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Ash Wednesday is a reminder of our mortality

“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Pastors and priests around the world speak those words to the faithful every Ash Wednesday.

They are painful words to speak.

We don’t like being reminded of our mortality.    

Advances in medical technology have enabled us to remove the dying from our homes to hospitals and hospice centers, where they receive the best possible care.   

And when death occurs, we hire professionals to make the body look more alive than dead, and we hire others to bury the remains. 

None of this is wrong.

It has become customary and it can be helpful, but it also denies us the up-close-and-personal contact with death and burial that Americans of earlier generations could not avoid.      

We have managed to keep death and dying at a distance and hidden from view, yet it cannot be evaded.    

One hundred percent of us are terminal.    

Ash Wednesday is one day in the Christian calendar when we intentionally confront that reality. 

Many evangelical Christians do not observe Ash Wednesday because it is not in the Bible.

That is understandable.    

From a Lutheran perspective, to observe the day or not is a matter of Christian freedom, since it is neither commanded nor forbidden in the Bible.

We choose to observe it not because we must, but because we are mortal.

As a result of Adam’s sin, God imposed on us all the penalty he previously had promised, “You shall surely die.”

Having made man from the dust of the earth, God said to Adam, “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.”

God was speaking to us also as children of Adam, for we were all in Adam when he sinned against God.

Since death cannot be avoided, it must be confronted.

The minister uses charcoal or ashes to make the sign of the cross on the foreheads of the faithful, as an outward sign of their inner repentance and sorrow over sin.

God’s forgiveness is for sinners only, and God forgives sinners through the blood of Jesus shed for us.   

The minister then speaks God’s forgiveness to all who believe this Good News.

As the Scripture says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

“Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, that he may lift you up in due time.”

God’s mighty hand imposed death upon us, but death serves only to shepherd us to the cross of Christ, where we see God’s solution to the sentence of death.

The inevitability of death humbles us and causes us to seek the one who overcame death on Easter.

Ash Wednesday brings us low emotionally and spiritually, but God lifts up the lowly.

It is a day we intentionally confront the reality of our death, only to increase our longing for the Christ who is our life.

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Should the Lord’s Prayer be changed?

Is it time to change the wording of the Lord’s Prayer? 

Pope Francis thinks so.

He has called for changing the Sixth Petition, “Lead us not into temptation,” saying that it implies God might do something he would surely never do—entice us to sin.

According to the Pope, “It is not a good translation [from the original Greek] because it speaks of a God who induces temptation.” 

A better translation, he says, would be something like, “Do not let us fall into temptation.” 

The Pope has a point, and many Lutherans would agree, for the words are easily misunderstood. 

In fact, Pope Francis is in agreement with Martin Luther, the Reformer of the Church, on the meaning of the Sixth Petition.

According to Luther, “God tempts no one.  We pray in this petition that God would guard and keep us so that the devil, the world and our sinful nature would not mislead us into false belief, despair, and other great shame and vice.”

In other words, Jesus is teaching us to pray, “Father, keep us from those trials and tests that might prove fatal to our faith and life.”

The devil’s goal is to test you to the breaking point, to see you fail so completely that you would die of despair and lose all faith in God’s mercy. 

The devil could do that, and God knows we deserve it.

As sheep who are prone to stray, we should expect no more of a just God than to deliver us over to those sinful desires and situations that would soon overwhelm us.

God owes us nothing, save the condemnation we bring upon ourselves when we turn from him.

But Jesus Christ has died in your place for those very sins which would otherwise destroy you. 

The God who owes nothing freely gives all things to the world through his Son Jesus Christ.

God will test you, but not beyond what you are able to bear.

He tests you, not as an enticement to sin, but as a way of strengthening your faith.

When we pray, “Lead us not into temptation” we are actually saying, “Continue to keep us from those temptations and tests that would prove fatal to us, as you are already doing.” 

God could hand us over to those things, but he graciously does not.

In this way, the Sixth Petition dovetails perfectly with the Seventh Petition, “Deliver us from evil.”   

One important way the Lord delivers us from evil is by not allowing us to be tempted beyond what we are able to bear.

As weak and fallible as we are, he keeps us from those temptations too powerful for us to withstand.

The familiar English translation, “Lead us not into temptation,” captures this perfectly. 

Moreover, it is a spot-on literal translation of Christ’s words from the Greek.   

It need not be changed, nor should it be.

It begs for explanation, not retranslation. 

Christ’s choice of words acknowledges both our vulnerability and our absolute dependence on the continuing grace of God.

Christmas means that God takes His own medicine

Why did God make us so liable to fail and to deserve punishment?

If God knew we would sin and incur his wrath, why did he create us in the first place? 

Nowhere does he say, and no explanation does he owe. 

What Scripture does say is that God thought it fitting that he personally experience the deep distress to which he had subjected us all. 

This is vital to understanding the meaning of Christmas. 

The Book of Hebrews in the New Testament speaks in the following way of God sending his Son into the world, “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.”

Again it says, “Sacrifices and offering you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me.”

The English novelist Dorothy L. Sayers has written, “For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is—limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—he had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine.” 

