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The Ashes of Repentance

COVER STORY – ASH WEDNESDAY

The custom of observing a time of fasting, prayer, and repentance leading up to the celebration of Christ’s resurrection began very early in the Christian church, but practices and customs varied among congregations in different areas. The First Council of Nicea (A.D. 325) unified the Christian church in observing Lent as a period of forty days of fasting and prayer.
In A.D. 601, Gregory the Great decreed that there should be no fasting on Sunday, which was considered a day of celebration of Christ’s resurrection. So in order to maintain the forty days of fasting, he changed the beginning of Lent to Wednesday. Some sources suggest that he was also the one who initiated the practice of smearing ashes on the forehead of worshipers, saying, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (see Genesis 3:19). Thus the first day of Lent became known as Ash Wednesday.
From the most ancient of times in the Bible, ashes have been used to express sorrow and grief. Ashes were used in times of grief over some injustice or loss (2 Samuel 13:19, Esther 4:1), or as a way of humbling oneself before God in prayer (Daniel 9:3, Genesis 18:27), and—perhaps most of all—to express sorrow for sins (Job 42:3–6, Jeremiah 6:26, Matthew 11:21). For these reasons people would sit in ashes, roll in them, or sprinkle them over their head.
The use of ashes can be a vivid reminder that we ourselves are nothing but dust and ashes. They remind us of our sin, one consequence of which is the inevitable prospect of being reduced to dust and ashes again. Fasting can be a very concrete reminder of our repentance over sin. If you remember that your fasting is a sign of repentance, the relentless hunger pains can help keep you mindful of repentance throughout the day.
However, God also warns about the human propensity to corrupt these signs of repentance. On the one hand, we might feel superior and holier for fasting or displaying the ashes on our forehead. On the other hand, it can simply become an empty action that has no corresponding repentance in the heart.Read More »The Ashes of Repentance

Will Your New Year Be Happy?

COVER STORY – NEW YEAR

“I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)
As you read this article it is likely that you will soon be stepping over the threshold of the old year into the new. Questions that may be on your mind at this time are, “Will 2021 be a prosperous one for me? Will it be a year in which I enjoy good health? How will it go for me financially? Will the stock market be a ‘rising bull’ or ‘declining bear?’ ” and other similar questions. Of course, there’s no crystal ball you can gaze into to see the events of the coming year. But what comfort is yours as a Christian, knowing (from the promises God has given you in His Word) that your future will be richly blessed in the year 2021 and beyond!
What promises, you ask? They are too numerous to mention them all in this brief article, but permit me to share a few. Your Savior-God has given you the promise, for example, to keep you from danger and shield you from harm (Psalm 91). He’s given you the assurance that He will make every unpleasant happening that occurs in your life serve for your ultimate good (Romans 8:28). If it should be that He calls you to pass through a painful trial in year 2021, He will supply you with the strength you need to bear it (Isaiah 41:10). As you give top priority to the all-important matters of your soul (things like hearing His Word, reading your Bible, receiving His Supper, training up your children in His Good Shepherd paths), He will amply provide for your bodily needs, too, so that you may lay aside every worry (Matthew 6:25-33).Read More »Will Your New Year Be Happy?

God’s Advent TIMING

COVER STORY – ADVENT

“But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.” (Galatians 4:4-5)
There is, perhaps, nothing in this life that is more anticipated than the upcoming birth of a child. When it is your own son or daughter who is yet to be born, or that of a close relative or friend, you literally count the days until the baby will arrive. “Let’s see, the pregnancy began in July, that means (counting on fingers) . . . a February baby! Will the baby be early? I hope not too early! Or will the baby be late?” Finally, the baby always comes when good and ready—when it is God’s time. A joyful birth announcement then follows, with all the particulars about the name, parents, weight and length, and the date of birth.
Throughout the world, this miracle of newborn life happens about 350,000 times each day. Does each one of these worldwide births capture your personal anticipation and attention? Of course not. Out of all the billions of births that have taken place throughout history, there has been only one that has universal, heartfelt meaning. That is the birth of God’s only-begotten Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. From the beginning of history, the Lord began to fill in the “birth announcement” for His Son, revealing more and more details about how this birth would take place. These included His human and divine parentage, His royal lineage, His redeeming work, and His death and resurrection.Read More »God’s Advent TIMING

A Dwelling Place Worth Dwelling On

“And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’”

(Revelation 21:3-4 ESV)

Life in a sin-broken world is hard enough.

