Something For Nothing

Luke 12.15-16

Jesus said to them, “Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Then he told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly…”

Vacation Bible School often provides plenty of sermon illustrations. Kids have this knack for pulling away the facade of mature theological interpretations with a curiosity and wonder that makes the Good News good. Case in point: Two nights ago I was trying to convey the truly wild tale of God providing manna in the wilderness to the grumbling Israelites when one of the kids asked, “Why would God be so nice when all they did was complain?”

It’s a great question.

It’s a great question not only for the wandering Israelites, but also for us.

Jesus is doing his Jesus thing when a pair of feuding brothers bring their own query to the Lord. They are fighting over the family inheritance when Jesus drops the parable of the storehouse:

“There is a man who has a field that produces abundantly, and he realizes he doesn’t have enough barns to store all of his crops, so he destroys his small barns and builds even bigger barns to hoard up all his produce. But God says to the man, ‘You fool! When you die, what good are your possessions? You can’t bring them with you.’”

This, unlike a fair number of the parables, is an easy one to, like Jesus, drop on congregations: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth. You can’t take your riches with you beyond the grave. Therefore, be generous toward other people. Be generous toward God through your tithes and offering to the church.”

And maybe all of that is true and maybe that’s exactly what we should hear in church. Perhaps we are called to recognize how we have been blessed (in some way, shape, or form) to be a blessing for others.

But if that’s all this parable is for, then it might as well come from a life-coach or a non-profit. The dangling moralism at the end for a more generous way of living could come from any number of sources and mean basically the same thing.

But what makes the parable of the storehouse different is the one who tells the parable.

Robert Farrar Capon puts it this way: “Parables are told only because they are true, not because the actions of the characters in them can be recommended for imitation. Good Samaritans are regularly sued. Fathers who give parties for wayward sons are rightly rebuked. Employers who pay equal wages for unequal work have labor-relations problems. And any Shepherd who makes a practice of leaving ninety-nine sheep to chase after a lost one quickly goes out of the sheep-ranching business. The parables are true only because they are like what God is like, not because they are models for us to copy.” 

We can certainly copy the parable of the storehouse, we can give abundantly because much has been given to us. But the real reason we can do all of that, is because this is a story that Jesus tells about himself.

Jesus, rather than storing up his own life and saving it, willingly lays it down and sheds his own blood for a people undeserving.

The man in the parable has a lot, but he is missing something. He lacks grace. Because when you have grace, you begin to have an awareness of how empty all of our other possessions really are. Possessions cannot add a minute to our lives nor can they save us. The only thing that can save us is Jesus; we just can’t bring ourselves to admit that we’re in need of saving.

From the manna in the wilderness, to the cross and empty tomb, God is in the business of forgiveness, of doing something while we deserve nothing. That’s why Jesus tells the parables he tells because they point to the wild nature by which God’s grace changes the cosmos. 

The parables don’t give us examples of how to live so much as they show us how God lives, and dies, for us. 

Mitchell

1 Corinthians 13.1-13

If I speak in the tongues of humans and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions and if I hand over my body so that I may boast but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable; it keeps no record of wrongs; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part, but when the complete comes the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see only a reflection, as in a mirror, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love remain, these three, and the greatest of these is love.

John 3.16

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 

Jesus is doing his Jesus thing. He wanders around Galilee, making the impossible possible, telling parables of prodigals and publicans, and confronting cantankerous clergy. And, at some point, crowds begin to follow. Within these crowds are the disciples, the ones called by the Lord to a different life. And these disciples, the ones who are supposed to have this stuff all figured out, they keep interrupting with questions. 

Hey JC, when will this kingdom of yours actually start? 

Teacher, did you really say we need to turn the other cheek?

Lord, who will make it into heaven?

The disciples, to their foolish credit, assume they’ve already made the cut. They, after all, left it all behind to follow Jesus. So what they really want to know is, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

It’s a good question. 

And Jesus answers by picking a random kid out of the crowd and lifting him up. 

It’s a strange moment in the strange new world of the Bible.

All these grown up with their grown up ideas and grown up hopes and grown up assumptions, they stand and watch Jesus take hold of a little kid and he says, “If you want to get into heaven, you have to be like this little boy.”

It’s no wonder the disciples rebuke Jesus for such an answer.

What does this boy have to show for himself? What random acts of kindness earn such a profound distinction from the Lord? 

In the end, all that he has to show matters not at all to the one who comes to make all things new.

