Easter Sunday

The Meaning of Easter

By Dr. Paul Knudtson

 “But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” “God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Peter on the day of Pentecost – Acts 2:24, 36)

“But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:20-22)

“Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”  “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” (Romans 6:4; 8:11)

The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the bedrock of the Christian faith. Without the resurrection, the fundamental elements of the Christian gospel would no longer exist. The apostle Paul writes, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins” (1 Corinthians 15:17). But the universal testimony of the Christian scriptures is that Christ has been raised from the dead. And this event does not merely describe the interior feelings of the disciples (“we feel that he must still somehow be alive”), but rather has to do with objective, historical reality, something that many people on a variety of occasions perceived sensually, and not merely in their hearts. Christ “appeared” to his disciples after his burial (1 Cor 15:5-8), could be touched with one’s hands (John 20:27), and spoke in a real voice that people heard with their ears. The resurrection appearance of Jesus to Paul, even changed him from an enemy of Christianity into a passionate believer and apostle of Christ (Acts 9).

What is the meaning of the resurrection of Jesus? Based on the scriptures quoted at the beginning of today’s reading, we can suggest that the resurrection means at least three things:

  • It says something about Jesus. Since God raised Jesus from the dead, this means that God has vindicated and affirms his identify as Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:36). Because of Easter we are, therefore, right to affirm Jesus as Lord and Savior. We believe in him and even worship him, and do not consider him to be simply a great teacher and prophet.
  • Christ’s resurrection becomes the basis for the hope (conviction) that we too will one day be raised from the dead (1 Corinthians 15:20-22). This means that we look forward not simply to surviving death as spiritual beings, but to a kind of life that includes a resurrected body and life in a new creation. Christ’s resurrection means that we do not long from release from creation, but for a renewal of creation—even of our own physical bodies.
  • The resurrection of Jesus means that in the present—between Christ’s resurrection and the resurrection of our own bodies in the age to come—we can enjoy an ongoing experience of the living Christ within us (Romans 6:4; 8:11). Easter, then, is not simply about what happened to Jesus two thousand years ago, nor is it only about what will one day happen to us after we die, but is also about a present fellowship that we enjoy even now with Jesus. Jesus is no longer dead; he lives even now within us.

Meditation: As you consider the meaning of Easter, what aspect of its message especially strikes you today? How do you think God wishes you to experience Easter in new ways or with new power?

Prayer: “O God, you have your only Son to suffer death on the cross for our redemption, and by his glorious resurrection you delivered us from the power of death. Make us die every day to sin, so that we may live with him forever in the joy of the resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen”  (Lutheran Book of Worship).

 

 

Holy Week – Day 40

The Atonement

By Dr. Paul Knudtson

“For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The term “atonement” describes the theological significance of Christ’s death in bringing about our salvation. Throughout history theologians (such as Gregory of Nyssa, Anselm, and Abelard) have developed various ways of explaining the atonement, ways that have emphasized differing New Testament images regarding the meaning of Christ’s death. On the basis of various scriptural passages, these theologians have described how Christ’s death on the cross has brought about victory over the devil, deliverance from death, the forgiveness of sins, rescue from God’s wrath for sin, and the transformation of God’s enemies into friends. Many scriptural texts regarding the significance of Christ’s death in brief, terse language, so that various theologians sought to flesh out or explain these passages in greater detail. For example, since Mark’s statement that Christ (“the Son of Man”) gave “his life as a ransom” (10:45) is exceedingly brief, theologians speculated regarding who was paid this ransom (God or the devil?), what were humans ransomed from, and exactly what sort of transaction was made that brought about this liberation.  Without engaging such detailed and sometimes fanciful theories of theological explanation or speculation here, we can consider what the New Testament itself says regarding the meaning of Christ’s death. A survey of such passages will illustrate the wide spectrum of ways in which Christ’s death has benefitted us.

 Christ’s death means:

  • Victory over the devil: “Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15). “[God] disarmed the rulers and authorities (likely referring to evil powers in league with the devil) and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it [the cross]” (Colossians 2:15).
  • The defeat of death: Besides the verses just quoted from Hebrews 2, a somewhat enigmatic passage from Matthew describes how the dead were raised at the moment of Jesus’s death, indicating that the defeat of death is part of what God accomplished through the death of his Son. When Jesus dies, “The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.” (Matthew 27:52)
  • The forgiveness of sins: “Christ died for our sins” (1 Corinthians 15:3). “In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses” (Ephesians 1:7).  “[Christ] has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26). When Jesus institutes the Lord’s supper, he reinterprets the wine from the Passover meal in terms of the shedding of his blood.  Concerning the wine Jesus says, “this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:29). This suggests (or means) that Christ’s shed blood on the cross provides for the forgiveness of our sins.
  • Deliverance from slavery to sin: “You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish” (1 Peter 1:18-19). “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:6).
  • Deliverance from the wrath of God: “Much more surely, then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.” (Romans 5:9)
  • Transformation from enemies of God to the friends of God: “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” (Romans 5:10) “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ . . . .” (2 Corinthians 5:18).  “And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him”(Colossians 1:21-22).
  • The knowledge of God’s love toward us: “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

The atoning effect of Christ’s death is sometimes stated without an explicit explanation of what this effect may be. For example, Romans 3:25 refers to Christ as the one “God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood . . . .” Interestingly, though, the Greek term for “sacrifice of atonement” here (hilasterion) is the word used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament for the “mercy seat” in the temple. As the Old testament explains, once a year on the Day of Atonement animal blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat on top of the arc of the covenant in the Jerusalem temple in order to make atonement for the sins of the people (Leviticus 16). According to Paul in Romans 3, the shedding of Christ’s blood on the cross has become, as it were, a new day of atonement, (Rom. 3:25), presumably indicating that Christ’s blood is the means by which our sins are atoned for. Leviticus says this of the Day of Atonement: “For on this day atonement shall be made for you, to cleanse you; from all your sins you shall be clean before the LORD” (16:30). Now Christ’s death makes it possible for us to be cleansed of all our sins.

Meditation: Which aspect of the New Testament explanation of the atonement most appeals to you, and why? Which passage of scripture do you wish to especially focus on today as you meditate on the meaning of Christ’s passion?

Prayer: Thank you, O God, for the salvation you have accomplished through the death of your Son upon the cross. Help me today to grain new insight into the meaning of his death in my own life.  Amen.

 

Holy Week – Good Friday, Day 39

How Jesus Dies: Gospel Portraits

By Dr. Paul Knudtson

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – Mark 15:34

“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” – Luke 23:46

The four gospels present us with the same Jesus, but do so by presenting Jesus in four distinctive ways. The gospel writers are like four artists who paint unique portraits of the same person. It is easy to see that they are describing the same man, yet they emphasize differing aspects of his personality and ministry. These differences can be seen in how the gospels describe how Jesus dies. Here we will illustrate this difference by comparing how Mark and Luke describe Jesus’s death. A consideration of such differences should help us to appreciate unique aspects of what it means to follow Jesus.

In Mark the last words on Jesus’s lips are the ones quoted above: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Luke presents Jesus’s death differently. Here his last words are, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Immediately following this, Luke writes, “Having said this, he breathed his last” (Luke 23:46). The picture in Mark, then, is of a man dying as one who feels abandoned by God at the moment of his death, while in Luke Jesus dies relatively peacefully, praying to be received into the welcoming arms of his Father. When in Mark (but not in Luke) Jesus says, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” one is led to consider that Jesus’s own flesh is weak. He meets his moment of trial feeling weak and needing to stay awake and pray. What really distinguishes Jesus from the disciples at this point is not that he is strong while they are weak, but that they sleep while he stays awake and prays.

