THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH AT WOODBURY
PRELUDE “Wondrous Love” Martin
INVITATION TO LENTEN DISCIPLINE
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season in the church year known as Lent. Lent is a time to prepare for the celebration of Easter and to renew our life in the mystery of the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We begin this holy season by acknowledging our need for repentance, and for the mercy and forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel of Jesus Christ. We begin our journey to Easter with the sign of ashes, a biblical symbol of mourning and penitence. This ancient sign speaks of the fragility of human life, and marks the penitence of the community of faith. I invite you, therefore, in the name of Christ, to observe a holy Lent by self-examination and penitence, by prayer and fasting, by works of love, and by reading and meditating on the Word of God,1 beginning with this service today.
CALL TO WORSHIP Joel 2:1-2, 12-14
2 Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near— 2 a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.
12 Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; 13 rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. 14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God?
CORPORATE CONFESSION OF SIN
Liturgist: Creator God, you fashioned us out of dust, breathing your Spirit into us, so we might sing your praise.
Men: But we have denounced your gift of life in order to be our own gods, clinging to death-dealing idols of our own making.
Women: We have denied our creaturely status, seeking to lord it over those we label “less-than.”
Men: We squelch all who are different through ignoring, belittling, murdering, and bombing.
Women: We believe survival-of-the-fittest lies, discounting the weak, and profiting by others’ pain.
Liturgist: Not trusting in your providence, we stop our ears to cries of those in need because we’re afraid we won’t have enough.
Men: We have been unfaithful stewards, O Lord.
Women: We live in a state of sin among a people of sin.
Men: Save for your grace, we perish.
Women: Remember our making, Creator God; remember we are dust.
All: Have mercy on us according to your loving kindness. Breathe new life into us once more, so we might be the people you created us to be. Restore unto us the joy of your salvation that we might do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with the Lord Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray, Amen.
SILENT CONFESSION OF SIN
SYMBOL OF THE SEASON
ASSURANCE OF PARDON Ezekiel 36:25-27
Hear the promise of God: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you will be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you, and make you follow my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.”
Friends, the promises of God are true:
In Jesus Christ we are forgiven. He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross that we might be dead to sin and alive to all that is good.
In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. Live now as new people, free to love God and neighbor.
PRAYER FOR ILLUMINATION
Lord, of life, pour out your Holy Spirit upon us that as we hear these words they may becoming living Word for us to the glory of our living Lord Jesus Christ we pray. Amen.
SCRIPTURE READING 1 Peter 2:20-25
20 If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
22 “He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
23 When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24 He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross,[a] so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds[b] you have been healed. 25 For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.
SERMON Life’s Better in My Hands!
A seminary student recalls his teenage years. “What a great age! You are just beginning to figure out who you are, your hopes and dreams are much larger than yourself, and best of all, you are at that age when you are confident that you know it all. Ah, those were the days!
“When I was growing up in Iowa,” he reflects,” fourteen was the year we received our driver’s permit. I can still remember the first time my father had me drive the family car. He took me to a little traveled, barely two-lane county highway. Everything was going well until we came upon a narrow bridge. Comfortably cruising along at nearly 60 miles per hour, I couldn’t understand why my dad began getting fidgety. I had never seen him squirm like that. Finally, I asked, ‘What’s wrong?’ He fired back, ‘Are you going to move over?’ ‘Oh,’ I replied, ‘I didn’t realize.’ I didn’t realize I was about to shear off the whole right side of my parents’ car. But my father knew.” (deliver slowly) “I didn’t realize…But my father knew.” Can you identify with his experience? (pause)
Ash Wednesday calls us together to hear again the stories of Lent, the stories of Jesus’ passion for you and for me. I’m sure that your life is busy and so you don’t have the time to hear the stories in a mindless way. You don’t want to hear the stories in a routine, in-one-ear and out-the-other sort of way. You’ve come here for your spiritual growth. We want the word of the cross to go in both ears, to get into your head and go down into your heart. We want to leave worship with a new appreciation that, as the student said, “I didn’t realize…But my father knew.” As Jesus himself said on the cross, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” We want to leave worship knowing that life is best lived when we live it totally in the Father’s hands.
We all know that life is not always better in the hands of other people. For example, is your life better when you leave it in the hands of the government? Surveys tell us again and again that we don’t trust the government to take care of us. Another example, is your life better when you leave it in the hands of Wall Street? Wall Street seems to be doing OK but Main Street is hurting. Oh, how painfully we know that! A third example, is life better when we put ourselves into the hands of science and technology? To be sure, we have been greatly blessed by science and technology, just as government and financial institutions have given us great benefits. But to totally entrust our lives to them? If you have a Toyota you know that technology is not a fail-safe way to accelerate toward happiness. And then, my last example, the institutional church. A recent study shows that people between the ages of 16 and 29 believe the institutional church is judgmental, hypocritical old-fashioned, and out of touch with reality, to name but a few criticisms of the church. And if you are over 29, you can identify with some of those criticisms. We all know that life is not dependably better in the hands of other people.
So what’s left? More and more people are saying, “Life’s better in my hands.” The teenage driver was confident that he knew it all. He admits, “I didn’t realize that I was about to shear off the whole right side of my parents’ car.” Isn’t that an accurate picture of how many of us are living our lives? It certainly is true for me. People say we shouldn’t text while we drive, we should think twice before we speak or put something on Facebook, we should stay true to our spouse, we should give quality and quantity time to our children, we should save some money for a rainy day, we should… Well, you get the idea. Review your own life. We’re living in a society of self-willed people and you and I often go our own bull-headed ways as well. Plain old common sense makes us doubt that “Life’s better in my hands.”
