Forgiveness is Hard

I took a tangential turn in the sermon yesterday. I mentioned from the pulpit that when I got to the church and was looking over my sermon manuscript, I experienced the urge to add something to the text.
During the sermon, right after considering the immeasurable depth of the Lord’s efforts to save us by way of His sacrificial death, I steered into the expense of forgiveness as it unfolds among people. Just as the forgiveness of Christ isn’t cheap, it isn’t cheap between any of us, either. It was a hard-fought forgiveness that streamed from the Lord’s work on Calvary’s cross. It’ll often be a hard-fought reality among God’s people, too.
Of course I don’t mean to say that the Lord found it difficult to forgive us. In His perfect love, that’s always His first inclination. He desires to show mercy to the contrite. He desires to be gracious to the penitent sinner. He reminds us by His Word that when His forgiveness is given, He forgets our wicked deeds and we begin anew (Hebrews 8:12).
But we’re not God. We struggle to forgive. We find it even harder to forget.
My point is that as true, deep, consequential forgiveness is needed among people, we should be wary of a couple of things.
First, for the offender, I suppose I’d be skeptical of forgiveness that is too superficially given. If it comes thoughtlessly and without expense to the offended, then the wounds are probably not being mended properly and things are bottling up and heading for catastrophe at a much later date. Take the time to talk about it. Really talk about it. Reconcile. Mend. Confess again and again if need be. Actually ask for forgiveness. Say the words.
If necessary, I’ll walk with you through this. Just send me a message. I am your servant.
Second, for the one offended, know that forgiveness is possible. It’s always possible. But it won’t be easy. It’s going to hurt. A lot.
Dear Christian, this is a reflection of the suffering of our Lord and what He endured to win our forgiveness. There are plenty of Scripture texts I could share in this moment that talk about partaking in the sufferings of Christ. Dealing in the excruciating exchange of forgiveness between people who have done ungodly things to one another is a way this partaking happens.
I share all of this—and I think I was moved to actually say it from the pulpit—because we need to hear it more and more. There are marriages that need mending. There are friendships that need healing. There are families that need recalibrating. There are lives that are in upheaval because forgiveness is exactly what’s needed even as it seems so impossible.
But it’s not impossible. It’s just hard. Really hard. And God promises He will accomplish it through His people—human beings who have their hearts and minds set on His loving kindness—a loving kindness that actually did achieve the impossible. He points to the death of His Son on the cross as the proof.
I hope these words speak straight to your middle. And know that I’m praying for you in such situations.

Judas or Peter

I’ll be honest with you. I’m not feeling all that inspired this morning as I plink away at the keyboard to write my weekly eNews. Of course there are plenty of things happening, so there should be something worth observing and then sharing for the benefit of others.

I’m definitely an observer. I’m always watching. Well, that sounded a little creepy, didn’t it? Perhaps a better way to say it is that I’m always sorting. I’m always taking in as much of what’s going on around me as I can, and as I process it, I’m sorting it. I’m putting it into categories of thought.

But I’m not the only one who does this. You do it, too. We all do. In my case, after everything has been processed, the written word is its regular release valve.

But this morning, I’m sort of disinterested in opening the valve. And yet, here we are. I’m typing anyway. You’re reading. Now what?

I’ve established this regular duty that has blossomed into an expectation. That’s what. A good number have come to expect something from me by this eNewsletter every week all year long, and so now it is my responsibility to persevere—to filter my disinterest away and get the job done.

Maybe that’s where this free-thinking ramble is leading—to the topic of perseverance.

I don’t know about you, but I experience those times in my life where my resolve seems somewhat flimsy, my courage is minimal, and my strength feels as though it’s waning. Sometimes things are silent and dark, and I’ll catch myself mumbling beneath a breath, “I can’t go on.”

Everyone has those moments.

As I type this, what immediately comes to mind is a discussion we had in the Adult Bible study here at Our Savior a couple of weeks ago. We talked about how as human beings, when it comes to a right understanding of our Sin and what actually justifies us before God, we can find ourselves teetering at the edge of two categories of personality: Judas and Peter.

Both of these disciples found themselves steeped in the thickest mires of atrocious betrayal. Judas sold the Lord to His enemies. Peter denied association with Him, even calling down divine curses upon himself in order to mask his lies. Face to face with Jesus in both circumstances, who can survive such an act of deliberate dreadfulness against the one true God?