Mark, then, presents a fully human Jesus. (Though, elsewhere Mark also draws attention to Jesus’s divinity, as when he stills a storm in 4:35-41, or forgives sin in 2:1-12). Jesus was not a man of steel who could not be touched by the pains and fears that afflict ordinary humans. As Hebrews tells us, he was “like his brothers and sisters in every respect” (2:17) and was “one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (4:15). It is clear from Mark that Jesus understands what it is to be human, even the horror of feeling godforsaken.

Meditation on Mark’s passion narrative leads us to consider God’s Son Jesus as one who identifies with all those who feel abandoned by God.  It is also important to realize that although it seemed to Jesus that he had been forsaken by God, he was not. The gospel ends with a surprising message to some women at Jesus’s tomb on the first day of the week: “He has been raised; he is not here” (Mark 16:6). Evidently God has not abandoned Jesus after all. Similarly, just as Psalm 22 begins with an expression of abandonment by God, it goes on to testify, “[God] did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him” (22:24). Therefore, “you who fear the LORD, praise him!” (22:23). Though as human beings we, like Jesus, sometimes feel forsaken by God, Mark and the other gospels testify that no danger, not even death itself, can keep us from God’s love. When a man named Jairus hears that his daughter has just died, Jesus tells him, “Do not fear, only believe” (Mark 5:36). Then the one who will himself be raised from the dead at the end of the gospel goes to the girl, takes her by the hand and tells her, “Little girl, get up!” (5:41). And she does just that!

Luke, on the other hand, describes how Jesus ultimately dies with confidence and in peace, trusting that at the moment of his death he is passing into the loving embrace of God. It used to be common for Christians to give more consideration to the day of their own deaths than we do today, and to pray that God would grant them “a good death.” Luke describes Jesus’s death as “a good death.” In his second New Testament writing, the book of Acts, Luke describes how the first Christian martyr, Stephen, also dies a good death, one resembling that of Jesus. As Stephen is about to be put to death, he has a vision of God and Jesus in heaven, and prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59).  Meditation on Luke’s passion narrative, therefore, leads us to consider how Jesus may also grant to each of us the gift of a good death, one in which we die at peace and with the confidence that we are about to pass into the arms of God.

 Meditation:  Both Mark and Luke illustrate how Jesus met the challenges of his life by means of prayer, and that he found the language for such prayer in the Psalms. In Mark Jesus prays with the words of Psalm 22 (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”); in Luke Jesus prays the words of Psalm 31 (“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”). Following the example of Jesus, the Church throughout its history has considered the book of Psalms to be its prayer book. The passion narratives in Mark and Luke, therefore, may help us consider how we can make better use of the Psalms in our own prayer lives. Perhaps we can adopt the habit of reading and praying a particular Psalm each morning and evening. In both gospels, Mark and Luke, Jesus faces his death by means of prayer, prayer that has been infused with the language of the Psalms. The gospel accounts of Jesus’s death teach us about praying. Jesus instructs us as he did his disciples: “Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mark 14:38).

Prayer: Lord Jesus, as we today consider your own passion and death, we also think about the day that we will die. Help us to prepare for that day and to be ready for it. We ask, too, that you may give us the gift of a good death, one in which we enjoy the confidence that nothing can separate us from your love. In the meantime, help us to pray and to learn the language of prayer from the book of Psalms. Amen.

The Old Rugged Cross

On a hill far away, stood an old rugged Cross
The emblem of suff’ring and shame
And I love that old Cross where the dearest and best
For a world of lost sinners was slain

Oh, that old rugged Cross so despised by the world
Has a wondrous attraction for me
For the dear Lamb of God, left his Glory above
To bear it to dark Calvary

In the old rugged Cross, stain’d with blood so divine
A wondrous beauty I see
For the dear Lamb of God, left his Glory above
To pardon and sanctify me

To the old rugged Cross, I will ever be true
Its shame and reproach gladly bear
Then He’ll call me some day to my home far away
Where his glory forever I’ll share

So I’ll cherish the old rugged Cross
Till my trophies at last I lay down
I will cling to the old rugged Cross
And exchange it some day for a crown

Holy Week – Thursday, Day 38

The Last Supper

By Dr. Paul Knudtson

“The Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”                                                                      – 1 Corinthians 11:23-27

On the Thursday evening before his crucifixion, Jesus celebrated the Jewish Passover meal with his disciples (e.g., Mark 14:12, 16). This last supper has become the basis for the church’s practice of the Lord’s Supper (also, Communion, or the Eucharist) that has been practiced by Christians from the very beginning. Thursday of Holy Week, therefore, is a good time to reconsider the meaning of this supper. Its meaning includes aspects that direct our attention to the past, to the present, and to the future.

The Past

The “last supper” was a Jewish Passover meal. This meal is an annual festival (in March or April) that is still practiced by Jews today and commemorates the evening in which God acted to bring about Israel’s freedom from bondage in Egypt. This annual celebration is commanded in Mosaic legislation (Exodus 12) and remains the most important annual Jewish festival. The meaning of this meal is articulated in Exodus: “And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to the LORD, for he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when he struck down the Egyptians but spared our houses” (12:26-27). Jesus reinterprets the Passover meal in terms of himself so that we now recall the redemption brought about through his crucifixion. Jesus instructs his followers to eat the bread and drink the wine “in remembrance of me.” By doing so, Christians continue to “proclaim the Lord’s death.”  This means that every time we receive communion we remember again that Christ died for us on the cross in the first century A.D. in the Roman province of Judea. The Passover meal becomes the Eucharist, and we now focus our attention not on the book of Exodus described in the Old Testament, but on Christ’s death for us narrated in the New Testament.

The Present

When we celebrate the Eucharist, we are not only mentally recalling an event that happened two thousand years ago. This is because the living Christ comes to us even now in this meal. At communion we receive Jesus Christ in the present. The apostle Paul says, “The cup of blessing that we bless, it is not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16). This sharing happens now. We receive not only physical bread in this meal, but Jesus himself, “the true bread from heaven” (John 6:32). Just as the Israelites were sustained during their time in the wilderness by manna or “bread from heaven” (John 6:31; Exodus 16:4; Psalm 78:24), so God sustains us now on our earthly pilgrimage with Christ, “the bread of God . . . that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33). Jesus says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35).

The Future

Jesus speaks of the future when at the supper he says to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25). Also speaking of the future, the apostle Paul says that in this meal we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11). Scripture ties the promise of Christ’s return (or coming) to the fulfillment of all of God’s promises for the future (1 Cor 15:20-28). Christ’s second coming will usher in the age to come in which God will become “everything to everyone” (see 1 Cor 15:28), an age that begins with the resurrection of the dead. The Lord’s Supper is a meal that is a foretaste of the feast to come, that Messianic banquet in which “many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11). Perhaps there is no better image of the life to come than that of a great banquet (see Luke 14:16-24; Matthew 22:1-14) since a banquet describes a situation of joy, community, hospitality, and abundance—abundance such that no one is left hungry, but instead all enjoy the most delectable food and drink.

Meditation: In what ways has the Lord’s Supper been important in my spiritual life? What aspect of the Lord’s Supper especially strikes me in the scriptural reflections above?

Prayer: We give you thanks, Lord, for giving your own body and blood for us on the cross. May you continue to sustain us with Christ as the bread of God on our earthly pilgrimage, and help us anticipate with joy the feast to come. Amen.

