Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the First Sunday of Advent [A] (Isaiah 2.1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13.11-14, Matthew 24.36-44). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Handel’s Messiah, Chicago, Advent themes, the house of the Lord, church attendance, Fleming Rutledge, hopes and fears, worldly preferences, divine peace, Good Mythical Morning, progress, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

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 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. 

Come On Up To The House

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 3rd Sunday of Advent [C] (Zephaniah 3.14-20, Isaiah 12.2-6, Philippians 4.4-7, Luke 3.7-18). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including interesting introductions, Tom Waits, grace, The Muppets Christmas Carol, singing with singers, advent questions, problematic language, bad timing, the wells of salvation, the longest night of the year, Christmas trees, and the order of operations. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Come On Up To The House

Love

Philippians 1.3-11

I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Love is terrible. It hurts, it’s scary. It makes us do all sorts of things we shouldn’t – it leads to judgment and pain and doubt. Love makes us weird and selfish and annoying. It keeps us awake at night, it distracts us from the rhythms of life, it stings.

Love is the one thing everyone wants and we’ll go through hell to get it.

Love isn’t easy. It requires a commitment that goes beyond what anyone would consider normal. We enter into love knowing full and well that we know nothing of what we are doing. Love is hard work. 

And love requires a tremendous amount of hope. 

It requires hope because none of us really know what we’re doing when we enter into it – it’s something we have to figure out along the way. 

Love is terrible. And yet, love is just about the most important thing in the world.

Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi is full of love. I mean, listen to how he butters up the budding little community of faith: I thank God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.

Translation: You’re just the most special little church I ever did see.

Paul writes with confidence that the Lord will bring to fruition all of the Good News made manifest in their community because (and this is the key) God is the one who does the work.

Sure, Paul will praise the people for keeping him in their prayers while he, himself, is imprisoned. He will boast of their faith in the midst of tribulation. He will even long to be reunited with all of them. But only because the compassion of Jesus Christ has changed them and him forever.

And then Paul has the gall to write: “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”

I love Paul, I love his epistles, I love his theology, I even love his language. But reading this makes me wonder if Paul really knew what it was like to be among the people called church.

I mean: A church with love that overflows? That sounds great to me, but the only problem is the fact that church is filled with sinners like you and me.

Our slogan might be open hearts, open minds, open doors, but we definitely keep the doors locked, we’re pretty stuck in our ways of thinking, and we certainly have a penchant for judgment even though someone once told us: Judge not, lest ye be judged.

The church isn’t a bunch of good people getting better – instead, we’re a bunch of bad people dealing with our inability to be good.

And, of course, this can become manifest in a number of ways. A preacher like me can stand in a place like this only to wax lyrical about how badly you all need to stop being so bad. I can end every sermon with a list of exhortations on how to finally become the best versions of yourselves. And, should the occasion call for it, I could drop some of that good ol fire and brimstone to whip you all into shape.

But here’s the rub: that kind of church stuff never ever works. At least, not really.

A buddy of mine tells this story about how, when he was a teenager, he went to a church youth conference. Big stage with musicians and altar calls and all that. And on the final night of the conference, right at the pinnacle of the final worship service, the fire alarm off. A brief terror ensued as those in charge frantically ushered a bunch of screaming teenagers out of the building and the streamed out in the parking lot. And there, scattered among the spaces were life boats.

Any rational human being might pause and wonder why, but not a bunch of frightened youth. The adults started yelling at the kids to get into the lifeboats. And a moment later the alarm stopped, and someone shouted from a loudspeaker: “Look around, there aren’t enough spaces in the lifeboats for everyone… Are you ready to really give yourselves to Jesus?”

The fear of that moment might’ve led some of the teenagers to something, but it certainly wasn’t the Jesus revealed in the strange new world of the Bible.

Shame is a powerful thing. Like love, it can make us do all sorts of crazy things.

But the church doesn’t exist to bring more shame into the world. In fact, the church exists to proclaim grace, which is the antidote to shame.

Shame teaches us that love is only for those who deserve it and earn it. Shame is the burden of perfection whether it is moral, spiritual, or something in between. Shame destroys us, it eats away at the very fabric of our being because it’s always dangling in front of our eyes, like a carrot on a string, telling us that we are never enough.

But Jesus doesn’t come to bring us more of the same, nor does Jesus comes to bring us shame; Jesus comes full of grace. His very being in the world, born as a baby in Bethlehem, runs completely counter to the idea that only when we get it right do we get to see the Lord. The grace of our Lord is given freely before we have a chance to earn it or deserve it because we never will.

