Water Is Thicker Than Blood

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

Welcome To Humanity

1 Corinthians 12.12-14

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.

1 Thessalonians 5.11

Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing. 

Dear Finley,

I have a confession to make. I have a long standing habit of writing homiletical epistles on the occasion of one’s baptism – it’s a way of cutting across time such that, one day, you can look back and find out why you were baptized. You will have no memory of this but, your life will be decisively different because of it.

And yet, before God and family, I must confess that the idea is not original to me. I stole it from one of your other uncles: Jason

He knows that the proclamation of the Word is essential to the sacrament that is your baptism, because, as Barth put it, “Preachers dare to talk about God.”

Otherwise, there’s a temptation to make your baptism all about you. When, in fact, it’s actually all about the One in whose life and death you are being baptized. 

Your uncle taught that to me.

I wonder what your life will be like, having two of the smartest pastors ever called by God as some of your uncles. Perhaps it will be a gift and a curse, for you are doomed to hear the same things over and over again.

At the very least, you’re likely to hear a lot about Karl Barth, Stanley Hauerwas, and Jesus.

And yet, repetition is all anyone can ever hope for.

I pray you never tire of hearing, “I love you.”

Similarly, I hope you rejoice in being told to remember your baptism and be thankful. Of course, you won’t remember any of this, but the ripples of it will impact every part of your life.

Finley, today you become a human. I know that is a strange thing to say. You might expect to hear that today you become a Christian

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.”

Our lives are made up of various loves. Your father, for instance, loves tractors and chainsaws. Your mother loves ceramics and plants. One set of your grandparents sit around their phones everyday waiting to see you smile on FaceTime. The other set was so excited about your arrival into the world that they bought a house in Harrisonburg, just to be close to you.

And you have a whole set of aunts, uncles, and cousins who are obsessed with you.

On and on and on.

And the claim made in your baptism is that God loves you.

You will come to find that God’s love is both wonderful and awful. It’s why we sing of the hopes and fears of all the years being met in the person of Jesus Christ. It is wonderful and awful to be loved by God because God really know us, and loves us anyway.

To be human is to love, and to be loved in return.

Another thing you will hear over and over again throughout your life, is something your uncle and I get to declare every time people gather at the Lord’s table: “Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”

The baptism into which you are baptized sets you on a course of being surrounded and caught up in the adventure called church, in which you will be forgiven over and over again. 

Hence the first scripture passage your parents chose for this occasion: For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

The water of your baptism incorporates you into something seen and unseen. It connects you with others across time and space. Or, as Stanley Hauerwas is oft to quip: Whatever Christianity is, it is at least the discovery of friends you did not know you had.

This is true not only for the church, but for you in particular. Without Jesus your parents never would’ve met. The smattering of family and friends we call family who gather for your baptism would not be possible without Jesus. 

I hope and pray you discover that nothing is more precious in the world than the gift of a friend. Friendship takes time and requires forgiveness. Forgiveness and patience are deeply connected. But God has given us all the time we need to become friends with one another. And, of course, learning how to become friends with others also teaches us what it means to be friends with God.

In short, we have all the time in the world to learn how to forgive and, perhaps more importantly, how to be forgiven.

Thankfully, Jesus, the one in whose baptism you share today, is in the forgiveness business. 

Which leads to the second text your parents chose for the occasion of your baptism.

“Therefore, encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”

Another thing your uncle taught me is that, whenever you encounter a therefore in scripture, you need to know what the therefore is there for. 

If you look just two verses before you will encounter these all too important words: God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him… Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

In other words, the forgiveness that makes friendship possible is only possible because of Jesus Christ and him crucified. 

We are called to build one another up not because it makes the world a better place, though it certainly might. We are called to encourage one another because God has already made the world a better place in Jesus. We are called to forgive one another because God is the great forgiver.

In your baptism your sins are forgiven. Not just the ones committed before your baptism, which up to this point mostly amount to waking your parents up in the middle of the night over and over again, but also all of the sins yet to come. 

Again, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners.

The timing of your baptism is important – not only because it allowed for most of your family to be present, but also because it is Christmastide, the wonderful time between Christmas and Epiphany. A strange and wondrous witness to the infancy of the Lord, and the expansive extent of the kingdom of God.