If you want to get into heaven, Jesus says, you have to be like a little kid.

To me, Mitchell was always a little kid.

I know that he eventually grew to be taller than me, and perhaps a bit wiser, but because our families grew up together, I couldn’t really see him as anything other than a little kid. 

And, to be fair, he acted like a little kid.

Mitchell could fall asleep in the strangest of places from on a couch during a loud dinner party, to on his boat in the middle of the lake in the middle of the night.

But his childlikeness was such a gift. 

In my life I’ve never known anyone so easy to be around. Whenever he smiled, it took over his whole face and no matter what you might’ve been going through you couldn’t help but smile back. He had this way of shrugging his shoulders that made everyone else realize that we were probably taking everything else a little too seriously. He had a confidence about himself that was bizarrely endearing.

Did you know that when Mitchell was younger he once told Susie that he wanted to get John 3.16 tattooed on his hand so that, when he threw a touchdown on tv, everyone would be able to see it?

That, in a sentence, might be the most Mitchell thing I’ve ever heard.

In the life of faith we are encouraged to have scripturally shaped imaginations. That means that whenever we enter the strange world of scripture, we discover that it is indeed our world. So much so that when we read of Jesus walking down to the sea of Galilee to preach the Good News, it’s not difficult to picture Mitchell waiting off to the side of the crowd joking around with some friends. And then, when Jesus realizes the crowds have grown too large and needs a way to address everyone, Mitchell is the one who volunteers for the Lord to use his wake-boarding boat. But to bring it all home, when people still struggle to hear what Jesus has to say out on the water, Mitchell is the one who informs the Lord that the boat has a killer sound system and he can crank it up, if that’s what the Lord wants.

Jesus says, Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it. 

There’s a childlike quality to giving, and receiving, love as conveyed in the Bible. It’s why Paul is so quick to riff on the subject in his first letter to the church in Corinth. For millennia these words have cultivated and curated the people called church: love is patient, love is kind, love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 

Love never ends.

Mike, Susie, Brianna, this is the love that you had for Mitchell. You were patient with him, you rejoiced with him, you wept with him, you laughed with him. You surrounded him in every moment of his life with the tangible beauty of ever-enduring love. Any life is made intelligible only by and through love. And Mitchell was dearly loved.

But the same holds true for how Mitchell loved you and all of us. This gathered body is a witness and a testimony not just to the love we have for Mitchell, but to the love he demonstrated for us. Within these pews are countless stories of love and joy and peace and delight that were made manifest through him. 

Mitchell loved you. Each and every one of you. 

Our lives were richly blessed by him, and will continue to be blessed because of him.

That is why, even in our terrible terrible grief we can be grateful. We can be grateful because Mitchell was such a gift. 

1 Corinthians 13 will always speak words into a moment when we no longer know what to say. The love with which our lives are made possible is the great proclamation that makes the Good News good. 

And yet, for as often as we have read this text to be about us and the love we have for one another, it is actually the declaration of who God is for us. 

You see, God is love. Which means God is patient; God is kind; God is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. God does not insist on his own way; God is not irritable; God keeps no records of wrongs; God bears all things, believes all things, hopes all thing, and endures all things.

The promise of the Gospel is that no one, absolutely no one, is outside the realm of God’s grace and love. No matter what we do or leave undone, God is for us no matter what.

God’s love for Mitchell knows no end. 

Hear the Good News: In the fullness of time, God in Christ is born into the muck and mire of our lives, wandering the streets of time, making a way where there is no way. And then, Jesus takes all of our sins, past-present-future, nails them to the cross and leaves them there forever. The Lord is locked up forsaken and dead in a tomb. But three days later, God gives him back to us.

We are Easter people. Christ’s resurrection is the promise of our resurrection. The empty tomb is the proclamation that one day we will all feast at the Supper of the Lamb with Mitchell. We will gather at the table around which God makes all things new and there will be no mourning or crying, only dancing and laughing.

But that day is not this day.

Today we weep because Mitchell is gone.

And yet, there’s another time in scripture when the disciples are continuing to badger Jesus with their questions about the kingdom of heaven and to whom it belongs. And Jesus says, “Heaven belongs to those who mourn, those who cry, those who grieve and ache and wish that it wasn’t so, those who know not all is as it should be.”

In short, heaven belongs to people like Mitchell and people like us. Thanks be to God.

