Ash Wednesday: The Psalms Passage – Entering Lent

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.” (Psalm 51:1)

Ash Wednesday. It is said in some traditions the ashes that are smudged on the forehead are from the burnt palms from the previous year. I like that continuity from year to year. Each Lent season we enter it with good intentions that when we are forgiven from our sins, we sill sin no more. But days and weeks pass, and sin creeps in, until Lent season is upon us again and we again need forgiveness.

“Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” (Verses 2 – 3)

I also like the idea that the church body knows that it will inevitably sin, and retaining the memory of grace, hopes on it again. Jesus dying once for us was enough. But we need to repent and be forgiven again and again. This is one of the lessons that young believers learn. That the thrill of new belief gives way to the reality of trying to life a new life in an old world.

“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. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.” (Verses 4 – 5)

While it is true that the new believer most likely has turned away from a life not at all centered on God and Christ, human will alone is not enough to keep us sin free. Or, as we have been talking about in the past few days, free will allows us to make choices that are contrary to God’s leading and guidance.

“You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.” (Verses 6 – 9)

New Christian, or old hand at the Christian life, each of us needs to be re-oriented towards God and Christ. Ash Wednesday is one of those days when we examine our selves, see ourselves as we are, seek to make amends, and hope in the grace and mercy that is to come. And opening ourselves like that, we invite God and Christ is – for the first time or again.

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.” (Verses 10 – 13)

It is a yearly rhythm; self examination, confession, and the hope for forgiveness. We sometimes create a journey where we move from self-examination to confession, and then “feign” not knowing what we will do – whether grace and mercy will be ours. In this way we re-discover anew the grace and mercy that God intends.

“Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Verses 14 – 17)

But the using of palms from the year before belies that idea. In its stead we recognize that human will and human frailty have tripped us up . . . again. There are many spiritual disciplines and practices that are carried out during Lent. Throughout history the church has espoused differing ways to take on “burdens” during Lent to remind us of Christ’s travail. We go without something or do something extra to mark the 40 days that are Lent. And there is good and benefit in that.

But we must also remember that grace and mercy are not to be rewards for the burdens we endure or the challenges we take up. As it is so often said, you must believe . . . simply, believe. This is the good news for the new Christian, and good news for those of us who have seen many Lenten seasons.

May you, beloved reader, enter into the season of Lent looking for the hope that is already in place. Selah!

First Sunday in Lent: The Epistles Passage – Paul gets “cutesy”

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned- “ (Romans 5:12)

I have to pause and say, that placing the Genesis passage first in our week was pure impulse on my part, but it works!

. . . sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.” (Verse 13 – 14)

In seminary I was told that Paul compares Adam to Jesus, but that while it was through Adam that sin came into the world, it is through Jesus that sin in world is taken away. And that death likewise takes all people, but in Jesus death is loses it sting and potency. I tell you this, beloved reader, in order to explain this passage. Paul, in his involved theological discussion, also sets theological understandings which have not been shaken or changed.

Paul has constructed a tight argument (old meaning, a theological or philosophical treatise that can be examined and considered) for his Roman readers. I don’t exactly disagree with it or dispute it, but there is something here I am uncomfortable with. Let us continue though.

“But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification.” (Verses 15 – 16)

I know now what bothers me about this; it is discussion for the sake of discussion. It does not advance a theory or theology, but it is Paul making correlations and connections that are intriguing and complex. It is like a “compare and contrast” exercise that is designed to test how much you know about the topic and how elegantly you can display that knowledge. It is the sort of thing as a literature student I was called on to do often. But it does not help much to advance the general reader’s understanding. Paul continues.

“If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. 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.” (Verses17 – 19)

It also frames Adam in a negative light, for the sake of the argument. Adam did not ask for an irresistible tree so he could sin by not resisting it. No more than we ask for sin to come into our life so that we can give in to it. As I said yesterday, Adam and Eve (let us not forget her) exercised free will, but chose to disregard God’s highest intention for them. But being flawed people and setting the potential that other parts of humanity might be flawed, God and Christ Jesus were given the opportunity to right what went wrong in the garden, and give humanity a chance to chose for God. (Okay, maybe I borrowed some of Paul’s approach. Mea culpa!)

