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Red Letter Challenge: Holy Week Edition

April 08, 2020
By Paul Emmel
Jesus of Nazareth
Photo from Jesus of Nazareth, the 1970's television mini-series directed by Franco Zeffirelli, one of the finest films on the life of Jesus ever produced.
 

 

O SACRED HEAD NOW WOUNDED

Each year during Holy Week I listen to The Passion According to St. Matthew by Johann Sebastian Bach (BMV 244). This massive three-hour sacred oratorio has been my personal "holy time" within Holy Week since I listened to my first LP recording back in college.

To this day, the music continues to haunt my soul and magnify the cosmic significance of that one cruel death upon that one bloody cross for me and for the world. In the presence of such heavenly music, I am obliged to cross my heart and remove my shoes for I know that entering upon its message,  I stand on holy grounds.

Composed in 1727 in Leipzig, Germany, the Passion was not recognized for its true greatness until a revival 100 years later by Felix Mendelssohn. Now it is a staple in sacred concerts around the word.

Surely, open hearts are captured not only by its music but also by its message. It is difficult for me to imagine that performers and audiences are not touched by the Spirit of God in its presence. That would be as insensitive as looking at Michelangelo's Pieta and remarking, "My, what a wonderful work of art."

Woven throughout the passion, is the chorale "O Sacred Head Now Wounded," its text attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153) and Paul Gerhardt (1607-1676), combined with a libretto by Picander. Bach used the tune by Hans L. Hassler (1564-1612) and masterfully reintroduced it to unify the various scenes from Matthew 26-27. As it returns again and again, I am transported from the 21st Century to the First Century on a hill outside Jerusalem.

For the benefit of us who are not acquainted with this mighty chorale, I would like to comment briefly upon its five stanzas and paraphrase some reflections midst the context of the world's present pandemic. Perhaps, even without the music, in the suffering of God's world, we will find a glimpse of His redemptive purpose on the cross.

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"O sacred head now wounded,

With grief and shame weighed down,

Now scornfully surrounded

With thorns, your only crown.

O sacred head, what glory

And bliss did once combine;

Though now despised and gory,

I joy to call you mine."

Today we look at many "talking heads" in the media, most of them carefully made up to look their very best. Pretty people, attractive people sell the products we buy and the entertainment we watch. Not so with Jesus. His head was covered with blood, despised and gory. That sacred head was weighed own by griefs and shame. "Why, why was this so?" our soul asks. So that we could call Him ours!

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"How pale are you with anguish,

With sore abuse and scorn!

Your face, your eyes now languish,

Which once were bright as morn.

Now from your cheeks has vanished

Their color once so fair;

From loving lips is banished

The splendor that was there."

He was barely recognizable; his family founded it difficult to look upon his once beautiful face. The ugly marks of sore abuse and cruel strikes were plainly evident. Though innocent, he endured the whipping until the horses in the courtyard winced in pain. Where, O Gentle Savior, do You endure such scorn today? Who among your people suffers such bitter agony? Open our eyes and hearts to behold your awful face in the suffering of your children.

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"All this for my transgression,

My wayward soul to win;

This torment of your Passion,

To set me free from sin.

I cast myself before you,

Your wrath my rightful lot;

Have mercy, I implore you,

O Lord, condemn me not!"

We ask again in the face of suffering, "Why? What's God's purpose to allow such misery?"  We look deeper for the answer and discover the answer in His suffering. Suffering is redemptive, especially His suffering.

He took upon Himself our condemnation to set us free from sin's bondage.

In our waywardness, we cast ourselves upon His mercy. There is no other way, no other hope.

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"Here will I stand beside you,

Your death for me, my plea;

Let all the world deride you,

I clasp you close to me.

My awe cannot be spoken,

To see you crucified;

But in your body broken,

Redeemed, I safely hide!"

At some point in the Passion, we are moved from a safe distance away to stand immediately beside our LORD, from being the observer to the participant. Though the world considers it foolishness, we chose the folly of the cross to the "wisdom" of the world.  We would rather identify with His broken body than in the pride of life. We die to self and live in Him. We find our safety and security in Him.

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"What language can I borrow

To thank you, dearest friend,

For this hour dying sorrow,

Your mercy without end?

Bind me to you forever,

Give courage from above;

Let not my weakness sever

Your bond of lasting love."

