Merry Christmas Ya Filthy Animal

Luke 3.7-18

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed to you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. 

For 16 days in a row, my 2 year old son has scarfed down his food at the breakfast table with reckless abandon. Cheerios and yogurt and eggs and bread have flown from plate to mouth and to the wall and to the floor like the Tasmanian devil himself was starving. And with the final mouthful he will triumphantly declare, “I’m done!”

And then he’ll stare at the pantry with gleeful expectation.

We will, of course, reorient his demeanor and disposition to the Christmas tree advent calendar where he practices counting his numbers in order to pick a magnetic ornament to hang as we get closer to Christmas Eve, but all he really wants is The Incredibles themed chocolate Advent calendar we have hidden in the pantry.

He will sit there with his fingers twittering like a mad scientist and then his eyes will dart all across the thin cardboard box until he finds the right number and he will promptly scarf down the terrible tasting piece of chocolate all while grinning from ear to ear.

Happy Advent.

And, I’ll admit, there is something in me that just wells up with all kinds of fatherly and joyful feelings when I see the daily practice. Behind the frenetic eating patterns, and the impatience to ingest sugar at 7 in the morning, there is an anticipating, a waiting, for what is yet to come.

At least, that’s how I felt until I read something this week. 

Fleming Rutledge is, without a doubt, one of my favorite theologians and preachers. As a preacher, her sermons are the kind that make me feel like I’m terrible at what I do. 

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Nevertheless, I was reading through a collection of her old Advent sermons this week and I came across one on the same text that we just read. And this is how she begins the sermon: “I’ve always wanted to design an Advent calendar. You would open up one of those cute little windows and there would be John the Baptist glaring at you saying, “You brood of vipers!”

Imagine a wildly bedraggled man, smelling up to high heaven, clothed in camel’s hair, with honey stuck in his beard, jumping out at you from behind one of your favorite Christmas decorations, only to shout, “Merry Christmas ya filthy animal!”

Happy Advent.

I’m sure some of you are thinking, “John the Baptist? Again?! Didn’t we have to hear about this guy last week?”

And you’d be right. John the Baptist, the crazy prophet is back again, but this time he’s not mincing his words. You brood of vipers!

In Advent, there are plenty of other people from the Bible we might like to hear from. The angel Gabriel, or Mary, or even Joseph (though he doesn’t say much). But John is the central person of this season of being in the in between. He is the one who stands with one foot in each of the ages. He rests between how things are and how they ought to be. 

He is the last and the greatest of all the Hebrew prophets. With every new prophet the declarations about the coming Messiah increase until they reach their electrifying zenith in John who says the waiting is over!

And how does he begin his message? What are the first recorded words we have in scripture from John the Baptist? He belittles the crowds who have gathered and he exhorts them with a to do list.

I’ve said this a lot already, but Advent is a really strange time in the life of the church. It is quite a challenge to place our theological fingers on the pulse of what this season is and what it means for people like you and me.

I can’t tell you the number of churches who are spending this Advent season doing a series like “How To Find Jesus In The Peanuts” (as in Charlie Brown), or “Christmas Through The Movies” in which a church will play clips on a Sunday morning and then a preacher will exegete what the people have seen, or even something like “The Best Present Is Presence.”

Those types of things draw forth these deep waves of warmth regarding the season and the are the theological version of sitting by a cozy fire with a nice cup of hot chocolate.

And, for as interesting and exciting as they might be, like a child devouring the daily chocolate piece, they don’t really have a lot to do with Advent. 

The readings we encounter in church at this time of year don’t leave us dreaming of sugar plumbs dancing in our heads, or feeling fuzzy and familiar fantasies… John the Baptist just called us a brood of vipers!

I think it would shock those from the early church to see the cutesy versions of the angels, and the mangers, and the virgin Marys we use to decorate our homes. I think they would be baffled by the sheer number of lights and inflatable cartoon characters we put up in our yards during the coldest part of the year. Which, to be clear, I love those things about Christmas. I love driving around to look at lights and taking the time to go through every member of a manger scene.

But we’ve got to admit that our Advent and Christmas observances are pretty watered-down and sanitized. No one wants to put up an angry John the Baptist inflatable or ornament in their tree.

And yet Christmas, what we are preparing for right now, is the stark and frightening and profound transformation of the world. It is surely worthy of shouting “joy to the world” but God refuses to leave the world the way that it is.

God will redeem God’s people, because we are in need of redemption!

