A Lost Son

The parable of the lost son is the story of each of our lives during life and particularly during Lent. At the time a large crowd was following Jesus as he traveled from Galilee southward to Jerusalem. Some in the crowd believed what Jesus taught; others wanted to see him perform a great miracle. Pharisees traveled with the group. They watched Jesus’ behavior and listened to what he said, hoping to hear Jesus say something that contradicted Jewish law. Pharisees were the deadliest opponents of Jesus and his message. Here’s Jesus’ initial parable of the lost son:

“And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything. “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate” (Luke 15: 12-24 ESV).

To far, so good. Listening tax collectors and sinners, who identified with the younger son, rejoiced to hear that God forgave them unconditionally. Even the Pharisees and teachers of the law had no criticism of Jesus’ words at this point. They believed that repentant sinners could be restored to fellowship with God. If Jesus had stopped there, all would have been well. What Jesus said next offended and further alienated the Pharisees. Here are Jesus exact words as recorded by Luke:

“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found'” (Luke 15:25-32 ESV).

When Jesus finished the parable, all who listened knew that the older brother was the Pharisees. As the older son looked down on the younger, Pharisees looked down on tax collectors, prostitutes, and sinners.

Lent, A Season of Paradox

The season of Lent is the crux of my relationship with Jesus Christ. It is a season of joyful contradictions! It is an observance of the lifelessness of my sin and the vitality of God’s forgiveness; an observance of darkness juxtaposed with an infinite lightness. Lent calls me to take a painful, yet joyful, examination of my sinful nature; painful because my sin is real, joyful because Christ’s mercy is real. Lent takes me through an honest examination of the darkness of my soul while reflecting on God’s powerful desire and ability to cleanse me of this darkness.

Where I live, usually Lent starts in late winter, weather is cold, trees bare, and grass brown. This grimness represents the coldness of my soul trapped in sin. Lent calls me to examine this darkness in a healthy way. Rather than condemning myself, I take an honest look at the times I have strayed from God. While it is dark and grim, there is hope in the fact that I don’t delve into this alone. Christ is always with me.

While I try to reflect on my sinfulness throughout the year, Lent is a sacred time, calling me to a deeper discernment of my sin. I fast on Fridays during Lent because it is part of my heritage growing up as Catholic. A tradition that easily conveys to the home I have found in the Lutheran church. When I fast, I become more alive in Christ by becoming more alert to why he had to die for my salvation.

If I’m not aware of my sin, I’m not fully aware of the meaning of Christ’s sacrifice. I enter prayer more deeply during this season. A solitary exploration of my sinfulness is a dangerous journey resulting in much despair. A prayerful exploration of my sinfulness, however, is an enriching journey resulting in joy and hope. With Christ, through prayer, I take a Lenten journey downward into my sin.

The meaning of Lent for me is found where the depth of my sinful nature intersects with the height of God’s forgiveness. It is a paradox of polarities that intersect; a joyful paradox where God’s love lifts me out of sin. It is love only received through the salvation of Christ.

As Lent moves towards Easter, my prayer grows stronger and more hopeful as trees bloom and grass turns green. As the season of spring heals the earth from the damage of winter, the season of Lent heals my soul from the damage of sin. Christ does the healing; yet, the season of Lent calls my attention to his healing. My focus shifts from necessary exploration of sin and need for repentance to a deep feeling of God’s love and forgiveness.

Reflection: God has designed the season of Lent for Christians to joyfully and painfully reflect on who we are what God has done for us. Lent gives me the opportunity and grace to explore this mystery in a deep, prayerful way.

 

*Written by Rick Robers, President, Church Council, St. John Lutheran Church, Roanoke, Virginia.

Scripture for Ash Wednesday

Scripture for Ash Wednesday

Epistle Reading – Hebrews 12:1-4, 12-13 ESV: Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. Therefore, lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.

 Gospel Reading – Luke 18:9-14 ESV: He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Meaning of Ashes

 

Ashes are the quintessential symbol of Lent. Surprisingly, the first dictionary definition for ash isn’t the technical definition, i.e., “the solid residue left when combustible materials is thoroughly burned;” but, the figurative definition “something that symbolizes grief, repentance, or humiliation.”15 Dictionary compilers must have understood the importance of Lent in Christian churches.

Ashes symbolize sorrow for sins. Ashes mean we mourn and repent of sins. Scott Malloy16 summarized, “Ashes are signs that we are all in this sin business together, and that the difference between the good in us and the bad in us is sometimes frightfully thin. We often fall short of the Faith we claim.” Ancient Israelites believed that mankind was made from dust and ashes (Genesis 18:27). When they mourned, they put ashes on their heads and often wore sackcloth (2 Samuel 13:19; Esther 4:1-3). Ashes were an external symbol that they inwardly repented some actions or sins (Job 42:6, Matthew 11:21, Luke 10:13).

