Ash Wednesday Worship Guide

We aren’t in a sanctuary this year, but thankfully our God does not solely dwell in such places. Make an effort to prepare your space and take the time to focus on Christ this Ash Wednesday.

What is Ash Wednesday?

Forty days (plus Sundays) before Easter we enter a season of preparation. We are to reflect as we ready ourselves for the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus, but we do so remembering what preceded that joyful morning.

Traditionally we receive ashes on our forehead, reminding us of our own mortality and death. These ashes call to mind that from dust we were made, and to dust we will return (Genesis 2:7, 3:19).

Why make a time of reflecting on mortality a part of worship?

You may wonder why do this? Why focus on death with Easter just around the corner? Can’t we focus on the positives? Just the chipper, upbeat parts of our faith?

We need these times to face death. Humanity has a tragic tendency toward death. Not just that we are mortal and will die, but in our sin we engage in behavior that furthers death in our world. So since death is present in this world, the church must know how to respond. How do we grapple with it? Understand it? Accept it? Confront it? And shouldn’t our worship do something to shape our response?

Emphasizing this need for worship to be an experience that forms us, Matthew Kaemingk of Fuller Seminary, wrote this:

Those people sitting in the pews are not simply vague and abstract “worshippers.” Within twenty-four hours, they will enter a divided and traumatized polis serving as teachers and lawyers, doctors and managers, activists and academics, police officers and politicians. These worshipping citizens need songs, prayers, and postures that they can bring with them into dark and divided spaces, liturgical rhythms that will stick with them as an ever-present reminder that God’s justice, hope, and healing is more real than the darkness that surrounds.

That article was published on Ash Wednesday, February 14, 2018. That same day there was a school shooting in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where seventeen people were killed. You may remember this image:

A woman bearing the cross from an Ash Wednesday service now having to face the harsh darkness prevalent in the world. This is why we can’t gloss over our mortality and why we have a service like this.

Our times of worship cannot serve to disconnect us from the world; to remind us of fairy tales that do not touch reality. Worship reminds us of what is real. Our God tells us the truth of what we will face, he prepares us with hope and strength not our own, and he sends us to work for his kingdom.

We are dust. We are mortal. But the one who formed us out of dust has promised to reform us, when our perishable body will put on the imperishable, and the mortal will put on immortality. For there is victory over death in Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Corinthians 15:53-57).

A Time of Prayer and Confession

We may know this truth, but too often we live out lies. We act like the world is full of heroes, ourselves included, who have no failings or blemishes. Then when we are confronted by our failings, we struggle.

So let us confess over and again our sin and our need for God to be our provider. Let us acknowledge and know intimately our mortality and how our world is fallen. Let us then unite around that truth, recognizing our shortcomings, looking with hope to the grace of God.

Let us pray this together, from St. Ambrose:

O Lord, who hast mercy upon all,
take away from me my sins,
and mercifully kindle in me
the fire of thy Holy Spirit.
Take away from me the heart of stone,
and give me a heart of flesh,
a heart to love and adore Thee,
a heart to delight in Thee,
to follow and enjoy Thee, for Christ’s sake, Amen

And let us confess to our merciful God with this prayer taken from the Book of Common Worship

God of mercy,
you sent Jesus Christ to seek and save the lost.
We confess that we have strayed from you
and turned aside from your way.
We are misled by pride,
for we see ourselves pure when we are stained,
and great when we are small.
We have failed in love,
neglected justice,
and ignored your truth.

Have mercy, O God, and forgive our sin.
Return us to paths of righteousness
through Jesus Christ, our Savior.

Here is a song to aid in worship and lead us to further confession, “Lord, Have Mercy” by Matt Papa.

Humbly Look to Receive Everything from Christ

As we reflect on our mortality in this season of Lent, we are to become humble. We are brought low in God’s presence. The goal is not shame or defeat. Rather humility is to give us a posture where we can and will receive all we need from God.

When we can say we are mortal and frail, that we are guilty and deserving death, we then humbly look up and see Christ on the cross. He took on the weakness of our flesh and took all our burdens, so we can receive all we need in him. Humbled we learn to depend on him alone.

Let us now listen to a song that captures this so well. A song called “All I Have is Christ”, by Jordan Kauflin.

For a people who have lost much, and will face more loss, let us confess this enduring truth:
Hallelujah, all I have is Christ

And this truth is not spoken bitterly, but proclaimed joyfully for such a possession is all we need.
Hallelujah, all I have is Christ

For a mortal people surrounded by death, let us confess this good news:
Hallelujah, Jesus is my life.

And not for this life alone does Jesus save, but forever.
Hallelujah, Jesus is my life.


Receive this benediction from Romans 15:

May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Understanding the Vitality of the Letters of the New Testament

Paul writing his letters
Often times we open up the New Testament and read one of the letters thinking that Paul (or Peter, etc) wanted to write a theological pamphlet and send it to whoever would read. Maybe that day Paul was interested in atonement or communion or some other doctrine. So he got to writing his essay, put it in an envelope, and headed to his nearest post office.

While the authors certainly want to be clear on these deeply theological issues, what prompted the letters was very different.

Jesus Christ came to live among a fallen people. He revealed himself to be the Son of God who was ushering in the Kingdom. Jesus performed miracles and taught about new ways of living. He came fulfilling the law and the prophets. Then he went to the cross. Jesus died and then was raised on the third day and continued to open up his disciples minds to understand the Scriptures and how they relate to him. After forty days Jesus ascended to Heaven and gifted his people with the Holy Spirit.