The Good News of this season of waiting and putting our feet in two different places isn’t just that Jesus arrives, but that Jesus’s arrival changes people like you and me.

Back to Fleming Rutledge, she says Advent forces us to look at the dark sides of ourselves.

Now, I don’t need to take the time to regale you with stories about the brokenness of the world. All of us here know how messed up things are. No matter how many sentimental decorations we have, or how many gallons of eggnog we’ve consumed, or how many carols we’ve belted out at the top of our lungs, we know that things really are as bad as they seem, and we are not innocent.

We, brood of vipers.

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John sounds pretty judgmental. And we don’t like judgmental people. He spends the majority of his proclamation exhorting the people to do this, that, and the other and it is just plain exhausting: Give your coats away, repent for your sins, don’t extort people.

Doesn’t John know that we already have too much to do at this time of year?

I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t like being called a viper, or a filthy animal. 

I don’t like feeling judged.

But here’s the rub: those of us who don’t like hearing about judgment in church are usually those ones who have reason to fear being judged. Or, to put it another way, we who protest the judgmental behavior of others usually suffer from that same disposition without really realizing it.

Advent is a time where all that has been, at that is, and all that will be is made known to God. It is the time that all of who we are is opened up to the divine: our inner thoughts, our knee-jerk reactions, our biases, our prejudices, our everything. We are laid bare and judgment is coming.

There is a new exhibit in DC at the Bible Museum that features a very interesting bound collection of scripture. The so-called “Slave Bible” was printed by the Missionary Society For the Conversion of Negro Slaves in 1808. Though labeled “Holy” on the cover, it is anything but; in order for Christian missionaries to convert enslaved African peoples to Christianity they created a bible but they removed any verse that had any references to freedom, equality, and resistance.

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In the end the Slave Bible is missing 90% of the Old Testament and 50% of the New Testament.

And Christians, that’s people like us, used that particular book to keep particular people in bondage. 

What were we justing singing? Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free…

All has, is, and will be made known to God. The final reckoning is going to take place. That’s what John the Baptist is yelling about – the ax is lying at the roots of the tree!

But we’re not quite there yet. And, strangely, something has already taken place. The Judge of all things is arriving and has arrived.

His name is Jesus.

So take a moment and think, if you can stand it, about your own sins and secrets; not the sins and secrets of others, the Christians who have come before us. Think about the dark side of yourself. 

In Advent we are bombarded with the notion that one day all of us will bring those very secrets before the throne of God and the great Judge will see us for who we really are.

But here’s the craziness of the gospel: the Judge is not like what we so often fear. Our great Judge is filled with compassion and comes to us with wounds in his hands and feet.

This is a paradox befitting the faith: the judgment we hear from the lips of John has already happened. It has taken place in the very body of the Judge.

Jesus, the Judge who is to come, has already given himself to be judged in our place.

Vipers, crucifixion, judgment… It is strange to hear these words in Advent while we’d rather consider Frosty, and Rudolph, and the one who has a belly like a bowl full of jelly. But it is an even stranger thing to realize that Advent and the Cross are so intertwined that they cannot be separated.

If Advent is the time to contemplate the dark side of ourselves then this season sheds light on the truth that our sin is what nailed Jesus to the cross. We really are the unrighteous, the vipers, for whom the Son of Man was hung on a tree.

This is our Jesus; bloody and bedraggled. This is the One for whom we wait this time of year. And that’s why John the Baptist is the central figure in Advent. 

He reminds us that we were unworthy but Jesus counted us worthy. 

He reminds us that we deserved judgment but in Jesus we found mercy. 

He reminds us that we were slaves to sin and death, but that Jesus brought us to righteousness and life.

Hear the Good News! Jesus’ arrival both from the womb and from the tomb means that he will not let us remain as we are. He is the judged Judge who stands in our place. He is, in himself, the Good News. 

So, Happy Advent Ya Filthy Animals. Amen.

Ending With A Promise

Devotional:

Isaiah 12.2

Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. 

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Today, thanks to Tommie Marshell’s excellent devotional for the Advent Begins In The Dark series, I was reminded of some words from the phenomenal preacher Fleming Rutledge:

“The sermon should end with a promise because God’s purposes cannot be defeated; that’s God’s promise. So that if we have received the gift of faith, we need to know that God is present in that gift of faith and even when we think we are losing our faith, God is still there.”