There are no words to express what we feel and know in our hearts at the cross; no words can describe our gratitude for such a gift of life and grace. We pray that we would be bound together with Him, so that in our weakness we would have courage to remain in His presence forever. We know for sure that He will never break that bond of lasting love. Amen!

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Wishing you and yours, wherever you live, good health and happiness this Holy Week. Let us continue to bless one another, especially in these trying and uncertain times.



Paul Emmel
Cross View Lutheran Church
Holy Week 2020

 
 

Paul EmmelPaul Emmel is a retired pastor in the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, having served as a parish pastor, a correctional chaplain for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, and a hospital chaplain and a community counselor. As a retired pastor, Paul continues to serve the Lord and His people, including establishing the Minnesota South District’s “Pastors to Prisoners” ministry.  

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Giving Begins at Home

March 30, 2020
By Paul Emmel

If we didn't know it before this past week, we know it now: giving begins at home. In normal life, we usually look beyond the walls of our own house for people to receive our gifts, but in these days of stay-at-home quarantine, our focus changes to those within six feet.

Now by necessity, it is to the people of our household we are directed to give our gifts.  Herein lies the problem: our spouse and children can be the most difficult of all because of familiar human faults, especially now that we are cooped up together for days and weeks.

"Please, give me a break",  we think as we bump into one another with our same self-centered habits. Little irritations can lead to bigger resentments and build walls of silence. Worse yet, relationships can get stuck in unhealthy places. Needs get neglected and our home becomes our least favorite place.

Nevertheless, Scripture commands that our first priority is to meet the needs of our families. To neglect them is a serious offense. The man or woman who is constantly reaching outside the home may be overlooking the very people nearest them.

 What are some gifts we can give those closest to us? There are many such gifts including our patience, our forgiveness, and our understanding.

I know how easy it is to slip into my own little world of introversion. Although I am physically near someone, I practice emotional social distancing; not a good thing, especially now.

For personal reasons, I'm adding to the list our time and attention.  My fault is to become so involved in reading or writing that I withdraw into my world and don't open up as to what I am thinking or feeling. It is okay to be "a man of few words" as long as the words are not too few. Norwegian bachelor farmers are bachelors for a good reason.

So, I must repeatedly remind myself to be available and emotionally present. This is my most important contribution to my household. Yours may be different. Whatever your contribution, it is vital in order to maintain a functional family.

If humor is the oil of relationships, time and attention are the engines of relationships.

During this holy season of Lent, we are encouraged to make a serious moral inventory of our souls, confess our specific faults, and then make amends for our sins that crucified our LORD.

When we uncover some bad habits that are "close to home," we ask for His help to make the necessary changes. This present confinement may be our best opportunity to do so. God has certainly given us the time!

The gifts we give to those at home are most needed and will be the most appreciated. To be fully present, body and soul, with those whom you love is the best gift of all, the gift of SELF.


 

Paul Emmel
Cross View Lutheran Church

 Week Four "Giving" of The Red Letter Challenge

 
 
 

Paul EmmelPaul Emmel is a retired pastor in the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, having served as a parish pastor, a correctional chaplain for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, and a hospital chaplain and a community counselor. As a retired pastor, Paul continues to serve the Lord and His people, including establishing the Minnesota South District’s “Pastors to Prisoners” ministry.  

Just Do It

March 21, 2020
By Paul Emmel

In RLC's Week of Serving, I find that nothing gets done until I actually do it. It's so easy for me to read and agree, maybe even tell myself some "shoulds" or "I wills," but serving others is not real until I do it.

When we read or hear Jesus' red letter words and then fail to actually do His words, we deceive ourselves into thinking that we've done our duty. James is very clear on this: "Be doers of the Word, not just hearers." How often haven't we said, "Great sermon, Pastor!" and then neglected to apply it in our lives?!

 Pastors, teachers, and writers are especially vulnerable to the sin of non-practice. We spend valuable time and energy crafting our sermons, lessons, and essays, and then fail to practice what we preach. There is a category for such behavior: hypocrisy. Good Lord, have mercy upon us!

"The road to destruction is paved with priests' skulls," is the haunting proverb I read at the Seminary. I, as a pastor and blogger, must guard that my tongue, my head, and my hands agree. There comes a time when my words apply to my own life. The very thought of this demands humility and integrity.

This week I keep asking myself, "Now that I made my list of specific deeds to serve the needs of others, what have I actually accomplished?

Certainly, not as much as I would like because I strive against my flesh, the world, and the devil. There is and always will be "slippage on the belt."

