The Church Is The Better Place or: Why Did Jesus Come?

Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in NYC, broke the internet recently with the following tweet:

“Jesus didn’t come primarily to solve the economic, political, and social problems of the world. He came to forgive our sins.”

And people went crazy.

Some reacted by strongly affirming Keller’s point, and others rejected it completely as a dismissal of the social/justice orientation of the church’s mission.

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And so, the team at Crackers & Grape Juice teamed up with Scott Jones to dissect the tweet and offer our theological reflections to it.

If you want to listen to the recording or our conversation, you can do so here: Why Did Jesus Come?

 

Keep The Cross In Christmas

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Rubén Rosario Rodríguez about the readings for Christmas Eve [Year B] (Isaiah 9.2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2.11-14, Luke 2.1-20). Ruben is an Associate Professor in the Department of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University. He is passionate about Liberation Theology and keeping others honest about Karl Barth. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the temptation (and need) to preach political sermons on Christmas Eve, the themes of light and darkness, singing new songs on one of the highest attended worship services of the year, the fragility of victory, trembling in church, and keeping the cross in Christmas. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Keep The Cross In Christmas
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Remembering The End At The Beginning

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Anita Ford about the readings for the 4th Sunday of Advent [Year B] (2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16, Romans 16.25-27, Luke 1.26-38, Luke 1.46b-55). Anita is (as she puts it) a bonafide lectionary nerdling and serves at her local church as the lay leader. Additionally, Anita is a big fan of the Strangely Warmed podcast and has contributed to Voices in the Wilderness from Pupit Fiction in the past. Our conversation covers a range of topics including singing Christmas hymns during Advent, sanctuary orientation, God’s promises, the theotokos, responding to revelation, three difficult words, and magnifying the mystery. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Remembering The End At The Beginning

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When The Good News Sounds Like Bad News

Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people who the Lord has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings fort its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

My very first sermon, while a teenager, was on Paul’s description of the body of Christ from 1 Corinthians. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

I don’t remember a lot about the sermon save for the fact that it wasn’t a very good one. To begin, I had never preached before, nor had I given a lot of thought to what preaching was supposed to sound like. Second, the text itself was plenty confusing on its own without some teenager trying to wax lyrical about it. And finally, it wasn’t very good because I ended with an overly long description of the human body that bled into a call for each person in the congregation to figure out what body part they were for Jesus, and get to work.

In my head this sounded like a good charge to propel the congregation forward to do the work of Jesus in the world. But what really happened was a bunch of people left church that morning trying really hard to not think about being Jesus’ thigh, or clavicle, or pinky toe.

Jesus’ first sermon was on the text from Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Though upon reading from the scroll to the gathered congregation, he rolled it back up, sat down, and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

And, as scripture tells us, when the people heard what he said, they were filled with rage, drove him out of the synagogue, and forced him to the brow of a cliff so that they could hurl him over the edge.

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I get the frustration people can feel with regard to preaching. It wasn’t all that long ago that I was sitting on the other side of the altar during worship. But what kind of sermon is worth killing over?

Isaiah, like Jesus, was tasked with speaking to a people divided, where leaders played to the powerful and privileged, justice was available for the highest bidder, and inequality reigned supreme. The prophet attempted to bring good news to a people where isolation was more important than community, and where word of God’s extensive work was met with frustration, disapproval, and even violence.

How can good news sound so bad?

It’s all well and fine when we hear about what God is going to do for us, but when the scope of God’s salvation stretches to those other people, it’s a little harder to swallow.

Isaiah paints a picture of God’s work: The oppressed will hear good news, the brokenhearted will be healed, the captives will be set free, the jubilee year will begin.

In other words: the poor and the weak will be given power and strength, the people who mourn for better days will be rewarded, people in jail will be released, and all debts shall be forgiven instantaneously.

Now, if we were in prison, or heavily in debt, or ostracized to the outskirts of society, this would sound like really good news.

But if we made money off of those in prison, or grew powerful by lending money, or sat in the places of respect and comfort, this would sound like really bad news.

The people of God during the time of Isaiah needed hope. They were oppressed, imprisoned, and brokenhearted. And through their ruins God was going to spring forth new life, their offspring would be known among the nations, and they would be blessed.

As Bob Dylan put it, the times they were a changin’.

But it’s hard for us to side with those who are oppressed, because we’ve got it pretty good. We were able to make it here for worship on a Sunday morning, we don’t have to worry about being persecuted for our faith, and should something terrible happen we know that we have a church that will help to see us through.

It’s difficult reading Isaiah’s words because we’ve grown so comfortable with God’s love that we forget God has the capacity to hate. God is love such that all things that go against love are against God.

