The Cross Unveiled

I took the picture just a few minutes ago. For the first time since Sunday, I stopped by the church. I was there for 4 1/2 minutes. If this is spread by breathing, fewer people using fewer breaths keeps the church as clean as possible. But I couldn’t resist taking the picture. Because last Sunday at the words “He hid himself from them and left the temple” the cross should have been veiled.

It wasn’t. The ceremonies of the church support and direct us two the Divine Liturgy. They teach us about Christ and His work. They point us to the Gospel and Sacraments, which are our life. Even and especially in a time of fasting such as this.

There are two reasons you can still see the Lord of Life in the throes of death: The first is touching & time. We’re trying to do as little of it in as little of it as possible. Less touching, less time. Service Sunday was 45 minutes. This Sunday will be the same. When we gather to celebrate the resurrection this year (God willing), it will also be shortened. Palms will be pre-placed, not carried in procession. The Easter dressing of the altar will be done before the service. To limit the spread of germs to the fewest opportunities possible, we are limiting services to the Lord’s Day only, and all mid-week activities are cancelled until further notice. It’s where we are. We are huddled (at a safe social distance!) around the bare essence of the gift: The Word and Sacrament. Many are sequestered in their homes, fed only with the Word. The pastor is reduced to providing copies of Portals of Prayer at the mailbox across the road. That’s my role now for many of my members, and if that’s all I can do to support them, then that’s what I’ll do. For others, all I can do is pray and check in via phone every so often.

For those of us that can still gather, ceremonies to support and teach are abandoned for the sake of that which is commanded. Hunger makes the best gravy – we are hungry for the Body and Blood like never before.

There is another reason, and I admit it’s a selfish one: I can’t bring myself to do it. This part of Lent is the most stark. Gloria Patri is added to the growing list of things which are omitted. But given how badly things are for so many, I can’t take from them (or from myself) the image of our Lord. As hard as it may be to look on that image, it is harder to look and see him hidden. We need that image now, more than ever.

In the annals of the church and her liturgy, this Lent is the Lent when the cross went unveiled. We have already given up too much to fast from the sight of our salvation hanging on the cross.

For those who think the liturgy is cold and unemotional, I suggest you try going to a church on Lent 5 when the images are veiled, or on Maundy Thursday when the altar is stripped, or on Good Friday when the lights are dimmed and the book is slammed shut, or on Easter Sunday when the lights are restored, the organ roars to life, and the Gloria is returned to its rightful place. Each year, the lump in my throat gets larger.

But this year, the lump is large enough. Tears are being shed the world over. As we enter the holiest week of the year, our people need to be able to see their salvation. I can’t bear to hide it from them or myself this year. Because I’m seeing all around me the hiddenness of God. And I’m praying like mad that he would reveal himself – if not in glory with trumpets and angels to bring an end to this world, then at least to stop the avenging angel and it’s march of death around the world.

In such circumstances, the mercy and love of God needs to be as clear as can be. The cross is unveiled. This Lent, look freely on your salvation! Behold the life giving cross, and the Savior who hung there to earn the salvation of the world!

Come quickly Lord Jesus.

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Resource for Maundy Thursday

A lot of pastors are planning online services for Maundy Thursday. The Collect of the day presents a challenge. It assumes – obviously and rightly so – that the Lord’s Supper will follow in moments. But in many cases our people will not be receiving the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday this year. Our Lenten Fast is real.

The Altar Book for TLH (Called “The Lutheran Liturgy”) is racing to rescue for us! It offers collects for the Epistle and Gospel readings that work beautifully in our sad circumstance.