We don’t need to make it any harder. Yet that’s exactly what we do whenever we allow God’s exciting words of promise to lie dormant and inactive in our hearts. When, for example, was the last time you spent any time contemplating the reality of heaven—not just in a general way, but really allowing yourself to think about, to get excited about, what your existence will be like in heaven? By God’s divine promise, heaven is your eternal future through faith in Jesus Christ. Put that promise to work. As Christians, we obviously believe that heaven is real, and that one day we will exist there, but we routinely rob ourselves of the everyday blessing of that reality.
Why would we ever neglect such a precious gift? For some it is the apparent absurdity of the thing. How could a sinner like me end up in a place like that? The answer, of course, is that Jesus made it so. He washed me, sanctified me. He earned the robe of righteousness with which I am covered.Read More »A Dwelling Place Worth Dwelling On

Luther’s Catechism

COVER STORY – THE CATECHISM

“From childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.”
(2 Timothy 3:15)

There is nothing in all the world more important than knowing the Holy Scriptures, for there is nothing else in all the world that can make you wise for salvation. Nothing! Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through Me.” (John 14:6) That’s why Jesus says that listening to Him is the “one thing needed” (Luke 10:42). However, knowing the Holy Scriptures does not just happen automatically; it must be taught. Therefore, there is nothing more important than for parents to teach their children to know the Bible.
Timothy’s mother, Lois, and his grandmother Eunice understood that. They taught Timothy to know the Holy Scriptures. As a result, he had known them from his childhood. Read More »Luther’s Catechism

Evangelism Is Sharing the News of Jesus’ Perfect Cure

“He said to them, ‘Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.’”
(Mark 16:15 NIV84)

The story is told of a doctor back in the day who moved from the East to a small Midwestern town. One of his first patients was a man who was afflicted with a vexing skin disease from which he had been suffering for a long time, for which no other doctor had been able to provide relief. The new doctor used the medical knowledge he had accumulated over decades of practice to diagnose the man’s problem. He then prescribed a course of treatment for him that cleared it up in a matter of weeks. His patient, delighted to be relieved of the discomfort from which he had been suffering, couldn’t wait to tell his friend. His friend spoke to his wife about it. She told the grocer. The grocer told a truck driver. The truck driver told the people at the warehouse. Before long the whole city was abuzz with news of “the talented doctor from the East” who could do amazing things for people. It didn’t take long for his office to be crowded with patients seeking help for their own medical ailments.
During the past months the world has been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic health problem. Concerted efforts have been made to halt its spread. Scientists the world over have been working feverishly to develop a vaccine that will provide people with immunity. What a glorious day it will be for the world when it happens! The threat of COVID will at long last be removed. People won’t need to practice the safeguard measures of donning face masks and social distancing any longer. Air travel will go on as before. Schools and churches will be opened fully. Life will be back to normal, or the “new normal,” as some like to say. Read More »Evangelism Is Sharing the News of Jesus’ Perfect Cure

