The Lentiest–A Meditation for Palm Sunday 2020

This is the lentiest Lent that I ever lented.

Today is Palm Sunday — the paradoxical day when we cry out in joy “Hosanna” but also cringe at the cross looming on Friday. It is the last Sunday of Lent, but also the beginning of Easter week.

Ash Wednesday seems like a whole other universe, that cold winter’s night when we gathered and spoke of our own mortality — ‘From ashes you came, to ashes you shall return’ and promised to follow Jesus on the lonely path of prayer and devotion. We started our fast by faith, not knowing where it would lead us.

There is nothing quite like a global pandemic to get your attention on the issues of mortality. People’s lives are in jeopardy. Medical supplies are running out. The world is shut down. People are afraid. This new reality focuses our prayers. We started praying for Wuhan. Then we prayed for Italy. Then Spain. Some of us prayed for Iran because the news looked like they got hit harder than admitted. Then we prayed for Washington State — that hit close to home. Now we pray for New York, where doctors, nurses, and all hospital personnel put their own lives at risk everyday to save others. And bodies are being stored in cooling trucks because there is no room in the morgue.

We are driven to ours knees in prayer for our communities for the virus to pass without fatalities, and that it passover us.

From ashes we came. To ashes we return.

Lentish in the extreme.

The question of Lent is how do we fill our lives with meaning between the ashes.

The quest of Lent is to live a life dedicated to God in such a way that makes the world better. This is what we will be judged on in eternity. This is the call of Lent — to draw closer to God in Christ because the world we live in, though important, is not the place where we find ultimate meaning. We are passing through. Our citizenship is elsewhere. Nevertheless, it is here in this place where we learn the secrets to the next: the fulfillment of sacrifice, the work of love, the joy of service, the power of truth, and meaning of hope.

Lent calls us to fast — depriving our body and our minds of normal, everyday comforts so we can focus upon Christ. This fasting is not a punishment but a process for controlling our appetites with discipline. Normally we do this by depriving our body of sugar, chocolate, bread, entertainment or something banal. This year, the fasting was abrupt and involuntary; fasting was hoisted upon faithful and faithless alike.

We were deprived of our social interactions and forced to face ourselves and our families. Do you think the Lord might be teaching us something spiritual here?

We were deprived of basic material goods we take for granted. No longer were people clamoring for the latest gadget but the most important thing on people’s minds was toilet paper. Is it possible there is something spiritual the Lord is teaching us?

Milk, rationed; the meat aisle was depleted. There is no flour on the baking aisle, either. So very lenty.

I don’t mean to be too over-the-top, but you’ll pardon me for thinking the Lord said to all of us, ‘Yeah, you could do without for a little while.’

The lentiest Lent that I ever lented.

The Lenten/Easter cycle is always in parallel with the Exodus/Passover narratives both theologically and temporarily, as they fall about the same time. Anyone who ever doubted God could bring the powerful Egyptian Empire to its knees by controlling the water, the livestock and the weather should observe how the world has buckled. I am not saying God brought about COVID-19 as a plague. I am saying life teaches lessons about reality.

Lent is about the power of God and spiritual strength. Though these times are hard, and this Lenten season is unique and will forever in our lives be remembered as the year without Easter, perhaps it will be the most significant and spiritually meaningful Easter. The reason is simple. Lent is that wonderful annual remembrance to prioritize what matters and to cut away those things which do not.

The lentiest Lent I ever lented will produce the easteriest Easter I ever eastered. Amen.

The Old Testament and Resurrection

Yesterday in the Easter Sermon I spent a good bit of time talking about five key verses of scripture from the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, that point to a view of life after death. We would rightly call these resurrection verses in light of Jesus and the empty tomb, as well as the explicit teaching of the New Testament, particularly landmark passages like 1 Corinthians 15.

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Me preaching on Easter, or am I playing Rock, Paper, Scissors?

 

The compilation of these five verses comes from Millard Erickson’s epic theology book Christian Theology, on page 1201 of my copy. It is not in his section on the work of Jesus, but rather on “Last Things” which I find fascinating. So, if you missed them yesterday because you were dazzled by my homiletics (or, like most of the 7 or 8 billion people in the world, weren’t there) here they are.