How Deep The Father’s Love For Us

By  Stuart Townend

How deep the Father’s love for us, how vast beyond all measure
That He should give His only Son, to make a wretch His treasure

How great the pain of searing loss, the Father turns His face away
As wounds which mar the Chosen One bring many sons to glory

Behold the man upon a cross, my sin upon His shoulders
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice call out among the scoffers

It was my sin that held Him there, until it was accomplished
His dying breath has brought me life. I know that it is finished

I will not boast in anything, no gifts, no power, no wisdom
But I will boast in Jesus Christ
His death and resurrection

Why should I gain from His reward?
I cannot give an answer
But this I know with all my heart
His wounds have paid my ransom

 

 

Holy Week – Wednesday, Day 37

A New Passover

By Dr. Paul Knudtson

“For our paschal (Passover) lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.” – 1 Corinthians 5:7

The Exodus is the central act of salvation in the Old Testament. The “Exodus” is the name given to God’s act of deliverance of his people Israel from slavery in Egypt. On the night of Israel’s redemption (the Exodus), a Passover (paschal in Hebrew) lamb was sacrificed and the animal’s blood was sprinkled on the doorposts and lintel of each home. The LORD says, “when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt” (Exodus 12:13). The New Testament tells how God has also acted through his Son, Jesus Christ, to bring about a new exodus, that is, a liberation from sin and death through the death and resurrection of his Son. Christ is the new Passover (paschal) lamb whose blood has been shed in order to save us from destruction and to bring about our freedom. The church’s annual commemoration of Christ’s death and resurrection on Good Friday and Easter reminds us of this new exodus.

The New Testament gospels make repeated references or allusions to the Old Testament Exodus story as a way to explain the meaning of God’s redemptive action in Jesus Christ. God is bringing about a new exodus through a new Passover lamb, Jesus Christ. A few examples can illustrate how the gospels make this connection between Passover and Jesus. In John’s gospel, John the Baptist calls Jesus “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (1:29), a likely reference to Jesus as the Passover lamb. Also in John, a comparison between the Passover lamb and Jesus is made with reference to the manner of Jesus’s death. The Mosaic requirement that the leg bones of the Passover lamb are not to be broken (Exodus 12:46 in John 19:37) is enacted also with Jesus, whose legs are not broken at his death on the cross (John 19:33).

As can be demonstrated with the gospel of Mark, the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) make prominent use of the exodus theme in explaining the theological significance of Jesus’s life and death. A few examples may bear this out. It seems clear that reference to Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan river followed by a period of testing in the wilderness for forty days (Mark 1:9-13) is an allusion to Israel’s Old Testament experience of passing through the waters of the Red Sea before enduring a forty year time of testing in the wilderness. In Mark 5 Jesus casts a legion of unclean spirits from a man in the country of the Gerasenes. The word “legion” is a military term that would seem to be an allusion to the Roman occupying troupes (a legion was commonly a division of 5,000-6,000 Roman troupes). The gospel account tells how this “legion” of unclean spirits entering a herd of two thousand swine that “rushed down the steep bank into the sea, and were drowned in the sea” (Mark 5:13) is reminiscent of the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea (Exodus 15:4-5).

And above all in making such connections, it should be noted that Jesus’s death takes place at the annual celebration of the Passover (Mark 14:1, 12, 14).  The meaning of Jesus’s death is interpreted in the gospels in terms of the Passover. Jesus’s “last supper” with his disciples is a Passover meal and he reinterprets this meal in terms of himself and of his impending death. The bread of the Passover meal (Exodus 12: 8, 15, 18; 13:6-7) is interpreted by Jesus in terms of himself: “This is my body” (Mark 14:22).  Jesus also refers to the wine of the meal in terms of himself and to his blood about to be shed, saying, “This is my blood of the covenant” (Mark 14:24; This recalls the covenant God made with Israel following the exodus at Sinai, Exodus 24:8). Each Good Friday, and indeed, every time Christians celebrate the Lord’s Supper they recall and experience anew their liberation from sin, death, and evil that God has wrought through Christ, the pascal lamb.

Meditation: How have I experienced spiritual liberation through Jesus? In what areas of my life do I need to experience new freedom in Christ?

Prayer: Dear God, thank you for our Passover lamb, Jesus Christ. Help us to always treasure and take to heart all that you have done to make us free. Amen.

 

 

 

 

Holy Week – Tuesday, Day 36

Knowing God as Abba

By Dr. Paul Knudtson

 Jesus said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” – Mark 14:36

“And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” – Galatians 4:6

“Abba” is the word for “father” in Jesus’s native language, Aramaic. As Jesus faces the biggest trial of his life—his imminent death by crucifixion—he does so by praying to God in the garden of Gethsemane, addressing God as “Abba” or “Father.” By his example Jesus teaches us here to meet our trials with prayer. Jesus instructs his disciples, “Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial” (Mark 14:38). This statement is similar to the petition of the Lord’s Prayer which says, “do not bring us to the time of trial” (or, “lead us not into temptation” – Matthew 6:13). The Greek term used here, peirasmos, can be translated either as “trial” or as “temptation.” As Mark (together with Matthew and Luke) tell us, Jesus’s public ministry begins with a forty day period of testing (Mark 1:12-13). Matthew (4:1-11) and Luke (4:1-13) tell us that Jesus met those trials filled with the Holy Spirit (Luke 4:1) and fortified by the word of God (Deuteronomy). As on other occasions, now in Gethsemane he faces his greatest test by praying, addressing God as “Abba, Father.” It is Jesus’s intimate relationship with God as indicated by such language that helps him face this terrifying challenge. Hebrews describes this moment in Jesus’s life: “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (5:7).

Though scripture bears witness that Jesus Christ was God (examples: John 1:1-2; 20:28; Hebrews 1:8), it also testifies that Jesus was a human being, a man (see, for example: 1 Timothy 2:5). As a man, Jesus was born, grew and increased in knowledge (Luke 2:52; Hebrews 5:8), faced various trials and hardships, and ultimately suffered and died. Hebrews says that “in every respect (he) has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (4:15). The gospel story of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane the night before he was crucified (Mark 14:32-42) instructs us about how to meet the trials in our lives as well. Jesus stayed awake and prayed. And he prayed to God as to One with whom he enjoyed great intimacy, the intimacy of a father and son.

Humanly speaking, Jesus learned to address God as “Father” because he had first been addressed by God as, “Son.” At his baptism, the voice from heaven (God) addresses Jesus directly, saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). Not only is Jesus God’s Son, he is “the Beloved” (or, God’s “beloved Son”). Jesus begins his public ministry filled with the Spirit (Mark 1:10; Matthew 3:16; Luke 3:22) and assured that God his Father loves him, and is well pleased with him.

Israel’s kings ideally enjoy a close relationship with God that is described in terms of the relationship between a father and son. “He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God’” (Psalm 89:26). God will say to the king, “You are my son” (Psalm 2:7). More than previous rulers, Israel’s future king, the Messiah, would be God’s Son. When the New Testament calls Jesus God’s Son, it means that Jesus is the Messiah, but with the connotation that he is more than a merely human king, that he is even God in human flesh (see John 5:18; 1:14).

Jesus’s address to God as “Father” in Gethsemane is one of the few places in the passion narrative where we see the presence of the Trinity. The New Testament’s language of Father and Son for God and Jesus is Trinitarian language. We have seen the full three persons of the Trinity at Jesus’s baptism, with references to the heavenly voice (the Father), the Holy Spirit coming upon Jesus, and Jesus addressed as the “Son.” In Gethsemane (as in many other texts) we learn of the relationship of Jesus with God in the Father-Son language of prayer (that is, the relationship between God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son). Father and Son share the language of intimacy, the language of love. God the Father loves Jesus the Son, and Jesus the Son loves God the Father. The many references in the gospels to Jesus at prayer (especially prominent in Luke: 3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18, 28, 29; 11:1; 22:32, 41) speak about the ongoing relationship of love that Jesus enjoyed with God the Father.

When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, he does so by giving them “the Lord’s Prayer,” a prayer that begins with the word, “Father” (Luke 11:2), or the words, “Our Father” (Matthew 6:9). In other words, Jesus teaches his disciples—and us—to pray to God in the same way that he prayed, by enjoying an intimate relationship with God that allows us to also address God as “Abba, Father.”

