Set your face – the meaning of Ash Wednesday and Lent

Ash Wednesday
“Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.”
A day of repentance. The beginning of Lent.
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Perhaps the real meaning of Lent is found in this passage from Luke 9:51-62. Lent is about us turning and setting our face toward the cross of Christ that he bore, and the one which he calls us to bear. Jesus’ harsh words in vs 62 may actually be self-talk. Perhaps he is drawing into his inner thought life, his prayer life, and acknowledging that from this point forward, the journey will not waver to left or right, at least not for him. All of the apostles will abandon him in the garden, even Peter who swore he would never desert Jesus (Mark 14).

The structure of Lent, with forty days bookended by Ashe Wednesday and Easter, is certainly reminiscent of Jesus’ baptism and 40 days of temptation in the wilderness (Mark 1:12-13). This harkens back to the periods of 40 found in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the story of the flood, it rained for 40 days and nights (Gen 7:12). Moses went on the mountain of the Lord for 40 days (Exodus 34:28). The spies, including Joshua and Caleb, spent 40 days spying out the Land of Canaan as the Lord instructed. When they returned with ten giving a bad report, the Israelites decided they would not go where the Lord was trying to lead them. And so God said that the Israelites would wander in the wilderness for forty years, one for every day spent spying the land. (Numbers 14) In fact, Moses’ life is marked by three periods of forty years – the first growing up as a prince of Egypt, the second in Midian tending his father-in-law’s flocks, and the third leading the Israelites toward the promised land. Forty signifies transformation, a shifting in way of life, a laying aside the old and taking up the new.

And that period of forty begins with one step. That is the point here. Ash Wednesday is that one step for us, the beginning of the journey of transformation for this year. It is worth noting that at his baptism Jesus did not set his face resolutely toward Jerusalem. He seemed to wander randomly from town to town, with intermittent trips to Jerusalem for the festivals, for three years.

The beginning of his earthly ministry was in a sense the start of his path to the cross. Even so, a second decision was needed. There came a time when all that he was doing and saying up to that moment would coalesce into one singular vision – the cross. The cross represents Jesus’ final confrontation with self-centered power. Ash Wednesday (as figured in Luke 9:51) represents the commitment to walk that road and not turn back.

Repentance is a turning from one posture and direction in life to another. Repentance from sin is turning from a life focused on serving only self to a life directed toward serving God first. Jesus himself received the baptism of repentance from his cousin John. What this means, at least in part, is that Jesus was repenting of – turning away from – his life as a carpenter focused on his family and community obligations in Nazareth. Instead, he turned his face, not specifically toward Jerusalem, but more broadly toward the ministry of the Messiah who came to proclaim in word and work the inrushing of the Reign of God.

As we begin this Lenten journey, may we join with all who have followed the Christ, turning once again away from a self-serving life and choosing instead a life that embraces all as we are embraced by God. We enter anew into a process of transformation. We recognize that the life we have been living does not work. We turn away from the destructive habits (behavior and thought patterns) that have shaped our lives. We set our faces toward the New Jerusalem – the City of God that is descending, even now, as God seeks to dwell in our midst and redeem and restore all things.

All authority is given to me…Go therefore…

Sermon notes for 05132012 – Matthew 28:16-20

All authority is given to me…        Go therefore…

The “Great Commission” as it is called is based in our acceptance of Jesus’ authority from the Father.

In Matthew 10 Jesus gives authority to the Apostles and sends them out with a similar mission: 7 As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” Here the mission is dependent on Jesus’ sending with authority. They are to go as he goes. Jesus goes in power and in humility – not an easy combination for us humans. We either shy away from power and fall into self-loathing and incapacity, or we embrace power and fall into self-glorification and go on an ego trip – either low self-esteem and impotence or grandiosity and aggressive abuse of power. Only when power is held in humility can it be held in faith and integrity by God’s children.

Just what is this authority?

In the first story (MT 10) they have authority to preach, cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. They have power over situations and powers, not over people. Jesus never exercises power over people. In fact, he contrasts in Luke 22 the power exercised by the Gentiles with the model his own disciples are to follow: 23 Then they began to ask one another which one of them it could be who would do this. 24 A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25 But he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26 But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. 27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. 28 “You are those who have stood by me in my trials; 29 and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, 30 so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. The one in power must assume the posture and attitude, must treat the others, as if he were the youngest. The leader of the group must relate to others as though she were a servant. This is power held with great humility, for it is not our power, it is God’s power.

