Redeeming Grace

Titus 2.11-14

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds. 

There’s a better than good chance that all of us here have heard the story before. We all know that the holy family was turned away by a greedy innkeeper, that Jesus was born in a stable, laid in a manger, surrounded by farm animals, admired by shepherds, and sung to by angles.

Never mind the fact that half of these details aren’t even in the Bible; we’re still ready to remember it that way. Just a few hours ago the children of this church even acted the whole thing out with pipe cleaner halos, cotton ball covered sheep, and plastic shepherd staffs.

You have to be careful giving a long stick to a 5 year old, you never know when they’ll flip it around and turn it into a light saber and cut you in half.

A few years ago, when I was serving a different church, we had one of our wisemen decide to take a nap on the chancel steps halfway through the service and he didn’t wake up until the end and he was surrounded by a bunch of people holding up candles and singing a song.

I promise there was nothing silent about that night.

Or, like this afternoon, when one of our angels came up to the chancel area, she adored the baby Jesus so much, that she decided to pick him up and rock him back and forth while the wisemen were busy following the star across the sanctuary.

Her precious parents motioned for her to put the baby Jesus back in the hay but she, I kid you not, smiled at them like an angel, and kept on rocking.

It warms our hearts to return to this story, it’s part of the trimmings and the trappings of this season. We can recall in our minds Christmases past when we’ve encountered this story in a variety of ways. And yet, if you spend even a short amount of time in the strange new world of other Bible, you can’t help but notice that all of the sentimentality is missing.

Which, of course, runs completely counter to how we want this to go. We want the cute little baby cooing up at his parents, we want him glowing preternaturally as if he’s the one keeping everyone else warm, we even want the wisemen making silly noises and faces at the baby born king. 

In short, we want sentimentality.

Why? Sentimentality rises when we are in denial of reality. It is our way of coping with an unbelievable world. It’s why Hallmark and Lifetime make a killing this time of year with their never-ending and confounding Christmas stories that all follow the exact same pattern. 

We can turn them on, and disappear for 90 minutes, while everything else is crumbling around us. 

But Christmas, the real Christmas, begins in the dark. It is not a denial of how bad things are, it is a proclamation that though things are bad, God has arrived to do something about it!

“What child is this?” That might be the best beginning to any hymn we’ve got in the hymnal, because that question is our question. All we do as a church, particularly on Christmas Eve, is our attempt at answering the question. And we get lots of answer.

The child is the dawn of redeeming grace, the child is light from light eternal, the child is the Savior, the child is Lord at thy birth.

Translation: the child is God!

But if Kurt Vonnegut is right, and people come to church not to hear preachments but to day-dream about God, then the question still lingers: Who is this God we worship?

In church circles there are these two major competing images for the Lord.

Among some, God is like a mother-in-law who shows up for Christmas dinner with nothing but judgments and expectations: I thought you were going to actually do something with your life! Why aren’t we using the family china? 

God then becomes the arbiter of bad news for bad people. We cower in fear of the One whose expectations we will never meet. We hide in shame from the One born for us. We struggle under the weight of guilt that we are never enough.

But there’s another image of God among church types.

God is like an uncle who shows up for Christmas dinner with a sausage under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. And when he sees us moping around he slams his fist on the table, sending the roast beast flying, and shouts, “Why all the long faces?! Have you not heard the Good News! Grace has appeared, bringing salvation to all! Let’s celebrate!”

Christmas, despite its various trimmings and trappings, is a party, it is a celebration, it is the foretaste of the Supper of the Lamb to which we are invited without earning it or deserving it. 

It is the divine laughter that goes on ad infinitum. 

And this party hosted by One who turns water into wine, who drags in people off the street, who slaughters the fatted calf for the wayward child, this party isn’t in preparation -it’s not off in some distant place during some different time.

It’s here! Right now! It’s in our kitchens and in our living rooms, it’s in the aisles and the grocery store and out on the ball field.

Christmas is who we are.

It is from Christmas that our lives are ordered and re-ordered. Christmas makes intelligible all of the illegible wanderings of our days and of our nights.

Christmas is the proclamation of the great Good News that God is here! We are redeemed. No matter what we’ve done or left undone, it is no match for the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world.

If Christmas says anything, it says that God comes to us!

Years ago, during one of my first Christmas Eve services as a pastor, I stood outside the doors to the sanctuary welcoming the last stragglers before the service started. And the final car pulled into the lot just as the organist started playing the first hymn.

I had a choice – either get the show on the road, or let the service start without me in order to greet the one lost sheep.

I chose the sheep.

I could feel the organist’s eyes growing wider and wider as the pastor did not walk down the center aisle, but I waited.