But this move us further along to Ash Wednesday, and the beginning of Lent where we consider our choices. May we choice wisely – looking to the past, considering our present, and planning our future. Selah!

First Sunday in Lent: The Old Testament Passage – “Look, but don’t touch?” It’s our choice!

It is another jam-packed week, beloved readers. Having had Transfiguration Sunday, we now move into Lent. And the first major day in Lent is Ash Wednesday. Before Wednesday, however, I want to put us in a frame of mind to understand what Ash Wednesday is, and why we need it. Then when Wednesday comes, we will consider some of the passages that make up that day.

“The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 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.” (Genesis 2:15 – 17)

“Look, but don’t touch!” That is a caution that most parents give at least once. Because in the world of a toddler there is so much to see and experience, but also so much that small hands should leave alone. Even some adults have a hard time keeping their hands off of/out of things that they should not meddle in. And the warning from our Divine Parent is often not heeded.

“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.'”
But 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.” (Chapter 3, verses 1 – 5)

“Look, but don’t touch!” Not everything in creation is for all people; some things are specially created for certain people. Not everyone is equally gifted and blessed. People vary widely in their abilities and skills. And while we can admire what another person has, or what they can do, not everything is for every person. Looking, admiring, and enjoying the sight of sometimes have to be enough.

“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.” (Verses 6 – 7)

“Look, but don’t touch!” How can it be “sin” to take hold of something and claim it as one’s own? How can it be “sin” to incorporating items and understandings into our selves? How can that be “sin”? Well, technically it is not. But one decision leads to another, that leads to another, and before you know it we are down a path that has unfortunate consequences.

The philosopher might ask why God put something in the garden that was so dangerous? The theologian might ask was original sin inevitable? The psychologist might ask when does a person become self-aware? I am wondering why God created a sneaky snake?!

“Look, but don’t touch!” Free will – we would not be human without it. If there was not something in the garden that tested humanity, how would humanity learn? Just as the Lord God created a tree/fruit that was unhealthy and allowed a creature that personified temptation, the Lord God also sent a Messiah that we must deliberately chose to follow and emulate.

We can chose to hold onto disbelief; or we can believe in God. That is the primary task of new believers, who are the focus of this lectionary year. We can chose to keep sinning, however we are sinning; or we can chose to confess, do penance, and be forgiven. That was the focus last year. We can continue on our way, struggling with life and faith; or we can renew and recommit ourselves to the Lord God. That is the task of the lectionary year to come. All of these things are our choices; and Ash Wednesday is one of the pivotal days for these choices. May you chose well believed reader! Selah!

Transfiguration Sunday: The Psalms Passage – When the psalms don’t fit

I was trying to figure out which psalm passage to use; the lectionary cites both as possible. Neither one really seems to fit well. Both seem, well, a little angry and venting. Sort of matches my mood, which is probably why neither one “speaks” to me. When I am in this sort of mood, I go to the scriptures to try to quiet my spirit. But it is not quieted.

“Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD has them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying, “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”
I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the LORD with fear, with trembling kiss his feet, or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for his wrath is quickly kindled. Happy are all who take refuge in him. “ ( Psalm 2)

Being transfiguration Sunday (at least it is tomorrow) it makes sense that these passages are focusing on the might and strength of Jesus Christ and his inherent power. But like Peter on the mountain sharing space with Elijah and Moses, there doesn’t seem to be room here for us. And we just draw attention to our not understanding and babbling by trying to say something or contribute something.