Judas gave up and is no more. But Peter persevered and was restored to the brethren.

What gives?

Faith in the all-availing sacrifice of Christ. Faith in the One whose love is greater than our betrayals. That’s what.

I don’t always know where I am in any given moment on the timeline. The darkness swirls. The headwinds are strong. I’ll say I can’t go on. But by the power of the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ, I’ll know I can. I’ll know I must—and not because my relationship with Him requires that I earn my way back into His graces, but because He loves me. That love changes things completely. I must go on.

I mentioned in the sermon two weeks ago that I never usually go in the “what this means to me personally” direction while preaching, but I did anyway that day. Pondering the “Good Shepherd” text from John 10, I mentioned that from everything we’d heard from all of the readings combined (Psalm 23; Ezekiel 34:11-16; 1 Peter 2:21-25; John 10:11-16), the most meaningful part for me as an individual was the real, down in the trenches context in which the Word of God was leading. Side by side, the texts communicated that Jesus is truly the only One who can look upon me in my dreadful, filthy, ungrateful, and wandering state and still love me so incomparably that He would tuck me into His arm while He fights off the circling wolf packs of Sin, Death, and the Devil. Knowing that these monsters have been defanged through the person and work of Jesus Christ, my resolve becomes sturdier. My courage begins to overtake my fears. My strength returns. I can persevere.

I learn and relearn a valuable lesson each time I find myself despairing for the strength to take another step. I learn that for the Christian, perseverance doesn’t emerge from within any one of us. It comes from the outside. It’s given to us and then worked within us by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel. With that, perseverance becomes synonymous with faith. Christians persevere—we press forward even when pressing forward seems foolish—because our eyes are on Christ. He has our trust.

“I can’t go on,” I’ll sometimes say.

“Yes, you can,” the powerful Gospel for faith always replies. “Look. There’s Jesus. He’s already broken through the enemy’s fiercest strongholds. Do you see His cross? And His empty tomb? He’s made a way through. The ramparts are crumbling. The opposing forces, while they remain fiercely vicious, they are in disarray and are weakening. Get back in behind Him and follow. He more than has you in His care.”

Crib to Casket

As a congregation, there’s a lot in store for Our Savior Lutheran Church in Hartland, Michigan over the next few months. Visits from prominent guest speakers, graduations, and so many other unique opportunities will land in our midst. And yet, two of the most important dates to which we’ll give deliberate attention will be Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. National holidays, yes. Still, as a church, we’ll embrace them as days for honoring the office of “parent,” which stems naturally from God’s divinely established institution of marriage (Genesis 2:18-25).

We’ll celebrate these days not by swapping out the appointed readings for the day or by forcing the topics of “mother” or “father” into the sermon, but rather by letting the parents among us choose the distribution hymns during the Lord’s Supper. We’ll keep to a stabilizing liturgy that continues to set our eyes on Christ and His person and work for our forgiveness. The Word of God will be given. The Gospel will be preached. And in the midst of this, the congregation will give a more-than-appropriate nod of reverence by way of the Church’s rich hymnody to the Lord’s gracious care for His world through the societal-stabilizing gift of the family. (Visit https://www.lutheransforlife.org/article/gods-design-of-family/ to read more on what I mean that the family is a societal-stabilizing gift of God.)

I don’t know about you, but when I became a parent, there’s one very important thing that I learned almost immediately. I learned that no matter how I might be tempted to consider myself an expert in any given field, I will never be tempted to think of myself as anything more than an amateur as a father. Yes, Benjamin Spock tried to stir confidence in all of us in his infamous book Baby and Child Care when he wrote, “You know more than you think you do.” Still, there are those moments with my own children—conversations, situations, circumstances—in which I’m at a loss for words or certainty. I just don’t know what to do.

In one sense, these moments are to my benefit. They keep me level. They set before me that I’m never above the One who established the office of parent. They are moments for me to know that there’s only one Father with all the answers for every situation. I am merely a steward of the little ones He’s put into my care. He remains their true Father, and so I am duty-bound to rely on Him for what’s necessary for raising them.

This reminds me of something else.

