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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Day, Dust, Do

Throughout the year, people observe events by wearing symbols. If you saw a woman wearing a brooch in the form of a heart, you would say it is St. Valentine’s Day. A man might wear a shamrock on his lapel on St. Patrick’s Day. And by now, you probably packed away your Christmas ties and sweaters.
Surprisingly, people don gay apparel, shamrocks and hearts without knowing the reasons we wear those symbols. So it is with ashes upon our foreheads. Why do we ask pastors to smudge a cross above our brows on this day?
Hence, Ash Wednesday’s significance, Ash Wednesday’s symbols and Ash Wednesday’s suggestions; or, Day, Dust and Do.
First, Day. The significance of Ash Wednesday is that it is one of the most solemn days of the church year. Forty-six days before Easter, this liturgy marks the beginning of a penitential discipline climaxing on Maundy Thursday. The mood is penitential and reflective. Worshipers keep reverent silence before the service and leave the service in silence. In some churches, there is no greeting at the door by the pastor.[1]
It used to be true that “liturgical churches” — those with a regular, calendar-based liturgy, or set of rituals and observances — marked the day, but nowadays, even Baptist and evangelical churches observe Ash Wednesday.[2]
According to Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the desert, where he endured temptation by Satan. Lent originated from this, fasting 40 days as preparation for Easter. Every Sunday is a commemoration of the Sunday of Christ's Resurrection, and a feast day on which fasting is inappropriate. Accordingly, Christians fasted from Monday to Saturday (6 days) during 6 weeks and from Ash Wednesday to that Saturday (4 days), thus making up the number of 40 days.[3]
While there is no Biblical commandment to observe Ash Wednesday, it offers Christians the opportunity to acknowledge our frailty and sinfulness, and confess our imperfections. According to one Evangelical pastor, we can let down our pretenses and be truly honest with each other about who we are: that we all bear the mark of sin, from the youngest babies to the oldest seniors. We stand guilty before a holy God. As mortals, we will someday experience bodily death. Thus, we all need a Savior.[4]
We all need a Savior. And so we move from significance to symbol, from day to dust.
As I applied ashes to your forehead, I spoke the words from Genesis, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”[5] Based on the words spoken to Adam and Eve after their sin, the formula reminds us of our sinfulness and mortality and of our need to repent. A newer formula, from Mark, “Repent and believe in the Gospel,”[6] makes explicit what was only implicit in the old, reinforcing the truth that we all need a Savior.
According to the ancient Jewish tradition of penance and fasting, the practice of wearing of ashes on the head symbolizes the dust from which God made us.[7] Ashes express grief. When Tamar was violated by her half-brother, "she sprinkled ashes on her head, tore her robe, and with her face buried in her hands went away crying."[8]
Ashes express sorrow for sins and faults. Job said to God, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”[9] Jeremiah called for repentance by saying, “O daughter of my people, put on sackcloth, and roll in ashes; make mourning as for an only son, most bitter lamentation, for suddenly the destroyer will come upon us.”[10]We find similar mention on the lips of Jesus and elsewhere.[11] So, remember that you are dust.
As dust, you are nothing but common, ordinary dirt, taken for granted and trampled underfoot. One speck of dust looks like the rest. Disagree? You think you are unique? Think again. A billion Chinese never heard of you. You are dust.
Pretty grim, isn’t it? Only if you stop there; only if you stop with the symbol that is dust. But that symbol is incomplete. When I dusted your forehead, I dusted with another symbol: the sign of the cross. That symbol declares that dust has been redeemed. Redeemed not in the shadowy sense but with startling realism.
Ever since Bethlehem and Calvary, this speck of humanity that is you, is now “charged with the grandeur of God.” You are brothers and sisters of God-in-flesh. Your dust is literally electric with God’s own life. Your nothingness is filled with God’s eternity. Your nothingness has Christ’s own shape. You are dust redeemed. That brings me to my final point … do.
