Sola Gratia

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Heather and Daniel Wray about the readings for the 4th Sunday of Lent [B] (Numbers 21.4-9, Psalm 107.1-3, 17-22, Ephesians 2.1-10, John 3.14-21). Heather serves as the Director of Connect Ministries at Leesburg UMC in Leesburg, VA and Daniel serves as the pastor at Round Hill UMC in Round Hill, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including good books, shortsightedness, Raiders of the Lost Ark, instant gratification, divine subversion, geographic gathering, deadly trespasses, Nicodemus, and living in grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Sola Gratia

Faithful Failure

Psalm 118.20-24

This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

Mark 8.27-33

Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Messiah.” And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

They were walking along the road when suddenly the Lord stopped.

The disciples look around as if a message is about to descend from the heavens or, at the very least, maybe some manna will come floating down. 

But instead, Jesus just stands there with a slightly furrowed brow.

Hey,” he begins, “let me ask ya’ll a question: Who do people say that I am?

“Well, I heard someone in the crowd yesterday whisper about you being the best thing to come out of Nazareth since on-call carpentry.”

“Yeah, and when we left your home synagogue, they kept calling you Mary and Joseph’s boy.”

“I’ve got one J, and you’re gonna love this because he’s your cousin, but some people are calling you John the Baptist.”

“I can top that – I was talking with one of the Pharisees last week and he kept referring to you as the prophet Elijah!”

Fine,” Jesus replies, “That’s all fine. But who do you say that I am?

Silence.

Until Peter, ever eager Peter, nonchalantly replies, “You’re the Messiah.

And that’s why you’re the rock!” Jesus high-fives the first called disciple, and they continue on their merry way to the villages of Caesarea Philippi.

However, right before walking into a large gathered crowd, Jesus pulls his followers in close in a huddle. “Hey, remember that stuff about me being the Messiah? Don’t tell anyone okay? They all have their own notions about what the Messiah is supposed to say and do, and if you go around telling them the truth, they’re going to try and fit me into their boxes which simply won’t do in the Kingdom. Understand? Good.” 

Then Jesus walks smack dab into the middle of the people and he begins teaching them the Gospel: “The Son of Man, that’s me, must undergo great suffering, I will be rejected by the people in power, the elders, chief priests, and even the scribes won’t go along with what I’ve got to offer. And then they’re gonna kill me, hang me up on a cross for everyone to see. But guess what? Three days later, I’m going to rise again!

And Peter, who shortly before was the only disciple to get the right answer, grabs his Lord by the arm and yanks him away from the crowds. “What do you think you’re doing? You can’t die! You’re the Messiah! You are the Christ! You’re the one whose going to set everything right, put us back in charge, make Jerusalem great again and all that! You can’t be the Messiah and be rejected. That doesn’t make any sense.

But Jesus pulls his arm back from Peter, looks back out over the crowd and screams: “Get behind me Satan! You’ve got you mind stuck on earthly matters, but I’ve come to overcome the world!

Peter gets it right and Peter gets it wrong.

Along the road he provides a straight answer about Jesus’ identity (a welcome reprieve from all the hop-stepping we usually do when asked a question). But then later, when the Christ, the Messiah whom he just confessed, starts making ominous references to suffering and shame and even crucifixion, Peter gets it wrong.

Dead wrong.

And in the blink of an eye he goes from Peter the rock to Peter the block head, from the first called disciple to being called Satan.

I don’t know about you, but I love Peter. I love his eagerness and his faithfulness and I really love how much of a failure he is. Peter, in our passage from the strange new world of the Bible today, joins a long line of biblical failures:

Noah, the only good soul the Lord could find, delivers the survivors of the flood to dry land only to plant some grape vines and proceeds to get good and drunk.

Judah, son of Jacob, accidentally sleeps with his own daughter-in-law who pulled one over on his by dressing up as a harlot. And when Judah finds out that she got knocked up while a lady of the night, he orders her to be burned at the stake and he only relents when he discovers that he, himself, fathered the child in her.

And David? David rapes a woman and then has her husband murdered in order to cover up his transgression.

When you take in the great swath of characters from scripture, both the Old Testament and the New Testaments, they’re mostly a bunch of losers who keep messing up over and over again.

What wonderfully Good News!

Their failures of faith are in fact Good News because they help rid us of the suffocating notion that we have to be perfectly and squeakily clean in order to follow Jesus.

They remind us over and over again that only when we let go of the facade of our never-ending niceness and our righteous certainty and our perennial self-improvement projects, that the splendor of grace can hit us squarely in the chest.

Or, to put it another way, it’s hard to receive Christ’s mercy if we don’t think we need it.

The life of faith is one in which we come to grips with the condition of our condition only then to be bombarded with the Good News that God in Christ has transformed all things for a bunch of people undeserving!

