Ashes

This week we begin the part of the Church year known as Lent.  The word Lent actually comes from a word that meant spring.  Lent is the harbinger of spring, a signal that life will begin anew very soon.  We can’t see it yet, but we know something grand is about to happen.

This Wednesday people from St. Paul’s and Christ Community Church will gather together in our sanctuary for a service known as Ash Wednesday.  During that service most of the congregation will come forward and have a small cross of ashes put on their foreheads.  The words said to them will be; from dust you have come, to dust you shall return.  In other words, your body once was not, and, unless Jesus comes again before your death, your body will return to the dust from which it came.  We start the Lenten season by reminding ourselves that because of sin, our bodies will die.  It’s not exactly a place for a service of “happy, happy, clappy, clappy,” is it?

In terms of the Church year, which follows the life of Christ on earth, Lent represents the period of time after the Transfiguration which took place in a Gentile area north of Galilee.  It is the period in which Jesus and His disciples move from that place south, through Galilee, Samaria and the trans-Jordan to Jerusalem where He will be hailed first as King, and then 5 days later crowned not with gold but with thorns as He is hung on a cross to die.

Luke says that Jesus “set His face to go to Jerusalem.”  That’s an interesting phrase, “set His face…”  It speaks of the Lord’s determination, His resolute will to accomplish that which He came to do.  The binding of mankind’s destiny wrought by sin was soon to be no more, but such a mighty deed could not be fulfilled without great and terrible pain.  Jesus set His fact to go to Jerusalem because He had a mission–a mission to lift us, you and me, up out of the ashes of death and bring us into the light of life eternal.

Lent is roughly 6 weeks long but does not include Sundays, which are always celebrations of the Resurrection.  During that time I encourage everyone to be as resolute in their remembrance of the sacrifice of Christ as He was resolute in His determination to make that sacrifice.  It’s been said that there is no such thing as a free lunch–and when we consider what God did for us, that is most certainly true.

 

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Who Says …

You probably haven’t had this  conversation since you were a kid, but you no doubt remember it.  Someone accuses you of something and the first thing out of your mouth is “who says?”  Who says I did it?  And the implication, of course, was that the person who said it was lying.  Who says?  While we generally said it with great indignation, it was often faked because whoever said “it” was probably right.

In today’s world Christians are often confronted with just this kind of question.  Who says Jesus is the only Way?  Who says sex outside marriage is wrong?  Who says that we’re supposed to love our neighbors when most of them are idiots anyway?  Who says staying away from church is a bad thing?  Who says …  Who says … Who says?

Of course the answer to all these questions is simple–God says.  God says that you will be shut out from His presence if you deny Jesus.  God says that we are to love others–even difficult people who dislike us or even hate us.  God says that we were made to be in life long relationships and that sex is part of that relationship alone.  God says that we are not to cease to meet together.  God says all of that and very much more.

The challenge for us as believers is to teach these things to people in ways which will engage their minds and hearts.  And that’s not always easy.  But then again, how easy do you think it was in the first century?  Was it easy to tell pagans that there is only one God and that He consists of three Persons, each of which is separate but also the same?  Was it easy to tell people in the first century that the Creator of the universe decided to become a man so that He could bear the punishment we deserve for sins which are not just bad things we do but an inherited trait?  Was it easy?  Of course not, it was hard then and it’s hard now.

And yet every day in this world of ours men and women, boys and girls are coming to an assurance of their salvation because someone told them “who says”.  This happens not  because some people are especially gifted with an ability to explain the unexplainable, nor because those who tell are especially anointed by God, nor because they’re using modern techniques of evangelism.  (Indeed, I would say that modern evangelistic techniques have proven themselves to be inferior to the old fashioned method of one believer telling another of what God has done for him and inviting his friend to come see for himself).  No my friends, these things happen because God has caused them to happen.

God has elected His children from before time began.  And the way He brings them into His fold is to have one of His who are already there telling others about the Good News that Jesus Christ was crucified and risen for them.  In his letter to the church in Rome and to us, Paul writes that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation.  The Gospel explodes into the hearts and minds of those whom He has called.  And when it does, they no longer say, “who says”.  They then know the answer to the question.

Horseradish

When I take my granddaughter to school we pass a “country market”.  Mostly they sell meats, but one of their products is a cheese spread with horseradish in it.  I love that stuff.  I almost think I could just eat it with a spoon if I didn’t have any crackers.  I always get the one marked with extra horseradish.

Horseradish is the root of a plant that has been cultivated for thousands of years.  It probably began in Eastern Europe and spread out from there by traders.  In the Middle Ages it was used as a medicine.  But most folks over the centuries have used it as a condiment.  It has a spicy tang that can clear your sinuses if you need such clearing, as many of us do this time of the year.

I’m sharing this with you because it makes me think of Jesus. (I’m almost tempted to stop here and see if anyone can tell what I’m talking about, but I won’t)

Horseradish makes food taste different.  Indeed, if you really slap it on, it can overwhelm the underlying taste.  When we come to a living faith in Christ, it makes everything in our lives “taste” different.  That which was dull and boring, becomes exciting and joyous.  That which seemed so good before Christ took over our life pales in its attraction and makes us wonder how we could ever have been satisfied with such a drab reality.  Horseradish opens our sinuses, Christ opens our hearts and souls.

