From Meaninglessness to Joy

I’ve been studying the book of Ecclesiastes over the last few weeks. One of the common refrains heard throughout the book is “everything is meaningless!” Unlike the Psalmist who looks out at the world and sees beauty (see Psalm 104 for instance), the “Preacher” (1:1, 2, 12; 7:27; 12:8, 9) in Ecclesiastes sees meaningless repetition and cycles.

In the first couple of chapters of this book of wisdom, the writer embarks on several “life projects” to see if he can find happiness “under the sun.” After each of these various projects he concludes: “[B]ehold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”

But as we arrived at the end of chapter two, his tone begins to change. “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God…” (verse 24).

What accounts for this sudden change?

It appears that the Preacher has now brought God into his frame of reference. Prior to this, his pursuit of joy and happiness were fundamentally secular–God was not a part of the equation. At the end of chapter 2, he looks back over his toil with God in the picture and can see meaning.

When Good Things Become Ultimate Things

But what about having God in view changes the experience?

It’s certainly not that God removes the problems or the challenges or the pain. That doesn’t happen. There are many false teachers out there who will tell you that if you give enough to the church then your crops will grow and your wife won’t miscarry. That’s a lie. God does not promise that life will be easy if you follow him. In fact Jesus says the exact opposite (see Matthew 7:14).

So what about having God in view here changes things and suddenly makes things more satisfying?

I want you to think about the best gift you have ever received. Think about something that someone gave to you that changed you. Maybe it was something small like a card or maybe it was something really big. What made that gift special for you?

I can share about a very special gift I just received: a Sabbatical of four months, to go away with my family and be together and rest. My church family and the Lilly Endowment made that possible. My family is so very thankful. Now why was the gift given to me? From the church’s perspective, maybe I had earned it or I just really needed it and they didn’t want to see my burn out. Bottom line: they loved me. It was a gift given in love.

But what about from God’s perspective? Why did God give me that gift?

Of course, I don’t know all the reasons, only God knows that. But what I do know is that everything, absolutely everything, that I receive in this life as a follower of Jesus is a gift of grace. All of it. I receive nothing, not even pain or hardship (see John 15:2; James 1:2-4), that is not a gift from the throne of God. Death even! Romans 8:28: “for God causes all things to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose.” So the Sabbatical was a gift of grace that was given to me because God loves me.

Now here is where it gets tricky and we all must be very careful on this point. My meaning and my worth do not come from the Sabbatical. The Sabbatical ended. It’s over. I’m now back doing ministry again, dealing with all the challenges that ministers face. Yes, there was joy in the break but it’s now behind us. If I was looking for meaning and joy in that time away, then what am I to do now that it is over?

Perhaps I could continue to try and milk the Sabbatical for meaning and joy by doing something like this: I could say to myself, “Hmm, I got a Sabbatical and so-and-so over there didn’t. I must be better than him.” Like the kid at school who thinks he’s the cat’s meow because he’s got the new Lebron James tennis shoes. Whenever I was feeling down about things I could look back and try to make myself feel better in this way.

What have I just done? I’m using the Sabbatical to find some kind of feeling of significance or importance. Not only is it dangerous to make such comparisons, but even more problematic is that I’m trying to make something small and temporary do something that it could never do, namely, give me meaning and significance; I’m making a good thing an ultimate thing, and that is sin.

All of us long for meaning. We want to matter and to know that somehow, in the grand scheme, we want to know that each of is important in some way. Just like the Preacher in the first two chapters of Ecclesiastes, we spend our lives looking for that meaning “under the sun” in ways like I just described above. However, it can’t be found apart from God.

With God, Life Becomes a Gift to be Enjoyed

God changes everything. With God, a “random” event is transformed into a gift from a loving Creator.

How could my family’s four month Sabbatical be viewed as a gift from a purely “under the sun” viewpoint? Who exactly did it come from? If God is not in the equation, the world must be viewed as arbitrary, meaningless, mindless, random, and without direction.