And I waited.

Out of the car stepped an old little man who shuffled along with the help of cane and a decisively Ebeneezer Scrooge scowl on his face. By the time he made it to the door the organist had started the hymn over again. So I politely, and quickly, offered him my hand, opened the door, and started to make a break for the front, but he grabbed me by the robe, pulled me down, and said, “Listen son – I only come to church once a year so the Good News better be good.”

It seems like, no matter how hard we try, the world just keep drowning in bad news. Just turn on the news at night, or doom scroll through Twitter for five minutes, and it seems like we have no hope at all.

Thanks be to God, then, that the hope of the world is born for us.

So hear the Good News: God in Christ, born to us, has brought us salvation. God is our helper, liberator, and redeemer. God rescues us and delivers us. We live because God lives with us.

God in Christ, born to us, has changed the cosmos free of charge, without our earning or deserving. The only thing we are asked to do is stretch out our hand, receive the gift, and be thankful.

God is Christ, born to us, has brought salvation to all, without reservation or exception, simply because that is who God is.

Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. Merry Christmas.

Born To Set Us Free

Luke 2.1-7 

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and the family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 

Merry Christmas!

It doesn’t get a whole lot better than this. No matter how old or jaded we may be, regardless of whether or not we deserve coal in our stockings, Christmas Eve never fails to work its magic.

Maybe it’s the hymns or the candlelight or the knowledge of what awaits us when we awake – there’s something different about Christmas that makes all the difference.

And here we are! Some of you were raised in this church and wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else. Other made plans weeks ago and are perhaps here for the first time. Some of you are here with questions, while others are just waiting to get home to finish all of the other items on the to-do list. Some of you made a last minutes decision and are still wondering if you made the right choice.

Some of you were brought here against your will…

There are some here tonight for whom there are more Christmases ahead than behind, and there are those for whom there are only a few Christmases left.

Whoever you are, and whatever feelings, thoughts, and questions you’ve brought, I’m glad you’re here. For, it is to you and for you that the great Good News rings loud and true – An angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Luke’s Gospel opens like a movie. We begin with the movers and shakers of the world. In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augusts that all the world should be registered. This took place while Quirinius was governor or Syria.

We’re brought behind the scenes of the power brokers and we are provided all the details we need at the beginning of the story.

But then, very quickly, the director of our film, Luke, draws our gaze and attention somewhere else. He wants us to see behind the curtain of the cosmos, where all the real moving and shaking takes place, a sleep little town called Bethlehem.

Bethlehem, from which King David hailed, from which a new shepherd King is born to us us free.

In a few minutes, we will have the whole thing acted out for us with word and voice and characters and costumes. We will encounter the story as has been done for centuries. But sometimes, if we’re able to take a step back from the whole thing, we can see how unexpected and bewildering the whole thing really is.

According to the strange new world of the Bible, the birth of God is the manger comes in less than one verse, and then the story just keeps going.

The details, of course, are important. We are rooted in a time and a space, we are introduced to all the important characters, but when it comes to the moment for which all of us are gathered here, it comes down to this: While they were there, the time came for Mary to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in the manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

That’s it. 

That’s why we’re here right now.

God, light from light eternal, is born into the world as us to save us.

Sometimes it can feel as if we’re just playing at Christmas – we dress up the house, we dress up in costumes in the sanctuary, we put on a feeling of joy even if we don’t really feel it deep down. 

We hang the lights and come up with perfect dinner menus. We buy the just the right presents and we send all the Christmas cards with a picture of color-coordinated outfits taken by a semi-professional photographer.

And why do we do all of that? Perhaps we do so out of habit, or tradition. Or maybe we do all of it because we think we’re supposed to even if we’re unsure of why.

The Christian proclamation is that we do so because God is born to us and for us.

And that is such a confounding claim that we can’t help but try to act it out year after year.

Christmas Pageants are always a strange enterprise. The story our children will shortly bring to life will be cute and faithful and a little bit awkward. But the story to which they point is full of fear and pain and hardship. There is a seriousness to the story that can never fully understand.

Particularly when we dress up our children to act it all out.

I experienced a pageant one year in which one of our shepherds, having executed all of his lines appropriately, decided to turn his shepherd’s staff upside and whip it around the chancel area like a light saber looking for someone to cut in half.

I experienced another pageant once in which the little Mary grew bored of having to cradle the plastic baby Jesus, grabbed him by the ankle, and began smashing his head against the altar.

And still yet there was a pageant one year during which one of the wisemen, no doubt tired from having followed the star, decided to fall asleep on one of the steps in the chancel area and remained there until the very end of the service when he woke up to a bunch of people waving candles around and singing silent night.

