Wednesday, March 05, 2014

An Ash Wednesday Observance

Once upon a time the world would have stopped for Ash Wednesday observances. I could point to reasons that it will not stop today ranging from the secularization of our society to Christians’ lack of courage and commitment to tell coaches, schools, and kids, “Not today.” However, that won’t help any of us observe the solemnity and self-examination today calls us to.

So, if you are, like my family, in the position where you or part of your family will not be attending an Ash Wednesday service today, here is a devotional you can use to observe the beginning of Lent. 

Fair notice: none of this is original with me, but all the parts of this devotional have their roots in ancient piece of the liturgy and God’s Word.

A Home Service for Ash Wednesday
If you are alone, simply treat this as a prayer and readings. If you are with family members, designate a family member to lead and then follow the prayers responsively.

The Litany

Leader: On this day the Church begins a holy season of prayerful and penitential reflection. Our attention is especially directed to the holy sufferings and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. From ancient times the season of Lent has been kept as a time of special devotion, self-denial, and humble repentance born of a faithful heart that dwells confidently on His Word and draws from it life and hope. Let us pray that our dear Father in heaven, for the sake of His beloved Son and in the power of His Holy Spirit, might richly bless this Lententide for us so that we may come to Easter with glad hearts and keep the feast in sincerity and truth.
Leader:    O Lord,
People:    have mercy.
Leader:    O Christ,
People:    have mercy.
Leader:    O Lord,
People:    have mercy.
Leader:    O Christ,
People:    hear us.
Leader:    God the Father, in heaven,
People:    have mercy.
Leader:    God the Son, Redeemer of the world,
People:    have mercy.
Leader:    God the Holy Spirit,
People:    have mercy.
Leader:    Be gracious to us.
People:    Spare us, good Lord.
Leader:    Be gracious to us.
People:    Help us, good Lord.
Leader:    By the mystery of Your holy incarnation; by Your holy nativity; by Your Baptism, fasting, and temptation; by Your agony and bloody sweat; by Your cross and Passion; by Your precious death and burial; by Your glorious resurrection and ascension; and by the coming of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter,
People:    Help us, good Lord.
Leader:    In all time of our tribulation; in all time of our prosperity; in the hour of death; and in the day of judgment:
People:    Help us, good Lord.
Leader:    We poor sinners implore You
People:    To hear us, O Lord.
Leader:    To prosper the preaching of Your Word; to bless our prayer and meditation; to strengthen and preserve us in the true faith; to give heart to our sorrow and strength to our repentance:
People:    We implore You to hear us, good Lord.
Leader:    To draw all to Yourself; to bless those who are instructed in the faith; to watch over and console the poor, the sick, the distressed, the lonely, the forsaken, the abandoned, and all who stand in need of our prayers [especially . . .], to give abundant blessing to all works of mercy; and to have mercy on us all:
People:    We implore You to hear us, good Lord.
Leader:    To turn our hearts to You; to turn the hearts of our enemies, persecutors, and slanderers; and graciously to hear our prayers:
People:    We implore You to hear us, good Lord.
Leader:    Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,
People:    We implore You to hear us.
Leader:    O God, You desire not the death of sinners, but rather that they turn from their wickedness and live. We implore You to have compassion on the frailty of our mortal nature, for we acknowledge that we are dust and to dust we shall return. Mercifully pardon our sins that we may obtain the promises You have laid up for those who are Your own; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
People:    Amen.

Old Testament Reading: Joel 2:12–19

12 “Yet even now,” declares the Lord,
    “return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13     and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
    and he relents over disaster.
14 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?
15 Blow the trumpet in Zion;
    consecrate a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
16     gather the people.
Consecrate the congregation;
    assemble the elders;
gather the children,
    even nursing infants.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
    and the bride her chamber.
17 Between the vestibule and the altar
    let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep
and say, “Spare your people, O Lord,
    and make not your heritage a reproach,
    a byword among the nations.
Why should they say among the peoples,
    ‘Where is their God?’”
18 Then the Lord became jealous for his land
    and had pity on his people.
19 The Lord answered and said to his people,
“Behold, I am sending to you
    grain, wine, and oil,
    and you will be satisfied;
and I will no more make you
    a reproach among the nations.