But with God in view, everything changes. I can now speak of things coming “from the hand of God” (2:24) and enjoying life because “Who can eat and who can have enjoyment without Him” (2:25). Because God is now in view, our break became a loving reminder to me and my family that God knows what we need and cares for us.

Viewed this way, the meaning was not located in the Sabbatical itself, it was located in the fact that God was the one who gave it to me. The meaning was derived from the Giver–God. It was a reflection of His care and concern for my family and my life. And as a result, I was able to truly enjoy it. Every time I sat down beside a pool or had a catch in the yard with my son, those moments had joy because God gave them to me during my break. I didn’t earn them because I did everything right or because I am somehow better than someone else. God gave this gift to me simply in love. And he doesn’t expect me to pay Him back–how could I? I simply offer Him my thanks and praise.

And I would wager that the best gifts you have ever received were significant and enjoyable not so much for what they were but because of the person who gave them to you.

That’s how God changes everything.

Learning to Ask for Help: A Word to Graduates

This message was originally given by Pastor Josh Moore at the recent White River Valley High School Baccalaureate service in South Royalton, VT.

I’m sure most of you are familiar with Charles Dickens’s novella “A Christmas Carol.”  It’s a story, published just before Christmas way back in 1843.  It’s about a man named Ebenezer Scrooge, who is an ornery, selfish, and mean old man that is visited by several ghosts.  After visits from his former business partner Jacob Marley and the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future, he becomes a much more generous, kinder person.

But because of that story, whenever you hear the word or name “Ebenezer” I’m sure you think of someone who is mean or unkind or of someone who lacks generosity and is very stingy.

But do you know the real origin of the word “Ebenezer”?

The origin is Hebrew.  

I don’t know if you know this or not, but the first 2/3’s of the Bible was originally written in Hebrew.  Jews refer to these books as Torah, Nevi’im, and the Ketuvim.  Which means the Law, the Prophets and the Writings.

In the Nevi’im, we find a book by the title of 1 Samuel.  And it is there that we discover where this name Ebenezer comes from.

When you go to 1 Samuel chapter 7 what you find is a story of people in worship.  The people have done wrong and they are returning to God with all of their hearts.  They are turning from their wicked ways and asking God for His forgiveness.  They destroy all of their idols and their false gods, and one of their leaders, named Samuel, is leading them in worship and suddenly, their enemies attack.  Seemingly out of nowhere, they are being besieged.  Some men quickly assembled themselves to do battle and the text says that the Lord thundered loudly and sent their enemies into a confusion, so that they could not fight.  In the end, Israel was delivered from their enemies because of God’s help.

But to commemorate the victory that God gave them, the book says, “Then Samuel took a stone and set it between Mizpah and Shen, and named it Ebenezer, saying, ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us.”

In the Hebrew, the name Ebenezer means, “stone of help.”  The idea was that this stone would be a stone of remembrance; whenever an Israelite looked at it they would have a tangible reminder of God’s deliverance.

This is why if you go to Merriam-Webster.com and look up Ebenezer you will find this definition: “A commemoration of divine assistance” and a quote by Robert Robinson from a hymn he penned in the mid-1700s titled Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.  

He writes in one stanza:

Here I raise my Ebenezer;
Here by Thy great help I’ve come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.

-Robert Robinson’s “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”

Arrived by the Help of God

You’ve arrived at this milestone in your life and you did not arrive here on your own.  I encourage you to set up an Ebenezer if you will in your mind and thank God and thank those around you for their help.

But the journey is not over, is it?  In a way it’s just beginning.  This is the first chapter, in the rest of your life.  No doubt many of you will be heading in very different directions following your graduation.  

What I want to say to some of you as one who finished high school in Charlotte, NC, in the top 4% of a class of over 700 students.  As one who graduated college with honors and went on to finish a master’s degree.  As one who was a successful student athlete in middle school, high school, and college.  I want to say to you: feel the moment, enjoy the moment, but do not forget to recognize your need for help.  