There was nothing silent about his terror of waking up to that scene.

And you know what? I find all of those moments to be nothing but grace upon grace! Why? Because there is nothing perfect about Christmas! We have all of our anxieties even today about this time of year which is fitting because of the plight that fell upon Mary and Joseph and Jesus. 

We can dress Christmas up as much as we want, but it will never cover the truth of who we are and how we experience the world. 

You see, it’s not just that God was born into the world as Jesus. It’s that we desperately needed God to be born into the world as Jesus.

And that’s why we keep retelling the story. Not to retreat away from the harsh truths of the world for a little while every year, but to remember that God chose to be born into our broken and harsh world to shine as the light in the darkness.

God breaks into the world in order to make all things new, even us.

Therefore, when we say Merry Christmas, we are also saying, “Do Not Be Afraid.” We needn’t be afraid because this story is in fact our story. God has not abandoned us to a life of merely doing one thing after another. God has arrived in the world to show us the wonderful good news that no matter what we do or leave undone, God is still for us. 

God makes a way where there is no way, bringing us grace and truth and mercy. This gift isn’t cheap, and it isn’t even expensive. It’s free.

Which is why, in the end, we don’t need to worry about whether or not we’re just playing at Christmas. We may think we’re only pretending year after year, dressing up with the same trimmings and trappings, but, by God’s grace, God makes us what we pretend to be!

This is Christmas! Rejoice! From our fears ands sins God has released us! 

This is the time, the sacred time, to meet the One who comes to us, the One who lives, dies, and lives again that we might do the same.

That is the good news of great joy for all people that the angelic host shared with the shepherds, and it is the good news of great joy that our children will now share with us.

To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

Merry Christmas. 

The Crisis of Christmas

Isaiah 9.2

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined. 

In the latter part of his theological career Karl Barth would preach to/for the inmates in the prison of Basel, Switzerland. When the public found out that he was doing so people reacted in a number of ways – some were amazed that the brilliant academic would humble himself to do such a thing while others believed that he was wasting his time among those who could no longer be helped.

And more than a few folk joked that the only way to hear Karl Barth preach would be to break the law and wind up in jail!

In 1954 Barth delivered the Christmas sermon to the inmates. I’ve made it a habit of reading the sermon around this time every year because it continues to blow me away. Karl Barth’s theology disrupted my life in all the best ways and to have the words that he shared with a group of prisoners half a century ago is nothing but grace upon grace.

In other words, the Good News of the gospel reminds us again and again that the real prison of life is found in each of our hearts, and God has offered deliverance to all of us captives.

Below you can find three paragraphs from Barth’s Christmas Eve sermon and as you read them I encourage you to rest in the knowledge that these words are for you.

“What does the word Savior convey? The Savior is he who brings us salvation, granting us all things needed and salutary. He is the helper, the liberator, the redeemer as no man, but God alone, can be and really is; he stands by us, he rescues us, he delivers us from the deadly plague. Now we live because he, the Savior, is with us.

“The Savior is also he who has wrought salvation free of charge, without our deserving and without our assistance, and without our paying the bill. All we are asked to do is stretch out our hands, to receive the gift, and be thankful.

“The Savior is he who brings salvation to all, without reservation or exception, simply because we all need him and because he is the Son of God who is the Father of us all. When he was made man, he became the brother of us all. To you this day is born a Savior, says the angel of the Lord. To you!”

Merry (almost) Christmas

And here are some tunes to put you in a decisively Christmas mood:

Sufjan Stevens – Christmas In The Room

May Erlewine – Anyway

Seabird – Joy To The World

Christmas Clothes

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sarah Killam and Ben Crosby about the readings for the First Sunday After Christmas [C] (1 Samuel 2.18-20, 26, Psalm 148, Colossians 3.12-17, Luke 2.41-52). Ben is a deacon in the Episcopal Church and a PhD candidate in ecclesiastical history at McGill University in Montreal and Sarah has theological roots in Pentecostalism, is currently applying for PhD programs, and she is interested in the Atonement. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the means of grace, clergy vestments, living the faith, motherhood, praise, worship music, creation imagery, Tolkien and the Ents, the Daily Office, parenting the Lord, Good News, and the Ascension in Christmastide. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Christmas Clothes

Embodiment

Hebrews 10.5-10

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’ (in the scroll of the book it is written of me).” When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. 

“Consequently” is a rather interesting way to start a passage of scripture. It’s like beginning with “therefore.” Whenever we encounter a therefore we need to discern what the “therefore” is there for.

