Repent for Lent – Ash Wednesday 2019

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near- a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come. Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the LORD, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.

Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD, your God?  Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O LORD, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?'”

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”

Sermon Text

Christianity must contain eschatology. That is to say, Christianity is a religion that is meaningful because it has an ending. The resurrection of the Christ allows us to see forward to our eventual resurrection. The purification of our souls through Christ’s redeeming blood is our salvation, and the sign and seal of that salvation is Christ’s resurrection from the dead. We cannot simply live in the peace of Christ dying for our sins, without the challenge and promise of his resurrection.

We do not enter into a season of happiness now. We enter into a season of quiet, a season of contemplation. Now is the time where the Church all over the world should commit itself to setting things right. Lent, the preparation for Easter, is a long stay in the tomb with the crucified Christ. Here we look inward at the reality of our brokenness, the sin-sick souls that we have no hope of healing on our own. Now is the time of weeping, now is the time of deep and penitential  prayer, now is the time to make ourselves aware of our bonds so that when Easter finally comes, we can leave them in the grace – folded up, set at the foot of the slab where we had laid ourselves down in our sin.

Christianity is given meaning in its ending, a time where we know Christ will return and right all wrongs. This the promise that we will be vindicated, that God will wipe all tears away, and that all will be as it was meant to. However, it is also a time when we must own up to all the wrongs we did. If we believe in Christ then we are indeed saved from our sin, but that does not mean that there is no recounting of them. The redeemed, though they stand free from damnation are nonetheless put to judgment, no one is spared the walk up to the Master, to be told to go either to the left or to the right.

We all have done wrong, otherwise, the cross was in vain. We all sin, or else we are lying to ourselves. If we decide that we, being washed in the blood, now have no need to repent – to change our ways, then we are mistaken. While I have no doubt that Christ is sufficient to save anyone who believes in him, I also believe that Paul is correct in saying that this can be a salvation, “But from the flames.” In which, all that we have built up in this life is burnt away and we enter heaven empty-handed. Yes, we inherit the fullness of God, but there is something in the teachings of Christ and of Paul which suggests that the Kingdom does have levels of benefit for certain peoples.

Does this mean that heaven is a meritocracy in which only the holiest find joy? Of course not! However, it does mean that we can enjoy the full benefits of heaven in the now and the hereafter if we are only willing to, “build up our treasures in heaven.” This is not a statement to make the poor feel like their poverty is a blessing, that they should grin and bear the here and now, but instead a strong statement against those who hoard wealth. Those of us who have too much, who benefit from the ability to be at rest, who surround ourselves with trinkets and gadgets, constantly upgrading them and wasting money on our stomachs rather than on our neighbors.

Jesus goes further in today’s scripture that there is something wasteful about the way in which we usually go about doing good. That’s right, there is wastefulness even in the way that we do good. The examples presented are not meant to strike at the hearts of the elite only, although if we are honest Jesus had the most problems with those at the top of the proverbial latter. No, these were trespasses that anyone could commit, not just the rich and powerful. The sins of the heart which are common to all people are here laid out for us.

Do you give to the poor? Not just to the church, though tithing is important, do you give to the poor? The people who are by the side of the road, panhandlers and window washers. Do you see them and have pity on them, do you see them and give good things to them? I would hope so, but the reality is that many of us do not. Still more, when we do give to the poor, we find ourselves telling others about it as soon as possible. It is not satisfactory enough that we have completed Christ’s command, “give to whoever asks of you what they ask of you,” but we must also have glory for it. How many posts do we make about “paying it forward” on Facebook, or how many stories do we share in which someone tells of the good they’ve done for someone.

There is an entire culture around what some call, “Inspiration Porn.” While this may seem like a strong title I think that it is fitting, it takes the good actions of humanity and commodifies it. We are able to take in good feelings just by reading someone recounting what they did to help someone else. This is not to say all sharing is bad, and certainly elevating others who do good is a noble pursuit. What I am saying is that we should not be wrapped up in our own self-promotion, or encourage others who want to show the world how holy they are. You can share the article that was written about you, you can tell people the organization you work with and what they do, but be careful that you do no chase after feeling good for being good.

In the same way, praying should not be something we do for show. Jesus is not, as some have interpreted, saying that all public prayer is wrong. What he is saying is that, much like with giving, if you go out of your way to pray in such a way that people will see you and think, “Dang… That’s one holy person.” Then you are in the wrong.

How many times do we, because we don’t want to look bad, raise our hands during a worship song? How many times do we look extra contrite during a sermon lest someone look at us and thinks we’re not engaged? Jesus wants your prayer to be authentic, you worship to be really about you, God, and the community you’re in. He goes so far to say that if you are gonna be caught up in the pressure of public prayer, you would do better to pray alone. We all can get pressured into religious expressions we are not feeling, but Jesus is telling us to be authentic.