When I finished college I was on top of life.  Things were good.  I had a good job.  Lots of friends.  Nice car.  At the time I was dating a beautiful girl who was playing college level soccer.  I felt like I had arrived.  But just around the corner, challenges were waiting for me that were out of my league to handle.  And I needed to learn to say “help.”

I looked to friends and I looked to counselors.  I looked to family.  But in the end, I looked to God.  And it was God that ultimately came to my help.

A day will come and may have already come for you when you will know your need for help.  Many don’t know what to do when that day arrives so they make very poor choices.  Instead of asking for help, they take their own lives; they look to drugs and alcohol; they look to sex and parties and good times and when the smoke clears the find themselves emptier than when they started.

Do you know the three leading causes of death for people in your age bracket right now: unintentional injury (which would include like drug overdose), homicide, and then suicide.  (See: https://cchealth.org/health-data/hospital-council/2010/pdf/11_lcd_by_age.pdf)

These causes of death are tragic–they are the result of despair, addiction or poor choices.  

Don’t be a statistic. When you are empty and struggling–ask for help.

As a man who found help in Jesus Christ, I want to commend Him to you as the One who is able to rescue you whatever struggle you find yourself in. In my darkest hour I looked to Jesus when there was no one else, and He came to my rescue. 

In the Wilderness

One of the ways that He did that for me was by sending me on a trip to the birthplace of Jesus, a little town called Bethlehem, in 2006.  Bethlehem is in a country named Israel, which is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the West, Lebanon and Syria in the north, Jordan to the East, some Palestinian territories, and Egypt to the south. 

In 2006 I went on this trip not knowing what to expect really.  It was an amazing experience.  I brought home a few things, but the one thing I treasure most is this little rock.  [Holds up a white and brown rock about 3″ in length.] This rock came from the wilderness of Israel where it is believed that Jesus spent a great deal of time.  We may find that bizarre today with our highly distracted, entertainment focused life.  

Back then people who wanted to seek God would often remove themselves from all the business of life and go out into the wilderness to be alone.  Where they could hear and think away from all of the distractions.  But the wilderness was a hard place.  Often wilderness pilgrims would fast for many days on end while in the wilderness.  

We know that Jesus did this too.  

Some of you may not know who Jesus is.  There are a lot of different narratives about Jesus.  Suffice it to say, that Jesus is the central figure in Christian faith.  He was a miracle worker and a powerful teacher.  Christians, like me, believe him to be more than just a mere man.  We believe that he was God in the flesh.  We also believe Jesus’ death to be more than just a death.  We believe it was the means of our salvation.  That God loved the world so much that he sent Jesus, his only Son, to die on the cross, so that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.

The life of Jesus of Nazareth was not an easy life.  Jesus knew pain.  Jesus was born to a teenaged mother.  Most everyone in the community thought her baby to be illegitimate so she was shunned by many, because the culture at the time was profoundly religious and moral.  Jesus grew up under the shadow of this assumption.  He knew what it was to be alone.  He knew what it was to be rejected and to struggle.  Yet I believe that in the end, Jesus overcame those struggles by His perfect faithfulness and dependence upon God.

So when that very hard time in my life came I needed to know that someone understood.  Not just another human.  But I needed to know that someone higher and bigger and stronger was there for me.

When I look at this rock I remember that Jesus was in the wilderness.  That he understands the many challenges and pains of this life.  This has become for me a “rock of help.”  An Ebenezer.  Not because there’s anything special about the rock itself, but because it reminds me of one who is able to help me, namely God.

So you’ve received many good and helpful thoughts from a number of people this afternoon.  Now I want to encourage you to look to God.  This season is a season of rejoicing and celebration, as it should be.  But for many of you, a day will come when you will feel inadequate.  When you will feel needy.  And that’s okay, because truth be told, we are all needy and inadequate (in ourselves).

Look to God, look to Jesus, and He will help you.  And when he does, you will have your own Ebenezer, your own “rock of help” to tell others about.

Again, congratulations on what you’ve accomplished.  I truly wish you the best in the future. 

A Lesson from the Vine Metaphor

“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)

Why does Jesus liken us to branches on a vine (John 15:1-8)?

