear the sin of every man, however poor and wretched or despised. What an amazing thing it would be if some king’s son should go into a beggar’s hut to nurse him in his illness, wash off his filth and do all the things which otherwise the beggar would have to do. All the world would gape with open mouths, noses, ears, and eyes, and could never think and talk enough about it. Would that not be a wonderful humility?…But behold, what does it mean? The Son of God becomes my servant and humbles Himself, saying to me: ‘You are no longer a sinner, but I, I Myself step into your place. You have not sinned; I have. The whole world lies in sin, but you are not in sin, but I am. All your sin shall be upon Me, and not on you.’ No man can comprehend it. In this life hereafter we shall have a knowledge of the love of God and gaze upon it in eternal blessedness” (Exposition of John I, W.A. 46. 680 f.).

Of course, Luther is right, and as I said, we’ll never fully understand the vast dimensions of what was happening that day on that dreadful hill outside of Jerusalem’s walls, a Friday we now call “good.” Still, Lent has been helping us. It is in place to keep before us the Word of God, which reveals to us our frailty and offers the supercharged Gospel of salvation through the One who took our place in judgement.

Yes, the message is vast and powerful, but as Luther explained, it can be held so close in relative simplicity. Jesus died for you. By this act, He took your Sins on Himself. Through faith in Him and His sacrifice, all is well and you have eternal life.

Thanks be to God for this! Thanks be to God for the freedom to live in this each and every day by the power of the Holy Spirit!

The Law and Gospel of Fasting

I’m wondering how many of you are planning to fast during Lent. Of course it isn’t a required Lenten practice. I’m going to fast, although I haven’t quite figured out what form it will take just yet. For the record, as I’m sure you already know from my previous messages, I believe the practice of fasting is good. It’s an outward honing of the senses that attempts to keep one foot in the Law of God and the other in His Gospel.

Considering the Law angle to fasting, if I had to select one word in this moment to describe it, I’d choose “imprisonment.” Fasting is a form of imprisonment. It takes us into a place where certain inclinations are purposely inhibited and it denies access to what would normally be enjoyed in Christian freedom.

Richard Wright wrote in his book The Outsider, “Men simply copied the realities of their hearts when they built prisons.” He’s right. According to the sin-nature, the human heart is a prison of thoughts, words, and deeds—things we wish we could wipe clean from our slates by our own efforts, but in the end, we just can’t. We see them through the bars and we know our guilt. We know that the wage for Sin, which is imprisonment to Death, is a just and appropriate punishment for our crimes.

I suppose that in a way, fasting takes us inside the prison, but it doesn’t do so with us as convicts being led in shackles and destined for a cell. We’re guests of the warden, and we’re reminded of what we narrowly escaped by the death and resurrection of Jesus. We’re reminded of the immense value behind the redeeming act of the innocent Son of God who exchanged His freedom for ours, who became Sin for us so that we would be free (2 Corinthians 5:21).

From this Law perspective, the Gospel is by no means robbed of its luster and given a penny price tag, but rather it’s seen as it should be seen. It’s an act that we didn’t deserve, and this side of the prison bars, it’s nothing less than priceless.

But this is the very point where we meet with the bright beaming Gospel that shines in the midst of the act of fasting. While we didn’t deserve the rescue, moved by an indescribable love, God gave it to us anyway. Ultimately, Christians fast as a way to keep their spiritual wits attuned to the immensity of the sacrifice Christ made by His suffering and death for the salvation of the world. That’s definitely Gospel. That’s the good news of Christ’s work to save us.

Whether or not you decide to fast is completely up to you. If you’re undecided on it, I say go ahead and give it a shot. Just remember that as you do, you’re not doing anything to win God’s favor. You’re doing it because you already have His favor by virtue of faith in Jesus Christ. With that, you’re fasting because you don’t want to become spiritually lazy. You’re fasting because you’re intent on never losing sight of the enormity of the events leading to and being accomplished on the Lord’s cross. You’re intent on recalling as Saint Paul recalls:

“But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27).

Whatever you decide to do, I pray it will be of benefit to you. Know that I’ll be traveling alongside you in the practice for the next six weeks, and I’ll be trusting that God will both prepare and enlighten our hearts for meeting the holiest of days—the Triduum (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Vigil of Easter) and then Easter Sunday—with the integrity of those who know with joy the price of salvation and are glad to live in and proclaim that same joy to others.

Put Away Your Fraudulence

(A Facebook Message for Good Friday.)

My wife, Jennifer, is becoming more and more skilled at capturing images of the various birds that make their way to the feeder near to one of our living room windows. As her husband—a pastor with a mind for the visuals of language—her images are sermonic in a sense. First, they speak the Law, which is to say that as the whole world has become undone by sin, a simple reminder of this is that even a bird has to eat. Every hungry stomach rumbles. None are wholly self-sufficient. All living things need help from the outside or else they’ll perish.

But the images of the birds also speak a Christ-centered Gospel, just as Christ said they would. They are distilled moments to ponder what our Lord has so kindly urged. Look at these tiny creatures adorned with colored crowns and feathered wings. Recall that they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet the heavenly Father feeds them (Matthew 6:26). Behold a God who cares even for the simplest of his creatures. Are you not of more value than they?

Oh, yes, you are! The proof of your value is there on the cross in all of its gory detail. God has reached into this world through the person and work of Jesus Christ. And His Word is that this death was not for the birds, but rather for you.

Set aside your fraudulent self-sufficiency. Own the need of which a rumbling stomach warns. You need complete rescue from the outside. The cross displays that rescue. Go see for yourself. See the Savior die that you would live forever. It is the epicenter of Good Friday’s message for you, as even a bird at the feeder serves to remind.

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.

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.