A Pressed Penny Promise

By Justin Rossow

I was really struck by the Old Testament lesson this week, and glad when the preacher chose to use those strange and wonderful verses as the basis for his sermon. At the heart of that reading stands a proclamation of judgment tempered by a promise of restoration.

And the Lord said:
“Because this people draw near with their mouth
    and honor me with their lips,
    while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,
therefore, behold, I will again
    do wonderful things with this people,
    with wonder upon wonder;

and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish,
    and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.”

Isaiah 29:13-14 (ESV)

The promise of restoration, of the deaf hearing and the blind receiving sight, comes a few verses later. Usually, I would think of those kinds of miracles as “wonders.” But the “wonders” in verse 14 are amazing works of judgment.

This unfamiliar and unusual use of the word led the preacher to explore how we use “wonder” in our typical ways of talking. The Seven Wonders of the World cause wonder–an emotion of awe at the magnitude or greatness of something. We can also wonder about something we don’t understand. And if something is wonderful, for us it is good news.

But the wonderful things in this text are like the 10 Wonders–that is, the 10 Plagues–God visited on Egypt: they certainly cause amazement, but they are definitely not good news.

Since the sermon mentioned “awe” as one of the positive emotions related to wonder, I was thinking about “awe-inspiring” verses “awful.” Something that makes you “full of awe” can be an amazingly good thing; but “full of awe” can also be “awful,” something amazingly bad. Wonder works a bit like that.

Connecting our experience with “wonders,” the preacher talked about all the wonderful places his family visited this summer, all the sights and tourist traps and “world’s greatest” designed to inspire awe (as well as souvenirs).

Later in the sermon, he mentioned a “pressed penny.” You know pressed pennies, right? You put your penny (and your dollar…) into a machine and turn the crank; the machine stretches and presses and engraves an image on the soft copper of the penny. The result is a souvenir reminder of where you have been and what you have seen. They have pressed penny machines at national parks, tourist attractions, and other attractions. I last saw one at the Henry Ford Museum.

That image of a bright penny pressed and marked as a keepsake and reminder really caught my imagination. I know the cold weight of a pressed penny in my hand. I know the excitement of carrying a pressed penny in my pocket. I have seen the allure of the pressed penny machine and watched my son get caught up in the wonderful workings of that marvelous machine.

I was still thinking about pressed pennies when the sermon took us to the cross, that wonderful place of awful judgment and awe-inspiring love. I couldn’t help but imagine the suffering of Jesus as he was pushed down, stretched, marked, and crushed for our iniquities. I thought of the scars the Risen Lord bears as souvenirs of his love, evidence that my Jesus has “been there, done that” when it comes to suffering, even death.

The preacher talked about the experience of suffering in my life and about the awful things that make me wonder how God could be loving; that make me think maybe the Divine Potter doesn’t know (or care) as much as I thought. I imagined my own suffering like the workings of a penny press, and I thought of the Apostle Paul’s words:

We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.

2 Corinthians 4:8-9 (NIV)

Our suffering marks us; it shapes us; but we are not left alone in that shaping. Even suffering is held under the protective shelter of grace. Paul continues,

We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.

2 Corinthians 4:10 (NIV)

You who have been baptized have been joined to Jesus’ death and resurrection. As one who bears the sign of the cross on your forehead and on your heart to mark you as one redeemed by Christ the Crucified, you also carry in your body scars that belong to this present, fallen creation. You know the ravages of sin and ageing on your body, as you experience death ahead of time. But you do not bear those signs of suffering alone.

You suffer with Jesus. You carry around the death of Jesus in your body for a purpose: that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in your body. You experience New Creation life, ahead of time.

After the sermon, we celebrated communion, and I couldn’t help but notice the sign of the cross baked into the communion wafer. As I helped distribute the host, I felt as if I were handing out pressed pennies, signs and souvenirs that say “I’ve been there, seen the wonder, and remember the awe.”

But communion isn’t just about where we have been; it’s about where we are headed. We can talk about the Lord’s Supper as a “foretaste of the feast to come.” In a very real sense, we participate in a future reality as we break the bread and drink the wine now, ahead of time. That small wafer of bread marked with the sign of the cross is a pressed penny promise; a souvenir from your future; a sign, token, and participation in the life of the world to come.

Of course, Jesus didn’t have any pressed pennies. But the official coinage of the day carried the image and inscription of the Roman Emperor. You remember how they tried to trick Jesus into saying something that could get him arrested: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” In response, Jesus asks to see a common coin. “Whose image and whose inscription does this pressed penny bear?” Ironically, the inscription pressed on the coin Jesus is talking about would likely have claimed Tiberius Caesar as both high priest and Son of God.

“Since this common coin bears the image of Caesar, give it back to Caesar,” the true Son of God says. “But give to God that which is God’s–that which is imprinted with God’s image.”

That means you.

As a human being, you have been created in the image of God. That image has been marred and defaced by sin, but you still belong to the One whose image you bear.

Joined to the death and resurrection of Jesus, you belong to God all over again. You belong not only to the fallen creation, but to the New Creation. You carry in your body the marks of the death of Jesus, so that your body might also carry around the sign of the resurrection of Jesus. You are a pressed penny that shows where you are going and to whom you belong.

That’s what I’m taking from worship into my week. As I notice and wonder about suffering in the world and in my own life and in the lives of people I love, I will remember that pressed penny, and remember the cross, and remember the promise of the New Creation. I will think of my own scars differently, and hold them at the foot of the cross. I will ponder the scars on the hands and feat of the Lamb who was slain, but now lives forever and ever.

In moments of my life this week that are awe-inspiring or down-right awful, I will dare to pray the words of the hymn:

On my heart imprint Your image,
Blessed Jesus, King of grace,
That life’s riches, cares, and pleasures
Never may Your work erase;
Let the clear inscription be:
Jesus, crucified for me,
Is my Life, my hope’s foundation,
And my glory and salvation!

Lutheran Service Book, 422

1 Comment

  1. “That small wafer of bread marked with the sign of the cross is a pressed penny promise; a souvenir from your future; a sign, token, and participation in the life of the world to come.”
    I really like this imagery, very cool!

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