This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with the youth of Raleigh Court United Methodist Church about the readings for the Fourth Sunday After the Epiphany [A] (Micah 6.1-8, Psalm 15, 1 Corinthians 1.18-31, Matthew 5.1-12). Our conversation covers a range of topics including youthful church members, confirmation, divine requirements, humility, the outward signs of a Christian, foolishness, sanctuary signage, preaching, Karl Barth, and blessings. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: #Blessed
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Third Sunday After the Epiphany [A] (Isaiah 9.1-4, Psalm 27.1, 4-9, 1 Corinthians 1.10-18, Matthew 4.12-23). Teer is one of the pastors serving Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including church insurance, false backgrounds, repeating readings, the great light, fire, prayer, divisions, ecclesial growth, Sinners In The Hands Of A Loving God, the foolishness of the Cross, and podcast reviews. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Best Laid Plans
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Second Sunday After the Epiphany [A] (Isaiah 49.1-7, Psalm 40.1-11, 1 Corinthians 1.1-9, John 1.29-42). Teer is one of the pastors serving Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including sin, coffee and contemplation, Prayer School, sharp swords, prophetic preaching, miry bogs, Pelagius, trust, sanctification, gifts, blame, low anthropology, the Lamb of God, and discipleship. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Gospel According To Francis Spufford
I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to not other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.
The church has always had a “problem” with looking backward. And, we come by it honest. The scriptures are ripe with stories of God’s people remaining stuck in the past (“At least we had food back in Egypt!”) and refusing to see how God makes all things new.
One of the reasons we’re content with looking backward is the fact that the past feels under our control whereas the future is totally unknowable.
Or, as Jesus bluntly put it, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.”
But, as Christians, we are called to the dance, one that becomes manifest whenever we gather at the Lord’s Table, between remembering and anticipating. We remember God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ as we feast on the bread and cup because they point us to the ways in which God is moving in our midst here, now, and in the future.
There’s a story about a church where a concerned group of members called for a meeting about new ministry opportunities. For hours they went back and forth about each new possibility but they were all struck down because they seemed impossible.
An older man from the congregation sat in silence throughout the meeting until, when he could no longer stand it, he raised his hand and said, “If I hear the word impossible one more time, I will leave this church forever. Have you all forgotten? Nothing is impossible with God!”
Here, at the beginning of a new calendar year, it is good and right for us to wrestle with the impossible possibility of God. The Lord shouts to us through the scriptures, “The former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare!” God is in the business of making all things new. Even the church.
Or, as Will Willimon puts it, “God’s future is for those who ask tough questions, come up with surprising answers, and dare better to align themselves with their core identity and purpose as the Body of Christ in motion.” “The church,” he says, “for any of its faults, is Christ’s big idea to put right what’s wrong with the world.”
In Luke’s Gospel, on the day of Easter, two figures walk toward Emmaus with their heads stuck in the past. Along the road they talk only of what happened to Jesus and they no longer have any hope. That is, until the hope of the world shows up on the road right in front of them.
“What are you talking about?” The strange figure asks.
Clops responds, “Are you the only fool in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that happened?”
“Jesus is dead! Locked up and forsaken in a tomb. We had hoped he was the one who would save us.”
The strange figure spends the rest of the walk preaching, reinterpreting the scriptures, and (sadly) the two are no wiser than they were at the start. Until they get to Emmaus, and decide to share supper together. They break bread, share wine, and suddenly they see.
They race all the way back to Jerusalem with nothing but hope.
Every Sunday is a little Emmaus. We gather with all of our worries, fears, and hopelessness. We can’t help but only look backward. And then, as we open up the strange new world of the Bible, Jesus encounters us proclaiming the scriptures anew. We gather at the table, receiving the gift we do not deserve but so desperately need. And our eyes are opened to God’s new future.
Don’t look back! God is in motion! Let’s go!
O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human being that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
Christmas Pageant stories are a dime a dozen.
I, myself, stood in a different pulpit helping narrate a particular pageant when one of the shepherds turned his staff upside down and ignited it like a lightsaber. Were it not for a daring dive from the aforementioned pulpit, the shepherd would’ve beheaded a wiseman, an angel, and at least three sheep.
There was another pageant when a kid dressed as a donkey decided to take a nap on the chancel steps in the middle of the drama, and remained there until after the applause died down at the end and everyone heard him say, “Mom?”
