Back To Normal?

Isaiah 60.1

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.

After Epiphany, on the other side of the magi making silly faces at the baby born King, the new parents were left alone with the incarnate Lord. Christmas came and went in that tiny little town of bread and life after Christmas started to settle in.

One night an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to get the hell out of Bethlehem because Herod was coming for the little Messiah. And so, being the good man that he was, Joseph took his family and set off for Egypt-land where they would wait until Herod died.

Meanwhile Herod, fueled by fear and megalomania, sent soldiers to the little the village of David with orders to kill any child under the age of two. 

Life after Christmas has always been one of the best, and one of the worst, times of year. The light of the world is born on earth setting the cosmos on a trajectory toward resurrection and reconciliation, and yet we are (often) hellbent on keeping things exactly where they are. We spend weeks (and sometimes months) preparing ourselves for our own Christmases only to take down the lights, get rid of the trees, and go back to life as before.

I was up on the roof this weekend, patiently moving along removing every strand of multicolored lights, when a neighbor walked up and yelled to me from the sidewalk. She offered some unsolicited advice about how the lights could’ve looked better had they been hung in a different way but then, after a rather pregnant pause, she said, “This is the worst time of year. I don’t want to go back to life before Christmas. I wish we could keep these lights and this feeling all year long.”

As Christians, life can’t go back to the way that it was and that’s good news! What makes it good news is the fact that, as the baptized, we have been deadened with Christ in order to have new life, and life abundant. 

The season after Epiphany, this strange nebulous time between Christmas and Lent, is a reminder that our lives are constituted by the Lord who is the light who shines in the darkness. It pushes and prods us to consider who we are and whose we are. It reminds us that the glory of the Lord has risen upon us and nothing (nothing!) can ever take that away.

The World Turned Upside Down

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 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, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Merry Christmas!

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Jesus Christ tonight!

There’s just something about Christmas isn’t there?

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

Maybe its the music, or the candles, or the knowledge of what tomorrow might bring – Christmas is the difference that makes the difference.

And here we are! 

Albeit, not in the way we wanted and not in the way we would’ve imagined. We’re tuning in for Christmas worship this year unlike any other. Some of you were perhaps raised in this church and wouldn’t dream of doing anything else but sit behind your computer or phone or iPad tonight to hear what God has to say. While some of you were just scrolling through social media and decided to stop. Some of you, no doubt, are being forced to watch this against your will! Perhaps God will have something special in store for you tonight!

Whoever you are and whatever feelings, thoughts, and questions you have tonight, it is my hope and prayer that you encounter the incarnate Lord who makes his blessing flow far as the curse is found.

“Do not be afraid” the angel says, “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.”

Odd. 

That’s what Christmas really is.

It’s strange.

Now, it might not feel strange, with all of our sanitized nativity scenes set up throughout our homes, and our lights hanging from the gutters for the last few weeks, and Nat King Cole’s voice crooning through our bluetooth speakers.

But Christmas is, for lack of a better word, different.

And we bring to this oddest of nights all sorts of thoughts and expectations. We assume that Christmas is the time that sets everything right. You know, Christmas is the time to come home, to return to those types of memories when all was warm and bright, when everything that’s come upside down in our lives is set, at least for a few days in December, right side up.

And this year, it feels like everything is wrong. 

A global pandemic.

Economic devastation.

Gathering restrictions on how many people we can actually be with.

And so, we believe, that Christmas stands as this beacon where, in spite of whatever confusion might be happening in world, tonight things are set right.

Yet, according to the strange new world of the Bible, Christmas was the time when everything was turned upside down.

Consider – It wasn’t about a perfect mother who had the right pregnancy reveal on Instagram and subsequent photos of the color-coordinated nursery and the cutest invitations to her catered baby shower. It was about Mary, an unwed mother-to-be, pregnant in an upside down and impossible way, forced by governing authorities to relocate to a city where there was no room for her, her finance, and the Logos momentarily waiting in her womb.

Consider – The message of the incarnation, the birth of the baby born King doesn’t come through the official state sanctioned media outlet, there’s no announcement in the Jerusalem Times, there’s not even a carefully crafted and endlessly retweeted tweet. It was delivered in a song sung by angels.

