Redeeming Grace

Titus 2.11-14

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

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

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

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

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

I promise there was nothing silent about that night.

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

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

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

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

In short, we want sentimentality.

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

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

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

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

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

Translation: the child is God!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is the divine laughter that goes on ad infinitum. 

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

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

Christmas is who we are.

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

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

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

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

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

I chose the sheep.

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

And I waited.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Born To Set Us Free

Luke 2.1-7 

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

Merry Christmas!

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

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

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

Some of you were brought here against your will…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s it. 

That’s why we’re here right now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas. 

The Dawn Of Redeeming Grace

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

Far As The Curse Is Found

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 sign 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.

All the angels were gathered around the heavenly throne for a conversation. Things were quite a mess down on earth (as usual). And the Creator was growing concerned about the state of Creation – endless wars, frivolous fighting, frightening famines.

“I’ve tried everything!” God complained. “I’ve shared with them some of the most beautiful words any of them could ever hope to hear. The Psalms! The Hymns! The Covenant! They love to hear about peace and goodwill and mercy, but they certainly don’t like to live it!”

God continued, “Then I sent them the prophets. They love Isaiah and the promise of release from their sufferings, freedom from their exile. But do they follow the precepts of the prophets about justice and righteousness rolling down like waters? Never!”

There was then widespread discussion of the sad state of affairs on earth. Many of the angels – Gabriel, Michael, and others had gone down there on many an occasion. They had seen for themselves the sources of God’s lament and they too shared God’s concern.

“I think,” God began, “The only thing left is for one of you, a member of the heavenly court, to go down to earth. Live with them, not just for a moment, but every day. Get to know them, become one of them, let them get to know you. Only then will heaven’s intent be truly communicated to them. Only then will they take notice of the great gap between the way they have been living and the way they were created. Only then will we be able to reveal to them who I created them to be.”

The angels all stood in awkward silence. They had been among the people of God before, delivering messages on behalf of the Lord. They weren’t about to volunteer for long-term duty in such a murderous, sinful, and difficult place.

The silence lasted for an eternity. Finally, God spoke quietly but with determination, “It was always going to be me. I will go.”

This is a parable of Incarnation.

The first Christmas was one that the people Israel had been hoping for. Again and again in the Old Testament we read of the deplorable state of world, the need for deliverance and redemption, only to return the miserable estate of humanity. The people, as Isaiah intones, walked in darkness. 

Stuck in exile.

No hope for tomorrow.

A loss of all that was good, and right, and holy.

And then, Christmas.

Those who walked in darkness have seen a great light. The oppressive rule of sin and death come to the beginning of their end in the baby born King of kings. The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay (as the old hymn goes) is the one in whom all things move and live and have their being. Authority rests on his shoulder – he is the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

He is God in the flesh.

Notice – the power of today, of Christmas Eve, is not found in the fact that the baby lying in the manger becomes the eternal judge of the living and the dead. What strikes us to our heart of hearts is this: the eternal Judge, very God of very God, the Alpha and the Omega, has become that little baby!

Christmas, ultimately, is about the utter absurdity of God’s humility. And when we come to grips with the great chasm across which God traversed to dwell among us, how God in the flesh’s story ultimately leads to us putting him on the cross, we realize, frighteningly, that God doesn’t really need us. God could do very well without us mucking up His creation all the time. 

And yet, God is moved by our need of him. 

God, bewilderingly, condescends to come and be with us, among us, and ultimately die for us.

God, confoundingly, takes our place and surrenders himself for us, binding himself to us forever and ever. 

God, bizarrely, chooses to take on flesh in the form of a baby to shine light in a world stuck in chaos and darkness. 

The arrival of God into the world incarnated in Christ fundamentally shakes reality to the core. For God has come for all – for those who celebrate this Christmas Eve with frivolity and joy, for those who are afraid of what tomorrow might bring, for those who have plenty to repent of, and for those in detail of having any need for repentance. 

Our existence is upended because a child has been born to us, and he is our salvation. Our salvation, regardless of whether we understand it or believe it, whether or not we are good or pious people. This child is born for us. 

We now live in the new day which God has made, a day ruled by the light of the world who shines in the darkness. 

Year ago, on one of my first Christmas Eves as a pastor, I stood outside the doors of the church welcoming in the last stragglers before the service began. I had already greeted more unfamiliar faces than I could count, made small talk with people I saw every week and with people I would never see again, and the final car pulled into the parking lot while the organist started playing the first hymn.