Do you see? Peter here, in his failure, helps us see that our failure (whether big or small, intentional or unintentional) none of that excludes us from God.

Consider: Peter is called Satan, by Jesus! 

Can you imagine anything worse?

Called by the Lord while fishing, witness to miracles and healings and feedings and teachings, the confessor of the truth of Jesus’s identity, the rock upon which Jesus says he will building his church!

And then he gets it wrong.

But that’s not the end of his wrongness. 

On their final evening together Jesus tells Peter that before the morning Peter will deny knowing him. To which, of course, Peter scoffs. And yet, it’s true. Made all the worse by the fact that this first disciple joins the rest in abandoning the Lord to die on the cross. Alone.

Jesus quite literally does what he says he will do, the very things Peter can’t get on board with, and then three days later he rises to find his first disciple by the sea, shares some bread and broiled fish, and gives him a job to do.

In the church, we call this grace.

It is the unmerited, undeserved, gift of God in Christ Jesus.

It’s wild stuff.

Made all the more wild considering how often we squander the gift.

We, like Peter, build up these ideas for ourselves about who Jesus is and what Jesus stands for and those ideas, more often than not, crumble under our feet. We convince ourselves that Jesus is on our side (which, of course means Jesus is against the people we’re against) when in fact Jesus has not come to bring us more of the same, whatever it may be. 

Jesus has overcome the world and all of its machinations.

Let’s say we believe, as Peter did, that Jesus comes to overthrow the current reigning political proclivities. Sure, fine, but what happens when the people in power stay in power? Does that mean Jesus failed?

Jesus is not an instrument of either side of partisan politics. Jesus is God! And God has come to dwell among us, to rectify our wrongs, to save us from ourselves, and to turn the cosmos upside down. 

Put simply, our notions of Jesus are, more often than not, too limited.

We’re like Peter. Perhaps we’ve caught a glimpse behind the curtain of the cosmos, we’ve experienced something we can’t explain, we’ve had a taste of the holy food, and yet we still want Jesus to fit into whatever box we’ve construed in our minds. 

But Peter came to know the truth of Jesus in a way that we do well to remember whenever we can: Jesus was rejected.

And not just by the chief priests and the scribes and the elders.

Jesus was rejected by his own disciples!

Jesus was rejected by Peter!

The Elect Son of Man and Son of God, born for us and among us, is ultimately rejected by us.

Jesus is regaled by the crowds with their cries of “Hosanna” when he enters Jerusalem and, by the end of Holy Week, those same crowds lift up clenched fists with shouts of “Crucify!”

The Lord comes to deliver the last, least, lost, little, and dead only to, in the end, hang on the cross and becomes the very thing he came to deliver.

But this is the Good News: while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. 

He has taken the cleanup of the cosmos entirely into his own hands, hands with holes in them. He does not hang from the cross until we confess our sins, he doesn’t wait in the grave until we get our lives together. He does what he does without us having to do anything – which makes the Gospel the most radical thing in history.

He does what he does for Peter knowing precisely that he would fail.

He does what he does for us knowing precisely that we will fail.

At the end of all things, the only thing we can really do is rest and trust in the knowledge that Jesus has come to do something for us that we couldn’t and wouldn’t do on our own.

Couldn’t, because none of us can atone for our sins, let alone for the sins of the world.

And wouldn’t, because Jesus insists on letting in all the riff riff that we would otherwise ignore.

The casket was set up by the altar and the family was in the narthex waiting for the funeral to begin. I, meanwhile, was pacing back and forth in the parking lot, feeling sorry for the family because no one else showed up for the funeral.

There’s something terribly sad about a sparsely attended service for the dead.

But, frankly, I couldn’t blame people for not showing up. The man now dead, the one whose body was shut up in the coffin, was one of the meanest and most awful people I’d ever known. He belittled people, he was terribly racist, and he spoke his mind without caring at all about how much it could hurt. He would shout at people during church meetings, he would stick his finger into people’s faces during fellowship, and would loudly complain about everything even when people weren’t around to listen.

Two minutes before the funeral was scheduled to begin, while I was making my way across the parking lot to the narthex, cars started streaming in. 

One by one I watched people from the church community step out of the cars and across the parking lot, and with each passing one I replayed moments in my mind of how horrible the dead man had been to each of the people walking in. 

The last person to step across the threshold of the sanctuary was an older woman with whom the dead man had been particularly horrible. I motioned for her to come close and I whispered in her ear, “What are you doing here? I thought you hated him!”

To which she replied, “Well preacher, didn’t you say last Sunday that even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died?” 

The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it! Amen.