Consider – The Good News came not to the learned and the powerful, not to the president or the president elect, not to the movers and the shakers. It was shared first with a bunch of dirty shepherds working the night shift.

Consider – The Word made flesh wasn’t surrounded by the best medical team with a crew of doctors ready to jump in at a moment’s notice. He was placed in a feeding trough.

Christmas isn’t when everything was right – but it’s certainly when God started really turning things upside down. It’s when God shows up in the strangest and most vulnerable of ways to reconstitute the fabric of reality not to make it the way things used to be, but to set the cosmos on a course to how things can be.

And maybe, just maybe, that’s why you find yourself watching and listening tonight. Because your world might not be all that it could be. But, be warned. It is risky coming before the babe at Bethlehem, for God delights in grabbing the rug right under our feet, and when the Lord pulls, no one knows where we’ll wind up.

O come let us adore him, we sing. We come to the manger scene expecting to meet what we have already thought before we arrive. We come expecting, and perhaps hoping, for the fulfillment of our desires, the confirmation of all our prejudices and preconceived notions. 

In some way, we want to know that Jesus is on our side, whatever that might mean.

But we are wrong.

Dead wrong.

For Jesus is like us but he is also totally unlike us. Jesus is the Lord made flesh.

Which makes our Christmases even stranger. We often present tonight as something spiritual or mystical. Or, on the other hand, we criticize others for making this time of year too materialistic. 

But Christmas really is a reminder that Christianity is inherently materialistic. God becomes material in Jesus. 

God becomes us.

Is God in Christ, then, the perfect, magnanimous, and serene figure often displayed in stained glass windows? Is he holier than thou, looking down upon us in our misery every chance he gets? Is he perennially shaking his head with regard to the disappointing efforts of human progressivism?

Or, is Jesus as Jesus is revealed in the strange new world of the Bible?

For the baby we worship tonight grows not to be very respectable at all – he breaks the sabbath, consorts with crooks and criminals, and he even insists on a public demonstration of protest by flipping over the tables in the temple.

He eats dinner with sinners. He shares wine with the last, least, lost, little, and on one memorable occasion, the recently dead.

He dies as a criminal. He becomes sin for us sinners, weak for us weaklings, lost for us losers.

And the angel says this is Good News.

What makes the Good News of Christ so good is the fact that everybody, even the worst stinker in the world, is somebody for whom Christ was born and for whom Christ died.

Contrary to how we’ve made it out in church, God isn’t born into the world to see if we are good little girls and boys, instead he comes to disturb the conventions by which we pretend to be good.

God isn’t born into the world to see if we are sorry for all of our sins, instead he already knows our repentance isn’t worth the hot air we put into it because we’ all jump back in the sinning business just as soon as we apologize for it.

God isn’t born into the world to come and count up all of our mistakes, instead he lives, he dies, and he lives again all while throwing out the ledger against us forever.

In short, Christmas turns the world upside down forever because God in Christ comes only to forgive.

For free.

For nothing.

On no basis on our part.

Because we are far too gone, and up the creek without a paddle, to do much of anything for ourselves in the first place.

Christ is our only hope. 

He, himself, is the Good News.

And in him the dawn of redeeming grace has arrived, the world turned upside down. Amen.

Breaking The Law To Hear The Gospel

In the latter part of his theological career, Karl Barth would preach for the inmates in the prison of Basel, Switzerland. When the public found out that he was doing so people reacted in a variety of ways – some were amazed that a man of such academic stature would humble himself to do such a thing, while others took it as a sign of his tremendous faith.

And a few would joke that the only way to hear Karl Barth preach would be to break the law and go to jail.

In 1954 Barth delivered the Christmas sermon to the inmates. I’ve made a habit of reading the sermon every Christmas week almost like a devotional and every year I find more and more in it that just astounds me. This great man whose theology disrupted my life (in the best ways), went down to a prison on Christmas and proclaimed the Good News of Christ’s birth into the world to a group of men who felt no hope in the world at all. 

Below you can find three of the most powerful paragraphs from the sermon, and as you read them I encourage you to do so while considering the context and the preacher from whom and for whom these words were preached:

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

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

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

Merry (almost) Christmas.

Start Acting Like A Child!