In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther begins the explanation of the Lord’s Prayer by saying, “With these words God wants to entice us, so that we come to believe he is truly our Father and we are truly his children, in order that we may ask him boldly and with confidence, just as loving children ask their loving father.”  

Meditation: How would you describe your prayer life? What does Jesus want to teach you about prayer? How may prayer help one to face the trials of life? Jesus faced the greatest challenge of his life praying to the One he knew as “Father.” How does the knowledge that we are God’s beloved children help us to pray?

Prayer: Dear God, may we come to know you through your Son Jesus Christ in such a way that we enjoy the knowledge that we also have become your beloved children and that you hear us when we pray and invite us to address you as “our Father,” knowing too that you can save us from the time of trial so that nothing will ever separate us from your love.  Amen

“Abba, Father We Adore Thee”

By Robert Stephen Hawker

Abba, Father! we adore Thee, humbly now our homage pay;
’Tis Thy children’s bliss to know Thee, none but children “Abba” say.
This high honor we inherit, thy free gift through Jesus’ blood;
God the Spirit, with our spirit, witnesses we’re children of God.

Thine own purpose gave us being, when in Christ, in that vast plan,
Thou in Christ didst choose Thy people e’en before the world began.
Oh, what love Thou, Father, bore us! Oh, how precious in Thy sight!
When to Thine own Son Thou gav’st us, to Thy Son, Thy soul’s delight.

Though our nature’s fall in Adam shut us wholly out from God,
Thine eternal counsel brought us, nearer still, through Jesus’ blood;
For in Him we found redemption, grace and glory in Thy Son;
O the height and depth of mercy!
Christ and His redeemed are one.

Holy Week – Monday, Day 35

Jesus and the Temple

By Dr. Paul Knudtson

“Then they came to Jerusalem. And [Jesus] entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling and those who were buying in the temple, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves; and he would not allow anyone to carry anything through the temple. He was teaching and saying, ‘Is it not written,’ “My house shall be called a house of prayer for the nations?”’” – Mark 11:16-17

“As he came out of the temple . . . Jesus [said], ‘Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’” – Mark 13:1-2

Witnesses against Jesus: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’” – Mark 14:58

 

“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” – 1 Corinthians 3:16

The gospel writers (such as Mark) give prominent attention to the Jerusalem temple in their narration of the final events in Jesus’s life. Somehow or other, the meaning of what is happening to Jesus during his final days is related to what also happens to the temple. Jesus cleanses the temple (Mark 11:15-19), spends time teaching at the temple (12:35, 41; 13:3; 14:49), and predicts its ultimate destruction (13:2). The leading temple priests (chief priests and the high priest) in Jerusalem become Jesus’s principal opponents during his time in the city, and after Jesus has cleansed the temple, they begin plotting how to put him to death (11:18, 27; 14:1, 10, 43, 53, 54, 55, 60, 63; 15:1, 3, 10, 11, 31). At his trial before the Jewish council, the chief priest declares his verdict that Jesus has uttered “blasphemy” (14:64). The entire council agrees with him and “condemn him as deserving death” (14:64).

The most significant reference to the temple in the passion narrative happens at the precise moment of Jesus’s death. “Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom” (Mark 15:37-38). The gospel writer does not explain the significance of this event, but it is clear that we are to understand the meaning of Christ’s death in relation to this dramatic occurrence in the temple. The most likely interpretation is that the ripping of the veil of the temple indicates that Jesus’s death has accomplished the final and ultimate atonement for the sins of humanity and has thereby opened the way for humans to approach God freely. The veil is understood to refer to the veil before the “holy of holies” in the temple where the blood of sacrificed animals was sprinkled on the lid of the arc of the covenant to make atonement for the sins of the people (Leviticus 16). Jesus’s death is understood as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of all people that renders temple sacrifices as unnecessary. As Hebrews says, “he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption” (Hebrews 9:12). “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Christ, by the new and living way . . . let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith” (Hebrews 10:19, 20, 22).

In his teaching at the temple, Jesus has already implicitly downplayed the importance of temple sacrifices with his stress on the primary importance in Israel’s scriptures regarding the commandments to love God and neighbor (Mark 12:28-34 that quote Deuteronomy 6:4 and Leviticus 19:18). But the action of God in ripping the veil of the temple (“from top to bottom”) indicates the end of the need for the atoning sacrifices of the temple. Then a few decades later, Jesus’s prediction of the destruction of the temple (Mark 13:2) is fulfilled when in 70 A.D. the Romans destroy the temple in their war against the Jews.

The temple was understood not only as the place for sacrifices to be performed, though, but was also the place where God especially dwelled (see, for example, Psalm 84). The New Testament indicates that for believers in Christ there is still such a temple where God dwells by his Spirit, but that this temple is not one built of stone, but is a spiritual temple consisting of all those who are united to Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul reminds the Corinthian believers of this when he writes, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16; see also Ephesians 2:19-22; 1 Peter 2:5). Jesus Christ is the place where God’s presence is known, and Christ’s ongoing presence in the church after his resurrection makes the church God’s new temple. Although during his lifetime Jesus never says that he will destroy the Jerusalem temple, there is an element of truth in what certain false witnesses say: “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands’”(Mark 14:58). The church, made up of believers in Christ, is this new temple not made with hands.

Meditation: The Psalmist writes, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts!” (Ps 84:1). Have there been any holy places in your experience where you have become especially aware of God’s presence? Jesus changed how we think of God’s presence so that we no longer think of it principally in terms of buildings, but now in terms of people (the church). Spend some time considering what it means that we are now God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in us.

Prayer: Thank you, Lord God, that you wish to dwell not only in heaven, but especially among people, among us. Help us to make space in our lives so that we may experience your presence in new and life-changing ways. “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere” (Psalm 84:10).   Amen.

Open, Open, Open the gates of the Temple,

By Fanny Crosby

Open the gates of the Temple,strew palms on the Conqueror’s way

Open your hearts, O ye people,that Jesus may enter today

Hark! from the sick and the dying, forgetting their couches of pain,

Voices, glad voices, with rapture are swelling a glad refrain,

 

Open the gates of the Temple, one grand hallelujah be heard.

Open your hearts to the Saviour, make room for the crucified Lord.

Tears and the anguish of midnight are lost in the splendor of day.

They who in sorrow once doubted are swelling a glad refrain,

 

I know, I know, I know, I know that my Redeemer liveth.

Canst thou, my heart, lift up thy voice, thy voice and sing:

I know, I know, yes I know that my Redeemer liveth;

And because He lives, and because He lives,

And because He lives, I too, I too, I too shall live.

 

 

Holy Week – Palm Sunday

By Dr. Paul Knudtson

Holy Week is the last week of Lent that culminates with Good Friday and Easter Sunday. It begins with Palm Sunday, the day Jesus enters Jerusalem riding on a donkey. It is difficult to determine with certainty what Jesus did each day of this week since the gospels do not present a detailed chronology regarding the events of Jesus’s final week. But based on clues in the gospel text (we will follow Mark here), together with church tradition, one can at least construct a tentative outline of what Jesus does throughout this week.

  • Palm Sunday: Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey and is heralded as King. (Mark 11:1-11)
  • Monday: Jesus cleanses the temple in Jerusalem (Mark 11:12-19)
  • Tuesday: Jesus teaches in the temple (Mark 11:20 – 13:37)
  • Wednesday: Jesus is anointed by a woman at Bethany (Mark 14:1-11)
  • Thursday: Jesus celebrates the Passover in the evening with his disciples (Mark 14:12-31)
  • Friday: Jesus is tried, crucified, and buried (Mark 14:32 – 15:47)
  • Saturday (Sabbath): Jesus’s body lays in the tomb. (see Mark 15:42-47)
  • Easter Sunday: The tomb is empty; Jesus has been raised (Mark 16)

In the meditations that follow, some will focus specifically on what happens on that particular day of this final week: Tuesday, Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. Other meditations will feature a theme related to the passion narratives more generally.

