God Is God And We Are Not

Psalm 8

O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human being that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Christmas Pageant stories are a dime a dozen.

I, myself, stood in a different pulpit helping narrate a particular pageant when one of the shepherds turned his staff upside down and ignited it like a lightsaber. Were it not for a daring dive from the aforementioned pulpit, the shepherd would’ve beheaded a wiseman, an angel, and at least three sheep.

There was another pageant when a kid dressed as a donkey decided to take a nap on the chancel steps in the middle of the drama, and remained there until after the applause died down at the end and everyone heard him say, “Mom?”

There’s a wonder and a beauty to the way children lead us in worship. Whether it’s the theological daring answers during a Children’s message, to the way they give themselves over completely to the movement of the Spirit, to the various pageant pronouncements, the glory of the Lord is revealed.

There’s a story that passes around this time of year every year about a certain pageant and the child who played the innkeeper. For weeks and weeks all the children practiced their positions and their lines, they were ready. But when Christmas Eve arrived, and the little Mary, Joseph, and plastic Jesus arrived at the cardboard cut out entrance to the inn, they knocked on the door and the innkeeper froze. Little Mary kept repeating her line, “Please let us in. We’re cold and we really need a place to stay!” Getting louder with each repetition. Until, finally, the innkeeper looked out into the congregation and said to the pageant coordinator, “I know I’m supposed to say, ‘No,’ but can I let them in anyway?”

Kids get it.

The Psalmist declares, “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.”

There’s a better than good chance that every one of us here has a story in which a child or a kid or a youth pointed us to a greater reality about the kingdom, than we could come to on our own. For instance, I was with my family in Alexandria this last week, celebrating the holidays, and we decided to go visit my grandmother’s grave on the anniversary of her death. She died last year at this time. 

And as we were dressing the kids and getting them into our various cars, my nephew asked, “Where are we going?” And I said, “We’re going to see Omi.” And he gave me this puzzled look and said, “But Omi’s with Jesus now.”

Kids get it.

But then the psalmist drops this on our dozing heads: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human being that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”

What a brutal question!

That God considers us, at all, is beyond our deserving. That God listens to our prayers is downright ridiculous. We tend to look at all we’ve done and said with such pride and glory, but compared to the works of God we are a bunch of ants. 

The God who called the universe into being out of nothing, who brought forth order out of chaos, who breathed life into creation, is probably not very impressed with the Lego set I built a few days ago, or the meal I cooked for my family, or even this sermon I crafted.

All things considered, there’s nothing terribly special about humanity. We’re a bunch of creatures who often make a mockery of the creation that God has given to us. 

Sure, we can point to some of our achievements, save for the fact that some of the worst things we’ve ever done as a species were done in the name of progress. 

What makes us unique isn’t what we can, or can’t, do, but the fact that God becomes one of us. God did not become a penguin, God became a human, a particular human in the person of Jesus Christ. And, notably, God did not just show up as a fully formed adult human being – God shows up as a baby!

That’s the message of the incarnation. And it is so bewildering that people like us decorate trees, and exchange gifts, and light candles year after year to celebrate God’s unwavering commitment to us. 

But the only reason we, that is Gentiles, even know about this enough to celebrate it is because of what we call Epiphany, the feast that marks the visit of the Magi and the expansion of the kingdom to those outside the people Israel. 

According to Matthew’s Gospel, after Jesus’ birth wise men/magi from the East come to Jerusalem looking for the king of the Jews because they observed a rising star and came to pay their respect. There’s a frightening plot by King Herod to put to an end any threat to his power, but the magi make haste to Bethlehem where they discover the star leading them to the location of the baby Jesus. 

When they encounter the baby born king they do something strange. It would be one thing to bring gifts to a king, stranger still to give those gifts to a baby born to a poor Jewish woman and her soon-to-be husband. But scripture says that when the magi saw Jesus, they knelt down and worshipped him and were overwhelmed with joy.

Epiphany is the celebration of that moment. We mark it on the liturgical calendar because it both points to the wild character of the incarnation, God in the flesh as a baby, but also to the way in which the glory of Jesus’ birth stretches beyond the confines of Israel.

Jesus will certainly grow to enact miracles and make various proclamations about the ever widening nature of the kingdom, but this is the radical beginning of that expansion. 

Jesus comes for a lot of reasons – to save us, to show us how the kingdom works, to reveal the nature of God. But one of the things we often overlook is that Jesus helps us to become fully human.