And notice again that it is not power over, but power for, people. The power is over situations, over spiritual forces and natural forces, not over people but on their behalf, and for the glory of God.

When Jesus gives this commission in MT 10, perhaps we are missing some punctuation as well. Perhaps it should read: As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.’: Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” What if “cure…raise…cleanse…cast out…” are expressions and illustrations of “proclaim the good news” – they are proclamations of the fact that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near?” The authority is over illness, death, social ostracization and demons – for the sake of proclaiming the gospel of the coming kingdom.

That authority still rests with the church to this day.

Prayer is an interesting and complex phenomena. People of all religions and no religion pray. It seems built into our DNA even if a uniform belief in God is not. And what people believe is accomplished in prayer varies as much as the people who hold those beliefs. I personally believe, from my study of scripture and Christian teaching, and from observation and personal experience, that prayer does not change God or get God to do something God was not going to do anyway. When we pray for healing for someone, we are not praying that God would heal them, as though we think God’s will or action depends upon our prayers. That is not what scripture teaches – certainly not the New Testament. When Jesus prayed for healing, he either spoke to the person, or to the sickness or demon, not to God. Jesus never said, “Father, please remove this sickness/demon from this woman.” He said, “Be well!” or “Come out!” and they were made well and set free. Jesus power and authority were over the sickness and over the spirits of possession on behalf of those who were troubled. And this is what we see Peter, Paul and others doing. They speak to people to rise above their illness, and to demons to depart. Acts 3:6 is the first instance of this after the birth of the church at Pentecost: Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” This miracle gave Peter and John opportunity to preach to the Jews, and even to the authorities who had them arrested. There was a discussion of where they got the power or authority (by what name?) to do this. With authority comes power – power to do the work of the one in whose name the authority rests. Jesus received authority from the father – all authority in heaven and on earth – and bestowed power and authority upon the church in Jesus’ name, as Peter rightly states. This is the pattern followed by all the rest of the miracles in the New Testament.

Remember there was an instance when Jesus’ disciples attempted to use the power and authority given them to heal an epileptic boy but were unsuccessful. After Jesus healed him they asked, why they could not. His answer: “This kind comes out only by prayer.” (Mark 9:29) This is preceded by Jesus saying, “O unbelieving generation.” And “Everything is possible for him who believes.” To which the boy’s father replies, “LORD I believe! Help my unbelief.” The father misunderstands. The issue is not the faith of the father or the boy – rather it is a lack of faith on the part of the apostles, faith in their own authority to do that which Jesus has called them to do. Do they lack faith in themselves or in Jesus/God? Or is it simply that because their prayer is insufficient, they are not strong enough in the spirit to channel the spiritual power required to accomplish this miracle? By contrast, Jesus does have faith in his ability to do these things because he KNOWS that he has received power and authority (or authority with power) to heal. Remember his self-affirmation in Luke 4 in Nazareth: “18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” This came after he hear the Father say, “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased,” and after he had overcome the three temptations of Man – to self-preservation, self-glorification, and self-salvation. Because Jesus had experience of success in overcoming evil, and because he knew confidently who he was, he was able to live fully the authority and power that were his.

Jesus states that “everything is possible for him who believes,” (Mk 9:23) and “with God all things are possible,” (Mk 10:27) and “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Mt 17:20) This is certainly not our experience. There are ways of understanding Jesus’s statements as metaphor or hyperbole that let us off the hook and take the power out of these pronouncements. Jesus seems to believe what he says, and the writers seem to believe it, and the early church seemed to believe it at face value. So what is amiss? Again, we are up against a question of power and authority, its use, abuse, and absence or failure.

What is it that we lack in our lives so that we might live this authority and power in the world?

