Monday, March 21, 2011

Colossians 02: You've Been Transferred

Scripture Text: Colossians 1:9-14

Last week, we talked about service and showed, in Paul’s report of his thanksgiving prayer, that loving Christian service flows from the overwhelming grace shown to us by God in the crucifixion of his Son for our sins. It is this love that flows down and into the heart of the believer, and it causes the believer to undertake acts of loving service for others as a result of the forgiveness granted by faith in Jesus.

This coming Wednesday, we are going to worship and sing and pray and talk about the next in our series of disciplines, which is prayer.  Our text this week is the report of another prayer, a prayer of intercession

What is a prayer of intercession? This is a prayer that is made for the sake of someone else. Intercessory prayer is what we do each service of worship, when we bring our petitions before God on behalf of the world, our leaders, those who are ill, those who are dying, those who have specific needs that only God can fill. Especially at this time we life up prayers of intercession for the nation of Japan, which is still in the middle of this disaster that has befallen it, and for Libya, now the center of growing warfare.

With the sermons over the last two weeks, it should be clear that prayer is an essential component of the spiritual lives of Christians. Some of the most basic prayers we pray are prayers of thanksgiving.  This week, Paul reports on a second kind of prayer that he and those with him have been praying; prayers of intercession for others.

In verses 3-8, Paul reports that he and Timothy and Epaphras and others “always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you.”  Wouldn’t it just be awesome to receive any kind of word, a note, a phone call, an e-mail message, a text message, telling you that someone was thanking God for you, for your faith, and how that faith has been seen in your life? I have been very blessed to receive messages like that from many of you, and I thank God for you all to, for your faith and how your faith has been made known to others through loving acts of service: The food shelf, Noah’s room, sponsorship of children through WorldVision, worship leadership, teaching leadership, mission support and giving through our denomination, a willingness to witness to others publicly in places like the Farm and Home show just yesterday, all for the glory of Christ.

Paul then moves to this section, where he reports the intercessory prayers that he and his associates have undertaken on behalf of the Colossians. I love how Paul does this. He very clearly shows that his intercessory prayers are joined with his prayers of thanksgiving to God. I want you to notice first of all that there is a premise behind Paul’s reports. In the previous set of verses (3-8), Paul tells the Galatians that he had given thanks to God for them because he had heard of their love for the saints which was the result of the hope they had laid up in heaven for them as a result of the Gospel they had received by faith in Jesus Christ. The largely Gentile Colossian Christians were different people because of this message they received first from Epaphras, their friend and native Colossian. Their faith had meat on it, the meat of love for others, because of the love shown to them by Christ.

In today’s text, the prayers of intercession made on behalf of the Colossians are also premised on this new reality: The reality that the Colossians had been transferred from the kingdom of this world into the kingdom of Christ:
[13] He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, [14] in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
The Colossians no longer lived as those condemned in their sin because of Jesus, God’s beloved Son. Notice the “us” in verse 13. Here, Paul identifies himself with his brothers and sisters in Colossae.

This is a huge truth that should give us some pause as we consider the rest of this text. Do we live as a people who are living in a new kingdom reality? Do we live as subject of the divine King Jesus? If we do, what do our lives look like? Do they look the same? Or will they be fundamentally, radically altered?

If you have received the gospel – the word of truth – about Jesus by faith, your life will ultimately be very, very different from the way it is today. Before you were in Christ, you lived in the domain of darkness. What is this? This is the domain of the world, the world to which so many people are tragically attached. The domain of the world includes the things of the world and the morality of the world. The things of the world are detached from God, which is why Paul describes it as a domain of darkness. If you’re in the world, you live in the dark. You cannot understand or see the truth for what it is. Those who are in the world live for the stuff of the world and live the way the world says life should be lived. So if you live in the world, you will have unhealthy worldly attachments. Those unhealthy attachments could be things, like money, possessions, fame, and the like. They could also consist of adopting the behaviors or moral code of the world, like unlimited, unbounded sex, the willingness to run over others to seal a business deal, the astonishing betrayals of rumor mongering and gossip, of sin of wishing the worst on others instead of the best, demeaning others publicly in the church or in letters to the editor in the paper. The world is the domain of darkness because the world suits our native desire and natural orientation to sin. And we are all stuck in that world until God delivers us from it through Christ. You may be here today and stuck on why the worldly ways never seem to result in deep, abiding, true happiness. You may be here today as one who knows too well the murderous effects of gossip or rumor mongering. You may be here today wondering if anything or anyone can pull you away from that. There is a way. In John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” If in your heart you seek to be transferred into the kingdom of Christ, the kingdom of which Paul writes about today, you need to repent of the worldly ways and receive by faith the means by which you can be transferred out of it, by faith in Jesus Christ.