It’s not merely because the vine gives life to the branches–He could have used almost any plant to say that. Why does he use a vine?

One reason could simply be that vines were common in Israel so he used a plant that everyone in that time and place would have been familiar with. If he were in Vermont, where I currently live, some might say that he would have used the Sugar Maple.

But I think the reference to vines here is more than a simple teaching device to build common ground with his audience. Scholars say that vines are among the most high-maintenance crops in all of agriculture. They need constant pruning and attention if the clusters of grapes are to grow to full maturity.

Could it be that Jesus used this metaphor because our relationship with God is the same? Without constant care, maintenance, pruning, and watering, our spiritual life will wither up and die. In short, Jesus uses this metaphor because he knows how needy we are. As he says, “Apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5).

We are needy branches, but Christ is THE life-giving, all-sufficient vine.

Being a branch that bears fruit begins by recognizing just how needy we are and just how ready Christ is to meet every need. Run to Him today, confess your neediness and look to Him to provide.

Thomas and the Resurrection of Jesus

Doubting Thomas putting his fingers in Jesus' side, painting

” Jesus said to him, ‘If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes.’  Immediately the father of the child cried out and said with tears, ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.'”  Mark 9:23-24

Faith is an important part of the Christian life, the doorway as it were by which we enter the Kingdom.  “For by grace you have been saved, through faith…” (Ephesians 2:8).  But, too often, we turn it into a kind of coin of the realm, something we barter in exchange for mercies received from the King.  We see this attitude most often when prayers go unanswered.  “If you had enough faith, God would hear”, is the familiar rebuke that is leveled against us in these times.  To be sure, there have been men and women of great faith.  Their names make up the litany of faith contained in Hebrews 11….Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Rahab, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, Jeremiah, Isaiah and more.  But let’s be honest with ourselves.  Most of us will be saved by our faith, but it’s not likely we will be remembered for our great faith.  But even a little faith is sufficient for Jesus Christ to work in someone’s life.  The man or woman who knows the limitations of their faith, that point where doubt, confusion, ignorance, or even unbelief creeps in to steal away the blessed assurance of God’s favor, is a person who can be transparent before God.  “I can go this far, but no further Lord”, they may say; or as stated in our opening scripture “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.”  Such a man was Thomas the Apostle who is best remembered not for his great faith but rather as Thomas, the doubter.

Thomas’ name in Syriac means “Twin”, and that is why he is referred to in John 11:16 by the Greek equivalent, Didymus.  He appears in each of the four lists of Apostles found in the synoptic evangelists, but it is in John’s gospel that we catch a glimpse of his personality.  In John 11:1-16 we have the story of Jesus returning to Bethany to heal Lazarus, his friend.  His disciples were fearful, “Rabbi, lately the Jews sought to stone You and are You going there again?”  Whether in the beginnings of true faith, or only in resignation Thomas says “Let us also go that we may die with Him.”  Thomas was always the optimist!  In John 14:1-6 as the Lord teaches concerning His imminent death Thomas questions Him saying “Lord, we do not know where You are going, and how can we know the way?”  To this Jesus replies directly to him, “I am the way, the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through Me.  If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also…”  This mild rebuke would have turned Thomas’ uncertainly back to the one thing He was most certain of, Jesus.  But the incident by which he is best remembered is found in John 20:24-29.  Jesus has appeared in His resurrected glory to the other disciples, but “Thomas, called Didymus, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.”  When confronted by their account he responds characteristically “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.

We might think this the height of unbelief, but I see it more as an honest confession of the limits of Thomas’ faith.  He had been with the Lord during that last week as had the others.  He saw Him betrayed, condemned, put to death, and at last buried.  Lest we be too hard on Thomas remember that Luke 24:11 records the rest of the disciples’ reaction to the words of the women who had seen Jesus risen and alive,  “their words seemed to them [the disciples] like idle tales, and they did not believe them.”  But at just that point where Thomas’ faith was not yet enough to sustain him, Jesus came specifically to him.  “Reach your finger here and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side.  Do not be unbelieving, but believing.”  And as he touched the wounds of his Lord, Thomas’s faith was made whole so that he freely confessed to Him, “My Lord and my God.