Palm Sunday

A Crucified Messiah

“Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,  ‘Hosanna!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!

Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!

Hosanna in the highest heaven!” – Mark 11:9-10

“’But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’” – Mark 8:29

“Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’ Jesus said, ‘I am.’” -Mark 14:61-62

“It was nine o’clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” – Mark 15:25-26

“We proclaim Christ crucified (or, a crucified Messiah), a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” -1 Corinthians 1:23.

While Mark’s gospel begins with the clear identification of Jesus’s identity (“Jesus Christ, the Son of God”- Mark 1:1), the human characters described in Mark’s account are slow to figure out who Jesus is. In fact, in the entire gospel of Mark the only human (other than Jesus at his trial) to say sincerely that Jesus is the Messiah is the disciple Peter in the verse quoted above from Mark 8. At the end of the gospel, as Jesus hangs dying on the cross, the chief priests and scribes also refer to Jesus as the Messiah, but do so in jest. They say, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe” (Mark 15:31-32).

We learn in Mark 8 that most of the Jewish people who know Jesus think of him as a prophet. They form this opinion, apparently, because of the many miraculous signs that Jesus performs that makes him resemble the prophets Elijah and Elisha (1-2 Kings), or because of his authoritative speech like that of the prophets of old. Almost no one recognized Jesus during his lifetime as the Messiah, yet this becomes the central claim of the first believers concerning Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is the Messiah (or the Christ– “Christ” is the Greek term for the Hebrew word “Messiah.”)  This title becomes the name for Christ’s followers, “Christians.”

At the time of Jesus, the title “Messiah” was understood principally as a royal term, that is, as the coming future Jewish king who would rule over Israel and the nations, thereby establishing the rule of God. As a descendant of King David of old, this ruler would usher in a new age of salvation upon earth. One senses how such messianic expectations excite the crowd that welcomes Jesus as he enters Jerusalem riding a donkey.  They enthusiastically anticipate “the coming kingdom of our ancestor David” (Mark 11:10). Images of the coming messiah grew from Old Testament prophecies into full-blown intertestamental pictures of Israel’s ideal future king. Such texts described how Israel would one day enjoy peace and prosperity under such a king in a world where justice and goodness would flourish.

1 Maccabees (Apocrypha) describes the rule of the Jewish leader Simon in idealized terms as though he were the messiah (without using the word). The portrait of life under Simon contributes to our understanding of Jewish messianic expectations at the time of Jesus.

8They tilled their land in peace; the ground gave its increase, and the trees of the plains their fruit. 9Old men sat in the streets; they all talked together of good things, and the youths put on splendid military attire. 10He supplied the towns with good, and furnished them with the means of defense, until his renown spread to the ends of the earth. 11He established peace in the land, and Israel rejoiced with great joy. 12All the people sat under their own vines and fig trees, and there was none to make them afraid” (1 Maccabees 14:8-12).

Another Jewish writing from roughly the same period, the Psalms of Solomon, explicitly describes the coming Messiah (Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigraph, vol. 2). This text helps us form a good picture of common Jewish expectations for the coming messiah.

The Messiah would possess powerful military might that would bring about Israel’s exaltation and the subservience of other nations. The Messiah “will have gentile nations serving him under his yolk” (17:30), “He will not tolerate unrighteousness even to pause among them” (17:27), “the alien and the foreigner will no longer live near them” (17:28), and “He will gather a holy people whom he will lead in righteousness” (17:26). This will be a powerful Messiah, a fearsome judge of the whole world who will be able “to smash the arrogance of sinners like a potter’s jar” (17:23) and “to destroy the unlawful nations with the word of his mouth” (17:24).

It seems, then, that Jews at the time of Jesus commonly expected the coming Messiah to be one who would rule with power and might, thus winning Israel’s political sovereignty over Roman, and would establish a kingdom of peace and righteousness over the whole world. To use modern language, such a king would bring about Israel’s national independence and security, her economic prosperity, the elimination of crime and injustice, the help and protection of the poor and downtrodden, universal health care and physical health, and the universal knowledge of the true God (Habakkuk 3:14). Likely no one anticipated a Messiah like a Jesus, one destined to be rejected, crucified, and resurrected. Three times before his final arrival in Jerusalem, Jesus tries to educate his disciples concerning his identity (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34). Peter was right in concluding that Jesus was the Messiah (Mark 8), but he and the other disciples still needed to understand that Jesus was a Messiah who was vastly different from common expectations. He was to be a “crucified Messiah.”

When Jesus tells his disciples that he must be rejected and killed (and raised again), Peter will have none of it. He takes Jesus aside and rebukes him (8:32). But Jesus corrects Peter’s faulty thinking in no uncertain terms. Evidently, Peter shares the common Jewish expectation of a powerful and triumphant warrior Messiah.

Clearly Jesus is a Messiah who transcends human expectations. Instead of a strong man who throws his weight around, Jesus is a Messiah who “came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). In the same way, the God and Father of Jesus the Messiah is also one who works in surprising ways, choosing the insignificant nation of Israel to be his people through whom he would accomplish his purposes, instead of mighty world empires like Rome or Babylon or Assyria. The kingdom of this God, that Jesus inaugurates through his ministry, is not at first big and obvious and overpowering, but is “like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth” (Mark 4:31), but in the end “becomes the greatest of all shrubs” (4:32). So too, the Messianic identity of Jesus, when he lives like a servant rather than a master, and especially when he ends up being crucified as a criminal, is difficult to perceive. Jesus the Messiah defies human expectations.

But even as the crucified Messiah would be raised from the dead by God, so also will Jesus the Messiah be revealed with power for all to see and will fulfill all of the promises of the prophets concerning the age to come (Acts 3:20-21). Until that day, we follow a rejected and crucified Messiah as we learn what it means to deny ourselves, to take up the cross, and to follow him (Mark 8:34).  We are coming to know that “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (9:35).

Meditation: What does it mean for me to follow a Messiah who defies human expectations, that is, a crucified Messiah who calls me to deny myself and take up the cross in order to follow him?

Prayer: Lord Jesus, help me when I, like Peter, think in merely human ways regarding you and your ways. Teach me how to save my life by losing it for your sake and for the sake of the gospel.  Amen.

 

Wilderness Testing

By Paul Knudtson

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The church’s observance of the forty days of Lent is rooted in Jesus’s forty days of testing in the wilderness after his baptism. Jesus’s wilderness testing recalled Israel’s forty years of testing in the wilderness following her deliverance from Egypt (the exodus) and preceding her entrance into the promised land.

The dates for the season of Lent differ each year, based on the varying dates for the celebration of Easter. This year (2020) Lent is from February 26 – April 11. Easter Sunday will be on April 12. Lent consists of forty days that begin on Ash Wednesday and conclude on the Saturday before Easter (and does not include the Sundays during this period).

During Lent this year, I have been preparing to teach a church history course on the history of the Christian church prior to 1500, that is, on the early church and the medieval church. This course was to be offered in an intensive, one-week format offered March 23-27, but has now been cancelled due to the COVID pandemic. Yet the preparations for this class, together with the enforced social isolation due to the virus, have combined to give me a unique perspective regarding my experience of Lent this year.