That’s a strange claim to make. You might expect to hear that Jesus helps us to become better Christians, or fuller Christians. And yet, if Herbert McCabe is right, we can only be fully human as we are incorporated into the fullness of humanity named Jesus Christ. Jesus, McCabe argues, “was the first true human for whom to live was simply to love – for this is what human beings are for.”

The kingdom of God, therefore, isn’t just for certain sets of people in particular places. The kingdom of God is for everyone. When we say that Jesus is fully human and fully divine, we mean that he is the fullness of humanity and the fullness of God. If we want to know what it means to be human, we need not look further than Jesus Christ, for his life was love. 

Maybe that’s why the magi fell to their knees and worship. Not because they intellectually understood the proclamation of the incarnation, of because they rationally deduced the momentous moment in front of them, but because they encountered love in the flesh, true and full humanity in a baby.

The presence of the magi in the manger means that the love that is God is for people even like us. And whenever we encounter that total radical love, whether it’s here in church, or at school, or at work, or around the dinner table, we can’t help but worship. It is nothing short of amazing that God, author of the cosmos, loves us and is as close to us as a baby being rocked in our arms or the bread and cup at the table.

An important theological claim is that God is God and we are not. It keeps things squarely where they are supposed to be. What are human beings that God is mindful of us, and all that.

But then, in the incarnation, everything takes on a strange and wondrous dimension. Because even though God is God and we are not, God willingly choose to become us, that we might discover who we are and whose we are.

Which, in the end, is why the psalmist can sing: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Amen.

Welcome To Humanity

1 Corinthians 12.12-14

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

1 Thessalonians 5.11

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

Dear Finley,

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

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

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

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

Your uncle taught that to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet, if Herbert McCabe is right, we can only be fully human as we are incorporated into the fullness of humanity named Jesus Christ. Jesus, McCabe argues, “was the first true human for whom to live was simply to love – for this is what human beings are for.”

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

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

On and on and on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Politics of Christmas

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for the First Sunday After Christmas [A] (Isaiah 63.7-9, Psalm 148, Hebrews 2.10-18, Matthew 2.13-23). Alan is the lead pastor of First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including band names, timeliness, gracious deeds, Christmastide, corporate worship, belonging, praise, Winter Camp, Karl Barth, sanctification, reality, the implications of the incarnation, and presence. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Politics of Christmas

Family Ties

Matthew 1.1

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Merry Christmas!

Here we are on the other side of the manger, the presents have been opened, the zooms with family have taken place, and we find ourselves back in worship waiting on a Word from the Lord.

There’s something about this season that can bring out the very best, and the very worst, in us. I’ve stood in enough churches for enough Christmas services to witness the extent of how true that sentence really is. 

It was merely days ago that the children of the church dressed in all the correct costumes and re-created Christmas for us…

But it was also merely days ago that I heard raised voices and arguments out in the church parking lot, disagreements came to the brim at some of our Christmas tables, and long held grudges remain held.

After our 8pm Christmas Eve service, a woman walked up to me who I had never seen before and all she said was, “Thanks for being open tonight. I didn’t want to be alone on Christmas Eve.” And with that she walked out.

Families are complicated.

And perhaps no family was and is more complicated than Jesus’.

The Gospel according to St. John begins with a connection to the cosmos – in the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God.

The Gospel according to St. Mark doesn’t even have an introduction and just hits the ground running with the J the B going buck wild out in the wilderness. 

The Gospel according to St. Luke provides some authorial remarks regards the necessity for the transmission of the Gospel in the first place.

And The Gospel according to St. Matthew gets down to earth and puts Jesus’ family tree in the particular context and history of Israel. And the closer you get to earth, the dirtier it all becomes. 

Therefore, for the next ten minutes or so, I’m going to attempt to bring us through the genealogy of the baby born King we were worshipping on Christmas Eve. And, hopefully, you will see that my claim of Jesus’ sordid family history is not made in vain.

We start with good ol’ Abe. Father Abraham! The one with whom the covenant was made. I will be your God and you will be my people, and all that. Through you, the Lord says, generations will be blessed.

And Abraham, in his old age, becomes the father of Isaac.

However, it is the faith of Abraham, a major theme of both the Old and New Testaments, that results in Isaac being nearly murdered by his faithful father. Thanks be to God for the ram in the bushes!

Isaac survives to father Jacob, a devilishly tricky young boy who swindles his way into salvation history by pulling one over on his own aging father.

Incidentally, Jacob was himself duped as well. He wound up sleeping with the wrong bride by mistake and becomes the father of Judah.