Lector:      This is the Word of the Lord.
People:    Thanks be to God.

Epistle: 2 Corinthians 5:20b–6:10

We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
6:1 Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says,
“In a favorable time I listened to you,
    and in a day of salvation I have helped you.”
Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation. We put no obstacle in anyone's way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry, but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: by great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love; by truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; through honor and dishonor, through slander and praise. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as punished, and yet not killed; 10 as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, yet possessing everything.

Lector:      This is the Word of the Lord.
People:    Thanks be to God.

Holy Gospel: Matthew 6:1–6, 16–21
Pastor:     The Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew, the 6th chapter.
People:    Glory to You, O Lord!
 “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
“Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when 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.
Pastor:                         The Gospel of the Lord.
People:                        Praise to You, O Christ!

The Sign of the Cross

If you are alone, make the sign of the cross over your forehead and say, “I am dust, and to dust I shall return.” If you are leading make the sign of the cross on the foreheads of your family members and say, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” If you are with little children and you are uncomfortable with the reminder of death for them, you might make the sign of the cross and say, “Remember that Jesus died on the cross for you.”

Apostles’ Creed

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.
And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried.  He descended into hell.  The third day he rose again from the dead.  He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.  From thence he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.  Amen

Lord’s Prayer

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever.  Amen


Leader: Go in peace in Jesus’ forgiveness.

People: Amen

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Matthew 21

        Have you ever reflected on a situation and declared, “I should have known!”? Perhaps you left something out and the kids (or your spouse!) got into it; “I should have known I needed to put that away!” Perhaps you decided to trust someone that you felt was not trustworthy and got taken advantage of; “I should have known he’d cheat me!” Perhaps you tried to do something difficult and failed and moaned, “I should have known I’d fail.” Truth be told, whether or not you really should have known in the cases above – and probably most of the time - is debatable. However,
        Jesus makes statements to the religious leaders of His day two times to say to them, “You should have known!” and in this case it is not debatable. The first when they confronted Him about the children crying out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” and the second after telling the Parable of the Tenants. Each time Jesus asked these men whose job it was to know the Bible, “Have you never read in the Scriptures…?”
        “You should have known!” is what He is saying to them. “Look at the prophecies, hear what the Word says! You should have known that I am the Messiah, the Son of David! You should have known that the vineyard – God’s kingdom and its blessings – would be taken from you for rejecting God’s messengers and His Son! You should have known!”
        One of the greatest dangers to us as Christians is when we ignore what the Scriptures tell us in favor of our own preferences, comfort, and ideas. It is also very concerning that statistics show that if Jesus were to ask His question, “Have you never read in the Scriptures …?,” the answer would likely be, “No. No, I haven’t,” because Biblical illiteracy is very high in the church today.
        People are unaware of what God’s Word says, and as people read the Bible less and hear God’s Word at church more sporadically, there will be more and more issues regarding truth and right doctrine. More and more people will find ways to “excuse” sin and “normalize” wicked behavior. In the meantime, though, God’s Word still speaks; creating and sustaining faith, as well as preserving God’s people. It is in Him that we put our trust and our hope for the future, even as we go again and again to the Scriptures to be strengthened and comforted.

O God, sustain me in the true faith and help me love Your Word. Amen.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Matthew 20

