Ashes

Last night I went to church and had ashes painted on my hand.

It’s tradition in some churches on Ash Wednesday to have ashes placed on the forehead or back of the hand. It’s a sign of repentance hearkening back to the sackcloth and ashes described in the Old Testament. And it’s a symbolic start to the Lenten season of personal reflection.

In the past I have had ashes placed on my forehead. Less humble, perhaps, but – I quickly realized – also less messy. As careful as I tried to be with my marked hand, it was not long before ashes made their way to the sleeve of my shirt, my jacket, my pants, the grocery store aisle, my dog’s head, my own head, my shoes… And even when it came time to wash my hands, the ashes bled and smudged and stained. Still today there is a faint cross-shaped shadow on the back of my hand.

Every time I look at that smudge, I am reminded. I am reminded of the less-physical but equally dark stains in my life. I am reminded how sin spreads so easily and so quickly, like ashes trailing from my hand. Some days it seems everything I touch turns dark. Some days nothing I say is right. Some days everything seems to be falling apart – flaking into smaller and smaller dark smudges.

But I am also reminded of another hand. A hand that is stained not with ashes, but with blood. And how this hand, too, leaves traces. Not of darkness. Not of ashes. But of life-giving blood.

For all the ashes I leave in my wake, there is Someone who comes along and deposits something else. Peace. Hope. Love. The blood of Jesus cleanses in a way that water on my physical ashes never could. The red hand of Jesus covers the black hand of me. And in His wounds, I am healed.

He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).

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Doubting Thomas Sunday

The Sunday after Easter is Doubting Thomas Sunday.

It’s true across multiple denominations, and it’s true whether you are on a one year lectionary or a three year lectionary. You may have heard Thomas’ story so many times you think you’ve heard it all.

Come with me anyway.

On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord (John 20:19-20).

All of the disciples that is, except for Thomas.

Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the twin, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (John 20: 24).

Juxtapose this story with one that occurred earlier in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus had just completed several miraculous healings and a second miraculous feeding – this time of 4,000 people with just 7 loaves of bread and a few small fish. But these miracles weren’t enough of a sign. The Pharisees came and began to argue with him, seeking from him a sign from heaven to test him. And he sighed deeply in His spirit and said, “Why does this generation seek a sign? Truly, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation.” And he left them, got into the boat again, and went to the other side (Mark 8:11-13).

Well, then. If that is Jesus’ response to a demand for a sign, what do you think He does with Thomas? Thomas, one of his twelve closest friends who had travelled with Him for three years and personally witnessed countless miracles – what does Jesus do with him?

One might expect a little exasperation. One might expect Jesus to say, “If you don’t believe in me now, after all you’ve witnessed, then you’re hopeless! I’ve given you all the evidence you need!”

But Jesus doesn’t respond that way, does He?

Eight days later, His disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:26-27).

Here we have two stories, both with people demanding further proof from Jesus, and yet two very different responses from Jesus. What was the difference?

The difference, I believe, is that Jesus knew the asker’s heart. Numerous times throughout the New Testament we read how the Pharisees asked Jesus things to test Him, to trap Him, or to ridicule Him. They did not come to Jesus with sincere doubt; they came to Jesus with self-righteousness and hidden agendas. One more sign would not bring them any closer to God.

Jesus walked away.

But to those who sincerely asked – for those who wanted to believe but struggled – Jesus had a very different response.

Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27).

We know what happened next. Thomas answered Him, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28)

Did Thomas ever doubt again? I don’t know. Based on my own experiences, I would say probably. But based on my own experiences, I would also say that wrestling with those moments of doubt ultimately led him (again and again) to a deeper exclamation of faith.

Doubt, while seemingly so opposite of faith, is often a catalyst that draws us closer to God. Doubt is not something to shy away from. It is something to grip with two hands and shake. It is something to hold out to God and say, “Help!”

Sometimes in order to be genuine in our faith, we must first be genuine in our doubt. And that, to me, is the lesson from Doubting Thomas Sunday.

Then He said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe” (John 20:27).

Shepherds

Some of the most interesting questions are raised during Bible study. Like this one, that came about while reading Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth: And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them… And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:8-11).

“Why,” the question was raised, “did the angels visit shepherds?”

Why not kings? Why not the village watchmen? Why not dispatch angels to every corner of the earth with this astounding news?

