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First Sunday in Lent

Naked before the Lord

As we move into the Season of Lent, let us go back to the beginning. From today’s Old Testament reading:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’ut the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.   (Genesis 3:1-7)

The goal for many of us in this season is to grow closer to God. How do we do that? To answer that question, perhaps it is best to try to understand why we may feel apart from God. Adam and Eve disobeyed God. They felt naked and ashamed for what they had done. God still wanted to commune with them, but they hid from God. It was not that God was hiding from them. They wanted to distance themselves from God.

God is a holy God. He is perfect, without fault. We are unholy. The Apostle Paul said that his righteousness was like filthy rags. When the Prophet Isaiah was called by God he said:

“Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”   (Isaiah 6:5)

The children of Israel came came before God at Mount Sinai. From Exodus we read:

When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid[d] and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin.”   (Exodus 20:18-20)

God is calling us to himself. He wants us to come as we are. Too often we are looking for a covering, rather than exposing ourselves to God. As part of our Lenten discipline, may fast certain things in an attempt to move closer God. Will that impress him? Is that what he wants from us? We recall the words of the prophet:

Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel?   (Amos 5:23-25)

There is nothing wrong with spiritual disciplines, but God is looking for more from us. Our sacrifices may just be a way of avoiding what he is asking of us. He is looking for righteousness. And we are reluctant to go before him naked. But that is what he wants. He, himself, will provide the covering that we need. The psalmist wrote:

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler
and from the deadly pestilence;
he will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.   (Psalm 91:1-4)

Do we trust God’s covering? In the wilderness, Satan tested the trust of Jesus in the covering of God the Father:

Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

‘He will command his angels concerning you,’
and ‘On their hands they will bear you up,

so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’”

Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”   (Matthew 4:5-7)

Satan was saying: “Take the short cut. Test God and see if he is there for you.” He does the same with us. He wants us to question our faith in God. He knows that our faith is part of the covering of God. Our faith has to do with our nakedness before God. That is how we are to approach him. When we do, we discover that God has provided for us. Jesus waited on the Father. He did not need to test God.

Today, what is our covering? Who is our covering? Is it the Lord Jesus Christ? In the Garden of Eden, God the Father made garments of skins for Adam and Eve by sacrificing animals (Genesis 3:20). God has made a covering for us by the shed blood of Jesus. Jesus has paid all our debt to God. If we believe that, we will need nothing more.

The Lent, are we ready to approach the throne of God boldly? Is our righteousness by faith in Jesus, or is it based on something else? God wants us to come before him, naked, with only our faith in Jesus. He will cover the rest. In fact, scripture tells us:

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.   (1 John 1:5-9

Let us be transparent before God. He may reveal to us some sin that we have even hidden from ourselves. However, whatever God shines his light upon he is able to cleanse, if we let him. Thanks be to God who covers us with the blood of his Son.

The psalmist wrote:

Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven,
and whose sin is put away!

Happy are they to whom the Lord imputes no guilt,
and in whose spirit there is no guile!   ()Psalm 32:1-2)

 

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Ash Wednesday

Remember That You Are Dust

Ash Wednesday is traditionally a day of fasting and repentance. In many liturgical churches ashes are placed on the foreheads of each participant. Ashes were a sign of penitence in the Ancient Near East, particularly in Judaism.

Recall this example from the Old Testament. Jonah preached to Nineveh that God was going to destroy the city and the people listened:

So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them. For word came unto the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, and he laid his robe from him, and covered him with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he caused it to be proclaimed and published through Nineveh by the decree of the king and his nobles, saying, Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste any thing: let them not feed, nor drink water: But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and cry mightily unto God: yea, let them turn every one from his evil way, and from the violence that is in their hands.  (Jonah 3:5-8)

Notice that the King of Nineveh decreed that the people must turn from evil. God is never impressed with meaningless rituals.