And, because families are complicated, Judah accidentally slept with his own daughter-in-law Tamar, who pulled one over on him by dressing up as a harlot (more on that in a moment). And when Judah discovered that his daughter-in-law got knocked up while a lady of the night, he ordered her to be burned at the stake!

He only relented when, of course, he discovered that he, himself, through his midnight machinations fathered the child in her, Perez.

And that’s just the first three verses of the genealogy!

Next we encounter a list of people we know nothing about until we get to Boaz.

The strange new world of the Bible tells us that Boaz was a good and honorable man and his conjugal connections with Ruth, a dirty rotten foreigner outside of the covenant, continue the family line.

Ruth, notably, shows up after Boaz had a few too many ciders on the threshing room floor and, prior to their marriage, uncovers his feet.

If you know what the Bible means…

Anyway, this kind of behavior would’ve been no surprise to Boaz because his mother was Rahab, the harlot who had the sweetest little house on the edge of Jericho, who hid the agents of Joshua, and who, herself, was brought into the family line after a city was massacred.

So Ruth and her Bo-az (get it?) made their life in Bethlehem (ever heard of it?) and they brought Obed into the world, who was the father of Jesse, the father of David.

If you couldn’t tell already, the whole first section of the genealogy is filled with the complicated nature of reproduction.

The next section is filled with violence.

David, after slaying Goliath and playing the harp, after high-tailing it away from King Saul, eventually becomes King. And while King, with all the power it holds, he chanced upon Bathsheba, a woman bathing naked, during some afternoon peeping.

He used the power at his disposal to arrange her husband murder, rapes her, and becomes the father of Solomon, you know, the one with all the wisdom.

The whole story of David is filled to the brim with intrigue and murder.

A lot of murder.

In many ways, David was just a really successful band who, along with the Holy Spirit, brought together a bunch of tribal areas and started a real kingdom.

But, back to the family tree: Solomon’s son Reheboam lost almost all of David’s gain through his insatiable greed. He, according to scripture, encouraged pagan cults and even sacrificed male prostitutes.

The next few names on the list aren’t much to speak us, through at least two of them had some idea about what it meant to be covenanted with the great I Am.

Nevertheless, from Jehosophat through Joram and Ahaziah, it’s quite awful. Should you find yourself with some free time, you can skim through the canon and learn about murdered sons, blood thirsty kinds, assassins, and more!

Perhaps the first Sunday after Christmas isn’t the best time to take a peak behind the curtain of the Holy Family, but it’s all there. All the way up to, and through, the exile.

After the time of being strangers in a strange land, of wrestling between planting roots and getting plucked up, things only get marginally better for this family. But only because most of the next names in Matthew’s genealogy aren’t mentioned anywhere else in scripture.

And finally, finally (!), we make our way down the list until we’re back in the little town of Bethlehem with Joseph who Matthew describes as a just man (which is saying something compared to his ancestors). And who does Joseph brings to the family reunion caused by the emperor’s census? His pregnant virgin fiancé Mary.

No wonder no one wanted to let them stay at their house.

And then, Jesus, son of God and son of Man, light from light eternal, is born in the manger.

That’s it. That’s Jesus’ family tree in all its glory.

So what should we make of it?

Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but Jesus obviously did not belong to the nice clean world of all the worst Hallmark Christmas movies. He did not belong to the reasonable, or honest, or sincere world of decency and that we all too often claim for ourselves today.

Jesus comes from a family of murderers, cheats, cowards, scoundrels, adulterers, and liars.

Jesus comes from people like us, and he came for people like us.

No wonder God had to send his Son into the world; Jesus is the only hope we’ve got. Amen. 

All The Good Verbs!

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Second Sunday After Christmas [C] (Jeremiah 31.7-14, Psalm 147.12-20, Ephesians 1.3-14, John 1.1-18). Teer is one of the pastors at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Christmas presents, strangers in a strange land, experiential faith, scattering and gathering, strange celebration, new words, Frozone and Frozen, the mystery of salvation, Indiana Jones, universalism, and the incarnation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: All The Good Verbs!

In The Beginning Was The Verb

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Second Sunday After Christmas [B] (Jeremiah 31.7-14, Psalm 147.12-20, Ephesians 1.3-14, John 1.1-18). Teer serves at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the proleptic tense, Christmas unicorns, reconciliation, peaceful borders, God’s grammar, feeling the feels in worship, theological adoption, Herbert McCabe, letting in the riff-raff, and reading from the margins. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: In The Beginning Was The Verb