Once you’re transferred in, there is some growing and maturing that needs to take place. If you’ve been picked up from the grimy ways of the world and cleansed by the precious blood of Jesus, and then plopped down into the kingdom of Christ, a kingdom of holiness, and love, and purity, and righteousness, you will initially feel out of sorts. You’ll be glad to be there, but now there’s a new way of life to be lived. You need a new kind of knowledge so that you can live into the new, glorious reality that you’ve been so graciously given. This is the way conversion so often works. There is an initial disruption of sorts, when you throw off the heavy yolk of the world and all of its legalisms, when your old life dies with Christ. There’s the initial groan of relief and praise and thanksgiving for new life, but then there’s the need for basic knowledge, a basic vocabulary, so that you can live fully into this new reality. When he writes to the 1 Corinthians, Paul tells them that he is giving them spiritual milk, because they’re not yet mature enough to handle the solid food. That’s the way Christian life begins and that’s the way Christian life is lived. You work your way deeper and deeper into the grace of the gospel. To do this, you need a knowledge that can only come from God, because it’s God’s wisdom and knowledge we’re after, not the wisdom and knowledge of the world. We want to know and to do and to be what our adopting Father would have us know, do, and be.

The rest of this passage is a description of Paul’s prayer that does just that for the new believers in Colossae. And it’s especially important to them because they are already under assault by something other than gospel knowledge.

Here’s what Paul, Timothy, and the others with Paul prayed:
[9] And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,
Here’s Paul’s prayer for the Colossians that they would receive spiritual wisdom and understanding, and be filled with knowledge, but not just knowledge, the knowledge of God’s will.
 [10] so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him,
This is the intercession Paul’s makes so that the Colossians would know what to do, which is to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.  And then finally, Paul’s prays that for the Colossians to walk this way
bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.
This is who they are called by God to be in Christ, a fruit-bearing people in whatever it is they are called to do. It matters not what your vocation happens to be, if you are in Christ, the result will be spiritual fruit. What are those? We talked about them repeatedly during our series in Galatians, and Paul writes of them in other places to.  Galatians 5:22 (mark these down):
[22] But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, [23] gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
"Colossians," Paul is saying, "You live in a new reality as a member of the very body of Christ, and I’m praying to almighty God that you will be filled up with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding." Notice the terms. Paul writes of a spiritual wisdom and understanding, not worldly. Because it’s spiritual, it comes from God. If it were worldly, Paul would refer them to nature or some other source of knowledge. Worldly knowledge comes from the textbook and from the internet. But the knowledge of God isn’t gained by worldly methods, it’s revealed by God to the believer. If you want to grow in spiritual wisdom and understanding, you must receive it from God. How do we receive it? By receiving his Word, the Bible, in worship, where the Holy Spirit applies the preached word to the heart of the believer, shaping that believer into a person of holiness for the glory of God. That is the source of the special revelation of God. It is found nowhere else. It isn’t found in the popular teaching of prosperity gospel mega-church preachers. It isn’t found in your favorite self-help book. Spiritual wisdom and knowledge is received from God through the preaching of the Christ, the Word-made-flesh.

So many people claim to come to Christ, claim to believe in his name, and claim to live in this new kingdom of Christ.  The veneer is put on, but beyond that there is not much depth. They show no evidence of possessing a new knowledge given by the Spirit through the Word of God.  One time a pastor told the story of a young woman who wanted to find ways of explaining the meaning of Christmas to her children. “If you want to know the true meaning of Christmas, come to church.” That wasn’t the answer the person was looking for. The person wanted the worldly answer, a way to make the story “relevant” to her children, with all the worldly trappings of entertainment, bright engaging pop music, and the like.  It never occurred to her that the source of kingdom knowledge is God’s Word, applied to the heart by the Holy Spirit when it is preached.

The church today is awash with attempts to bring believers back to the old worldly ways, to ignore Godly knowledge and wisdom. But we are called to be the type of person Paul is praying will be formed and shaped in Colossae. As you pastor, I’m called upon to pray be in prayer on behalf of all of you so that you will receive the knowledge and wisdom of God! This word convicts me because I know how my day-to-day schedule tends to quash prayer. I’m sure the same holds true for many of you. And you, too, are called to pray this way on behalf of your pastor and on behalf of each others.

Our prayers are so far from this example given by Paul, Timothy, Epaphras and others. I get prayer requests all the time from people, especially young people, for stuff. My own prayers so often devolve into a laundry list of to-dos for God. Listening in silence? What about the time? Praying for godly knowledge and wisdom? That seems so churchy. But that is the only way we grow as disciples. Let me challenge you now with this question: When was the last time you prayed on behalf of someone else in this church, or in other church, the way Paul has prayed for the people in Colossians? How about on behalf of our confirmation students, some of whom, if they confess Christ, will be newly transferred into the kingdom of God and in desperate need of Godly wisdom and knowledge, so that they will
[10] walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.
So that they
[11] May ... be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, [12] giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified ... [them] to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.
We know from John's gospel that Jesus intercedes for us. Therefore, beloved, pray for one other, that we all may receive the wisdom and knowledge of God. Amen.

Given at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Minnesota
March 20, 2010
2nd Sunday in Lent
Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Donald Drew

Colossians 01: The Preeminence, Sufficiency, Sovereignty, and Glory of Jesus Christ

Scripture Text: Colossians 1:1-8

This week we begin a new series preaching through Paul’s letter to the Colossians, continuing, after a short break, the practice of preaching through entire books of scripture. Before we begin, I want to give you a brief reminder about why this kind of preaching, called expository preaching, is important. First, it is important because the whole counsel of God is preached. When whole books are preached, both the preacher and the congregation are forced to content with difficult texts. Expository preaching means no verses are left out, which is important because, as we learn in 2 Timothy 3:16, “[16] All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, [17] that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” In some churches, preaching is topically driven – subjects like marriage, divorce, finance, sex, public life, etc. are explored. The chief weakness of this approach is that the topics that are preached almost inevitably consist of those that are most comfortable for the preacher. In other churches, the lectionary is preached. What is the lectionary? The lectionary is simply a reading plan for the bible. One advantage of the lectionary is that churches across multiple denominations preach the same text on the same Sunday. The disadvantage of the lectionary is that difficult or culturally controversial topics are almost always excluded. Also, because of the limitations of the calendar, some important texts are never preached in churches where the lectionary is used exclusively. A critical argument for expository preaching through entire books of the bible is that we live in a era where biblical literacy and regular bible reading is at an all time low, making this kind of preaching a necessity if the church is to abide in the world.

Now, why Colossians? I decided to go with Colossians as our next study for several reasons. First, this is a letter that deeply celebrates the total preeminence, sufficiency, sovereignty, and glory of Jesus Christ, especially in verses 15-23 of chapter 1, which we’ll get to in a few weeks time. Second, this letter, like Galatians, was written to counter false teaching in the life of the church. The church today, under incredible pressure by the secular American idolatrous culture, needs, in my view, a renewed focus on the right teaching of God’s gospel, “the word of truth” (Col 1:5). Third, the letter contains great encouragement and practical advice on Christian living to a small community living in the midst of significant pagan secular influences. Christians in Jackson actually live in similar circumstances, so we can benefit from this same word.


Before we get to the verses, we need to talk a bit about the context of this letter. First, Paul is writing from prison to a community of believers that he likely never visited. We know Paul was in prison because he refers to the fact directly in chapter 4, when he sends final greetings from his fellow prisoners and concludes the letter by asking the Colossians to “remember my chains” (4:18). Paul is writing in response to reports he has received from Ephaphras, a native of Colossae who, as we will see in verses 7-8, was the first person to bring the gospel to the largely Gentile population in Colossae. Paul wasn’t alone in prison, and in fact had his highly regarded and trusted friend Timothy with him.

With this brief background, let’s read the text together. Colossians 1:1-8:
[1:1] Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, [2] To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

[3] We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, [4] since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, [5] because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, [6] which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth, [7] just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf [8] and has made known to us your love in the Spirit.
This sermon will attempt to answer the question: What does the gospel produce in the believer? The answer is very straightforward. Ultimately, the gospel produces a rock solid hope for an eternity with God, which overflows into acts of loving service to the saints in the church and those in the world.  I think this question is important, because the contemporary church, when it preaches the gospel of totally free, radical grace in Jesus Christ, can fall victim to a complacency that is found nowhere in the scriptures and typifies the life of many American Christians.

