Even Jesus Took A Break

A two week vacation is one thing. The regimen of actual life is quite another. I’m sure you realize this.

It might sound unbelievable, but Jen and I figured out that the vacation we just ended was the seventh in my twenty-five years of church work. What’s unbelievable to me is that before we started taking a vacation, I never knew just how much I actually needed one.

As a kid growing up in central Illinois, it was never assumed that at some point during the summer break, the family would board a plane or jump into a car and leave everything behind. Summer wasn’t much more than freedom from the school day’s shackles. It was about getting up and feeling like every morning was Saturday. It was about counting out a hundred pennies from the penny jar (which was the entry fee to the local pool), putting them into a paper cup, and doing my best not to spill them while holding a towel and riding my bike. Or perhaps my day would begin by eating a bowl of cereal, putting my ball glove through the handlebars of my bicycle before hopping on, and adventuring through the streets of Danville with my neighborhood friends until the sun went down. Somewhere along the way, we’d find food and water. Somewhere along the way, we’d jump ramps and play games like “hot box.” Somewhere along the way, we’d make new bike trails through mid-city fields and forests behind familiar neighborhoods. Somewhere along the way we’d end up in a wrestling match—sometimes for fun and sometimes not. And always before the last of the street lights came on, my bike was back in the shed and I was ready to call it a day—at least until the late night monster movies slid in behind the evening news. Then it was time to sprawl out on the living room floor, my head resting in my hands on propped elbows, and doing my best to see if I could stay awake through to the end of the double feature.

I suppose beyond any of this, getting away meant going camping at a state park just outside of town, a place we knew just as well as our own neighborhoods. And while there, the kids would do the exact same things we did in the city. We’d ride our bikes, play hot box, cut trails, and get into scraps—all coming to an end when the campfire lights were brighter than the sky and the mosquitoes were on the hunt.

I guess what I’m saying is that I’ve never really known how important it is to actually take the time to put some distance between “self” and “actual life”—to actually go and do and be something that’s a little bit different than what you are the rest of the year.

For me, the going, doing, and being has pretty much become about my role as a husband, father, and writer. Yes, I experience these roles every day of the year, but admittedly, they’re more than overshadowed by my role as “pastor.” I’m a man who is and must be accessible to hundreds of others who aren’t my wife or children. As someone who enjoys the creative writing process, most of what I scribe ends up in sermons, eNews articles, or other such outlets aimed at the fulfillment of others.

It might sound like what I do all year long isn’t fulfilling, but that’s not what I mean. On vacation, things are different. Very different. And this good. And I’ve learned just how healthy it can be. Knowing this, I continue to sort out the boundaries for protecting the Thoma vacation.

Just to give you some perspective on this, while sitting on the couch watching “Shark Week” reruns with the kids, I heard a ping to my phone. It was a text from the congregation president. He’d just finished a special council meeting and was asking if I might send out a quick email to let folks know about the congregation meeting being scheduled for July 21. The meeting has to happen soon in order to complete the efforts of the Call Committee. Now, this gent is more than mindful of the sanctity of my time away, and so his text was somewhat sheepish. He just didn’t want to bother me. Still, I understand why he sent the text. As the congregation president, he had to. I’m the only one who has access to the eNews mailing list, and our by-laws require a two week notice for a congregation meeting. But no sooner than I sent that email did I receive a collection of reply messages, phone calls, and texts from folks inside and outside of the congregation—all on the mailing list—who thought I was home from my vacation. I sent a text back to the president—one adorned with a smiley face to let him know I wasn’t bothered by his request, but that next time I would just give him access to the mailing list.

Lesson learned, just like others the Thoma family has cultured over the years.

Now that we know the joy-filled rejuvenation of vacationing, we have established a family rule that we cannot vacation within a one thousand mile radius of our home. It’s kind of a mental thing. It stems from the attempts we’ve made in the past to take vacations only to be called back a few days into the getaway because of an emergency. With that, we decided that if we’re ever going to accomplish an actual vacation, we’d have to kick for the goal line. That’s when we started going to Florida instead of places like Traverse City. When we’re only a few hundred miles away, it seems easier for me to just pack up and head back home, leaving the family behind to finish the vacation.

But mentally, a thousand miles seems a lot harder. And it’s certainly more convincing on the phone.

“Pastor, there’s been a zombie outbreak in Hartland. We need you to come home and provide spiritual care to the ones who’ve been bitten and are dying. And while you’re here, we sure could use your help fighting the ones who are turning.”