One of the unfortunate things that has happened to the Church in the last 200 years is the watering down of Jesus.  Somehow or another, the Man/God from Galilee, the carpenter, the strong and forceful Revelation of all truth, the One who changed the world, became “our sweet Jesus up in the sky”.  Instead of a Man who had made his living building structures and furniture without power tools, He began to be pictured as a feminine fellow with a beard–blond of course because no Northern European could easily admit that their Savior was a 5 foot 6 inch, swarthy skinned, hook nosed Jew.

But what we did was (using this message’s analogy) was to turn horseradish into yellow mustard.  Yellow mustard won’t excite your taste buds.  And a wimpy Lord won’t change your life.  The Lord Jesus is many things, but the one thing He is not is dull.

Friends, those who know Jesus as Lord and Savior, know the Son of the living God who has changed everything important for us.  Those whose hearts have been changed through the proclamation of the  Word of God and who have thereby become assured of their salvation have a Savior, a Redeemer, whose power and might are beyond any human conception.  We know it and see it in our own lives.  We experience it in a way that unbelievers can’t even imagine.

We’ve often heard it said that this or that is the “spice of life.”  Well, let’s be serious here–Jesus is the spice of life.  He it is who will make all things new, all things for the good of His people and all things to the Glory of God the Father Almighty.

 

 

Blessings

As my wife and I sat looking out at the heavy snow this past weekend I thought what great blessings God had made in my life. At that moment the blessings I counted very dear were those of shelter and the necessities of life–food, water, clothing, etc.  But then the Lord brought me another thought–what are the blessings He was giving to the least and the last in our society? How was He blessing those who were living in tents or taking a day or two in the cold weather shelter?  If I’m so blessed, what are their blessings?

And then the answer came to me (no doubt from Him).  We are their blessings.  God is blessing those who are the weakest in our society with people who can care for them in the midst of their poverty, illness and trials.  God has blessed the poor with people who are not poor.  He has blessed the least with those who have the most.  We are His gift to those who never receive gifts.

But we are only a blessing to these folks when we actually do something to help them.  Otherwise we are just a potential blessing, one willed by God but ignored by those He has chosen to be His tools in the world.

The Bible is full of statements about God’s desire for His people to aid the poor who live amongst them.  It is in the Old Testament and it is in the New Testament.  It is in the Law, and it is in the Gospel.  It is taught by Jesus and preached by Paul.  If you take out every verse in the Bible in which God proclaims His concern for the welfare of the poor–well, we’d have a much thinner Bible.

So how are we to be God’s blessing to the poor?  Well, there are all sorts of possibilities.  We can give money to organizations that work with people in need.  We can volunteer to work with those organizations.  We can support government programs designed to help those who need help the most.  We can advocate for the poor in our conversations with friends and others.  And, most importantly, we can pray.

Now I know lots of people would question whether praying was the most important thing we could do.  Just a few weeks ago major news outlets and politicians were mocking calls to pray for the victims of a shooting in California.  But prayer is absolutely essential for any effort to bless the least, last and lost of this world.

One of the most important servants of the poorest of the poor, the most wretched in our society was a woman named Dorothy Day.  Many people wanted to come and work with her at her mission center in Hell’s Kitchen in New York.  When they arrived they found they were expected to go to church every morning and be part of a prayer group every day.  Many walked away from that work because they could not understand what Dorothy Day understood so well–if God is not in the work, the work will not prosper.

So be a blessing, friends.  Be a blessing as God meant us all to be.  And if you see me not being a blessing–well, call me on it because I have the same mission as you do.

Looking but not seeing

Yesterday I was out doing some visitations.  These took me to 3 different towns in our county and so I had some good windshield time.  We live in a rural area and as I drove I saw the rolling hills and the now brown and yellow fields slumbering in the winter cold.  The occasional small herd of cows or goats also stuck out.  It was beautiful and I truly thanked God for being able to live in such a lovely place.

I grew up in the county next to the one I now live in and it too has a lovely landscape of hills and dales and hedge rows.  But when I was young I never truly saw the beauty in them.  In fact, I used to joke that I wanted to pave over the entire valley and turn it into a cityscape.  I was so self absorbed then that I could not see what was truly just in front of me and all I could think of was how to turn it into something that would be more in tune with my thoughts and ideas.

Well, as we age our opinions and ideas change.  And the things that I value today are the very things I ignored all those years ago.  Today I cannot only look at the world around me, I can actually see it in a way I couldn’t back in the day, as they say.  Of course my own opinions and ideas still impinge on the picture, but at least they cloud it over a lot less than they did 50 years ago.

Looking but not seeing is a problem for most of us and it shows up in our opinions and attitudes about faith.  Some people look at the Christian faith and those who profess it and think they know what it is all about, but they never really do.  Instead they create for themselves a caricature of the faith, which they believe they can safely ignore.  Still more folks carry with them an understanding of the faith which is really that of a child.  They sort of remember Sunday school with it’s “Jesus loves you so be good” lessons but they have never become men or women who truly get it.  Often they’re the ones we call C&E’s–people who come to church only on Christmas and Easter.