At one time, ashes marked on the forehead of worshipers were given only to public penitents brought before the church. Over time, others wanted to show their humility and affection for the penitents. They asked for ashes to identify themselves with sinners and as sinners. Now, the imposition of ashes is extended to the whole congregation. Congregates who receive ashes know their own sins grieve God. God knows the secrets of each hearts, sins contemplated as well as done. Many remember the prayer of King David who said, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10 ESV).

Traditionally, the ashes for Ash Wednesday (first day of Lent) were made from leftover palm leaves from the previous year. More recently, churches purchase ashes from church supply houses. Almost all suppliers of ashes to churches advertise ashes as coming from burnt palm leaves.

Although the symbolism of ashes for mourning and repentance is pervasive throughout the Bible, Isaiah provided God’s promise of the future glory of Israel and by extension the Christian church. In relation to ashes, Isaiah wrote that the future Messiah will give his people a beautiful headdress instead of ashes (on our foreheads), the oil of gladness instead of mourning (Isaiah 61:3). True, Christians experience the mourning of repentance; but, mourning isn’t the end in the road. The end is that we will be called “oaks of righteousness, a glorified planting” of God. At Jesus’ second coming to earth, he will be glorified and so will members of his church.

 

A Sin Sick Soul

The Word of the Lord: Genesis 43.11: Then their father Israel said to them, “If it must be, then do this: Put some of the best products of the land in your bags and take them down to the man as a gift—a little balm and a little honey, some spices and myrrh, some pistachio nuts and almonds.

Meditation: Jacob was an elderly man with a sick soul, conceivably a sin sick soul. Certainly, some of Jacob’s younger-day actions were sins and brought him grief. At the time of this story, Jacob lived in Canaan which was experiencing a famine. Jacob decided to send his sons to Egypt to buy desperately need grain to feed his family. This was the second time that Jacob ordered his sons to Egypt to buy grain.

To Jacob’s knowledge his favorite son (Joseph) was dead. Another son (Simeon) was kept as a hostage by the Egyptians when Jacob’s sons went to Egypt the first time to buy grain.

Jacob’s remaining sons were afraid to go a second time into Egypt. The Egyptian in charge of selling grain told them only to come back if they had their youngest brother (Benjamin) with them. Jacob can’t fathom losing a third son, especially the son who was now his favorite. Nonetheless, because he wanted food for his family, Jacob ordered his sons to go to Egypt and buy grain. Jacob sent Benjamin with them.

Most likely the balm that Jacob ordered sent to Egypt was the balm of Gilead. It grew in Canaan. Medically, balms are healing or soothing substance, i.e., ointment, salve, or cream They can be analgesic and give pain relief.   Figuratively, balms have the effects of calming, soothing, comforting, and providing solace and consolation.

In today’s society, many individuals hurt spiritually.  Much of the spiritual pain is the result of personal choices.  Mine were. When I left home as a young woman, I was determined to live life my way.  I resonated to a song popular at the time—Helen Reddy’s, “I Did it My Way.”

I made a conscious decision not to follow God.  One of my thoughts was that I would consign God only  to Sunday at church, in other words, departmentalize God.   The remainder of the week, I would live the way I wanted to live. I said to myself, “When I’m older, I’ll get back to God.”

In retrospect, I am stunned at my arrogant thoughts and actions.  My rebellion against God caused me great spiritual, mental, and physical pain.  At the time, I felt like nothing would calm, comfort, and console me.

Amazingly God wasn’t surprised by our rebellions. God is never surprised by anything we do or anything that Jacob did. God is there waiting for us, as he waited for Jacob, to return to him.

Do you remember the African American spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead?” The refrain goes something like this:

There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole.

There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin sick soul.

 Reflection: Have you ever experienced a sin-sick soul?  The solution is God, not some soothing ointment or, perhaps, even emotional healing drugs.

Exposing, Exfoliating

The Word of the Lord 

Genesis 30.37-40: Jacob, however, took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peeling the bark and exposing the white inner wood of the branches. Then he placed the peeled branches in all the watering troughs, so that they would be directly in front of the flocks when they came to drink. When the flocks were in heat and came to drink, they mated in front of the branches. And they bore young that were streaked or speckled or spotted. Jacob set apart the young of the flock by themselves, but made the rest face the streaked and dark-colored animals that belonged to Laban. Thus he made separate flocks for himself and did not put them with Laban’s animals.

 Mediation  

 After Laban agreed to Jacob’s proposal to grow his personal flock by Jacob keeping only spotted or striped sheep and goats, Laban moved animals with these characteristics three days away from Jacob’s location.  That left Jacob with only solid-colored animals. Laban believed that no or few future offspring in Jacob’s flock would be spotted or multi-colored. Laban believed that once again he outsmarted Jacob.