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the First Sunday After Christmas [B] (Isaiah 61.10-62.3, Psalm 148, Galatians 4.4-7, Luke 2.22-40). Teer serves at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Gift-giving, church complaints, Christmastide, loud voices, cowbell, praying for the land, the Gospel in 4 verses, public displays of piety, intergenerational ministry, outrageous grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Start Acting Like A Child!

Stuck In Advent

Isaiah 64.1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence — as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil — to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned. Because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people. 

In most churches there are two types of people: 

There are those who, seeing the purple paraments and the tree and the wreath and hearing the scriptures about sin, judgment, and wrath think to themselves, “Thank God! It’s finally Advent again!

And there are those who, seeing and hearing the same things think to themselves, “What is happening? Where’s the Christmas spirit? I thought this was supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year…

Advent, for better or worse, is a habit. And it takes a whole lot of courage and consideration to get used to this season.

Because outside of the Christian community, Advent is just an excuse to speed up toward Christmas – the decorations have been on sale since before Halloween, Black Friday begins before Friday, and just about every online retailer is constantly bombarding all of us with reminder to purchase our presents now before its too late!

Advent, in the church at least, teaches us to delay Christmas in order to rejoice in it fully when it finally arrives. 

Advent habituates us into seeing how the message of Christmas vanishes if we are not willing to walk toward the shame and pain that is all around us. 

Advent reminds us that we need the light of the world because we’re stuck in the darkness.

Which is why Advent always begins in the dark…

Isaiah, appropriately, depicts the stark nature of this liturgical season with a perceived absence of God. 

God, can’t you just come down here and start shaking things up! We could do for some trembling mountains and boiling rivers! We remember the mighty deeds with which you delivered us from the snares of death. And yet, for years and years no one has heard or seen or experienced anything divine except for you, and work in and through those who know what it means to wait. But you were angry with us and our miserable estate. You looked down upon our sinfulness, our wanton disregard for the last, least, lost, little, and dead. We’re unclean. All of our supposedly good deeds are like a filthy rag. Yet, O Lord, you are the Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter. We are the work of your hand. So don’t be exceedingly angry with us Lord, and do not remember our sins forever. We belong to you.

The language in our appointed scripture passage is not for the faint of heart, and it is certainly not what most of us are used to this time of year. We’d prefer to hear about hope, and love, and joy or maybe reflect on the theological value of The Grinch, It’s A Wonderful Life, and Home Alone.

And, to be fair, even though it’s not what we would necessarily prefer, the words of Isaiah are already echoed in our living in the world…

Tables were set this week for Thanksgiving with empty seats either because people could not travel in light of the Coronavirus, or because they are part of the quarter of million people who have died in this country because of the pandemic. Our holidays have the potential to both bring out our gratitude and our anger. We can be thankful for what we have while, at the same time, be filled with rage because of how the world continues to spin while we suffer.

In spite of travel restrictions and warnings about gatherings with too many people, airports across the country swelled as they always do during this time of year which has led many epidemiologists to intone – “It’s fine to have a big family gathering right now so long as your prepared to bury someone by Christmas…”

And it’s not just the pandemic that brings all these things into focus. More people suffer from depression at this time of year, more people end their own lives at this time of year, more couples get divorced at this time of year, more car accidents happen at this time of year, I could go on and on and on.

So here, in the midst of a world drowning in bad news, it’s not hard to imagine raising our clenched fist to the sky and shouting, “God! Where the hell are you?”

That is an Advent question.

It is perhaps the Advent question.

This isn’t the easiest stuff to contemplate and mull over at this time of year. I rejoice in setting up the lights on my house, and tuning the radio to the old familiar Christmas hits, and quoting along with all my favorite holiday movies. And yet, to so engage in this festive atmosphere can be a denial of the reality of this life.

Advent, fortunately or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, requires us to look straight into the heart of darkness. Particularly when we are afraid that we might see ourselves in the darkness.

Isaiah reminds us today that even the best of us are distorted and unclean – all that we do can be compared to a filthy old rag. We, all of us, chose to do things we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing things we know we should. Whether it’s leaving a nasty comment on social media, or dropping a scathing critique of a family member, to avoiding the apology and reconciliation we know, deep in our bones, that we need to do.

To confess the condition of our condition requires a constitution made possible only by the community called church in which we are reminded who we are over and over again.