The roots of the verb “do” are Middle English and Germanic.[12] It means to bring to pass, to put or to perform or execute.[13]
I believe the best way to walk is to do what Jesus suggested, or better yet, commanded. Jesus is our Way and our Light. The only way to live with courage and conviction as Christians in the face of a world that is blessed and broken is to do what he commanded. Let us use the season of Lent to do what He commanded in today’s Gospel: pray, fast and give alms.
But let us do those things this Lent without anyone knowing, except God. And when you do, may the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.[14] Amen.

[1] Ash Wednesday Service. The Spirit Annointed Christ for Mercy – Lenten Worship Series.
[5] Genesis 3:19
[6] Mark 1:15
[8] 2 Samuel 3:19
[9] Job 42:3-6
[10] Jeremiah 6:26
[11] Matthew 11:21; Luke 10:13; Daniel 9:3; 1 Maccabees 3:47; 4:39; Numbers 19:9, 19:17, Jonah 3:6, Esther 4:1; Hebrews 9:13.
[14] Philippians 4:7

Saturday, February 6, 2016

A Practical Man's Clumsy Ways

 Generically speaking the word, transfiguration, means a change in form or appearance. It also means an exalting, glorifying or spiritual change. Harry Potter diehards define transfiguration as a core subject taught at Hogwarts, the art and science of changing an object’s form and appearance. That is not what we understand and observe today.
I want you to understand why we observe Transfiguration today, that is, why the church places it on the Sunday immediately prior to Ash Wednesday, why Luke placed it in chapter 9, and what practical application the Transfiguration plays in our lives.
The church places the Transfiguration on the Sunday immediately prior to Ash Wednesday.[1] As a Christian feast, the Transfiguration commemorates Christ’s transfiguration or metamorphis on a mountaintop in the presence of three disciples. It makes a great deal of sense to observe it today, because when we look at the church’s liturgical year beginning with Advent, we see Epiphany framed by the Baptism of Jesus and the Transfiguration. On these Sundays, God the Father proclaims, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” and “This is my Son, my Chosen One.”[2]
The Season of Epiphany reveals who the child Jesus is, and emphasizes that He is God’s Son. We hear this at the beginning of his ministry and as Jesus turns his face to go to Jerusalem, which happens right after the Transfiguration. After this Sunday, the church observes Ash Wednesday, which plunges us down into the valley of Lent, which precedes Easter.
Today, we look over the valley of Lent to Easter, where in the Transfiguration we glimpse the glory of God, which He reveals fully in the Resurrection of our Lord. Imagine looking from one mountaintop to another, knowing that there is a deep valley between the place where you stand and the next peak. So, liturgically, today, we say good-bye to Alleluia and anticipate its return at Easter. This is how our feast fits into our liturgical year.
Luke placed the Transfiguration in chapter 9, and when we expand the text beyond vv. 28 and 36, depressing news precedes it. After Jesus’ multiplication miracle, Peter confessed him the Christ. Jesus predicted his passion, death and resurrection, and after Peter and Jesus exchanged rebukes, the Lord stated the cost of discipleship. Depressing indeed.
As a striking counterbalance, the Transfiguration reveals heavenly glory vis-à-vis the humiliation just predicted in 9:21, in which Jesus said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
In the last verse before the Transfiguration, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God after it has come with power.”[3] Jesus meant the Resurrection, which all standing there, with the exception of Judas, witnessed on Easter. Luke closed the Transfiguration passage with, “When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and told no one in those days anything of what they had seen.”[4] In other words, the Resurrection frames the passage.
If we expand the passage to include the whole Bible, we see that the Old Testament clearly underlies Luke’s Transfiguration account. He opens by telling us that Jesus took Peter, James and John – the disciples who witnessed Jesus’ agony at Gethsemane[5]  – up a high mountain. Moses took Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu up Mount Sinai to meet God.[6] So, from the outset, Jesus’ ascent triggered thoughts of a new Sinai experience.
