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.

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.