“I’m a thousand miles away. Grab a Bible and pray the Psalms with them. Just be sure to do it wearing body armor—in case they turn before you finish. I’ll be back on Friday night. On Saturday, I’ll finish unpacking, and then I’ll grab my bat and get down to Hartland to help you fight the undead.”

If the caller is persistent, I’d remind him or her that rest is essential, even for Christians. We’re the ones put into place to hold the lines against both visible and invisible forces. And don’t forget, even as God doesn’t necessarily need to rest, He certainly set the stage for us to know what it means after He created the world. Ultimately, He ended up mandating rest. And then the Son of God, Jesus Christ, came along and put another divine stamp of approval on the idea of rest when He reminded us that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). A few chapters later, He urged His disciples to join Him in a much needed time of rest away from the busy cadence of serving the people (Mark 6:31).

Even Jesus took a break.

Yes, I know at a base level, when we’re talking about Sabbath rest, we’re being led to the importance of holy worship—that time of respite in the arms of the One who cares for us, giving us the forgiveness of sins and strengthening us for life in this world. But the theme of mental and physical rest is woven into these details, too. God sometimes has to mandate the good things, the beneficial things. He has to mandate silence. He has to mandate reverence. He has to mandate prayer. He has to mandate rest. He knows that if He doesn’t tell us to do it, we won’t, and then we’ll miss the benefits inherent to these things.

I guess the reason I’m spending so much time with all of this is because, first, I haven’t written an eNews article in two weeks and it’s sort of bottled up. Remember, when I sit down to write these things, it’s more or less a “say whatever comes to mind” scenario. But second, be sure to take a vacation. It doesn’t mean you have to go anywhere. It just means separating from the regimen of everyday life in order to rejuvenate the “self.”

We all need it. We might not think we do. We might think we can continue to go and go and go without ever slowing down, but we can’t. God knows it. And it’s been a hard lesson for me to learn over the course of twenty-five years.

And so with that, if you haven’t already, I hope you’ll find some time this summer to land at a restful place—whether that be a cabin up north, a place somewhere down south, or your own back yard. I hope it’ll be a time of thankfulness to God for His merciful kindness. I hope you’ll find rejuvenation, so that when the dust of everyday existence kicks up again, you’ll be just as ready as the rest of us to lock arms and hold the line in the trenches.

A New Year’s Day “Thank You”

I thought I’d take a quick moment and offer an anticipatory New Year’s Day “thank you” from a pastor’s perspective to all the faithful Christians who make up all of the Christian congregations.

Thank you.

Thank you to the one who sees visitors, and without hesitation, greets them with a beaming smile and a genuine welcome.

Thank you to the one serving on the altar guild, the one who won’t leave until that one flower that just won’t sit correctly among the bouquets adorning the Lord’s altar is right, the one who will take such great care well before and after worship to see that the Lord’s holy things are kept in careful ways, ways befitting of royalty.

Thank you to the one who will traverse the aisles of the church nave, doing what he or she can to see to a presentable place of worship.

Thank you to the one who gives hours of time to decorate the church nave by season, the one who carries and lifts and unfolds and irons all so that in a few short weeks it will be necessary to carry and lift and fold once more.

Thank you to the one who stands near the entrance of the church nave before worship being certain that all in attendance have what they need before worship begins.

Thank you to the one who gives a smile of encouragement to the young father and mother struggling with their little ones.

Thank you to that young couple for wrestling through a challenging morning, for getting the little ones breakfast, for getting them dressed, for doing all they can to teach their little ones the vernacular of the Church’s faith and worship in the same way their parents taught them.

Thank you to the single parent who does this alone.

Thank you to the one who serves on a board or committee, giving tirelessly so that a specific gathering of people in a particular place might be a useful tool in the Lord’s hands for the extension of His Gospel kingdom.

Thank you to the one who sees a crooked banner and gives it a nudge to straighten it.

Thank you to the one who walks through the entirety of the church/school campus after worship or an event in order to make sure that doors are locked, the alarms are set, and that the facility that the Lord has seen fit to grant is safe and ready for the next day’s potential.

Thank you to the one who vacuums the floors and takes out the garbage, the one who sees a wall that needs some care that can only come by way of a paintbrush and then paints it.

Thank you to the one who sees a light bulb in need of replacement and gets a ladder and changes it, the same one who spends countless Saturday afternoons traversing the halls to find and make repairs.

Thank you to the one who makes sure that the coffee and snacks are plentiful and ready before the gathering of God’s people for study of His Word. Thank you to the one who cleans it all up, puts away all of the supplies, and begins to prepare for the next gathering.