So, if we flip back one verse we will find these words: For it it impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “sacrifices and offerings are not desired, but only the body of the One who comes to do the will of the Lord.”

Contrary to how we might feel on Good Friday, with Easter looming on the horizon, today is actually the most expectant worship service of the year. Sure, Jesus predicted his passion and resurrection no less than three times, but no one seemed to believe him. They abandoned him, betrayed him, and denied him. 

But today, we are firmly rooted between the already and the not yet. This is the final Sunday of Advent – everything about our worship (songs, scripture, sermon) is saturated with a sense that something uniquely impossible is about to happen.

You see, for centuries the people of God waited for something. That something took on different shapes and sizes and expectations. And the something had a name: Messiah, the Holy One of Israel, from the righteous branch of David, the one born to set us free.

Freedom is good and all. But freedom from what?

Freedom from tyranny? Freedom from fear and judgment? 

What about freedom from sin and death?

There have been plenty of figures throughout history who have come to bring freedom, but freedom from the great enemies of sin and death is only possible if the One born to Mary also happens to be God in the flesh.

Incarnation.

It is not yet Christmas, but here on the final Sunday of Advent, we straddle two worlds and two times. And it is from this vantage point that we can’t help but ask ourselves, “What child is this?”

All Christian worship is an attempt to answer that question.

Was Jesus like God? Was Jesus a prophet of God? Was Jesus merely a good ethical teacher?

The fundamental Christian proclamation is that Jesus is not like God, Jesus is God, light from light eternal.

Everything depends on this being true; otherwise the nativity story is just another tale of no real importance.

And here is the challenge set before us today: the child we come to worship on Christmas is, as the writer of Hebrews puts it, the very body that is sacrificed for us.

We don’t talk much about sacrifice in the church these days even though we’ve got plenty of the “bloody hymns” in our hymnal. If we do sing those songs at all we usually save them for the season of Lent during which we’re supposed to feel bad about our badness.

But it’s almost Christmas Eve! Nows not the time to talk about blood and sacrifice!

We are surely ready for that cute little baby to be born for us in the manger – it’s another thing entirely to be prepared for that baby to be the One born to die on the Cross.

Let alone to prepare our hearts for his return to judge both the living and the dead.

And yet, to ignore the language of sacrifice, the shadow of the cross in the manger, is to deny the truth of the strange new world of the Bible.

In the ancient world sacrifice was at the heart of all religious practice. Israel might stand apart in how the God of Abraham did not require human sacrifices (save for that incident with Isaac, but that’s for another sermon). But there are plenty of sacrifices expected by and through the Law for the people of God. For, to sacrifice is to admit there is a need for it. The only way to be holy is to remove sin altogether, and no one can do that.

Sacrifice, therefore, was offered on behalf of God’s people in order to be made right.

However, over time, the sacrifices themselves became empty signs of an empty faith. Again and again the prophets of God rejected the blood spilled by the people when injustice continued to reign. What good is it to sacrifice a bull or a goat when widows, orphans, and the outcasts were ignored?

Therefore, as Hebrews puts it, Jesus’ death is a single offering for all time for those who are sanctified.

There is no holiness without sacrifice. In fact, the very meaning of sacrifice is “making holy.”

Of course, there are some of us who would like to believe that we are beyond the need and the time of sacrifice. That, because of the Cross, we have left sacrifice behind.

But that only betrays how essential sacrifice is to our daily lives.

We sacrifice the land and the lives of animals that we might live.

We make sacrifices in the name of love that we feel for others.

We sacrifice those who serve in the military that we might feel safe.

Sacrificing is part of who we are, and we do so because we often think it is the only way we can make up for the wrongs we have done.

And yet, that feeling of guilt, the knowledge of what we have done and left undone, important as it may be, is in contradiction to the work of Christ who was offered as a single sacrifice for all time. 

There’s an unbelievable story that happened on Christmas a little more than 100 years ago, and perhaps some of you have heard about it. It took place in and among the trenches of World War I in 1914. All across the western front there were unofficial ceasefires to observe the holiday that were also due to limited ammunitions along the front. Halting fire for a period of time was nothing special, and has been part of warfare for a long time. But it’s what happened during the cease fire that boggles the mind.

In certain areas along the trench lines, soldiers left the safety of their barricades and met in the middle of No Man’s Land to celebrate Christmas.

There was one area where the ringing of church bells gave certain soldiers the courage to bravely enter the disputed space between the trenches.

In other places the soldiers saw Christmas trees being hastily decorated on either side and ventured out for a closer look.

But my favorite miracle took place when a group of German soldiers started singing Stille Nacht, and when they came to the end of one of the verse, the English soldiers on the other side took it up and started singing it on their own.