We are, of course, beloved children of God, crafted in the image of the divine, fearfully and wonderfully made. And, at the same time, we, all of us, are sinners desperately in need of grace.

That is why we begin the church year with Advent, a season that begins in darkness. We, unlike the crowded ways of life, know the truth of ourselves, that there is nothing good in us, that we all fade away like leaves.

Therefore, the authentically hopeful Advent spirit is not looking away from the darkness, it is not filling our lives with fluff in order to deny the truth. 

It is, instead, praying for Holy Spirit to give us the courage and the conviction to look straight into the muck and mire of this life.

For, in the end, that’s exactly where God chose, and still chooses, to show up for us.

Jesus Christ, for whom our hearts long for and are prepared for, is the One who identifies not with the people who’ve got it all figured out, and have the perfect decorations on the house, and have all the presents already wrapped under the tree. 

Jesus comes for the last, least, lost, little, and dead. Who, if we’re honest, also includes all the people who seem like they have it all together on the surface. But under our masks, we are all the same – sinners in need of grace.

Jesus, thanks be to God, comes to take on our shame and pain by being born into this world, he shows up in the midst of our darkness, and gives himself up to die the brutal and dehumanizing death of a slave. 

There’s a reason Jesus spent his earthly ministry among the marginalized, because they were those who had been crying out for rectification. 

There’s a reason we nailed Jesus to the tree after all his healing and teaching – no one wants to be told they’re a sinner. 

So we killed God, or at least we thought we did. Despite our best efforts, the grave could not contain the Lord, and he rose on the third day in order to save us from ourselves. He taught the disciples about the way, the truth, and the life, and then ascended to the right hand of the Father.

But that is not the end of the story. In fact, it is the beginning of the end. For as much as we are Easter people, we are also Advent people. The church lives in Advent and we are stuck in it. We are a people between, and out of, time. We worship the once and future King Jesus Christ. We live in the light of his resurrection while anticipating his return to transfigure the cosmos into a new heaven and a new earth. 

We, to put it bluntly, are a people who know what it means to wait.

We are ripe with bad news in the world right now. Between the never-ending political in-fighting and civil unrest and an extremely communicable virus, there’s plenty of horrible things happening. And it always seems to coincide with this season we call Advent. But we also have the benefit of knowing the story behind the story. When we pick up the paper, or flip through the news, or doom-scroll on Twitter, we can rightly observe, “No wonder God had to send his Son into the world.”

Because Jesus is the only hope we’ve got.

Our hope won’t come from the world. It will never come from the next political candidate, or the next policy initiative, or the next fiscal plan, or the next diet, or the next pharmaceutical breakthrough. If our hope could come from the world it would’ve happened a long long time ago. We don’t have the power on our own to fix what is in us, despite what every commercial tries to sell us. 

No peloton, no diet, no queer eye makeover can transform us into our dream-selves.

No job, no paycheck, no material possession can fill the hole we feel in the depths of our souls.

No gift under the tree, no light on the house, no curated Christmas carol playlist can cover up the truth about who we really are.

The comfort we so need and seek must come from somewhere else – in a burst of power breaking upon us from beyond us altogether.

The joy of Advent then comes from a different place. It comes from the Lord who chose to do the inexplicable for a people undeserving. It comes from the Son who chose to live by forgiveness rather than vengeance. It comes from the Spirit who chooses to move in and through us even though we’re nothing but a bunch of filthy rags.

God will come again, God’s justice will prevail over all that is wrong in this life, God will fully destroy evil and pain forever and ever. 

Advent, this blessed and confounding season in the church, is all about looking straight into the darkness, its about seeking solidarity with those whose lives are nothing but darkness, all while living in the unshakable hope of those who expect the dawn to break in from on high.

To follow Jesus it to recognize that we are a people stuck in Advent, and the only way out is through the Lord who delights in making a way where there is no way. Amen.

Christmas Before Halloween?

Psalm 106.1

Praise the Lord! O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. 

I’m a creature of habit.

Which is probably why I love the church so much.

The church, at her best, is a series of habits that habituate us into knowing more about who we are and whose we are.