Isn’t it interesting that apart from angelic visits to Jesus’ earthly parents, the only recorded angelic herald surrounding Jesus’ birth was to shepherds?

Think about that.

The first recorded use of sheep as a sacrificial offering dates all the way back to Cain and Abel. Abel was a keeper of sheep…and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering (Genesis 4:2,4). Sheep were also likely part of Noah’s offering after the flood (Genesis 8:20), and when God tested Abraham during the binding of Isaac, it was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns, that God gave to Abraham to sacrifice in place of his son (Genesis 22:13).

Generations later, God’s law dictated the use of sheep as burnt offerings (Leviticus 1:10-13), peace offerings (Leviticus 3:6-11), sin offerings (Leviticus 4:27-35; 5:1-6), and guilt offerings (Leviticus 5:14-19; 6-1-7). And it was lamb that served as the first Passover feast on the night the Israelites fled from Egypt. Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight. Then they shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire…you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord’s Passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt…The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you… (Exodus 12:6-13).

It was the commemoration of this very Passover feast that Jesus celebrated with His disciples on the night before He was crucified. During that meal, Jesus set before all people a new covenant. No more would continual sacrifices be necessary to abide by God’s law; all of God’s law was being fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ. Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26-28).

The next day, Jesus would sacrifice Himself on a cross and then rise again three days later, defeating once and for all the sin, death, and devil that plague this world.

So why, on the night of Jesus’ birth, was His entry into the world heralded to shepherds? Perhaps it was to let them know that some of their services would no longer be needed. And to introduce them to a Lamb more perfect than any they would ever find within an earthly flock.

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29). For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed (1 Corinthians 5:7).

Pursued

Earlier this week as I was passing through the student union, a lady suddenly came running toward a student walking just ahead of me.

“Ma’am, ma’am!” She cried.

I stepped to the side, as startled as the student who looked up from her cell phone. As I walked by, I heard the lady say:

“I will buy you your coffee.”

Apparently the student had forgotten her wallet and was unable to purchase the coffee from the little store we were walking by. This lady had noticed, and had not just offered to help, but had literally chased the student down the hall to do so.

Several days later, I keep replaying the incident in my mind. When was the last time I chased someone down in order to be kind to them?

Do good, seek peace, and pursue it, the Psalmist wrote (Psalm 34:14). Pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, Paul told Timothy (2 Timothy 2:22). Do not be overcome by evil, Paul wrote to the Romans. But overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21).

On this day 2000 years ago, Jesus Christ pursued us. He did not just casually intervene. He purposely chased us down so that He could lay down His life in our place. On this Good Friday day of remembrance, I wish you the peace and contemplation that comes with knowing that God never gives up in his pursuit of you. He has pursued you; He has overtaken you; He has laid down His life for you.

Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends… I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you (John 15:13,15).

Lenten Winter

 

Lenten Winter Spring

Yes, I know.  We did get a few more inches of snow last night. But it’s a spring snow.  It’s light and fluffy – not your typical slushy spring snow, I’ll admit – but it’s quiet as cotton to walk on. Gone is the winter crunch I love so much.  I don’t expect to hear it again this year.

Already long stretches of pavement are exposed where the snow has melted off.  I can touch my dog’s collar bare-handed and my fingers don’t stick to the metal buckle.  The snow still catches against her muzzle when she shoves it, snorting happily, into the drifts.  But frost no longer coats her eyelashes.  Her breath no longer spouts a smoky halo as she runs.  Icicles no longer drip from in her whiskers.

My face still flushes with cold.  I still wear a windbreaker and a heavy fleece and my winter boots.  The wind is strong and from the north, but the sting is gone.  Winter may deliver another cold snap, but deep down I know, even as I walk through freshly fallen snow, that winter is over.

Victory belongs to spring.

It doesn’t matter, now, what else winter tries.  Time is on spring’s side.  The days are getting longer.  Yesterday I saw robins in the bushes and tree buds pregnant with expectancy. New life is there, even today, sitting quietly in the snow. It will come.  It always does. For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end – it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay (Habakkuk 2:3).

We enter this week into the season of Lent.  Much like winter, Lent is a season of preparation and remembrance.  We anticipate the new life – our new life – that is celebrated on Easter Sunday. But first, we need to prepare.

