Lent VII – Passion and Glory

Holy Week begins tomorrow and, with it, the remembrance of Christ’s passion. What better motivation is there to abandon my rebellions and to embrace with whole-hearted devotion my God—what better motivation than this: to remember the sacrifice of the One who set aside unimaginable glory and honor to endure horrific suffering for my sake and the sake of the whole world—to love him because he has first loved me.

5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

~ Philippians 2:5-11

But as we know, the grievous road to the cross ultimately brought great glory and honor to God because Jesus conquered the grave by rising again, and the kingdom of God began to show through here on earth, as it is in heaven. Indeed, as Paul says, God has highly exalted Jesus for his humble obedience, and we are compelled to name him as not only our Lord, but the Lord of all things. This is not to say that Christ’s suffering merely pales because it served the greater good; on the contrary, it is to exalt his suffering because it came of true obedience and because it accomplished the healing of the world, which will become evident to all creatures in the end (I also wish to be clear here that there is much more to be said about Christ’s suffering than its end results). We, too, are encouraged to have the mind of Christ by taking on his humility, his obedient spirit, his self-sacrificial love—all to bring glory to God, which is our main purpose.

The Lord God has given me
    the tongue of those who are taught,
that I may know how to sustain with a word
    him who is weary.
Morning by morning he awakens;
    he awakens my ear
    to hear as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
    and I was not rebellious;
    I turned not backward.
I gave my back to those who strike,
    and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard;
I hid not my face
    from disgrace and spitting.

But the Lord God helps me;
    therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like a flint,
    and I know that I shall not be put to shame.

~ Isaiah 50:4-7 (ESV)

The Lord, our God, will not leave us helpless before the powers of darkness. He has already conquered them, and it is by his power, his Spirit, that we continue to proclaim and embody his kingdom until he returns.

I thank you that you have answered me
and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we pray, O Lord!
O Lord, we pray, give us success!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
We bless you from the house of the Lord.
The Lord is God,
and he has made his light to shine upon us.
Bind the festal sacrifice with cords,
up to the horns of the altar!
You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
you are my God; I will extol you.
Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
for his steadfast love endures forever!

~ Psalm 118:21-29 (ESV)

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Lent VI: Humility for Service

Dirck_van_Baburen_-_Christ_Washing_the_Apostles_Feet_-_WGA1090

~ Christ Washing the Apostles’ Feet, Dirck van Baburen (1616)

34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

~ Mark 8:34-38

The Lord Jesus Christ traded his glory for humility, his satisfaction for suffering, his majesty for servanthood, his transcendence for earthiness. But he did not make himself low merely for the sake of so doing; he did so for our sake. He likewise calls each of us to deny oneself, to bear our own “cross”–in all that word’s polysemous proliferation. The context in Mark 8 suggests that one significant instance of denying ourselves is choosing Christ over worldly gain when the two are in conflict; the related instance of bearing our crosses is submitting to the consequences of the open proclamation of our allegiance to Christ and God’s kingdom in a culture which does not appreciate that. I don’t know about you, but I find this very difficult sometimes, not least because I am afraid of being that clanging symbol in 1 Corinthians 13.

During Lent, the emphasis on self-denial may have the propensity to turn us inward, as we leave off participating in certain activities that are often good but that may sometimes leach our time and energy away from the pursuit of God and godliness. May I humbly suggest, however, that self-denial is not primarily about me (or you)? While such devotional self-reflection is often helpful, self-denial in the Christian sense is bigger than that. Jesus calls us to self-denial for his sake and for the gospel’s sake, which is ultimately for the good of others and the world. Paul expands on this by describing how he humbles himself by taking on the weaknesses or limitations of each group of people he serves, in order that some in each group may thereby receive the gospel and be saved.

19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew… To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law)… 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ)… 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.

~ 1 Corinthians 9:19-22

Later in the same chapter, Paul describes disciplining his body to maintain self-control, but once again, this is not for the sake of that control, but for the sake of others: “lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (v. 27).

Acknowledging our own sin and setting aside things we desire are wise and worthy practices, but they are best when they turn us away from ourselves by increasing our desire for God and increasing our passion for spreading his kingdom–for preaching the gospel, for loving the lost, for serving the needy, for stewarding the world’s resources, for working as a redemptive force in the surrounding culture. In other words, if we take pride in our self-denial, it is nothing but false humility. True humility will lead us to serve others and to proclaim only the one who has humbled himself for us.

