Jason C. Stanley

ponderings of a deacon dad walking humbly & seeking justice

Tag: Alan Combs

Guest Post: Good Friday Pondering

by Rev. Alan Combs

goodfri_11167c“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” These words come at the beginning of Psalm 22. Immediately, the biblical scholar-wannabe in me asks a biblical scholar-wannabe question. How much of Psalm 22 did Jesus mean? Psalm 22 forms two distinct parts. The first eighteen verses or so are full of pain, oppression, and despair. They feel very much like what Jesus might have had in mind while hanging on the cross, blood pouring from his nailed hands and feet, struggling to breathe.

But then Psalm 22 changes at verse twenty-five. “From you comes my praise in the great congregation,” the Psalmist declares. The Psalm shifts to a prayer of deliverance. Yes many “strong bulls of Bashan” (I want to start a band called “Strong Bulls of Bashan) surround the Psalmist (22.12), and yes “I can count all my bones,” (22.17) but at the end of the day “dominion belongs to the Lord,” (22.18) so much so, that “All who go down to the dust shall bow before the Lord, and I shall live for God” (22.28).

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Guest Post: Ash Wednesday

by Rev. Alan Combs

Lent Ponderings - jasoncstanley.comOn Ash Wednesday, we hear the words “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return” as ashes are placed on our forehead in the sign of a cross in order to remember both that we are mortals, that we are creatures of a Creator.  We remember also that our death and our life are wrapped up in the One we are following to the Cross.

One thing I always find so fascinating and helpful on Ash Wednesday is the Gospel lesson for the day.  It comes from Matthew 6:1-6, and 16-21, which contains this admonition from Jesus:

Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven (Matthew 6:1). 

Jesus goes on to describe the various ways that hypocrites practice things like their prayers and fasting out in front of others so that people can see them as pious.  Now here’s the curious thing.  Jesus gives this caution, and our next move is to put Ashes on our forehead and wear them out in public all day long, so that people can see we them!

It should immediately give us a holy gut check.  If we are showing up with this Ashes so that people will see how awesome we are, or, as is often the case, how much better we are than other people, that we might as well not show up at all.

Instead, we wear the ashes publicly to name that we are mortal and that we are sinners.

We don’t wear them to show how much we have it all together.  We wear them to show how broken we are, and how much we need Jesus.  It’s a public declaration of “I’m not OK” in a world where we try to hide any kind of vulnerability, so that we won’t be perceived as “weak” or having “baggage.”

The ashes are a public declaration of our baggage.

It’s also a public remember that we all will die, which is one of the great subjects we hope to avoid thinking about at all costs, even though in our society death surrounds us.

The ashes are a public declaration that we are all going to die, but that they are in the shape of a cross reminds us that there is One who came to do something about death. 

For me, Ash Wednesday’s power comes in how tangible it is.  To apply the ashes requires human contact.  We feel the texture of the ashes on our forehead.  They are just so visible.  They make us so visible. And so we guard our hearts as we heart Jesus’ words from Matthew 6 echoing in our hearts and minds.

Rev. Alan Combs is the pastor at Lane Memorial United Methodist Church in Alta Vista, Virginia.

Guest Post: Go and Tell

Rev. Alan Combs serves as Pastor at Lane Memorial United Methodist Church in Alta Vista, Virginia.

Read Matthew 11:2-11.

candles_9826cJohn the Baptist is beginning to wonder what’s up with Jesus.  As Stanley Hauerwas points out, John was certain that Jesus was the Messiah when he baptized him. Now he isn’t so sure.  What changed?  Well, for one, John’s in prison for calling Herod out on failing to keep the law.  Even worse, there are a lot of folks who don’t appear to be taking to that whole “Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near” message John and Jesus have been proclaiming. [1]

Even John, the one who Jesus describes as “more than a prophet,” the one called to announce the Messiah doesn’t seem to be getting the Messiah he expected or asked for.  So he sends his disciples to speak with Jesus.  He charges them to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

Jesus’ response to the question is to ask John to look and listen, through the reports of his disciples, at what is actually happening all around them.  Rather than to remain bogged down in what he thought it meant for the Messiah to come, Jesus challenges John to see the kingdom that is unfolding in their midst:

Go and tell John what you hear and see:  the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them (Matthew 11:4-5).

Yes, John is in prison, but those who are disabled and sick are now lifted up, rather than seen as accursed.  Yes, there appear to be many who aren’t paying attention to the arrival of the Messiah, yet as Mary sings in the Canticle this week, Jesus has “lifted up the lowly” and “he has filled the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:52-53).

Despite all evidence to the contrary, the Kingdom of God has come near, and it is received first by those who are most in a position to hear it. They are the ones who most easily “take no offence” at Jesus because they have no stake in the powers and principalities that are threatened by this new kingdom in which the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the rich are sent away empty (Luke 1:52-53). [2]

As we live in the tension between awaiting the birth of our Messiah and the flowering of his kingdom in his return during Advent, we find ourselves again challenged by this Jesus who refuses to be who we try to make him into. This was true even of John, who must have wondered why Jesus didn’t make his disciples fast in the same way John did, and who hung out with people like tax collectors and sinners.[3]

We are constantly surprised we are not getting the Jesus we asked for. Instead, Jesus challenges us to look at the places where his kingdom is actually unfolding.  He meets us on his own terms, and he reaches out to people we may think don’t deserve it.

We are surprised to find a Jesus who actually makes demands on our lives, rather than kindly letting us know that the way we are living is all right with him as long as we are nice people.

We are surprised to find that he’s not upset with John for saying hard words to people in order to lead them (and us) to repentance.  Jesus points out to the crowd:  John’s a prophet, that’s what prophets do.  They speak often unpleasant and unpopular truths to call us to repentance. (Matthew 11:7-9)

Instead, we find a Messiah whose kingdom is breaking into our world to our right and left, but the epicenter resides not in the centers of the powerful.  Instead, we find it in the centers of those who are often marginalized and voiceless.

When we learn to see and hear the signs of this kingdom, we find ourselves charged in the same way as John’s disciples, “Go and tell what you hear and see.”


[1] Stanley Hauerwas, Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible:  Matthew, (Grand Rapids:  Brazos Press, pp. 113-114.

[2] Hauerwas, Matthew, p. 115.

[3] Ibid., p. 114.

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