I had a choice to make in that moment; either, get the show on the road, walk in the church, and sing at the top of my lungs or, wait, let the service start without me, and greet the last person to arrive.

I chose the latter.

The choir frantically flocked around wondering what to do while I shewed them down the center aisle and I went back outside in the dark and cold night. Out of the car came a little old man who shuffled with the help of cane and with a decisively Ebeneezer Scrooge scowl on his face. By the time he made it to the door the organist had started the hymn over again wondering where I was. So I politely, and quickly, offered him my hand, opened the door, and welcomed him to church. But before I had a chance to run down the aisle he grabbed me by the stole and said, “Sonny, I only come to church once a year so I better hear some Good News tonight.”

It seems that, no matter how hard we try, the world just keeps drowning in bad news. 

Global pandemic.

Economic uncertainty.

Restrictions on numbers of people gathering together.

We are not unlike the people who, to use Isaiah’s word, “walked in darkness.”

All of us, the tall and the small, the good and the bad, we are in need of some Good News.

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

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

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. Merry Christmas. Amen.

A Strange New World

Luke 2.1-14

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

Merry Christmas!

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

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

And here we are! Some of you were raised in this church and wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else. Others made plans weeks ago and are here for the first time. Some of you are here with questions, and others are just waiting to get home to finish everything on your to-do lists. Some of you made a last minute decision to come and are still wondering if you made the right choice. Others were dragged here against your will. 

There are those among us for whom there are more Christmases ahead than behind, and of course there are those for whom there are only a few Christmases left. 

Whoever you are, and whatever feelings, and thoughts, and questions you’ve brought tonight, it is my hope and prayer that you encounter the light of the world who shines in the darkness, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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 people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

_the_holy_family__nativity_scene___another_commiss_f6de659b784c8c14ecc1ee8b95fa4fa8

If we hear the story of Jesus’ remarkable arrival in the world we often do so without noticing the explosion and unexpected nature of the whole thing. And scripture is partly to blame. The whole birth in the manger comes in less than a verse and the story just keeps going.

The details, of course, are important – Luke roots us in a time and a place, Luke sets up the main and important characters, but when it comes to the moment for which all of us are here tonight, it comes down to this: “While they were in Bethlehem, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

That’s it.

It’s quite a strange story when we take a step back from it all, if we can. For, this story, the travelings of a young soon to be married couple at the requirement of empire, a baby born in some of the worst conditions imaginable, dirty shepherds receiving the best news the world has ever known, is weird.

Whether Luke intended it this way, the story compels us to enter a strange new world. Every time we take up the Bible we encounter a world that is at first our own, and then is it strange and new beyond our conceptions, only then, sometimes without our knowledge, becomes the world we truly in habit.

We open it and find ourselves among the likes of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We stand on the banks of the sea with Moses as the waters are driven apart. We are invited into the poetic pondering of David and the wisdom of Solomon. And then here, on Christmas Eve, we enter this strange new world to hear about good news of great joy for all people born as Jesus Christ.

But this strange new world is, in fact, our world. And Jesus has come to save it.

A statement like that requires knowledge about what, exactly, Jesus saves us from. We were just singing about it a moment ago: No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground, he comes to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found, far as, far as, the curse is found.

And what is the curse? Well, it is a lot of things. We can call it sin, or death, or self-righteousness. But perhaps this year, the curse Jesus has come to destroy is the idea that it’s all up to us.

Because the truth is actually the opposite: God helps those who can’t help themselves. That’s part of the Good News of Christmas – God in Christ comes to do for us that which we couldn’t do for ourselves!

Away-In-A-Manger

I heard a story last week about a woman and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. Back in the 90’s she was a strung out drug addict going through heavy withdrawals while her newborn baby was asleep in the next room. She was at the rock bottom of her life, fearing every day that she wouldn’t be able to get the kick she needed, fearing every day that her child would be taken away, and fearing every day that maybe her child needed to be taken away, from her.

It was 2am and she was lying in the fetal position on the floor trying to will herself into a reckoning. In her hand she kept folding and unfolding a piece of paper with a phone number on it. It was the number for a Christian counselor that her mother had sent in the mail 4 years before, back when they were still talking.

The woman did not know what to do, nor where to turn, and she was so desperate that she picked up the phone and dialed the number. 

A man answered the phone, and the woman said, “I got this number from my mother, do you think maybe you could talk to me?” She heard him shuffling around in his room and he said, “Yes, what’s going on?”