What has especially caught my attention in my study of the early church has been the birth of monasticism in the eastern Mediterranean around the time that the Roman Emperor Constantine identified himself as a Christian (though he was not baptized until he lay on his deathbed in A.D. 337). As Christianity enjoyed the support of the empire, and as many of its rich and influential citizens became Christian rulers of state and church, so a counter-cultural movement of lowly believers arose in the Egyptian wilderness and elsewhere. These believers sought to live out the radical demands of the gospel as they gave up wealth and the comforts of human society in order to know and love God above all.

The word “monk” comes from the Greek word, monachos, which means “solitary.” So the first monks went out into the wilderness alone as they sought fellowship with God. In doing so, they patterned their lives after Jesus, who after his baptism and then at various times throughout his ministry, went out to be alone with God. “But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray” (Luke 5:16).

Following the example of Jesus (see also Mark 1:35), a principal focus of these wilderness Christian monks was prayer. Jesus’s teaching on prayer includes an admonition to shut out all outside distractions. In his sermon on the mount, he says, “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt 6:6). So the monks sought God in the hiddenness of their wilderness cells. While most monks throughout history lived in communities with other monks, they maintained a focus on leaving the distractions and comforts of the world in order to pray.

The early Egyptian monks (both men and women) came to be referred to as the “desert fathers and mothers.” Many of their sayings have been preserved and are still available. As I was preparing for my church history class during the past month, I have been reading a book that includes many interesting samples of these sayings: Desert Fathers and Mothers: Early Christian Wisdom Sayings—Annotated & Explained (Skylight Publishing, 2012) by Christine Valters Paintner.

The Coronavirus pandemic has meant that this year we are forced into a kind of monastic retreat from the world as we each learn to practice social isolation, each living apart in our homes as if in monastic cells. Like most others, I spend my days now almost completely at home, together with my wife, Elaine. In days to come, I will always remember how during Lent 2020 I was forced to live like the monks of old, separated from the world. Each day Elaine and I go for walks in our little “wilderness,” a walk that takes us on a path running through the trees along the Bow River. We listen to the honking of Canadian Geese, or chatter of other birds. We hear the soothing sound of the water as the river flows along. We feel the warmth of the spring sun on our bodies. And I think of the desert monks—and before them, of Jesus of Nazareth—who sought God in the wilderness. And I wonder what I am to learn during this Lenten time about prayer and about the pursuit of what is most important in life.

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Here I am in warmer days in a wilderness setting, with a bag of books and a folding chair.

 

 

 

 

 

So, for Lent this year, I am learning afresh from the desert fathers and mothers about seeking God as I spend time alone in this present wilderness. Let me quote some of these early monks. Abba Moses said to another Christian brother who was seeking a word, “Go sit in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything” (Paintner, p.7). Just so, I feel that I (we) have been given the same instruction. It would be more fun to enjoy the usual distractions of visiting others, or of going out to eat, or even of going to the mall, but now is a time for simply sitting in our cells. Christine Valters Paintner says, “It is a way to retreat from the noise and activity of life and remove the disorienting and distracting voices—our own inner voices and those of others (p.6).

Another desert father, Abba Arenius, gives this counsel to a person troubled by a compulsive need to do something: “Go, eat, drink, sleep, do no work; only do not leave your cell” (Paintner, p.13). These monks had learned the value of staying put, of stability and steadfastness. The followers of the rule of St. Benedict (A.D. 530) made a “vow of stability,” which meant that they pledged themselves to remain at one monastery for the rest of their lives. They were not to move about from monastery to monastery seeking the one that would best suit them at any given moment.

We live in a highly mobile culture. We are accustomed to moving about quickly and spontaneously, even travelling to far off lands by airplane. Elaine and I love to travel to Europe for vacation. Now all of that has stopped as we are no longer permitted to travel to other countries, nor even to go to places where people congregate, or even to go to our places of work. We are told repeatedly on the public media to “stay at home!” We are, as it were, being given the council of Abba Moses, “Go sit in your cell,” and of Abba Arenius, “do not leave your cell.”

Amma (mother) Matrona said, “We carry ourselves wherever we go and we cannot escape temptation by mere flight” (Paintner, p.23). An anonymous desert father similarly says, “If a trial comes upon you in the place where you live, do not leave that place when the trial comes. Whenever you go, you will find that what you are running from is there ahead of you. So stay until the trial is over . . . ” (Paintner, p.23). So one of the blessings of a Lenten season such as we are having this year may be that it makes it easier for us to face our demons, to acknowledge our besetting sins and temptations, in order to deal with them adequately. To do this, it helps to stay put rather than escape to some far off land of distraction.

As I think about the thousands of Christian men and women who left the comforts of city life to live in their cells in the wilderness, I ponder their lives in order to learn about finding God by eliminating the distractions of a busy life. Though this enforced time of social isolation in the spring of 2020 is difficult and unsettling, it may also be a way to become reoriented concerning what is most important in life.
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Here I am sitting in the sun with my sister Lois in our farmyard 60 years ago (Spring 1960).

From early childhood we learn that life is wondrous and precious. How I enjoyed exploring our farmyard as a preschool boy. I would wonder from the barn, to the corral to observe the cattle, to the garage, and among the trees of the shelter-belt around our yard—often accompanied by our dog, Sport. It is easy as we become adults to lose the sense of wonder we enjoyed as children. The monks invite us, I think, to rediscover this, and to leave behind a superficial life that often misses what is most important. Abba Poemen said, “Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy the heart” (Paintner, p.31). Perhaps Lent this year will give us opportunity to consider what truly satisfies out hearts, what quenches our deepest thirsts. “O God, you are my God. I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Psalm 63:1).

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This is the Bow River just a block from our house and the place where I go for walks almost every day. It is a little piece of wilderness that runs through our neighborhood.

As stated above, those early monks who sought God by leaving society to go into the wilderness, did so in imitation of Jesus in the gospels. In the midst of his busy ministry, with crowds of people coming and going, Jesus says to his disciples, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while” (Mark 6:31). So it is that the desert fathers and mothers and sought God in wild, deserted places.

As I reconnect with these monks—and with Jesus and his disciples—during this Lenten season, I reflect on how what we refer to as “nature” is a good context for renewing one’s relationship with God. Indeed, many monasteries came to be built in places of special natural beauty. God’s presence is mediated through creation. The apostle Paul writes, “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen though the things he has made” (Romans 1:20). Lent is a good time to become more observant of the beauty of this creation and to consider how it bears witness to a good Creator. Psalms 65 and 104 celebrate the goodness of creation.

You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it. 10You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth. 11You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with richness. 12The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, 13the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy. (Psalm 65:9-13)

My wife, Elaine, and I have had the privilege of taking a number of trips to Norway, to beautiful locations such as those pictured here. Norway is the land of my ancestors.

I will remain ever thankful that I grew up in the country on a farm. Our farm was a half mile from a coulee, which was a kind of wilderness to which I would often retreat. I loved riding my bicycle down the dirt road leading to the coulee and then along the coulee bank. My brothers and I enjoyed countless hours exploring the coulee hills as we looked for special rocks, such as pieces of petrified wood or petrified shells, or pieces of crystal or other attractive stones.

In the winter we would toboggan in the hills of the coulee. Our father purchased two quarter sections of pasture in this coulee, so we also often traveled to the coulee to check on the cows or to have family picnics with wiener roasts. As an adult I often thought that it would be a great place to have a cabin where one could find a place of retreat. Sadly, in recent years our family sold these coulee quarter sections, but I still treasure the memories of the many hours spent among these hills. And I have learned that there are countless places where one can seek retreat.

This is the path to the coulee that I often rode along on my bicycle.

 

 

We often met for picnics as a family at the coulee.

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After mom moved off the farm to live in an apartment in Camrose, she still enjoyed visits to farm and to the coulee. Here she is taking a photograph of our beloved coulee.