  1. We have to accept that our worth rests in God’s opinion, not our own or that of others.
  2. We have to release any attempt to cling to our own life as a personal possession.
  3. We have to resist evil with the promises of Faith
  4. We have to dwell in God as Jesus did. God already dwells in and around us – it is our lack of being fully present in response that hinders our experience of God.
  5. We have to pursue only God’s kingdom and God’s righteous justice for ourselves and for those we can impact.

We were talking about the Great Commission, remember. Jesus says, “All authority is given to me…therefore go…” We are being sent under Jesus’ authority with Jesus’ authority to “make disciples…baptize…teach…remember.” All of this is based, again, on the nature of the authority and power that come to us from/through Jesus by our faith.

We are to think of this work as an extension of the former discussion from Matthew 10 – it’s about proclaiming the kingdom of God, and now building the kingdom of God. And we have Jesus’ authority and power to do it. Remember, though, that this power and authority are not over others, but over the systems of destruction that work in the lives of those around us. We have no right to begin to try to speak to those principalities and powers until we have spent considerable time addressing the ones that seek to rule us. And once we do that, we move into the world as a servant to others – a slave to those we seek to set free. What would our ministry be, what shape would it take, if our lives were formed in this way? If we moved into the world with the full confidence and faith in the power and authority of Jesus at work in our lives to proclaim and build the kingdom, and then engaged with our neighbors as their humble servants.

What would we do? What would we say? What would we not?

What strongholds would we come against on behalf of others, but as their servants, being sure that nothing we say or do causes injury or harm to the very ones we are trying to help? If someone in your life is overcome by a destructive force, that person is not your enemy. They are you master and you are their slave, but this is in the authority and power of Jesus over the thing that is destroying them – the attitude, habit, thought pattern, addiction, belief, illness, injury, system, or spiritual force.

What kind of person would you be? What kind of church would we be, if we related to the people who drive us nuts in this way? If we related to the people we find it difficult to respect in this way? If we related to the people who are hurtful and hateful toward us in this way? If we related to the vulnerable and frail, to those who can’t help themselves, to those who should be able to (we think) but don’t (for reasons we can’t comprehend)? What if we related to others the way God relates to us. When we could do nothing to save ourselves, and when we couldn’t even look God in the eye because we were too busy looking ourselves in the mirror, God came to save us from ourselves and from all the destructive lies and myths that we tell ourselves and one another. What if we go to others as servants in the same way that Jesus came to us as a servant? What if that is our approach to making disciples? The very one that Jesus took from the beginning? What might happen then?

A Service of Recommitment and Rededication to Christ

Recommitment or rededication of one’s life implies a prior experience of commitment/ dedication. The level of understanding or seriousness of the decision at that time will vary widely. Regardless, many believers at one or another time in their faith journey feel the need to actively, openly, outwardly recommit their lives to Jesus.  This impulse is very real and genuine, and in most cases should be honored in some way. Many believers in this situation will look for some outward sign of the inner grace they’ve experienced (the very definition of the word sacrament), and baptism is often the first thing that comes to mind. This is not in any way a suspicion of questioning of their former baptismal experience, as if to say, “Yes, I was immersed, but it didn’t really count as baptism.” Rather, the individual is looking for a symbol as powerful, as recognizable, as memorable as baptism. Again, we would say that this impulse is to be honored. One way to make sense of the ritual life practiced by Israel, and the descendant ritual life practiced by Christians (esp. Baptism and The Eucharist) is that God knows that human beings need external acts to give life to inner unseen experiences.  Marriage is an outward expression of an inner preceding commitment between a woman and a man before God and the gathered community. There is power for us in doing it out loud, in public, before witnesses. Most human cultures have had some form of religious/spiritual ritual life, and even our secular lives become ritualized / habitualized in how we express what we value and believe (i.e. “I pledge allegiance…”)

So, the question comes for disciples of Jesus, “How can I express my recommitment to Christ, my new or renewed sense of who He is, who I am in Him, and my commitment to a life following in obedience to Him.” This becomes particularly important for those who have actively expressed their faith, and then for a time (separately or simultaneously) lived in ways that were directly contrary to the call of Jesus.