“The LORD is king; let the peoples tremble! He sits enthroned upon the cherubim; let the earth quake!
The LORD is great in Zion; he is exalted over all the peoples.
Let them praise your great and awesome name. Holy is he!
Mighty King, lover of justice, you have established equity; you have executed justice and righteousness in Jacob.
Extol the LORD our God; worship at his footstool. Holy is he!
Moses and Aaron were among his priests, Samuel also was among those who called on his name. They cried to the LORD, and he answered them.
He spoke to them in the pillar of cloud; they kept his decrees, and the statutes that he gave them.
O LORD our God, you answered them; you were a forgiving God to them, but an avenger of their wrongdoings.
Extol the LORD our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the LORD our God is holy.” (Psalm 99)

So let us just let the psalmist do his job, praising the Lord God and extolling his virtues, while we said back and add our voices to the chorus. But that is not the way Jesus Christ was. Jesus was among the people, traveling to see them, helping them, healing them and becoming involved in their lives. And maybe that is why Jesus did not want Peter, James, and John to say something, because the “mountain top Jesus” was an aspect of the divinity of Jesus that it was not the right time for. That is, during Jesus’ time on earth was the time of a Messiah that was approachable and intimate – imminent is the term that is often used. A Messiah, or God, that is close to us and that seems a part of our everyday lives, as opposed to being out in the cosmos. And I that is why neither of these two psalm passages seem to fit where I am at right.

And actually, where I am at RIGHT NOW is wondering how it is that I never got back to finish this post and post it on the website. Here it is, mid way through transfiguration Sunday, and there is nothing posted. But just like Elijah and Moses were suddenly present with Jesus, suddenly it will be posted! Technology is “miraculous”, but I prefer old-fashioned miracles myself, like Jesus coming to earth, walking with his disciples, and leaving a legacy that is still alive and strong! Selah!

Transfiguration Sunday: The Gospel Passage – I am thinking about this

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.” (Matthew 17:1)

In the last section of Matthew chapter 16, the writer of Matthew says that Jesus started telling/prophesying concerning his death. It is important to know and understand this at the end of the passage. And, actually, to understand the context of this passage.

And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.” (Verses 2 – 3)

I am sitting here, fingers posed above the keyboard, and a number of thoughts go through my head. How did Peter, James, and John know it was Moses and Elijah? How did the writer of the gospel of Matthew know? Well, most probably Peter, James and/or John told the writer of Matthew. But that still leaves the question, how did they know?

And why? Why would Moses and Elijah come to talk to Jesus? Advice or counsel? Comfort? Planning? With a message from God? I have some thoughts on that. Why Moses and Elijah, of all the saints and prophets that had gone before? I have some thoughts on that too.

“Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” (Verse 4)

The other gospels that report this interlude state the Peter was overwhelmed, in shock, and was just fumbling words and a response to this. And that he did not completely understand the situation, and/or could not take it all in.

“While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Verse 5)

This is an echo or refrain from when Jesus was baptized, which Matthew, Luke, and John record in their gospels. And this blessing and benediction shook the disciples there even more.

“When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” (Verses 6 – 7)

My thinking on this goes something like this; first, the writer of the gospel of Matthew (and perhaps the other gospel writers who wrote of it) wanted to make it very clear that Jesus was from God & from Heaven. and so was connected in an ongoing way to God and Heaven. The transformation/transfiguration was a revealing of Jesus’ divine nature and the source of Jesus’ power and authority. Connecting Jesus to two of the most prominent saints in Jewish history place Jesus directly in the line of God’s plan, intention, and intervention in the world. Second, interestingly, Elijah’s and Moses’ deaths are never really emphasized or spoken too. Elijah was taken up to Heaven, and Moses was laid to rest by God the Godself. This compares/contrast to Jesus’ death; both that it was spoken of by Jesus and the foretold by the prophets, and that Jesus spoke of it well before it came to pass.

My next “pondering” is . . . did it really happen? Or was it an “invention” by the writers of the gospel?