As it was for Moses and Elijah, the mountain was a special place in Luke for prayer, contemplation, apostolic commissioning, and, as shown in the Transfiguration, extraordinary revelation.[7] In chapter six, we read that Jesus “went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God.”[8]
As I explained earlier, transfiguration means a glorifying or spiritual change. There are several Old Testament references regarding this change. In Exodus, after Moses met God, his skin glowed.[9] Later, the Psalmist wrote of God, “You are clothed with splendor and majesty, covering yourself with light as with a garment.”[10] And Daniel described God’s clothing as white as snow.[11] So, we see the glorifying or spiritual change when man meets God.
In their transfiguration accounts, Matthew described the change in Jesus’ face, and Mark described only His clothes, but Luke described Jesus’ face and clothing.[12]
Next, two Old Testament figures appear. Verse 30 states, “two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah.” Moses represented the Law. He lifted eschatological – or end-time hopes – as Israel awaited the Messiah. In Deuteronomy, we read, The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen.”[13]
Therefore, in the minds of Jewish people, the appearance of Elijah and Moses fulfilled every hope, for the glorious end-time had now begun with the coming of Jesus.[14] To the righteous, such an appearance brought delight, but to the sinful, scorn. As with Jesus, people rejected Elijah and Moses. In particular, Elijah was a model for suffering at the hands of the ungodly.
Responding to the unfolding action of the Transfiguration, Peter proposed what he thought a brilliant idea. Actually, his proposal was a clumsy way for a practical man to express what to do at such a time. Given that God declared and commanded, “This is my beloved Son; listen to him,” Peter’s proposal to put Elijah and Moses on par with Jesus is even more out of place. Luke reminded readers how inappropriate Peter’s idea really was, but first, the cloud.
In between Peter’s suggestion and God’s command came the cloud, a theophanic motif, or a sophisticated way of saying how God showed himself. In Exodus we read, “The Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way.”[15] And later, When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses. When the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise up and worship, each at his tent door.”[16]
Transfiguration’s cloud on the mountain and the voice of God that spoke from it echoed what occurred to God’s people in the Sinai. In short, as God spoke there, God spoke here.
The Transfiguration remained the disciples’ private event until after the Resurrection. It encouraged them to persevere. Before the Transfiguration, the disciples could only focus on Jesus Crucified; after it, they could focus on Jesus Resurrected. Biblically and liturgically, we look over the valley of Lent and see the Risen Lord on Easter Sunday.
Having examined why the church places the Transfiguration on the Sunday immediately prior to Ash Wednesday, and why Luke placed it in chapter 9, we now examine what practical application the Transfiguration plays in our lives.
Returning to Peter’s proposal, we see it was inappropriate. Tents were dwellings of the world to come. Peter wanted the vision to last and to withdraw Jesus from this earth.[17] Fortunately, the voice commanded Peter to “listen to him,” a message Peter did not like.
“Listen to him,” is a message we, like Peter, dislike and disregard. To listen to Jesus requires intimacy. To listen requires intimacy, but after 25 years of counseling couples preparing for marriage, counseling couples enriching their marriage, and counseling couples dissolving their marriage, the complaint underlying all faults is, “You’re not listening.”
Now, if the person with whom you are most intimate informs you that you are not listening, how often does our Heavenly Father say it? I know He tells me multiple times throughout the day. I am sure He reminds you too.
First, let us presume that God wants us to listen to Him. Evidently, He does, for in Luke, Jesus summoned disciples, created The Twelve and called them into fellowship with him.
The first duty of the apostle – before preaching or casting out demons –was to be in fellowship with Jesus. This is part and parcel of the portrait of the fully human Jesus. He needed a support group. He longed for fellowship. He lived as a person in community, not as an isolated prophet. These were not merely Jesus’ pupils, but his friends and coworkers. He appointed them for fellowship and to witness.[18]
Jesus calls you into fellowship with Him. He calls you to be with Him. The Father calls you to listen to Him. Throughout each day, how much time do you fellowship with or listen to Jesus? To put that into perspective, let me read a snippet of A Man’s Guide to Spiritual Disciplines. [19]
“A young businessman told me, ‘I really don't have a lot of time for prayer and Bible reading. I have young kids, I'm building my career, and I'm very active in my church.’