According to the strange new world of the Bible the beginning of the Christianity journey is receiving love.

Think about that for a moment. Faith doesn’t begin when we make some sort of change, or public affirmation. Faith doesn’t kick in when we finally get our acts together. 

Faith begins when we begin to see that God’s love precedes all things. 

And yet, sometimes even God’s love is terrible. God’s love is terrible because it compels us to look at ourselves hard enough to see how wild it is that God would love us at all.

Or, to put it another way, if God loves us as we are, then we (on some level) have to come to grips with who we really are, and that’s not really anyone’s idea of a good time.

Consider the desire to take a holiday picture of your family, or the outfit you want to wear to a holiday party, or any other number of examples from this time of year – it’s all about making sure only the best of us is seen, and the worst of us is hidden. At least, that’s true on a physical level, but we also do similar things with our conversations, in our relationships, in our work. 

We are all experts at wearing the masks of our own making such that we, and everyone else, don’t have to see us for who we really are.

But God knows exactly who we are and God loves us anyway.

How odd of God!

In the life of faith we flourish not because we love, but because we are loved.

When we begin to see, and experience, the divine love called Jesus Christ that never ever stops, that never runs dry, that endures all things (to borrow another line from Paul) then we encounter the building blocks of the faith and the cosmos.

We are made to be loved.

In my line of work, you always have to keep your eyes and ears open for the ways the Spirit moves in the world. Whether it’s a show, or a book, or a painting, or a conversation, it’s all about tuning in to God’s frequencies because you never know what you can use in a moment like this.

Well, it’s Advent time which, for most people, means it’s Christmas time. And one of the joys of this time of year is returning to movies about this time of year. 

And one of my all time favorites, is Home Alone.

I know that, while growing up, I loved Home Alone because I rejoiced in the ways that Kevin McAllister was able to booby trap his house, the holiday soundtrack was perfect, and because it had the perfect amount of 90’s humor. 

But now I love the film because it’s all about grace.

Whether or not you are actually doing it, I can sense the furrowed brows among the congregation, so let me attempt to prove my point…

For those of you unaware of the cultural phenomenon that was, and is, Home Alone, here’s a brief synopsis:

Kevin is a the youngest sibling in a family that fights and argues the night before flying to Paris for the holidays. In the scuffle to make the flight in time, Kevin is left home alone, and his parents don’t notice their mistake until their halfway over the Atlantic.

Kevin rejoices in the freedom from his family but discovers that the neighborhood is under the threat of two criminals who are casing houses for a little B&E. 

Meanwhile, Kevin’s mother frantically seeks out ways to return to her abandoned child and the usual Christmas chaos ensues. 

Kevin defends his home with booby traps and works to have the criminals arrested.

And then, perfectly, on Christmas morning, the mother returns home and the two reconcile and embrace.

Great movie.

And here’s the grace:

There is a short scene right before the climax of the film when, on Christmas Eve, Kevin enters a nearby church (which, for those of you keeping score, is a United Methodist Church!). He sits and listens to a children’s choir practicing for their evening performance when his spooky neighbor Old Man Marley approaches him.

Kevin, terrified, shrinks in his pew, but the man wishes Kevin a merry Christmas.

They talk about why each of them are there.

Kevin feels bad about how he treated his family.

Old Man Marley feels bad about how he is estranged from his own son, and how the only way he can hear his granddaughter sing is to come to this practice, but that he’s not welcome later.

And then he says: “How you feel about your family is a complicated thing… deep down you will always love them, but you can forget that you love them. You can hurt them, and they can hurt you.” 

To which Kevin replies, “You should call your son.”

“What if he won’t talk to me?”

“At least you’ll know. Then you could stop worrying about it. Then you won’t have to be afraid anymore. Will you do it?”

“We’ll see what happens. Merry Christmas.”

It’s so short, and I’m sure its not the scene that everyone remembers most, but to me it’s the most important. These two strangers, reeling from the overwhelming power of love to hurt and heal, heal one another with offerings of grace.

And, recognizing that it is a movie, Kevin is reconciled with his mother and family and then looks out the window to see Old Man Marley doing the same thing with his own family. It’s beautiful stuff.

