There is a certain kind of intimacy and community that is created when we enter the Scriptures together. It requires trust and openness, humility and generosity to offer our response to God’s Word, and to receive the wisdom and gift of another’s work of listening for God’s voice. University Hill has engaged in and risked and been nurtured by this act of faithful community building for many years, now, in our annual Lenten Devotional.
This is the sort of trust and vulnerability that we need as we enter the season of Lent. Scripturally and traditionally, repentance—that turning from ourselves to God, which is at the heart of this season—is, much more often than not, a communal act. The Gospel is not simply a path to individual salvation, or self-help spirituality; it is the good news that we have been reconciled to God, to each other, and to all creation, by the grace and cross of Christ. By God’s love, we are made into one Body. Christianity is a relentlessly communal faith. We are blessed to have so many different voices sharing in our Lenten walk.
This devotional follows the lectionary readings through Lent and Holy Week for this year (Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary), which makes it an extension of our regular Sunday worship services. University Hill has a long tradition of working within the lectionary, as a way of participating in the worshiping life of the broader church, but also as a way of shaping our time, our worship, and ultimately our lives around the form of Jesus’ life.
You are encouraged to spend some time, each day, with the devotional for that day. Spend a few minutes in silence. Offer the time to God (light a candle, or play some music, if that helps to ready yourself). Remember that each of these offerings is a gift. Take the time to engage what has been offered by your sister or brother; join them in prayer.
My prayer is and will be that you will be richly blessed, that your faith, hope and love will be deepened, as we make our way together to the cross, and the hope beyond it.
Rev. Aaron Miller
Ash Wednesday, March 1
“If you have found a quiet corner, a comfortable chair, a hot drink, with which to read this meditation—abandon them all. Bang a pot. Slam a door. At the very least clap your hands loudly three times … six times … nine times!
Wake up, God shouts! No comfort here. Not now; not today.
We have got it wrong … again. Of course we have, because we are not simply making a mistake—we are rebelling against God.
We are rebelling because we are not obeying. We are addressing God but we are not listening. We talk about God but do not let God grab hold of us. We do things for God but not what has been demanded of us.
Somehow, somewhere, we got into our heads that our holy practices would be … well … would be “good” for us.
Somehow, somewhere, we got into our heads that we should be beneficiaries and not servants.
God calls that “rebellion.”
To counter our rebellion, God gives orders. To make sure they are crystal clear, that they are well-heard, they are trumpet-loud, staccato-precise:
- loose the bonds of injustice
- undo the thongs of the yoke
- let the oppressed go free
- break every yoke
- share your bread with the hungry
- bring the homeless poor into your house
- when you see the naked, cover them
- remove the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil
- offer your food to the hungry
- satisfy the needs of the afflicted.
There is no distinction being made here between religious actions and social justice actions. There is only one distinction: obedience to God or rebellion against God.
Obedience comes with a promise attached: your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly.
The text begins with a trumpet call to wake up us rebellious ones and ends in a peaceful, watered garden … but there is a lifetime of tough, faithful obedience in the middle.
Forgive us our rebellion. Enable our hearing. Enliven our obedience. May our Lenten fast lead to justice, freedom, and feasting for all your children in need, for all those for whom Christ died; for we ask it in his name.
Thursday, March 2
King David wrote this psalm after he took Bathsheba for his own pleasure … after he used his kingly power to send Bathsheba’s husband Uriah to the front of the battle line so he would be killed … after he lied and tried to cover up his deeds … after he realized his series of sins when the prophet Nathan “called him on the carpet” for them. What is amazing is that this psalm is in the Bible, even though it cast the highly acclaimed King David in a very bad light and was publically embarrassing for Israel and for David.
To David’s great credit, once he realized the seriousness of his sins, he didn’t try to hide them or spin the story in his favour with “alternative facts.” Instead, David cried out to God in his guilt and shame. He told the truth about his awful deeds and repented. He asked the creating, life-giving God (think Genesis 1) to create in him what he couldn’t create on his own … a clean heart, a fresh start, another chance.
David’s requests to God all through this psalm are written like imperatives, but I believe the things he desired were pleasing to God, and are perhaps the same things we desire. We want the Lord to be gracious to us, to sustain us, to deliver us from our fears and anxieties. We want God to forgive, renew, and restore us to wholeness. What surprises me is that God used one of David’s greatest sins to give us one of the greatest examples of what it looks like to pray to God when we have sinned. The psalm also shows us that we can boldly express to God our need for mercy and newness.
To speak of sin and confession is not popular today, sometimes not even within the church. Yet the truth is, if we will speak to God the truth about our sins, no matter how difficult they are to name, we will discover God’s mercy close at hand. If we take it one step further, to risk telling our stories of pain and brokenness to our brothers and sisters in Christ, we may find that others have had similar experiences and can support us in our times of need.
We have all sinned, and we are all in need of restoration. We can’t fix ourselves, but we can trust God to do it and to make something good come from the wrongs we have done. If God can redeem the world, then God can take your sin, shame, or failure and transfigure it into blessings for you and for others. In God’s economy, we never run out of last chances. It’s not strike three and you’re out. We know that because in the fullness of time God sent Jesus, our Saviour and Redeemer, to us. He lived and died expressing to humankind the reality of God’s deep love, patience, compassion, and mercy. Remember his words on the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Gracious God, thank you that we can come to you with the truth about our sins and cry out for your mercy and forgiveness. Your love is steadfast. Your mercy is abundant. We place our hope in you. Amen.
Friday, March 3
Okay, I confess. I reflected on this passage 4 years ago. At that time, I struggled with whether Jesus forbade you to be public with your charitable works. I wrote in part:
Jesus admonishes us to give from our hearts, to pray from our hearts and to fast from our hearts. Give the gift not to be in the newspaper but because you genuinely want to help. Pray to enter into a heartfelt communion with God, not to be noticed in church. Fast because you truly seek God’s word, not to win praise for your devotion.
It is God’s grace that we should seek for our charity. It is God’s favour that we should seek from our prayers and it is God’s clarity of vision that we should seek when we fast.
Having received a repeat assignment, I was torn between calling Aaron to tell him that I had already reflected on this passage; to give me another. But I decided to keep it to see if I had any different insights or if I saw something else in the passage.
What lept out at me this time was the repetition 3 times of the phrase: “your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” when you are charitable, pray or fast in secret.
But is the object of charity or prayer or fasting, some sort of reward? Is it to get God to deposit some holy coin in your heavenly bank? No, not in the sense that the hypocrites are egotistically rewarded for their public displays of piety. Not in the sense of a quid pro quo, some heavenly reward fin exchange for your good deeds.
Rather, when you are focused on the charitable deed itself, when you concentrate on the prayer, when you are fully present in the fast, the reward comes from the deed itself: from the warm glow of giving; from the calm of communion with God in prayer; from the clarity of vision as you fast. It is not reward in the great bye and bye but reward that is here, that is now and that is present in the deed itself.
Between the 6th verse and the 21st verse, Matthew recounts Jesus teaching us the Lord’s Prayer. I cannot improve on that and humbly ask you to recite it as part of your reflection on this passage. Do it from your heart.
Saturday, March 4
Ambassadors for Christ
Traditionally the season of Lent is the time of year when we remember the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, fasting, praying and getting ready to face the ordeal that he knew awaits Him. It’s that period of time that brings us into the holiest of the Christian seasons; Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. To commemorate His time of personal denial and anxt we usually give up something for Lent that we enjoy in our regular lives as a way of supporting Jesus’ suffering at this point in His ministry; perhaps a particular food, or maybe one of our habits that we find challenging to break.
It’s interesting then that this passage from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth is included as one of the lectionary readings for Lent. In it, Paul doesn’t mention Jesus’ time in the wilderness prior to the crucifixion at all. The only reference to Jesus’ horrific death appears in verse 21 of Chapter 5, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”
Paul’s focus in this section of the letter seems to be centred around relationships: ours with God, God’s with us, and ours with each other, and the fact that it is Jesus who made it possible for us to be re-united with God. Verse 18 says, “All this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation.” Verse 20 then starts with Paul urging all Christians to consider themselves ambassadors for Christ. The gospel of reconciliation was always at the heart of Paul’s preaching and this passage is no exception. Paul is saying that God sent Jesus to take on our sins and enable us to become reconciled with God. We then, as ambassadors for Christ, must become reconciled with each other. As “God’s fellow workers,” Paul implores everyone to live in harmony with each other as God wants us to live in harmony with Him – to drop our differences and enter into God’s work of making things right between us.
Further Paul says, “As God’s fellow workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain.” Rev. Eugene Peterson, in The Message, translates this verse as, “We should not squander one bit of this marvelous life God has given us.” In other words, don’t just live for yourself. Live for God’s world.
Paul then goes on to explain the hardships he has endured and to emphasize that he has been faithful to God throughout. He is concerned that the Corinthian church had been infiltrated by false teachers who were challenging both his personal integrity and his authority as an apostle.
A true ambassador for Christ, Paul sees what we now call Easter as a wonderful opportunity for us to be one with God and he urges everyone to be reconciled to God and to live in harmony with each other.
Heavenly Father. Help us to remember that as your ambassadors, we are messengers from your world, not citizens of this world. Give us the willingness to live in harmony with you and each other as Jesus showed us. Amen
Sunday, March 5
God forgives our sin; it sounds too good to be true.
Psalm 32 is one of the penitential psalms often used as prayers in Lenten services.
There are little sins, and medium sized ones, and huge ones. Some we don’t mind admitting, but there are others we would rather keep to ourselves. I can’t help thinking that God must be so busy forgiving sins, there isn’t much left over time for other considerations.
Asking for forgiveness may be something we don’t often think of. There are some church services these days in which one doesn’t have an opportunity to even consider our sins or ask forgiveness. There are times in our lives when we just don’t bother taking the time to confess. Maybe we are afraid to do that???
When we do ask for forgiveness, how will we know God has forgiven us? I wonder if in the asking , forgiveness begins. Asking may be difficult, awkward, embarrassing, upsetting, unsettling—could it be that the actual voicing of our sin is the beginning of a sense of forgiveness; the start of a healing process; the facing of a truth we had been afraid to acknowledge? If we confess our sin and we feel better, is this the beginning of God’s forgiveness?
Jesus calls us—to live in love, truth, joy and hope. Will God’s forgiveness enable us to live this way? I’m counting on it!
Prayer—Evening Forgiveness and Healing
“Master of the Universe: I hereby forgive anyone who has angered or who has upset me, or has done me any harm; who has harmed my physical body, my possessions, my honour; anything pertaining to me; whether accidentally or intentionally, by speech or by deed, in this incarnation or any other; any human being. And may no one be punished on my account. May it be your will, my God, and God of my ancestors, that I continually walk upon the path of holiness and that I do not lapse into unconsciousness or indifference. May I receive the power to transmute past unconscious thoughts, words, and deeds into radiant awareness and loving right action.”
Source: English translation of traditional prayer by David Zaslow, from his prayer book Ivdu et HaShem B’Simcha (Serve God with Joy)