When I was in that same mindset, I took a suggestion from management guru Peter Drucker. I sat down with a piece of paper and charted how I actually spent my time. Drucker says everyone has expectations about what their chart will say, and without exception, everyone is surprised by what they actually find. I discovered that I spent one to two hours every night watching television. … I started going to bed early instead of watching TV, and getting up two hours earlier in the morning. People sometimes think I'm crazy to get up at 4 a.m., but that's okay. I'm in conversation with God.
Martin Luther is famous for commenting, ‘I have so much to do today that I'm going to need to spend three hours in prayer in order to be able to get it all done.’ We must learn to see prayer as the most powerful and efficient use of our time.
If you want a close relationship with Jesus, you can have it, but you must cultivate that relationship through conversation.”
If you want a close relationship with Jesus, you can have it, but you must cultivate that relationship through conversation. Listen to him. Pray.
Responding to the unfolding action of the Transfiguration, Peter proposed what he thought a brilliant idea. Actually, his proposal was a clumsy way for a practical man to express what to do at such a time. A selfish, sinful or worldly way for a good man.
When we scrutinize many of the brilliant ideas we propose, we see that they are actually clumsy, selfish, sinful or worldly. While this observation makes me squirm with remorse, regret or revenge, I know it is true. Like Peter, I do not listen to Him because I do not take time to listen to Him. I am too busy for prayer and Bible reading. I have young kids, I'm building my career, and I'm very active.
Do I make choices based on listening to Jesus or to a sinful world and my sinful self? Are the choices I let my children make based on the teachings of our church or the values of our culture?
Friends, your presence here, listening to me, tells me you want a close relationship with Jesus. You can have it, but you must cultivate that relationship through prayer. Listen to him as he prepares to take his disciples to the mountaintop.
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. But I tell you truly, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.”[20]
From here, the mountaintop of Transfiguration, I can see our Risen Lord on Easter morning and when we gather in fellowship with Him. Today, His Word washes away my sinful inclinations and thoughtless ideas; enriches my choices and relationships. His Body and Blood nourish me for the journey through Lent’s valley and life’s trials. His Spirit enlightens my mind and moves my heart to love deeply as Jesus loved.
Between now and Ash Wednesday, chart how you spend your time. Throughout Lent, instead of watching TV or reading social media, turn in early and spend that amount of time in conversation with God each morning. If you want a close relationship with God, you can have it, but like the people Jesus called into fellowship, you must cultivate that relationship through prayer and conversation.
When you do, may the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.[21] Amen.

[1] Arthur Just, Lectionary Podcast, Transfiguration of Our Lord.
[2] Luke 3:22; 9:35
[3] Luke 9:27
[4] Luke 9:36
[5] Mark 14:32-42
[6] Exodus 24:0
[7] LaVerdiere, 42f
[8] Luke 6:12-13
[9] Exodus 34:29-35
[10] Psalm 104:1-2
[11] Daniel 7:9
[12] Luke 9:29
[13] Deuteronomy 18:15
[14] R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (2002), 352f.
[15] Exodus 13:21
[16] Exodus 33:9-10. See also Ex 40:34-38; 1 Kg 8:10-12
[17] Peter Edmonds, The Way Companion to the Sunday Missal. Oxford: Campion Hall (2014), 16.
[18] Ben Witherington III, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmanns Publishing Co. (2001), 151.
[19] Patrick Morley, A Man's Guide to the Spiritual Disciplines: 12 Habits to Strengthen Your Walk With Christ. Chicago: Moody Publishers (2007). Adapted at
[20] Luke 9:23-27
[21] Philippians 4:7