Normally, the oriental plane tree that Jacob used to influence the color of his flocks doesn’t grow in the United States. Jacob used it in Paddan Aram that is now in Syria. The tree’s bark exfoliates naturally giving the tree a spotted black-white appearance.

Exfoliate means to cast off in scales of thin layers. Plane trees cast off pieces of bark, so the trunk and branches look spotted.

Most of us wish we could exfoliate, cast off some of our foibles and quirks like the plane tree sheds its bark; however, just the opposite occurs. The parts of our character and personality that we want to get rid of, are those parts that seem to cling. I’ve concluded that  trying to get rid of the un-beautiful parts of my being is part of Christian maturity, i.e., becoming progressively more like Christ.

Some days we want to rush forward toward Christ likeness so we can become pure and clean. But total purity and cleanliness aren’t going to happen on earth no matter how much we shed old behaviors and put on new ones. We’re human, which means that we will never reach perfection in this life no matter how smooth our skin appears.

God expects us to struggle as we move forward, as we move nearer to Christ. Do you ever become impatient with yourself and ask, “Why don’t you just make me righteous, God? I’m willing. Just do it, God, so I don’t have to expend all this effort.”

Reflection: Ponder why God doesn’t make us, force us, take all actions necessary to achieve the character of Christ here on earth.

Who’s Watching You?

The almond tree symbolizes “watching;” however, the first time the almond tree is named in Genesis, the setting is Paddan Aram. There, Jacob used almond branches to attempt to influence the color of animals in his flock.

The Word of the Lord: Genesis 30.37-40: Jacob, however, took fresh-cut branches from poplar, almond and plane trees and made white stripes on them by peeling the bark and exposing the white inner wood of the branches. Then he placed the peeled branches in all the watering troughs, so that they would be directly in front of the flocks when they came to drink. When the flocks were in heat and came to drink, they mated in front of the branches. And they bore young that were streaked or speckled or spotted. Jacob set apart the young of the flock by themselves, but made the rest face the streaked and dark-colored animals that belonged to Laban. Thus he made separate flocks for himself and did not put them with Laban’s animals.

The second time the almond tree is named the setting is Canaan. Jacob directs his sons to take almonds, one of the best products of Canaan, as a gift to the Egyptian in charge of selling grain.

Genesis 44.11: Put some of the best products of the land in your bags and take them down to the man as a gift—a little balm and a little honey, some spices and myrrh, some pistachio nuts and almonds.

Meditation: Few plants have the important symbolism of almond trees in the Old Testament. Almond trees encompass buds, flowers, and fruit (almond nut).  In addition to the two Genesis examples, almond tree products appeared elsewhere in the Bible. In the Tent of Meeting, the original menorah had almond buds carved on its branches and central stem. Aaron’s staff budded, bloomed, and produced almonds after a night in in front of the Ark of the Covenant.

When Jeremiah was called to be God’s prophet, God showed Jeremiah an almond branch and asked Jeremiah what he saw. Jeremiah answered God that he saw an almond branch. God commended Jeremiah’s response and said that he was watching to see that his word is fulfilled (Jeremiah 1.12); thus, almonds are associated with God watching mankind. Job called God a “watcher of mankind” (Job 7.20)

Daily new events bombard our world. Currently, a worldwide viral pandemic is occurring. How rapidly the virus spread over the globe. Each day, there are more diagnosed cases and deaths in the world and in my country. Hopefully, we have all read Revelation sufficiently to not be surprised. Pandemics, reduced commerce, and collapsed economic systems are signals God gives us so we  repent and turn to him.

As the almond tree demonstrated in biblical times, God is watching to verify that his word is fulfilled on earth. What  occurs now in the world is an example of God word being fulfilled.

One part of Jesus’ message causes me sadness: “Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold” (Matthew 24.12-13). Each of us must work so that our love for others—regardless of country, race, gender, sexual preference, etc., doesn’t  grow cold.

We need to monitor our hearts and evaluate how we behave. About 30 years ago, I realized that I had a hard, even callous,  heart. I prayed that God would soften my heart. Since that time God changed my heart of stone to a heart filled with compassion.  My husband often comments on what a compassionate person I am.  Yet, decades ago he never made that comment about me. You can offer God the same prayer—to soften our hearts—God answer that prayer.

Reflection: How are you keeping your love for others warm? How do you continually evaluate your love for others?

Slaughter of the Innocents

When I look at wise men following a star from Iran to Israel, I am grateful for their actions and its symbolism. Like the wise men, I am a Gentile, a non-Jew; yet, this infant Jesus, a Jew, was born, lived, and died for me. Emotionally, I feel soft inside and I am grateful. But, there is more to the wise men’s story than warm emotions. Before the wise men arrived in Bethlehem, they stopped in Jerusalem. They met with King Herod the Great and inquired of him where the king of the Jews was to be born.