God is still there…

Many years ago, when I was a teenager, I used to run the sound system at my home church. Every Sunday I could be found in the back of the sanctuary tinkering away with all the knobs and slides so that everyone could hear whatever it was the preacher was saying. And, on Christmas Eve, I would do the same.

On one particular Christmas Eve I drew the short straw and was asked to run the board for the 11pm service. The preacher that night was exhausted by that point, having already preached at 3, 5, 7, and 9pm services, and the sanctuary was not as filled as it had been earlier in the evening. But nevertheless a faithful remnant stood vigil and offered the hymns with gusto. To be honest, I don’t remember much from the service that night except that the sermon ended with a promise: “God is born in Jesus for you.”

After we blew out the final candle and turned off all the lights, I got in my car and drove home to my parents’ house. Longing for the warmth of my bed, and the hopeful joy of presents in the morning, I drove with anticipation. 

Until I saw the fleshing red and blue lights ahead of me.

My home was down the street from an old stone bridge that runs across the George Washington Parkway in Alexandria, VA and as I pulled up to the bridge I went into Boy Scout mode without really thinking about what I was doing. And before I knew it I had parked the car and ran down to the road offering to help in any way that I could to the first police officer I encountered.

He looked up from the road and said, “Son, go home and forget that you saw any of this. Merry Christmas.”

And I wish that I could forget what I saw.

But I can’t.

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Because that night, shortly before I arrived in my car, a man from our community had been standing on the edge of the bridge for a long time waiting and waiting. He waited until he saw a large SUV coming down the road, and when he felt that it was the right moment, he jumped.

The SUV was carrying a family on their way home from their own Christmas Eve service, a family ready for the warmth of their beds, and the hopeful joy of presents in the morning, a family that would be forever changed.

In the many years since that night I have tried my best to forget what I saw on the road. I’ve tried to fill that memory with the light and the glow of the sanctuary instead of the red and blue lights. 

But I can’t. 

And that’s okay; this world of ours is broken and flawed and people are hurting. It doesn’t do any of us any good to sugar-coat this season like the candy-canes we have displayed in our homes. But we mustn’t forget the promise: “God is born in Jesus for you.”

For me.

For the man who jumped.

For the family in the car.

And for you.

The Demands of the Divine

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Michelle Matthews about the readings for the 2nd Sunday of Advent (Malachi 3.1-4, Luke 1.68-79, Philippians 1.3-11, Luke 3.1-6). Michelle serves as the pastor of the Kingstowne Communion in Kingstowne, VA . Our conversation covers a range of topics including being obsessed with the Enneagram, burning up the excess, the whole OT in one Psalm, the God who will die, the theology of discernment, and the scandal of particularity. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Demands Of The Divine

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The End Is Our Beginning

Luke 21.25-36

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heaven will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Then he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourself and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my word will not pass away. Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”

I was in Richmond for most of the week completing the final retreat in my year long leadership program. Every other month a group of clergy retreated from our churches to reflect on how we have led while praying for God to show us the right way to lead. 

On Wednesday evening, upon completing the lectures and break out sessions for the day, we gathered to worship in a small chapel on the property of the retreat center. We prayed together, we lifted up our voices together, and we listened together. I could still feel the Spirit’s presence washing over me at the end of the service when one my colleagues asked if any of us wanted to join him for a drive to go look at some Christmas lights.

If you know anything about me, after being cooped up listening to speakers and participating in self-reflection, driving around to look at blinking lights sounded light the best possible way to end the evening. So a group of us scrunched up in one car and we began our journey. 

There were plenty of homes in that part of Richmond with the requisite strand of lights hanging from a gutter, or the solitary electric candles standing starkly in every window. But there was one home that glowed in such a way that would make Clark Griswold proud, and it was our final destination. 

Across the lawn there was not a foot of space that wasn’t adorned with an inflatable character, a string of lights, or a mechanical animal. You could even tune your radio to a particular station playing Christmas music to which the lights were coordinated. The house had a hotshot driveway so that you could drive onto their property at the expected 2 miles/hour and soak it all in.

I wish I could appropriately convey in words the sheer depth and breadth of what we experienced. And remember: we were a group of trained theologians, properly educated and reserved in our beliefs, and yet all of our faces were pressed tightly against the windows.

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There was the giant blinking “LET IT SNOW” on the roof top, there was a projector displaying Santa Claus packing up is sleigh before the midnight departure, and there was a set of inflatable elves playing instruments in rhythm with “Rocking Around The Christmas Tree.”