The first two verses of the text are Paul’s salutation to the Colossians. In it, he sends greetings from both himself and Timothy, who was Paul’s trusted comrade in faith and the person who likely acted as secretary for this letter, taking Paul’s words down as he spoke them.

Verses 3-8 are a great thanksgiving to God for the gift of faith in Christ among the believers in Colossae. Paul, an apostle of the church, begins by telling the people that he gives thanks to God for their faith and their love for the saints.

What was the effect on these gentiles who became believers in Jesus Christ? It is the same thing that happens to anyone today who comes to a saving knowledge of Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross. The gospel, also called in this text “the word of truth,” creates in the heart of the person who accepts Christ an eternal, unshakable, heavenly hope. There are two consequences of this hope in the life of the believer. First, this heavenly hope fosters faith in the believer. Second, this hope, because it is so sure and certain, overflows into abundant acts of love for others.  This is especially important for us to consider given the current state of the church and its witness to Jackson and the world.

Verse 3-5a make this plain:
[3] We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, [4] since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, [5] because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel,
He states clearly in verse 5 that the Colossians have a “hope laid up” for them. This hope is sure and certain because it is laid up for believers in heaven. What is this hope? Paul says that this hope is the hope that they “have heard before in the word of truth, the gospel” (v 5). And what is the gospel? The basics of the gospel are these:  If you believe by faith that Jesus Christ died for all of your sins upon the cross, you receive forgiveness and are freed from condemnation by a Holy, just, and righteous God who hates sin. God freely gives this gift of forgiveness; it is a gift of grace, so that no one might boast that they earned their way into salvation. If you receive this free gift of grace by faith in Jesus, the result is that you will have hope, a hope that endures beyond your death (“laid up in heaven” for you).  This is the hope of eternal life with God in heaven and in the resurrection from the dead. This is a hope of immense, unimaginable rewards and of everlasting peace and joy in God’s presence. We know this hope is a sure hope because we know Jesus was raised from the death.  Without this hope, we have hope only in this world, and as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:19, “[19] If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” Why? Because life as a Christian isn’t easy. For many, many people outside of the United States, the discovery that someone is a Christian can result in receiving a sentence of death. Why would anyone become a Christian if there was only hope in this life? The answer is this: They wouldn’t. They wouldn’t ever consider it unless they had a hope rooted in the heavens that is so real and truth that the pursuit of it gives joy that outweigh and pain, suffering, or opposition in this life. The gospel sets the believer free from failure, because Christ succeeded for us. The gospel sets the believer free from loss, because Christ is all in all. The gospel sets the believer free from fear of rejection by others, because in Christ we have been totally accepted by God. The gospel sets the believer free from guilt because in Christ the cause of guilt, sin, has been washed away by his blood. The forgiveness granted the believer who is in Christ is so complete that God Himself promises to actually forget the sin itself. It is this assurance of our total, complete forgiveness and acceptance by Christ that we have tremendous hope. Do you have hope like this in your life? It can be yours if you accept Christ.

At this point, many people make an accusation against the church.  They say, isn’t this kind of hope prone to lead people to inaction? Don’t people, who become heavenly minded in this kind of hope, become lax when it comes to others? Doesn’t such a faith and hope lead to escapism, that there’s nothing good for us to do, we need only wait around for the second coming?

This text makes it clear that the answer to these questions is a resounding NO. The gospel produces a hope that isn’t escapist, its active. And that activity is seen most evidently in the loving acts for others.  That is why Paul says,
[3] We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, [4] since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, [5] because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel,
The hope of which Paul writes, this heavenly-minded hope, is so overwhelming that is expresses itself in loving acts for others. So, contrary to the accusation, saving faith in the gospel produces a profound, certain hope that overflows into acts of love for others.  Worldly hopes, by contrast, lead to occupation with selfish, worldly concerns.  A gospel-birthed hope does not overflow into acts of sitting on the couch watching television and eating potato chips, or playing bridge, or sitting around idly drinking coffee, or browsing aimlessly through page after page on the internet, or gossiping about the latest goings on, or playing shuffleboard, or maximizing personal popularity at school. No. A gospel-birthed hope overflows into acts of love for others, of feeding the poor, or going on international missions, or giving money to those in need, or giving of time and talents to ministries without regard for worldly rewards, precisely because the heavenly reward is so much greater and certain. It is worldly-mindedness that leads people to, among other things, selfish pursuits, like striving for the biggest incomes for the best life now, with free time spent repairing everything that’s been acquired, all while making sure we don’t look bad by adding a little church to the weekend, a little of God’s word, so that our consciences might be clear for a little while. It is worldliness that causes us to move God’s word and prayer and worship into last place at the first possible opportunity for fishing, golf, football, and hunting. Don’t get me wrong. I like a few of those activities myself. I preach this as one convicted of my own worldly tendencies and laziness. But when these things flow from mind preoccupied by worldly concerns, rather than heavenly concerns, they ultimately are declarations of our selfishness.

