Scripture Readings: Genesis 17:1–7, 15–16 | Psalm 22:23–31 | Romans 4:13–25 | Mark 8:31–38
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. Mark 8:34-35
For many today, self-denial presents a serious struggle. Our current culture is one in which we’re urged to give in to our urges… to pursue what makes us ‘happy’ as one of the highest goals in life. We can see this at work in the blatant consumerism all around us… promising us fulfillment if we’ll buy into what they’re selling. We can also see this at work in the more belligerent resistance to making simple concessions for the sake of the safety of others… like wearing masks in public during a global pandemic. But before we get to comfortable pointing our fingers at those ‘other’ people, it’s good to remember that this same struggle is at work in us as well. No one loves to be told to do what we don’t really want to do. To go against our own instincts, or set aside our plans. To do something like that requires a whole lot of trust… trust in the one who is asking us to follow their lead instead.
In our Scripture readings today from the book of Genesis and the Gospel of Mark, we find the Living God at work inviting His people to trust Him: to set aside our own agendas, and hand our lives over to Him.
In our reading from Genesis 17, we heard the Living God reaffirm His relationship with Abram and Sarai, who He renames Abraham and Sarah. We heard God call them into a deeper, life-shaping commitment, promising that through them both would come many nations and kings. This all sounds wonderful, especially for Abraham and Sarah, who were both well beyond the age when having children was even possible. God’s promising them more then they could ever achieve on their own. But wrapped up in this wonderful promise is also an invitation to faith, by saying no to their own ideas about the way forward. This is a call to take God at His word, even if it seems impossible.
Backing up a bit in Abraham’s story, this all becomes a bit clearer. In Chapter 15, God promises that Abram will have children of his own… offspring who will carry on his line, despite his advanced age. In Chapter 15:5-6, God tells him: “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” 6 And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” So far so good. He trusted God, and took Him at His word, but as their story unfolds, we can see that Abram and Sarai will continue to struggle to let go of control… causing deep pain and wickedness as a result.
Right after God makes this promise, in Genesis Chapter 16, Sarai decides the only way forward is to take matters into her own hands, by making her Egyptian slave sleep with Abram, to bear him a son. Calling to mind how Eve took the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and gave it to Adam, choosing to go their own way, instead of staying true to the LORD, Genesis 16:3 says “Sarai, Abram’s wife, took Hagar the Egyptian, her slave-girl, and gave her to her husband Abram as a wife.” Together they use this vulnerable person as a tool to achieve their own ends… and from this act, all sorts of cruelty and division unfold in their family. And yet, God steps in to bring life and hope to Hagar and Ishmael her son… leading us to Chapter 17 where the LORD has words with Abram and Sarai. “I am God Almighty”, He reminds them, able to be faithful, despite all their doubts, and for their part they’re to walk before Him “and be blameless.” How they live in the world as His people matters: their faith needs to take shape in all they do. Letting go of their own agendas, and letting God lead them onward.
In short, God calls Abraham and Sarah to a renewed relationship of faithfulness; trusting that the LORD would be true to His word, as impossible as it may seem, and that they were to let go of their need for control, and follow His holy ways.
In our Gospel reading today, we find another call to faithfulness, another wonderful promise, and another struggle at work.
We heard Jesus our Lord making clear what it means to be His disciple: it means denying ourselves, taking up our crosses, and following Him. The scholar R.T. France makes an important point about what this really entails: “The metaphor of taking up one’s own cross is not to be domesticated into an exhortation merely to endure hardship patiently. In this context… it is an extension of Jesus’ readiness for death to those who follow him, and the following verses will fill it out still in terms of the loss of life, not merely the acceptance of discomfort. While it may no doubt be legitimately applied to other and lesser aspects of the suffering involved in following Jesus, the primary reference in context must be to the possibility of literal death.” As was the case for Christians throughout the ages, and even to this day, following Jesus means putting it all on the line: it may lead us to our death.