Thank you to the one who teaches Sunday School, the one who gives of oneself Sunday after Sunday for the sake of Christ’s littlest lambs.

Thank you to the one who helps find and recruit the Sunday School teachers, who spends time petitioning God for faithful servants to go before Him with His holy Word.

Thank you to the one who teaches in a Christian day school, the one who dedicates a lifetime for the sake of the eternity of others.

Thank you to the one who volunteers in the day school, the one who helps with crafts, with reading, with special luncheons for the teachers and children, with playground supervision, with field trip chaperoning, with office help, and with so much more.

Thank you to the one who gives time and effort to comfort the bereaved, the one who cries with the widow, the one who makes and delivers a meal in a time of crisis, who sends note cards with comforting texts from God’s Word edged with personal words of loving kindness.

Thank you to the one who refills a luncheon attendee’s coffee just because, and the one who helps take down tables and put away chairs.

Thank you to the one who steps up to meet burdens borne only by principle leadership, the one who sits in meeting after meeting making the most difficult of decisions, the one who takes those hours-long concerns home at night and wrestles with them there, too.

Thank you to the one who learns of a need and adds an extra zero to his or her offering check before putting it into the offering plate. Thank you to the one who does this not just stirred by a particular need, but because of a continued evaluation of one’s giving, a careful reconsidering of the commitment made and the desire to reach higher if possible.

Thank you to the one who shows such incredible love to the workers—to the pastor, the school principal, the day school teachers, the office administrators, and all others—the one who writes kindly notes of encouragement, who helps fold and send congregation letters, who takes time to diagnose and then fix a problem with a vehicle, who bakes a little something extra for a servant’s family to enjoy.

Thank you to the one who keeps the same pew warm Sunday after Sunday, the one who never misses because to do so would to be found hungry—no, starving—for that which is needed for life in this world and a heart set for the next.

Thank you to all who truly emit what the Psalmist meant when he wrote by the power of the Holy Spirit, “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness” (84:10).

Thank you.

By God’s grace alive and at work through you, I am more than confident that 2019 will be even better than 2018. You will continue to be salt. You will continue to be lights in the world and a collective city on a hill (Matthew 5:13-16). The Lord’s Word will continue to go forth through days of both persecution and rest. His mighty arm will be evident among us, and many who walk in darkness will see a great light; and those who dwell in a land of deep darkness, on them a light will shine (Isaiah 9:2).

Again, thank you. It is a privilege and pleasure to serve beside and among you. And may the one true God—the Father, the +Son, and the Holy Spirit—bless and preserve you for such faithfulness.

Tonight is the Night

Tonight is the night.

The whole concept of this night is beyond our ability to comprehend. There was an inbreaking between worlds. Yes, God is always with us. But tonight God became man.

Immanuel, God with us. Logos, the Word made flesh.

Tonight the divine Creator was born into human history as “us”—into the places we go, into the burdens of need that we own, into the whole of our existence. He became one of us in order to save all of us.

The inbreaking was signaled by an angel—a messenger—nine months prior to this night, as the timeline would go. The hymn joyfully embellishes, the angel came “with wings of drifted snow and eyes of flame.” He spoke to a young, unmarried girl in Nazareth, a virgin. Calling her by name, he said, “Mary, you have found favor with God. You will bear a son. His name will be Jesus. He will be the Son of the Most High.”

Luke’s Gospel tells us that Mary was troubled by the visitation. And rightly so. The appearance of an angel means one of two things. It means either the promise of deliverance, or a word of judgment ending in destruction. And so, as it must be when an angel has revealed his presence in order to bring good news, “Don’t be afraid,” he speaks kindly. The inbreaking he reveals will not lead to our death, but rather will set into motion the final stages of the plan to win our salvation through the death and resurrection of the child conceived in her womb.

Her child is the answer to the Sin problem.

Tonight is the night. It has finally happened. Angels have announced it, this time to the shepherds, telling them they needn’t be frightened by this otherworldly visitation. Jesus has come. He’s wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. He’s little. He has tiny fingers and toes. He has attentive eyes of love for His mother, Mary, and for His adoptive father, Joseph. He hears their voices when they sing hushed lullabies to Him in the crude feeding trough. He has begun as we began. And yet, He is Christ the Lord. He is the perfect inbreaking of God. This won’t be visible to the human eyes in these first few moments. In fact, His birth was just as painfully messy as any birth before or after. The condition of His context—a manger—something that is far less than grand.