The Lord is gracious and merciful,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
The Lord is good to all,
    and his mercy is over all that he has made.
All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord,
    and all your saints shall bless you!
They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom
    and tell of your power,
to make known to the children of man your mighty deeds,
    and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.
Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom,
    and your dominion endures throughout all generations.

~ Psalm 145: 8-13

 

Lent V: Rejoice, O Jerusalem

Today is Laetare Sunday–rejoice, be refreshed, take nourishment–the weight of Lent is lifted briefly in a foretaste of the joy of Easter.

“Judah mourns,
    and her gates languish;
her people lament on the ground,
    and the cry of Jerusalem goes up…”

20 We acknowledge our wickedness, O Lord,
    and the iniquity of our fathers,
    for we have sinned against you.
21 Do not spurn us, for your name’s sake;
    do not dishonor your glorious throne;
    remember and do not break your covenant with us.
22 Are there any among the false gods of the nations that can bring rain?
    Or can the heavens give showers?
Are you not he, O Lord our God?
    We set our hope on you,
    for you do all these things.

~ Jeremiah 14:2, 20-22

The whole of Jeremiah 14 is a lament, God’s lament about the wickedness of his people and Jeremiah’s lament on behalf of the Israelites. When read devotionally, this chapter is a solemn call to confession, a reminder that every one of us must acknowledge our own sinfulness, the generational burdens we may be bearing, the offenses we have carried out against others and against God. But it ends on those beautiful, crucial words: “Are you not he, O Lord our God?/ We set our hope on you….”

In the historical context, Jeremiah is hoping in the Lord for an end to drought and its effects of famine and disease, as well as protection from the enemies who are striking the Israelites down in their weakness. But God is our hope for more than our immediate needs–although he cares for those as well–he is our hope for freedom from sin and its dreadful effects on us and the world.

…the present Jerusalem, … she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

~ Galatians 4:25b-26, 5:1

If you have read many posts on my blog yet, you know that one theme I cannot help but return to is the hope we have in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ; the kingdom is here, freedom is ours, we are the ambassadors of Christ, who is God with Us. The Incarnation and Resurrection are the foretaste of the unveiling of the Holy Jerusalem, when God will be in the midst of us. This is the great hope and confidence of Easter, to which we look forward today.

Storm in Rockies

A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie, Albert Bierstadt (1866)
God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
    though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble at its swelling. 
There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
    God will help her when morning dawns.
The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
    he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress.

~ Psalm 46:1-7

Lent IV: Judgment and Compassion

Not long ago, my pastor preached a sermon on the insidiousness of hypocritical judgment. This sermon was in the context of the theme “Every believer a minister,” and the goal was to motivate us to greater compassion for others. In my devotional reading earlier this week, I read the same passage that drove that sermon, along with some comments in my devotional book that compel me in a similar direction.

Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.

~ Romans 2:1-5

“…it is interesting to encounter Paul’s words, and have these thoughts, during Lent. For read in the season of Lent, my judgmental comments seem to be, among other things, one of those barriers between me and other people–and ultimately between me and true self-knowledge.

If I criticize you, I don’t have to acknowledge the ways that we are the same, the ways I, too, have done foolish sinful things. I push away knowledge of my own flaws and failings by setting myself above you and your flaws and failings. Lent is an invitation to stop.”

~ Lauren Winner, “Second Wednesday of Lent,” God for Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Lent and Easter

We have been attending our church for almost two years, and never before have I been as challenged in the matter of judging others as I have been here. This is not simply due to the preaching. It is in part due to the church’s efforts to be a multi-cultural church, crossing not only race lines but also socio-economic, educational/class, and political lines. As a result, there are many people in the church who are very different from me, and I have been surprised at my reactions to those differences, which I have needed to work through in order to learn to show love. It is also, I think, due to the crucible of parenthood, which has spanned about the same time frame and which brings me face to face with my own baseness. In any case, judgment is a favorite activity for most of us, whether we acknowledge it or not. Let us stop, and find ways of showing compassion, even as we bear witness to the truth.

Give the king your justice, O God,
    and your righteousness to the royal son!
May he judge your people with righteousness,
    and your poor with justice!
For he delivers the needy when he calls,
    the poor and him who has no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy,
    and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life,
    and precious is their blood in his sight.