For instance, we use a lectionary cycle with particular scripture readings that work in such a way to continually remind us about the nature of God, the work of Christ, and the power of the Holy Spirit. We sing the same songs and say the same prayers because those things shape us in ways both seen and unseen. We follow a liturgical calendar to remind us that God’s time is not the same thing as our time. 

And because I’m a creature of habit, the last six months have been quite unnerving. 

I’ve lost the regular rhythms of Sunday morning worship with my community of faith, I no longer drive my kid to his preschool and politely wave at the other parents, and I haven’t been able to host friends and family members for regular meals in the backyard. 

I’ve created new habits of online worship, and ZOOM hangouts with friends and family, and even Facebook Live Bible Studies, but none of it feels the same. 

And yet, there are some habits from before that I’ve kept.

I like to run. Well, “like” might be too strong of a word, but I am a runner. It helps to keep me both physically and mentally healthy in spite of whatever else might be going on in the wider world. And so, regardless of the pandemic and the changes it brought to all of our lives, I’ve kept running.

But, as a creature of habit, I run the same routes over and over and over again.

That is, until this morning.

At 6:30am, under the light of the moon, I set out from my house for a quick little 5k around the neighboring neighborhoods. I made it about 1/3 through the route when I discovered the road in front of me was blocked off due to construction and I would either need to turn around and cut my run short, or turn down an unfamiliar street and hope that I would be able to find my way back out again.

And, for some strange reason (read: Holy Spirit), I took the path untraveled.

It looked just like all of the other streets I run on in the mornings, with all of the houses blanketed in darkness while people are still sleeping, except when I made my way around the first bend in the road I saw a house in the distance that was lit up like you couldn’t believe. And, within a few strides, I found out why…

The house was already (or still?) decorated for Christmas.

I could see a full Christmas tree in the living room window adorned with lights and ornaments, there was a scattering of pre-lit plastic reindeer robotically frolicking across the yard, and there was even an inflatable Santa Claus waving manically back and forth right next to the chimney.

Let the reader understand: Today is the 7th of October, a full 79 days before Christmas!

The creature of habit in me scoffed at the scene this morning. I thought, “Do these people not know the importance of keeping seasons in their season? It was one thing to see Halloween candy in the stores around the 4th of July, but Christmas decorations before Halloween???”

So I kept running, turning my thoughts over and over in my head until I realized that having Christmas decorations up already (or still?) is actually perfect for the time we find ourselves in.

The psalmist reminds us that “God’s steadfast love endures forever.” Which is just another way of saying, there’s no season in which God’s love is not steadfast. 

The incarnation of God in Christ is a forever and always event, not something to be simply relegated to a particular month or a particular set of decorations. Christmas is now and forever and that’s Good News! It’s really Good News in a culture in which we live according to Presidential Election cycles more than the Gospel of Jesus, when we withhold love from one another because of particular political signage adorning front yards or bumper stickers, and when our habits have all been turned upside-down by a virus.

By the time I got back to the house, and had my theology straightened out, I had to think long and hard about whether or not I should get out my own Christmas decorations. After all, now is the perfect time to remember that Jesus is the light of the world, born to us and for us, and he is the reason for every season. 

Perspective Is Powerful

strangely-warmed-spreaker-header

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Phil Woodson about the readings for the 2nd Sunday After Christmas [A] (Jeremiah 31.7-14, Psalm 147.12-20, Ephesians 1.3-14, John 1.1-18). Phil serves in Charlottesville, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including calls to repentance, 2nd Amendment sanctuaries, healing from trauma, The Rolling Stones, making peace, getting canonical, the back of the hymnal, the Logos, and a double share of grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Perspective Is Powerful

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The Politics of Jesus

Matthew 2.13-23

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.” 

Questions. Questions. Questions.

Kurt Vonnegut once said that people don’t come to church for preachments, but to daydream about God – and I think he was right. Rare is the one who wakes up on a Sunday morning thinking, “You know what, I just can’t wait to hear what the preacher is going to say about the Bible today!” 

That’s not why we come to church. 

If you want to humor me and inflate my ego you can certainly tell me that’s why you’re here, but, if we’re honest, we’re here because something, or perhaps someone, has compelled us to be here. It’s a feeling, and when we do find ourselves in a place like this, we come with the hope that we will learn something more about ourselves and the world on the other side.