What’s left? Only the cross of Christ. From the cross we hear him say, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Shouldn’t Ash Wednesday repentance drive us to confess that life is better when we entrust it to the heavenly Father? Let me say that again because it is so important. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Ash Wednesday repentance drives us to say, “Life is not better in my hands. Life can only be better when I entrust my whole being 24/7/365 into the hands of the heavenly Father.”
That’s what the sermon text is about, 1 Peter 2:20-25. Peter wrote to Christian slaves in Asia Minor. Many of them were leading wretched lives. Peter urges them not to strike out against their masters. Don’t, he says, take life into your own hands. Instead he points them to the example of Christ the Savior. “Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps… He entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (vv. 21, 23). Life is better, Peter says, when we entrust ourselves to our heavenly Father. But there’s something even more important here. As much as Jesus is our model for trusting our lives to God, the reason we are in church is because Jesus is our Savior from sin. He has forgiven you and me for taking life into our own hands. Listen. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (vv. 24- 25). The forgiveness he gives you and me is such a change from the world around us, such a change for the world to come, that we are now left to do one thing: Pray the Spirit of God to lead us to totally put our lives in the hand of our Father.
When it comes down to it, Ash Wednesday and Lent and Christian life is about repentance…and yet something more. Here’s another recollection from that seminary student. Years later when he had his own car, he says, “I decided to go cruising in my Camaro. Driving up and down the avenue seeing other hot rods and showing off my own was a great time. However, I got stuck behind a couple of cars driving 5 miles per hour side-by-side. After my honking at them and their ‘gesturing’ for me to shut up, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I threw my car into low gear and stomped the gas pedal to the floor. Being able to go 0-60 mph in 6 seconds, I expected to make quick work of their land-yacht Buick. Since I was passing them illegally on the right side in the parking lane, I had to get back to the through lane fairly quickly. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize this once 5 miles per hour car was racing me and was somehow even with my left rear wheel. I don’t know if they thought I was going to hit the parked car in front of me or give up, but I did neither. Instead, as I merged to the left, their front bumper hooked my left rear body panel and ripped a gaping hole in my precious Camaro. I was furious!!! I was furious at them and furious at myself! However, my Camaro quickly became the least of my worries. The car I hit had no insurance and was filled with high school students. I suddenly became filled with dread. If any one of them claimed a medical problem, I was going to be sunk because I didn’t have any car insurance either and this accident was my fault.
“As I returned to my condo that night, I began to see that I could lose everything I had worked so hard for. I was feeling completely isolated. There was no one I could turn to. I thought that I was in control. I thought that I was making decisions that got me where I was. In truth, I had been making decisions but they were all bad ones. I begged forgiveness from God because I had allowed myself to become so prideful. I had no idea what was going to happen to me, but I suddenly knew that I was in God’s hands. I knew that He was going to see me through all the problems I had gotten myself into and He did.”
So this Ash Wednesday we repent for the times we have thought, “Life is better in my hands.” Our Father forgives. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.” Then God’s Word adds, “so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness.” True repentance is confessing our sin and receiving God’s forgiveness for Jesus’ sake. Then…and here’s something we too easily forget…in gratitude we will pray God’s Spirit to help us live holier lives.
How? One way is to keep doing what you have done, coming together around the cross of Jesus. I’m not talking about the institutional church now, whose faults are too well known. I’m talking about the Body of Christ, about you and me coming together to ponder the stories of our salvation. The stories heard so many times, the story about Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem, the story of Jesus remembering God’s deliverance of ancient Israel by eating the Passover, the story of Gethsemane, the story of the injustices wrought by the religious establishment and the government, the story of his death, and the crowning story of all, his vindication on Easter. Oh, we can’t let these stories go in-one-ear and out-the-other! These are the stories that keep going into both ears, get into our minds and sink down into our hearts. The way this happens is by coming together here again and again and again as brothers and sisters in the Body of Christ. Our life together in this church is different than any other association you have in your life. Life together here is a way the Holy Spirit keeps putting our lives in the hand of the heavenly Father. “I love to tell the story, for those who know it best, keep hungering and thirsting to hear it like the rest.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who died at the hand of the Nazis, wrote, “Beware of being alone. Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. If you scorn the fellowship of brothers and sisters, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you.” (Life Together [New York: HarperOne, 1978], 77). Life is better in the Father’s hands. Amen.
BENEDICTION AND CHARGE
In the footsteps of centuries of pilgrims,
go now to embark on your Lenten journey.
Consider how you may simplify your days,
so that you may travel lightly.
Be alert to all that could side-track you:
notice that which beckons alluringly,
or with apparently greater urgency,
than the pilgrim journey Christ invites.
Do not try to cover
more than one good day’s journey at a time.
now when to stop for food and sleep,
so that the journey will not be too great for you.
Walk humbly, knowing that the goal
is not recognition, achievement or reward,
but simply to have come to know Christ
and yourself more intimately.
Be on the lookout for other pilgrims,
caring for those who limp, or fall;
those who cannot see the way forward:
pilgrimage is richer in community.
Go now: place your hand
into the outstretched hand of Jesus Christ,
allow the words of the story to guide you,
and pray for purity of heart and mind. Amen.