It sounds too good to be true, but all the best stories are like that. We have letters from soldiers who expressed total surprise by what they experienced on that Christmas Eve. How, they exchanged gifts and food in the middle of No Man’s Land with the very people they had been trying to kill.

There were even football (soccer) matches that occurred in various locations that Christmas Eve.

One soldier later recalled that, at the end of the celebration, they returned to their respective sides and woke up on Christmas morning to a dead silence. He said both sides shouted merry Christmas back and forth, but that no one felt particularly merry anymore. And then, the silence ended in the early afternoon of Christmas Day and the killing started again.

He said, “It was a short peace in a terrible war.”

Sacrifices were made in the name of peace, just hours after they were singing together about the dawn of redeeming grace.

Throughout the great collection of scripture we are told again and again what we can, and what we can’t do. Thou shall not and all that. And, if thou hast done something, this is how thou shall atone for what thou has done.

But, the primary function of the Law, as Jesus says in John 5 and Paul says in Romans 3, is to accuse us. That is, the Law exists to show us who we are in relation to it – we’re sinners. The Law reveals the complete and total righteousness we require to acquire the Kingdom of Heaven, and how we might meet the Holy One of Israel blameless and justified.

The only problem is, none of us can do it. 

We’re all on the naughty list.

We delude ourselves, we self-rationalize all sorts of behaviors, we feel as if we can justify all sorts of things, so long as we feel like we’re growing closer to God.

But the truth is that God is the one hellbent on coming to us.

Contrary to how we so often talk about it, the Law doesn’t bring us to the mountaintop of God’s domain.

The Law, instead, bring us down to our knees.

Or, to put it another way, the Law gets us to see ourselves with enough clarity that we can ask the question, “How could God love someone like me?”

Ask that question and you are not far from the kingdom of God.

In theological and ecclesial circles, there is a lot of talk about the atonement – what is accomplished by Jesus’ death on the cross? 

There are an array of ideas about the work of cross – we owed a debt to God via our sins and Jesus paid it all, or the death of Jesus satisfied God’s wrathful anger against us.

That have all the makings of seminary basement debates.

But the theologian Gerhard Forde dispenses with all of those theories in favor of seeing the cross simply as our being caught up in a murder. He argues that any theory that tidily explains the death of God’s Son pales next to the great Good News that the One we tried to do away with on the cross speaks a surprising word of reconciliation int he resurrection.

When the incarnate God in Jesus Christ comes to us, we nail him to the cross. And then, three days later, God gives him back to us.

Which is just another way of saying: Hear the Good News, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that prove’s God’s love toward us.

And perhaps that’s why we read these words from Hebrews just shy of Christmas Eve; they forever and always declare the very same thing declared in the incarnation: God is for us. There is therefore literally nothing on earth or in heaven that can ever separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ.

In the full knowledge of our sins, past/present/future, our propensity toward violence, even against those who worship the same baby in the manger – God joined our lives to be life for us, becoming one of us, to free us from the attempt to be more than we were created to be.

Jesus arrives, fully God and fully human, down in our miserable estate and is obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, to end forever any sacrifice not determined by his cross.

Consequently, Christmas comes with a cost – the baby born for us is the God who dies for us. God is the dawn of redeeming grace. God is our peace. God is the one who sanctifies us.

Come, thou long expected Jesus! 

Born to set thy people free; 

From our fears and sins release us,

Let us find our rest in Thee!

The Dawn Of Redeeming Grace

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sarah Killam and Ben Crosby about the readings for the Nativity of the Lord (Christmas Eve) [C] (Isaiah 9.2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2.11-14, Luke 2.1-14). Ben is a deacon in the Episcopal Church and a PhD candidate in ecclesiastical history at McGill University in Montreal and Sarah has theological roots in Pentecostalism, is currently applying for PhD programs, and she is interested in the Atonement. Our conversation covers a range of topics including weird Christian twitter, worship hopes, light and darkness, duel for the fire, the shadow of the Cross, for-giveness, church music, holy fear, the judged Judge, Karl Barth, the scope of salvation, perfect patience, and the cost of Christmas. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Dawn of Redeeming Grace

The Naughty List

Hebrews 10.10

And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

On Sunday I stood up and addressed the crowd present for the church’s Christmas Concert and attempted to make the case that we are the stories we tell and the songs we sing – The stories we tell are reflections of how we understand ourselves in the world and the same is true of the songs we belt out. I then suggested (read: demanded) that we know longer sing “Baby It’s Cold Outside” because it only reinforces an extremely problematic understanding of how we relate to one another. 