Or, in other words, we come looking for answers.

One of the great aspects of faith is that God is in the business of providing what we need. It’s just that sometimes we ask the wrong questions. 

Today, all of us are coming to the Lord with the simple question, “Is the church political?” 

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under.

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On Christmas Day, Pope Francis offered his annual address to Catholics across the globe. The message was one of hope and a call for kindness to those experiencing hardships. It was titled “To The City And To The World.”

Like a lot of sermons it was filled with the “Christianese” language that can float right over the heads of those who receive it, but some of it was far more pointed. 

For example: “May the Son of God, come down to earth from heaven, protect and sustain all those who, due to these and other injustices, are forced to emigrate in the hope of a secure life. It is injustice that makes them cross deserts and seas that become cemeteries – It is injustice that turns them away from places where they might have hope for a dignified life, but instead find themselves before walls of indifference.”

This address came on the heels of Pope Francis placing a new cross inside the Vatican last week, a cross encircled by a life jacket, in memory of migrants who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea as they sought out a new hopeful existence in Europe.

He ended the address like this: “May he soften our stony and self-centered hearts, and make them channels of his love. May he bring his smile, through our poor faces, to all the children of the world: to those who are abandoned and those who suffer violence. Through our frail hands, may he clothe those who have nothing to wear, give bread to the hungry and heal the sick. Through our friendship, such as it is, may he draw close to the elderly and the lonely, to migrants and the marginalized. On this joyful Christmas Day, may he bring his tenderness to all and brighten the darkness of this world.

And people lost their minds.

How dare the Pope make such a political statement on Christmas! He’s using Jesus to make his own political judgments! There’s no room for politics in the manger!

There’s a lot of criticism about the political nature of the church and many have raised concerns about the rise of political rhetoric inside of church buildings. There is, after all, the so-called Johnson Amendment that prohibits churches from supporting particular political candidates or suffer losing their tax-exempt status in the US (though it certainly hasn’t stopped certain pastors from endorsing particular individuals). And, when rightly considered, the table at which we gather to celebrate communion is one through which all divisions end, even those of red and blue, liberal and conservative.

But when we talk about the politics of the church, or the politics of Jesus, we are already in a losing battle because when we think about politics we almost always do so through the partisan politics of our country.

Or, to put it another way, the politics of Jesus are not the same thing as the politics of America.

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A politic, rightly understood, is the way in which individuals relate to each other via decisions. Which, of course, has to do with things like democracy, and representation, and voting. But when we view the politics of church through the lens of our current political situation, we blind ourselves from the ways in which Jesus, and his life, death, and resurrection, compels those who wish to follow him to live under a different kind of politic.

A few weeks ago I shared how I saw a bumper sticker that boggled my mind – It said, “If Jesus had a gun he’d still be alive.” That is a political statement that carries more layers than we can look at in a worship service, but suffice it to say that the person with that on their car probably believes and lives according to a political understanding that, everyone should be entitled to having guns, and that in particular Christians should be the ones fighting for Gun Rights.

Now, it should come as no surprise to us that this creates a bit of a conundrum when conflated with the words from Jesus himself who said, “those who live by the sword will die by the sword,” and “ love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

We live in a world in which everything is political, and therefore the church (whether she wants to or not) is inherently political as well. However, the politics of the church do not fit neatly into the binary of Republican and Democrat as is so often desired in our country (as if the two of those things are mutually exclusive in the first place). It is a far more complicated matter, and one that we shy away from all too often.

Pope Francis chose to speak forcefully about the role the church has to play in a world where refugees are fleeing from difficult and dangerous situations in hopes of a better life. And, people and institutions can claim that he was being political, or even overly political, but he wasn’t just making it up for the sake of an argument. The concern of the church for refugees is biblical.

In the Old Testament, God ordered the people Israel to “not oppress foreigners, [for] you yourselves know how it feels to be foreigners, because you were foreigners in Egypt.” (Exodus 23.9) Similarly, they were told to treat the foreigners in their midst as if they were native-born and to love them as they love themselves. Care for the sojourners, for those without homes, was paramount in the community and it was central to what people had to do. 

For some of us, that might feel foreign (pun intended) but it is part of the story that has become our story. 