Matthew 20 

        Oh, the many “unfairnesses” of life! A promotion we hoped for goes to someone else. An illness enters our lives. An accident hurts us or someone we love. The violent victimize good law abiding people. A storm destroys a home, or a community. With a wide range of emotions – anger, sadness, confusion – we cry out, “It’s not fair!”
        It’s true. Life is not fair. In part that is the impact of sin in our world. When people’s lives are broken by sinful actions or consequences we often see a lack of fairness. Another aspect of this is that we have a skewed view of what fairness is. For many, fairness equates to sameness. God never intended for us all to be the same. Different gifts, varying strengths, and a multiplicity of opportunities pretty much guarantees that life won’t be fair if you think fair means equal.
        Jesus told the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard to a group of people who wanted what was “fair.” They felt, as God’s people, it was fair for them to be first, greatest, superior. Jesus highlights the important reality that in God’s kingdom, “many who are first will be last, and the last first,” and all who believe in Him receive the same reward.
        That’s not fair! No, it’s not. And that is a good thing.
        Fairness has little to do with God’s work in our lives. God says that all of us sin, break His commandments, and rebel against Him. What is fair for behavior like that? Is it fair that Jesus, the holy Son of God, died to pay for our misdeeds? Is it fair that Jesus did all the work, and we receive the reward of living with Him in glory?
        Perhaps instead of fairness, we should begin to think about what is “graceful” – full of God’s grace and forgiveness. Instead of fairness, we should ask, “What is loving?” Because these are the ways God deals with us. (Don’t get me wrong, fairness has its place and we should pursue justice in this world, particularly for others who are weak, oppressed or abused.) When it comes to our dealings with God it is far better that we get what is unfair; which is forgiveness, life, peace, love, joy, eternal life, and every blessing through faith in Jesus, the crucified and risen one.

Lord, I don’t want what is fair from You. Please let me live in Your grace and receive the eternal reward Jesus won by His death for me. Amen.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Matthew 19

Matthew 19

        One of the criticisms leveled against Christians today is that we are “doubtless.” That is to say, we portray ourselves as having answers for everything, understanding everything, and looking at those who doubt as weak. I can see where some might have gotten that perception. However, the perception that Christians never doubt, never struggle with faith, or have difficulty understanding Jesus is far from the truth, and far from biblical.
        In Matthew 19, there are three times that the disciples are stunned by Jesus’ teaching; once on marriage, once on children, and again on wealth. In each case they thought they knew exactly what Jesus wanted or would do, and in each case they were wrong.
        What does this mean for us as modern-day disciples?
        One thing it certainly does not mean is that we should cast doubt on everything we do or believe. Our faith is not meant to devolve into some form of eternal skepticism where we are crippled by questions and unable to make decisions. God has given us His Word and Spirit, and although Christians sometimes disagree on how to understand the Scriptures, on the whole we agree and understand His Word with great clarity so that we can follow it. That is a testimony to the Spirit’s work!
        Yet we should humbly acknowledge that there are passages of Scripture that leave us uncomfortable, raise questions and doubts, and make us struggle. What do you do when Jesus says divorce and remarriage are adultery? What do we do when Jesus values people (like little children) that we do not? How do we take it when Jesus views wealth differently than we do? For that matter, how do we handle mysteries like the Incarnation, the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, and the Two Natures of Christ? Do we just gloss them over? Ignore the passage? Are we free to just rationalize it?
        A more satisfactory way for Christians is to acknowledge our struggle, confess our sins, and live by grace. We pray for the Holy Spirit to guide us into the truth, for someday we will really be doubtless when we see Jesus face-to-face. In the meantime, we walk by faith trusting that God will keep His Word pure for us to hear, learn and live. 

Lord Jesus, help me humbly receive Your Word and Grace. Amen. 

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Matthew 18

Matthew 18

        Over the years I have spoken to many teens and “tweens” who have complained about how strict their parents were about their entertainment options. Twelve-year-olds have complained that their parents won’t let them see PG-13 movies. Teens have groused about parents who don’t let them buy music with explicit lyrics.
        Now before you think this a rant about the entertainment industry or how we entertain ourselves – which are worthwhile rants, just not the topic of this post – I want to point our attention to Matthew 18:5-7. Jesus said, “ “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!” 
        Jesus made these comments as he urged His followers to become like children – the Greek word used here is often for infants and little children who are completely dependent on their parents and guardians. The heart and desire of the Christian is to help others experience God’s love so that they might become dependent on Jesus. This is what is described as desirable in this passage; that we would learn to walk with Jesus like a toddler protected and lead by Him.
        On the other hand we do not want to cause these little ones – and here he means small children along with those who are small in faith – to be tempted to sin. He calls such behavior scandalous because it trips people as they walk with him. He takes such temptation very seriously saying, “Woe!” to those who lead others into sin. Indeed, He says it would be better if they tried to tread water with a millstone necklace than if they led someone into sin – a foolproof recipe for drowning.
        Temptation is serious business. Too often we treat it with a wink and a nod, or a sly grin. Too easily we allow it a place in our living rooms, offices, cars, and bedrooms. However, we cannot get away from it, no matter how hard we try. All we can do is believe like a child and count on our Lord Jesus to rescue us, which He has done by His death and resurrection because of His great love for us. 

