Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday - The Journey Begins - John 16:17-22

With one remaining session in our study of First and Second Corinthians, tonight I set our study series aside to focus on what this day means to many across the Christian faith and what it can mean for us. You may have noticed co-workers and friends with a small cross of ash in the center of their forehead. The Catholic Church and many of the mainstream Protestant Church traditions practice the observance of Ash Wednesday. While this observance is not commanded or directed in the New Testament, the symbol of the being marked with ash finds long history in the Old Testament. It was a symbol of grief and morning. The early church claimed this symbol and began the tradition of Ash Wednesday as the marker of the beginning of Lent, the 40 day season of preparation for Easter. This past Sunday we talked about the how the use of the reference to 40 days and 40 nights throughout Scripture was more than a calendar countdown, but was rather seen as a long season when time seemed to stand still and people waited to see the movement of God- to hear the voice of God. This is the heart behind the Lenten season. It is a time for us to be still, to be focused, to be quiet, to set all other distractions aside, so that we might see and hear the Easter story fresh and new. As Baptist we have been slower to embrace larger church traditions like Lent and Ash Wednesday. While it is not a Biblical command, there is power in the tradition. It invites to into a time of spiritual focus and discipline that can empower our walk with God. So, tonight we pause and claim Ash Wednesday and begin our journey to the cross and the empty tomb together. We walk this journey as a whole family because our youth stay with us tonight to participate in this special service.

The focal passage for the evening is John 16:17-22. It reads: 17Some of his disciples said to one another, "What does he mean by saying, 'In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,' and 'Because I am going to the Father'?" 18They kept asking, "What does he mean by 'a little while'? We don't understand what he is saying."

19Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, "Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, 'In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me'? 20I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. 21A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. 22So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.

We come to the journey to the cross in the knowledge of how the story ends. The writer Clarence W. Hall puts it this way; “Easter says you can put truth in a grave, but it won’t stay there.” We get to come to the streets of Jerusalem knowing that the cry of the crowd and the agony of the cross will soon be replaced with the miracle of the empty tomb of Easter morning. Even as we gather here on Ash Wednesday we know where we are heading and that Easter morn is just a weeks away.

But for those standing with Jesus, the streets of Jerusalem became the journey into chaos. From almost the moment he called them, Jesus had been trying to prepare his disciples for this week that would change everything. No matter how he tried to explain it to them it seemed to they simply could not hear it. In the days just ahead of our passage the disciples had seen Jesus raise Lazarus from the dead, seen Jesus anointed in Bethany, and hear the “hosannas” of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry echoing in the streets. They could believe that this was the moment of Jesus’ glory, but they could not hear that grief awaited them.

Our focal passage begins with quiet whispers among the disciples. One looked at another; “what is he talking about leaving us and coming back to us –because he is going to the Father? Do you understand? Did he tell you more? What do you think?” Jesus heard them and tried to help them understand. He told them that they would grieve, but that their grief would turn to joy. He used the image of a woman in child birth. He wanted them to understand that their pain would be intense, but that something amazing, something wonderful, something joyful awaited them. The disciples were ill prepared for the angry crowds, the hostility of the Jewish leadership, the apathy of the Roman leadership, and the brutal walked to the cross that would claim Jesus. In the tenderness of their roadside conversation with Jesus they could not imagine that only a few days in the future they would be huddled in the Upper Room quaking in fear; broken and fearful; shattered and sullen. They were so captured by the “hosannas” that they could not conceive of the tears of grief that would define them by week’s end. Jesus tried to prepare them for their journey into chaos. They simply could not hear.

To be honest, their experience of confusion is echoed by many who worship across our nation. They tend to focus on the victorious Jesus, who triumphs over his enemies and over death. They tend to focus on the Jesus of the praise and celebration they hear echoing in their worship services. They will claim tendency and temptation is to worship on Palms Sunday and hear the “hosannas” and to return a week later and listen to the “hallelujahs” of Easter morning. They will miss the chaos of the journey to the cross shapes the story of Jesus and his disciples; and shapes what it means for us to be followers of Jesus even now. Our faith is born in a crucible of pain.

It seems all too often when people experience pain or grief they cry out, “where is God” or “why is this happening to me?” We have bought the myth that our life through faith us just “hosannas” and “hallelujahs.” Jesus wanted his disciples to understand that pain and grief would be a part of their story. Likewise pain is part of the reality of our experience. The disciples would know the agony of the chaos and the cruelty of others. They would experience the agony of Judas’ betrayal and the bitterness of Peter’s denials. They would be forced to witness to destruction of the future they anticipated. They would know the tears of pain rising from their broken hearts. But, the season of pain would not define them. It does not define us.

Our passage in John draws us close to remind us that the joy is born in pain; the celebration is born in grief. During an Easter message, Pope John Paul II, proclaimed “Do not abandon yourselves to despair. We are the Easter people and hallelujah is our song.” In moments of uncertainty, in seasons of grief and in times of pain these words are worthy of letting resonate with the depths of our souls. But, we cannot forget that the hallelujahs are born in the midst of the grief of Holy Week.

As a church we will offer a wide range of experiences over this Lenten season to help you better understand what happened in the midst of this dramatic week. On Friday evenings in April we will host a special art series that will look at some of the great painting of the faith and how they shaped our understanding of the gospel story. We will host concerts and stage special worship experiences designed to help us hear the witness of those on the journey to the cross at Jesus’ side. I also encourage you to dive into Scripture; to read the Easter week passages; and to pray that God will talk you into the streets and draw you to the empty tomb. So often you will hear people talk about what they are going to “give up for Lent” as a symbol of personal denial and preparation. There is value in that choice because it places the Lenten journey in front of us over and over again every time we make the choice to deny ourselves that treat. But, the greater choice I will ask you to prayerfully consider is to not simply give up chocolate or sweets, but to covenant with God and one another to claim time in prayer and reflection focusing on following Christ every step of the way.

I invite you to join me in a journey into chaos; to follow Jesus and his disciples through the streets of Jerusalem. Some of the moments will break your heart. But know that on the other side of the grief of this week that joy awaits us. Betrayal will give way to community; hatred will give way to peace; violence will give way to redemption; a brutal cross will give way to Easter hallelujahs. 22So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.

So was we begin our journey of twin journey of sorrow and celebration I invite you to come forward and claim the mark of the cross. Claim it as a public display that you are walking with Jesus toward the cross. Claim it is a personal commitment to prepare yourselves for a fresh encounter with at the cross – with its brutality and suffering – and at the empty tomb – where we will hear the good news, “He is not here! He is Risen! Just as He said.” Let us to take the journey with purpose. Let us take the journey together.

Come now and claim the mark of the cross.

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