As a pastor, I’m guessing that I attend more funerals than most folks. It’s part of the job. Over the years, I’ve noticed it’s not all that uncommon for families to put things into the casket to be buried with their loved one—special things, trinkets and such of lifelong importance. When I see these things in the casket—things that journeyed alongside them through their lives—I am reminded of something very parental in nature.

Hovering above the casket takes me to those moments when I was hovering above my little ones lying in the bassinet. It’s a momentary reminder that even as our little ones fit into a crib, the things we give, the songs we sing, the practices we uphold all along the way of their lives have enormous potential for remaining with them all the way through to the day when they will be fitted to a casket.

The job of parenting isn’t an easy one. The devil, the world, and the Sinful flesh sees quite well to making the task a challenging one. I think it was Bette Davis who said that you’re not officially a parent until you’ve been hated by your child. Those, as many of you already know, are true words. And yet we go forward. We make our kids brush their teeth. We argue with them about turning off the video games and going outside to play. We demand that they be home before midnight. We duke it out over their messy rooms, and we tell them a thousand times not to throw wet towels on the bathroom floor after a shower, as well as to flush the toilet and turn off the light before they leave.

There are plenty of times we find ourselves grappling with them just to get them to the Lord’s house for worship. And then the combat continues as we wrestle to keep them immersed in the liturgy, hymnody, and life of what really is the fellowship of their truest family—the holy Christian church. It’s exhausting. In fact, it can sometimes seem far too overwhelming to be worth the effort, especially during the teenage years when the child believes there are much better things to be doing than sitting in the pews at church.

But Christian parents fight on. And why?

Crib to casket.

In families, the space in between those two points is divinely appointed to mothers and fathers, and as believers, we take these life-long roles as stewards very seriously. Sure, we’ll always be those fathers who give the boyfriends of our college-aged daughters a poker face adorned with stern eyes. We’ll remain those mothers who pester our middle-aged sons not to forget to send a thank-you to aunt so-and-so for the birthday gift. But most importantly, we’ll be those parents who are forever concerned for the spiritual wellbeing of our children. We’ll never be able to shake the urge to be both nearsighted and farsighted. Nearsighted in that our eyes are fixed clearly upon the baptismal font where they were washed clean in the blood of Christ and claimed as His own; and farsighted as we look beyond that gracious act to their falling asleep in the Lord and their blessed Christian funeral.

I pray regularly for the stamina necessary for being a Christian parent in this day and age. Admittedly, in comparison to America’s history, Christian parents are facing unprecedented challenges to raising Godly children. Knowing this, prayer is a big deal. But even more importantly, regular worship is essential. In fact, it is the lifeblood for a Christian family. If parents and their children are not connected to Christ and the gifts He gives in holy worship, they are being starved of not only what saves, but what preserves from the crib to the casket.

My prayer for you is always the same—that you’ll never give up in this regard, that you’ll muscle through every obstruction to being with Christ in worship, that you’ll love your kids enough to use the time you have now to shepherd them into the presence of the One who loves them more than any of us ever could.

The dividends of such an effort are immeasurable. You’ll know them in the fullest sense in heaven. It’s there that you’ll look side to side and see your family. And in that eternal moment, I guarantee you’ll bear an equally eternal smile, one to which the frowns of struggle in this life will just never compare.

Courage is Courage

He is risen! He is risen indeed, alleluia!

It feels great to say “Alleluia” again, especially after giving it up for the lengthy nine weeks of pre-Lent (Gesima Sundays) and Lent. There are other things I’d much rather give up. Like snow… which it appears just missed us here in Michigan. You know, there are folks who revel in regularly bringing charges against the state of Michigan, most notably pointing to our roads, taxes, and other such things. For the most part, I love Michigan. But if I were to level a charge, it would be against the trickster months of April and May. These two months in Michigan are more than capable of snow.

Personally, after five months of snow, I’ve had enough.

“Well, you chose to live here, Chris.”

Actually, no, I didn’t choose to live here. I was sent here on an internship out of college. I chose to stay here, and it had nothing to do with the weather and everything to do with the woman who would eventually be my wife… which I try to bring to her remembrance with regularity. As often as I can, I remind her that I so courageously suffer the dreadfully gloomy Michigan winters for her sake.

Humor aside… and speaking of courage… what happened to it? To courage, that is.