God Called Me by the Gospel

COVER STORY – CONVERSION

I certainly believe that the Lord works conversions, I just don’t think my actions always show it. If you’re like me, you find it comfortable—even exciting—to share God’s Word with those you find agreeable. If they look like me, share similar interests, and carry a friendly demeanor, the light bulb goes off: “I should encourage this person to come to church! I think he’d be receptive.” But if a person doesn’t meet those standards, the conclusion is, “I think I’d be wasting my time.” This mindset is a shameful denial of the converting power of the Holy Spirit. To be converted means to be changed from one state to another entirely. It’s not a side-shimmy into faith as my subconscious prerequisites imply.
Consider the Apostle Paul’s trip to Athens (Acts 17:16-34). Exploring the marketplace and likely marveling at the wide range of exotic goods, he was soon overwhelmed by the presence of rampant idolatry—statues and shrines dedicated to every god that man could invent. He even found an altar dedicated “To the Unknown God.” I’m quite certain if I had been there that day, I would have kept a low profile. “I’m clearly an outsider here. They won’t believe anyway.”
Paul didn’t think that. He went to the local synagogue and reasoned with the Jews and believing Greeks concerning Jesus and the resurrection. A group of philosophers was present and, hearing these new ideas, invited Paul to share his teachings at the Aereopagus, the hill outside the city that served as a debate floor. “Thanks for the invitation, but I’d actually better get going.” That might have been my response to the unbelieving Athenians, but Paul leapt at the opportunity.Read More »God Called Me by the Gospel

The Mediation of Christ: A One➜Way Street

“For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men,
the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all.”
(1 Timothy 2:5-6 ESV)
Bible words and phrases are routinely tainted by secular usage. Christians hear one thing, the unregenerate hear another. The challenge is to prevent their misunderstanding from altering our understanding. When Christians, for example, hear the word grace, we understand “God’s undeserved love for sinners.” The world conjures up visions of weightless ballerinas and socially polished debutants. When we hear cross of Christ, we think “victory” and “life.” The world hears “injustice” and “death.” We hear Easter and think “resurrection.” The world sees bunnies.
So it shouldn’t surprise us that the biblical concept of “Christ our Mediator” is tainted by the world’s misunderstanding of both mediator and mediation. In the world’s view, a mediator is someone who stands between two parties that are at odds, and whose job it is to come up with some sort of compromise (mediation) that is fair to both sides. Jesus is not that sort of mediator. He does not reach out to both sides (Creator God and fallen man) seeking mutual concessions and compromise. He does not seek to represent the rights of both parties, nor does He view the two parties as peers. Though He does proclaim the goodness of God to man, He does not extol the virtues of man to God. There is nothing to extol. The mediation that Jesus performs is all one-way. He carries nothing from man to God, for man has nothing to offer. He carries only Himself. He Himself is the good that is brought to God the Father on man’s behalf. That’s exactly what Paul was telling Timothy in the passage quoted above: “. . . who gave himself as a ransom for all.” In that way Jesus is not only the Mediator, He Himself is the mediation. He Himself is that which creates peace. What He then carries to fallen, helpless, powerless mankind is God’s declaration of forgiveness.Read More »The Mediation of Christ: A One➜Way Street

Stand in Awe of Our Triune God

COVER STORY – ASCENSION

“Let all the earth fear the Lord; Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him.” (Psalm 33:8)
When we contemplate the greatness and glory of God, how can we do anything but stand in awe of Him? We stand in awe of His power when we see how He created the whole universe and everything in it simply with His Word. We stand in awe of His love when we consider all the good things He has created for us to use, and how He takes care of us daily. We stand in awe of His grace and mercy when we ponder how He gave His only-begotten Son into death for us rather than condemning us forever for our sins.

There is much to stand in awe of when we consider all the qualities of God, not the least of which is His triune nature.

A couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses came to our door, and I talked to them about the Trinity. They pulled out a pamphlet to show me how artists have crudely tried to visualize the Trinity. There were pictures of three headed statues and other ridiculous things. They suggested that the very idea of the Trinity was ludicrous because there is nothing in all the world like it. How can we believe in something we cannot comprehend? How foolish to think that because human beings can’t relate to the Trinity or comprehend it, it can’t be true. We all believe in light. We know it is real, our lives depend on it, yet the greatest scientists still do not fully understand the nature of light. There are many things we know about it, but we can’t fully explain what it is.
God is so vastly greater than we are that we should not expect to be able to comprehend Him. King David writes, “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; And His greatness is unsearchable.” (Psalm 145:3)Read More »Stand in Awe of Our Triune God