A Dangerous Time For Christians

“I have always thought that Lent is a dangerous time for Christians. This time in the church year, I fear, tempts us to play at being Christian. We are to discipline our lives during Lent in order to discover and repent of those sins that prevent us from the wholehearted worship of God. That is a perfectly appropriate ambition, but we are not very good at it. We are not very good at it because, in general, we are not very impressive sinners. Just as most of us are mediocre Christians, so we are mediocre sinners. As a result, Lent becomes a time we get to play at being sinners while continuing to entertain the presumption that we are not all that bad… I am not suggesting that Lenten disciplines do not have a place. Giving up something we will miss may help us discover forms of self-centeredness that make us less than Christ has made possible. But, hopefully, we will find ways to avoid playing at being sinful. Lent is not a time to play at anything but rather a time to confess that we would have shouted ‘Crucify him!’” – Stanley Hauerwas

If Hauerwas is right, and Lent is a dangerous time for Christians, we should certainly be careful about what we say and do during this season. I’m treating this Lent as an opportunity to come to grips with the condition of my/our condition. That is, I’m trying to place myself squarely in the category of sinner rather than in the category of self-righteous.

Which is no easy thing.

I remember one Good Friday when I stood before the gathered congregation and encouraged everyone to stand to sing the hymn “Ah, Holy Jesus.” It’s a strange hymn in a minor key and we all struggled through it, but when the service was over there was a woman waiting for me in the narthex who declared, “If we ever sing that song again, I am never coming back to the church.”

I inquired as to what exactly it was about the sound that upset her so much and she said, “I never would’ve crucified Jesus! And I’m offended that I had to sing those words.”

Verse 2: Who was the guilty? Who brought this upon thee? / Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee! / ‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee; / I crucified thee.

There is a desire within many of us to think that, had we been there, we would’ve been good little disciples and we would’ve stayed with Jesus until the very end. Remember, however, that even the first disciples called by Jesus, the ones who witnessed his healings, ate his miraculous meals, listened to his powerful proclamations, even they abandoned him in the end.

Do you see? The truth is that we can try to convince ourselves of our self-righteousness, but God will not allow us to get away with such arrogance.

That’s why we sing songs like “Ah, Holy Jesus” every year to remember that we, just like everyone else, would’ve shouted crucify.

Lent, to use Hauerwas’ words, isn’t a time to play – it’s a time to be honest about who we are.

But hear the Good News: it’s precisely in knowing who we are that the Lord chooses to forgive us from the cross.

Write This Down

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Heather and Daniel Wray about the readings for the 3rd Sunday of Lent [B] (Exodus 20.1-17, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 1.18-25, John 2.13-22). Heather serves as the Director of Connect Ministries at Leesburg UMC in Leesburg, VA and Daniel serves as the pastor at Round Hill UMC in Round Hill, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the pros and cons of clergy couples, connect ministries, rule following, divine jealousy, the freedom of the Law, Thomas Merton, the foolishness of the cross, the S word, musical instruments, and the Temple tantrum. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Write This Down

Between Love & Hate

Psalm 35.17-21

How long, O Lord, will you look on? Rescue me from their ravages, my life from the lions! Then I will thank you in the great congregation; in the mighty throng I will praise you. Do not let my treacherous enemies rejoice over me, or those who hate me without cause wink the eye. For they do not speak peace, but they conceive deceitful words against those who are quiet in the land. They open wide their mouths against me; they say, “Aha, Aha, our eyes have seen it.”

John 15.18-25

“If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates me hates my Father also. If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not have sin. But now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. It was to fulfill the word that is written in their law, ‘They hated me without a cause.’”

Something happened.

It’s not altogether clear what the something is that happened, but something definitely happened.

We live in a very different world than we once did.

And I don’t just mean because of the pandemic.

There was a time when everyone seemed to assume that you would grow up, go to school, get married, have two kids, pay your taxes, and go to church.

That world no longer exists.

Whatever the something is that happened, it had a major impact on the church. For, it is no longer assumed that new people will keep streaming in through the sanctuary doors (back when we could have in-person services) nor will they willfully sit through an entire service from the comfort of their couches simply because that’s what people are supposed to do.

Church, now, is a choice. And it is a choice among a myriad of other choices regarding what we can do with our time. 

So, how has the church responded to this something that happened?

Well, in large part, we’ve decided that the best path forward is to convince people to love us because we’re a people of love.

Which, all things considered, isn’t such a bad idea. God is love, after all. Jesus does tell us to love God and neighbor. Maybe, just maybe, love is all we need.

So we, as an institution, created banners proclaiming the necessity of love, we crafted sermon series about how God loves everyone just the way they are, we dropped the L word as often as we could when, frighteningly, we’re not entirely sure we know what we mean when we talk about love.

Here’s an example from a sermon I listened to recently: “God loves you just the way you are, but God doesn’t want you to stay just as you are.”

What in the world does that mean?

Therefore, we find ourselves in a place where love is the key to being the church and even if we don’t know what it means, or even what it looks like, we at least know that, in the end, we all want to be loved.

And yet, Jesus tells his disciples, and us, that following him means the world will hate us.

“Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you…If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.”