This much but little more the Scripture reveals to us of Thomas.  When the general Jewish persecution came upon the early church the apostles and disciples were scattered over the whole world.  In the apocryphal work called “The Acts of the Holy Apostle Thomas” it says “we portioned out [by lot] the regions of the world in order that each one of us might go into the region that fell to him, and to the nations to which the Lord sent him.”   There is some truth in this account, for Eusebius, in his “History of the Church” Book 3 Section 1, tells us that “Thomas was chosen for Parthia.”  This is part of what we know today as Iran.  Tradition further tells us that he was also active in Carmania (southern Iran), Hyrcania (northern Iran), Bactria (Afghanistan), and Pakistan, eventually extending his mission field to the southwestern coast of India.  At this location it is recorded that he established seven churches on the Malabar Coast.  The tradition seems to be confirmed since there have been a group of believers at that location dating back into the middle ages who call themselves “Christians of St. Thomas” and who claim to trace their faith back to the first preaching of Thomas in Malabar.  It was at Calamine that Thomas’ faith was tried and found sufficient, as he suffered martyrdom by the spear.

Back to the question of faith.  How much is sufficient?  The Lord’s own teachings seem to indicate that if we could but have faith as the grain of a mustard seed, divine power might be ours to move even mountains into the sea.  But the Lord brings it into perspective in Luke 10:19-20 “I give you the authority to trample on serpents and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy….. nevertheless do not rejoice in this that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”  Thomas may never have overcome the limitations of his faith while on the earth, but in his heart he already knew “the way, the truth, and the life” and that was sufficient for the trials and work of each day.    His life may not have been a testimony to great faith, but it is a testimony to the power of Jesus Christ to faithfully remain “the author and finisher” of his faith.  When the spears of martyrdom came upon him Thomas’ testimony echoed the words of St. Paul in 2 Timothy 1:12  “I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto Him against that day.”  May our faith be sufficient for the day at hand, and may we never be afraid to confront our lack of faith.  It is only then, as we place our fingers in the nail-scarred hands of our Savior and look once more into his eyes that all of our doubt, confusion, and fear is swallowed up in the confession of Thomas, “My Lord and my God.

Symposium on Preparing for Death

This event will take place at Red Door Church in South Royalton, VT, on Sunday, March 21st from 1:30pm to 5pm. We will be livestreaming portions of the event to our Facebook Page with scheduled posts and to our YouTube channel. You can watch them all here on our website.

This month we are putting on an event here at Red Door Church addressing a topic that most of us avoid: death.

Why talk about death?

For one, because most of us have been touched by death over the last year as the world has reeled from the COVID-19 pandemic.

But also because experienced practitioners in fields like hospice care and funeral services who face death on a regular basis will tell you that greater harm is done when we avoid the topic.

Maggie Callanan, in her excellent book Final Journeys, says in the introduction that what led her to write the book was her father’s honest confession during his dying days: “I don’t know how to do this!”

Part of our ignorance is the simple fact that we avoid or completely ignore the topic until we are forced to acknowledge it through the death of a loved one or our own mortality.

This event is designed to help us begin thinking more about this daunting topic. We are bringing together experienced local practitioners from various fields to put on workshops about various topics to help us plan and prepare for death. Here’s a glimpse at the workshops and talks we have planned thus far:

-What is Hospice Care?

-Preparing for Life’s Final Journey? (Funeral Services)

-Walking Alongside the Bereaved

-General Estate Planning (POA and Wills)

-Advanced Medical Directives

-What Matters Most in the End (Faith and Death)

For those of you who cannot attend, we will be livestreaming and recording the event. We will also have a resource table with books and pamphlets available for purchase at significant discounts.

COVID-19

First and foremost, if you are feeling ill please refrain from coming and participating in the event. We have in place a handful of COVID-19 protocols to do our part in keeping everyone safe during the event.