But still, He begins as we begin, and yet, He is without sin. The inbreaking of the only One who can save us is finitely located here—right here as a sinless infant squirming in His lowly crib—opening and closing His eyes for the first time amidst the human experience, seeing and being all that it means to be us.

This little One will grow. He will live perfectly according to the Law. He will do the things that only God can do. He will raise the dead with a word, whispering into the ears of corpses and returning them to life. He will touch the lame and they will be in right measure again. He will preach the Good News of forgiveness to all and the sorrowful hearts of His listeners will be restored.

He will lean into the ferocious headwinds of a world spinning into undoneness and He will turn it back on its axis.

A new axis will be anchored into the earth’s frame. It will be a center post that makes everything right, tall and mounted at the top of Golgotha. The baby you see here in the manger, He will be the man pinned there. No matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done, His pain will win your freedom. No matter how long you’ve been away, His outstretched arms of suffering are a welcoming into His embrace of perfect love. His tears will wash away your sorrow. His cry, “It is finished!” will be the moment when the steely underpinnings in the frame of Sin and Death begin to groan, buckle, and collapse.

Tonight is the night.

“Fear not,” the angels are repeating. Go and see. Go to the place where the Lord promises to be. Do as the others in your Christian family. Gather at the manger with the excitement of little ones overwhelmed by the joy of a newborn brother. Lift to your tiptoes. Peek between the shoulders and around the heads of your Christian siblings to get a glimpse of the One who is your redemption. He will be there. He’ll be in the absolution spoken. He’ll be in the preaching of the Christmas Gospel. He’ll be in the Sacrament of His body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.

Tonight is the night. Don’t miss it. Go to church. You’ll certainly be welcomed. You’ll most certainly be blessed, because the divine One born in Bethlehem will be there.

In Him you’ll know the truest joy behind the words “Merry Christmas.”

Even the Sun Will Blush

I hope you had a wonderful and restful Thanksgiving time with your family. I know I did. I had a chance to play with the kids, do a little reading and writing, and enjoy the Christmas décor we managed to get into place the weekend before.

Speaking of reading, if there were ever a reason to read from Luther besides his theology, it would be because of his practiced handling of language. He sure has a way with words.

I recently read a small devotional portion from one of his sermons from 1532. In particular, he was dealing with the text of 1 Corinthians 15:42-44 in which Paul describes the resurrection at the Last Day:

“So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that was sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body.”

Luther said a lot of things about this text. Still, there were two parts that peeked through to the forefront. The first was the following:

“If we stand firmly in (Christ) and do not waver, our righteousness is so great that all our sins, whatever their name and nature may be, are like a little spark, and our righteousness is like an ocean…”

Did you catch that? He just set forth a most splendid image of what it means to be counted righteous before God at the Last Day because of Jesus. Imagine the ability of a tiny spark to maintain its life let alone grow to become a fire while the entirety of an ocean’s vastness is washing over it. That spark is anything and everything pertaining to your Sin. Covered in the ocean-sized righteousness of Christ, it doesn’t stand a chance.

Simply wonderful.

The other portion that resonated with me was this:

“Further, our shame which we shall bury so ingloriously is covered with a glory that is called ‘The Resurrection of Christ,’ and with this it is so beautifully adorned that even the sun will blush when it sees it and the angels will never be able to turn their eyes away from it.”

Wow. Even the sun will blush. Even the angels will be entranced, their attention held captive.

All of this matters to us as we come up and out of the Last Sunday of the Church Year in preparation for the holy season of Advent. Both of these have as their focus the return of our Lord in glory, but also the fulfillment of the promise that we, too, will see the resurrection of our bodies at the Last Day and will stand before the throne of Christ and behold him with eyes of flesh. Not with failing eyes, but rather with perfected and gloriously restored eyes. We will be united with our bodies that went into the ground, but in an instant, they will be changed and fashioned as unto the Lord’s own body for all eternity. Luther says that the glory of this event and all who comprise it will be an astounding emittance, a shining of magnificence that outpaces the sun in its brightness. Even the angels will be amazed.

Again, wow. Can you imagine it? By the inspired Word of God through Saint Paul we know it’s true. With Luther’s skillful help, we can almost see it.

I pray that this wonderful Gospel brings you peace as you enter into a time in the new Church Year designed to remind you of your salvation while at the same time setting your heart in anticipation of the coming Lord, not only in Bethlehem, but at the Last Day. I pray that your anticipating heart is filled with a faith that stands firmly in Christ and the knowledge of His immense love. I pray that by that same love, you will be stilled to know by faith you have a place with Him in the glories of heaven when your last breath comes.