I was a guest speaker at the MiCPAC conference this past Saturday, and after my speech, I had a conversation in the back of the auditorium with a person who expressed a gladness for the presenters being willing to speak out on some crucial issues facing our nation. I encouraged my conversation partner to do the same as she went about her daily routines. And her response: “I’m not brave enough to do what you guys are doing.”

“Unfortunately, we have no other choice, now,” was the essence of my reply. What I wanted to say more precisely, but didn’t, was that it isn’t necessarily a courageous thing to fight when fighting is your only choice. On the battlefield, when a soldier is found in the situation of “kill or be killed,” the choice to fight isn’t necessarily stirred by courage. It’s stirred by the need for survival. We’re getting very close to that these days. As people remain unwilling to step up and speak out, hoping to stay off of the enemy’s radar, more and more among us are finding themselves cornered.

I think it’s sort of disingenuous how so many in our own ranks will deal with those who show forth a level of discerning courage. Aristotle described it well when he said something like, “The coward calls the brave man rash, and the rash man calls him a coward.” In other words, far too many people will criticize the courageous among us while finding reasons to escape the need to be brave in the same circumstances. Whether it’s as simple as admitting to one’s own failings in a relationship in order to preserve its integrity or as seemingly grand as needing to take a stand for the sake of the Gospel before the princes of this world, in the end, they’ll bow out when they’re needed most.

But true courage is borne out not just when it’s needed, but even as it first sees the need coming. And in the end, faithfulness is faithfulness no matter how pressing the situation might eventually become. It’s what a courageous one is and does both when no one else is watching and when the TV cameras are taking aim for a whole world of criticizing voices.

Among Christians, there’s a reason for us to claim such courage. Our courage isn’t human courage. It’s otherworldly courage.

One of my favorite Bible verses is Psalm 27:1, which is a rhetorical rendition of divinely inspired courage expressed by King David.

“The LORD is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”

Couple King David’s words with the fact that the same Lord to whom he is referring—the One who would be born of a virgin, born under the Law, born to suffer Death in David’s place that he would receive the merits of His victory over Sin, Death, and the power of the devil—joined to that Gospel, we already call out, “He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!” Those aren’t empty words. They are words of courage. They are words that herald to every single terrifying noun in this life—every person, place, thing, and idea—that we are no longer bound by the rules of their game for survival. We have recreated innards that can act before acting is even required. We can know and confess our sinful selves before the accusations come. We can go to church to be fed by the Gospel of our Lord’s love before we find ourselves in a situation where we feel like it’s our only option for peace. We can speak boldly in the world around us without needing to be prompted.

And why? Well, I like the way G.K. Chesterton said it:

“Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die.”

He wrote those words understanding that in Christ we’ve already died to this world and have now been made alive (Romans 6:11). Knowing this, not even Death’s stare is so terrifying that we need to cower. Faith has its eyes fixed to the resurrection of Jesus. His resurrection is our resurrection. And if that’s true—if not even Death can level itself against us—then what do we have to fear when it comes to the darker situations this world sends our way? Not much.

Be courageous. Be faithful. Steer right into the challenges you face in your families, in your vocations, in this world. No matter what happens, by the power of the Holy Spirit, trust that the Lord is your light and salvation. You have nothing to fear. With such a knowledge in one’s guts, it’s pretty amazing how the clouds of fearful concern will dissipate from any situation stirring dread.

And trust me, like so many of you, I can say what I’ve said because I’ve experienced it myself.

A Review of the Movie “Unplanned”

The prefix “un” is a powerful device of the English language. Add it to any concept, and it is reversed.

Things once believed with conviction are found unbelievable. Sturdy ideological fabric is unraveled. Something sure is found unreliable.

This is the “un” of the film “Unplanned,” and I dare say that no matter the starting point for the viewer—whether pro-life or pro-choice—at the end of the film, neither will be found unaffected.

To start, over the last few years, I’ve given presentations to various Right to Life groups, and as part of the presentation, I’ve sometimes added that I believe that abortion won’t begin to subside until people are made to look at it—to actually look at it—like the citizens of Germany following World War II. No sooner than they were marched through the camps and shown the piles of bodies did they finally begin to learn the gravity of the evil in their midst and eventually own their Sin.