Liturgically, Christmas and Easter are only separated by a few months.  But historically, these two events were separated by several decades.  Lent reminds us that Jesus grew up human, like us.  He felt anger (John 2:13-17). He felt sadness (John 11:35). He felt compassion (Mark 6:34).  He was tempted by Satan (Matthew 4:1-11).  He was afraid (Luke 22:41-44).  You might say that Jesus went through a winter unlike anything you or I will ever have to experience.

Lent also offers us an opportunity to reflect on our own winter struggles. Who among us has never walked in some fashion through our own valley of the shadow of death? Lent allows us to stare darkness in the face and say, “Time is on our side!”  It doesn’t matter, now, what else the darkness throws our way.  The days are getting longer. The victory has already been won.

Once and for all, Jesus nailed sin to the tree.  He took it with Him to the grave, and He left it there when He came back. Jesus carried our sins as far away from us as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). This doesn’t mean we never sin; we live in a world still choked with sin.  It also doesn’t mean we never feel pain, or sorrow, or fear. Even Jesus himself felt those things. What it does mean is that none of those things will matter in the end. Or perhaps more accurately, those things are what make the ending matter even more.

Sometimes life is a bit like tromping through spring snow.  It’s cold, it’s dark, and the wind is hard and from the north. But do not let appearances deceive you.  Deep down, we can know that victory belongs not to darkness, but to light; not to winter, but to spring.

Lent reminds us that even the darkest winter will not last forever.

When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” “Oh death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).

The Ending of the Easter Story

Jesus the Christ was put to death on Good Friday, but that is not the end of the story.

Very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb…And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back – it was very large.  And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed.  And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed.  You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified.  He has risen; He is not here” (Mark 16:2,4-6).

That is the Easter story.  But that, too, is not the end of the story.

He [Jesus] appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me [Paul], as to one abnormally born (1 Corinthians 14-15).

Even after His death and resurrection, Jesus continued to teach his followers.  He ate with them, He met with them, and when he ascended into heaven, he promised to send the Holy Spirit to guide them (e.g., Luke 24:36-53).  For forty days after his death and resurrection, Jesus continued to lead His followers.  Then He ascended into heaven.

But even that is not the end of the story.  While they were gazing into heaven as He went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?  This Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).

In other words, this story isn’t over yet.

Easter is not just an event we commemorate; it is an event we continue to live.  The miracles of Easter are as real and present today as they were 2000 years ago.  Jesus is as alive today as He was that first Easter morning.  “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” the angel asked the women at the tomb.  “He is not here, but has risen…” (Luke 24:5-6)

“Christ is risen!” We say on Easter morning.  “He is risen, indeed!”

Sometimes I hear people wonder what it would have been like to live during the time of Jesus.  Sometimes I even say it myself.  Perhaps we should stop wondering and look around.  Because this is still the time of Jesus.  True, we cannot see Jesus, but until His physical return, God is guiding us through the Holy Spirit. “I tell you the truth,” Jesus told His disciples.  “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you.  But if I go, I will send him to you… When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth… (John 16:7,13).  Just because we do not see Him, does not mean He isn’t here.  We don’t exclaim on Easter morning that He was risen; we exclaim that He is risen.  He is risen, indeed.

Jesus’ commission to His followers is as applicable to us today as it was the day He ascended into heaven:  “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).

This Easter season, are we merely celebrating a story we think is over?  Or have we considered the possibility that Christ is calling us to partner with Him (right now!) as He writes the rest of the story?

The Easter story, my friends, has not ended yet. 

Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.  You are witnesses of these things (Luke 24:46-48).

A Good Friday Greeting

I have often wondered what the appropriate greeting for Good Friday should be.  You can’t say “Happy Good Friday” or even, “I hope you have a good Good Friday.”  Good Friday is a day to commemorate something that is definitely neither happy nor good… even when we know the rest of the story.

But I feel like there should be some kind of acknowledgement.  What does one say about Good Friday?

The answer – or at least an answer – came to me unexpectedly in the form of an email from a friend:  We should say about Good Friday the same thing we should do about Good Friday.

We should contemplate it.

So here is my Good Friday greeting to all of you:

P&C –

Peace and Contemplation –

A peaceful and contemplative Good Friday to you.

Lord, help us to remember what this day signifies.  Help us to experience your peace even as we contemplate the day that Jesus died.  What was I doing today at 9 a.m.?  At noontime?  At 3 p.m.?  Was I standing at your cross?  Was I recognizing that even here – because of here – there is peace?

It was nine in the morning when they crucified Him (Mark 15:25).