Study the Word and You’ll See

I mentioned yesterday after worship that because I’d spent a good portion of last week trying to adjust to a new medication, I didn’t actually get to the meat of the sermon writing process until early Sunday morning. That rarely happens, but when it does, I don’t like it. I don’t like it because I don’t feel as prepared with the text, at least not as prepared as I think a preacher should be. Still, I used the time I had at my disposal, and I kept close to a more simpler pace of just observing the scene in the text and then being what I am as a Christian man—someone who is excited to know Christ, a witness who wants to tell you what I’ve seen and heard, a friend who wants very much to introduce you to Jesus. Working from this perspective, the task of preaching is really rather eventual. It has a way of coming alive. It has a way of becoming otherworldly and beautiful, and it has the potential for causing anyone to feel a little like Andrew running to tell his brother Peter, or Philip running to tell Nathaniel, “I have found the Messiah!”

But this reminds me of something else, too, and a guy by the name of O.C. Edwards poked at it when he wrote: “When you come right down to it, the idea that the most exciting message the world has ever heard can be presented in a way that makes it sound old hat and dull is mind boggling. There are probably only two circumstances under which that could happen. First, we are uninteresting, or second, we find the gospel uninteresting. In either case, something ought to be done about it.”

Truth be told, he’s talking about those who are called to preach. Nevertheless, I think his words still resonate for all Christians in a practical way, especially as the Church finds herself more and more immersed in a culture of religiosity where the Gospel is just one thing among many things, and often considered as not all that important in comparison. To say it another way, Christians are not immune to portraying to the world that we like the Gospel, but we don’t necessarily love it. When this is true, it affects the way we communicate Christ to others.

Maybe another, more practical way to think about this would be to consider something that Richard Hays, a New Testament professor at Duke Divinity School, once said about one of his former professors, Alvin Kernan:

“When I was an undergraduate at Yale University, students flocked to Alvin Kernan’s lecture courses on Shakespeare… Even though it was the late 1960s and we were living in an atmosphere charged with political suspicion and protest, none of this overtly impinged on Kernan’s lectures. Kernan was not a flashy lecturer. What, then, was the draw? He loved the texts.”

In other words, Kernan was an expert on Shakespeare, but being an expert didn’t make him a productive communicator of Shakespeare. Hays sheds a little more light:

“His teaching method, as I remember it, was simply to engage in reflective close readings… delineating their rich texture of image and metaphor and opening up their complex themes – moral, philosophical, and religious. Often, Kernan would devote a significant part of his lecture time to reading the text aloud, not in a highly dramatic manner, but with sensitivity to the texts’ rhythms and semantic nuances. I would often sit in class thinking, “Oh, I hadn’t heard that in the text before.” And I would leave the class pondering the problems that Shakespeare addressed: love, betrayal, fidelity, sacrifice, death, and hope.”

Quite simply, Kernan was in love with and devoted to the texts of Shakespeare. When he wasn’t teaching Shakespeare, he was reading Shakespeare and enjoying it for himself, and this directly affected his telling of the story to others.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it” (Luke 11:28). I’m sure I’ve shared with you before that the word Jesus uses in the Greek for “keep” is one that relays a defense of something considered to be invaluable and most precious. Considering this, while at the same time knowing that by faith, a Christian is in the deepest of loves with the One who spoke the words, we learn something very important.

And here’s where I’m going to suggest that you follow Kernan’s example and immerse yourself in the study of something you love…

Consider joining the Sunday morning adult Bible study because regular study of the Word of God is crucial!

Now, don’t stop reading here. Keep going.

Through the study of God’s Word, not only is the Christian fed from the divine wellspring that gives true wisdom for salvation, but there’s another product of the effort that many might overlook, and it’s that it provides a depth for a multitude of discussions. And when one is truly prepared, one is much more confident and convincing. Again, what I mean is that there’s a genuine difference between someone who knows about the Ark of the Covenant and someone who has spent time in the Word admiring its golden dimensions. There’s a difference between someone who knows about the Israelites being pursued by Pharaoh and someone who, through deliberate study of God’s Word, has had the opportunity to be led in a way that sees the fear in the Israelites’ eyes and feels the quaking ground—the rocks trembling and the dust rising—as Pharaoh’s army charges toward them in pursuit. There’s a difference between knowing the story of the feeding of the five thousand and being so aware of the implications of the event that one can begin to hear the rumbling stomachs of the hungry crowd and be concerned. It’s one thing to say so nonchalantly, “Yeah, Jesus died on the cross,” but it’s something altogether different to study Saint Paul’s words regarding the depth of the event, and by this, to be led to envision the blackened clouds of darkness and to feel the stern breezes casing the scene at Golgotha. I could go on and on, telling you how Easter is just one thing that happens every year for so many Christians, and yet for those immersed in the study of God’s Word, it is an emotionally jostling celebration that sees the absolute unexpected become reality—Sin and Death have been done away with forever—and it’s a reality that applies to us right now!