There were at least 4 full sets of reindeer attached to their own respective sleighs, there was a strange assortment of Santa Clauses in every shape, size, and color, and there was a palm tree decorated as if it were a Christmas tree.

There was a section with holiday adorned characters including Mickey Mouse, Lightning McQueen, a gaggle of Minions, and a small Darth Vader, R2D2, and Yoda.

We did the loop three times.

And it was only during the final pass through, while we were all laughing and giggling with the joyful experience that I realized something strange – there in the midst of all the lights and color, all of the sounds and movement, was only one tiny manger scene tucked away in the corner, as if it was an after-thought.

It looked like they were excited about Christmas, but almost forgot about Christ.

It is strange to gather in this place and at this time with all of the expectations of the world – The Christmas carols started playing on the radio before Thanksgiving, the department stores had up the decorations even before Halloween, and some of us did our holiday shopping months ago.

And now we come to church, to finally catch up with the season we’ve been preparing for and what do we hear about from God’s word? There’s no mention of Santa, we don’t learn about a young virgin named Mary, we don’t even catch a glimpse of a cute baby all wrapped up in swaddling clothes.

No. Today we get the end instead of the beginning.

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This is not the sweet Jesus away in the manger. It is the stern adult Jesus picturing the whole of the universe being shaken and turned upside down.

But what about the city sidewalks, busy sidewalks, dressed in holiday style? What happened to all the falalalalalalalalas? Where are the chestnuts roasting on an open fire?

Advent, for better or worse (mostly worse) has moved very far from what it once was. Now, we imagine it as this awful time of participating in the virtue of patience up until Christmas morning during which we get to cut loose and open up all the gifts. But thats not really what Advent is all about.

Advent it the recognition that we are people stuck in the middle – We are living in the in between.

We already know what happens on Christmas morning, we are aware of the Messiah child named Jesus and what he will do for the world, and yet we are waiting for his return. 

And we do this, as Christians, all in the midst of a horribly unpredictable world. We are certainly a people of patience, but it is a confused patience. We wait for his arrival, we wait for his return, and yet we know where he is.

It’s enough to give you a headache.

But that’s Advent! Head-scratching, incarnating, frustrating, waiting. 

The End, whatever that may mean, is so often shrouded in fear and foreboding. The wayward person carrying around the sign “The End Is Near” is not often regarded with joy or gratitude. The End raises the hair on the back of our necks and we feel the beginnings of existential dread. 

And Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat it with the disciples – things are going to be bad. The whole of the cosmos will experience the dynamic shifting of things from the sun to the moon to the stars and to the earth itself. There will be distress among the nations and the peoples of the planet who won’t be able to make sense of the senseless changes. 

People are going to faint from fear when they begin to experience what it coming upon reality for everything will lose its sure foundation.

And then they will see the Son of Man coming on a cloud with power and great glory.

Jesus speaks to us, his disciples, throughout the gospel texts with a repeating message: “The world will fall apart around you but you need not be afraid – I have overcome the world! Be patient in your waiting, just before the dawn, because in the midst of the darkness there are strange and even redeeming events afoot.”

That’s Advent in a nutshell roasting on an open fire – Look up, pay attention, and be ready. Advent compels us to prepare ourselves for the two arrivals of God coming into our world and Jesus returning to the world at a time we do not know.

This is how we begin the Christian year – not with a moralistic lecture on making good resolutions and sticking to them and not a recap of our failures from the past and the descriptions of the new steps we need to take into the future. Instead, on this first Sunday of the year, we spend our time thinking about the end of the story. 

As Christians we are forever beginning at the end.

Jesus names and claims the truth about the end, all things will pass away, but he doesn’t leave the disciples with their tails tucked between their legs: Consider the fig trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourself and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these crazy and frightening things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.

This prophetic and apocalyptic vision of the future is all about expectation and anticipation. Though not necessarily the types we are used to. 

You and I are living in a time where hope is limited to that which we can often imagine; we go through the motions waiting for something, but without really knowing what that something is. And so we get used to the stores having the decorations up months in advance, and we shrug our shoulders when we see the almost forgotten manger scene tucked away in the corner.

But the kind of real anticipation that Advent contains is the anticipation for the end of time, my time and your time and everything in between, AND the fulfillment of all the God has made and redeemed. 