I mean, it’s basically a date rape song. “Say, what’s in this drink?” 

Go listen to it and I promise you’ll walk away feeling all sorts of gross and uncomfortable.

Had I been a little more bold, I would’ve also suggested (read: demanded) that we also no longer sing “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” 

The words to the song sum up how we all too often imagine the Lord in our minds: “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice; he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…” And then, whether we know it or not, we take these words to be Gospel truth and we believe that God is keeping a ledger against us and only if we have more ticks in the Good column than the Bad column will we receive an everlasting reward.

The same thing is true of how Elf on the Shelf has become such a popular pastime – the purpose of the Elf is to spy on the good and bad behaviors of children and then to report them to Mr. Claus so that the children will be rewarded, or punished, accordingly.

The same thing is true of so many movies and shows and songs that ask us to discern whether or not we, ourselves, have behaved in such a way as to make it on the Nice list or on the Naughty list.

But, according to the strange new world of the Bible, we’re ALL on the naughty list.

That is: all of us do things we know we shouldn’t do and we all avoid doing things we know we should do. 

Paul puts it this way: None of us is righteous. No, not one. 

And yet, that’s Good News. It’s Good News because, thankfully, Jesus isn’t Santa Claus.

Jesus encounters the world’s (read: our) sins with no list to check, no test to grade, no debts to collect, and no scores to settle. Jesus has already taken all of our sins, nailed them to the cross, and left them there forever

Jesus saves not just the good little boys and girls, but all the stone-broke, deadbeat, sinful children of the world who He, in all his confounding glory, sets free in his death and resurrection

Grace, as Robert Farrar Capon so wonderfully put it, cannot prevail until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapses away forever.

But, of course, it sounds too good to be true!

In a world run by meritocracy, the Good News of grace sounds ridiculous if not irresponsible. If we don’t have eternal punishment to hang over the heads of those who follow Jesus, how else can we possibly keep them in line?

Perhaps we have our theological wires crossed. We so often assume that we have to do something in order to get God to do something for us. We believe that so long as we show up to church (online or in-person), and read our Bibles, and say a few prayers, and volunteer every once in a while that it will be enough to punch our ticket to the great beyond. 

And yet, so many (if not all) of Jesus’ parables, proclamations, and pronouncements have nothing at all to do with the behavior of those blessed prior to their blessing.

The Gospel is not about how we justify ourselves – The Gospel is about how God in Christ justifies us. 

God, in all of God’s confounding wisdom, runs out to the prodigal in the street before he has a chance to apologize, offers the bread and the cup to Judas knowing full and well what he will do, and returns to Peter with outstretched arms after his denials.

God chooses to forgive, rather than condemn, the world from the cross.

That’s what grace is all about – it is the unmerited, unwarranted, and undeserved gift from God.

And if we can see grace for what it really is, then Christmas can really come into its own. Like the gifts under the tree that are (hopefully) given not as a response to good works/behavior or the expectation that good works/behavior will come from them – we can celebrate the great gift of God in Christ Jesus who comes to do what we could not do for ourselves.

Or to put it another way: we are all on the Naughty list and God still gives us the present of Jesus’ presence anyway. 

Identity

Isaiah 12.2-6

Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing praise to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout along and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

A friend of mine, Kenneth Tanner, is a priest who defies all sorts of labels. He is both Charismatic and Anglican. His church has icons and their band plays songs by U2. He wears a collar just about everyday and, when necessary, he can say things you’d never imagine hearing from a priest. He serves a church called Holy Redeemer outside of Detroit, Michigan. Last week, he got an urgent phone call to go to a grocery store right near Oxford High School which had just experienced a mass school shooting.

Ken arrived and stood among the gathered parents who were all waiting to be reunited with their children immediately after the incident.

Teacher were there having just experienced the trauma themselves.

And even the employees of the grocery store did what they could to help.

Ken was there for hours, ministering among the families, helping to connect desperate kids with their desperate parents.

And, eventually, it became clear that a few families no longer had children with whom they could be reunited.

Ken, afterward, said that his experience of darkness in that moment, the total and upmost despair led him, once again, to the conclusion that either Christ is resurrected from the dead, or there is nothing.

I don’t know if it has been your experience in the past, but it seems like we are confronted by the harsh realities of life most during this season of the year. The rates of depression and suicide skyrocket during these weeks, more CPS reports are made, all while we decorate our houses with twinkling lights and we tune our radio to the same 25 songs being played over and over again.

When I talked to Ken after everything he witnessed and experienced last week he said, “Whenever I come this close to the darkness, even in the midst of its most horrifying degrees, the only thing I can cling to is that God is our salvation; God is the only hope we have.”