King Herod the Great was alarmed and saw Jesus birth as a threat to his rule. Further, he was furious when he realized the wise men outwitted him. Herod gave orders to kill all boy children in the Bethlehem area who were two years-old or under. Herod hoped to remove any possible threat to his rule from this “so-called” newborn king. In the Old Testament, Jeremiah described the slaughter this way, “A voice heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (Matthew 2:

In church seasons we acknowledge the feast of the Holy Innocents which commemorates King Herod’s murder of the male infants of Bethlehem. By tradition, the Holy Innocents feast day is on December 29, during the Christmas season. However, the Bible is clear, Herod murdered the children after the wise men left Bethlehem. How soon after the wise men started their trek back to Iran, we don’t know. Yet, I believe that King Herod was very attune to any threat to his rule and moved quickly to remove any threat. The Slaughter of the Innocents could have occurred during what is now our Epiphany season.

Thought: How do we slaughter each other?

Beyond Epiphany Day

In the Catholic church, the time between Epiphany and Ash Wednesday which begins Lent is named “Ordinary Time.” In Protestant churches that follow a church calendar, Sundays in this period are named the First Sunday after Epiphany, the Second Sunday after Epiphany……until Ash Wednesday. No matter what a church calls the season, there are two foci in it. The first is Christ’s manifestation to the world through his life and ministry. The second focus is contemplation.

                Perhaps nowhere in the Bible is Jesus identified as a Savior for both Jew and Gentile than by the vignette in the second chapter of Luke. There, Joseph and Mary met Simeon. When Simeon saw Jesus, he took Jesus into his arms and praised God, saying: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel” (Luke 2:28-32, NIV). Simeon’s comments likely came at least a year before the Magi arrived to give gifts to the Christ-child; yet, he knew the purpose of the young infant.

                On the first Sunday after Epiphany Day, liturgical churches celebrate the baptism of Jesus by John in the river Jordan. At Jesus’ baptism, God spoke from heaven saying that Jesus was his son (Matthew 3:17). Some churches include a feast day to remember Jesus first miracle at the wedding of Cana in Galilee.

In almost all liturgical churches, the last Sunday of the Epiphany season is a celebration of the transfiguration of Jesus. At this transfiguration, Peter, James, and John witnessed Jesus’ changed appearance from the human they know into God. For many years I wondered why Jesus took apostles with him to the transfiguration mountain. Now, I believe it happened so Apostles could give first-hand testimony that Jesus was the son of God.

                Writing in The Liturgical Year, Sister Joan Chittister11 emphasized the importance of taking a deep breath in Epiphany season. According to Sister Joan, the “Ordinary time” of Epiphanytide, allows Christians to take a “time out” after the busy twelve days of Christmas and contemplate faith based on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

                Sister Joan averred that “contemplation is the center of the Christian life.”11 Contemplation is the place where our mind gets to know the mind of Christ. In contemplation we integrate our worldly concerns with the promise of an eternal, heavenly life. This integration permits us to make sense of occurrences on earth, or at a minimum to accept them as part of God’s plan, even when we don’t understand what and why they are occurring.

Symbol over Door Lentil

Around January 6, the symbol +C+M+B+ with two numbers before and two numbers after (for example, 20+C+M+B+19) is sometimes seen written in chalk above the doorway of Christian homes. The letters are the initials of the traditional names of the Three Magi: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. These letters also abbreviate the Latin phrase Christus mansionem benedicat, “May Christ bless the house.” The beginning and ending numbers are the year, 2019 in the example above. The crosses represent Christ.

Making a door lentil sign: The symbols are now used throughout the world and usually represent a traditional Epiphany prayer and blessing. Christian family can make a door lentil from cardboard or from a flat board. Cardboard can be purchased in any color. Likewise, wood can be painted to match the room color. The cardboard or wooden board can be hung above the front door, or the most commonly family-used door, by a hook. Numbers and letters can be made with a marker in almost any preferred color.

 

A blessing for the marking of doorways:12

  • Leader: Peace be with this house and with all who live here.

Response (All): And peace be with all who enter here.

  • Leader: During these days of the Christmas season, we keep this Feast of Epiphany, celebrating the manifestation of Christ to the Magi, and thereby to the whole world. Today, Christ is manifest to us! Today this home is a holy place because of the presence of Christ here.
  • Leader: This is the word of the Lord to you. Read Matthew 2:1-12.

Response (All): Thanks be to God!

  • Leader: O God, Lord of all that exists, you revealed your only-begotten Son to every nation by the guidance of a star. Bless this house and all who inhabit it. Fill each of us with the light of Christ, that our concern for others may reflect your love. We ask this through Christ our Lord.

Response (All): Amen