If we imagine the end at all we often do so with such stark and negative terms, but consider this: Jesus draws the disciples’ attention to new life! Look at the fig free, look at the new budding branches, new life is the sign of the end.

How wonderfully strange!

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Jesus is describing the anticipated and expected reign of God’s kingdom on earth, and though he speaks of the fabric of life falling apart he also does so with descriptions of summer and new beginnings, not winter and barrenness. For some strange reason we miss that beautiful and hope-filled little detail and instead we focus only on what will be destroyed and decimated.

But friends, there are plenty of things in our world that need to be destroyed. There are many things that have to be abandoned. There are plenty of things that need to be crucified.

The fear of a man who stayed inside of a UMC in North Carolina for 11 months hoping to achieve legal status before being abruptly arrested and deported last week.

The anger of parents who sit in worship on Sunday morning even though they know their church believes their child is incompatible with Christian teaching.

The hopelessness of a child who goes to sleep hungry every night wondering if anything will ever change. 

Some things need to be destroyed because the message of the Good News is that we cannot have resurrection without crucifixion, we cannot discover who we are without abandoning our false identities, and we cannot have new life without destruction.

Advent is the season we celebrate new life – Jesus’, our own, and the new reality made possible by our God. We live in a time and among those who wish to see the world fizzle out in a tiny smoldering fire, but the Lord promises to return to us in a glorious way and is already bringing us signs of new life and peace.

And so Jesus beckons us to look for the new sprouts and signs of new life. Because it is in the opening of our eyes that we how the end is in fact our beginning. Amen. 

The Gospel In 4 Verses

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Teer Hardy about the readings for the 1st Sunday after Christmas [Year B] (Isaiah 61.10-62.3, Psalm 148, Galatians 4.4-7, Luke 2.22-40). Our conversation covers a range of topics including what gifts we should offer to Jesus, The Bachelor, incarnational theology, the importance of sermon titles, and how to keep the joy of Christmas in Christmastide. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Gospel In 4 Verses

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An Old-Fashioned Christmas

Isaiah 9.2-7

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

           Merry Christmas! There’s just something different about Christmas. No matter how young or old we may be, no matter what kind of year precedes this night, Christmas Eve never fails to brighten our spirits. I look forward to this night unlike any other night with a kind of joyful anxiety: I know this holiday carries with it more meaning than can be contained in any sermon, and yet to share the story of the incarnation is one of my greatest privileges.

But there is a question I must ask: Why are you here tonight? Some of you were raised in this church and can’t imagine being anywhere else. Some of you have come alone, and others are with large families taking up an entire pew. Some of you have been planning to be in this place at this time for weeks, and some of you decided to come on a last minute impulse. Some of you have been dragged here against your will, out of loyalty or guilt. And some of you are here perhaps for the very first time.

Some of you are young and full of hope and anticipation; most of your Christmases are still in front of you. Some of you who are older are filled with memories of Christmases past that will never come again. Some of you are looking forward to getting back to the presents and the trees, and some of you dread going home. So hear this: whoever you are, and whatever you’re feeling, I’m glad you’re here.

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.

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I ask a lot of questions, it comes with the job. But around this time of year I tend to ask the same question over and over: “What’s the best Christmas present you’ve ever received?” And the funny thing is, people have the hardest time answering. And not because they have so many gifts with which that have to weigh out and evaluate their answer, but because they just can’t remember.

For instance, can any of you remember what you opened three years ago on Christmas morning? What about last year?

Of course, there’s a better question to ask: “What’s one of your most beloved Christmas memories?” People can answer that one, and the response is almost always about spending time with a particular person; a beloved spouse, or child, or grandmother, or friend.

That’s what we remember most about Christmases past, the people we spend time with. It’s all we have to give to another, it’s all we really want to receive, and it’s what God gives to us.

Not a present under a tree, not a trite response to a prayerful need. God gives himself to us at Christmas.

There’s just something about Christmas that’s different. And there’s nothing quite like an old-fashioned Christmas. Do you know what I mean? A Christmas where all the kids actually showed up, all the presents were wrapped in time, there were no iPhones to distract us from conversations, no drones to charge before their first flight. Old-fashioned Christmases were all about the family, and the singing of carols, and feeling the warmth of the fire.

My father grew up in Germany, and his most vivid memories of old Christmases were waiting to see what would happen to the Christmas tree. Because unlike our contemporary trees filled with pre-lit LED lights that can do more than a stage production, his Christmas trees were covered in real candles. And on every Christmas Eve every candle would be painstakingly lit, and my father would sit there, like any young child would, waiting for the whole thing to catch on fire.