“Unplanned” isn’t quite the same thing, although it is a marching through the death camp of sorts. It certainly is far more than just a peek behind the curtain. And this is good, because for many in America, the topic of Abortion is more like a lizard’s tail than the actual lizard. They’ve grabbed at it for so long thinking they’ve captured it, but in reality, it has slipped away leaving behind only a fragment of itself. The casual pro-lifer thinks abortion is bad, but isn’t all that concerned with working to make it completely illegal. The casual pro-choicer just wants it to be “safe and rare.” I suppose in a sense, the film reminds people on both sides of the issue that none can be too sure of the ideology they have in hand until coming face to face with the actual lizard strutting its full color, until stepping through the gateway of the death camp. When this happens, when the moviegoer sees abortion sunning itself in full array, plans to hold onto what we think is true of abortion suddenly become un-planned. They are swiftly and mercilessly undone, unraveled, and marked as unbelievable.

It’s hard for anyone—anyone truly human, that is—to witness the tiniest among us struggling to avoid an invading monster, a beast that reaches up and into the womb to so violently tear her limb from limb and ultimately pull her through a much smaller suction tube toward a waste receptacle collecting the bubbling, gory chunks of visceral red. Seeing this, the complacent pro-lifer will better understand the value of exchanging attendance at a soccer game for the opportunity to actively participate on the front lines to overthrow the clinics performing these Auschwitz-like events. Beholding this, the obstinate pro-choicer might just be found choking on the lie betrayed by the grim ultrasound imagery of a sentient life fiercely engaging in self-preservation. God willing they might just see that abortion isn’t the virtue-signaling solution to inconvenience it has been made out to be, that it isn’t a medical procedure performed on a clump of cells, that it isn’t a fundamental right of a woman.

It’s homicide—cold, calculated slaughter.

“Unplanned” takes our preconceived notions—our ideological plans—and un-plans them.

Now just a bit of critical commentary, which should in no way dissuade you from seeing the film. See it. Take others with you. It is worth your dollars and time.

First, I’ll admit the acting isn’t the best—except for Ashley Bratcher, who plays Abby Johnson, the woman who lived the story you’re seeing on the screen. No matter how awkward some of the scripted scenes were, she invested herself fully in the drama required to carry each one. She is perhaps challenged for best performance by one of the smallest, briefest roles in the film. Anisa Nyell Johnson, whose character is only mentioned in the credits as “Rhonda’s Mom,” is on screen for maybe less than two or three minutes, but in that short period of time, she gives a stirring performance. In fact, I must confess that the only time I came close to tears during the film is when Johnson’s character pleaded with tearful screams through the fence to her daughter Rhonda not to go through with the abortion. Her voice, her tears, her description of the joy that comes from children—namely to think on the joy that has already been given to the whole family by way of the beautiful five-year-old daughter holding Rhonda’s hand in that moment as she walked into the clinic. That scene communicated better than so many of the others the very real helplessness some may be feeling at the fence.

Brooks Ryan, who plays Abby’s husband Doug, is terrible. Kaiser Johnson, who plays the lawyer, Jeff, is even worse. I’m glad his part was small. But again, between these two, I’d say the dreadful acting had more to do with scenes that were poorly scripted—which is pretty typical of Pure Flix films. It’s one reason why I don’t watch their movies. They’re almost always too awkward in their handling of sacred things, and the theology is often just as bad.

With that, I’ll just come right out and say that at times, the spirituality presented by the film was bothersome, and this is true in a couple of ways.

First of all, I’m one who thinks that the creed-less pop-spirituality offered by the arena-type churches with rock bands, screens, and no crosses on the walls (which was the brief portrayal of Christian worship in the film) is dangerous to the pro-life cause. This type of worship is shallow, and its perpetuators are seen as flaky rather than committed. All of it together is fertilizer for the roots of why the world around us doesn’t take Christianity very seriously. We’re not seen as the ageless and unbroken church that we are—one equipped with an unearthly courage that has withstood the fires of persecution and death, one that speaks its own language with powerful reverence and timeless rite and ceremony, one that exists as a culture completely distinct from all others. Rather, such thin Christianity is seen as trying to emulate the world’s ways in order to fit in. With this, why would we expect anyone outside of the church to stand up and take notice when we’re on the move or have something to say about a world-altering subject such as abortion, especially since we’ve already shown that we’re more interested in following the world’s lead?

