Costly Love

Today, the season of Lent begins with ashes being bestowed virtually in a time of Covid-19.  We are marked today for a special reason.  Today marks the beginning of a journey that we will take together.  It is a journey that most of us have traveled before.  We know the destination.  It is the resurrection and the empty tomb.  We know the end of the story.  It is a story of joy and victory.  Yet, we must take this journey each year for our own spiritual growth and relationship with God.  For the next 40 days we will journey together just like the last year with Covid-19 has been a spiritual journey together.

During Lent we are invited to take a deeper look within ourselves and ask God to show us where we need to be cleaned and forgiven, and where we need to forgive and where we need healing in our soul.

The word “Lent” means “Spring Season” so during these 40 days it is like a “Spring cleaning” of our soul.  It is a time of introspection where we can hunger and thirst for God’s righteousness.  It is a time of prayer and fasting.  Fasting doesn’t have to mean food, but fasting from things that take our time and attention away from God.  It is a time to slow down and contemplate our relationship with Jesus and listen to what God wants to tell us.

Besides the inner journey we are on during this time, there is also a second journey that takes us outside of ourselves and into the world around us.  It is a time to see and hear the needs of the world and those who hunger and thirst in the world.

We are reminded by the prophet Isaiah that a fast that just focuses only on ourselves is a selfish fast.  As Isaiah said in our lesson, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

Tonight, as we think about the meaning of Ash Wednesday, we recall the ashes remind us of our mortality.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  It is good for us to remember how frail life is.  As much as we hate to admit it, one day each of us will be reduced to dust.  Our flesh will fail.  Through these ashes we are reminded that life is a gift from God, not to be taken for granted.  This past year, with close to half a million people dying from Covid-19, we know how frail life can be.

The ashes also remind us of the messiness of life.  No matter how hard we try, or how much we pretend, we mess up, don’t we?  No one is perfect.  Everyone has brokenness in some part of their life.  We are all imperfect human beings that have sinned and need cleansing and forgiveness.  We need God because we can’t become new creations on our own.

Today we come together to be humbled by our sin.  Like the people in our Bible that we read about we are also called to repent.  We are called to step out in faith knowing we are powerless to make ourselves clean.

The 40 days of Lent is our wilderness time as Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness.  It is a time to let God search our hearts with a microscope to see what needs to be cleaned out.

While Lent is a season of introspection of prayer and fasting, it is also a season that we reflect on the cost of what Jesus did for us and the cost of our discipleship as we follow his calling on our lives.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was a German Lutheran Pastor and theologian who was arrested in April 1943 because he was an opponent of Nazism.  He was hanged in prison on April 9, 1945 only days before the American Liberation of the POW Camp. In his famous book The Cost of Discipleship, he wrote, “If our Christianity has ceased to be serious about discipleship, if we have watered down the gospel into emotional uplift which makes no costly demands and which fails to distinguish between natural and Christian existence, then we cannot help regarding the cross as an ordinary everyday calamity, as one of the trials and tribulations of life. We have then forgotten that the cross means rejection and shame as well as suffering.  

The Psalmist was lamenting that he was despised and rejected of men, and that is an essential quality of the suffering of the cross.  But this notion has ceased to be intelligible to a Christianity which can no longer see any difference between an ordinary human life and a life committed to Christ.  The cross means sharing the suffering of Christ to the last and to the fullest.  Only a person thus totally committed in discipleship can experience the meaning of the cross. Jesus says that every Christian has his own cross waiting for him, a cross destined and appointed by God.”

Luke 9:23 says, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

Luke 14: 25-32 says, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.  For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?”

To be a disciple of Jesus’ is a costly love. It will be hard, but Jesus will be with us. We are not suffering pointlessly.  When we suffer for Christ and his message of hope, we’re suffering for the growth of the Kingdom and the family of God.  It is putting our faith into action.

The apostle Paul said, “I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake.” (Colossians 1:24)

So, when we talk about the cost of discipleship, we know we are going to have to suffer because, in a world at war with God, there is no other way. 

There is a story about Min-ji who was arrested and imprisoned in North Korea for selling South Korean DVDs on the black market.  Her husband was a high-ranking member of  North Korea’s State Security Department, and he fled to China to delay his own capture.  While in China, he met a Christian family who shared the gospel of Jesus Christ with him. When he returned to North Korea after Min-ji’s release from prison, he was a different person.  He began sharing the gospel with other North Koreans and praying regularly with his family.

Soon after Mi-ji’s husband returned from China, someone reported his Christian activities to North Korean authorities.  Even a mention of Jesus Christ can lead to arrest in this restricted nation.  He was arrested and sent to a concentration camp without a trial.  Min-ji never saw him again and believes he died in the camp. 

Min-ji was in danger because of her husband’s Christian faith, so for her own protection, her uncle, a North Korean government official, had her sent to a labor camp before authorities could send her to a concentration camp.  Min-ji endured six years in the North Korean labor camp for a faith that wasn’t her own.  But God wasn’t finished with her yet.       

When she was released from the North Korea labor camp, Min-ji decided to defect to South Korea by way of China.  After a 10 hour walk through the mountains, she crossed into China, where she spent a month working as a caregiver for a Christian woman with Alzheimer’s disease. Min-ji participated in regular prayer and Christian worship, but she didn’t yet believe in Christ.

A short time later, Min-ji decided to resume her journey to South Korea.  But when she reached Beijing, she and some other North Korean defectors were reported, and Chinese authorities sent them to prison.

A month into her imprisonment, Min-ji discovered that a North Korean woman from her defection group was a follower of Christ.  One day, the woman used her toothpaste to write “Jesus Christ” on the prison wall.  “It was my first time to see the words ‘Jesus Christ’, so I asked her what it was,” Min-ji recalled.  “She began to share with me what Christianity is.”

The woman also began reading the Bible with Min-ji.  “The first time I read the Bible,” she said, “I felt it was odd to do so because it was on account of the Bible that my husband was killed and I ended up in prison.”

In addition to her North Korean friend, some Chinese Christians in the prison showed Min-ji kindness and shared the love of Christ with her.  Gradually, she began to understand their love and the gospel responsible for it.

Min-ji said, “I had received so much grace from them. I began to wonder about the God who was consistently intervening in my life.”

Min-ji decided to put her faith in Jesus Christ.  After her release from the Chinese prison, she finally made he way to South Korea, where she is being helped by an organization called Voice of the Martyrs.  Min-ji now wants to follow in her husband’s footsteps, ministering to others and doing God’s work. 

We need to pray for Min-ji and many others in North Korea, China, and other countries where believing in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord is a costly love.

This Lenten Season let us be mindful of how we can be drawn closer to Jesus and to feel his love surrounding us and to be mindful that there is a cost to discipleship as we proclaim his love and forgiveness.  Let us pray for our own spiritual growth as well as our brothers and sisters around the world that truly know it is a costly love to believe in the name of Jesus. 

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whoever believes in him will not die but have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

Years ago, my husband and I traveled to Yellowstone National Park, and we learned something about forest fires.  There are certain kinds of trees that need fire in order to reproduce.  Their seedpods will only open under extreme heat.  So, on occasion, lightning will strike a deed tree, it will catch fire, and a devastating fire will sweep through the forest and leave nothing but ashes.  But then, in the dark soil of devastation and ash, new life begins.  A green shoot forces it way up into the sunshine and the forest is reborn.

May all of us, here and around the world, who bear these ashes of today remember that God is working in us; refining and purifying us and refreshing us with His Spirit so we will continue to grow and mature in our faith.

Journey with Jesus on the road to Jerusalem and have your life changed.

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