And, to make matters all the more prescient, the story we gathered to celebrate on Christmas Eve, the precious little baby in the manger, turns very quickly into a story of fear, infant murder, and migration.

King Herod, the de-facto political leader, is afraid about the one who has come to deliver Israel into a strange new world. And like all smart, powerful, and effective political leaders, Herod does what needs to be done to insure his tenure on the throne. He orders troops into Bethlehem to indiscriminately murder every child under the age of 2. 

Thankfully, Joseph receives word through a dream that he, Mary, and the newborn baby Jesus will need to flee the area and make a new home in Egypt as strangers living in a strange land. 

Or, in other words, they become refugees.

As Christians, therefore, we are a people whose story has been shaped by the story of One whose life was put into jeopardy by the ruling powers and principalities. We worship the One who regularly called into question the political practices of his day by flipping over the tables in the temple, and declaring that his followers needed to render the things back to God that belonged to God. We have been granted salvation by the One who, at the orders of the political powers, suffered under the death penalty and died on a cross.

The political group of people called church have come a long way through the centuries. You can tell how far we’ve come, or how far we’ve moved, by how much we bristle at the thought of politics mixing with church because that doesn’t harmonize with the ways we’ve been taught to think and speak. 

And, ultimately, that’s one of the reasons we still gather together for worship. Not to listen to a preacher wax lyrical about how scripture still speaks to us today, but to develop an imagination capable of forming us into the people God is calling us to be. 

It is here in church that we are given the words to speak and think Christian. 

As Christians, we know that Jesus is Lord, and therefore we do not need rights and freedoms granted to us from a document written in response to the rule of monarchy to be who we really are. 

We know that Jesus is Lord and therefore we believe in taking care of people regardless of whether or not our political parties do. 

We know that Jesus is Lord and therefore we are not captivated by partisan policies geared at keeping up divisions. 

For, in the end, we worship a crucified God and we seek to be in fellowship with the One whose arms were still outstretched even while mounted to the hard wood of the cross.

Being a Christian is not about idolatrous freedom, denying responsibility, or ignoring the plight of the marginalized. 

Following Jesus is all about challenging the presumptions of the world with the truth of the lordship of Christ that will often place us positions counter to partisan politics. Because, as Christians, we believe in loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving our neighbors as ourselves, which is not the same thing as being a Democrat or being a Republican. Jesus helped those who couldn’t help themselves, and that includes people like us, and people who are fleeing for their lives.

When the politics of our country become the most determinative thing in our lives, it becomes way too easy to believe the problems of the world are because of the people on the Left or the Right instead of what Jesus says: the problem in the world is in all of us. We chose to do the things we know we shouldn’t, and we avoid doing the things we know we should. 

When we worship our partisan politics, it becomes harder and harder to like our neighbors and it becomes impossible to love our enemies.

When we think the church isn’t supposed to be political we forget that the Kingdom Jesus’ death and resurrection inaugurated isn’t a Kingdom that any political party could ever create.

But it is a Kingdom. 

And in Jesus’ kingdom trespasses are forgiven, grace is given, enemies are prayed for, peace is practiced, and all of our earthly differences are swallowed up because its more important for us to swallow the body and blood of Christ at this table together.

In the end, our personal politics might not line up with what Jesus had to say and what Jesus had to do, but Jesus was political, and the church always will be. 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.”

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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!

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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. 

Christmas With Karl Barth

In the latter part of his theological career, Karl Barth would preach for the inmates in the prison of Basel, Switzerland. When the public found out that he was doing so people reacted in a variety of ways – some were amazed that a man of such academic stature would humble himself to do such a thing, while others took it as a sign of his tremendous faith. And a few would joke that the only way to hear Karl Barth preach would be to break the law and go to jail.

In 1954 Barth delivered the Christmas sermon to the inmates. I’ve made a habit of reading the sermon every Christmas Eve almost like a devotional and every year I find more and more in it that just astounds me. This great man whose theology disrupted my life (in the best ways), went down to a prison on Christmas and proclaimed the Good News of Christ’s birth into the world to a group of men who felt no hope in the world at all. 

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Below you can find some of the three most powerful paragraphs from the sermon, and as you read them I encourage you to do so while considering the context and the preacher from whom and for whom these words were preached:

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

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

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

Merry Christmas

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