Ash Wednesday – 2016 LSB #440
Text – Luke 22:12-13
And he will show you a large upper room furnished; prepare it there. And they went & found it just as He had told them, & they prepared the Passover.
A PLACE AT THE TABLE FOR YOU
Caroline was a woman who had her place. It was right there, on the right-hand side of the church, near the first stained glass window, closest to the side aisle. That was where Caroline worshiped & that, to Caroline, was her place. Her pastor learned this one day as he was bringing her Communion.
You see, Caroline was no longer in church as often as before. She was unable to leave home without difficulty, & the pastor had started bringing her Communion once a month. One day, after the receiving communion, she finally raised the subject: “Pastor, has anyone begun to sit in my place?” He was surprised by how tenderly she raised the issue.
It was as if she were embarrassed to ask, & also afraid of the answer he might give. What to him was simply a seat in the church, to Caroline was very important. It was her place: her place of worship, her place of prayer, her place among God’s people. So she was afraid of his answer.
Other people had begun to sit in her place, people who didn’t think she’d make it back &, in the future, people who wouldn’t know her at all. For Caroline, sitting there in her home, knowing that she would not be coming back to church this year, it was very important that she still have a place.
I’m sure you have felt Caroline’s fear – the fear of losing your place. It happens to all of us. We’re certain about our job or our role in someone’s life. Then suddenly things change & we find that someone else has come & taken our position, or done our work. We’ve lost our place. It used to be that you were the one who could work well with numbers at the office. If there was a financial problem, people would come crawling to you, & you kind of liked that power. “If nothing else,” you said, “at least they noticed.”
But then, in comes a new kid with the latest technology & you find that others are seeking her advice about finances or, worse yet, they’re doing it themselves. You’ve begun to lose your place, & you begin to wonder how long you’ll be needed.
You survey the workforce, do some mental downsizing &, suddenly, in the pit of your stomach, there’s a fear you haven’t felt since you first went interviewing for a job. You begin to wonder if you have already lost your place.
If you have felt that fear, then you have an inkling of what was going on in the Gospel lesson this evening. Luke tells us that “the Feast of Unleavened Bread drew near.” (22:1) This was the Passover, yet it was filled with an unholy fear. Luke says that “the chief priests & the scribes were seeking how to put [Jesus] to death, for they feared the people.” (v. 2)
Feared the people? It’s a strange thing to say about these men. After all, they were the ones who confidently took their places among people. They loved the most important seats in the synagogue & the greeting in the marketplaces. They were experts in the law, able to make a person break under its burden in a single word.
They wore the long tassels; gave a tenth of their possessions; fasted twice a week. They could stand in the center of the synagogue & thank God they were not like the others. They had wisdom & power & the respect of the people... until Jesus came. His ministry attracted crowds. His words touched hearts. His hands opened eyes, & His words & hands were everywhere.
His very presence brought about a life they’d never known & a gratitude they could only describe as divine. With His words & His work among the people, they had begun to lose their place. So they gather on this day & prepare for His death. While everyone around them is preparing for Passover, they are afraid; & in that fear, they prepare for the death of Jesus.
Did you notice the irony? Luke tells us that the Feast of Passover was approaching, & then the only preparation for the feast he reveals is fear & conspiracy & intended murder. He takes us into the lives of the religious leaders of the community & he reveals their sin.
When the leaders of God’s people spend their time plotting death before the Passover, one can only wonder what lies at the heart of their faith. It shouldn’t surprise us then that Luke talks about the foe. This is certainly Satan’s realm: religion on the outside but corruption within. Where there is fear, there we’re likely to find the foe.
Satan enters Judas, & Judas discusses how he might betray Jesus. Not only is there the foe, but there’s also the use of force. Luke tells us that when Judas comes to visit the religious leaders, he finds them with “the chief priests & officers.” (v. 4) If you can’t secure your position by your work among the people, you can at least protect your position by force.
Not only is there force, but Luke also points to finances. Upon hearing of Judas’s offer of betrayal, “they were glad, & agreed to give him money.” (v. 5) So we have fear, we have force, we have finances, & we have the foe – a deadly combination. It brings about death in the life of faith. It did then, & it still does now.
You once were the pride of your child. After soccer practice, your child came running to meet you at the car. The ride home was filled with talk about the game, questions of your opinion, & security in your words. That was only a year ago. Today it’s all changed. Now you’re lucky if you’re needed. He usually tries to get a ride home with his friends.
When he runs to the car, it’s so you can get out of there as quickly as possible so no one will see him with you. And the ride home... well, that’s filled with your apprehensive questions – it’s so hard to sound casual – & his one-word answers, with your mutual silence as he looks out the window, & you wonder where things went wrong. You experience this & realize that you’ve begun to lose your place. His friends & his desire to be free have taken your place as a parent.
When you begin to fear what’s happening, you also realize how easy it is to turn to force. You begin to demand that you pick your child up from practices. Where there is force, finances are certain to follow. Who pays for his equipment? If you pay money for his equipment, he better realize that you have a right to know what happened at the game.