The gospel of life leads to hope and loving deeds for others. The reason it does this is because of the work Christ has already accomplished in his life, death, and resurrection. What does a love flowing from a heavenly hope look like? We know from Galatians 5 that love is a fruit of the Spirit (it’s the first fruit listed). 

Such love is a fruit that eventually becomes public. People see this manifestation of love in others, and because it is rooted in the hope of the gospel, it glorifies God.  Paul writes that he and others with him “heard of your [the Colossians] faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that have for all of the saints.” The love they have been showing to the saints has been witnessed publicly by Paul and by others in Colossae, and word has spread. The result of witnessing this love is not envy or jealously on the part of Paul and the others. Instead, it causes them to give thanksgiving and glory to God. “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints” (vvs 3-4a).

This loves flows from the Cross. Remember the old hymn “The Wondrous Cross?” It speaks of the love of God shown in the crucifixion of Jesus this way:
See from His head, His hands, His feet, /Sorrow and love flow mingled down! / Did e’er such love and sorrow meet, / Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Love flows from the gospel and bubbles up to overflowing out from the fountain of heavenly hop in the heart of the believer. And then it flows out to others to the glory of God. If you want to know this kind of love and hope, its found first in the Cross. Amen.

Given at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Minnesota
February 20, 2011
7th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Donald Drew

Sunday, March 20, 2011

God: "Give Up!"

Scripture Text: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17

Many of you who know me know that I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah. Yet, in a culture dominated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (the Mormons), God somehow in the eternal wisdom of His sovereign decrees predestined me to be raised a Presbyterian. Until the last two or three decades or so, things like “Ash Wednesday” and “Lent” were foreign concepts in the Presbyterian church and most of the rest of the reformed world (they still are, in many corners of the evangelical church). For Protestants, Lent was initially viewed as a leftover from Rome, to be discarded with the rest of popery. But now, Ash Wednesday and Lent are regularly observed throughout Christendom, including many reformed churches. Although Ash Wednesday, Lent – and other Holy Days for that matter, even Christians – are nowhere commanded in the Scriptures, they can nevertheless be helpful to us by focusing our attention on the grace of God in the face of massive distractions in our culture.

How is Ash Wednesday, in particular, helpful to us? Here are a couple of reasons why.

First, Ash Wednesday is, in this day an age, perhaps the most pronounced reminder in our culture that every human being alive today will one day die, and that the reason for this is our sin.

Second, Ash Wednesday invites us to throw away all religious pretense and self-serving, self-righteous, self-salvation projects that never “work” and instead surrender, again or for the first time, to the God who has graciously called us to be his children so that we might be saved from our sin.

In short, Ash Wednesday is about the gospel.

First, Ash Wednesday is, in this day an age, perhaps the most pronounced reminder in our culture that every human being alive today will one day die, and that the reason for this is our sin. Ash Wednesday is a defiant pronouncement of truth in the face of our cultural denial over the reality of sin and its consequences, death. We do everything we can to hide this reality. We dye our hair. We undergo cosmetic surgery. We carefully whisk our beloved dead away before anyone can really notice. In our culture, it almost seems that the most impolite thing you can do is die. Look at all of the inconvenience it causes, the unwanted emotions, the abrupt changes in plans. But worst of all, a person’s death reminds me of the truth that I’m going to die, too. In this service, we proclaim biblical reality, which is the only kind of reality: Because of sin, we die. We acknowledge the truth of Genesis 3:19, when God pronounced humanity’s punishment for the sin of our first parents, Adam and Eve:
“…for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
When you come forward to have ashes imposed on your head, you will hear these very words from the Scriptures spoken to you. Ash Wednesday reminds us of our mortality, and the cause of our mortality, our sin.

This is the bad news reality of sin. This is the bad news that our sin deserves punishment. It is the bad news that God’s judgment for sin is real. This is the reality of the bible, and it is the reality of life for those with eyes to see it clearly. Ash Wednesday is simply a statement of the truth that we try so hard to hide. We are sinful, and we are frail. Our eyes need to be opened to the reality of our sin so that we can see how deeply we need a savior to rescue us.

If we were left with only the bad news, we’d certainly be in bad shape, wouldn’t we? We’d end up feeling like the people of Judah and Jerusalem who faced a huge locust plague, a national calamity that Joel declares is a message of God’s justice and forthcoming judgment. The judgment comes like the army of God bearing down upon the people:
[2:1] Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming; it is near, [2] a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness there is spread upon the mountains a great and powerful people; their like has never been before, nor will be again after them through the years of all generations.
If this were the only news out there, then we’d be in pretty bad shape, wouldn’t we? We would be a people without hope, especially with the knowledge that God’s final judgment is coming, a promise that is found throughout the scriptures. Perhaps you are here tonight feeling like one of the people in Joel’s target audience of Judah and Jerusalem, trembling in fear at the announcement that the day of the Lord is coming, a day of judgment for rebelling against God and God’s plan for you.

Indeed, if that were the only news for us, we would be in very bad shape.

But praise God there is more to the story! There is hope, because God desires sinners like you and me to return to Him by repenting of our sin and turning to him in faith.

Joel 2:12-13a
[2:12] “Yet even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; [13] and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
God wants you back! Even though you may have rejected Him, he still desires you to return to him because his loves his children.  “Return to me!” God shouts, “Return to me with all your heart!” Don’t think repentance is accomplished simply by making a show of things. Don’t rend your garments so that others can see how pious and religious you are. Don’t just do all the right things, attend all the right worship services, attend all the right classes, be seen doing all the right things. Instead, God says “Rend your hearts” child of the covenant! Loved ones, God desires not your external performance but the inward contents of your heart.

Let me just say something about that: The imposition of ashes is for us a reminder of our deep need for a savior. It is not something we do to look good or to earn favor with God. Listen to these words from Jesus, taken from the first verse of tonight’s reading in Matthew, “[6:1] Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”  If you think that by participating in Ash Wednesday service you are in any way earning righteousness before others or God, you should probably consider more carefully the meaning of God’s grace and refrain from receiving the ashes altogether. God doesn’t desire your outward performance or conformance to rules. He desires the very contents of your heart, as the scriptures state very clearly.

Back to Joel:
[13b] 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. [14] 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? [15] Blow the trumpet in Zion; consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly; [16] gather the people. Consecrate the congregation; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her chamber. [Can you see what this means? Repentance, returning to God, is more important than anything you can think of, including the nursing of infants and your forthcoming wedding night!] [17] Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep and say, “Spare your people, O LORD, and make not your heritage a reproach, a byword among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”
I said there were a couple of reasons that Lent is beneficial to us. This is the second reason: Ash Wednesday invites us to throw away all religious pretense and self-serving, self-righteous, self-salvation projects that never “work” and instead surrender, again or for the first time, to the God who has graciously called us to be his children so that we might be saved from our sin. Tonight is a night for surrendering and proclaiming together with others our ongoing need of this magnificent God, who in his mercy saves us from the destruction of all the sin that would otherwise consign us to hell.

The means whereby you and I are saved from certain destruction will be visibly traced onto your forehead. It is the sign of the cross. It is the sign that signifies the horrendous consequences of our sin in the crucifixion of the Messiah. But it is also the sign where “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). At the precious cost of his blood, Jesus purchased forgiveness of all your sin. That forgiveness is available to you right now if you haven’t already received him by faith. Ash Wednesday, therefore, is not an occasion for being morose and sad. Instead, it is a time of hope that points to the cross and the victory of Christ over sin and death when Jesus was raised from the dead on Easter morning.

Tonight, my hope is that each person here will say in his or her innermost heart, “Lord Jesus, I surrender. I give up. I want the forgiveness only you can give.” This Lenten season, don’t just give up coffee or TV, or take on something you think will make you more holy or more righteous or more “in” with God. The thing that makes you right with God is giving in to the grace and forgiveness he offers through the Cross of his Son, Jesus Christ. The gospel way of living is giving up to God continually, of drinking more of his grace, not in trying to do more. Tonight, God is saying to you, as he did to the people of Israel who faced calamity in the face of God’s overwhelming army, “Surrender!” Jesus said, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). Don’t give up stuff for Lent. Instead, give yourself up to Christ for Lent. Amen.

Given at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Minnesota
March 9, 2011
Ash Wednesday Joint Worship Service with Salem Lutheran Church and Belmont Lutheran Church
Copyright © 2011 by Christopher Donald Drew