She hadn’t told anyone what was going on, not even herself and she said, “I’m not feeling so good and I’m scared…” And without realizing it she just kept going and told the man that she had a drug problem, and that she was worried about her son, and she didn’t know what else to do.

And the man listened. He didn’t judge, he didn’t offer advice, he just stayed with her on the phone.

The call began around 2am and the man stayed with her on the phone until the sun came up. At some point the woman said, “Thank you for staying with me and I really appreciate your listening, but aren’t you supposed to tell me some Bible verse I should read?”

He laughed and brushed it aside and she said again, “No I need you to know how grateful I am. How long have you been a Christian counselor?”

And he said, “I’ve been trying to avoid this, I need you not to hang up. That number you called, the one your mom gave you… wrong number.”

She didn’t hang up, but thanked him and they continued to talk until the conversation came to a close. In the hours that followed the woman experienced what she calls a peace she didn’t know existed, that there is love out in the world, and that some of it was unconditional, and that some of it was for her. 

After that everything changed. Not right away, but slowly, her life transformed. 

She ended her story by saying, “I now know, that in the deepest and darkest moment of despair, it only takes a pinhole of light, and all of grace can come in.”

God’s grace is unconditional – we of course despise God’s grace because of this. We can even resist God’s grace because we want to believe that we have contributed something to it. We want to believe that grace is something earned or deserved. But that woman learned the truth that night on the phone, grace comes regardless of our earnings, yearnings, or deservings. And all it takes is the tiniest little spark that can transform a life forever.

Our world is constantly telling us to do more, to be better, and to get it all together. And even in the church, we fall prey to this temptation all the time by telling people about all the stuff we need to do. But all of that is self-defeating because the more we’re told about what we’re supposed to do the more guilty we feel for all we’re not doing.

On Christmas Eve its different. Its different because the strange new world of God’s desire has become our world. The whole story is about how we can’t do all that we need to do and that’s okay. 

We were dead in our sins, but God who is rich in mercy, has sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to deliver us from the dominion of darkness. For some of us that darkness is the darkness of writhing on the floor without a hope in the world. For others the darkness is the loss of someone we loved. For others the darkness is fear over not knowing what the future holds. 

For each of us there is a darkness that Christ has come to destroy.

Hear the Good News: In the end, it’s not up to us. We are never really prepared to do that which we probably should. But Jesus shows up anyway. He shows up in a chance phone call, and in the bread and cup, he even shows up in Christmas presents. 

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Each of us, whether we like to admit it or not, we come into Christmas damaged and bent and broken and sinful. We have contempt for ourselves and for one another. And God shows up as a baby with a triumphant declaration that things are changing.

The birth of Christ marks the beginning of a strange new world, one in which we are not defined by our sins or our short-comings, but instead by the grace of God that knows no bounds. 

So hear the Good News once again, news addressed right to us: “To you is born this day a Savior!” To you! Regardless of who you are, whether or not you understand it, whether or not you are good or bad. The news is meant for you. For you the Christmas story has happened. 

To you is born this day a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. Grace upon grace upon grace! Amen. 

We Didn’t Start The Fire

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for Christmas Eve [A] (Isaiah 9.2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2.11-14, Luke 2.1-20). Our conversation covers a range of topics including breaking yokes, getting political in church, fire on the altar, Bojack Horseman and Fleabag, singing our faith, making connections, David Bentley Hart, redemptive justice, and loneliness in a connected world. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: We Didn’t Start The Fire

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The Hopes And Fears Of All The Years

“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.” 

I waited until the last second to buy our communion bread for tonight, which was a mistake. I foolishly made the assumption that NO ONE would be at the grocery store on Christmas Eve and when I arrived at Giant, there was not a single available spot in the parking lot – I had to park in front of a Long John Silvers. And then, when I finally got inside, I discovered the fact that they had run out of bread!

So I had to drive to the next grocery store, Safeway. Thankfully, they had some available parking but the inside of the store was packed. But I trudged my way though to the back, procured a few loaves of bread, and then waited in line for an eternity to make my purchase.

Now, to be clear, I was wearing my clergy collar and florescently bright plaid pants, but somehow no one noticed me. Perhaps everyone else was fretting just like me. 

At least, that’s what it felt like until I felt the tap on my shoulder.

I turned around and saw an older woman with a few items in her hands staring down at the floor, and she said,“This is my first Christmas without my husband. He died a few months ago.”

I just stood there balancing the bread, and asked if she was okay.

She said, “Not really. I just needed to tell someone, because no one else has asked.”