I’ve updated the language a little bit for modern ears and tongues – I’m planning on using it in a home devotional booklet. And thanks to “The Lutheran Liturgy” being in the public domain, you can use them as well:

Prayer of the Epistle

Gracious God, heavenly Father, we give You thanks that through Your Son Jesus Christ You have instituted the blessed Sacrament of the Holy Supper for our good, and in it He gives us His true body to eat and blood to drink for the forgiveness of sins; we pray that You would grant us Your grace so that at all time we are truly worthy and well prepared to receive this gift, and help us to order our lives according to Your Word, until we finally obtain eternal salvation; through Jesus Christ, Your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

 

Prayer for the Gospel

We thank You, O Lord Jesus Christ, the Savior of all men, that You have given yourself into death for us to make atonement for our sins, and have also left for us an example of mutual service by humbly washing Your disciple’s feet; and we pray that You would govern and direct our hearts by Your Holy Spirit that we may in true faith firmly cling to You as our Savior, faithfully serve our neighbor with works of love, and obtain eternal salvation through Your merit; for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

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Sermon & Service for Passion Sunday

For those who couldn’t make it to church, here is the text of the sermon, and audio of the service. Hopefully, while you are forced to fast from the Lord’s Supper, you will be strengthened with every Word that proceeds from the mouth of God.

Where is God in all this? Many people could die; the economy might crash. The last couple of weeks call to mind Advent where we heard “On the earth distress of nations in perplexity… people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world.” Back in December those words were a warning for ancient people who were easily frightened because they didn’t know all the sciencey things we know now. We’ve been to the moon. We can predict the weather, look down from satellites. Check the road conditions – in Cheyenne, or Kazakhstan. We are all knowing, and all powerful. With the push of a button, we can blow it all up. Even the ancient gods were not given the powers that modern man has designed for himself.

And now, weeks later, we are isolated in our homes, afraid to even go to the market for food. We must risk our lives for a loaf of bread and jug of milk. How the mighty have fallen. More quaint words from a recent Gospel reading: “When a strong man, fully armed, guards his own palace, his goods are safe; but when one stronger than he attacks him and overcomes him, he takes away his armor in which he trusted and divides his spoil.” Our armor in which we trusted has been taken away. We sit helpless in our homes, praying for deliverance.

Where is God in all of this? We pray deliver us from evil. Can he deliver us? Will he deliver us?

It’s sometimes said that if you’re wondering where God is, it isn’t God that moved. That fits the story of Adam and Eve – God was walking in the garden in the cool of the day; Adam and Eve hid themselves. It wasn’t God who was hiding. Today in the Gospel reading God does hide himself from them. He hid himself and went out of the temple. A word of judgment against their unbelief and hardness of heart.

Where is God in all of this? Are we hiding from him? Or is he hiding himself from us?

Scripture says “with food and clothing we will be content.” We want so much more – except now, we’ll settle for daily bread and milk. The Lord has taken away the false god of wealth. It is powerless to feed us. We must rely on him each day. We have had our entertainments cancelled – sports is gone, movies, theatre, gone. Our false gods of the amusements, whether in the coliseum or the theatre – are taken away. A couple weeks ago, we had false gods aplenty. Now they have all fallen. Not one by one, but as a group. They have been cast down from their altars in a matter of only a couple of weeks.

Even the daily bread which our Lord gives is threatened. Family, which God created and blessed in the beginning is endangered. Church was something we can always do later. Now it is held in place by the thinnest of threads. All that is left for us is to go into our room, and pray that God will deliver us from evil. That He would withdraw his hand of judgment even now, and once again show us grace and mercy which we do not deserve.

We live in a world of “Did God really say? Maybe we can change scripture to suit our own needs in these technologically advanced days. We can change so many other things about nature – we can travel at insane speeds, we can extend the lifespan, we can build a better ark to survive the flood waters that are coming, we can even change the creation of man and woman to suit our fancy. We have built a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and we have made a name for ourselves. God has shown us how fragile it all is.

The Psalmist says “Because you have made the LORD your dwelling place—no plague come near your tent.” Quaint a few weeks ago, another relic of times past. Now we cry, “Lord give us this!”

 

The voice of Ash Wednesday calls out:

“Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments.” Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the LORD your God?