Jesus Went Up So That You May Go Up

COVER STORY – ASCENSION

“And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. Now it came to pass, while He blessed them, that He was parted from them and carried up into heaven.” (Luke 24:50-51)
If you’re acquainted with the topography of the Holy Land, you’ll understand why Jesus, when speaking of His travels to Jerusalem, often described them in terms of “going up.” He literally had to climb uphill to get to Jerusalem because it was situated on Mount Zion, which had a higher elevation than the surrounding terrain. It was on this mountain that He endured the suffering of the cross as the world’s Savior and came alive three days later to show beyond doubt that His mission as Savior had been accomplished.
It was forty days later that Jesus led His disciples to another place of high elevation located not far from Jerusalem—the Mount of Olives. From this mountain He ascended to the greatest of heights! He was carried up to heaven in full of view of His disciples to God’s right hand, “far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.” (Ephesians 1:21)
The ascension of Jesus is a truth we confess each Sunday in the Creed. It’s with good reason that we include it as part of our Christian confession, for it is an event loaded with meaning. Jesus’ ascension gives us the assurance of our own eventual ascension on high. What the two angels told the disciples will assuredly come to pass: “This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11) Then will the promise of Jesus also be fulfilled: “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.” (John 14:3)Read More »Jesus Went Up So That You May Go Up

Triumphant Humility

COVER STORY – Palm Sunday

One of the fun parts about attending a professional basketball game is the home team player introductions. The lights dim, the pump-up music plays, spotlights pan around the crowd, and the stadium announcer stretches every syllable of the star player’s name so the fans can cheer for longer. But sometimes the cheers turn to boos if the star’s performance doesn’t live up to expectations.
Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is an excellent demonstration of the contrast between Jesus’ dual nature of true God and true Man. He was given the praise He deserves, yet demonstrated His perfect humility. “And a very great multitude spread their clothes on the road; others cut down branches from the trees and spread them on the road. Then the multitudes who went before and those who followed cried out, saying: ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” Hosanna in the highest!’” (Matthew 21:8-9) The big event on Palm Sunday is often called the triumphal entry. The crowd hailed Him as the promised Son of David and laid their clothes before Him. He got such a star treatment that it bothered the Pharisees: “And some of the Pharisees called to Him from the crowd, ‘Teacher, rebuke Your disciples.’ But He answered and said to them, ‘I tell you that if these should keep silent, the stones would immediately cry out.’” (Luke 19:39-40) Jesus’ response to them showed that His glory as true God would not be removed from Him. But Jesus’ royal parade was also marked by the perfect humility that He demonstrated on earth. He did not come on a royal horse or with a company of angels. Rather, He humbly sat upon a borrowed donkey. These details together reveal the King of heaven, Who was willing to humble Himself to be like us.Read More »Triumphant Humility

Will You Accept the Gift of Lent?

COVER STORY – Lent

I’ve never found myself in a situation where I felt I needed to refuse a gift. Some obviously have. No honorable woman would ever, for example, accept a diamond ring while refusing a marriage proposal (as much as she might like to). Others may have found it necessary to refuse gifts that would obligate them to unacceptable terms or conditions.
Beginning February 26th, our God will again be offering to each of us the gift of Lent. The question that confronts all Christians each Lenten season is whether we will accept or refuse this divine present. How, why, would any Child of God refuse?

Time for introspection and contemplation

The gift that our God offers in connection with the season of Lent is a unique and invaluable time for introspection and contemplation, but it does not come without certain obligations. Human beings are, by nature, hedonistic, superficial, ungrateful, and lazy. We also have a natural sense of entitlement, imagining that we deserve whatever good things we want or receive. Christians know better, but our Adversary has learned from experience that if he can fill our existence with distractions and obligations, if he can create a world of perpetual preoccupation, he can tap into both our natural laziness and our sense of entitlement, and thereby convince us that the obligations of Lent outweigh the benefits.

Counting the cost

The point here is not that the obligations of Lent aren’t real. They are. Begin therefore by counting the cost. If your plate is truly full, you can’t add more without forcing something else off. “Carving out time” implies that something has to be cut off and discarded. Recognize also that the obligations of Lent involve more than just an hour or two for a half dozen Wednesday services (which can include cleaning off and bundling up little ones, a cold car ride, and the disruption of the family routine). Read More »Will You Accept the Gift of Lent?