Which, if we’re being honest, isn’t an easy thing to hear from our Lord. 

Particularly when we’ve convinced ourselves the whole point of church is to love and be loved in return.

Here’s a brief thought-experiment – Let’s imagine, if we can, Jesus showing up today. What would he look like? With whom would he spend his time? What would he preach about?

Usually, when we picture Jesus, he’s this hippy-dippy character who throws up a peace sign every once in a while, he asks us to all get along, and above all he is nice.

But Jesus wasn’t nice. You don’t crucify someone for being nice.

If God just wanted us to be more loving, why did Jesus have to come to tell us that? 

If God is all about love, then why did God go through all the trouble of being this particular person, Jesus, at a particular time and a particular place?

Jesus knew that life wasn’t all that it’s often cracked up to be. He told stories about giving money away, he regularly ridiculed the rich, he belittled the religious authorities, he called into question all of the powers and principalities of his day.

And for that, and more, he was hated.

Take the whole Gospel in: the crowds grow and grow only to leave him abandoned in the end. 

Are we sure that we want to follow this Jesus?

If we can’t imagine being hated for our discipleship, we can, at the very least, recover how odd of a thing it is to be Christian. This whole proclamation we call the Gospel is an extraordinary adventure, and that’s not that same thing as wanting to be liked/loved by everyone.

Consider – Last week we looked at Jesus’ temptations from the Devil out in the wilderness. He doesn’t eat for forty days, he contends against the powers of Satan, and then he returns to call upon the first disciples. And, in our minds, we just kind of assume the earliest conversations went something like this: “Okay, so I’m God in the flesh. I’m the Messiah. And I finally figured out how to solve all the world’s problems… All we need is love. Now, go and tell everyone what I said.”

But, of course, that’s not what happened.

Because, again, if all Jesus came to do what push us in the direction of love, then why did everyone reject him. Why did the crowds, to use the language of our passages today, hate him?

Perhaps Jesus was hated because he refused to give the people what they wanted on their own terms. Remember – the Devil offered Jesus the power to institute feeding programs, the power over all earthly kingdoms, and even the power to instill faith in all people.

But Jesus refused.

Jesus refused because God’s kingdom cannot become manifest through the devil’s means.

But that doesn’t mean that Jesus is a Messiah of apathy, laziness, or indifference.

Jesus is very political – in fact, he is an entirely new politic. But the Kingdom Jesus inaugurates through his life, death, and resurrection is one that comes through the transformation of the world’s understanding of how to get things to happen.

Unlike the world, Jesus refuses to use violence in order to achieve peace.

Unlike the world, Jesus refuses to use coercive measures in order to make the Kingdom come.

Unlike the world, Jesus refuses to use the powers and principalities to do anything

Therefore, the offense, the thing people hate, is not that Jesus wanted his followers to be more loving – the offense is Jesus himself. 

Over and over again he talks about bringing down the mighty and lifting up the lowly because he’s in the business of rectification.

He talks about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked for no reason other than the fact that they’re hungry and naked.

He talks about dying in order to be raised so that the whole of the cosmos can be raised with him for FREE.

Is is then any wonder that the world wasn’t prepared to welcome this Messiah?

It is any wonder that people have hated Jesus and his followers since the beginning?

Jesus was ultimately put to death not because he thought that the world could use a little more love, though we certain could. Jesus was killed because he embodied and proclaimed an entirely different reality that threatens anyone with any power.

Put simply, Jesus was killed for telling the truth.

For us today, the problem with Jesus’ truth-telling is that we, and the world, are drunk with deception, we hoard half-truths, and we live by lies.

Telling the truth is no easy endeavor – it got Jesus killed and it can upturn everything about our lives. But contrary to how we often water-down the gospel, there’s nothing safe about Jesus, no matter what VeggieTales might tell us.

Jesus offers freedom from our anxieties by giving us, of all things, a yoke to wear around our necks.

Jesus shares the possibility of transformation here and now by inviting us into his death (baptism) so that we might rise into new life.

Jesus promises our resurrection from the dead not with a wave of a magic wand, but by making of members of his very body redeemed by his blood so that we can become a community that is an alternative to the world.

And for that, the world might just hate us.

Why? 

Jesus forms us into a people who live by strange ways and by strange means. We are a community who gathers (even virtually) with people we share nothing in common with except that Jesus binds us to one another.

We are a community who believe in the transformative power of praying for our enemies, turning the other cheek, feeding the hungry, befriending the friendless, and hoping against hope.

We are a community committed to the least of these even if (and when) the world tries to convince us to do otherwise.

God in Christ has knit us together to be a people of love in a world that runs by hate, which is a very dangerous way to live.

It might sound difficult or even frightening, but its at least an adventure. The Gospel is not merely one thing after another, it’s the only things that really matters – it’s the difference that makes the difference.