There’s a wonder and a beauty to the way children lead us in worship. Whether it’s the theological daring answers during a Children’s message, to the way they give themselves over completely to the movement of the Spirit, to the various pageant pronouncements, the glory of the Lord is revealed.
There’s a story that passes around this time of year every year about a certain pageant and the child who played the innkeeper. For weeks and weeks all the children practiced their positions and their lines, they were ready. But when Christmas Eve arrived, and the little Mary, Joseph, and plastic Jesus arrived at the cardboard cut out entrance to the inn, they knocked on the door and the innkeeper froze. Little Mary kept repeating her line, “Please let us in. We’re cold and we really need a place to stay!” Getting louder with each repetition. Until, finally, the innkeeper looked out into the congregation and said to the pageant coordinator, “I know I’m supposed to say, ‘No,’ but can I let them in anyway?”
Kids get it.
The Psalmist declares, “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.”
There’s a better than good chance that every one of us here has a story in which a child or a kid or a youth pointed us to a greater reality about the kingdom, than we could come to on our own. For instance, I was with my family in Alexandria this last week, celebrating the holidays, and we decided to go visit my grandmother’s grave on the anniversary of her death. She died last year at this time.
And as we were dressing the kids and getting them into our various cars, my nephew asked, “Where are we going?” And I said, “We’re going to see Omi.” And he gave me this puzzled look and said, “But Omi’s with Jesus now.”
Kids get it.
But then the psalmist drops this on our dozing heads: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human being that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
What a brutal question!
That God considers us, at all, is beyond our deserving. That God listens to our prayers is downright ridiculous. We tend to look at all we’ve done and said with such pride and glory, but compared to the works of God we are a bunch of ants.
The God who called the universe into being out of nothing, who brought forth order out of chaos, who breathed life into creation, is probably not very impressed with the Lego set I built a few days ago, or the meal I cooked for my family, or even this sermon I crafted.
All things considered, there’s nothing terribly special about humanity. We’re a bunch of creatures who often make a mockery of the creation that God has given to us.
Sure, we can point to some of our achievements, save for the fact that some of the worst things we’ve ever done as a species were done in the name of progress.
What makes us unique isn’t what we can, or can’t, do, but the fact that God becomes one of us. God did not become a penguin, God became a human, a particular human in the person of Jesus Christ. And, notably, God did not just show up as a fully formed adult human being – God shows up as a baby!
That’s the message of the incarnation. And it is so bewildering that people like us decorate trees, and exchange gifts, and light candles year after year to celebrate God’s unwavering commitment to us.
But the only reason we, that is Gentiles, even know about this enough to celebrate it is because of what we call Epiphany, the feast that marks the visit of the Magi and the expansion of the kingdom to those outside the people Israel.
According to Matthew’s Gospel, after Jesus’ birth wise men/magi from the East come to Jerusalem looking for the king of the Jews because they observed a rising star and came to pay their respect. There’s a frightening plot by King Herod to put to an end any threat to his power, but the magi make haste to Bethlehem where they discover the star leading them to the location of the baby Jesus.
When they encounter the baby born king they do something strange. It would be one thing to bring gifts to a king, stranger still to give those gifts to a baby born to a poor Jewish woman and her soon-to-be husband. But scripture says that when the magi saw Jesus, they knelt down and worshipped him and were overwhelmed with joy.
Epiphany is the celebration of that moment. We mark it on the liturgical calendar because it both points to the wild character of the incarnation, God in the flesh as a baby, but also to the way in which the glory of Jesus’ birth stretches beyond the confines of Israel.
Jesus will certainly grow to enact miracles and make various proclamations about the ever widening nature of the kingdom, but this is the radical beginning of that expansion.
Jesus comes for a lot of reasons – to save us, to show us how the kingdom works, to reveal the nature of God. But one of the things we often overlook is that Jesus helps us to become fully human.
That’s a strange claim to make. You might expect to hear that Jesus helps us to become better Christians, or fuller Christians. And yet, if Herbert McCabe is right, we can only be fully human as we are incorporated into the fullness of humanity named Jesus Christ. Jesus, McCabe argues, “was the first true human for whom to live was simply to love – for this is what human beings are for.”
The kingdom of God, therefore, isn’t just for certain sets of people in particular places. The kingdom of God is for everyone. When we say that Jesus is fully human and fully divine, we mean that he is the fullness of humanity and the fullness of God. If we want to know what it means to be human, we need not look further than Jesus Christ, for his life was love.