And then I asked if I could pray with her.

I dropped the bread to the ground and we took each other’s hands while waiting in line, and we prayed.

And at the end, when I said, “Amen,” the six closest people said, “Amen,” as well.

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie; above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

The hopes AND fears of all the years.

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Sometimes, throughout the hustle and bustle of this season, I miss the subtle details. I gloss over a profound detail in the scriptural story, or I overlook the miracles in my midst, or I sing words countless times without thinking about what I’m saying.

The hopes and fears.

On Christmas Eve, when we’re singing praises to baby Jesus, and lighting the candles, and enjoying one another, we also encounter the strange truth of our fears being met in the one born in the manger. 

While Mary and Joseph were there in Bethlehem, the time came for Mary to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 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, “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.”

There is an understated wealth in the titles attributed to the baby by the angel out in the fields – Savior, Messiah, Lord. 

How can this baby, a tiny and weak and vulnerable thing, be the Savior, Messiah, and Lord?

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Jesus Christ because something new has begun – a newness that contains a reorienting of all things where we are no longer in control of everything we wish to control.

No. A tiny and weak and vulnerable baby will change the world. 

Only a God like ours would see if fit to transform the very fabric of reality with something tiny, weak, vulnerable. Gone are the days when militaristic might would reign supreme, no longer would economic prosperity dictate the terms of existence. God brings forth a wholeness of life in the life of God’s only Son through whom God ordains a restoring of balance to all the forces of creation and all the the things that have influence over our lives.

Luke begins this story with Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius, but that’s not where the story ends. The birth of Jesus into the world establishes a new order in which the last will be first and the first will be last. The arrival of the Savior, Messiah, and Lord upsets all of the expectations and assumptions that we’ve foolishly made about this world.

Today we assume we know where Jesus is or, at the very least, where Jesus should be. We elevate particular politicians because we think they are on Jesus’ side, or we dismiss entire populations of people because we think Jesus is on our side. We relegate the incarnate Lord to our perfect manger scenes only to pack him away in a few days.

But the story of Christmas is that God cannot, and will not, be stopped. 

Hope and fear are brought near to us in Jesus because this is the beginning of a story that finds its greatest triumph not in a manger scene, not even in the angels singing out in the fields, but in an empty tomb.

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Christmas isn’t just about the warm and fuzzy feelings of warm fires and delicious eggnog. We can rip open the presents tomorrow morning with reckless abandon all we want. But if we take Christmas and the announcement of God as seriously as the shepherds did out in the fields then maybe our proper response is fear.

Not because God will punish us, and not because God is inherently terrifying, but simply because if God gets God’s way, then that means we might not get ours.

The God of scripture is one who finds life, hope, and promise from the margins rather than from the elite and powerful. God consistently uses the least likely of people in the least likely places to achieve the most extraordinary things. The incarnation of God in Jesus is a witness to the fact that we cannot remain as we are.

And that can be a rather terrifying prospect. 

The fears of our years are made evident by the many things we cling to that do not provide us life. For some of us it will be the presents we open tonight and tomorrow morning, for others its the paycheck that comes in ever 2 weeks, and for others its a broken relationship or a fractured family.

We put our trust and our hope in so many things these days and we are so regularly disappointed. 

We vote for the politician of change only to experience the same bureaucratic bumbling as before.

We seek out new employment opportunities only to still feel exhausted at the end of every day.

We even try out different churches hoping they will fix the problems we’re experiencing.

We might like to imagine that Christmas really is the most wonderful time of the year, but it can be equally frightening.

Particularly if its the first one without someone we love. 

And yet, as wonderfully weird as is befitting the faith, the angel declares, “Do not be afraid! I am bringing you news great joy!”

To you is born the Savior, Messiah, and Lord.

You need not be responsible for saving yourself and transforming yourself. 

You are not alone.

God is already working on you and in you through Jesus Christ! The sign is a child wrapped in swaddling clothes laying in a feeding trough. God has and will transform the very fabric of the cosmos through that baby.

God saw and sees the disparities of this world and makes a way where there was and is no way. God knows better than us about what is best for us. And the Lord, the one who can terrify us even at this time of year, arrives as Jesus Christ, perfectly vulnerable and weak to transform everything.

Because that very same baby, the one with teeny tiny toes and the one resting in the feeding trough, is the same person who walked through Galilee, who was transfigured magnificently, who feed the people abundantly, who walked on water miraculously, who suffered on the cross tragically, and rose from the grave majestically.