And yet, life isn’t a movie. Sometimes that hoped for reconciliation doesn’t happen.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

The church exists in the time in between, the time being, as the poet Auden put it. We keep watch for the ways in which God’s love might overflow even for us such that God’s love might flow out from us to others. But even when we don’t experience the kind of love we yearn for, we also have this promise: There is a place where God will always meet us. 

God is present in this sacrament. God meets us here, where we are, in the midst of our sins, not in our successes. God knows our mistakes and our short-comings. And in that knowledge God says, I am giving myself for you. For you! 

And this is our prayer, that our love may overflow more and more!

Because God love us! We are made to be loved. Amen. 

Joyful Obedience

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 2nd Sunday of Advent [C] (Malachi 3.1-4, Luke 1.68-79, Philippians 1.3-11, Luke 3.1-6). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Advent disciplines, Handel’s Messiah, The Muppets, Christmas unicorns, Home Alone, prodigal love, J the B, the refiner’s fire, the Daily Office, darkness, God’s grace, missional moments, the Lord’s Table, and universalism. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Joyful Obedience

Vulnerability

Psalm 25.1-10

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me. Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous. Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the god of my salvation; for you I wait all day long. Be mindful of your mercy, O Lord, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old. Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord! Good and upright is the Lord; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees. 

Tell me about your last fight.

That’s how I start every pre-marital counseling session and it never ceases to disappoint.

There have been countless occasions when the couple will stare absentmindedly at the floor or the ceiling while each of them wait for the other to say something, anything. 

There have been occasions when, as soon as the request leaves my mouth, one of them will light into the other about some incident that occurred the day before.

But my favorite is when a couple smiles in return and they say some version of, “We never fight.”

To which I usually respond, “Then you’re not ready to get married.”

I will do my best to explain that I’m not asking about throwing an empty plate across the kitchen kind of fights, those require someone way above my pay grade. But what I’m looking for are those disagreements in which the couple has to figure out how they’re going to figure it out together.

And then, after a moment of consideration, one of the people sitting in my office will intone, “Well, just now while we were driving over here…”

Just about everything about how we live today is predicated on the antithesis of vulnerability. Don’t wear your emotions on your sleeve, don’t over share, and if someone asks how you’re feeling, never ever tell them the truth.

Our era is marked by progress and it seems as if nothing is outside our grasp – wealthy civilians can send themselves into space, individuals can purchase self-driving vehicles, and most of us hold these little devices in our pockets that can do far more than we even really know.

Life, therefore, is always getting better and better and the marks of success are found with strength, power, and might.

Which is why depending on anyone other than ourselves is seen as nothing but weakness.

And yet, the deep truth of our existence is that none of us would be here were it not for the help of others.

This is Advent. The colors in the sanctuary have changed, the readings and the hymns and the prayers have a different flavor, and we have our eyes squarely set on the manger, on Bethlehem, on the Promised One. 

I, myself, have stepped fully into Advent having set up my Christmas light at the house two weeks before Thanksgiving, most of the Christmas presents have already been purchased, and I’ve been humming “Christmas Time Is Here” for a month.

And all of this, the early preparations, the color-coordinated chancel, it all leads, sadly, to this impression that we all have to have it all together all the time.

We expect, implicitly and explicitly, that we have to be perfect. We have to dress the part, act the part, and above all, be sure of the part that we are playing.

And that’s when the church becomes yet another version of the endless self-help programs around which we organize our lives. For as much as we might rejoice in seeing the children sing during a Christmas program, it is also about comparing our children to the rest of them. For as much as we might enjoy driving around to look at lights dangling from gutters, it’s also about making sure that our respective houses are up to snuff. For as much as we might celebrate the opportunity for festive gatherings, it’s also about making sure that other people know we know how to cook.

And, again, the church isn’t immune to this temptation! There is this lingering feeling that what we do is, of course, about worshipping the Lord in glory and splendor, but it’s also about making sure the people who are not part of our church know that we know what we’re doing and that we’ve got it together enough as compared to other churches in the area.

So then, as we sit in a sanctuary like this, singing the songs we sing, and pondering passages like this, it all feels a little off.

Teach us your ways O God – show us in the ways that lead to life. Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love. Do not remember the sins of our youth, or our transgressions.

Why should we call upon God to be merciful when we have no need of it?

When the outside versions of ourselves leave no room for vulnerability, we become the very thing the psalmist calls for God to forget…

I hope that most of us are here this morning to have our lives made intelligible by the movements of the Spirit, and the proclamation of the Word, and the habits of our tradition, but chances are that a lot of are here because we’re hungry for something real, something with a little  twinge of vulnerability.