This is a clear call for serious commitment. For entrusting our entire lives to the LORD. But with this call to deny ourselves, comes the promise of New Life. Unlike the fleeting security and false fulfillment our world has to offer, Jesus is leading us into the eternal life of God. “For those who want to save their life will lose it,” Jesus says, “and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” (Mark 8:35). Just as the LORD promised that Abraham & Sarah would have offspring of their own, as impossible as it seemed, Christ promises that as hard as discipleship may be, it will all be worth it! That following Him to the cross is truly the path to life. The question again becomes: will we take Christ at His word?
Backing up again… before Christ says these challenging yet promising words, we heard what led Him to utter them: the challenge from Peter. Moments before, Peter had been the first to confess that Jesus was more than simply a teacher, a miracle worker, or prophet, but was in fact the Christ, the Chosen Messiah of God, sent to rescue His people, and bring God’s good kingdom at last. It’s clear Peter believed in Jesus… but just like Abram and Sarai before him, he struggled to let go of his own ideas of how God’s plan would unfold. Unable to reconcile his own vision of what it meant to be the Messiah, with Jesus’ words about rejection, suffering, and death, Peter tried to turn his Master away from His dangerous mission… but ended up getting in the way of God’s kingdom.
So Christ has words with Peter, calling him to remember that our human ways are not the same as the ways of God. That despite how frightening the path before them might be, enduring the cross was the only way God’s good kingdom would be able to come. To trust that Jesus is the Christ means letting Him lead us onward… sharing in His sufferings, to also share in His New Life.
As Christians today, faced with our own struggles, temptations, and doubts, we too are invited to trust in Christ, and follow Him in faith. To let our plans and actions be shaped and guided by His holy love; to bring to Him our fears of losing control, and suffering; to remember that God Almighty can truly handle what lies before us; and to believe that our Saviour will see us safely home.
Christ’s call for us to deny ourselves is above all else an invitation to trust Him. Not only once and a while, but all throughout our days. So may the Holy Spirit give us the faith to pick up our crosses and follow Jesus. Living God’s way in the world, as He leads us into Life. Amen.
 R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2002), 340.
Today is the second Sunday of the holy season of Lent.
It is a time of repentance, renewed obedience, and preparation for the celebration of Holy Week: the crucifixion and saving death of Jesus Christ on Good Friday, and the joyous resurrection of our Lord on Easter.
The season of Lent draws together a host of important biblical themes. Here is a short video from the Bible Project that can help us explore the theme of The Test in the Bible.
Our service of Morning Prayer, Bulletin, and Sermon this week can be found here:
Our All-Ages Song for Lent can be found here:
And our other Songs can be found here:
This has been a year in which our world has been confronted with our human mortality, our fragility, and need for mercy in a profound and extended way. As followers of Christ, today we commemorate Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, in which we put this reality of our pain and brokenness into the context of the saving story of God, in which Jesus Christ has embraced us in His own death for us "while we were still sinners" (Romans 5:8), in order that we might share in His own resurrection life.
Here you will find our At-Home Ash Wednesday service, so that each household can mark this sacred day together, even though we are not gathering all together at St. Luke's Church at this time. I will be at St. Luke's this evening to offer the Imposition of Ashes portion of the service individually (and in a safe manner) from 7-8PM for any who desire this particular ministry.
You will also find a link to a reflection on Lent by Rev. James W. Farwell (Professor of Theology and Liturgy, and Director of Anglican Studies at Virginia Theological Seminary), entitled "Must We Do Lent This Year?", which I hope will be edifying.
Many blessings as we begin this sacred season of Lent, aware of our many needs, yet confident in the faithfulness of our Saviour.
Scripture Readings: 1 Samuel 16:1-13 | Psalm 23 | Ephesians 5:8-14 | John 9:1-41
For once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. (Ephesians 5:8-10, NRSV).
This past week has certainly been an eventful one, hasn’t it? Last Sunday we were still wrapping our heads around things like ‘passing the peace’ with a wave, light refreshments instead of our weekly fellowship meal, and only sharing the Bread together during Communion. Now suddenly we are required to cease gathering altogether… to worship the Lord as the scattered members of His Church, not to mention all of the other major adjustments in the rhythms of our daily lives. It is amazing how much can change in such a short time.
But change is nothing new for us. From the beginning, we Christians have been a people of change, although at times we may have forgotten this important part of our collective past. As individual believers we have each been called into a life of discipleship: of continuous learning and growing and training in the way of Jesus, our Master. And as the Church, we are called to be a community that is aligned to God’s good will, and to be willing ourselves to be realigned to Him whenever we get off track. As St. Paul wrote to the Church in Ephesus, which we read together this morning, though we were once in darkness, in Jesus, we are to leave that form of life firmly behind us… we are to be changed… and now we are to live (together and alone) as children of the light.
In our Gospel lesson this morning we heard a dramatic (and enlightening) account of one man’s life-changing encounter with Jesus… how the Living God gave sight, in more ways than one, to a man who was born blind.
But first things first, of course. This story does not begin with the man suddenly deciding to change himself… or even with him taking the initiative to ask for help. No, here we are told that it all simply began when Jesus saw the man. Christ saw this man in his blindness… and did not pass him by. In our suffering, or blindness, or darkness, can we believe that Christ sees us?
The disciples saw the man too, of course… but not in the same way at all. Rather than be moved with compassion, they instead focused in on his problems… preoccupied with wondering whose fault was it that the man had been born blind in the first place. In those days, (not unlike our own) it was often assumed that physical impairments like congenital blindness were the result of God’s judgment on sin… that someone must have ‘done’ something to deserve that painful lot in life. For the disciples, this man’s predicament had them playing the ‘blame game’; trying to make sense of it all by finding out for certain who is at fault. Before we start picking on the disciples though, we might want to ask ourselves how often we do the same kind of thing… fixating on problems and searching for ‘causes’, but not actually doing much good.
Jesus doesn’t answer their question though. At least, not in the way they were expecting. He does not offer them an explanation for the man’s situation. He does not lay any blame or answer their big questions about the causes of human suffering. No, Jesus points them instead to what God’s work, God’s good will actually look like in action: He gives them a glimpse of His New Creation… New Life, beyond all expectations.
Disregarding the taboos against working on the Sabbath, Christ makes mud from some dirt and his own spit, rubs it on the blind man’s eyes, and tells him to go wash in the pool named ‘Sent’. We are told the blind (and no doubt confused) man listens to Jesus… he goes and washes himself just as he was told, and miraculously receives full sight for the first time in his life. In an instant, his whole life was changed, completely transformed… and in the same moment, his journey of faith had begun.
The rest of our Gospel passage plays out with a comic back and forth between the spiritual experts, who stubbornly refuse to see God’s re-creative work right in their midst, and this unlearned man who had just received his sight… and who is slowly coming to see that Jesus really is the One sent from God to do His divine work: who finds him at last and takes him from living in darkness into the light of faith… re-creating his physical eyes, yes, but even more importantly giving him spiritual eyes to recognize the Living God at work in Jesus… and to believe in Christ wholeheartedly, and worship Him as Lord.
This passage from John’s Gospel is a beautiful story of how Jesus completely changed someone’s life: setting them free and drawing them deeper towards the light and life of God. But it is also a story meant to invite us to reflect on our own stories too. How is Jesus drawing us deeper into His light today? How are we being asked to exercise faith in the Living God, and let Him bring about His new creation through us?
Like the disciples, it can be easy for us to fixate on all the troubles we see. Especially with all of the uncertainty, suffering, selfishness, and fear at work around us. And like the Pharisees, there are lots of ways we too can resist God’s invitation to share in His light: there are things we can cherish and cling to that keep us back from the life we have been called to live. But in Jesus, we have been made children of God’s light… and are the means by which God wants to share His hope, peace, truth, and holy love with those still in darkness (in whatever form it may take). So how can we take seriously our calling as children of the light? Especially today, as we find ourselves mostly stuck in our homes?