The timing of your baptism also points to the fact that you are a baby. It is important that we baptize you as an infant. For, at this very moment, there is absolutely nothing you can do to earn, accept, or even believe in the forgiveness that your baptism imparts. In baptizing you we, the church, declare that you already have it. 

We are baptizing you into a different life, a human life, a life of love and friendship that will set you at odds with the world. 

It will set you at odds with the world because the world will tell you there is always more to be done, whereas your baptism says, “It is finished.” The world will tell you to be careful with your love, whereas your baptism points to the fact that God is reckless with God’s love. 

Right here and right now you are beloved. Not because you have done anything or deserve anything, but because the Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world, even yours.

So welcome to the strange new world that is your life. You might never have been but you are because the family called church wouldn’t have been complete without you. Beautiful and terrible things will happen to you, but you needn’t be afraid. God is with you. Nothing can ever take that away. Amen. 

The Politics of Christmas

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 Reason For The Season

Isaiah 9.2-7

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. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. 

I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a good Christmas sermon. I certainly haven’t preached one. No commentary, no anecdote, no perfectly delivered joke can ever come close to the outrageously wonderful news of the Christmas story. 

The story is better than any sermon and yet, I wonder what you were thinking as the scriptures were read and the notes from the songs were lifted up… 

Perhaps some of you have heard the Christmas story so many times before that it flew right over your hears. Maybe some of you think it a mere fairy tale, far removed from the realities of life. Perhaps some of you were transported to Christmases past and remembered hearing the story from other people in other ways. Maybe some of you drifted off to the dream-like space where the boundaries of reality become fuzzy.

And then BOOM! Christmas! The angel of the Lord appears and shakes us up. The angel shows up in the Gospel, just as much as the angel of the Lord is present with us right now, downright shouting the Good News for all to hear: “For to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Notice, the angel does not say, “For us is born.”

The angel says, “For you.”

That’s so strange. Which is really saying something because the strange new world of the Bible was plenty strange before this angel showed up with glad tiding to tell.

You see, the Christmas story is not meant for certain people in particular places. This news is for you. You! Regardless of who you are, whether or not you understand it, or even believe it, whether you are on the nice list or the naughty list this year. There are no qualifications for who should receive this news because this news, the Good News, is for you!

And what, exactly is the Good News?

God took on flesh to liberate us from sin and death.

In other words, the Good News is Jesus.

Jesus is the reason for the season. All of the other trimmings and trappings and traditions serve only to point to the One who arrives for you.

And yet, we could just as well say that the reason for the season is the joy of giving.

Indeed, it is true that Jesus says it is better to give than to receive. It is true that our brains release more endorphins when we do something for someone else, than if someone does something for us. 

But Christmas, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible, isn’t about what we’re supposed to do for others. It’s about what God does for us. For you.

Many of us love Christmas because we believe, whether or not it’s true, that Christmas brings out the best in us. Christmas has the power to reform even the Scroogiest among us. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has probably done more to form our notions about this night than Luke’s story of the manger. Luke gives all the agency to God, reminds us through shepherd and song that Christmas is about God’s gift to us, whereas Dickens tell us about how we can give to others.

But that betrays the necessity of the incarnation. God does not take on flesh to help us see that we have the power to save and fix ourselves. God takes on flesh to save us. Full stop.

The Gospels go to great lengths, through various stories, to demonstrate how we can’t help ourselves, how utterly dependent we are on the God who comes to us. 

The great joy of Christmas is that we do nothing to make it happen – Christmas happens to us. Even the biblical characters that we read and were singing about, they are all so wildly passive in the story. They are recipients of God’s grace made manifest in the manger.

This is often the way God loves us. Not with a drill-master attitude of begging us to see our potential if we would only work harder. But with strange gifts that we did not know we needed, gifts that transform us into people we don’t necessarily want to be. 

Christmas is about the great gift given to us, to you. And that gift has a name: Jesus.

The angel address us personally, individually, with the gift of the one born. But, at the same time, the angel’s proclamation ties all of us together. For in receiving the gift, in receiving the news, no one is first and no one is last. 

The Christian life is one great communion, the great fellowship that transcends all things.

Christmas created and creates a new community called church. At any given time and place we have no idea what it will look like, except we know it will be filled with people whom we would not have chosen if we were not friends with Jesus.

Put another way, through the gift of Jesus Christ, God has also given us each other.