Jesus said, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.   (Matthew 6:1)

As a campus minister I remember a particular Ash Wednesday service when a school official who wanted to know at what precise time I would be doing the “imposition of ashes” (making the customary sign of the cross in ashes on a person’s forehead). She did not want to sit through the scripture readings, homily, or prayers. The mere sign of the cross on her forehead would prove that she had done her religious duty.

Let us consider these instructive words of Jesus?

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16-18)

We cannot impress God with our rituals or our piety. Why should we try to impress others who must also stand before His throne, as we are required? God is calling us to a holy fast – one in which we come before Him in true repentance.

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)

The Ash Wednesday service serves as a reminder of who we are and whose we are. Man was created out of dust by the hand of God. Our lives are sustained by His very breath. One day His breath will be taken away and we will have to give an accounting to Him of how we lived our lives.

Ash Wednesday is a check to the triumphant Christians who have arrived and no longer need to acknowledge their sins before God. It questions the “once saved, always saved” mentality.

Meaningless ritual? It might be for some. The act of fasting and repentance was not meaningless to the King of Nineveh. Jesus did not say that we should not fast. He said that we should not make a show of it. If we do, we may receive approval by some, but not by God. God looks at the heart.

If we say that we do not need any formal type of confession because our sins are washed in the blood of Jesus we may be missing the point of confession. From John First Epistle:

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.   (1 John 1:8-9)

If we say that we have given our heart to Jesus and yet deliberately sin, how should our God judge our act of contrition? The Book of Hebrews has the answer:

For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.   (Hebrews 10:26-27)

Ash Wednesday offers us an opportunity for fasting and repentance. Perhaps we should take it?

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The Presentation

bellini2Purification

Today we celebrate The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple by Joseph and Mary. From the Gospel of Luke:

When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, the parents of Jesus brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”  (Luke 2:22-24)

Let us look at this event as if it were part of a three act play. This was the first act of purification – a ceremonial purification. Mary was considered unclean on the birth of her child, according to Jewish law. After a waiting period of about forty days, she and Joseph were required to offer up their son to God. Mary would then be considered pure and her child would be declared holy before God.

A ritual of ceremonial purification was not without meaning or significance. It was a rehearsal of a spiritual purification which was to come. Today, in many churches, parents present their children to God with the expectation that these children will be raised in the Christian Faith.

At the time of Jesus’ presentation the prophet Simeon blessed the family of Jesus and said to Mary:

“This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35)

This prophecy foretold the second act of purification – a purification of the Law of God. Simeon prophesied that Jesus will bring about major changes in Judaism. Jesus said that he did not come to set aside the law but to fulfill it. The essence of the Law had to do with loving God and neighbor, but it had become merely an elaborate set of rules to follow. As the Word made flesh, Jesus demonstrated by his life the true righteous requirements of the law. God requires transparency and truth. We cannot cover up our sins by our “good deeds.”

Joseph and Mary were presenting Jesus to God in the Temple. Jesus would soon change the whole temple worship by becoming the temple himself. He would become the new Temple by satisfying all the requirements of the old one. His blood, spilled on the cross, would become the atoning sacrifice for all our sins, once and for all.

From Hebrews we read:

Since God’s children share flesh and blood, Jesus himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.   (Hebrews 2:14-15)

The last act of purification has to do with the purification of the saints. We read in Malachi:

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.   (Malachi 3:3-4)

The Apostle Paul writes that Jesus, by his atoning sacrifice, is able to present us pure before the Father:

And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him — provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven.   (Colossians 1:21-23)

Paul makes it clear that we must continue in the Faith. Jesus makes this promise for those who do:

“Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.   (Matthew 10:32-33)

Mary and Joseph presented Jesus holy to God. Jesus turned the tables. He presents Mary and Joseph and all saints as holy to God. Mary and Joseph offered up their son before God. God, the Father, offered His Son as a sacrifice for us all that we may be made holy before him. The Presentation of Jesus becomes our presentation before God the Father. Amen.

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