First things first, of course: the Christian journey doesn’t start off with us simply changing ourselves, but with listening to and believing in the One who re-creates us.
How do we live as children of light? We seek to draw close to Jesus. In faith we seek to let Him draw us deeper into the light and life of God. We pray… not simply sharing our words and worries with the Lord, but we also let go of our own agendas we make room for listening to Him. We read and study the Scriptures, trusting that through these written sacred words that the Holy Spirit is still at work revealing God’s purposes and mission, and is transforming and enabling us to take part in it as well. We worship, intentionally honouring the goodness and glory of God, and orienting our own lives around Him as our Lord. And as we do all this, we keep our eyes open… we actively look for ways that He might be opening up for us to share in His re-creative work. We ask Christ to show us those people (maybe they’re right before our eyes), that He wants us to reach out and help, or comfort, or challenge, or connect with. And we ask Him to show us what we need to let go of so we can be free to do His will.
So let us commit to persevering in prayer (for ourselves, for each other, and for our world), to listening to the Scriptures, and turning our hearts to God in worship, that our Saviour will show us what it means to live in His light today. Amen.
Come to set us free
Come and rescue me
When I'm afraid
Lord please comfort me
When I am lost
Lord please come find me
When I'm angry
Lord please bring me peace
When I am hurt
Lord please heal me
When I do wrong
Lord please forgive me
When I need You
Lord please be with me
Scripture Readings: Exodus 17:1-7 | Psalm 95 | Romans 5:1-11 | John 4:5-42
“But we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5, NRSV).
One of my favorite cartoon strips of all time is Calvin and Hobbes. Does anyone remember that one? For those of us unfamiliar with this brilliant work of illustrated literature, Calvin and Hobbes is about the imaginative life of a young boy and his stuffed tiger. Together they get into all sorts of trouble and have amazing adventures, and Calvin often ends up butting heads with every adult around. Not that it usually does him much good, in the end.
Time and again, we readers find Calvin grumbling and complaining about the cruelty and injustice of adults, especially his parents, when they ask him to do his homework eat his supper or finish some chores. Against all of Calvin’s complaints when things don’t go his way, his unsympathetic father usually resorts to repeating the same simple response: “just do it anyway… it builds character.” Whatever unpleasant, or difficult tasks lie ahead they should just be endured… because suffering, apparently… builds character.
Unsurprisingly Calvin doesn’t find this message all that compelling, and he often ends up suspecting that his parents are out to get him; that they really don’t care about what’s best for him. That ultimately, he (and Hobbes, of course) have to fend for themselves.
This past week it seems like everywhere you turn, there’s more news about COVID-19: This new respiratory virus that has captured the minds it appears, of our entire world. There’s a lot of fear and anxiety driving the actions of many: fear of not having enough of the things we need; fear of suffering, sickness and death, both for ourselves and our loved ones; and for a whole lot of us there’s also just the plain old fear of the unknown, as everything around us seems suddenly so unstable.
These are not necessarily unreasonable fears, by the way. As a friend reminded me yesterday: this is especially true for the most vulnerable. For the poor, for our elders, for those with other health complications, there is a lot at risk right now… especially if the rest of us choose to give our own fears free reign and turn our backs on our neighbours, only looking after ourselves. It’s OK to feel afraid at times. But what we do when we’re faced with our fears, really does matter, especially if we are called to care for those around us.
So as disciples of Jesus Christ, how are we called to respond? How should we react in genuinely fearful situations? We know we shouldn’t panic, but then what should we do? Just suffer through it? Does our passage from Romans command us to simply endure it all? Is St. Paul, like Calvin’s uninspired and un-sympathetic father telling us: “just to suck it up” because whatever difficulties we might have to face “builds our character”? Is that all the hope that we have to hold onto?