Isaiah boldly proclaims that God hates robbery and wrongdoing, God hates when the people take advantage of others, and God hates injustice. Which is really problematic when we live in a society that rewards those who make the most with the least effort, who prey on the weak to grow strong, and who define their own understanding of justice.

Here is where Isaiah hits home for us. Because on the surface, it might look like we’ve got it all together, but even the best among us have hidden struggles under the surface. There are things going on in our lives that we don’t want anybody else to know about and we try so hard to keep these secrets and shames bottled up. Christmas, however, has the power to reveal even the deepest secrets we keep locked away. There are the broken relationships, the ignored addictions, the denied depression, the raging affair, the greed, the hatred, the fear.

So, with all of this bad news tucked away from prying eyes, where is the Good News? Why read these words from Isaiah on the third Sunday of Advent, a day dedicated entirely to joy?

When Jesus sat down to preach for the first time, he declared that he was the one who would bring God’s transformation to a broken world. In him all would be made new. He looked out at that congregation with all their expectations about what God would do, and he exceeded them exponentially.

One of the challenges with scripture, and in particular preaching, is wrestling with what and who the Word is for. Is this text from the prophet Isaiah meant for the people of his time, and his time alone? Are the proclamations from the pulpit limited to the Advent of God in Christ and the changes that began in Bethlehem? Are Isaiah’s word meant for us today in this place at this time?

But there is yet another angle by which we can approach God’s Word today… What if its less about the past, the days of Isaiah? What if its about more than the arrival of Jesus, what if this text is describing the already, but not yet, of the future?

God most certainly sent Jesus to inaugurate a new time, a new beginning for God’s people. In Christ the Good News entered the world, but the vision of Isaiah hasn’t come to complete fruition; at least not yet.

The people receiving Jesus’ first sermon were uncomfortable with his proclamation, enough that the wanted to end his life. They couldn’t imagine a God who would so subvert and change the priorities of existence. They were far away from encountering a God who would resurrect his Son from beyond the grave.

They, in some ways, were a lot like us.

They had families to take care of, debts to manage, and secrets to keep hidden. And to hear this Jesus say that God was going to bless everyone, and in particular the people not in the synagogue, is hard to swallow when you consider all the problems you have.

So, it would seem that we have to ask ourselves a question, one we might not want to consider… If this word angered and frightened the people so much that they wanted to harm the messenger, what does it say about our church today? If we were to take stock of who we are and what we’re doing, is this church in line with God’s vision from Isaiah, are we helping to turn the world upside down?

            If not, what more can we do?

God has a vision for us here, and for Christians everywhere. God dreams about the coming future, and with God’s help it can become a reality for us.

God desires a community of faith where all are welcomed. And all means all. This implies a day when those who mourn and those who rejoice can sit next to one another in the pews, where the wealthy and poor can befriend one another, where gay and straight can feast at the table at the same time, where even republicans and democrats can find common ground.

God dreams of the day when the ancient ruins of the past will become the foundation for a new way, when the old can teach the young and the young can teach the old. This coming reality is founded upon the belief that all will know the story that reshapes all stories and that story, God’s story, will have more power than anything else.

God hopes for a day where our allegiances are not divided amongst a sea of desperation, but instead directed totally toward the Lord.

God yearns for the arrival of a new day where we cast away the idols that dominate our lives, where we replace the ashes of destruction with garlands of beauty, where justice rains down like waters.

And when that day comes, when the future breaks into the present, we shall dance and greatly rejoice in the Lord. Every fiber of our beings will exult in the Lord. When we look around we will see one another clothed in garments of salvation, with robes of righteousness, and jewels of grace. The world will cease to be what it is now, and will be like the new heaven and the new earth where tears and shame and weeping will be no more.

That day will come, though we know not when nor how. But we know that is coming. We know that it is coming because God is, was, and always will be be the Lord of all things. We know that it is coming because God always makes a way where there is no way. We know that it is coming because even when the good news sounds like bad news, it propels us into a frame of existence we never could have imagine.

We know all of this because the Good News started when Jesus was born into that tiny manger, and all of creation was changed forever. In that one divine moment the Lord caused righteousness and praise to spring up in new ways and in new places. Such that even today, people like you and me, are hearing the Good News, and it’s changing us forever. Amen.

Devotional – Psalm 126.3

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Psalm 126.3

The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

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I was in the midst of wrapping up my sermon yesterday when my 19-month-old son decided to clasp his hands together over and over and shout “Amen!” as loud as he could for everyone to hear. While some thought it was precious and perhaps even faithful for him to do so, he only really knows that we say “amen” at the end of things. Which is to say, he was trying to get me to stop preaching!