Not feeling like singing a praise song? Stand up, join in with the community, but do not feel bad if you frown your way through “Marching to Zion.” If a sermon is not touching you, do not nod your head or shout amen just to look engaged. Worship is communal, so yes we should strive to be on the same page as much as possible, but if have to choose between being authentic and looking like you have it all together – then pick authenticity.

The final point Jesus makes, and what I will use as the launching point for our Lenten sermons going ahead, is that when we fast we should not do it in a way that’s obvious to the public. Not only this, but Jesus says that you should look better when you fast than when you’re eating. Take that extra step to look presentable, not just because it helps keeps your piety private, but because you are doing a good thing. You are taking steps toward God. By willfully holding off from food, you are allowing God to speak to you in new ways. If I’m going to be seeing an old friend, I try to look a little more presentable, and I’m usually happy about that meeting. So, do not look sad when you fast or you’ve given something up for God, be happy. It means you get to meet God in new ways.

We are entering into Lent. We are facing up to what we have done wrong. We should not engage these forty days with pomp and circumstance. No, today begins a period of time when we inhabit our death. “Dust we are, and to dust we shall return.” What is born from that dust, what is born out like a phoenix shaking off the ashes of its parent, that is for God to work within us. We should be contrite, we should not broadcast our contrition to the world. We should seek to repair relationships, we should not tell that to people so that they congratulate us. We should pray more, but not so that people think better of us. We should review what we have, and give more, but not so that we seem like more generous people.

We should repent for Lent. Forget what you will, “give up” in terms of chocolate or sugar or whatever it may be. Still do this to train yourself in discipline, but focus more on your soul. “Rend your heart, not your clothes.” Be kinder, own up to what you have down wrong, ask forgiveness and give it freely. Lent is a season of prayer, of fasting, and above all else of returning to God. As we sit in the ashes of our sin, the garden that we have burned, we look toward the restoration of all things Christ has promised us. So let us commit ourselves to the works of God, not so that others will know we are good, but that we may turn to God and find blessings where once there was desolation. That in all our conduct we make it obvious, that God is good. – Amen

“God was One of Us” – The Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord 2019

Hebrews 2:10-18

It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason, Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying,

“I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters,
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”
And again,
“I will put my trust in him.”
And again,
“Here am I and the children whom God has given me.”

            Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore, he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Luke 2:22-40

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.”

            And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

Sermon Text

Christ, in order to bring about our salvation, became just like us. Doesn’t that just sound a little wrong? When we think about ourselves, and we think about Jesus, we will typically put a bit of a crowbar between us – separating out he, the incarnate word of God, and we the people who are lucky enough to have heard his name. Still, Christ – though still fully God – did become fully human. How does that work? I don’t think we can really know – much like the trinity where 1+1+1=1, here 1+1=1. The fullness of God, and the fullness of a human person were able to coexist in one body, and continue to do so to this day.

That’s something that’s easy to forget I think. Christ, as we’re told in the Gospels, rose bodily into heaven. This means that at the right hand of God is not just a spiritual being, not just some invisible conception of divinity – but a human being, perfected in death and resurrection – but a human being nonetheless. What a wonderful truth, that beside God, before God at all times, is a reminder of what a human being can be – the perfection of Christ is a physical proof, and a seal to the promise which God offers us in the Gospel of Matthew – “be thou perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect.” Because, it can be said, God only commands what is possible, as such this commandment, to be perfect and the reality of Christ’s resurrection show us that it is really possible for us to be perfected, but only through the action of God.

We are told, in our readings, that Christ saved humanity through becoming one of us. We are told in our Gospel that Christ and his mother did indeed do everything a human being needed to do after being born. Jesus, as the first born of the family – was dedicated at the temple, and an offering made to God in accordance with the Law. It was not just any offering though, it was the offering that only the poorest of people were allowed to make – two small birds.

Christ had a choice, in taking on human flesh he could have been born a prince. Grown up to be king and ruled over the entire world as a physical ruler. Or perhaps been born among merchants, and sent word of his greatness on ships and with caravans. No such decision was made though, Christ was given to Mary – a faithful woman as poor as could be – the wife of tradesmen. The two lived destitute in a backwater village, in a region surrounded on all sides by Gentiles. Jesus chose not just to be human, but to be like the poorest and most marginalized he could be.

Christ would then go on to live a hard life. While being apprenticed to his father Christ seems to have been taken under the wing of his Cousin John. Though we can never be sure, it is likely through working with John that people became to regard Jesus as a Rabbi – a teacher of the Law. Tradition holds that Christ then waited for some years, and after the death of Joseph he began his ministry – first by being baptized by John, and then by being tempted.

We are told that Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness to face the devil – and while that is a talk much more suited for Lent, it shows once again that Christ was not immune to temptation – he still engaged with it, the difference being that he was the only person to never give into it. The ministry of Christ was then completely itinerate, he never stopped anywhere for more than a few days. The blisters his feet must have had, the sunburn and the cracked skin that must have covered his face. There is a reason that when the early Christians read in Isaiah, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” They immediately thought of Jesus.

And what should befall this servant of God, after three years of painful travels, of preaching, of working miracles? A humiliating death on a cross. Surrounded by criminals, mocked and beaten by soldiers. Jesus was so weak when they crucified him, he barely lasted a few hours. In fact, if you read the passion stories, it sounds like he nearly died on the way up the hill. The God of the Universe, the eternal Word who jumpstarted all of creation, finished up a hard life by dying a horrible death.

His mother too, who had followed him all his life, stood by him as he died. “A sword pierced her soul.” The minute that the soldier stabbed Jesus’ lifeless corpse, proving to everyone there that he had died. Think for a moment of Mary, who loved her son more than life, like any mother would. She watched him grow, she cherished every moment with him the scripture says, and even when she didn’t understand – she still was among the disciples who followed him. Now though, she’s lost her baby – her first, miraculous child now lies cold in a nearby tomb. No wonder she woke up early the next day, to try and give him some dignity in his death.

The tomb was empty though, and after a few weeks of teaching his disciples, Christ was brought up into heaven. There he sits, perfect. Looking down on each of us, hearing our prayers, and relating to us when we tell him our problems. It would be one thing if we were told by scripture that Christ suffered in a way we can’t even imagine. In some ways sure he did, in much the same way that you and I, though we may have been hurt similarly – never really have ever gone through the same thing. I lost my grandfather when I was young, maybe you did too – but that loss is unique, as unique as our grandfathers were, as unique as we are. Still though, when Scripture talks about Christ suffering, it’s said in a way that reminds us that Christ knows what we’ve been through.

“Christ, I’m sick, I need to be healed or at least to know I’m taken care of.” A God who was never sick could never know, but Christ did. A God who never feared death could never strengthen those who faced it now, but Christ was in agony in Gethsemane, and he hears us when we cry even now. He suffered not to be above us in how he suffered, but to be with us when we suffer.

Likewise, as Christ is raised up and brought before God – we too are lifted into the company of the Father. Christ, in suffering our suffering let us enter into his life as much as he entered into ours. As Christ descended into our flesh, so we are allowed to be resurrected with Christ. The death of Christ would not be sufficient for us to enter into our rest, unless Christ also rose from the dead. There is no miracle in someone dying, but there is promise and miracle and life in the resurrection of a person. In rising in a perfected physical form, Christ assured we could do the same.

Now we are granted the gift of a divine representative before God. We are told that Christ is not just ruling in heaven and doing nothing. Instead Christ is constantly praying for us, praying with us. When we suffer Christ is able to turn to his Father and say, “See, they suffer as I did. Remember how you wanted to save me when I suffered? How ready you were to send angels to defend me? Do the same for them, give them the help that I surrendered to you.” We have an advocate, a high priest as Hebrews explains, that knows what it’s like to suffer, to die, to weep, to laugh. If God was ever unsure what it was to be human, Christ’s wonderful incarnation and resurrection assured he would know every detail of our lives.

Christ, by entering into our flesh and blood, allows us to become siblings with himself. We are therefore heirs of the resurrection. We are given all the rights, all the gifts, which a child of God are afforded. What are those gifts? What rights do we have? The gifts are all the goodness which grows within us – love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. We are given a spirit of discernment, not a spirit of fear, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self control.

What are our rights? Well, one could say that we are made co-rulers with Christ. Indeed, we are. However, insofar as we live on this earth we are called to follow Christ in giving up this singular right, we are to be subservient to all people. Giving to whoever asks, serving whoever needs help, and always putting others before ourselves. However, when the world to come arrives, we will be rulers in the Holy City, treated as princes and princesses, royal children in all benefits. In the meantime, we are given a power which surpasses all worldly powers. Namely, the power of unhindered prayer.

We, the church, in heaven and on Earth are given the ability through Christ to boldly approach God. We do not approach God as if we are enemies of God, we are not walking on egg shells when we pray. We are obedient, yes. We work out our salvation, “with fear and trembling,” yes. But at the end of it all God tells us to move forward and to be bold in worship and bold in intercession. “Praise God from whom all blessing flows.” And “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have Mercy.” Are both bold statements, and the unique blessing of Christ’s priesthood allows for us to pray unceasingly, to ask that we may receive.

With Christ in Heaven, who understands what it is to live. With the confidence of Children and Heirs of Promise. With the fullness of our future role as priests and rulers in the Kingdom. With the Boldness of those who fearlessly ask God for whatever needs they have. Let us go forward and worship, this day and always, our God who was willing to become one of us. Let us, through the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord, enter in fully into the Kingdom. Amen.