Today we heard in the Scriptures another story of when God’s people had to face a genuinely fearful situation, and this story opens up for us a way to answer that question. The book of Exodus tells of how the LORD rescued Israel, delivering them from slavery in Egypt and setting them free to live with Him. Our reading takes place in the early days of Israel’s rescue: not too long after all the plagues, and the parting of the sea, and just after the LORD provides them with manna, food from heaven. All along this journey so far God had graciously, and patiently led His people to freedom, as they stumbled along after Him into the unknown. And today we heard, how they ended up in the wilderness without water. They were faced with a frightening shortage of one of their most basic needs.
In their genuine fear of thirst, suffering, and death, (which I think all of us can completely understand), the Israelites turned against their LORD: calling into question His integrity and goodness, and also His ability to ultimately save them. “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” They could only conclude, it seems, that God didn’t care. That the LORD would bring them all that way, then abandon them to die.
How often are we tempted to believe the same as they did? That the Living God ultimately doesn’t care about us? When we’re faced with the unknown... with our own insufficiencies… with the grim possibility of our suffering or death… When we are genuinely afraid, we are also being asked to answer this question: “Do we still believe that God actually loves us? Will we continue to believe that the LORD really cares?”
Despite all their doubts, and their ungratefulness, this part of the story of Exodus, of Israel faltering out of fear, gives us a glimpse into the grace of the Living God and points us to the source of our own enduring hope. The LORD does not leave even His unfaithful people to fend for themselves, or tell them simply to “suck it up” and endure their sufferings quietly. No, mercifully... miraculously… the LORD still delivers them, pouring out life-giving water as Moses strikes the rock. The LORD remains faithful and cares for His people, even when they had failed to trust in His saving love.
This sacred story invites us to learn from Israel’s early failure, and to hold onto our faith when we are faced with genuine fear. To entrust ourselves again to the saving love of our LORD, and to place our hope firmly in Him whatever comes our way.
Even when we can’t seem to see the way forward anymore. Even when we don’t seem to have all that we need. Even when we are faced with suffering, loss, or death: God is asking us to trust Him, to trust in His enduring love.. a love ultimately made known in the crucifixion of Jesus. Just as Moses struck the Rock and God’s gracious water poured out to spare His people, Christ was stricken for our sake “while we were still sinners” to bring God’s saving life to us and to our world.
When our genuine fears would have us question whether or not God really loves us, let us turn again and again and again to the cross of Christ.
That is what St. Paul urges the Christians in Rome and us, to do: Not simply to suffer in silence, in order to “build our character”… but rather to face whatever lies ahead by trusting in God’s saving love which can turn even our sufferings into a source of hope:
Excuse the long quotation, but let us hear our reading from Romans again as St. Paul anchors our confidence in the saving love of Christ: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; /and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners …Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.
For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.”
What are we Christians to do when we’re faced with genuine fear? We are not asked to ignore them… to pretend they are not real. But fears and all, we’re called to look to our Saving LORD in faith. To lean on Christ’s life-giving love and let Him lead the way as He calls us to genuinely care for those all around us… and to share the hope we have in Him through our words and our actions.
Through the Holy Spirit at work in us, may this be so. Amen.
Scripture Readings: Genesis 2:12-17, 3:1-7 | Psalm 32 | Romans 5:12-19 | Matthew 4:1-11
For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:19, NRSV).
How do we stay faithful when faced with temptation?
God’s people have been wrestling with this question for ages. From the beginning we have come to know that as we seek to live God’s way, we will have to face all sorts of snares, obstacles, and outright lies… which aim to distract and direct us away from our gracious LORD. So Christians throughout the ages have tried to come up with plans and strategies in order to help to keep us on the straight and narrow path. For instance:
When I was a teenager, back in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, there was one particular trend that I can remember well: does anyone else here remember WWJD? It’s a slogan often printed on bracelets or other simple objects, that stands for “What Would Jesus Do?” The idea was that when faced with a morally confusing or tempting situation, we should just ask ourselves the question: ‘What would Jesus do here?’ and our answer would help us figure out the right way to respond, to clarify for us how we too can be good, what it is that we can do to act more like Jesus would.
As well-meaning, and practical, as this catchphrase might seem to be, we are led in a very different direction by the Scriptures this morning. Instead of having us ask the question ‘What would Jesus do?’, we are being asked to reflect on what it was that Jesus actually did. We’re pointed away from ourselves, and our struggles with how to figure out right from wrong, and pointed towards the one, we are told, has come to set us free.
Let’s begin back in the beginning: with our reading from Genesis. Where we heard that originally the Living God placed humanity in Paradise, entrusting it to them and giving them one straightforward command: “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden;” God says “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” All of God’s good creation stood open before them, just listen to God and don’t eat the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Yet tempted and deceived, humans take and eat the fruit, trusting in serpent’s word they seized upon the temptation to make themselves like God, to know right and wrong for themselves. And their eyes were opened, but so was the rift between them and their Maker, with the shame and guilt of sin now cutting them off from God and the innocent life they had known with Him, instead of living in Paradise they find themselves cast out into the wilderness to fend for themselves.
As we may know this is the story of original sin: of the first and fatal fracture in all of God’s good creation, the source of every evil still at work in our world, as we humans cut ourselves off from our gracious Creator and chose to forge our own path… to do things “our way.” In the Scriptures we hear that this tragic turn was more than a one-time mistake, it becomes the familiar enduring pattern of human history as a whole.
But alongside this tragic story, beginning with Adam and Eve, running through the stories of Abraham and the Israelites, the Bible insists on offering us this hope: that the Living God has not given up on His people or humanity, but will take action Himself to break this cycle and to turn our story around. And so finally, we are told God comes to our aid through His beloved Son: Jesus, who is led out into the wilderness to bring us back to Paradise, overcoming our failures… with His faithfulness.
In our Gospel reading from Matthew we hear of this dramatic encounter between Jesus the Messiah and the tempter: the devil, who seeks to throw Christ off track through a series of three temptations: all designed to drive a wedge between Jesus and His Heavenly Father.
First: “If you’re really God’s Son” the devil says, “turn these stones You see into bread. Show your power as the Son of God and take matters into Your own hands, miraculously find a way to satisfy Your own hunger. If God really loved You, surely He would not want You to go hungry.” But Christ does not take the bait.
Next, the devil says: “Throw Yourself from the top of the Temple, prove Your faith in Your Father’s rescuing power, show Yourself and all of Jerusalem that You really are God’s Son.” Again, Jesus doesn’t fall for the trap.
Finally, the devil goes all in: “Worship me,” he says to Jesus, “and I’ll give you the world. Everything… all power and authority it all can be Yours. You really don’t need God, just bow down to me. Choose Your own path apart from Your Father.”
This is the root and goal, after all of every temptation we face: the temptation that is, not to trust God… to not trust in His goodness, His wisdom, His justice, or His mercy… to live as if we are the ones who ultimately know what’s best, and that it’s up to us to make it happen… to see our will be done.
And this is the temptation that Jesus overcame, not because He was strong or wise enough to choose to be good, and not to be evil all by Himself, but because again and again Jesus chooses to trust the will of God. As the Son of God made flesh, He specifically DOES NOT choose what is right for Himself... because His whole embodied life was about trusting His Heavenly Father: remaining completely united with the Source of all goodness and life.
As Christ’s disciples we too are not called to seek our own independent ‘goodness’, to simply weigh the good and bad in life for ourselves, or even to ask ourselves what we think Jesus would do, and then try to live up to His example as best we can. No, we are called first of all to faith: to believe in Jesus Christ, to entrust ourselves entirely to Him. To the One Who perfectly embodied the good will God, and opened up a way for us to share in it with Him. Christ lived out the prayer: “Not my will, O LORD but Your’s be done.” And led by that trust the innocent One took up our cross for us, and gave His life to reunite us with our graciously Heavenly Father.