-All of our workshop leaders and presenters have had their temperature taken upon entry.

-Signs will be put on display throughout the building to guide everyone through the building safely.

-Sanitizer stations are located in strategic places.

-Bathrooms will be wiped down between uses by our volunteers.

-Maps will be handed out to each attendee to ensure everyone knows where things are and where the appropriate places to enter and exit rooms are located.

-We will all be practicing social distancing and wearing masks.

We do hope you will join us for this event! It’s completely free to you thanks to the sponsorship of a number of organizations like Hope Home Care Services in Bethel, Vermont, Thrivent Financial Services, and Bayada Hospice.

“Faith in the Storm,” A Lenten Reflection

We have noted before that the opposite of faith is not disbelief, it is fear.  Faith makes us certain, it gives us confident direction in our choices, and it defines our destination and the path that leads to it.  Fear introduces questioning, second guessing, worry about what might be.  It leaves us wondering and wandering, paralyzed with uncertainty, unable to move forward.  Just when we ought to be declaring, “Thus says the Lord God Almighty…” we hear the devil’s challenge whispered in our head, “Has God really said…?”

Faith in the words of Scripture, is like a man building his house on the rock. The storms come, as storms must come in a fallen world, yet the house stands firm, not because of the house, but because of its unshakable foundation.  Faith in the completed work of Jesus places eternity in our hearts so that even if we suffer loss or pain in the short term, we understand that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus.  When the scriptures speak of placing faith in God, it often resorts to spectacular imagery. Trusting God is being led to a rock higher than our own frailty or failure, it is a strong fortress into which we run for safety, it is dwelling under the wings of the most High God, it is being surrounded by the angel armies of heaven, or knowing that God is like the mountains that surround and protect us.

There are two commands that are repeatedly used throughout the scriptures that give us a worthwhile goal to seek after during this Lenten season, “Do not be afraid”, and “Stand fast” (or “Wait on the Lord”).  Often they are used together as in Exodus 14:13, “Don’t be afraid. Just stand still and watch the LORD rescue you today.”  If we can allow the Spirit of God to work into our hearts, and minds, and spirits a true faith in the promises of God made present in the work of Jesus, we will have gained something that will see us through the rest of our lives until that day when we stand in the presence of God and see Him face to face.  Begin today with this confession from Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything that I need.”

The Ashes of Our Praise

In a few nights a small crowd will gather at Red Door Church for our annual Ash Wednesday service.  Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent,  a 40 day season (not counting Sundays) of preparation leading up to Easter.

Every year I’m overwhelmed with the sheer number of potential Lenten themes.  As a pastor, my mind races here and there as I think about what direction the Lord would have us go each year.  The possibilities seem endless.

Of the many threads woven into the garment of Lent, one stood out to me this year as we approached Ash Wednesday: the ashes.  Each year I gather up the palm branches used during Palm Sunday from the year before and burn them to make the ashes that are later placed on the foreheads of worshippers who come to our Ash Wednesday service.

But why burn the palm fronds from the year before?  What is the significance of placing those ashes on our heads?  Why not just employ regular ol’ wood ash from my stove at home?  Those ashes are certainly in abundance this time of year and it would be easier to take a few spoonfuls of those out of the stove rather than creating new ash from the palms.

The answers are not immediately obvious but are profound and worth contemplating for a moment.

Palm Sunday

A week before Easter on Palm Sunday Christians remember the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, mounted on a donkey (Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-44; John 12:12-19).  The crowds welcomed him with palm branches and shouted a short portion of Psalm 118:25: “Hosanna!”1  The symbolic use of palm branches has a long and interesting history.   In ancient times palm branches were a symbol of praise and victory.  They were used to welcome military leaders when they would come home from battle victorious.  They were used on coinage alongside pictures of emperors and gods, on Jewish ossuaries, and to this day can be found on flags.