Hear the Good News, the Gospel: Despite our best efforts, and all of our best intentions, we couldn’t climb all the way up to God. We couldn’t save ourselves and we couldn’t save the world even though we certainly tried. We convinced ourselves that if we just loved each other a little bit more that things would finally be set right. But things largely stayed the same.

So what did God do? Was God delighted to give us an A for effort but an F for execution and therefore closed the door of the kingdom right in our faces? 

Actually, in a wild act of humility (read: humiliation) God came down to us, became one with us.

We always thought that the whole purpose of this thing called faith, this thing called church, was so somehow get ourselves closer to God. And then God came down to us, down to the level of the cross, straight into the muck and the mire of this life, all the way down into the very depths of hell.

He who knew no sin took on our sin so that we might be free of it.

Listen- This is not something that happened just for other people in other places – God still stoops down into your life and into mine. God has taken stock of all of our choices, the good and the bad, and still chooses to come and be God for us, with us, in spite of us. 

God loves you so much that God was willing to die.

Jesus died for you.

He lived his whole life as a refugee and amidst poverty, he endured reproaches and derision and abuse just so that you and I could escape death.

Jesus does this knowing full and well that we are the very people who would’ve shouted crucify.

Jesus is peculiarly obstinate.

And it is wonderful. 

Jesus does not need us, but we certainly need him. 

And that’s the scandal of the Gospel – Jesus, God in the flesh, chooses to live, die, and live again for us and we don’t deserve it one bit. 

No one does.

And we are now called to live in the light of that perplexing Good News. That light helps us to see ourselves and one another not according to the ways of the world where we measure everyone and everything by worth, but according to the One who is the way, the truth, and the life. 

The world might hate us for it, but Jesus has overcome the world.

Something has happened. And things are not as they once were. But this is still good news, because the something that happened is called Jesus. Amen. 

The Elected Rejected

Isaiah 43.1

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

Election is, often, a dirty word in the church. In our particularly problematic political times we like to keep people happy so we generally avoid talking about politics and partisan ideologies. We encourage people to think for themselves and make their own decisions in regard to such matters. 

However, even more divisive than American electoral politics is the church’s struggle to respond to the Doctrine of Election.

Put simply – The Doctrine of Election (attempts) to explain the lengths of God’s sovereignty. Or, perhaps even more simply, it is a theological way to respond to questions like “Why did God allow this/that to happen?”

To talk about election is to take steps into mystery. We, of course, don’t care much for mystery. We like to have answers to all of our questions. We like things being neat and orderly. However, God often hands us the complete opposite.

And so, because we like to make order out of chaos, we have disagreed throughout the history of the church about God’s electing work and we now have the great mosaic of denominations rather than “dwelling together in unity.”

Enter Karl Barth. [Barth was a very significant Christian theologian in the middle of the 20th century.]

In II.2 of the Church Dogmatics Barth sets out to define what it is that makes one “elect.” He begins with a general answer about how election is not something to be earned or deserved, but simply is the way that it is. But then, in a profound and rather long excursus, Barth compares the elected and the rejected characters throughout the Old Testament in order to bring home exactly what it means to be elect in Jesus Christ.

Cain and Abel – The difference between the brothers is not based on any prior mark of distinction, but from a decision on God’s behalf concerning them. However, even though Abel is clearly favored and Cain is not, this does not mean that God has abandoned or rejected Cain. Notably, even though Cain killed his brother, God promises to protect Cain’s life.

Jacob and Esau – Esau is the older and favorite son of Isaac, but it is Jacob (the little heel grabber) who ultimately receives the birthright and the blessing. However, God does not abandon either of them to their own devices, but promises to bless the world through their offspring.

Rachel and Leah – Jacob loves Rachel more than Leah but Leah is the one the Lord makes fruitful. However, God does not reject Rachel and she, eventually, gives birth to Joseph.

Joseph and his brothers – Joseph is rejected by his brothers and self off into slavery. However, Joseph is instrumental in the deliverance of God’s people from famine who are then brought into the land of Egypt.

On and on we could go. Barth’s central point is that even though certain figures appear rejected by God, they are, in fact, blessed and intimately involved in God’s great story that culminates in Jesus

Without them the great narrative simply isn’t possible.

And then, in Jesus, we discover both the elect and the reject. The Elect Son of God, born for us and among us, is ultimately rejected by us. 

He is regaled by the crowds and dismissed by the religious authorities. 

He is celebrated by the last, least, lost, little, and dead only to be chased out of town for preaching a sermon about himself. 

He is surrounded by followers who hang on his every word only to be abandoned by all of them when he, himself, hung on the cross. 

And yet, how does Jesus choose to use some of his final earthly breaths?

“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

We, all of us, deserve rejection. We all choose to do things we know we shouldn’t do, and we all avoid doing things we know we should do. That, in a sense, is what Lent is all about. This liturgical season is focused on considering the condition of our condition. 