Those early believers, if they truly believed this, must have had questions. It was a mixed group of Jews and Gentiles who wondered what practices of the Old Testament should continue? In what ways should new believers be brought into the community? How did Jesus fulfill the law–did he end it or make it more demanding? What does God want me to do? What if we aren’t good enough and sin? How do I treat others who sin against me? What does the future hold? Is Jesus coming back and if so, when? If Jesus has defeated sin and death why are people still dying? If Jesus has authority over all powers why do we still suffer? How do we relate to those who are making us suffer? What is our purpose?

When you start to understand the context of the early church the letters that were written to them become more energized. The letters weren’t textbooks. They were compassionately written messages to churches needing help and guidance. They were life-giving.

As you read them I hope you see how vital they were and how vital they still can be for the church, a church always in need of being reformed according to our Scripture.

Jesus’ perfection covers our deepest flaws

Sermon on the mount

Last night I was talking with my wife about this week’s readings from Matthew. There are some truly challenging teachings that Jesus has in Matthew 5 and in the following chapters. One line is particularly difficult, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

I’ll speak for myself here and say that I don’t measure up.

So what do we make of such a a line? In the conversation I had, my wife looked at it a bit differently and was thinking about how else Jesus could’ve said that. What else was Jesus going to say? What else would Jesus desire for us?

That absolutely should be our aim. Thankfully, when we don’t measure up we have one who does. Jesus Christ fulfilled all the laws demands perfectly for us. His righteousness is all that we could ever need. Whenever we miss the mark we can find comfort knowing that when the Father looks at us we are found in his Son, Jesus Christ.

Failure to Be a Blessing

jonah in the whale Verduner altarpiece
This week we are reading passages that are written in a time when Israel has now come to possess the land that God has promised to them. God was faithful to Joshua and led the people to the land that was flowing with milk and honey. He was fulfilling the promise he had made to Abraham. But the people fail to be a blessing to others and fail to live in the way they were called to. In Amos we read how Israel is oppressing the poor and weak, treating them much like they were treated when they were slaves in Egypt. In Jonah we see the lengths Jonah would go in order not to go to his enemy, instead preferring Nineveh’s destruction.

Then when we look in the New Testament in Matthew 23, Jesus is criticizing the leaders of the Jews who similarly are not living as a blessing to those around.

This last Sunday I preached on Jonah, looking closely at his reluctance to even be a possible blessing to his enemy. The good news is that we have one who willingly came to his own enemies and sacrificed himself for us.

If you’re interested in reading the sermon, you can find it here.

The Bravery of the Midwives to Fear God and Protect Life

If you’re a pharaoh that means you’ve got a great deal of power and not that many checks on said power. If you tell someone to do something, they should do it.

In chapter one of Exodus the pharaoh has a message for the midwives who are there at the deliveries for the Hebrew women. He’s not happy that the people of Israel were increasing in number and he feared them. So his idea is to control their population.

“When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.”

This is not a suggestion. It is an order. But what do the midwives do? While they almost certainly feared the pharaoh, they valued life and they feared God more. They did not do as they were commanded, instead allowing the male children to live. They deceive pharaoh to cover up their actions and it says in verse twenty that “God dealt well with the midwives.”

These women knew who was truly king in the land and they protected life even in the face of a pharaoh who could have ordered their execution.

The Waiting is the Hardest Part

When God makes promises the timing is not always what we’d want. Abraham is promised that he will have descendants whose number will be like the stars in the sky. But then Abraham waits. He waits for a long time. And still he has no children. The promise of God was not for the next day–it was years later. It was to be fulfilled in old age, when he thought it was impossible. In the meantime Abraham took matters into his own hands and deviates from the will of God.

It seems that the trust is not always the hardest part. It is the trust carried out over time. It is the patience. Can we trust God for more than a moment? Can we trust when something promised is on the horizon or out of sight? Faith requires that we place our trust in God and then have the patience to endure.

What can help is knowing that God alone is the one who can really keep his promise. Only he is in complete control of all circumstances. So when he makes us a promise, he is always faithful. He is faithful to Abraham, and now we the descendants of Abraham can trust that he will be faithful to us.

Patience is hard, so we all probably need to pray for patience. (Although I hear that when we pray for patience, God doesn’t just make it appear. What does he do? He gives us practice. So be warned!)

I can’t help but link to this video. When I think of patience I think of the Tom Petty song, The Waiting, from which I took the title of this post. And when I think of that song, I think of this scene from The Simpsons. It’s not the best clip and leaves off the final punchline at the end–but it still gives me a chuckle.

Promises Made to Abram that Will Carry On Throughout the Bible

Last week we saw how Adam and Eve sinned and were cast out of the garden. But this was not the end of hope. Humans were not then left to fend for themselves never to enjoy fellowship with God again. We saw in Ephesians 1 that God has always had a plan and eating the fruit of the tree did not thwart God.

As we continue in Genesis we see the revealing of God’s plan as he chooses Abram (later Abraham) in chapter 12 and makes promises to him. It is not a promise for Abram alone, but the great blessings that God will provide will be blessings for the whole world through Abram’s line.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Genesis 12:1–3

Too often the Bible is read simply as a reference book. You pick it up, look up a topic in the concordance in the back of the book (if your version has one), and then go off and read on that subject. Or maybe we’re intimidated by the Old Testament because of its foreign places, unknown people, and strange religious practices and go straight for the New Testament. I’m not saying you need to read the Bible as if it were a novel, start to finish. This 10 week plan doesn’t even do that. But we miss out on the plan of God, a plan based in God’s promise, if we only read piecemeal. There is a continuing story that develops and all the promises of God to Abram will carry on throughout the marvelous book that is the Bible.