The womb and the tomb could not and cannot contain the grace of God. Even in the darkest moments of our lives there is an everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Jesus tonight. Amen. 

Missing From The Manger

“While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

It doesn’t get a whole lot better than this: Christmas Eve! 

No matter how old or jaded we may be, regardless of whether we deserve coal in our stockings or not, Christmas Eve never fails to work its magic. 

The lights are hung in the sanctuary, the candles are burning, the poinsettias are blooming. 

And we are here! Some of us were raised in this church and wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else. Others made plans weeks ago and are here for the very first time. Some of us are here with questions, and others are just waiting to get home to finish everything else. Some of us made a last minute decision and are still wondering if we made the right choice, and others were dragged here against our will!

There are some here tonight with more Christmases ahead than behind, young parents with children, kids with long wish lists. And of course there are some for whom there are only a few Christmases left, and with each passing season we feel more nostalgic about the past.

Whoever you are, and whatever feelings, and thoughts, and questions you’ve brought tonight, it is my hope and prayer that you encounter the light of the world in Jesus Christ.

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I am beside myself.

It’s one of my grandmother’s favorite things to say. And, to be honest, I’m not sure what it means. I don’t even know if she knows what it means.

And yet she says it all the time.

It can be used in both exhilarating and terrifying ways. Like when she gets a card from someone in the mail with whom she has not conversed with in years. She will pick up the phone and tell me about it, and to describe the feeling she says, “I am beside myself!”

Or like when she turns on the news and learns of yet another senseless tragedy taking place somewhere in the world, she will pick up the phone and tell me about it, and to describe the feeling she says, “I am beside myself!”

I love my grandmother with every fiber of my being, and I will contend that she decorates for holidays better than anyone on the planet. 

Who else has 76 Easter bunnies that she hides in the house for her grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren to discover every spring? 

But the greatest decoration of all, her pride and joy, is her manger scene.

Every year she sets aside the time to pull out the box with every individual character wrapped in their own paper to place them perfectly in their pre-ordained spot. The camels are so life-like they look as if they could spit on the bureau where they are situated during December. The magi are so majestic I am convinced that if you opened up their tiny gift boxes you would indeed discover gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The detail in the faces of Mary and Joseph are so incredible that you can see both their excitement and their terror about the new baby boy in their lives.

But one year, when the whole family gathered at her house, she greeted us at the front door with her preferred expression from both sides of the emotional spectrum: “I am beside myself!”

I had hoped that she was beside herself in joy that her entire family was waiting by the door, but I was wrong. No, she was beside herself because baby Jesus was missing – and you can’t have Christmas without baby Jesus.

The manger appeared as perfect as planned, except there, right in the middle was the tiny feeding trough without a Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes. 

So we looked, and we looked, and we looked looked looked looked. We checked the box where the manger scene spent the other 11 months of the year, we checked under the bureau, we even found ourselves looking in the refrigerator.

But the longer we looked the more beside herself my grandmother became.

Jesus was indeed missing.

Only later, having gone through every sock drawer, and basement box, and even the trash, did we find him.

When my grandmother set up the manger that year, she put the trough in upside down. It looked like it was empty, when in fact if you looked close enough you could see baby Jesus’ little hands and feet sticking out of the bottom, crushed under the weight of his make-shift crib, and all we had to do was flip it around.

Jesus was there the entire time.

These days the season of Christmas is filled with lots of stuff. And rather than bemoaning the commercialization and the commodification of the holiday, we can just focus on the church herself. We’ve got all sorts of decorations, we’ve got some of the best songs from the hymnal, we will even end this service under the beauty of candlelight. 

But contrary to what we see or even hear this time of year, the biblical story itself is strikingly simple, brief, and straightforward.

Jesus’ birth barely gets one verse.

According to Luke all of the clutter that might distract people like us from the profound truth of the incarnation of God in the flesh is pushed to the side. 

There are no magi in the manger, we don’t even hear about any animals nuzzled in close for warmth.

It’s just Mary, Joseph, and a baby.

However, Luke does share with us this incredibly powerful moment where the heavenly host proclaims the arrival of someone and something new to the shepherds out in the fields.

It would be one thing to expect the divine declaration about the in-breaking of the kingdom arriving in front of the emperor back in Rome, or even in the governor’s palace in Jerusalem. 

But God does something incredibly different and contrary to the systems and expectations of the world. 

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While people even today focus on the people and the places of worldly power, Luke draws our attention toward the margins.