 

 

It remains for me to examine and consider the biblical roots of the monastic retreat to the wilderness and of the church’s annual observance of the forty days of Lent. As stated at the outset of this reflection, these roots lay in Jesus’s forty days of testing in the wilderness and Israel’s forty years in the wilderness before entrance into the promised land.

The book of Exodus in the Old Testament describes how the people of Israel were delivered from slavery in Egypt through God’s act of deliverance. This liberation from Egypt through a series of plagues and rescue at the Red Sea is known as the exodus. It is followed by Israel’s forty-year period of wandering in the wilderness, followed by her entrance into the promised land (as described in the book of Joshua).

Israel’s forty years in the wilderness was a time of testing and temptation. Life is difficult in the wilderness. One’s life becomes vulnerable and precarious because the basic needs of food, water and shelter are in short supply. Just so, the severity of life in the hostile wilderness environment tested the limits of Israel’s faith in God. When there was no water, the people complained to Moses their leader, saying, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Exodus 17:3). Their desperate situation even caused them to doubt God’s love and care for them. They asked, “Is the LORD among us our not?” (Exodus 17:7).

In a similar way the desert times in our lives can push us to our very limits where we wonder whether we will live or die, and whether God is with us or not. In wilderness periods, people sometimes give up on God. Many become atheists. Others become bitter. In the case of Israel, the lack of food and water in the wilderness led them to complain against their leaders Moses and Aaron, and against God (Numbers 21:5). They told Moses and Aaron, “If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and at our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (Exodus 16:3) “They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, ‘Can God spread a table in the wilderness? Even though he struck the rock so that water gushed out and torrents overflowed, can he also give bread, or provide meat for his people?’” (Psalm 78:18-19)

In the New Testament, the apostle Paul discusses the spiritual significance of Israel’s time in the wilderness. In 1 Corinthians 10, he compares Israel’s deliverance at the Red Sea to Christian baptism (10:2), and implies that Israel’s reception of food and water in the desert should be likened to the spiritual food and drink in the bread and wine of the eucharist (10:3-4, 17, 21). Paul calls upon the believers in Corinth to resist the temptations of this life and to not be like the Israelites who gave in to the sins of idolatry (10:7), sexual immorality (10:8), putting the Lord (or, Christ) to the test (10:9), and complaining (10:10). Paul affirms that God provides the needed help to overcome the testing or temptations of the wilderness. “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing, he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (10:13).

Finally, it is fitting during Lent to consider Jesus’s forty days of testing (or temptation) in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13). Jesus’s time of wilderness testing followed immediately his baptism in the Jordan River. “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matt 4:1). As stated above, this forty day period of testing (Matt 4:2; Mk 1:13; Lk 4:2) has become the template for the Church’s annual observance of Lent.

It may be helpful to note how the key Greek terms used in such scriptures may be rendered in English. The Greek verb peirazo may be translated as, “tempt” or as “test.” Similarly, the Greek noun peirasmos may be translated in English as either as, “temptation” or “trial.” Therefore, it would be correct to translate the phrase in a passage like Matthew 4:1 as either, “to be tempted,” or “to be tested.” Jesus’s wilderness time was a time when he faced testing and temptation. A test always involves the possibility that one will fail the test—that is, that one will succumb to the temptation.

It is also interesting to note the Spirit’s role in Jesus’s experience of testing by the devil. Matthew uses a purpose clause here: “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil” (Matt 4:1). God evidently wanted Jesus to face the testing presented by his foe, the devil. In a certain sense, spiritual testing or temptation is a good thing, a necessary thing.

Similarly, educational training involves testing. Students must demonstrate through testing that they have mastered the material. All professions require those who are to become practitioners to pass rigorous tests. It is not possible, for example, to become a medical doctor or engineer or airplane pilot without passing tests. In a similar way, God prepares people—even his own Son—for ministry through rigorous testing. The book of Hebrews speaks of the mature “whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good and evil.” (5:14). Concerning Jesus, Hebrews say, “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (5:8). Similarly, just as Jesus’s baptism was followed by a period of testing, so we should anticipate that our baptism into Christ should lead to our testing as well. As is clear from the more extensive descriptions of Christ’s temptation in Matthew and Luke, Jesus faces this spiritual testing of the devil by quoting scripture. In response to each of the three temptations, Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy 6-8, texts that describe how Israel was to meet her challenges in the wilderness. But in the wilderness Israel failed to learn to trust in God as they ought to have done. When food and water were lacking, they turned against Moses and God, thereby putting God to the test. Jesus reenacts or recapitulates Israel’s history as God’s obedient, trusting Son. Jesus’s threefold quotation of Deuteronomy highlight lessons regarding life in the wilderness:

1. “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Deuteronomy 8:3 in Matt 4:4 and Luke 4:4) 2. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” (Deuteronomy 6:16 in Matt 4:7 and Luke 4:12) 3. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” (Deuteronomy 6:13 in Matt 4:10 and Luke 4:8)

As we live in the company of Jesus in our own wilderness, we may learn several lessons. First, life does not consist of having and consuming those things that people commonly use to satisfy human cravings. Life is more than bread alone. [Interestingly, it was in the desert that Israel received supernatural food, that is, manna or “bread from heaven” (Exodus 16:4).] So, Jesus reminds us that “one does not live by bread alone.” Similarly, the desert father Abba Poeman says, “Do not give your heart to that which does not satisfy your heart.” (Paintner, p.31)

Second, one learns from Jesus the difference between trusting in God for protection from harm and “putting God to the test.” The devil quotes portions of a wonderful Psalm to Jesus, Psalm 91. This Psalm is especially fitting for those living amidst the dangers of the wilderness. The Psalm offers this promise to those who trust in God: “You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday” (91:8-9). These words seem especially relevant to our present circumstance.

In the wilderness one is cut off from the usual supports and protections that one relies on in the city. But while the Psalm gives exactly the sort of promises of divine protection that one needs in a dangerous land, Jesus rightly discerns the difference between faith in God’s protection and putting God to the test. Putting God to the test involves pressuring God to bring about our deliverance in a way that we have determined.

Third, in the wilderness one learns what it means to trust in the one true God. In the wilderness Israel succumbed to the temptation to worship other gods. While Moses was away on the mountain with God, the people of Israel grew impatient and made a golden calf and worshiped it. “[Aaron] took the gold from them and formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” (Exodus 32:4). Matthew and Luke describe how the devil sought to tempt Jesus to worship him. Jesus showed Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor” and promised, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” (Matt 4:89; see also Luke 4:5-7)

In the wilderness we are often tempted to worship what is not God.

Severe testing reveals the true character of a person. People may appear pleasant when all is going well, but when hardship comes, one learns what a person is really made of. Trials cause some to become angry and bitter, and even to turn against God. When Job suffers horrendous trials, loosing his children, his property, and then his health, his wife gives him a council of despair. “Curse God, and die,” she says (Job 2:9). But Job cannot do this. He tells her, “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (2:10). Though Job does not understand the meaning of what has happened to him, he does not give up on God.

All humans, including Christian believers, encounter many trials and temptations in life. A relationship to God does not exempt a person from troubles. Biblical narratives illustrate how various people of God have experienced such trials. The story of Abraham in Genesis shows how his life is determined both by the promises of God (of descendants, land, and blessing) and by a multitude of threats that endanger these promises (such as famine, his own fear, infertility, and old age). In each instance, God’s promises seem endangered by trials. Yet, in spite of obstacles, Abraham believes God’s word of promise. “And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). Eventually Abraham and Sarah in their old age experience the joy and laughter brought about by the fulfillment of God’s promise as they have a son, Isaac. But even then God sends a trial to Abraham. In what is surely one of the most poignant lines in all of Genesis we read, “After these things, God tested Abraham” (22:1). Genesis 22 records what is, in effect, Abraham’s final exam. God asks Abraham to offer up his beloved son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. Once God sees that Abraham is willing to do even this, God stops Abraham as he is about to slay his son. Abraham passes the test and God tells him, “now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son from me” (22:12).

