Another year and another time to intensively reflect on Christ as we prepare to commemorate His passion, death and — on Easter Day — resurrection from the dead.

On the last Sunday before Lent — Quinquagesima Sunday — the Revd Gregory Jackson of Ichabod gave the following sermon in his weekly video service.  He took for his texts Joel 2:12-19 and Matthew 6:16-21. It provides perfect reflections for and about this 40-day period leading up to the greatest feast in the Church calendar. (How many thought that was Christmas?)

Please take a few minutes to pop over and read the Bible readings and Dr Jackson’s sermon — followed by timeless Lutheran quotations — in full. People who are unfamiliar with Lenten practice will find it helpful and a source of reflection.

The passage from Joel contains a call to fast:

12Therefore also now, saith the LORD, turn ye even to me with all your heart, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning:

 13And rend your heart, and not your garments, and turn unto the LORD your God: for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth him of the evil.

Christ gives instructions in Matthew on how to fast — discreetly, so that others are unaware that you are doing it. We are not to make a big show:

16Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

 17But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face;

 18That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.

 19Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:

 20But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal:

 21For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Emphases mine in the excerpts below:

The seasons of the church year developed through tradition, but they reflect the liturgy of true Judaism. Genuine Judaism is not another religion but the foundation and first proclamation of the Christian faith. All those who worshiped before the Incarnation had a chance to see the Christ in the Scriptures, from Genesis to the Psalms. Those who hear Judaism today also hear about Christ.

This lesson contrasts the works of man with the gifts of God. The first sentence is a humorous commentary on human behavior –

Matthew 6:16 Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

Rare are those princely gifts which are donated in secret these days. Every clever university has categories of gifts, so someone can give in the measly category, the so-so category, and the Awesome category. Board members come from the Awesome list. It is a good way to network with others too, and to gain the respect of others.

17 But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; 18 That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.

Jesus points out that people engaged in real fasting would hide the fact from others, since it should not be done to gain the admiration of the public. Those who gain their rewards from man will not get them from the Father in heaven.

That teaches the concept of good works based on the Gospel rather than the Law. The Scriptures urge good works, but not to earn God’s favor, not to placate Him. Good works are the fruit of the Gospel; they flow from faith. Many people do good works without thinking of it, since everything done in faith glorifies God. The baby who nurses or soils his diaper is glorifying God, since he has faith through Holy Baptism.

This should not be downplayed or disdained, since this lesson wants us to focus on God’s wisdom rather than man’s vanity. There is a constant struggle to avoid worldly wisdom and instead listen to the teaching of Holy Spirit in the Word …

But what the world loves, God despises. What God loves, the world despises. The ignored, forgotten minister in Mustard Flats, Kansas, faithfully teaching the Word, is far more important than the glorious hero of the media who is introducing his flock to various toxins, a little at a time.

19 Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal:

These words of Jesus should bear down upon us each day, as Law to show us the temporary nature of material things, but as Gospel to remind us of what lasts.

Every single thing we own – owns us. If we really love one particular object, that object has a grip on us. There is nothing wrong with loving art, or clothes, or books, or any other delight God gives us. Jesus is not saying, “Give it all away, wear a long face, and be a monk.”

He is saying, “Do not pile up those things which are temporary anyway. The fact of corruption and theft is reason enough to look elsewhere.

20 But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: 21 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

I had a favorite woolen shirt, which we stored in the apartment house’s storage room, a rather bizarre place full of antique furniture and boxes. When we got out our possessions, moths had eaten holes all through the wool, rendering it impossible to fix.

This metaphor is impossible to forget. Treasures in heaven do not share in three-way decay:

  1. Vermin cannot destroy them.
  2. Rust cannot consume them.
  3. Thieves cannot steal them.

These treasures are often mentioned in the Book of Concord … Below are many of the best quotations about the efficacy of the Word, which is openly rejected by many so-called Lutherans today.

The treasures are the Promises of God – not only justification by faith, forgiveness through Christ, but also all those blessings and comforting messages through the Word.

All the assurances of God’s love are treasures. Every passage that begins with “do not be afraid” also includes those reasons why we should not fear.

The passages about the cross are treasures too, because they are the truth of God’s order, the truth our Old Adam loathes. However, the New Creation (faith sparked by the efficacy of the Gospel) blesses the cross. The ultimate expression of the cross is a believer accepting death as a blessing. Uncle Roy, who served in WWII, told his hospital staff, “I don’t want any more treatment. I will be with Jesus soon.” And he died in peace, not in fear or doubt (unlike media heroes Paul Tillich and Pope Pius XII).