We are all tempted daily in a variety of ways, but every temptation, at it’s root, is the voice beckoning us not to trust in God. To trust in ourselves & our own judgment, and to doubt His goodness, His holiness & grace… to doubt His love for us, a love which is shown most clearly in the cross of God’s beloved Son: the only completely faithful One who died to save the rest of us.
What Jesus did for us is our victory over temptation. It is the means by which God Himself comes to our rescue, exposing the lies that would draw us away from Him, forgiving our sins, and enabling us to follow Him in faith. Christ doesn’t simply show us how to save ourselves from temptation, He overcomes humanity’s disobedience, our disobedience, in order to set us free to be reconciled to God: inviting us to turn to Him in faith and seek His mercy, and through His Holy Spirit, at work in us even now, Christ shares His righteousness with us and helps us to be faithful.
When we’re faced with temptations, whatever they may be, we are not simply left to figure out our own way forward. We have a gracious Saviour: Jesus, the faithful One, who came to bring us back out of the wilderness and safe again in God’s arms.
Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. (Jude 24-25).
Scripture Readings: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 | Psalm 51:1-17 | 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10 | Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
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. (Joel 2:12-13, NRSV)
I love Ash Wednesday.
That might seem a bit strange, considering the heavy nature of this day: marking, as it does, the beginning of the 40 days of Lent with self-reflection, acknowledging sin, and an earnest call for repentance. In truth, it is not a comfortable time, but it is a sacred time… a gift from the LORD to His people and intended for our good.
One facet of this sacred gift which I deeply appreciate, is the way Ash Wednesday invites us to abandon our pretensions. To get really real, with God, yes, and also with each other. To decidedly set aside all of our attempts to pretend that we have finally gotten ourselves to a place where we no longer need mercy; to cease trying to convince ourselves and others, that we’ve got it all under control. To cut through all the pleasantries and face the truth together.
In our Gospel passage taken from the Sermon on the Mount, Christ warns His disciples about the temptations of hypocrisy: of play-acting with our faith… and putting on spiritual performances that does not in truth reflect the reality of our lives. Of using religious practices and holy patterns of life not to seek the LORD or walk in His ways, but to chase our own desires: especially those things that offer us a false sense of superiority: things like honour respect status acceptance. But Ash Wednesday cuts through these false promises and levels the field for us inviting us into a way of life, not grounded in our performance or on the opinions of others, but in the mercy and love of God offered to us all at the foot of the cross.
For the cross is ultimately where Ash Wednesday wants to direct our gaze… it is the suffering and death of Jesus that Lent beckons us to remember. Yes, through the prayers and practices of this sacred season: through our Lenten fasts our self-reflection, our offerings, and repentance, we are asked to take a long honest look at our lives. To acknowledge the truth of our brokenness, our limits and our sins, in order for our eyes to be firmly drawn away from ourselves, from both our so-called successes, and from our faults and failures too, so that our hope and faith might be finally fixed on the merciful face of our Saviour… so that we might turn to Christ, who Himself bore our brokenness, limits, and sins so that we might share in His righteousness.
Ash Wednesday and Lent do not task us with self-perfection or self-mastery. It is not about finding ways to become better people. No. They invite us to honestly turn our eyes in faith to Jesus our Saviour… and to follow Him in the way of God’s suffering, saving love.
This too is a merciful gift to us. As one theologian puts it: "We are able to follow him only because he was able to do what we cannot do, that is, he alone was capable of freeing us from the grip of sin through his cross." (Stanley Hauerwas, Matthew, (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), p.75.)
From first to last Ash Wednesday reminds us we cannot save ourselves… in truth, we are dust, and to dust we shall return. But it reminds us this in order that we might cling always to our Saviour. To set aside all that would keep us from His gracious arms, and together find ourselves embraced by His steadfast love and mercy, offered to us all through the blood of His cross.
I love Ash Wednesday… because it reminds us of the depths of God’s love. This Lent may the Holy Spirit grant that our eyes be always fixed on Jesus, and may our lives be remade by His mercy and love. Amen.