I couldn’t help but laugh when I finally got to my “amen” at the end of the sermon as I looked over and saw a huge grin across his face as he was standing straight up in the pew next to his mother. And in that fleeting moment, I realized how remarkably blessed I am.

In the ordinary moment of doing what I do every week, I took in the scene in a way that I had not done so before.

Does that ever happen to you? Do you experience moments where you contemplate how wonderful your life really is, but you realize it’s outside the frame of reference for what should be considered a blissful moment? Sure, when we graduate from school, or say “I will” to our spouse at the altar, or welcome a child into the world, we should count ourselves blessed. But those strange mysterious moments of ordinary divine gratitude are helpful reminders in between the big life events.

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In just a few days, scores of people will be gathering with family members from far and near to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. There will be moments where individuals look at the scene before them (children tearing open gifts, a full family at the dinner table, wood crackling in the fireplace) and think the great things God has done for them.

But why do we only think those thoughts at special times during the year?

I had a very typical moment from the pulpit yesterday, but it struck a profound chord within me. I am blessed each and every day in ways that I don’t deserve. I encounter people and experiences for which I should be extremely grateful. And to be honest, I don’t thank God nearly enough for all that God has done for me.

It is my hope and prayer that during the remaining days of Advent, each of us can look for those wonderful ordinary moments that remind us of all the great things God has done for us.

We can keep singing about how this is the most wonderful time of year, but with God every single day is a tremendous blessing, a blessing for which we should rejoice.

The Appearance Of Perfection

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Anita Ford about the readings for the 3rd Sunday of Advent [Year B] (Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5.16-24, John 1.6-8, 19-28). Anita is (as she puts it) a bonafide lectionary nerdling and serves at her local church as the lay leader. Additionally, Anita is a big fan of the Strangely Warmed podcast and has contributed to Voices in the Wilderness from Pupit Fiction in the past. Our conversation covers a range of topics including how jubilee is not a time on the calendar, the beauty of purple paraments, currents events matching up with the lectionary texts, Barth bombs, the Wizard of Oz, and ugly Christmas trees. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Appearance Of Perfection

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Breaking The Silence

Isaiah 40.1-11

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower in the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arms rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

I’ve been asking a lot of people the same question recently: “What’s your favorite Christmas song?” It’s a great question because it accomplishes three things: It’s gets a conversation going even among people who don’t know each other very well, it sheds light on what kind of hopes and expectations people place on this season, and it helps me learn which hymns you all know how to sing on Sunday mornings!

The answers have been marvelous; I’ve heard memories of standing with long lost family members with the words of O Holy Night passing between them. I’ve been told about the power of Handel’s Messiah and it’s ability to make even the tightest lip quiver with joy. I’ve even learned about bizarre traditions like family competitions to make up new words to Joy to the World on the spot without any practice.

There is some really good Christmas music out there. Perhaps we think it’s so good because we only listen to it for a season every year and therefore are not overwhelmed by it. But nevertheless, there is at least one song that drives me crazy this time of year, one song that I will immediately shut off the radio if I hear the opening chords, one song that has no place in the Christmas lexicon: Baby, It’s Cold Outside.

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Now, don’t get me wrong, when I was younger I loved the song. There’s something about Dean Martin’s voice that just makes the song sound like melted butter, and the scene in Elf when Will Ferrell starts singing it in the shower makes me laugh no matter what. But as I’ve aged, the more I’ve realized how problematic the song really is.

When you pull back the veneer of incredible voices and dynamite harmonies, the song is nothing more than a man forcing a woman to stay the night against her own will. It is, in verse and chorus format, sexual misconduct.

Check it out: I really can’t stay, I’ve got to go away. This evening has been, so very nice. My mother will start to worry, my father will be pacing the floor, so really I’d better scurry, but maybe just a half a drink more… The neighbors might think, say what’s in this drink?

All the while the male voice is doing everything in his power to convince and force her to stay.

The cultural acceptance of a song like Baby, It’s Cold Outside is precisely why we are hearing, every week, about more people (and in particular men) being accused of this kind of behavior.

Behavior we learn about in an all too beloved Christmas song.

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Who are we supposed to be comforting this time of year? Those who sit in the warmth of a church sanctuary on a cold December morning? Those whose trees are almost hidden behind mounds of presents? Those who have a full family around the table for dinner every night?

A voice cries out, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

The Lord declares that a reckoning is coming; all will be made new. The mighty shall be brought low and the weak shall be made strong. Only then, only with the reversal and evening of all things, shall the glory of the Lord be revealed.

