Lent Devotion, Thursday, March 8, 2018

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When Jesus had received John’s baptism, “just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove upon him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

I’ve never seen a hole in the sky. Although a few weeks ago, it almost felt like one was there. Snow was in the forecast, but there wasn’t a flake in the air as I walked to my car in our driveway. I opened the door, sat down, and as I put my arm out to shut the door—BAM—snow suddenly began pouring down. I had never before seen a snowstorm start with such intensity. It was if the heavens were torn apart, and the snow came tumbling down.

The story of Jesus’ baptism isn’t about meteorology, but theology. And as is often the case, there’s a hint of the Hebrew Scriptures here. Isaiah 64:1 says, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, . . . .” The prophet yearns for the reality of God to come near, and longs for God to come to earth.

God responds to that yearning with Jesus. In Jesus, we see something of heaven on earth. In his life, death, and resurrection, the compassion of God is poured out for the renewal of all creation. All things are not yet made whole, but God is at work, giving signs of healing to our hurting world.

Our Father, your will be done on earth as it is heaven. Break through barriers that separate. Tear down walls that restrict. Pour your Spirit upon us and open our hearts to the life giving word of Jesus. Amen.

Lent Devotion, Wednesday, March 7, 2018

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“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” (Mark 1:9)

Jesus’ baptism raises the question, “Why?” John’s baptism was one of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And Jesus, according to traditional Christian belief, was without sin. So why would he choose to receive this washing?

A compelling answer is this: Jesus steps into the river as a sign that he has come to be with and among the people. He chooses to lead not from a position of power and prestige, but through participation in our everyday reality. He chooses to emphasize not how he is different, but how he is the same.

A modern example of such humility is the Dalai Lama. The Dalia Lama is the leader of Buddhists; and at one time also held civil power over the people of Tibet; he was a kind of Pope and Emperor rolled into one. With such an exalted status, he could easily believe himself unique and better than others.

But that’s not how the Dalai Lama sees it. He says, “I never consider, even when giving a talk to a large crowd, that I am something special. . . . I always emphasize that when I meet people, we are all the same human beings.” (The Book of Joy, page 130)

Lord Jesus, you are Messiah of Israel and Son of God. Yet you choose not to exalt yourself over others; instead, you enter everything that makes us human; you take upon yourself our joys and our sorrows, our hurts and our hopes, our successes and our failures. Thank you, Jesus, for bowing down so that we might be lifted up. To you, along with the Father in heaven and with the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Lent Devotion, Tuesday, March 6, 2018

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John the Baptist pointed to the future; he spoke of one stronger than himself, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. This stronger, Spirit-giving one is Jesus.

As John said, Jesus came. We believe John’s promise has been fulfilled. And yet, we are still waiting. There is something more yet to come. As we sometimes say at the Communion Table, “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.” He will come again, says the thirteenth chapter of Mark, “with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather in the elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.”

This coming is also anticipated in the letter to the Ephesians which says that in the fullness of time, all things will be gathered up in him.

We look forward to that coming time when all things are made new in the mercy of God.

Come, Lord Jesus. Come, and make all creation new in the mercy of the Father’s love. Come, and bring to completion the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!

Lent Devotion, Monday, March 5, 2018

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John the Baptist, says Mark, “was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.” (Mark 1:6)

I’m tempted to draw a comparison between John the Baptist and Winne the Pooh. After all, they both have a thing for honey!

Other than the honey, though, I don’t know how to connect them. So I’ll set Winnie to the side, and ask instead: Why did Mark mention John’s dress and diet? Why does it matter what he wore and what he ate?

As strange as his clothing and food seems to us, it wasn’t all that abnormal for someone out in the desert; he was simply using what was available in that setting. But why would Mark—a writer who is concise with words—bother to mention that? Mark must have a reason for giving the description. One theory is that it points to 2 Kings 1:8, in which the prophet Elijah is described in similar terms. Among some first century Jews, there was an expectation that Elijah would appear just before the coming of the Messiah. So perhaps Mark is saying that John fulfills the role of Elijah.