Christians believe that God became fully human in the miraculous conception and birth of Jesus Christ and subject to all of our limitations. 

According to Sayers, “He [God] can exact nothing of man that he has not exacted from himself.”

“He has gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death.”

“Whatever game he is playing with creation, he has kept his own rules and plays fair.” 

God, in the person of Jesus, subjects himself to life in a fallen world not so that he might gain knowledge of us, but that we might gain knowledge of who he is and of the extent of his love for all of us who are weak and liable to fail.  

He is a singularly unique God indeed who keeps his own rules and accepts his own consequences, not for any sins of his own, but solely for the sins of others.

Sayers writes that the Egyptian god Osiris supposedly died and rose again and that the Greek poet Aeschylus theorized about a suffering Zeus, but these gods are said to have suffered in some mythical period of pre-history. 

In contrast, the Gospel narratives are anchored in history, in real space and time.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem during the reign of Caesar Augustus and in the days of Herod the King, who sought to kill Jesus while yet a child.   

Some thirty years later Jesus was sentenced to death on a hill outside Jerusalem by the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, who crucified him. 

God did this because sinners like ourselves can never ascend to God.    

This is why God, in his mercy, descends to us--in the womb of the Virgin Mary, in the manger, in death and the grave, and even today in the Holy Supper of Christ’s body and blood.

At Christmas, God comes down and binds himself to his creation, becoming one with us, so that we might become one with God. 

In the person of Jesus, God not only becomes flesh and blood; he becomes guilty flesh and blood, taking humanity’s sin into himself, and taking his own medicine by dying in our place. 

Christ is born to suffer the death we had earned and which he had imposed on us, that we might know the full measure of his love for us all.


Myths about the Reformation

As this year(2017) marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, let’s address some common myths associated with it.

Myth: "Luther neither desired nor chose to leave the Roman church."

He was excommunicated by the church and placed under the sentence of death by the Holy Roman Emperor because he refused to violate his conscience and deny the truth of his writings.

Luther was a reluctant reformer who had no intention of starting another church.

He advocated dialogue concerning abuses in the church, and for the rest of his life he called for a council of the church to address questions of theology and practice, to no avail.

He became a reformer because he was a pastor who was concerned about the spiritual well-being of his flock. Today, many Roman Catholic leaders such as Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Pope Francis speak highly of Luther.  Germany’s Catholic bishops have praised Luther as “a Gospel witness and teacher of the faith.”

Myth:"The Reformation destroyed the unity of the Church."

Actually, the unity of Christendom was shattered hundreds of years before Luther.

The Great Schism, also known as the East-West Schism, was the event that divided Western (Roman) Christianity from Eastern Orthodoxy.

This break was formalized in AD 1054, when Pope Leo IX of Rome and Patriarch Michael of Constantinople excommunicated each other, but both churches had been estranged long before then over issues such as papal authority.    

For several centuries, the pope had claimed supremacy over all other bishops, including those of eastern Christendom.  

Not surprisingly, bishops in the East disagreed, and the rift was never healed.   

Philip Melanchthon, a close associate of Luther, wrote that one might accept the pope as head of all Christendom by human arrangement rather than divine right, if only the pope allowed the preaching of the pure Gospel, that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. 

Myth:"The Reformers abandoned tradition and the teachings of the early church fathers."

On the contrary, Luther and Lutheran theologians relied heavily on the writings of church fathers such as Jerome, Ambrose and Augustine to argue that the Gospel taught in Lutheran churches was no innovation. 

In contrast with the more radical reformers Zwingli and Calvin, Luther’s reforms were conservative in nature, preserving rites and traditions of the church that did not conflict with the Gospel. 

Myth:"Luther used drinking (tavern) songs in church."

This is an oft-repeated statement by those wanting to validate the use of secular, pop-music in worship. 

They argue that if the great reformer found value in contemporary music, shouldn’t we have church services today featuring rap, heavy metal, reggae, techno, etc.?   

In fact, only one of Luther’s hymns (“From Heaven Above to Earth I Come”) was originally paired with a secular love ballad, but due to the tune’s association with non-sacred activity, it wasn’t long before Luther wrote his own tune for the hymn, which replaced the love ballad and became the standard tune which we sing today.  

Apparently, Luther has second-thoughts about pairing his hymn with a secular love song. 

Another myth is the so-called Luther quote, "Why should the devil have all the good tunes?"

The problem is that scholars find no evidence of the quote anywhere in Luther’s writings.

Rest assured, however, that the devil does not have all the good tunes.

Luther believed the music of the church should proclaim Christ’s saving work with tunes that can be easily sung by the congregation and are free of overt, secular associations that could overshadow the Gospel message.

Myths surrounding the Protestant Reformation are easily dismissed by keeping the following in mind:  it was all about Jesus Christ and the centrality of his saving work in the life of the church and in the life of every member. 

Whatever obscured Christ, whatever undermined confidence in his saving death and resurrection, the reformers abandoned. 

Whatever proclaimed Christ and created faith in him, the reformers gladly retained.