Maybe that’s why the magi fell to their knees and worship. Not because they intellectually understood the proclamation of the incarnation, of because they rationally deduced the momentous moment in front of them, but because they encountered love in the flesh, true and full humanity in a baby.
The presence of the magi in the manger means that the love that is God is for people even like us. And whenever we encounter that total radical love, whether it’s here in church, or at school, or at work, or around the dinner table, we can’t help but worship. It is nothing short of amazing that God, author of the cosmos, loves us and is as close to us as a baby being rocked in our arms or the bread and cup at the table.
An important theological claim is that God is God and we are not. It keeps things squarely where they are supposed to be. What are human beings that God is mindful of us, and all that.
But then, in the incarnation, everything takes on a strange and wondrous dimension. Because even though God is God and we are not, God willingly choose to become us, that we might discover who we are and whose we are.
Which, in the end, is why the psalmist can sing: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for Baptism of the Lord Sunday [A] (Isaiah 42.1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10.34-43, Matthew 3.13-17). Alan is the lead pastor of First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Pulp Fiction, adult mission trips, tiredness, the NT in the OT, expectations, flames of fire, the voice of the Lord, Dogma, passivity, Jayber Crow, baptism, Karl Barth, and good questions. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Water Is Thicker Than Blood
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for the First Sunday After Christmas [A] (Isaiah 63.7-9, Psalm 148, Hebrews 2.10-18, Matthew 2.13-23). Alan is the lead pastor of First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including band names, timeliness, gracious deeds, Christmastide, corporate worship, belonging, praise, Winter Camp, Karl Barth, sanctification, reality, the implications of the incarnation, and presence. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Politics of Christmas
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.
People come to church for all sorts of reasons. Some come because they always come and they can’t imagine doing anything else. Others arrive because of an invitation. And still yet, others enter because they are at the end of their rope and they need something they can put their hope in.
Christmas, in particular, is a time when a lot of people come to church (some who don’t normally attend) for sentimental and nostalgic reasons. And, as such, they don’t want to encounter the reality of the world – they want sanctuary from it. Which, to be fair, is a worthy reason to show up for worship. And yet, to deny the reality of life furthers these strange assumptions about the church as a place that exists separate from the challenges of life.
It’s important to remember that the context of the Christmas story in the strange new world of the Bible is a world very much like our own where things are not as they ought to be.
Put another way, God in Christ arrives as the answer to the hope of a people who are on the precipice of disaster. That can be, and is, Good News because it points to the God who is real for a real world.
Otherwise, Christmas becomes yet another holiday that merely distracts us from what is really going on.
There’s an image that circulates this time of year that always captures my attention. It shows a modern rendering of Joseph with a pregnant Mary searching for a place to stay. Amidst all the perfectly sterile renderings of the Holy Family, with their immaculately clean clothes and glowing baby, this image stands in stark contrast. Moreover, the more time you spend with the image, the more details you notice. Such as: the advertisement for “Weisman” cigarettes, Mary’s “Nazareth High School” hooded sweatshirt, and the tiny weed as the new shoot from the stump of Jesse poking through the sidewalk.
The image is decisively real. It renders the holy family in the truth of what the world does to those who have no hope for tomorrow. Which is precisely why God comes into the world as Jesus Christ, taking on our flesh, revealing the real reality of our existence.
The scandal of the Gospel is not just that God comes to save us this way, but that God chooses to save us at all. It takes a whole lot of Christmas courage to confess that we have done things we ought not to have done, and we have left undone things we ought to have done. And yet, when we can confess the condition of our condition, when we can admit Isaiah’s truth that we are people who live in a land of deep darkness, then Christ’s light can truly shine.
The message of Christmas, the message of the Gospel, is that no matter what you have going on in your life, whether good or bad, God is with you in the midst of it. The hymns we sing, the prayers we pray, and even the candles we light are a witness to the One who comes to save us. May the Lord reveal the reality of Christmas to us yet again this year, that we might be people who receive the light, and hope, named Jesus Christ.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Teer Hardy about the readings for Christmas Eve/Christmas Day [A] (Isaiah 9.2-7, Psalm 86, Titus 2.11-14, Luke 2.1-20). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA and Teer is one of the pastors at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including funeral sermons, merchandise, Christmas Unicorns, transitional themes, the truth, pageantry, the Prince of Peace, homiletical imaginations, Joshua Retterer, new songs, judgment, gifts, Sufjan Stevens, fear, and Karl Barth. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Preaching With The Angels
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and can choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
That’s a strange way to start a sermon.