~ Psalm 72: 1-2, 12-14

Lent III – A Firm Foundation

One of the reasons I started this blog seven years ago was that I have long grappled with the legitimacy of the calling to be a classical musician within the kingdom of God. I also doubted the godliness of spending 6+ years working toward my PhD, when many of my classmates from college were either going into missions or beginning jobs that clearly served others. However, I have come to believe deeply in the importance of a Christian presence in the music world, and in the arts and culture more broadly, because of the present reality of God’s kingdom, launched in the Incarnation and the Resurrection, and our role as livers of and workers in the “already” of that kingdom (anticipating the “not yet,” the decisive return of Jesus, the rending of the curtain between heaven and earth, and the remaking of all things). And it is clear to me that the legitimacy of my work as a musician, researcher, and teacher is assured when it is built solidly on the foundation of Jesus Christ–that is, when all my work is informed by who Christ is and by the reality of his new kingdom.

11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

~ 1 Corinthians 3:11-15 (ESV)

This Lent, I find myself staring down some demons. I am not doing much music, much research, or any teaching, and I find myself feeling less myself, and far less valuable, because of it. The majority of my time is spent loving my two small children and keeping house, and while this is a temporary situation, I have trouble keeping that in perspective. But today I am encouraged by the grace of God, that all my work, both the visible work of my professional life and the invisible work of my personal life, is valuable not because it is my work but because it is founded on the Lord, Jesus Christ and set before me by him. And I am also chastened, reminded that if I do the work set before me merely because it is my duty, having a poor attitude and valuing it less than I should, that yes, I will remain a child of God, but that my work may in fact count for very little in the kingdom.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
    and the son of man that you care for him?
~ Psalm 8:3-4

Lent I – Repair the Breach

For Ash Wednesday:

olanamatthew6m-505x630

Olana – Matthew 6, Makoto Fujimura

Is such the fast that I choose,
    a day for a person to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a reed,
    and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
    and a day acceptable to the Lord?

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
    to loose the bonds of wickedness,
    to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
    and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
    and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
    and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
    the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
    you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
    the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
10 if you pour yourself out for the hungry
    and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
    and your gloom be as the noonday.
11 And the Lord will guide you continually
    and satisfy your desire in scorched places
    and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
    like a spring of water,
    whose waters do not fail.
12 And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
    you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
    the restorer of streets to dwell in.

~ Isaiah 58:5-12 (ESV)

Oh God,

Let us be the hands and feet of Jesus. Let us be repairers of the breach, restorers of the streets. Let us risk all to feed, clothe, visit, harbor, save the least of these. Let us not take pride in our humility, nor offer up our good deeds to others for their praise. Let us be servants, workers in your kingdom. Now is the acceptable time! Come, Lord Jesus. Make all things new.

Amen.

Renewing the Ruined City

My reading today, Isaiah 61, beautifully describes God’s Servant coming to reconcile God’s people to himself. Jesus explicitly names himself as this Servant in Luke 4:16-21. He is the one who has come proclaiming good news, showing compassion to us – the mourning, brokenhearted, poor, imprisoned. It is He who, in his life, death, and resurrection is redeeming all things. He has set the new temporality of his kingdom in motion now, and even though it is only in the process of being fulfilled and overlaps with the temporality of sin, there will ultimately be a new earth and new heavens in which sorrow and despair and sin have no place.

And in his mercy, he has bestowed on us “a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair” (Isaiah 61:3a). Our grief at the horror we may experience in this world is replaced with the joy that Christ has conquered death and sin and that he is already making us new, for his glory. It is said of us in v. 3b:

Photo credit: Inspirational Storytellers

They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.

What follows, though, is the most profound part of my reading today:

They will rebuild the ancient ruins
and restore the places long devastated;
they will renew the ruined cities
that have been devastated for generations.

In the context of Israel’s history, this refers to the return from Babylonian exile and the rebuilding of Jerusalem. But in the context of the preceding verses, we can also recognize these words as referring to us, our role in the world now, and our ultimate place in the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21).

Are we merely passing time as we live here, citizens of God’s kingdom, sojourners on earth? Is not our very understanding of our future hope that it breaks into our lives now? Are we rebuilding those things that have been ruined by sin? Are we agents of restoration in broken places, relational, physical, spiritual? Are we renewing the ruined cities in which we live with the reality of redemption, through relationships, through study, through art, through life?

Am I?