Look around. You might not know it, or even believe it, but these are the people God has chosen for you to be with this Christmas. Men and women. Old and young. Conservative and liberal. Gay and straight. Courageous and cowardly. Stupid and smart. Hideous and handsome. Saints and sinners. 

All sorts of people who are only here because of Jesus.

Jesus is the Good News, Jesus is our only hope, Jesus is the reason for the season.

There’s this thing that we do every Christmas Eve, in addition to the drama and the lines and the songs, we end worship same way every year: with the lighting of candles and the singing of Silent Night. It’s a tradition. Some of my earliest memories are of standing up on the seat of a pew on Christmas Eve, holding up my little candle, and watching wax fall onto the floor. 

But last year, as we rounded out our worship, I came forward with my tiny little candle, and brought it up to the Christ Candle. From that one candle the light spreads throughout the church. And I’ve done this countless times. But last year something happened to me. I brought the light down to the first person sitting in the first pew, I don’t even remember who it was, but I remember their eyes. I remember seeing the light of the candle flickering in their eyes, and I remember them crying. And right then, and it hit me hard in the chest, a sensation I can’t quite describe with words, I was overwhelmed by the conviction that it’s true. All of it. The light of God’s love outshines the darkness.

In the candlelight spreading across the sanctuary, I saw and felt the Good News of Jesus Christ.

God in Christ, born to us, has brought us salvation. God is our helper, liberator, and redeemer. God rescues and delivers us. We live because God is with us.

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

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.

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

Merry Christmas.

Good News!

Luke 2.8-14

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then 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 to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

It was my first Christmas Eve service as a pastor. I was standing by the main doors welcoming the last stragglers in for worship. And just as the organist began to play the opening hymn, during which I was supposed to walk down the center aisle looking like I knew what I was doing, one final car pulled into the parking lot.

So I had a choice – either get the show on the road and parade down the aisle or stay by the door and greet the one last, and perhaps lost, sheep.

I chose the sheep.

I could feel the organist’s eye like daggers cutting through me as the song went on without a pastor, but I waited.

And I waited.

Out of the car stepped an old little man who shuffled across the lot with the help of a walker and a decisively Ebenezer Scrooge scowl across his face. By the time he made it to the door the organist had started the hymn over again, much to the surprise of the congregation. So I very quickly, but politely, offered him hand and started to make a break for the sanctuary but the man 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.”

That man’s quick quip has stayed with me over the years because, I think, we all feel that way. We want, in fact we need, Good News. We need good news because it feels like all we ever encounter is bad news. We can’t turn on our TVs, or turn to our phones, without being bombarded by all that is wrong with the world.

But then we come to a place like this at a time like this. 

Chances are most of us, if not all of us, know the story we’re about to hear through scripture, drama, and song.

We know how the holy family traveled to Bethlehem with a pregnant Mary riding on the back of a donkey. We know how they were turned away by a greedy innkeeper. We know how Jesus was born in a stable, laid in a manger, surrounded by farm animals, admired by shepherds, and sung to by angels.

Never mind the fact that half of these details aren’t actually in the strange new world of the Bible! But we’re ready to remember it that way!

Indeed, it is a tradition to remember the story with these details. We sing the songs, we read the scriptures, we get out the pipe cleaner halos, and the plastic baby Jesus.

Tradition is one of those words that we either love or hate. Some of us rejoice in traditions, the habits and practices passed on to us. Others of us find those things to be constrictive, or even oppressive.

And yet, traditions serve to root us in the world. Traditions teach us who we are and, more importantly, whose we are.

The tradition of Christmas, of gathering with others for the worship of God, locates us in a community constituted by hope, peace, joy, and love.

Which is why we need things like child-led dramas, Christmas pageants, because they brings great godly things down to earth. Often, in church, the things we talk about seem so far away, removed, and distant. Even preachers fall prey to the stained glass language that flies over the heads of our dozing congregations.

And then Christmas! This is the Good News! It is a story that is down to earth because God comes down to us. It has all the hallmarks of real life: birth, death, marriage, relatives, taxes, babies, work.

It was into this world that God arrived as one of us. And, oddly and wonderfully, the great joy of Christmas is that we do nothing to make it happen – Christmas happens to us. Notice, during our pageant, how wildly passive all the biblical characters are. They, like us, are recipients of God’s grace made manifest in the manger.