Like I said, I could go on and on about this stuff, but I suppose I’ve already written way more than most people might be willing to read. With that, I pray that you’ll take these words to heart and that you’ll think about joining the adult study on Sunday. My words are given here in love as they are given from someone who, like Andrew and Philip, has met the Messiah and truly wants for you to meet Him, too.

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.

You Have Weapons. Take a Stand.

For those who were in the Sunday morning Bible study, maybe you’ll recall that there was something very Lenten-esque that we happened upon during the discussion. You’ll remember that we talked a little bit about the Greek word ὅπλα (hopla), which is translated in both the ESV and the NIV as “armor” and yet is also reliably translated as “weapons.” The verse in particular where we met this term was Romans 13:12 where Paul boldly encourages us to be rid of the works of darkness and to put on the ὅπλα of light.

From this, there were a few very important points made during this discussion.

The first is that when Paul speaks of “putting on,” he is using the exact same word he used in Galatians 3:27 where he said that all who have been baptized into Christ, have been clothed in or put on Christ. That is important for us to know. It is a hint as to the source of the ὅπλα of light. In our baptism, we are clothed in the victory of the One who is the Light of the world, Jesus Christ, and His life, death, and resurrection. Baptized into Him, we are divinely armed.

In Ephesians 6:10-18, Paul gives definition to the armament, calling it the πανοπλίαν (the full weaponry) of God.

Another point of the discussion was for us to keep within the framework and consistency of Paul’s words. What I mean is that whether we use the word “weapons” or “armor,” both are defensive and offensive in nature. Visiting again with Ephesians 6, verse 11 in particular, Paul describes the motion of those who are dressed in these wartime accessories. Very specifically does he say that to be clad in the armor/weapons of God, is to be made ready for engagement—that is, “so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” But again, there’s an interesting word being used here. The phrase “take your stand” (στῆναι πρὸς—stand toward) isn’t a shaky description of stance. It is an expression of confident strength. It infers forward momentum—the digging in of one’s posture and pressing into what’s coming. In other words, it isn’t reactionary. It means to face off with the foe, to lean into his attacks. Again, in a military sense, it carries a substance of being both defensive and offensive.

So, what’s the point?

It all comes back to baptism. Your baptism is a powerfully re-creative thing. Not only have you been joined to Christ—having been made a member of that great body who stands before the throne of God’s grace, having a washed robe made bright white in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7)—but you have been fortified as one ready to engage in the world with a posture of unearthly courage and strength that proves unbending against the evil schemes of that old evil foe, the devil, who would see the Gospel light dimmed and your hope extinguished.

Pay attention to the readings during Lent. In one way or another—whether prominent or tiptoeing around the scene in concealment—the devil is present in each one. He had to be. As Jesus made His way to the cross, the devil wanted nothing more than to thwart the Lord’s efforts. And not just to stop His saving work, but to keep everyone the Lord met from putting their faith in Him. It’s the same for us. The devil is scheming to keep us from the Lord, and he’s using every weapon at his disposal to do it.

But we have weapons, too. Paul pointed to our baptism as the heavenly weapons cache. Interestingly, when Luther considered some of the same texts, he said that the most deadly of the weapons in that baptismal cache for use by the Christians, the ones capable of slaying the devil, are the Word of God and the regular study of it.

Who can argue with that? In essence, Luther just said that the frontline for the supernatural warfare is played out in Holy Worship, the event where we are immersed from head to toe in the verbal and visible Word of God; and then Bible study, the place where we dig into and embrace that Word for the benefit of salvation and for leaning into the earth shaking might of the oncoming forces of this present age each and every day of our lives.

A lot of folks practice fasting for Lent, that is, they give up something. How about giving up your after-worship routine and attending the adult Bible study with so many others in your Christian brigade?

It will be worth your while. Although, don’t feel as though you need to take my word for it. Take the encouragement of Saint Paul and Rev. Dr. Luther.