There’s a reason the shepherds lived out in the fields – it wasn’t just the place where their livestock lived, but also because they were seen as a sub-class, not fit to even be in the cities, towns, and villages.

And that’s where the glory of the Lord shined the brightest! 

This is the sign for you – you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger – he is the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord.

Most of us have heard this story enough time that the weight of that particular proclamation no longer carries the weight it once did. The angel of the Lord announces the triumphant entry of God into the world to the least likely people – and even more outrageous is the fact that God chooses to enter through Jesus. 

How can this baby, a tiny and weak and vulnerable thing, be the Savior, Messiah, and Lord?

Only a God like ours would see if fit to transform the very fabric of reality with something tiny, weak, vulnerable. Gone are the days when militaristic might would reign supreme, no longer would economic prosperity dictate the terms of existence. God brings forth a wholeness of life in the life of God’s only Son through whom God ordains a restoring of balance to all the forces of creation and all the things that have influence over our lives.

Luke begins this story with Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius, but that’s not where the story ends. The birth of Jesus into the world establishes a new order in which the last will be first and the first will be last. The arrival of the Savior, Messiah, and Lord upsets all of the expectations and assumptions that we’ve foolishly made about this world.

Today we assume we know where Jesus is or, at the very least, where Jesus should be. We elevate particular politicians because we think they are on Jesus’ side, or we dismiss entire populations of people because we think Jesus is on our side. 

We relegate the incarnate Lord to our perfect manger scenes only to pack him away in a few days.

But the story of Christmas is that God cannot, and will not, be stopped.

God saw and sees the disparities of this world and makes a way where there was and is no way. God knows better than us about what is best for us. And the Lord, the one often missing from the manger scenes of our lives, arrives as Jesus Christ, perfectly vulnerable and weak to transform everything.

Because that very same baby, the one with teeny tiny toes and the one resting in the feeding trough, is the same person who walked through Galilee, who was transfigured magnificently, who feed the people abundantly, who walked on water miraculously, who suffered on the cross tragically, and rose from the grave majestically.

The womb and the tomb could not and cannot contain the grace of God, and no matter whether or not we think Jesus is missing, he is there, he is here, and he always will be. Amen. 

Monsters At The Manger

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast we have a bonus episode for Christmas Eve. In it I speak with Teer Hardy and Jason Micheli about the readings for the Nativity of the Lord [C]: Isaiah 9.2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2.11-14, and Luke 2.1-20. Teer is the associate pastor of Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA and Jason is the senior pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including some enneagram bashing, Methodists with the BCP, the highs and lows of worship on Christmas Eve, the peril of just retelling the story, the importance of time and place, the eschaton in the manger, the all-ness of salvation, and God’s great “nevertheless.” If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Monsters At The Manger

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Devotional – Psalm 29.2

Devotional:

Psalm 29.2

Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor.

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It is rare for me to face the altar during worship. Unlike lay people, I spend most of my Sunday mornings staring into the faces of a bunch of people rather than at just one person in a robe. Worship, therefore, becomes a time when I try to guide people along a path that leads all of us to discover more about what it means to love God and neighbor, though I do it from a slightly different vantage point than everyone else in the sanctuary.

However, on Christmas Eve, we all joined together for at least one moment as we held our candles and the words of “Silent Night” filled the sanctuary.

Because the moment only comes once a year, I do whatever I can to savor it. After lighting the ushers’ candles so that they can spread the light throughout the sanctuary, I quickly made my way over to my wife and son and we all sang together. At some point I stopped signing and just listened to the harmonies wash over me. At some point I glanced around the room to rest in the glow of candlelight reflecting off the faces of the young and old alike. Christmas Eve, and in particular when we sing silent night, is one of the moments where it really feels like we worship the Lord in holy splendor.

I think it feels so special because it is so different from everything else we do. Usually, we do whatever we can to avoid the darkness of life by surrounding ourselves with devices that shine brighter than any flame – we stream music all the time to the degree that it becomes difficult to appreciate a single song for what it can convey – we move so quickly through this world that we don’t enjoy the presence of strangers, nor do we appreciate the beautiful complexity of humanity all around us.

But on Christmas Eve, it’s a little different.

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I am grateful for the experience I had on Christmas Eve, but I also want to find ways to experience that same feeling of difference regardless of the holiday. I want to live and move in this world such that I can truly appreciate my God and my neighbor without taking them for granted. I want to ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name each and every day so that I can remember how blessed I really am.

God has been so good to us, and I hope all of us can appreciate what God has done more than once a year.