Maybe most interesting of all, however, is that just five days later after welcoming Jesus in kingly fashion into Israel’s capital city, Jerusalem, the same crowds that praised him with great passion and asked for him to “Save us!” (which is what “Hosanna” means), were complicit in crucifying him with equal passion.  One minute they loved him and the next they scorned him.

Ashes

Now, what about the ashes?  In ancient Jewish culture, ashes were used as a symbol of grief, mourning, or penitence.  For example, we read of Tamar, after being raped by her brother:

“Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornate robe she was wearing. She put her hands on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went.” (2 Samuel 13:19, NIV)

Or in the story of Jonah, we find the people of Nineveh repenting at the preaching of Jonah:

“And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” (Jonah 3:5-6, ESV)

Examples of this could be multiplied (see for instance Esther 4:1-3; Job 2:8, 42:6 or Jeremiah 6:26).2

Combining the Two

The combination of the palms of praise and victory with the symbolism of ashes has a significance that should not be lost on us.

The reason we use the ashes of the palms and not just any ashes is to remind us of how frail our praise is.  That we, just like those joyous crowds that day in Jerusalem, would have been calling for Jesus’ condemnation just a few days later.3

The ashes on our heads are a mark of our mourning of that fact.  We grieve that our praise is half-hearted.  We mourn that the flame of our devotion can be blown out with the slightest breeze of temptation or trial.  We grieve that our sins are so great, that only the crucifixion of the Son of God could wash them away.

Let the ashes of the palm fronds on our foreheads be a fresh reminder of these things.

  1. For a great discussion on the meaning of the word “Hosanna” see the article “Hosanna” at DesiringGod.com.
  2. Ashes can also have other meaning in Scripture. See Isaiah 44:20.
  3. Bryan J. who writes at Mockingbird helped me to see this connection. Read his article “Burning Palm Sunday: An Ash Wednesday Reflection,” here.

What is Epiphany?

The feast of the Epiphany is celebrated on January 6, and marks the end of the celebration of Christmas.  The night preceding Epiphany has been called the Twelfth Night, an acknowledgement that the twelve days of the Christmas celebration are at last complete.  The word “epiphany” means a manifestation or an unveiling of something that comes suddenly into view.  It derives from two Greek words that literally could mean to shine a light upon.  When it is applied to the coming of Jesus, the Epiphany refers to God the Father revealing His Son as the chosen Messiah or deliverer.

The season of Epiphany continues until the beginning of Lent and traditionally ends with a remembrance of the transfiguration of Jesus in which He was revealed to His disciples in His heavenly glory and as the fulfillment of both the law and the prophets.  The entire season is intended  to focus our attention upon Jesus as if to say, “This one is the chosen one of God, pay attention to Him, follow Him where He leads you.  Do not look for any other, He is the Son of God sent to you.”  It also gives us some additional time to think on and understand the full meaning of the Christmas season we have just celebrated.  We begin to see what incarnation means, why the Father sent His Son Jesus at the fullness of time, and who this Immanuel really is.

Three Important Manifestations

Traditionally the scripture lessons for the season of Epiphany focus on one of three manifestations of Jesus to the world that He had come to save.  The first manifestation is the visit of the three Magi or wise men, pagan men from the east who came to Bethlehem seeking the one born King of the Jews.  The second manifestation, this time to Israel, was at the baptism of Jesus.  In the words of John the Baptist, “I did not know Him, but in order that He should be made manifest to Israel, I have come baptizing with water…and I saw and bear witness that this Jesus is the Son of God.” (John 1:31, 34)   And finally, the third manifestation was the first miracle that Jesus did at Cana, changing water into wine at the wedding feast.  As it records in John 2:11,“This beginning of miracles Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and He manifested forth His glory, and His disciples believed on him.” 

When we close the season of Epiphany with the celebration of the Transfiguration of Jesus, we come at last to the most real manifestation of Jesus in His true glory, “glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14) and once again the Father speaks from heaven, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.”