Hide & Seek

Genesis 3.1-11

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die, for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food and that it was a delight to the eyes and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked, and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”

The beginning of the strange new world of the Bible is, indeed, new and strange. God makes it all through the power of speech, “Let there be light!” And then, as is God’s pleasure, God makes humankind in God’s image. Fashioned from the earth, given the breath of the Spirit, our ancestral parents walk among paradise.

This, to put it bluntly, is when the story gets good.

I often wonder what story from scripture is known among the masses more than any other. With the ubiquity of Christmas celebrations, there’s a pretty good chance that lots and lots of people knowing something about the manger and something about the birth of Christ. With the never ending resourcefulness of the “underdog triumph,” David and Goliath must be known by others. But the story of Adam and Eve is, quite possibly, the most well known story from the Bible.

And for good reason.

It is short. It is simple. It gives explanation for why things are the way they are. Though, it cannot be explained in a way that leaves us satisfied, which is what makes it worth coming back to over and over and over again.

Last week in worship Fred Sistler, guest preacher extraordinaire, said, “Genesis doesn’t give us the how, but the wow.” I really like that. There’s a lot of wow in this story. But perhaps, at least with Genesis 3, the wow turns into a woah.

Adam and Even are in paradise. To us that might seem like a remote island in the Caribbean, or any other number of idyllic spots, but paradise in the strange new world of the Bible is simply a perfect communion between God and God’s creation.

Which, if we’re being honest, might not sound much like paradise.

We can scarcely fathom how communal the communion was because it sounds so wrong. And if it sounds wrong it’s because the idea of being too intimately connected with anything, let alone God, is no one’s idea of a good time.

We know what we’re really like behind closed doors, and what’s buried deep in our internet search histories, and where our knee-jerk reactions can be found. We know that even though its easy to point out the splinter in someone else’s eye, we’ve got logs in our own. We know that, to use Paul’s language, we continue to do things we know we shouldn’t.

All of us, the tall and the small, we’re all masters of blocking our some of the grim realities of life. We can read a frightening article about something like the devastating effects of global warming, or we can listen to a podcast about the terror of our current economic situation, but when push comes to shove, we can definitely pretend like everything is fine.

But the Bible doesn’t do this – it never does. Oddly enough, this is why the strange new world of the Bible is realer than our own. It tells the truth, even when it hurts. 

Consider: This book begins with paradise, perfect communion (perhaps uncomfortable communion), and by chapter 11 we encounter murder, near genocide, lying, and loads of violence.

Which begs the question: What went wrong?

As has been mentioned before, GK Chesterton famously responded once to a newspaper article asking “What’s Wrong With The World?” With only two words: I am.

You see, the story of Adam and Eve is real, realer than we often give it credit for. And their story is our story. 

Our first parents find themselves in paradise and there is only one rule. Can you imagine? You can do whatever you want! You’re never in need of anything at all. There’s just one teeny tiny caveat: See that tree over there? You can’t eat from it. Everything else is yours, except for that.

Enter the serpent, the craftiest of creatures.

“Psst, Eve. Did God tell you that you were forbidden to eat from every tree?”

“No, you silly snake, we’re not allowed to eat from one tree.”

“Don’t you find that a little odd, Eve? I mean why would God give you all the other trees to eat from but not this one? Isn’t God the God of love? Doesn’t sound very loving to me…”

“Well, God said we would die if we eat it…”

“C’mon Eve! Do you really believe that? Why would God go through all the trouble to give you life only to take it away?”

And so the seeds of doubt are planted.

The end of the beginning.

She reaches for the tree, as does her husband, and their eyes are opened. That’s the way scripture puts it. The effect is instantaneous. They now know what they didn’t know. There is no going back. 

And what do they do with all this knew knowledge? Are they puffed up with bravado? Are they ready to take on the world?

No.

They are afraid. They see themselves for who they really are and they can’t stand the sight. They fashion fig leaves for clothing, and they hide.

We still hide all the time. We hide in our jobs, in the bottle, in our busyness, in our children, in our wealth, in our power.

And it’s while we’re hiding that God comes and says, “Taylor, Taylor, where are you?”

Notice, the question is not who are you? God does not come with moral judgments, or ethical inquiries. God comes asking where we are.

And what’s the answer?

I’m right here God and I’m lost.

We might not think we are lost, we can try to convince ourselves that we know exactly where we are on the map of life. But, when we take a good hard look in the mirror, we know that we are not as we ought to be. The condition of our condition ain’t good.