But that is, of course, a discussion for another time.

Second, if you’re going to communicate the message of redemption, then just do it. The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation. Don’t tiptoe around it, otherwise, you run the risk of appearing half-invested in what you are trying to communicate. Just be honest. That’s what the viewer is expecting, anyway. I know the filmmakers said they didn’t want to make a “preachy” film. Still, from beginning to end, the Christian perspective is more than made known through the portrayal of prayer, the repeated discussions of God, the worship scene, the Bible quotations, the theme of humility toward enemies, the mantra of hope, and the like. All of this sets the stage for what could have been a gripping and climactic moment of Gospel when Abby finally arrives at the realization of the truest depth of what she’s done.

[Spoiler alert.]

Doug wakes up in the middle of the night to find her gone. He discovers her crumpled on the floor in the living room near the couch. She’s weeping bitterly. Her Christian husband comes to comfort her. She defines the contours of her sadness with unveiled clarity: As the director of the clinic, she’s the one responsible for the killing of over 22,000 human beings. How can she find her way through this? How could someone like her—someone nearly Hitler-esque—ever be reconciled to God?

“All you have to do is ask for forgiveness,” Doug replies, robotically.

“But how can God even begin to forgive someone like me?” are the essentials of her paralyzing and dreadfully overwhelming sadness.

“Well, because He’s God,” Doug replies, like a shallow dolt, essentially revealing God as the carefree Grampa in his rocking chair on the front porch in the sky. He doesn’t care what you’ve done. He just smiles and waves it off.

No. He does care. Sin is formidable. Death, too. And His care for us against these things cost Him a lot. For one, Sin has a price—a massively dreadful price. From the sinister actions leading to the deathly gas chambers in Germany to the thoughtless, but unkind, comment we made to our spouse at dinner, Sin has a wage and it is eternal Death—separation from God for all time. The wage for Sin will be paid out one way or another by someone. The heavenly Father sent Christ. Christ was that someone.

Here was the chance, even if only for a second, to point to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross for every Sin, even the Sin of murdering 22,000 people. Here was the chance to communicate to everyone in the theater the expanse of God’s love in Christ, the chance to meet each and every person watching the film, all of whom are most certainly wrestling with some form of guilt from this or that Sin—many staying far from Christian churches because they believe their Sins are far too great to be forgiven, maybe in this instance, squirming through the film because they’ve had an abortion. Here was the most potent of opportunities to proclaim God’s truest love for all displayed through the person and work of His Son, Jesus Christ.

But they blew it because they didn’t want to be too preachy.

Still, even with this dropping of the ball, the film is a monumental achievement. It manages to tell a distressing story and it does so with a brutal and convincing scrupulousness that meets the single most bloodthirsty issue of our day.

I should add to its credit that within the first five minutes of the film, you’ll learn the distinction between those who shout “Baby killer!” through the fence at a young and confused girl and those who are seeking to be faithful to Christ and serve in the trenches in love. Equally, and while I almost don’t want to admit it, the movie works to humanize the people working in the clinic. They are people with families who really do think that they’re helping women. In that sense, “Unplanned” is a movie made for people so that they understand other people.

But most importantly, the movie works to convince the majority that they never really had the lizard, only its tail.

I highly recommend the film, and again, I encourage you to see it. You’ll be changed. It’ll be a hard metamorphosis to experience, but it’ll be worth it. You’ll be given an insider’s look into what’s happening in abortion clinics across the country. What you’ll see, you won’t be able to unsee. It’ll be seared into your mind. For many, I hope the images are all that was needed to turn thoughts into actions and actions into results—the ultimate result being a collective awakening and a final ridding of the abomination that is abortion from this country.

“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 Veil Will Be Lifted

Lent has a strange way about it, doesn’t it?

If your church actually celebrates Lent, and you’ve been at all able to attend worship throughout the season, then you’ve more than noticed the peculiar nature of the whole thing.

The kids in the 3rd grade here in our school were wondering why we veil the crucifixes during Lent. To a few of them, it seemed like the last thing we should be doing. A student from one of the upper grades had the same thought and mentioned it to me before school one morning.

“Isn’t that kinda what the season of Lent is all about—Jesus dying on the cross?” he asked.