The practice of using gender-inclusive language for the divine has been around for awhile but it really came into vogue shortly before I arrived in seminary. It’s a willingness to confront the masculine pronouns often attributed to God: God as he.
The reason being that God is not a he, unless we’re talking about Jesus.
Of course, scripture and grammar lends itself to this. We pray to God as Father and all of that. But there are actually plenty of moments in the Old Testament when God is given feminine attributes, and even Jesus uses feminine attributes for God in the New Testament, we just rarely talk about them.
Again, what’s at stake here is the fact that God is not like us. God is, to use an expression of Barth’s, totally other. Therefore, to use human attributes, particularly gendered attributes for God, makes God like us.
And so there began a push while I was in school to stop referring to God as he. True story: we would have one point taken away per gendered reference to God in our papers, which taught us how to adapt quickly.
Perhaps you have noticed, but maybe not, when I preach I try my best to not masculinize God. In other words, I try to avoiding pronoun-ing God. And sometimes it makes for a strange sentence. But it’s important. God is not a man. God is God.
Of course there are some, who in order to offer a corrective to the masculinity of God rendered in church, will feminize God and refer to God as she, or mother. Which, I think, can be helpful. God is both paternal and maternal. But it still puts God in our own terms, rather than letting God speak to us about who God is.
And yet, there is a more radical notion about the identity of God that we often overlook or downright ignore.
You know what’s more radical than talking about God as our mother? The fact that God has one.
700 years before the Advent of Christ, the people of God were in a time of war and fear. The city of Jerusalem was besieged during the reign of Ahaz and there seemed to be no hope on the horizon. And in the midst of this terror, the Lord asks Ahaz if he would like a sign of God’s power. And, inexplicably, Ahaz refuses! Which leave the prophet Isaiah to lament, “Is it not enough to weary everyone else, now you’ve moved to wearying God?”
And the Lord offers this sign whether Ahaz wants it or not: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”
Notably, Isaiah does not say that “a” young woman will bear a child named Immanuel. Isaiah says “the” young woman will do so. “The” is the definite article indicating that not just anyone will give birth to this Promised One, but someone in particular would do it. We, of course, did not know who the “the” would be until Mary was singled out to be the Mother of God, the mother of Jesus. Not just any young Jewish girl would do. The one to carry and birth Jesus is Mary.
It’s difficult, I fear, for us to imagine the bewildered reception of Isaiah’s proclamation. We are so storied by the story of Christmas, moved by its majesty, that we can scarcely fathom the oddity of the prophet’s promise.
The city is under siege, hope is lost, and the Lord says, “A baby is coming.”
A baby? What about a ruthless warrior, or a fearsome king, or a charismatic leader? Surely that’s what God people needed! And yet, God says the sign is the woman who will bear a child named Immanuel.
That God chooses the woman as the sign, that God enacts God’s purposes through this young woman is so confounding.
What we dare to proclaim about God is that God willingly gets involved in the flesh and blood and bone of human life. The God we worship is en-wombed in Mary.
There’s a reason we don’t talk much about Mary. There are a lot of reasons actually. Most of them stem from our patriarchal renderings of existence. Some of them stem from the fact that we are Protestant and don’t want to be associated with the Mary-worship that happens in the Catholic Church. And yet, to ignore Mary, is to ignore the radical notion of the Incarnation.
The ignorance of Mary results in a form of Christendom in which men continue to feel as if they are superior to women.
Patriarchy is real, the unjust rule of men over women exists and its wrong. And not just because of our modern sensibilities of equality, it’s wrong because of the fact that God is born of Mary!
Listen – Mary, as we say in certain theological circles, is the THEOTOKOS, the God-bearer. And, so named, she safeguards the fleshiness of God. Without her the God we worship remains aloof, but with her, the God we worship becomes one of us.
There is something almost outrageously particular about the fact that God’s fleshy presence in the world is localized in the womb of an unmarried teenage girl from Nazareth. Which is made all the more wild when we realize that Isaiah told God’s people this would happen 700 years before it did.
We tend to lob all these titles and distinctions upon God. God is almighty, omnipotent, omniscient, or whatever big seminary word we want to use. And all of that is fine. God is the author of the cosmos after all. But to claim God as enfleshed, that God has a birth and a death, is at the heart of the scandal that makes our faith, faith.