While Jesus is tested in the wilderness for forty days prior to the beginning of his public ministry, his final test comes as he learns that he is about to be condemned to death, after being mocked and flogged (Mark 10:34). As he faces this test, Jesus tells his disciples, “I am deeply grieved, even to death” (Matthew 26:38).  He prays to God in the garden of Gethsemane, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (Matthew 26:39). But like Abraham and Job, Jesus passes the test, remaining faithful until the end. Concerning this, the author of Hebrews writes, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Hebrews 5:7).

Though Lent officially ends this year on April 11—with Easter Sunday on April 12—our enforced social isolation due to the COVID pandemic may, in effect, extend our wilderness period considerably longer. But as always, the wilderness is not to be our permanent home. In the wilderness we are to learn how to look forward, to anticipate the goodness that awaits us. In the wilderness, Israel looked forward to her entrance into the promised land, “a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8). Later while they were living in this land, the prophets taught the people to look forward to that day when “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid” (Micah 4:4). Similarly, Jesus endured the trials of suffering and death while anticipating “the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2).

In the words of the Nicene Creed, “we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” And while we wait, we pray in the words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Save us from the time of trial” (modern translation) and “deliver us from the evil one” (my translation).

lent12Some wandered in desert wastes, finding no way to an inhabited town; hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted within them. Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he led them by a straight way, until they reached an inhabited town. Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wonderful works to humankind. For he satisfies the thirsty, and the hungry he fills with good things. Psalm 107:4-9

(Scripture References throughout are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible.)

Blessed Melancholy

By Paul Knudtson

Ernest Meissonier3Sorrow is better than laughter, for by sadness of countenance the heart is made glad. 4The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. – Ecclesiastes 7:3-4

Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. – Luke 6:21

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. – Matthew 5:4

In his essay, “The Meaning of Melancholy,” Romano Guardini describes good and evil melancholy. Evil melancholy leads one to hopelessness and despair (The Human Experience, Cluny Media, 2018). Good melancholy, on the other hand, is ultimately creative and life-giving.  Such scripture texts as those above that describe sorrow, mourning, and weeping in positive terms should be classified as “good melancholy.”

 

Melancholy can be defined simply as “sadness,” that is, the opposite of “happiness.” Guardini says that melancholy “conveys the idea of heaviness of spirit” (p.51).  Happiness and sadness are normal and universal human emotional responses to the good and bad things that happen in life. But “melancholy” may be used to describe a pervasive and persistent mood of sadness that is not caused by a specific disappointment in life. As such, it becomes a mood that seeps into our entire lives so that even joyous occasions take on its bitter taste.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard gives vivid personal expression to the anguish brought about by melancholy: “the whole of existence is poisoned in my sight, particularly myself, Great is my sorrow and without bounds; no man knows it, only God in heaven, and he will not console me; no man can console me, only God in heaven, and he will not have mercy upon me.” (quoted in Guardini, p. 36). Here Kierkegaard sounds a lot like Job in the Old Testament. Job says, “I loathe my life; I will give free utterance to my complaint; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul. I will say to God, Do not condemn me; let me know why you contend against me” (Job 10:1-2).

In the light of such negative descriptions, it may be surprising for us to think that melancholy can also be viewed positively, as a good and beneficial element in our lives. Since sadness is an unpleasant, bad feeling, and happiness is a pleasant and good feeling, it is easy for us to consider one bad and the other good. That is, it is easy for us to associate only positive, happy emotions with God, and to think that negative feelings, such as sadness, indicate that we are somehow separated from God and God’s blessings. But scripture suggests otherwise. “Blessed are you who weep now” (Luke 6). “Blessed are those who mourn” (Matthew 5). Such texts invite us to consider how the experience of sadness may be good for us, and that such unpleasant feelings may actually become an unexpected pathway to blessedness or happiness. Indeed, the Greek term translated “blessed” in such passages (makarios) can also be translated as “happy”. So, even though it sounds paradoxical, it is right to say, “Happy are those who mourn.”

mel3Sadness may arise from witnessing the suffering of others or, indeed, from our own troubles. When my children were young, we bought a new bicycle for our daughter, Jill. But her brother Philip did not have a bicycle that worked, and the sight of him trying to get an old, dilapidated bicycle that we had inherited to work, caused Jill to weep for her brother. She was inconsolable, unable to enjoy her new bicycle because Philip did not have one that worked. To redress this wrong, we immediately got into our car and drove to town and bought Philip a new bicycle of his own—and that purchase turned Jill’s sadness into joy.

Feelings of sadness may also arise from our sense of loss in life.  We lose loved ones through death. We may also lose our jobs, our children when they grow up and leave home, our health, and ultimately our very lives. It is a sad day when we learn that we are mortal, that we will die!  This repeated experience of loss can cast a dark pall over us so that we live with a perpetual sense of gloom.

The question is, How can we experience good rather than evil melancholy? How can it lead to hope and joy rather than despair? How can we be “blessed” or “happy,” even though we and others endure countless pains and sorrows? Bad or evil melancholy is surely melancholy without God, a deep sadness arising from the sense that life is tragic, that there is no gospel providing a basis and source for abiding joy, that there is no ultimate hope overcoming the despair arising from the countless burdens and heartaches of life. Good melancholy, on the other hand, leads to hope and joy.

The Christian answer to melancholy is ultimately eschatological (that is, having to do with the future). This means that the scriptural promises regarding the God who raised Jesus from the dead may engender positive expectations concerning the future. Present sadness can be offset by future joy. Melancholy is therefore a temporary response to a state of affairs that is not permanent or ultimate.

But how exactly can the present experience of melancholy be thought of positively? Melancholy is positive in that it bears witness to the unacceptable nature of the present state of affairs—much like our daughter Jill’s tears for her brother’s lack of a bicycle—and thereby also gives testimony to the way things ought to be. Melancholy holds onto the dream of a world in which there will be peace, health, immortality, moral goodness, unspeakable beauty, and union with God who is love.

1) Melancholy is a God-given faculty that bears witness to that which is good, to that which is perfect and eternal, to that which is far better than what now exists in this life. It tells of another reality, another world, a better world. It refuses to accept the way things are, or to accept this present world as ultimate. It bears witness to an eschatological world, the world of Jesus and the prophets, that is, to the kingdom or rule of God.

2) Melancholy is a hunger or appetite for the kingdom of God. It keeps us from being satisfied with anything less than God.  It will not allow us to make peace with the status quo, with what is not the way the way it should be. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled” (Matthew 5:6). “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).

3) Melancholy is a response to the countless imperfections of this life. Guardini says, “Melancholy longs for the absolutely perfect, for the unattainable, for profound and intimate values, for the untouchably exalted and noble and precious” (p.70). He also says that “Basically it is a yearning for love—love in all its forms . . . “ (p.69). “Melancholy may be described as the birth pangs of the eternal” in us (p.72).

Every human being experiences sadness to some degree. I often feel more prone to bouts of melancholy than most people—but it is often impossible to know what others are experiencing. The sayings of Jesus quoted above, together with the insightful comments of Romano Guardini, help me to think of this common experience in a more positive way. It shows that there is kind of perfection meter within us (hopefully enlightened by the Holy Spirit) that is constantly evaluating and critiquing what happens and is done in this world (including by me!), and that points to a better world to come, the kingdom of God.

mel2
My sister and I enjoying being with our father. Great joy!

The LORD “heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.” – Psalm 146:3

“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” – Luke 6:21

You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.  Psalm 30:11

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My father sharing a moment of joy with my sister, Lois,and me (late 1950s).