“Lord, take my hand and lead me…” Lead me safely back to You. Amen.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Matthew 17

Matthew 17

        When you go to an emergency room you expect to be treated with compassion and care because you wouldn’t be there if you didn’t need help. You can imagine my surprise and subsequent anger, then, that when my son broke his arm we were treated both rudely and were basically told to leave.
        My son had been swinging and jumped from the highest point. He landed awkwardly and broke his arm. Seeing the odd bend in his forearm made me feel sick to my stomach. I took him to urgent care where a doctor put a splint on him and told us to see our doctor the next day. They did nothing, however, for his pain or to reset the bone. As his pain grew, my I decided that a trip to the E.R. was necessary. Having explained the situation to the receptionist, I was told I should listen to the previous doctor and go home. As my son turned green from the pain, my anger burned as I insisted on seeing a supervisor.
        I could do nothing to help my son physically. I couldn’t make the pain go away. I couldn’t set the broken bones. All I could do was advocate, argue, and beg for help. There are few times when a parent feels more helpless than when his child is hurt.
        The father of the epileptic boy in Matthew 17 was at the end of his rope. He had brought his child to Jesus’ disciples to heal him, and they couldn’t. At Jesus’ return the father turned to Him speaking words that are a deep and meaningful prayer: “Lord, have mercy….”
        What a simple, yet deeply meaningful prayer that is; “Lord, have mercy.” It fits so many situations. A sick child, a victim of violence, one who has lost everything, one who has just been laid off, the broken, and the one who prays for the broken, all of these can rightfully pray, “Lord, have mercy.”
        The good news is that the Lord has had mercy. Jesus again spoke of His death and resurrection (twice) in Matthew 17, and this is the ultimate act of mercy whereby God rescued us from sin and the pain it brings into our lives. But the Lord is not done having mercy. Through the church and by His Word, God still pours mercy out on us, so we can confidently pray and know that God, in His love, answers our call …

Lord, have mercy. Amen.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Matthew 16

Matthew 16

        I was watching The Hobbit the other day with my daughter. Early in the story, Bilbo, the hobbit, finds himself hosting a group of dwarves who are planning to reclaim their treasure from a dragon. The movie adds a bit that is not in the book. Thorin, the leader of the dwarves, states that the birds are returning to the mountain, and if they are reading the signs, surely others are too. This was proof to them that it was time to take on the journey and risk the wrath of the dragon.
        People often want signs to prove what they believe. They want proofs of what they hold by faith. Sometimes people want signs that prove something is true, or will take place. It is this kind of a desire that prompted the Pharisees to ask for a sign – a sign to dispel their doubt. Interestingly, Jesus didn’t give them one. Indeed, later in the chapter Jesus told Peter, who had stated his belief in Jesus, “[F]lesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”
        God does not offer proof. He gives faith. Faith takes hold to God’s promises, and in the end finds God to be faithful. That means that, while we might want signs and proof that God will do what He says, we are not going to get them outside of what He has given in the Word, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Jesus’ cross and empty tomb stand as the evidence that God will keep His Word.
        The world still looks at God’s people and desire a sign from us, just as it did from Jesus. It wants us to do good deeds to prove our faith is real. It pressures us to believe that all we have to offer is our efforts to make the world a better place. They want earthly benefit as the sign that our belief is valid. So, what sign shall we give them? None. Except the, “sign of Jonah” that just as Jonah was three nights in the belly of the fish, Jesus was three days in the belly of the earth and came out alive. We proclaim Christ; and Him crucified.
        Our mission is not to make the world a better place – it will, after all, rot. Our mission is to live in forgiveness by faith in Christ crucified, risen, and coming again. The cool thing is that, as we live that faith and share it with the world, it will become a better place. God’s love in Christ always works against sin and its destructive power in the world.

Lord, help me hold forth the sign of the cross and empty tomb, and share the forgiveness of sins You have given me by faith. Amen.