Force & finance & deep down, further down than any of us can notice, lies the foe. He’s stirring up anger, churning your fear, working in the lives of you & your child to bring about anger & separation & reasons to rebel. Honor of one’s parent. Love of one’s child. These holy things are torn apart by the work of the foe.
Luke points out that in the face of all of this, in the face of fear, force, finances & the power of the foe, there is one other factor: God. God, who prepares a place for His people at Passover. God is still at work in this story, & His work is really so simple that if you don’t read closely, you miss it altogether. Luke writes:
“Jesus sent Peter & John, saying, ‘Go & prepare the Passover for us, that we may eat it.’ ...They went & found it just as He had told them, & they prepared the Passover.” (v. 8, 13) Jesus speaks & a place is prepared. He offers a strange depiction of circumstances – a man carrying a water jar, a journey through the city, a furnished Upper Room.
His disciples go & find that it is exactly as Jesus said. In the middle of all of this, God is still at work. What is Yahweh doing? He is preparing a place for His people. That’s what the Passover is, after all – the place where God comes & rescues His people. The place where God declares that He & He alone is at work to set His people free. God’s people have gone far away from Him, but Passover still draws near. Love has turned into fear. Fear has turned into action. Service has turned into force & offerings have turned into bribes. And still, Passover draws near. Regardless of what His people are doing, God continues to do His work. It is His work after all that sets people free.
Free from the fear of slavery in Egypt, free from the force of Pharaoh, free from sin & free from suffering – God alone, again & again, sets His people free. Through God’s action, His people are brought out of their sin into salvation. And year after year, decade after decade, God’s people gather to celebrate God’s simple yet wonderful work.
This evening, we gather at the beginning of another Lenten season. Once again, Passover draws near, & this year, among us, there are those who have lost their place. Relationships have changed, children have grown, jobs have been lost or become less secure. Those who were once close now seem far away.
And in the midst of all of this change, we might get that sinking feeling, that fear in the pit of our stomach, wondering, “How will we survive, how will we manage?” For those of you who gather, these weeks of Lent come to point out to you that one thing does not change. Passover draws near & once again God does His work of freeing & forgiving love.
This Lent, we will gather for a season to reflect on the places of the Passion. We will read through the entire Passion account as told by Luke, a small portion each week, & you won’t be surprised at the story. It’s a simple story. You’ve been to these places before. In them, God once again prepares a place for you.
The Upper Room, the Garden of Gethsemane, the halls of Pontius Pilate, the hill of Golgotha – these are the places we remember when we meditate upon our Lord’s Passion. Yet when Jesus enters a place, He never leaves it as He finds it. The most troubling places in our lives become the most amazing places of God’s grace when Jesus visits them. Peter will still be Peter – denying Jesus in the courtyard. Pilate will still be Pilate, struggling in his judgment hall. And the crowds are still the crowds calling for Jesus’ death outside the palace.
But don’t be put off by these places of the Passion, for in the midst of this story there is a wonderful, powerful love. We will see tonight & every night that no matter where we are in our lives, God is still coming & claiming us as His children. God is still coming, preparing a place for us in His kingdom.
In a way, God is very much like a parent who realizes that His children have left Him, & strayed far from home, though they live there every day.
While He can’t control the fact that His son gets a ride home with friends after practice, while He cannot control the fact that His daughter puts on headphones & listens to music rather than the voice of Her father, while He cannot control the fact that His children shut themselves up in their rooms rather than sit with the family, He can control how many places He sets at the table.
As long as He is the father & as long as this is His household, there will always be a place for His children; always, there at His table – a place for you.
Tonight, we begin our Lenten observance with a celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Tonight, God comes & brings with Him a feast that always has a place for you. His suffering, His death, His resurrection had a purpose. There’s no reason to fear. Your sins have been forgiven, your life is no longer your own, & tonight there is a place set at God’s table for you.
A simple meal, a simple story, & a simple remembrance, but what a wonderful work God has done, & is doing, for His people this year.
You know, if Caroline were still alive, that pastor could answer her question. No, she no
longer has that place in the pew, the right-hand side of the church, by the 1st stained glass window, closest to the side aisle. That place has other people sitting there now, yet she does have a place at God’s table. Jesus has prepared that place for her, right alongside the angels, the archangels & all the company of heaven.
Tonight, our Lord & Savior has come to this place to assure you that nothing in all of this world, neither height nor depth, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Not a single thing in all of creation will be able to take Jesus’ place away from you.
In spite of its somber character, there is no need for fear, not this evening, nor on any other evening to come. When Jesus is the Lord of the table, or the subject of your Lenten contemplation, there is always a place for you. Amen.
If my sins give me alarm & my conscience grieve me, let your cross my fear disarm; peace of conscience give me. Help me see forgiveness won by Your holy passion. If for me He slays His son, God must have compassion. Graciously my faith renew; help me bear my crosses, learning humbleness from You, peace mid pain & losses. May I give You love for love! Hear me, O my Savior, that I may in heaven above sing Your praise forever. Amen.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet