Five weeks away, Ash Wednesday marks the official start of the 40-day Lenten season and is hallmarked by the placing of ashes on the foreheads of parishioners while saying the ancient words from Scripture, “You are dust and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). Traditionally made by the burning of the palm leaves from the previous Palm Sunday, the ashes symbolize our mortality as well as our sorrow over our sins. The practice harkens back to Old Testament days when God’s people wore sackcloth and ashes to visually show to God and those around them the depth of their repentance for their wayward behavior. The prophet Jeremiah called for repentance by saying: “O daughter of my people, gird on sackcloth, roll in the ashes” (Jer 6:26). Today wearing ashes on our heads in the shape of a cross becomes a reminder to us and a witness to others who see us wearing these ashen crosses that we firmly believe that though we will one day die, we know we will one day be made alive again forevermore, forgiven and free through the precious cross of Christ.
God sometimes makes it clear that he wants you to listen to a particular verse in Scripture. This recently happened to me with Isaiah 43:2-3. We sang it as an anthem in my choir. Then it was the reading of the day in church and then it was used in an article called “Fear Not,” by Elizabeth Eaton in the September 2018 issue of Living Lutheran. Here is the verse:
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers; they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel.”
God was speaking to the Israelites in their wandering, assuring them that whatever things came their way, they could get through it.
Watching the aftermaths of hurricanes that have hit Florida and Texas in recent years, we can see firsthand the power of water. It is not something you can discount or go around when flood waters that forceful are upon you. You must go through it. We have seen so many stories about how people were rescued by boat or helicopter from the rising waters. Those rescue operations are a metaphor for how our God rescues us from the rising waters of troubles at work, home our school. We just must pass through them and God will lift us out, he assures us.
He makes it clear that we will not be overwhelmed or consumed by any obstacle in our path. Why? Because he is with us and he is the Lord. That’s all we need to cling to in the midst of strife.
When I was worshiping at Praise and Worship Lutheran Church in Branson, MO, this past fall, Pastor Mark Hunsaker prayed that we would “cope with hope.” I liked that turn of phrase and it made me realize what a wonderful coping mechanism we have in the hope that we have in our crucified and risen Lord. No matter how bad things get in life, we have hope that Christ has conquered sin, trouble and all our frustrations. We have hope that this trial too (no matter how awful) will pass and we will one day be in paradise with our Lord, where there will be no more tears or pain or suffering.
St. Paul makes it clear: I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us (Romans 8:18).
There is truly light at the end of the tunnel, as St. Peter tells us, “And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast” (1 Peter 5:10).
A few things jump out for me in that verse.
• A little while. Though the suffering may seem endless to us now, this really will in the long run be a short period of time of hardship before the glorious joy to come.
• Restore you and make you strong. When the suffering ends, you will not be a shell of a person or a weak shadow of yourself. You will be renewed, re-energized and strong in the Lord. You will be fully you!
• Firm and steadfast. That is how we shall be and what we should be along the way: confident and sure in our trust in Christ to carry us through. No doubts, no questions, no confusion. Just faith in his power and grace to get us to the other side.
That is how we can cope with hope this week.
One of the most popular Christian singers right now is Lauren Daigle, and one of her most popular songs is “You Say,” It is a powerful song in these times when bullying is becoming more of a problem in schools and political rhetoric is oftentimes more mean-spirited than it perhaps once was.
In the midst of all the name-calling out there, we need to remember that we have a Savior whose name is above all names and who lovingly calls us each by name. This is what our God says to us, as Lauren Daigle reminds us:
You say I am loved when I can’t feel a thing
You say I am strong when I think I am weak
You say I am held when I am falling short
When I don’t belong, oh You say that I am Yours
These lyrics are a firm reminder to us that we should never listen to the voices from outside or within that tell us we are not enough or that we do not measure up,
We are valued, We are precious. We have worth, because of our God who created us and made us his own through the suffering and death of Jesus. We will always belong to him.
Nothing anyone else has to say otherwise can ever change that. Bask in that certainty as you listen to this song:
There are a lot of shows on television these days about rebuilding and restoring and redecorating homes. We are somehow drawn to the process of what carpenters and designers can do to reimagine a space or an entire house. The payoff comes at the reveal, when the finished product is presented to the homeowners with exclamations of delight.
I recently heard the song “Rebuilder” by the Christian group Carrollton. It celebrates the fact that our God is the greatest rebuilder of all, not of our homes, of our very selves. When we are falling apart and in bad shape and in need of repair because of our sins, our doubts, our waywardness, he rebuilds with his foundation of goodness and grace, his blessing and love. He is like the foreman of the project that is our lives. The end result is a new creation because of the work of his Son, the carpenter, who followed through with the rebuilding of all believers by going to the cross for our forgiveness. The old is gone; the new has come, as the Bible says in 1 Corinthians 5:17. And there is great excitement in the reveal of our newly redesigned lives. The Bible says, “There is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10). And we who have come to him confessing and have been rebuilt by our God, rejoice as well, saying, “The LORD has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy” (Psalm 126:3). No matter what condition we may find ourselves in today, God can rebuild us and the results will be glorious. As the Bible declares, “We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). What a wonderful craftsman we have!
Enjoy this song:
In these early days of the new year, it is good for us to remember what we are called to do before we begin events or journeys of any kind in life. Martin Luther suggested that the first thing we do before beginning our day is to make the sign of the cross. Like we do in worship, it is good for us to begin our day, “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” And it is always a good thing to begin a new day with prayer. Many church traditions have even established times for more formalized morning prayer services.
Beyond the beginning of each new day, it is important to begin each meal with prayer and begin each night’s sleep with an evening prayer. I remember my dad having a prayer with the whole family in the car as we started on each summer vacation.
As we start on this new year and go about our new as well as our regular routines, it is good practice to stop for a moment before we embark on each endeavor, and say to ourselves, “Before we begin, let us pray, let us praise, let us give thanks to our God who has brought us to this moment to take part in this activity, event, job, meeting, meal, day, vacation” or whatever it may be.
I am reminded of this hymn:
With the Lord begin your task;
Jesus will direct it.
For his aid and counsel ask;
Jesus will perfect it.
Ev’ry morn with Jesus rise,
And when day is ended,
In his name then close your eyes;
Be to him commended.
Let each day begin with prayer,
Praise, and adoration.
On the Lord cast ev’ry care;
He is your salvation.
Morning, evening, and at night
Jesus will be near you,
Save you from the tempter’s might,
With his presence cheer you.
Keep these thoughts and words in mind each day of this new year, and remember, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).