Jesus is God’s Anointed One

In Luke 4: 18-19, Jesus goes into the synagogue on the Sabbath and reads from the scroll of Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

As Jesus Himself declared that day, He is the Lord’s anointed One who has come into the world. The sanctuary color for the season of Epiphany is green. Green is a reminder that God is at work to bring eternal life to those that believe in the One whom He has sent for the deliverance of the world.  We are reminded of this in the words of John the Baptist who simply proclaims, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”  (John 1:29)  The lectionary readings for the season of Epiphany remind us that God works this manifestation of grace through His Son Jesus.  Jesus is revealed to us as the Son of God, the One God has chosen and anointed for this work. 

*Much of this material was borrowed from Red Door Church elder Russ Rohloff’s helpful introduction to the season of Epiphany in the parent guide to our church’s Epiphany curriculum for children.

Go and Tell it On the Mountain

The Christmas story is simply the best story ever told and this for many reasons. 

First, it was written when the fullness of time had finally come round, and all the very best stories of humankind that had been told and retold throughout the ages found their fulfillment in it.  Then too, it was told in a language that all people could understand.  Its glorious message was proclaimed in the heavens by a star of unusual wonder that spoke through divine light to the small, still point in every person’s heart, deep calling unto deep.  The Christmas story came first to the descendants of Abraham who carried its essence in their hearts for hundreds of years, but its promises were for every person of good will, the nations who would find their true blessing through the seed of Abraham.

The first murmurings were heard in Paradise, its veiled glimmer of hope spoken in mercy to a fallen man and his wife as they passed the cherubim with the flaming sword.  It was repeated in the thunder on the cloud on Sinai and echoed in the ram’s horns of the priests and shouts of the people and the rumble of Jericho’s walls falling in upon themselves.  It was given a clear, jubilant voice in the psalms of David and gravely intoned in the halls of Solomon the wise.  It became a melancholy sigh in the breasts of the elders of Israel as they sat by the rivers of Babylon and thought on Jerusalem, their harps hanging still at their side.

The length and width and depth of the Christmas story were established in the highest courts of heaven, yet its working out was upon the earth as thrones and dominions and principalities were moved by the hand of God as characters in its plot.  Angels longed to look into it, and demons trembled at its telling.  Sometimes it was faint, as a small still voice might be upon the winds, other times strong and vibrant as the glory of the Lord bent near to touch the earth.  Yet it was always the same, the glorious promises of restoration, reconciliation, and deliverance. 

It was chanted into the whole world at its creation as the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy.  Yet its universal message was somehow personal, it was as if each man’s, woman’s, and child’s name was somehow written into its telling.

And that brings me to the whole point of what I am trying to say.  If it remains only a story, even the best story which has ever been put into words by the inspiration of the divine Spirit, its words can all too soon fade away as the Christmas season turns, as the wonderment of light and evergreen and celebration gives way to the more pressing concerns of our lives.  It is just then that we must shake ourselves and remember that what gives this story an enduring meaning is the fact that it is true, and that somehow we were always meant to be a part of it. 

The Apostle John said it this way:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled concerning the word of life….that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you may also have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.  And these things we write to you that your joy may be full.”

-1 John 1:1, 3-4

Only when we wrestle with our doubts and expectations in this season, only when we search to find our own names written by God’s hand in His book of life wherein this story is fully told, only when we empty our hearts and turn them expectantly towards Bethlehem do we begin to grasp the magnificence of God’s promises to us in this season.  Emmanuel is come to us, and He bears gifts for us the like of which we have never imagined.  It is then, on that road to Bethlehem, bathed in a divine light that streams from the very presence of God that we must hear again the message the angels proclaim, “I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people.  For there is born to YOU this day in the city of David a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord…Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward me.”  We have no choice but to go with the shepherds to see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.

And having seen, let us believe.  And having believed, let us handle, and touch, and receive all that this Word of Life offers.  Let us share it with our families, let us instruct our children in its telling with reverence.  And then, when the season draws to a close and we must turn from its glory, let us go on, not forgetting, but carrying the story with us as a word of hope to a world in desperate need of its message.  And so we will become yet another chapter of the story, proclaimed this year with everlasting hope and peace into this time and place in which we live.