We must acknowledge at this point that every disciple of Jesus goes through varying times of greater or lesser commitment and expression of their faith. We affirm with Paul that we know what we ought to do, but often do (can) not do it. (Romans 7) And so there comes the desire (necessity?) for some means of repentance and recommitment even for the long-time believer. James says, to the believing church, that we are to confess our sins to one another – the practice of confession has an important history in the life of the church, and is certainly part of this discussion. Further, Paul calls us to “… not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)

Renewal is part of the ongoing journey of the faithful and believing disciple of Jesus, not just the backslidden and repentant.

That said, we return to the affirmation of some outward sign (sacrament) of this renewal. Thus, the following short service is offered as a form for reference and expansion:

Service of Renewal, Rededication,or Recommitment to the Christian Life

Leader:

We give thanks for Jesus, his willingness to give up heaven and come to earth, his ministry of teaching and healing, his sacrificial death on the cross, and his resurrection which conquered death once for all. Only by grace do we come in faith, trusting that in and through his life, death, and resurrection, we have access to all the blessings and promises of God: covenant relationship, merciful forgiveness, new life, ministry of the one Gospel, and eternal life in the Kingdom. In gathering here, we acknowledge our common need and desire to draw near to God by following Jesus. Let us then affirm this faith together:

Unison: We confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, our Savior and Lord.

Leader:

Let us pray: Loving God, having affirmed our faith in Jesus your son, we give thanks for all the blessings that come to the church, his body on earth. We confess, O God, that we are guilty of Sin. We have done what we ought not, and have failed to do what we knew you asked of us. Grant us your forgiveness according to your promised mercy, as we grow in understanding and ability to forgive others, and this too by your grace. Allow us an awareness of your presence in these moments, as we come for recommitment to a life of faithful discipleship. Amen.

Reading of Psalm 51:

1 Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. 3 For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. 5 Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. 6 You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.

7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. 8 Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. 9 Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. 10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right F103 spirit within me. 11 Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. 12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. 13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.

14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. 15 O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. 16 For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. 17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. 18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, 19 then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.

Explanation:

As the Gospel story begins, we find John baptizing in the Jordan river for repentance and forgiveness of sins in preparation for the coming of the Messiah and His kingdom. Though without sin, Jesus received John’s baptism, thus placing his ministry within John’s teaching, forming an unbroken lineage. Jesus later taught, and his apostles practice, a baptism in Jesus name, and in the name of the triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This baptism marked the new believers commitment to a life of discipleship to the Lord Jesus. Whether baptism only symbolizes or actually confers God’s grace is debated. What is certain is that Jesus was baptized, and called for all disciples to be baptized as well. This baptism publicly marked a turning point in the new believer’s life.

Similarly, we come today to publicly celebrate the rededication of follower(s) of Jesus – a renewal and reclaiming of that earlier commitment sealed in baptism.

Presentation of the Repentant

Would those who come today to rededicate their lives to faithful discipleship please come forward and kneel.

****The following is preferably carried out for each one individually.

What is your name?  N_____, do you claim the grace of God celebrated in your baptism? Have you, by His continued grace, come to a new depth of commitment to your life in Christ? Do you again renounce the sins and will of the flesh, commit to the life of the spirit, and ask the gathered Body of Christ to uphold and support you through their prayers and humble guidance, and correction when necessary?

Please repeat after me:

Dear Jesus…thank you for calling me to follow you…forgive me for losing my way…thank you for coming to find me…one of your wandering sheep….Redeem my wandering for your glory…and keep me always near you… Amen.

Having prayed this prayer of recommitment to discipleship, I offer to you the anointing oil in sign of the cross…and this water on your head as a reminder of your baptism [the pastor’s hand is dipped in the water and placed on top of the recipient’s head]…pouring it over your hands [the pastor pours water from a pitcher over the hands and into a receptacle (bowl?)] to remind you that you are called and equipped to serve Christ in the world for the increase of His kingdom.

Common Charge

May all who witness this rededication so recommit themselves inwardly to live and work with humility and boldness for the sake of Christ and the work of his kingdom. Go in peace to love and serve God.

NPR Book Review – The Righteous Mind

Book Summary

The author of The Happiness Hypothesis presents a groundbreaking investigation into the origins of morality at the core of religion and politics, offering scholarly insight into the motivations behind cultural clashes that are polarizing America.

via The Righteous Mind : NPR.