But being a follower of Jesus is process that involves, as St. Peter writes to us in both of his letters, knowledge and understanding.  And knowledge requires more than mere looking, it requires seeing with the clear eyes of one who has spent the time necessary to learn about the most important topic in the world.

Jesus, on several occasions in His teaching, says that those who have ears will hear and those who have eyes will see.  When you turn your eyes toward Jesus, do you see Him?  Or are you just looking?  Do you see God’s love for you in His sacrifice on the Cross and His rising from the grave?  Do you see how that event forever changed everything?  Do you see, or are you just looking?

It’s In The Details

I have a general idea about how an internal combustion engine works.  There is gasoline in a tank and a pump moves it to the engine where a spark ignites the fumes and the explosion that makes drives pistons up and down, etc.  However, I could no more repair said engine than I could fly without an airplane.  I don’t know the details of how an engine works–just an overview.  Being completely honest, I couldn’t even tell you what a fuel pump even looks like.

If we want to succeed at anything in life we need to know the details of what we are doing.  Typing requires knowing where the keys are placed.  Good cooking requires us to know the amount of the various ingredients for a recipe.  You get the idea.

Today I finished leading a Bible study on the letters of St. Peter to the Church of the first century and to us. (Next week we start on Paul’s letter to the Romans).  One of the key points Peter makes in both letters is that followers of Jesus must have knowledge and understanding of the faith.  And he makes this point over and again because there will be people who will try to teach things that are not true, and if we don’t know and understand what the Bible actually teaches about the faith, we can be led astray.  It’s all in the details, you see.

There is no way to know the details of the Christian faith without studying that faith.  And there is no better place to study it than in God’s Word itself.  It is fine to read what other people write about what God says to us or wants from us.  But simply counting on another person to tell us what to believe about Jesus or what to believe about the Holy Spirit, leaves us open to errors and even to falsehood.

Over the centuries there have been numerous heresies invading the Church.  They have all sorts of names–Nestorianism, Arianism, Unitarianism, etc.  Each of these starts with the Word of God and takes it down a path that God did not ordain.  There is just enough plausibility in each of them to fool believers who know the outline but are fuzzy on the details.  Telling the good from the bad can often be a matter of knowing the details.

We live in a very certain time.  Things change daily, all around us.  Life moves rapidly from one thing to the next.  We run hard just trying to stay in place.   We feel buffeted by the storms of life.  But there is a solid Rock to which we can cling.  There is a Rock of Ages in which we can find haven from the elements and peace in our souls.  That Rock is Christ.  The gales may blow and the snow may fall, but Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever.

For us to know that the Rock we are clinging to is the One that can’t be eroded away, we have to know the details of the faith we have received, the faith handed down once for all.  So today I encourage you to spend time in the Word of God.  Study it for yourself.  Study it in conjunction with other believers.  Study it and learn all the details.  No one has ever been sorry for doing that.

 

 

Hungry Again

I recently ate at an Italian restaurant and they had a cute sign up, it said the trouble with Italian food is that you eat it and 3 or 4 days later you’re hungry again.  After laughing about it I was struck by how that sign could be used to reflect on life in general.  One of the things many people suffer from today is dissatisfaction with their lives.  Somehow nothing much seems to make us happy for very long.  We try this and we try that; we pick up this hobby and drop it before we really master it; we buy this toy or that suit or that dress and then after a while they just seem old to us; we start a career only to find it doesn’t seem to  be what we thought it would; even our personal relationships too often seem less than we think they ought to be, so we move on to the next one always believing the best grass is just over the fence.  But it never quite seems to be.  America is full of restless, dissatisfied and unhappy people.  And this sense of vague discontent is spreading as the changes in our society come ever faster and we are told by countless commercials and pundits that we have to get on the rocket to somewhere lest we be left behind.

It is unfortunate that so many folks we see everyday of our lives cannot be content.  The lack of contentment is like a disease that erodes our mental and spiritual health.  St. Paul spoke of himself as he addressed this issue. “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low and I know how to abound.”  Paul led a life of up and downs, great successes followed by disheartening failures, true friends and people who abandoned him.  Yet he could say he was content.  Why could he say this?  Well a few sentences after the last quotation he writes, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”  Paul could be content however he found himself because he had the strength of God to see him through the hard times and help him rejoice in the good times.  He could be content because he wasn’t, as the old country song put it, looking for love in all the wrong places.

That, you see, is our trouble, we are always trying to find peace and contentment somewhere other than in the presence of Jesus Christ–and it isn’t there, wherever there might be.  You and I, we were made for God and our hearts are always going to be restless until they rest in Him.  Unless Jesus is your Rock and your Salvation you’re always going to be hungry again 3 or 4 days later.  People have the idea they can do very well without God or without His Church, but all the evidence is to the contrary.  So if you ever wonder why you can’t seem to go very long without getting “hungry” for something new, well, you’re just not seeking the right thing.  True freedom, true happiness, is only found in Jesus.