However, we have His mercy and forgiveness for such slippage. Let us not rack ourselves with needless guilt, but receive His tender mercy for our sins of omission. Then we move into action.

When I accomplish anything on my list, I recognize that it was the Spirit Himself who moved me and enabled me to do it.  If there is any credit, it should be to the account of the LORD.

One of our retired pastors/teachers at Cross View, Dr. Harry Wendt, stressed Jesus as The Servant King, the One who washed his disciples' feet and who taught them, "The greatest among you shall be the greatest servant." He said that a prominent symbol in our churches should be a washbasin and towel, reminding His followers to wash each other's feet through humble service.

Most importantly, Jesus did not just think about teaching this lesson; He did not just speak about it; He knelt down, grabbed a towel and DID it.

When we move beyond hearing and thinking to doing, God's Kingdom comes among us and His will is done. What could be better?

Paul Emmel
Cross View Lutheran Church
March 21, 2020
 
 
 

Paul EmmelPaul Emmel is a retired pastor in the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, having served as a parish pastor, a correctional chaplain for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, and a hospital chaplain and a community counselor. As a retired pastor, Paul continues to serve the Lord and His people, including establishing the Minnesota South District’s “Pastors to Prisoners” ministry.  

Judge Not (Day 16)

March 20, 2020
By Paul Emmel
RLC Logo
"Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."
-Matthew 7:1-2  ESV
 

We are told that the most quoted verse in the Bible is Matthew 7:1, "Judge not,"the stern words of Jesus warning us that we will be judged according to how we judge others. That warning certainly deserves our immediate attention because there has been much misunderstanding over what Jesus meant.

Those who think they are being judged quote the verse in defense of themselves. On the other hand, when we do not approve the behavior of others, we are accused of "judging" them. Either way, hurt feelings and alienation result.

At the risk of appearing that I have "the final answer" on this passage, let me lay out a few guiding principles:

1) Jesus forbids making moral judgments on people. That is, when we usurp the position of God - who alone knows the heart - and decide that a person or certain people are inferior and not deserving of respect and honor as other human beings. Thus, people are pre-judged and we are guilty of prejudice. Such behavior cannot be justified.

2) Jesus does not forbid us to judge the deeds or behavior of others. In fact, He teaches that by their deeds we will know whether people are true or not. We must use discernment (good judgment) in determining truth and falsehood. E.g. "Beware of wolves disguised as sheep."

Our entire criminal justice system is based upon the idea that human behavior can be harmful and wrong. "Guilty" or "not guilty" requires human judgment, even though it may be seriously flawed and unjust.

3. When we judge the deeds of others, we must always be aware that things are not always as they appear. We are prone to assume peoples' motives and not be aware of their circumstances. We often do not know the "rest of the story." Luther's explanation to the Eighth Commandment applies here:

"We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way."

Instead, each day as we encounter others, we easily make snap judgments based upon appearance, ethnicity, speech, education, age, clothing, hairstyle, neighborhood, political views, etc. We "size up" people and worse yet, label them, usually as inferior, stupid or objectionable.

Clearly, Jesus considered this kind of judgment harmful and sinful. He went so far as to say that we will be judged as strictly as we judge others, an ominous warning indeed.

"The devil is always in the details," and it is not my purpose here to go into detail. Suffice it to say that it is morally wrong and divisive to make snap judgments of others. There should be zero tolerance in the Body of Christ for such behavior. It should be exposed and rooted out before it infects the entire community.

Instead of snap judgments, we should practice "snap acceptance" of others, giving them the benefit of the doubt even when we may be "taken in." People simply know when they are not being accepted.

The distinction between people and behavior can be difficult to maintain, but it is necessary to have clarity on this matter. Our churches must have a reputation for acceptance and tolerance of others. Otherwise, newcomers will stay away.

One of the highest compliments we can give another person is to say we never heard her/him speak badly of another person. Such charity comes from Jesus who - despite our behavior -  does not judge us but has mercy on us. Let us do likewise.

Paul Emmel
Cross View Lutheran Church
March 17, 2020
 
 
 

Paul EmmelPaul Emmel is a retired pastor in the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, having served as a parish pastor, a correctional chaplain for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, and a hospital chaplain and a community counselor. As a retired pastor, Paul continues to serve the Lord and His people, including establishing the Minnesota South District’s “Pastors to Prisoners” ministry.  

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