That, in a sense, is what the prophet Isaiah proclaims for us today: Surely God is my salvation! Come to the wells of salvation that will never run dry. Give thanks to the Lord, call upon God’s name; make known God’s deeds among the people, sing it out to the whole earth; God is with us.

That’s a powerful word for those who sit among the ruins, for those who are overwhelmed by the darkness, for those who don’t experience this as the most wonderful time of the year.

In life we are told again and again who we are. We are labeled by the world for all sorts of things, be it our jobs, vocations, mistakes, shortcomings, on and on.

We can receive one hundred compliments and one critique and it will be the critique that we hold on to. And, after time, we start to believe the critique, whatever it was, is more determinative regarding our identity than anything else. We internalize those things so deeply that we become what we fear.

And yet, in the life of faith, none of us really know who we are until God tells us.

We are who God says we are.

The church, at her best, functions as this proper mirror by which we can see ourselves. We lift up the cross as the reflection for us to really see who we really are. 

The church exists to tell the truth – We are sinners in need of grace and Jesus is the power in our lives who makes us more than we could ever be otherwise.

And, let me be clear, that does not mean that the church exists to make people like you better and better. We don’t get together in order to rejoice in how good we are. We are not a gym nor are we a self-help program.

Jesus has already changed us. The only thing we have to do is act accordingly.

Which can be both extremely easy, and dangerously difficult.

Surely God is our salvation! That’s Good News! But’s it’s also hard news to receive because if God is our salvation, then it means that we are not.

And if there’s one thing we don’t like to do, it’s relinquishing control.

There will always be other things in life we chose to trust instead of the Lord. We will cling to the powers and the principalities in life, we will even lean on our own ability to do certain things.

But those idols will never give us life.

They cannot and will not bring us the love and the salvation we so desperately need.

There is no gift under the tree that will bring us the fulfillment we seek.

There is no promotion at work that will prevent us from the anxiety of what tomorrow might bring.

There is no perfect parent to fill us with just the the right amount of love just as there is no champion of a child who will fills the holes in our souls.

And yet, it’s those types of things that we turn to when we know not where else to turn.

Isaiah’s proclamation is meant for a people who have no home in this world. It is for strangers in a strange land. Whether it was in the exile of Babylon, or the places we find ourselves in today surrounded by objects and obsessions that promise life and only give death, this is a Word for us. 

It is for us because Isaiah calls for us to celebrate the coming of God’s salvation to a land that is in the deep darkness of God’s judgment.

We don’t talk much about judgment in the church today save for the ever present reminder that we shouldn’t be so judgmental all the time. And yet God is the God of judgment. God holds up these scriptures and calls us to task. 

Look at what we’ve done, look at what we’ve become! Those stories on the news, the ones that leaves us quaking, they are about us! This is the culture we created. 

And that is a difficult word for us to hear! It is challenging because we are addicted to control. At least, we’re addicted to thinking we’re in control.

We make lists upon lists of all the right gifts for all the right people. We map out the perfect holiday meals and grocery stores runs to make sure we’re able to procure all the essential ingredients. We curate playlists of just the right songs to put us, and everyone else, in the right mood. And that’s just during Advent! 

We also do what we can, explicitly and implicitly to make sure that we never have to bump into the wrong kinds of people. We turn on the news and assure ourselves that we’ve taken all the right precautions to make sure those kinds of things never happen to us (until they do). We build up these stories about who we are and what we stand for all the while things are crumbling all around us. 

But Jesus is our Salvation! The strange new world of the Bible bombards us with the declaration that Jesus is all we need to live in a world out of control. 

You see, following the Lord is just training for learning to live out of control. Faith is just a word for letting go of our obsession with trying to fix everything. Everything has already come out right because we have seen the end in Jesus.

The end that is Jesus makes it possible for us to go on even though we are not sure of where we are.

That’s not to say that we can’t do or change anything. To learn to live out of control guarantees that our lives will include suffering. Remember: these words are for people in exile. For those who live between the times; for Advent people.

Advent, therefore is the blessed and bewildering opportunity not to turn away from darkness, but to stare right into the heart of it knowing that the light of Christ will always shine in it. And then we take that light, whether in our prayers or in our singing or in our talking or our walking, and we live according to it rather than the darkness that creates nothing but fear.

We cling to the old rugged cross, that stands in the shadow of death, in anticipation of the new dawn that is redeeming grace.

Because if this is it, this world, in spite of efforts of good people, if this is it, then it’s nothing but unmitigated bad news. 