A very intuitive question regarding a practice that might appear to be counterintuitive. But if you know why we do it, it isn’t as capricious as you might think.

The Christian Church has marked Lent in this way for centuries, and depending upon which history writer you go to, there are various reasons given—and by the way, I fully expect my clergy-friends to critique this post, some of whom being sure to tell me what I’ve got wrong, here. But in the end, no matter the interpretation of the practice in the Church’s annals, most unfold carrying similar themes.

As a young pastor, when I first saw veils on crucifixes here in my own church, I didn’t ask why they were there. I just assumed it had to do with texts like Isaiah 25:7 which reads:

“And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations.”

The veil Isaiah is talking about is Sin.

When you know that it’s the Messiah who will take upon and then lift the veil, and when you couple that with Saint Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 5:21, which say that “for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” it makes sense for the veil to be applied to Jesus on the cross, especially during the season of Lent.

I also thought it might have to do with the veil in the temple and the fact that Christ is the One who accomplished that which would cause its tearing in half (Hebrews 10:19-22).

But I learned that neither of these were the actual reasons the church has participated in the practice. Oh, well. It sure was teaching me something, even if I didn’t know what it was, exactly. In other words, it had me thinking.

For one, most historians will pretty much tell you that the practice of veiling church adornments was far more dramatic than it is today. In fact, walking into a church in the twelfth century, you’d have seen the entire sanctuary space veiled. The pulpit and lectern would have been visible, but the altar itself would have been blocked from view. Extending out from there, all crucifixes, icons, statues, and in some cases, even some of the stained glass windows would have veils, too.

The fact that something is hidden from our sight should be the first thing we notice. Veils are barriers. They block us from seeing what’s really there.

One of the reasons that the church first started employing the practice of veiling the visuals in churches is because if ever there was a time to not be distracted by anything else around us and to listen to the Word of God—to really listen to the inspired texts given by God with the message of that which saves us—it was Lent. The story of the One who has come to die and rise again—and every iota of what that means—is at the center of Lent’s message. It is the most precise of the commemorative times. If somehow we missed the Gospel throughout the rest of the year, it is imperative that we not miss it now. Just for a time, cover the crosses. Cover the icons. Cover the images. Cover it all.

Just listen.

Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of the Gospel of our suffering Savior, Jesus Christ (Romans 10:17). Listen carefully. You’re hearing what happened. It’s the story that has a power no other story possesses. Listen. Listen very carefully.

In order to teach the students another of the reasons for veiling the crucifixes, during our Thursday chapel service I read to them Exodus 34:29-35. This is a portion of the story of Moses veiling his face after being in the presence of the Lord on Mount Sinai. The veil hid the glory of God that was still reflecting from Moses even after he’d left the Lord’s presence.

In the New Testament, when Jesus speaks of the glory of God, He often does so in reference to the truest glory of God being displayed on the cross (John 7:39; 12:23-29; Mark 10:37-38). Behold, the One true God who would die for the sins of the world! There is nothing more glorious in all of history than this. When we put a veil on the crucifix, we are saying something about the manifested glory that’s truly being represented there.

The veils teach us this.

I suppose another motive brings us back around to where we began. Veils block our views of things. I probably don’t have to remind you of the depth of the theology behind the fact that the Second person of the Holy Trinity, Jesus Christ, was veiled in the flesh (John 1:14; Philippians 2:7-8, and the like). It’s the reason we sing at Christmastime, “Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see; Hail, th’ incarnate Deity: Pleased, as man, with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel!”

Emmanuel, God with us—and yet veiled.

But finally, veils are anticipatory. They keep us at the edge of our seats as we await the one great day when the veil of this life will be lifted and we will see God face to face. One day we will depart from this life and we will be raised in our bodies to be with God in His nearest presence.

Thinking on this, can you guess when the veils will be removed from the crucifixes? Yep, Easter, the celebratory day of the resurrection of our Lord and the promise that we, too, will pass through death and rise to new life! In this, the veil is lifted forevermore!

I pray that as you continue to keep the Lenten fast, the various practices swirling among you in the midst of the season will serve to keep your focus on Christ and His work to save you. It’s a powerful time of penitent reflection and spiritual honing, all for the purpose of knowing more deeply the passion of our Savior—the cost for our sins and His willingness to pay it.