During Advent we are forced to recognize that God is in the business of toppling things over, particularly the things we’ve grown all too comfortable with.

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Over the last few months there has been a continuous revealing of sexual harassment from some of the most powerful people in our country. Whether substantiated or not, we haven’t gone a few days without another name bubbling to the service. Roy Moore with young girls many years ago, Al Franken both before and after he became a senator, Matt Lauer installed a button to lock his door to trap women in his office, Harvey Weinstein repeatedly used his power to assault and manipulate young actresses. Even our president has not escaped the scores of women coming forward to name the terrible things that have been done to them. And I don’t think the naming is going to stop any time soon.

But to make matters even worse, many of these men have had these habits for a very long time and nothing was ever done about it. The abused women were made to feel powerless and threatened if they ever revealed what happened, others in power knew about the behaviors and made light of them, and many of us have grown all too comfortable with a world where women are made to feel inferior.

Even the United Methodist Church is not immune to the degradation of women. In the Virginia Annual Conference, clergywomen who have the same education and worked the same number of years make, on average, $12,180.94 less than their clergymen counterparts. (UMC GCSRW)

I could go on and on with examples of how sexism and disruptive power dynamics have done terrible things to and against women. A song like Baby, It’s Cold Outside is only scratching the surface but it goes to show how deeply entrenched these practices and behaviors really are.

The word from Isaiah, from God, comes as the people are suffering under an oppression that seems inescapable. God declares that a new thing is happening to and for a people who feel no hope. Babylon, like too many men today, rules with an iron fist, the power feels inescapable, and that precisely when God describes the coming change, the evening of all things, and we’re part of it.

I’m ashamed to admit that as more and more names have come out, the Kevin Spaceys and Charlie Roses and Louis C.K.s, I’ve been surprised how pervasive this is. My surprise is embarrassing because I see the world through my own lens (white male) and therefore have ignored or been blind to what actually happens. When I talked with my wife, and my sisters, female friends and church folk, they have not been surprised. Their lack of surprise is due to the fact that for every famous and powerful man that asserts his will or degrades a woman, there is an equal (if not higher) number of men in the workplace or in the community who do the same.

We live in a world where women are made to feel less than men.

And God is doing something about it.

During the time of Isaiah, the people of Israel existed in a state of misery: they were stripped of their institutional structures that shaped their lives, their temple was destroyed, and they were compelled to worship the Babylonian god Marduk. And God, like God had done before, has a new vision for God’s people, a way through the wilderness, a wilderness reshaped by the Grace of God.

Today, we are captured and captivated by a culture that tells us all is well when we know that all is hell. If the world had it’s way, we would be prevented from entering and contemplating these difficult things, but we come to a place like this precisely to hear a counter to the culture.

Women in the world exist under the threat of male chauvinism, physical and emotional abuse, and a patriarchal frame of reference that would make Jesus turn even more tables.

It is good and right for us to receive this word from Isaiah during the season of Advent, while word of female suffering comes forth every day. It is good and right because the story of Advent is one about believing what a woman says about what has happened to her, namely Mary. Advent is the season in which we relearn how God identifies God’s self with those on the margins, and not with the powerful. Advent is the time where we look for the ways God is turning the world upside-down and we give thanks.

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When we hear these words from scripture, about comforting the people of God, they are meant for those who have been forced to the margins of life by the powers and principalities. They are words of hope to those with no hope that a new thing is beginning.

And for those of us who feel too comfortable in life, too comfortable with this season, too comfortable with the status quo, those of us who might not be able to witness the suffering of others because of our towers of privilege, there is something for us to hear as well.

We should hear this word and tremble.

This Word helps to establish the distinction between those who rejoice at the word of God’s arrival and those who see God’s rule as a threat to their own power and position. Advent shines a light on the truth of our lives in a way that most of us would rather avoid. The prophet shouts to us through the sands of time and beckons us to imagine where we have fallen short, to wait for God to judge our iniquity, and to respond to God’s grace made manifest in the manger.

This is the God we worship. Or, as Isaiah puts it, “Here is your God!” The One who makes all things new, who brings down the mighty, who comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, who makes a way where there is no way. Here is your God who provides a voice to the voiceless, who empowers the powerless, and breaks the silence.

On this Second Sunday of Advent, as we step closer and closer to the manger in Bethlehem, as we wait for the next Advent of God’s Son, the Word grabs hold of our souls and begs us to consider: “Are we aligning ourselves with those on the margins? Are we listening to the people that Jesus listened to? Are we participating in the great reversal of all things?”

God is making a way where there is no way, every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill shall be made low.

Here is our God! Amen.