I don’t know, maybe Advent isn’t the right time to think about all of this. I’ve got a job, I’ve got presents wrapped under the tree, I’ve got a family, maybe you’re like me. But there are people, lots of people, for whom this world, this life, has been one disappointing misery after another.

There are families in Michigan who will wake up on Christmas Day without a teenager they had just two weeks ago.

There are families here in Roanoke who have no bright hope of tomorrow because all they can see is the darkness.

There are people here in this church, right in these pews, who are terrified of the future because they see and hear nothing but bad news day after day.

And yet, hear the Good News: Jesus comes to make all things new.

So maybe that’s why you’re here. Perhaps you’ve come to church not for some tips and tricks on how to make it through another week. But instead you are here to have your minds blown and your imaginations opened. 

Maybe you’re here for hope.

Hear me when I say there is no greater hope than this: God is our salvation. God does for us that which we cannot do. God saves us.

If our hope is only in ourselves and in the machinations of this world, then we have no hope at all. 

But, by the grace of God, we have hope because hope is born in that little manger in Bethlehem, born to live, die, and live again, born to set us free, born to return with the resurrection of the dead, born to make all things new.

In the end, that’s why we set up the decorations. We do so in defiance of the powers and principalities that rule through darkness. We do so as a reminder to ourselves that Jesus has redeemed us from the temptation of believing that violence is the only answer. We do so in anticipation of the One who returns to us with holes in his hands and says, “I forgive you.”

We are called to practice resurrection. That is, we Christians live according to the Good News of the Gospel which means we are different. We belong to a new age and a new time and a new kingdom in which death is not the end. 

Our rejoicing, therefore, is not naïveté. 

We don’t come here to pretend that everything out there isn’t actually out there. 

We come here precisely because the darkness is so overwhelming, and we need something we can cling to in the midst of it all.

That something has a name: Jesus Christ

Surely God is our salvation; that is why we rejoice.

Rejoice, Rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel. Amen. 

A Love Supreme

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 4th Sunday of Advent [C] (Micah 5.2-5a, Psalm 80.1-7, Hebrews 10.5-10, Luke 1.39-55). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including The Trumpet Child, grace and love, time signatures, John Coltrane, Jingle All The Way, the importance of place, outside words, HOAs and Christmas decorations, sanctified sacrifices, the mother of God, virgin righteousness, and the radical nature of the incarnation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: A Love Supreme

The Season With A Reason

Luke 3.7

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

John the Baptist is one wild guy. He shows up in the gospel story with some questionable attire (camel fur) and dietary habits (locusts), he proclaims a new baptism alongside the repentance of sins, and his first recorded words in the Bible are, “You brood of vipers!”

Advent is the season during which the church makes a serious and concerted effort to faithfully proclaim the oddity of the biblical witness. In churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary, John the Baptist (or as I like to call him: J the B) gets two Sundays to shine and he is not an easy figure to handle. 

While we might want to rest our eyes on the glistening lights of the Christmas tree, or lift our voices with a cheerful carol, J the B shows up with a finger in our faces about who we are and who we pretend to be. 

Advent, like J the B, is peculiar. It’s out of phase with our surrounding culture and witness. Advent beckons us to look straight into the darkness, into our sin, whereas the rest of the world spends this time of year pretending as if everything is exactly as it should be. 

And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. For those of us still suffering under the weight of the pandemic and all of its uncertainty, for those of us worried about what tomorrow will bring, for those of us who will see an empty chair for the first time during our Christmas dinner this year, the joy of the season might be exactly what we need. Perhaps we should delight in driving around to look at the Christmas lights, and cranking up the radio to 11 every time “Rocking Around The Christmas Tree” comes on, and purchasing all sorts of presents for all sorts of people. 

And yet, to skip over Advent is to deny the strange and wondrous delight of Christmas.

That is: without coming to grips with the darkness we are in and the darkness we make, we have no need for the light that shines in the darkness.

J the B stands on the precipice of the times. He has one foot squarely placed in the ways things have always been, and one foot in the incarnate reality of time made possible in and through Jesus Christ. And it’s from that bewildering vantage point that J the B declares the Lord is going to prepare his own way – every hill shall be made low and every valley will be lifted up.

Therefore, Advent is the time in which we prepare ourselves for God’s great leveling work – the already and not yet of the coming of the Lord. It means opening ourselves to the ways God works in the world, it means laying aside the works of darkness that we might put on the armor of light, it means rejoicing in the great Good News that God’s power is changing you and me in ways seen and unseen.

J the B shines in the gospel story not because he is the light but because he points to the light. He draws our attention toward the darkness so that we can begin to see the beauty of the light who is Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world, including ours. He reminds us that this season has a reason and that reason’s name is Jesus.