The people picked up stones to stone Jesus. Jesus does not leave because he is afraid to die. Jesus knows where it all leads – the agony and bloody death. He will die at their hands. But his hour had not yet come. Talk about the hiddenness of God’s glory. Jesus says the cross is the hour of glory. No one – no one – looked at Jesus on the cross and said “This is God accomplishing salvation as he has promised.” Not the women who stood weeping. Not the disciples hiding in fear and shame. Not the leaders who mocked, or Pilate who condemned him. There was one. The thief next to him. He alone was given to see redemption in the moment of Jesus death. No one was listening to him. If we want to talk about God hiding himself, we must talk about God hiding himself in mercy. Today Jesus promises, “those who keep My words will never see death.” What word are we to keep so that we can avoid death? The promise given in the Holy Supper – This is my body. This is my blood. Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. We must never doubt those words. We must never think we can do without them. In the Sacrament, the forgiveness won by Jesus is given to you so that you would not see death. It is the cure for all things that lead to death. And it will not fail. God hides his salvation in such simple things – things which the world even now says – do without. It doesn’t matter. Find your salvation in a bottle of hand sanitizer, not in the cup of your mystic supper. But we have been given to see the truth. Hand sanitizer, medications, technological marvels – they are powerless to save us. Death will still win over them in the end.

This is where death is undone. The body and blood of God, given and shed for you so that you would have life in place of death. This is why the church faces death without fear. Let the world panic over this world and its fading glories. As we heard in Advent – the panic means our redemption draws near. Jesus is about to return. As we sing in the great Reformation hymn, “Take they our life. Goods fame child and wife. Let these all be gone. They yet have nothing won. The kingdom ours remaineth.”

And that kingdom is an everlasting kingdom. The kingdom of our God, and of His Christ. And he shall reign forever and ever.

May God grant us repentant hearts, as we approach again the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. May He not hide Himself from us, or cast us out, but constantly renew us in Him, as He has promised in the words which institute His Holy Supper. May he deliver us from all evil, and may he grant unto our nation – and to all nations of the world repentance unto life.

In the name of our hidden Savior, Jesus Christ, who has been revealed to us by the Holy Spirit.

Amen.

 

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Pushing the Narrative Forward

It’s unknown at this time what Holy Week will look like. But one thing is certain – it will not look like I had planned it. Carefully plotted hymns that move us ever closer to the cross, services each day of Holy Week, with Maundy Thursday flowing into Good Friday, and then Easter.

Out the window. What will replace it? I don’t know. I may crawl out the window after those ideas and pull them back in. But with no guarantees, I’m making the most of our Sunday services. Passion Sunday suddenly has a lot of Holy Week hymns. And by a lot, I mean two, because the services are shorter now as well. But O Sacred Head is suddenly on the schedule. If we get cancelled in the next couple weeks, we’ll have sing it. Next Sunday is looking to be more like Good Friday than Palm Sunday, thematically.

It’s what we have at this point. We’ll make do. We’ll sing the church’s song. We’ll hear the Word of God as best we can. And someday, we’ll celebrate Easter again without the threat of death looming over us. Not in this world, but it will happen. “Jesus said, ‘He that believes in me, even if he die he shall live. And everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.'”

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State Orders Allow Church Services

I serve congregations in two states – Wyoming and Colorado. Members of those congregations may be interested in the pertinent sections of state health orders that allow us to meet for church on Sunday.

So, here they are.

Wyoming

Statewide Health Order #2: Forbidding Gatherings of 10 People or More

Order #3: Gatherings at the following are exempted from this order: …

j. Retail or business establishments, where more than ten (10) people may be present but are generally not within six (6) feet of one another…

And for Colorado

Updated Public Health Order 20-24 Implementing Stay At Home Requirements

In-person pastoral services for individuals who are in crisis or in need of
end of life services provided social distancing is observed to the greatest
extent possible. Houses of worship may remain open, however, these
institutions are encouraged to implement electronic platforms to conduct
services whenever possible or to conduct smaller (10 or fewer
congregants), more frequent services to allow strict compliance with
Social Distancing Requirements.

(The order was amended to allow churches to meet. The original order did not include this. Thanks be to God that He softened the heart of the governor in this matter!)

The services will have assigned seating, to insure proper “social distancing”. We will also be changing communion to a continuous line format – also to allow greater distances. And the service will be shortened slightly to limit contact time.

As always, we pray that God would soon deliver us from this plague, and that our normal worship pattern can resume. Until then, “Lord have Mercy! Come quickly, Lord Jesus!”

 

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The Assembling of Ourselves Together

Christians have been assembling together for 2000 years. The word ‘church’ in Greek (ekklesia) means ‘gathering’. The church took the word and sanctified it. The church is a Communion of the Holy.

In this strange time, it isn’t that Christians are neglecting the assembling of themselves together. We have been forbidden from doing so. Stay at home orders have been put into effect.

Last week, as everything was turning from normal to crazy, it was interesting to watch the various churches and how quickly (or if) they cancelled services. While I don’t have a scientific survey to prove things, it seemed to me that in general, Lutherans were the last to cancel things.

And some fools actually met anyway – either in small groups (one pastor I know did 16 different services), or even family by family. It was arduous, but we believe necessary. Why necessary? Because of the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren. This is not merely chatting over coffee and nodding or looking sad at the right moments. It is the Divine Conversation given to the church, where we speak with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven.

“O Lord open my lips” “And my mouth will show forth Thy praise.”

“Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” “It is meet and Right so to do.”

“The Lord be with you” “And with Thy Spirit.”

And so on.

These words of comfort and grace are the church’s conversation, and they are a great consolation to the distressed. They don’t work over an internet connection. Not that the power of the word is not present. But you don’t have actual conversation. You have either passive observance, or speaking without hearing. The pastor knows people in the homes are saying the words. He can not see or hear it. Even if he could, the lag, glitch, and very foundational structure of the media makes it artificial. Oh, if it must suffice in time of extreme emergency, we will bear the cross our Lord gives us. But it is no substitute for the real thing.

And there is another – and more basic – thing that is missing from our life together. The church comes together for the Lord’s Supper. It is the festal meal when we gather. Prayer offices support it and lead to it, in the same way the peeling of potatoes or calling of invitees supports the Thanksgiving Dinner. But the real deal is the meal itself. And that requires the church assembled as the ekklesia. Without the assembling, there is no being fed with the food that does not spoil. Oh sure, pastors take the sacrament to shut-ins. But the shut-ins know that this isn’t how it should be. They can tell the difference. They are starving for the food of heaven, and so they eat the crumbs that fall from the table, and are filled by God’s grace. But they dearly miss the assembling together. Because that is a part of the sacrament as well. And, even if pastors were to drive to individual homes (which may be the next step as emergency pastoral visits to the dying are not outlawed – and we are all dying) it would not be the same. It would be a shadow.

That is why Lutheran pastors have been so loathe to cancel the Divine Service, and why we have been dragging our feet, kicking and screaming the whole way. And why we will continue to take extraordinary measures to bring the sacrament to the people of God, who have now been scattered abroad, and can no longer join together as we should.

A pastor friend of mine expressed his frustration at this situation with the following words, which he graciously allowed me to share:

What is in the cup?

Lutherans believe that the cup holds the precious blood of Christ. The same blood that was poured out on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. Lutherans also believe wherever there is forgiveness there is also life and salvation. So for Lutherans that cup is the cup of life. It is the cup that grants eternal life to all who drink from it believing it contains the blood of Jesus shed for the forgiveness of sins.

If we knew how may devils and how much death surrounded us night and day we would run to the sacrament and demand it as if it is the medicine which destroys both death and the devil. We have lived privileged and blessed lives where that has never been put to the test. Now God has drawn back his hand and let pestilence plague us.

Now we can see death coming for us. So do we run to the cup or do we refuse it be used? Do we put our faith in the cup of Christ or the cup of sanitizer? Lutherans believe the cup of Christ is the cup of life and will suffer all to have it; because it is the remedy for death of every kind.

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Sermon for Rejoice Sunday

For those who couldn’t make it to church today, here is today’s sermon. It’s shorter than usual because I needed to fit it in a 30 minute service. All seven times I preached it, I kept thinking, “I could expand this point…” or “I should elaborate here…” or “More explanation about this would be great…” but I had to stick to the text. So this is what was heard at the Tri-point.

Today is Rejoice Sunday. The opening Psalm says “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her all you who love her!..”

This is the first time in Lent there is no talk of demons. Jesus feeds the people. A wonderful scene for spring – people on the hillside, sitting on the grass, having a meal provided by Jesus.

Today is beautiful weather wise. But 5000 can’t happen. Broken up into groups of 10 or fewer. Lent this year is stealing all sorts of things from us. And we’re praying they are restored by Easter. Plans are day to day. In some places they found out late yesterday that church had to be cancelled. No Rejoice Sunday for them. We may be on forced break for a while after this ourselves.

Like the last piece of beloved but hard-to make desert – you savor every bit, because you don’t know when it will come again. Last Sunday was fairly normal. Today we barely meet at all.

And yet the Apostle says “Rejoice in the Lord always, Again I say Rejoice!” We have the promise of the resurrection: not even death can take that away from us. We are promised that we will be raised in Christ to a new life. He has overcome the world. He has beaten death as well. So what threat can be held against us?

That’s why Paul also says, “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”

When we talk about the fruits of Christ’s death, this is what we’re talking about. Hope that does not disappoint. That’s why Jesus says when you fast wash your face, put on a cheerful countenance. Because when Satan attacks, when death comes calling, we’re like the hero in the movie, playing that final game for all the marbles. We know something the villain doesn’t know. We know we’ve already won. And so on this Rejoice Sunday, when things are far from how we want them –we rejoice anyway. Let the world count us fools, so long as we are fools for Christ.

This past week officials struggled to keep up – rules changed hourly. Who knows what this next week may bring. We may be forced into our homes for a while. We may be forced away from here – where Christ feeds us with his flesh in His Holy Supper. Maybe next week we’ll be back. Maybe next week we’ll be learning even more what our Lord means when he says “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” And if we can not come, we have the comfort and promise of Jesus who has forgiven our sins, and feeds us with His Holy Word of life.

If there is a forced fast from gathering to receive the gifts of Christ, then we will bear the cross our Lord send us. We will continue our prayers in our homes. We will continue to read scripture, to meditate on it. And the more we are kept apart, the more our eyes will narrow on the cross. And then we will come again to celebrate with joy the resurrection of our Lord.

The cross we carry is not our cross – it is the cross that Jesus carries for you. As he says “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” The burden that he bears is all of your sins. It is not light. It will crush him on the cross. But it is light because he has triumphed over sin. Your sin is taken away – it is swallowed up in his death and is no more.

Jesus feeds 5000. Normally, the theme is do not worry, because God provides for us. Everything is closed except the grocery store, which there’s no point in going to because they are probably out of whatever you need. And yet our Lord still provides. Not always the way we want. But according to his mercy, which he proved beyond all doubt when he sent Jesus to die for us on the cross. Why would Jesus die if the plan was to abandon us afterwards? He could have just skipped the dying part, and moved right to abandoning. No chance he abandons us now.

That is why, deep in the middle of Lent, when things are at their darkest, we heard from the prophet Isaiah, who encouraged us with these words:

Sing for joy O heavens, and exult O earth! For the Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his afflicted.

Grant this Lord unto us all. Come quickly Lord Jesus.

Amen.

 

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