An old-fashioned Christmas.

There’s a church in our community that worships in a new building, but they still have the original sanctuary on the property. And all year long it just stands there off in the corner like the forgotten island of misfit toys, until Christmas Eve when they open the doors, brush off the dust, light the kerosene lanterns and have an old-fashioned Christmas service. That was the case, until a few years ago when they forgot to open a window, and the kerosene lamps sucked up all the oxygen and parishioners started passing out left and right.

But a real old-fashioned Christmas, which is to say a biblical Christmas, is altogether different. The strange new world of scripture opens up for us a scene where kings rage and wickedness rules the day, where the threat of taxation forces young couples to retreat to the comfort of their parents’ homes, and countries who think of themselves as the very best have forgotten the very least.

            You know, completely unlike today.

It’s strange how Christmas, at least the version we encounter at the mall, becomes a dream. We escape into the Christmases of the past, falsely assuming they held a tinge of perfection. But in the bible, Christmas is no dream; it is reality. And it is one that begins in the dark.

The darkness – evil, sin, suffering, distress, destruction – they are very much part of the world, even if we’re made to believe they are absent during Christmas. We live in a time of war, violence, anger, and wrongful use of power. And the darkness is not just out there, beyond the comfort of the sanctuary, it is very much here as well. The darkness of family fights, disease and death, aging parents, rebellious children, fear and guilt, loneliness, and shame.

And we have to take the darkness seriously, even when we’d rather not. We take the darkness seriously because Isaiah certainly did, because darkness is very much part of our experience, and because darkness is what the light of Christ makes it’s way into.

This time of year challenges us to search for meaning. I mean, every bad Hallmark channel movie struggles to define the reason for this season, but the closest we can get to the meaning of Christmas is right here in Isaiah: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

Light is how we experience the presence of God, the arrival of grace, mercy, and peace. Light shines in the darkness.

That’s why we always end Christmas Eve worship with the lighting of candles. It is a strange and beautiful thing because it begins in the dark!

Our candles, as a witness to the one Christ candle, burn as a promise, a pledge, and perhaps as an act of defiance. Our flickering candles are what the life of faith look like as it resists the evil temptations of the world.

It looks like our faith because it is fragile.

Our flames are as fragile as a new baby born into the worst circumstances.

opt-the-day-after-christmas from Life Magazine Jamie Wyeth

But new life always starts in the dark, whether it’s a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, new life starts in the dark.

It is a strange, subversive, and dynamic way to change the world. It runs counter to all our assumptions of what it means to hold power. It is fragile like a flame, like a baby born in a manger, and like our faith can be at times.

But one flame, one baby, one faithful hope can be all that it takes to spark a rebellion that changes everything.

An old-fashioned Christmas is challenging because it is truer than all of the perfect manger scenes on our mantles and inflated on our front lawns. The incarnation of God is not some spiritual and mythical concept; it is very much the totality of God taking on flesh to enter this world of ours with all its agonies and joys, sorrows and splendor.

For a fleeting moment, we might experience a time where all is calm and all is bright while we are in this place holding our candles high. But we do so with the knowledge that the world still marvels at the darkness. So come to feast at this, Christ’s table, greet one another in the love that Christ offers us, and declare your defiance of the world’s expectations through the fragile flickering flame.

Because tonight, a night unlike any other night, we join together to wonder at the mystery of God’s power embodied in the fragile flesh of a newborn baby. Tonight, we join together as God’s light that shines in the darkness. Tonight we remember what an old-fashioned Christmas really looks like. Amen.

Q&A with Tripp Fuller and Diana Butler Bass [Live]

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The Crackers & Grape Juice team recently hosted a live podcast event in Alexandria, VA where we invited Tripp Fuller and Diana Butler Bass to offer their reflections about the first and second Advents. Tripp is the founder of Homebrewed Christianity which produces podcasts and publishes books and Diana is an author, speaker, and scholar specializing in American religion and culture. In the final part of the evening, we invited Tripp and Diana to respond to questions from the audience including: Why is the second Advent necessary? What about Advent is important for white people in a world full of racial inequality? and What’s right with the Church? Also – The episode ends with a Christmas sing-a-long led by Tripp… If you would like to listen to the live recording, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: Diana Butler Bass & Tripp Fuller – Q&A [Live]

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