The Gospel that comforts us also brings out the worst in apostates. Unbelievers seldom care. There is no more certain mark of the apostate than a loathing and persecution of the Gospel. Since that happens within the visible church, the immediate effect is especially difficult to bear. But that is why it is called “The Cross” rather than “The Bother.”

In time, we see the apostates reacting against the cross as their blessing upon the pure Word of God. What they cannot comprehend (although they say the words at times) they do not want others to have … the apostate raves when someone teaches the Gospel. And no one does the holier-than-thou routine better than the apostate.

Chytraeus was one of the great genius theologians of the Lutheran Reformation, overlooked today. He said wisely that one proof of teaching the pure Word was “opposition.” So the cross is good.

Even family tensions are part of God’s plan, because questions make people study the Word, on both sides.

“Spirit and Word, or Word and Spirit are never separated.”

– Henry Eyster Jacobs, A Summary of the Christian Faith, Philadelphia: General Council Publication House, 1913, p. 271.   

Is it the office of the Word simply to afford directions that are to be followed in order to obtain salvation? It is more than a directory and guide to Christ. It does more than ‘give directions how to live.’ It brings and communicates the grace concerning which it instructs. It has an inherent and objective efficacy, derived from its divine institution and promise, and explained by the constant presence and activity of the Holy Spirit in and with it. Romans 1:16; John 6:63; 1 Peter 1:23; Matthew 4:4; Ephesians 6:17; Hebrews 4:12; Romans 10:5-10; Isaiah 55:10.”

– Henry Eyster Jacobs, A Summary of the Christian Faith, Philadelphia: General Council Publication House, 1913, p. 288.      Chapter Four.

“What testimony is given to the presence of the Holy Spirit in and with the Word? The words of Scripture are repeatedly cited as the words of the Holy Spirit. Acts 1:16, 28:25; Hebrew 3:7; Psalm 10:15.”

– Henry Eyster Jacobs, A Summary of the Christian Faith, Philadelphia: General Council Publication House, 1913, p. 288f.

“The New Testament is the inerrant record of the revelation of Jesus Christ in word and deed, and of the truths and principles proceeding, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, from that revelation. The Old Testament is in like manner an inerrant record, having the express and often repeated testimony and authority of Christ, of the preparatory and partial revelations made concerning Him before His coming. Hebrews 1:1.”

– Henry Eyster Jacobs, A Summary of the Christian Faith, Philadelphia: General Council Publication House, 1913, J-29 p. 3. Hebrews 1:1.

‘The more purely the Word of God is preached in a Church, and the nearer the preaching and doctrine comes to the norm of the Holy Scripture, the purer will be the Church; the further it recedes from the rule of the Word, the more impure and corrupt will be the Church.’ (Gerhard)”

– Henry Eyster Jacobs, A Summary of the Christian Faith, Philadelphia: General Council Publication House, 1913, p. 383f.

“Nor even does the efficacy of the Word depend upon man’s faith. Faith is always necessary to the reception of the efficacy, but not to its presence. There is no lack of efficacy in the medicine which is not taken by the patient. If his symptoms grow worse, he could not tell his physician that there was no efficacy in the prescription.”

– Henry Eyster Jacobs, Elements of Religion, Philadelphia, Board of Publication, General Council 1919 p. 154. 1 Thessalonians 2:13

So confident now should every preacher be, and not doubt, that possesses and preaches God’s Word, that he could even die for it, since it is worth life to us. Now there is no man so holy that he needs to die for the doctrine he has taught concerning himself. Therefore one concludes from this that the apostles had assurance from God that their Gospel was God’s Word. And here is is also proved that the Gospel is nothing else than the preaching of Christ.”

– Martin Luther, Commentary on Peter and Jude, ed. John N. Lenker, Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1990, p. 245. 2 Peter 1:16-18.  

“Besides, it is an exceedingly effectual help against the devil, the world, and the flesh and all evil thoughts to be occupied with the Word of God, and to speak of it, and meditate upon it, so that the First Psalm declares those blessed who meditate upon the Law of God day and night. Undoubtedly, you will not start a stronger incense or other fumigation against the devil than by being engaged upon God’s commandments and words, and speaking, singing, or thinking of them. For this is indeed the true holy water and holy sign from which he flees, and by which he may be driven away.”

– The Large Catechism, Preface, #10, Concordia Triglotta, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921, J-110 p. 570f.

To all my readers observing this short season, I pray that we keep a good Lent.

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