Even Martin Luther, who so famously broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, (which was simply called church until Luther started something different), Luther was wary of the church’s veneration of Mary and how close it was coming to idolatry. But even Luther was quick to note, “Mary breastfed God, rocked God to sleep, prepared broth and soup for God.”
Have you ever thought about the Gospel that way before?
If we take the strange new world of the Bible seriously, then Mary also changed God’s diapers, taught God songs to sing, taught God the stories of the faith, even the promise of the coming Messiah who was rocking in her arms the entire time.
Similarly, Charles Wesley praised Mary as one, “Who gave all things to be, what a wonder to see, God born of this creature, and nursed on her knee.”
Mary, an ordinary young woman from Nazareth, keeps the incarnation scandalous.
Not to jump too solidly into the New Testament, but, Mary’s “Let it be” opens the way for a new eruption of grace into the world. We might call “Let it be” the Gospel according to Paul McCartney, but its actually the Gospel according to Mary!
Mary writes the best (can we say that?) song in the Gospels, a song we refer to as the Magnificat. It demonstrates her profound knowledge and love of the scriptures, and is perhaps the must frequently sung song throughout all of church history.
Mary is present and is also the instigator of Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee (water to wine). And she and others are present at the cross when the disciples flee.
Moreover, Mary is in the upper room at Pentecost, the only woman present who is named, and she receives the same Spirit that sets the church in motion.
But wait, there’s more: Throughout the early history of the church up through the Middle Ages, there were more paintings done of Mary than of Jesus!
The young woman with child of Isaiah’s proclamation is Mary, the flesh and blood Mother of God. Mary is not an idea, she is not a myth. She is a real person, as real as you and me. She is a real person who made decisions upon which our faith depends.
We often fail to embody the embodied nature of our faith because, at some point, we assume that whatever our faith is it is at least a set of ideas or slogans. Ideas that help us make sense of the world, or slogans to help us behave better and therefore fix the world.
But the witness of the faith cannot be summarized on a bumper sticker or in a tweet. It cannot be expressed through ideas or slogans.
It cannot because our faith, oddly enough, hinges on a young Jewish woman named Mary.
Here we are, at the end of Advent, preparing to dress up the kids next week for a pageant, and perhaps we do well to remember that Mary was not only real, she was also unlikely. That God chooses her, from a forgotten town with no bright hope for tomorrow, is wild beyond imagining.
That God chooses any of us for God’s purposes is outrageous.
We would never have chosen to do it this way.
But, then again, we are not God. Thank God we are not God.
Because of the proclamation of Mary’s womb, God has given us more than we deserve, God has given us reason to be patient because the cosmos hinges not upon what we do, but upon what has been done for us.
Therefore, here on the last Sunday of Advent, we are given the hope that we can learn to wait. Not unlike the Israelites waited for God to keep God’s promise. Not unlike Mary waited nine months with her belly swelling. Not unlike the disciples waited three days after the crucifixion.
Waiting is part of the discipline of learning what it means to be creatures of time.
Time is a gift and a burden. That we have time at all is nothing short of God’s grace. But our time is limited. We must be born and we must die – Advent refuses to let us pretend otherwise. And yet, at the same time, Advent stories us. That is, Advent teaches us who we are and whose we are.
Stories, of course, come in all shapes and sizes. Some are short and some are long. Some are funny and some are not. Some are defined by all sorts of words, and others can be summarized with “Let it be.”
We, all of us, are storied creatures.
And, strangely, the great Good News of Advent is that our time has been storied by Jesus Christ, born of Mary. Mary makes possible our stories because she bears God into the world. God takes on flesh and dwells among us which gives us the grace to be, and become, fully human.
It’s rather extraordinary, when we can take a step back from it all, that we know the name of the Lord’s mother! And yet, even more extraordinary is the fact that God chose to come and make time for us, redeeming out time, and making possible the salvation that disrupts time forever.
Our time is so redeemed because Mary’s son is Immanuel, God with us.
No matter what.
Whether we are on the naughty list or the nice list, God is with us.
Whether we have gobs of presents under the tree, or if we haven’t had the time to get a tree at all, God is with us.
Whether we have more Christmases ahead of us, or only a few left, God is with us.
Behold! The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. Thanks be to God.