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.

God’s Jurisdiction

During the sermon yesterday, I did a little bit of preemptive work with Paul’s understanding of Sin so that when we got around to his words in Romans 5:1-5 we’d get the fullest measure of the joy from the Gospel proclaimed there. Part of that preemptive work included confronting the fact that in this day and age, we do a pretty good job of writing Sin off as no big deal, calling both the badness within us and the badness we produce by different names, hoping to find a way to wiggle out of it. I mentioned the current popularity of referring to our Sin as obsessive behaviors, as results of our genetics or pathology, or as simply disorders or lifestyles different from the mainstream.

I certainly wasn’t arguing that the capability for particular sins isn’t written into each of us in a unique way. It most certainly is. You know your own tendencies. I know mine. The problem I was attempting to confront is the excuse-making that sets itself in place to block the guilt associated with the sins. If we are not to blame, if we are not guilty, then we don’t need a Savior and we miss the measure of Christ’s expense on the cross. Falling into this devilry, we produce the fruits that accompany such disregard. We find the loophole we need to never be wrong in any discussion, to never be guilty of offense in any situation coming undone, to never be the one who isn’t carrying his fair share of the load, to never be the one who actually bears responsibility. In essence, we get to avoid using the word “Sin” altogether, as if it applies to everyone else except us.

I went a little further—even touching on it in the adult Bible study later in the morning—and I offered that Sin really only makes sense when it is considered within the context of God. What I meant was that if we are going to understand it rightly, and most especially how it meets with us, then maybe one place to start is with acknowledging the fact that we are under the jurisdiction of an ultimate judge of right and wrong. Whether we like it or not, whether we’re willing to admit it or not, we are subject to a divine Someone who can actually determine what human conduct is supposed to be.

This may sound somewhat strange, but one of the best aspects of the season of Lent, especially as it is designed to recalibrate us toward objectively true things, is to be confronted with the true nature of Sin and what that means for Mankind’s future. To know this, is to know the need—a very personal need. It is to then be found at the foot of the cross, a place where we can breathe a sigh of relief as having narrowly escaped destruction because the One hanging on that cross paid the price for our deliverance.

Knowing the weight of our Sin is a good way to understand the weight of the Gospel of our salvation through Jesus Christ. And that’s where we must reside—in the Gospel. The Gospel is powerful. It gives us the ability to confess our sin in true repentance and faith—not to excuse our Sin away as a bad habit, or justifiable in certain circumstances, or as nothing at all—but rather to admit whole-heartedly that we are dust and to dust we shall return. It supplies us with a brightly beaming hope in the One who by His work raises us from the dust and sets us into His resurrected life: Jesus Christ, the Son of God!

This is a big part of the theology of Lent. And I pray that this message is resonating with you, that you are embracing it and carrying it forth into the world around you. With this supernatural knowledge pacing through your spirit, you’d be amazed at how the sun shines a little more brightly and the days are just a little more splendid, even when facing some pretty hefty struggles in this world.

With that, God be with you in the oncoming day and week. Call if you need me.

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.

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.

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.