Another suggestion is that his dress fits his message: he is calling people to prepare for the Messiah by focusing on the basics of trusting God and loving neighbor. Because he calls for simplicity of life, he dresses simply.

Everlasting God, in a world that is fast and complex, we sometimes lose our way. In your mercy, you call your prophets to remind us of what matters. May we heed their call, and through simplicity of life be ready for the Christ whose Spirit is always seeking to lead us. Amen.

Lent Devotion, Saturday, March 3, 2018

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John the Baptist was hitting it big; he was packing people in. Mark tells us, “People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” In our day and age, he would have been something of a media frenzy; he was receiving far more than fifteen minutes of fame.

The fame did not go to his head. He claimed no grandeur; he did not brag that he was greater than any prophet before him. Quite the contrary. Instead of focusing attention on himself, he said, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandal.”

That’s a remarkable statement of humility. In his culture, slaves and servants would bow down to unlace their master’s shoes. But John says he is not even important enough to do that menial task.

Later in the gospel, Jesus will teach the importance of humility in the lives of those who walk in the kingdom of God. Those who follow the way of Jesus do not exalt themselves over others.

            Gracious God, thank you for John’s example of humble service. Touch us with your Spirit, so that we also may point away from ourselves to the wonderful gift of your Son. Amen.

Lent Devotion, Friday, March 2, 2018

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In the 1980s, I taught a course called “A Lutheran Understanding of Holy Communion—or, It’s not just for forgiveness anymore!” It was a takeoff on an ad campaign for orange juice that included the memorable line, “It’s not just for breakfast anymore!” My thesis was that just as orange juice drinkers were discovering their favorite beverage wasn’t only a morning drink, so Lutherans were discovering that the Lord’s Supper has a wider significance than forgiveness of sins.

I recalled that course while pondering the words in Mark’s gospel that John  the Baptist was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” I thought I would write today about how these words introduce the theme of forgiveness to the gospel. But when I read through the Gospel, I was surprised to see how little Mark says about forgiveness. There’s a story of Jesus forgiving the paralytic in chapter 2; a saying about forgiveness and the Holy Spirit in chapter 3; a quote from Isaiah in chapter 4; and a saying about prayer and forgiveness in chapter 11. That’s it. Mark doesn’t ignore forgiveness, but neither does he make it a major emphasis. This is a healthy reminder to avoid summing up faith in a few stock phrases. Our God is too vast to be reduced to bumper sticker theology.

In that course on Holy Communion, I taught that while the Sacrament is indeed about forgiveness, it is also about remembering the past acts of God, anticipating what God is yet to do, celebrating the presence of Christ in our midst, being together with other believers, giving thanks, and a whole lot more.

Awesome God, you are greater than we can imagine. Forgive us our sin of trying to box you in with a few words. Grace us with your Spirit, that we might see the fullness of the gifts you have bestowed upon us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Lent Devotion, Thursday, March 1, 2018

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One source of John’s baptism (and ultimately Christian baptism) is the ritual washing practice of ancient Judaism. Like any ritual, these washings could become rote and thoughtless. Thus Old Testament prophets warned the people not to forget the moral and ethical implications of life with a holy and pure God. One example is Isaiah 1:16-17 which says, “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, love to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

John stands in this prophetic tradition of connecting washing to action. He urged those who had extra to share with those who did not have enough. He told tax collectors, who would sometimes pad the bills for their own benefit, to collect no more than the amount prescribed. He told soldiers, who had a reputation of threatening people with violence in order to extort money, to be satisfied with their wages. (See Luke 3:10-14)

John baptized people in the Jordan River so that they might be closer to God. For John, being in God’s presence also means living in a way in which all have financial security. John’s example energizes us to work for a world in which everyone has what they need.

Dear God, you have blessed this world with bountiful resources. Teach us to share that bounty with one another. Empower us through the Spirit to follow your Son’s example of service to others. Amen.