To borrow an expression of Paul’s: There is nothing good in us. 

We, to put it another way, are up the creek without a paddle.   

And yet, strangely enough, the elected rejected Jesus Christ takes all of our sins, nails them to the cross, and leaves them there forever. Thanks be to God. 

The Gospel On A Bumper Sticker

Mark 8.31

Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribe, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 

What’s the Good News?

It might seem like a rather innocuous question, but how we answer that question can make all the difference in the world.

A friend of mine, also a pastor, is currently in the process of hiring an associate pastor to join him in his parish ministry. He looked through a handful of resumes and eventually reached out to interview some of the strongest candidates. In each conversation they discussed call stories, best church practices, and a handful of other topics, but my friend ended each interview with the same question, “What is the Good News?”

One would hope that clergy would know how to respond to such an inquiry, but the candidates struggled to articulate the faith they have committed their lives to.

Which makes me curious… how would you answer the question?

Let’s imagine someone has come to you with a tremendous opportunity – The person has agreed to pay for hundreds of bumper stickers to be passed out to all the members of the church in order to drum up some conversations in the community, but you have to come up with the slogan for the bumper sticker AND the slogan has to be the answer to the question: “What is the Good News?”

So, what’s your answer?

(Will Willimon once told me he could summarize the Gospel in seven words: “God refuses to be God without us”)

The Devil We Know

Psalm 91.9-13

Because you have made the Lord your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone. You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.

Luke 4.1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time. 

His hair was still wet from the baptism in the Jordan river when Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Spirit. Mark tells us that the Spirit literally kicked Jesus out in the unknown places.

And there, for forty days, Jesus ate nothing and was tempted by the devil. 

It is a tradition in the life of the church to begin the forty days of Lent with Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. We, in a sense, mirror the journey Jesus faced with our own attempts at wrestling with temptation while fasting from certain items, behavior, or practices.

Some of us give up social media, or chocolate, or unkind thoughts (good luck with that one). While some of us add new disciplines like daily bible reading and prayer, intentional silence, or journaling.

Nevertheless, this temptation story leaves us with a question: Who in the world is this Jesus?

Earlier in the gospel we read about how he was born to a virgin in a back alley of the town of bread, and how an angelic host sang the Good News of his arrival to a bunch of nobodies out in a field in the middle of the night. 

Later, magi from faraway places brought him gifts fit for royalty and King Herod was so terrified of his arrival that he ordered all of the children in Bethlehem to be put to death.

We then fast forward to his baptism by his cousin, after which the sky was torn into pieces as a voice bellowed: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased.”

But now this Son of Man and Son of God is out who-knows-where dealing with who-knows-what.

And yet, this story tells us exactly what kind of Messiah this Jesus is and will be. It gives a glimpse behind the curtain of the cosmos. It helps us to know how it ends just as it begins.

“Okay,” Satan says, “If you are who you say you are, let’s see some ID. No pockets in your robe? Fine. I’m sure you’re hungry. We’ve been out here for forty days. So why don’t you make some of these stones into bread? It might come in handy down the road… what could be more holy than having mercy on the hungry and filling their bellies?”

“It is written,” Jesus says, “That we cannot and shall not live by bread alone.”

“So you know your scripture!” the Devil replies, “I understand. And, frankly, I’m with you Jesus – you can’t just give hungry people food for nothing. They’ll become dependent. No handouts in the Kingdom of God! But what about this? Would you like some political power? Here’s the deal – I’ll give you the keys to the kingdoms here on earth, all you have to do, and it’s a tiny thing really, is bow down and worship me.”

“It is written,” Jesus says “we shall only worship one God.”

“Okay, okay, geez. Don’t be such a stick in the mud,” the devil continues, “So you won’t show compassion to the hungry, not even yourself, and you won’t just go ahead and make the world a better place through political machinations. Fine. For what it’s worth, I can play the scripture game too. So what about this? Why don’t you leap from the top of the temple, give the people a sign of God’s power and might, for doesn’t it say in the Psalms: ‘For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’? Do it and the people will be filled with faith.”

“It is written,” Jesus says, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.”

“This is getting boring,” Satan intones, “I’m getting out of here.”

Pretty wild stuff. 

The devil temps the Lord of lords and fails to catch him. The devil even attempts to use scripture to catch Jesus in the snare, but it doesn’t work. 

Now, usually, when we hear this story at the beginning of Lent (if we hear it at all) it is framed in such a way to encourage us to resist our own temptations. Lent, after all, is a season when we ditch a bad habit or pick up new ones.

And, yes, we should resist temptation – there are things we want to do that we shouldn’t do.

But if that’s all the story is meant to do, than surely Jesus’ could’ve been a little clearer about what is and isn’t permissible. If Jesus’ temptations are really about our temptations, than wouldn’t it have been better for the Lord to add a little exhortative proclamation for the people in the back?

Do you see? This isn’t, really, a story about how we deal with our temptations. It’s actually a story about how Jesus deals with the world, how Jesus deals with us.

Notice – The devil offers Jesus objectively good things – bread, political power, miracles. 

And yet, Jesus refused all three.

It would be one thing if Satan offered Jesus ten Big Macs, or nuclear weapons, or let your imagination run wild. But the devil didn’t. Instead, the devil presented Jesus with possibilities for the transformation of the world and Jesus did nothing.

Except, and here’s the real kicker, throughout the rest of the Gospel Jesus does, in fact, do all the things that the devil suggests!

Instead of whipping together a nice loaf of artisan bread out in the wilderness, instead of making some biscuits from the rocks, Jesus later feeds the 5,000 with nothing more than a few slices of wonder bread and a handful of fish sticks.

Instead of getting caught up in all the political policies to Make Jerusalem Great Again, Jesus reigns from, of all places, the cross of his execution and then ascends to the right hand of the Father as King of kings and Lord of lords.

Instead of pulling off a Houdini-esque magic trick that would make even the crowds in Las Vegas jump to their feet, instead of jumping to certain death only to be rescued by the heavenly host at the last second, he dies… and refuses to stay dead.

We often think of Jesus and the devil as these two far ends of the spectrum – one good and the other evil. And yet, at least according to this story in the strange new world of the Bible, the difference between Jesus and the devil is not in the temptations themselves, but in the methods upon which those things come to fruition.

And the devil actually has some good suggestions for the Messiah – Why starve yourself when you can easily rustle up some grub? Why let these fools destroy themselves when you can take control of everything? Why let the world struggle with doubt when you can prove you are entirely worthy of their faith?

The devil here, frighteningly, actually sounds a whole lot like, well, us. His ideas are some that we regularly champion both inside, and outside, of the church. 

Who among us wouldn’t want to give food to the hungry? 

Who among us wouldn’t like to see our politics get in order?

Who among us wouldn’t enjoy seeing a powerful demonstration of God’s power every once in a while?

But Jesus, for as much as he is like us, he is also completely unlike us. For, in his non-answer answers he declares to the devil, and to all of us, that power, whether it’s over creation, politics, or miracles, doesn’t actually transform the cosmos.

Jesus, in his refusal to take the devil’s offers, reminds us that we, humans, are obsessed with believing that power (and more of it) will make the kingdom come here on earth. 

And we’ve been obsessed with it since the beginning.

In the early days of the church’s bed fellowship with the powers and principalities there were forced baptisms in order to make perfect little citizens.

In the Middle Ages the church require more and more of the resources of God’s people in order to get their loved ones out of purgatory all while the cathedrals got bigger as did the waistlines of the clergy.

And even recently, the lust for power (political, theological, geographical) has led to violence, familial strife, and ecclesial schisms.

We’ve convinced ourselves, over and over again, that if we just had a little more control, if we just won one more fight, if we could just get everyone to be exactly like us that everything would turn out for the best.

But it never does.

Instead, the poor keep getting poorer and the rich keep getting richer.

Marriages keep falling apart.

Children keep falling asleep hungry.

Churches keep fracturing.

Communities keep collapsing.

Therefore, though it pains us to admit it, Jesus seems to have a point in his squabble with the Adversary. Because the demonic systems of power, even those under the auspices of making the world a better place, they often lead to just as much misery, if not more.

The devil wants to give Jesus a short cut straight to ends that Jesus will, inevitably, bring about in his own life, death, and resurrection. 

The devil wants Jesus to do what we want Jesus to do. 

Or, perhaps better put: The devil wants Jesus to do what we want to do.

But here’s the Good News, the really Good News: Jesus is able to resist temptations that we would not, could not, and frankly do not.

Even at the very end, when Jesus’ hands are nailed to the cross, he is still tempted by the Adversary through the voices in the crowd: “If you really are who you say you are, save yourself!”

But at the end Jesus doesn’t respond with passages of scripture. He doesn’t offer a litany of things to do or things to avoid. Instead, he dies.

Instead of saving himself, Jesus saves us. Amen.

The Grammar of Christian Faith

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Carsten Bryant about the readings for the 2nd Sunday of Lent [B] (Genesis 17.1-7, 15-16, Psalm 22.23-31, Romans 4.13-25, Mark 8.31-38). Carsten serves as the Director of the Youth Collective of the Orange Cooperative Parish in Hillsboro, NC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Dogmatics in Outline, covenants, proper fear, Taize worship, the coming generations, hoping against hope, flipping expectations, and Robert Farrar Capon. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Grammar of Christian Faith

Infinite Mercy

Psalm 51

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.

The hospital was eerily quiet as I made my late-night rounds.

The sound of my shoes echoed throughout the hallways as I peeked in on different patients, asking if anyone of them wanted “pastoral care.”

Most of them were asleep.

Those who were awake waved me away with their televisions remotes as they sifted through the early morning informercial marathons.

It felt, in that moment, like a rare opportunity to crash on the bed in the dim lit pastoral office and enjoy some blessed rest. But before I turned to head that direction, a message popped up on my beeper beckoning me to another part of the hospital.

She sat up when I entered the room, old enough to be my great-grandmother, and she gestured for me to come closer. I reached for a nearby chair but she patted on the bed. She explained that eyesight and hearing were such that she needed me to be as close as possible, so I obliged. 

She took my hand in hers and said, “Father, I need to confess my sins.”

“Well,” I began, “I’m not actually a priest, and neither am I ordained, I’m basically a glorified pastoral intern.”

She said, “God loves to work through people like you. Will you hear my confession?”

“I guess so.”

“I lied to the nursing staff this afternoon. They asked if I was comfortable and I said ‘Yes’ even though I feel terrible. They asked if I like the food here and I said ‘Yes’ even though I wouldn’t feed it to my dogs. And they asked if I needed anything and I said ‘No’ even though, honestly, I need a miracle.”

We sat in silence for a moment and then she said, “Aren’t you supposed to say something.”

“Yes,” I muttered, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”

“Thank you,” she replied as I saw the worry drift away from her face, “I know God already forgives me, but sometimes it’s just nice to hear someone else say it.”

I then prepared to get up from sitting next to her on her bed when she tightened her grip around my hand and said, “Now its your turn.”

“My turn to do what?” I asked.

“To confess your sins to me.”

So I did.

Psalm 51 is read by the people of God to mark the beginning of the Lenten season. It is, as we call it in the church, one of the penitential psalms – a psalm that expresses sorrow for sin.

And yet, Psalm 51 does not begin, as we might suspect, with a confession of sin. Rather, it begins with a request for forgiveness. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.”

That might not seem like a big deal – but it implies that the psalmist knows they have something worthy confessing, that if the psalmist is to be helped (at all) then the sins must be taken away completely, that the psalmist cannot do this on their own, and that the psalmist can ask for forgiveness because the psalmist worships a merciful God.

And that is astonishing.

Let me put it this way. In so much of our lives it go like this: We do something wrong or we avoid doing something we know we should do. And then, for awhile, we stew over what happened, or didn’t happen. We know we should probably admit what we did but it’s terrifying. What if we wronged someone and when we tell them the truth they cut us out of their lives forever? Or we wrestle with it because we don’t want to admit that we’re the kind of person who could do such a thing. And then we either bite the bullet and confess, or we keep in in our heart of hearts as it seeps throughout our being and does far more damage and the initial indiscretion.

But the psalmist sees it different. 

The psalmist knows that forgiveness has come even before the sin occurred. 

The psalmist worships a God who mercy knows no bounds.  

The psalmist understands that God can redeem even the worst mistake.

For us, people entering the season of Lent, this is something to keep at the forefront of our minds – we are justified not after we confess our sins, but right smack dab in the middle of them. At the right time Christ died for the ungodly, while we were yet sinners God proved God’s love toward us, there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (who, by the way, happen to be everyone since Jesus has taken all upon himself in and on the cross).

The challenge then, for us, isn’t about whether or not God will forgive us. 

The challenge is whether or not we have the constitution to confess the condition of our condition.

Because even if we can summon the words, Lord have mercy upon me, most of us go around convincing ourselves that we’re, all things considered, pretty decent people.

After all, we’re tuning in to a midweek first day of lent service online!

Sure, we know we’re not perfect but at least we’re not like those other people (whoever they may be). We’re happy to get on Facebook and Twitter to call out the specks in other’s eyes all while ignoring the log in our own. 

That’s why Lent is both so important and so difficult. It is a time set apart to turn back to the Lord who came to dwell among us – it is a remarkable opportunity to reflect on what we’re doing with our lives and how those lives resonate with the One who breathed life into us.

But Lent is also a time for honesty.

Honesty about who we are, how we have fallen short, and how in need of grace we really are.

Judgment comes first to the household of God, the disciple Peter writes in an epistle to the early church. We, the church, then don’t exist to show the world how wrong it is in its trespasses but to confess first that we are sinners in need of a Savior who can do more with us and for us than we could ever do on our own. 

Confession, what we’re doing tonight, is not just an apology, it’s not just a feeling bad about what we’ve done. It’s about agreeing with God about who we really are. 

We are dead in our sins. 

And we have no hope in the world of being anything else, except for the fact that God has come not to fix the fixable or teach the teachable, but to raise the dead.

We can’t fix ourselves. But that’s actually Good News. It’s good news because nobody, not the devil, not the world, not even ourselves can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go. Even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died. 

The Kingdom is heaven is populated entirely and only by forgiven sinners. Hell is thinking we need no part of forgiveness. Amen.