  1. Isaiah 26:19, “But your dead will live; their bodies will rise.  You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy.  Your dew is like the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead.”
  2. Daniel 12:2  “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.”
  3. Psalm 49:15, “But God will redeem my life from the grave; he will surely take me to himself”
  4. Psalm 17:15 “And I—in righteousness I will see your face; when I awake, I will be satisfied with seeing your likeness.”

Erickson doesn’t list Job’s ancient words. I find this to be a glaring omission, for they are the most New Testament sounding of them all and are my personal favorite. As I said, it is part of my funeral liturgy, and for good reason.

“I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth.  And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” (Job 19:25-26).

I’d like to point out as well that Erickson does in his work what theologians always do–offer serious caution about reading too much into these words. I know where he is coming from, but I think his caution is too strong. The Bible teaches us about Jesus, and though the language is imprecise in the Hebrew texts, it is still applicable and I believe appropriate at Easter.

AIRPLANE MODE AND OTHER ADVENTURES

This going to work every day again has been a difficult adjustment. The biggest adjustment has been reacquiring some skill sets that I previously had mastered, but lost due to atrophy. It is true–use it or lose it. Here are some things I need to work on:

1. The important skill of remembering to turn your iPhone to airplane mode if you intend to use it to read scripture during a worship service. Easter Sunday it was still dark (and rainy) when the sunrise service began, so I thought myself clever using my iPhone to read the scripture because of the backlight. In the middle of Isaiah my phone asks me if i want to update. I tell it no. It asks if tonight is good. Rather embarrassing.

2. I had forgotten how hard announcements are. I flubbed them up royally yesterday, and even had to rearrange on the fly. Once upon a time announcements were seamless to me and I spoke the language of “put on your calendars” and “you will not want to miss” as if it were my mother tongue. Now I stammer and stutter all the way through.

3. Time management is the hardest. I grossly overestimated how much time I had between small group and worship service yesterday.

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Another skill to reacquire is keeping my eyes open while preaching.

The result was we started everything several minutes later than we intended, thus pushing everything late.

4. Temperature control, for me, is vital. If I get too warm when I am preaching my throat gets hoarse, I cough, and then I feel myself losing energy. That happened yesterday because I did not make certain the thermostat was set at the right temperature. By the time I left the building, I was in need of hydration and a throat lozenge. I used to be on top of things like that, but somehow along the way I’d forgotten.

5. I didn’t make it to the back of the building quick enough on any of the first three weeks. That has got to change, because I have found, through the years, that a lot of pastoring happens at the back of the door after a worship service.

There are other things I’ve got to re-learn, but these are the ones that are bothering me on this Monday morning.

QUESTIONS FOR JESUS ON GOOD FRIDAY

Which hurt more, the whip, the nails, the public ridicule or the fact that Peter denied you?  I think I know the answer.

Father, forgive them–Really, because that is a little hard to swallow?

Why did you use a Persian loan word to describe heaven to the thief, because, honestly, that kinda freaks me out?

Was Pilate sympathetic or a jackass?  I can’t really tell from the Scriptures and I need to know.

Why were your female followers braver than your male followers?

Had you met Joseph of Arimathea before–not in the way that God meets everyone but in the way that you in your humanity you might have sat and chatted with him ahead of time about what to do with your body?

As they gambled for your clothes, did you think about Judas or did you think about me?

In the courtyard, when they were whipping you, how did you keep from calling them each by name and scolding them?

When they pushed the crown of “thorns” upon your sweaty “brow” did you reflect on Adam and Eve and remember a better day?

Why did it have to be a cross?  I mean, if death for atonement is all that was needed, wouldn’t a quick thrust from a Roman short sword through the neck been just as effective?

Can you help me reconcile my own emotions on this–because I’m glad you did it, but at the same time I hate that you did it?

Do you think Satan really thought he had won, or did he know what was coming in a couple of days?

This is a hard question, especially to ask of God, but I still wonder it so here goes:  Do you ever regret it?  I ask because I’m not sure we’re worth it.