“And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.” (Verse 8)

I am not, truly, questioning it authenticity. That three of the gospel writers and the writer of the second letter of Peter speak of it confirms it in my own mind. My point is, it so perfectly reminds the reader that Jesus was more than just a teacher but could call on and converse with the prophets; not just read scripture to understand the prophets but speak to them as well. And it makes manifest, again, Jesus’ relationship to God. It does all these things so well, that one must conclude it was contrived, BUT contrived by the Divine and not by human invention!

“As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” (Verse 9)

So why not talk about it in the moment? That is my last question, and the one I have very few thoughts on. Why wait? There are some theories on that out there. As for me, I do not have an answer. However, one thing it does tell me is that there is a course of events that must happen at certain times and places. We may think we have a glimpse of things and understand the whole of it, while in reality we only know a part. When all things, that is ALL THINGS have been revealed, then we will understand. Until then, we must wait on the Divine. Selah!

Transfiguration Sunday: The Epistle Passage – Listen to my “old friend” Peter

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when that voice was conveyed to him by the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (II Peter 1:16 – 17)

I have made it no secret how much I look to and admire the apostle Peter. And if the writer of II Peter (and I Peter) is the apostle Peter, than it explains why I like these two letters also. Paul has admiration and respect. Peter has my love and gratitude. How can one not love a man who stumbled his way to understanding Jesus Christ and emerged as one of the founding builders of the Christian church.

“We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.
So we have the prophetic message more fully confirmed. You will do well to be attentive to this as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts.” (Verses 18 – 19)

We will hear later in the week a more first hand account of the Jesus on the mountain top with Peter and others. It did not go quite as smoothly at the time in comparison to Peter’s hindsight. But he does well to draw his reader’s attention to it.

“First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” (Verses 20 – 21)

I take very seriously his advice. I have discovered over the years that what I have written does not stem purely from my own understanding. There have been too many times I have looked back at what I wrote and thought, “Now how did I come up with that reflection/commentary?” There have been times I have stumbled through writing on scripture and can clearly see my human efforts at exegesis or explanation. And I blush at the simplicity of it. Other times I have no explanation as to how I thought of it, and can only conclude as Paul concludes, the glory and boasting is of God. And if you think I am bragging about me . . . well, you need to take Paul’s perspective as seriously as I do!

But Peter, he knows it is not through human will or understanding. He says clearly it is the movement of the Holy Spirit. Because Peter knows his limits, as I know mine. So we both commend to you following the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. May you find your understanding there. Selah!

Transfiguration Sunday: The Old Testament Passage – Something is coming on the mountain top!

Something is coming! Something big and major is coming our way beloved reader!! And here in the Old Testament Passage is the beginning of it. The signs and portents of it are in, this passage. Let me “highlight” them for you.

“The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” (Exodus 24:12)

Mountain tops are good places for instruction and learning. Important things happen on mountain tops. In this passage Moses is to receive the Ten Commandments by which may faiths and religious traditions govern themselves and are governed. But the Divine also speaks from mountain tops. Watch and wait for other mountain top experiences.

“So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God.” (Verse 13)

Not every one is invited to the mountain top, and even those who are there do not always understand its meaning and what is learned there. For example, not every one understands the complete significance and wide scope of the Ten Commandments. But for the most part, those who are invited to the mountain top are favored by the Divine.

“To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.” (Verse 14)

Those who ascend will descend in the Divine’s time. Wait for them; wait patiently and with firm resolve. Do not be dismayed by how long it will take. There are those among us who can we turn to for leadership and guidance. Look to those whose faith is strong and mature.

“Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.” (Verses 15 – 17)

Who among us is ready for a mountain top experience with the Divine? Who is ready to walk through cloud and fire? And who can see through the cloud and fire to understand what will be revealed?

“Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.” (Verse 18)

It takes time, beloved reader, to learn and understand all the the Divine has to reveal. It takes time that may seem long to human measurement, or it may be instantaneous. Who can say? But it is enough to know that it is an experience that can utterly change your life.

When you are called to a mountain top by the Divine, may you be ready for the experience. And may you be blessed by it. Selah!