I’ve been here long enough now to know quite a lot about a lot of you and I know that many of us are caught in situations in which there is little, if anything, that we can point to as being real. Instead, we are surrounded by vapid conversation that amount to a whole lot of nothing. We are bombarded with deceptions and half-truths not knowing what, or who, we can trust.

And then if (and its a big if) someone is real with us, we don’t know what to do with it.

However, here we are on the first Sunday of Advent, embarking on a new year in the life of the church, and the Lord shows up with a profound word of truth, honesty, and vulnerability.

The psalmist cries out: to you O Lord I lift up my soul. Help me in the midst of my distress. My life if not what I thought it would be! Please, God, teach me your truths. And Lord, be mindful of your mercy, remember me but not my sins and my shortcomings. You are good and I am not, and yet, guide me!

In the end, that’s Advent.

More than any other season in the church year, what we do these weeks is absolutely relevant to our particular situations. Advent tells us about own lives, our own limitations, the condition of our condition here and now.

Advent is not only who we are, it is where we are – is the time in between – between the first coming of Christ in the manger of Bethlehem, and the second coming with the new heaven and the new earth.

That’s why Advent is a season of waiting – not for presents under a tree, but the presence of the One who comes for you and me. 

Advent reminds us through scripture, song, sacrament, sermon, and even silence, that God not only cares about us but also comes to dwell among us in the most vulnerable fashion of all: as a child born to the least likely of parents. 

Just think about that for a moment: God doesn’t show up on the scene with a big booming thunder clap, or with a technicolor light show. God shows up quietly, in a forgotten and sleepy little town, as a totally human and totally vulnerable baby.

Which means, in the end, that all of our anxieties about having to be perfect don’t actually determine much of anything – we don’t have to have it all together for God to come to us. In fact, God shows precisely because we don’t have it all together!

Only in our vulnerability are we able to come to grips with the fact that God chooses to be vulnerable with us in order that God might redeem us.

Which is all another way of saying – there is no real connection without vulnerability.

This is true of friendships, marriage, and even the church.

I was listening to a podcast episode from a show called Invisibilia a few weeks ago and it was all about the different types of friendships we have. The tertiary friendships that exist because of friends of our friends. The habitual friendships that come and go. And the vulnerable friendships. And the episode exemplified this through the possibility of conversations regarding what happens in the bathroom. Basically, they made the claim that the truest sign of friendship is with the vulnerability of honesty regarding something all of us do regularly, and yet none of us ever talk about it. Therefore, if you have someone with whom your willing to talk about what happens in the bathroom, then you have yourself a real friend!

In marriage vulnerability takes on a whole new dimension because, regardless of the age of the people getting married, they do so knowing nothing at all about what they’re doing. Couples will stare at one another by the altar and they will make a promise to love and cherish someone who will not be the same tomorrow nor ten years later. Marriage, being the remarkable and confusing thing that it is, means we are not the same person after we enter it. The primary challenge of marriage is learning how to love and care for the stranger to whom you find yourself married. 

In the church vulnerability is a given. And Methodists come by it honest. We preachers are sent to congregations, and congregations receive preachers and we have to get vulnerable right quick. People like me are called into the homes of those nearing the end of life, and at the dinner tables of couples who are no longer sure of whether they want to remain a couple, and at the baptismal font with a child bringing them into the faith.

And most of the time we don’t have enough time to really get to know one another.

But that’s why I love the church. It is a place and a space where we have to be vulnerable with each other whether we want to or not. It’s a remarkable vestige of a community in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured if we are willing to be vulnerable with one another.

And that’s a big if.

But when it comes to God, God really knows us. God knows our internet search histories. God knows the comments we write on social media but then we delete them before we make a big mistake. God even knows what we wish we could say at the Thanksgiving table but would never dare actually speak out loud.

And in the total knowledge of us, of our sins and our successes, God chooses, inexplicably, to remember our sins no more!

That’s wild stuff.

It’s what we call grace.

Could there be a better way to start a new year in the life of the church? Imagine, if you can, a people called church who simply allow broken people to gather, not to fix them, but to behold them and love them, all while contemplating the shapes the broken pieces can inspire.

God deals in the realm of vulnerability, working through weakness, in order to rectify the cosmos.

Which is all just a way of saying – no matter who you are and no matter what you’ve done, God already knows it and loves you anyway.

That’s not just great news, its Good News!

Happy New Year! Amen.