The story itself, as I noted before, is so warm and familiar that the shock of it all has dimmed. And yet, Christmas is absolutely astonishing!

God, the author of the cosmos, chose a young woman from a forgotten village to birth God’s very self in a sleepy little town in a tucked away corner of the empire. The first to know of God’s birth were shepherds, those relegated to the margins of society and ignored by most. 

Jesus, fully God and fully human, grew into an adult who had a brief public ministry that was spent among the riff-raff and the elite, announced God’s forgiveness of sin for a world undeserving, and in whose death and resurrection, we are made holy.

And it doesn’t matter who are you or what you’ve done. This all happens for you.

The world will tell us again and again and again that we are not worthy, that there is always more to do. Christmas tells us the opposite. God makes us worthy. There is nothing we have to do, except open our hands to the gift that is Jesus Christ. 

That is how the Good News works, it’s good news.

Christmas is the end of the beginning and its the story we are about to receive through pageant and song, but before I hand it over, I want to share one final thought:

There’s this thing that we do every Christmas Eve, in addition to the drama and the lines and the songs, we end worship same way every year: with the lighting of candles and the singing of Silent Night. It’s a tradition. Some of my earliest memories are of standing up on the seat of a pew on Christmas Eve, holding up my little candle, and watching wax fall onto the floor. 

But last year, as we rounded out the pageant, I came forward with my tiny little candle, and brought it up to the Christ Candle. From that one candle the light spreads throughout the church. And I’ve done this countless times. But last year something happened to me. I brought the light down to the first person sitting in the first pew, I don’t even remember who it was, but I remember their eyes. I remember seeing the light of the candle flickering in their eyes, and it hit me hard in the chest, a sensation I can’t quite describe with words, I was overwhelmed by the conviction that it’s true. All of it. The light of God’s love outshines the darkness.

In the candlelight spreading across the sanctuary, in the little children in their costumes, I saw and felt that the Good News really is good.

God in Christ, born to us, has brought us salvation. God is our helper, liberator, and redeemer. God rescues and delivers us. We live because God is 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 in Christ, born to us, has brought salvation to all, without reservation or execution, simply because that is who God is.

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

Merry Christmas.

Someone Reigns!

Luke 2.8-14

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then 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 to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

On the evening of December 9th, 1968, Eduard Thurneysen had a telephone conversation with the theologian Karl Barth. Barth died a few hours later in his sleep. In the days that followed Thurneysen explained how their conversation dealt with various situations in the world and that Barth’s final words were:

“Indeed, the world is dark. Still, let us not lose heart! Never! There is still Someone who reigns, not just in Moscow or in Washington or in Peking, but from above, from heaven. God is in command! That’s why I’m not afraid. Let us stay confident even in the darkest moments! Let us not allow our hope to sink, hope for all human beings, for all the nations of the world! God does not let us fall, not a single one of us and not all of us together! Someone reigns!”

On Christmas Eve, we are reminded that to be Christian is to be different. The great gift of God into the world in the person of Jesus is the difference that makes all the difference. We, then, have the courage to rebel against the insidious powers of despair because we have the means of grace and the hope of glory! We have Jesus Christ! Jesus reigns! Thanks be to God.

The Reality 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. 

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. 

Preaching With The Angels

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

The Mother of God

Isaiah 7.10-16

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.

Gender-inclusive language. 

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. 

Artist: Scott Erickson

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. 

The Naughty List

There’s a lot of good music to listen to this time of year both inside, and outside, the church. When the congregation belts out O Come, O Come, Emmanuel it brings tears to my eyes, just as Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” can make me extra nostalgic for Christmases from the past.

But for as many good songs as there are this time of year, there are also some awful songs as well. And perhaps none are worse than “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” (If that song is your absolute favorite, then I apologize for the rest of this)

What we worship and celebrate during Advent is the antithesis of what that song conveys. Santa Claus may be watching your each and every move in order to reward you (or punish you) on Christmas, but Jesus arrives regardless of whether we’re on the naughty list or the nice list. Though, spoiler warning, we’re all on the naughty list, which is why Jesus is born into the world in the first place! We need all the help we can get!

And, thankfully, as Isaiah reminds us, we remain loved by God even when we knowingly choose to do the things we know we shouldn’t. In other words, the real gift of Christmas can never be taken away because Jesus Christ is coming to town!