And, typically, this is where the scripture, and therefore the sermon, ends. In Adam and Eve we discover ourselves, our plight, and we are made to feel bad about out badness.

And that might not be such a bad thing. Sometimes discovering or confronting our badness leads to goodness. But most of the time, it just makes things worse.

And, notably, that makes it all about us. Our choice, our failure, our punishment.

But what about God?

God comes looking for us.

You see, the strange new world of the Bible is the story of God’s unyielding search for us. From the first parents in the garden of Eden, to the Good Shepherd, to Eschaton, God is for us. 

When they eat from the forbidden tree, God doesn’t hurl down lightning bolts from the sky, nor does God spin together a tornado. No, God goes into the garden and asks, “Where are you?”

Adam, Eve, you, me, we’re all lost. Truly, completely, lost. And for some reason, we assume that we have to be the ones to find ourselves. It’s why we’re forever giving ourselves over to the latest fads of self-discovery, some of which are probably fine. We’re trying to find ourselves with technological advancements, some of which are probably fine. 

We’ve done all sorts of crazy things in the name of progress to make this world more like Eden.

We got rid of slavery only to now have the highest rate of incarceration of any developed nation.

We keep improving our medical systems, but American life spans are diminishing in large part due to the opioid epidemic.

Examples abound!

And yet! (The strange new world of the Bible always hinges on the divine yet.)

And yet God does not give up on us! The story, our story, begins in the garden but it does not end there. The story continues through the strange and wild wilderness in the days of Abraham, it weaves through the journey to Egypt and back again in Jacob and Joseph, it delivers through miracles made manifest in Moses, it rises through the power of David and Solomon, it dances through the prophets who proclaim the word of the Lord, it endures through drought and famines, it connects the lives of the powerful and the powerless, it brings down the mighty and lifts up the lowly.

Of the many details in the story, the story we know so well because we’ve heard it time and time again, the one that always hits me in the face is the fact that, when Adam and Eve see the truth, they hide behind a tree

The story of God’s search for us eventually leads to a small town called Bethlehem, it trudges through Galilee and sails over the sea, it tells of prodigals and publicans, it walks the streets of Jerusalem and turns over the tables at the temple, it marches up a hill to a place call the Skull, and it hangs on a tree for people like you and me, and then it breaks free from the chains of sin and death for you and me.

Our first parents hide behind a tree in their shame, but Jesus hangs on a tree to proclaim that God will never ever stop searching for us, that no amount of badness will ever hold a light to the love that refuses to let us go, and that God is the one who makes a way where there is no way.

Life is a long game of hide and seek. But God always wins. Amen.

What Are You Doing Here?

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 2nd Sunday After Pentecost [C] (1 Kings 19.1-15a, Psalm 42 & Psalm 43, Galatians 3.23-29, Luke 8.26-39). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including proper introductions, For All Mankind, Gary Oldman, hipsterdom, Mt. Horeb, melancholia, Mockingbird, silence, journeys, perfect prayers, Martin Luther, the tonic of grace, living among the dead, and freedom. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: What Are You Doing Here?

Grace Like Rain

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Bryant Manning about the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Easter [C] (Acts 9.1-6, Psalm 30, Revelation 5.11-14, John 21.1-19). Bryant is the director of the Wesley Foundation at FSU. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the Greek exegesis of Mark, chapel shadows, resurrection reminders, a hopeful ecclesiology, little deaths, goodness and mercy, church camp, resolution, the great ordeal, unbelief, and prayerful discernment. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Grace Like Rain

Tyler

Grace and peace to each of you in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit,

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Taylor Mertins and, like Jon and Randy, I am a pastor and I serve Raleigh Court United Methodist Church in Roanoke, VA. 

But I grew up in this church, and Tyler was one of my oldest friends.

I am someone who works in the world of words, and I must confess that preparing these words was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.

I have 1,001 stories I could tell about Tyler, many of which would not be appropriate to tell in church, and that’s saying something coming from a pastor.

I met Tyler for the first time at my 6th birthday party. My mother had received word that a new family had moved in around the block and she informed me that a boy I never met would be coming to my party because what better way could a child be introduced to a neighborhood.

Let me tell you, that’s an incredible way to parent.

Anyway, I vividly remember this dark haired boy with a cast from his shoulder to his wrist jumping on the bounce house and using his cast to push all the other kids around.

We were fast friends.

There’s a ten year period of my life where I can’t really remember doing anything without Tyler being involved somehow. Our families went on vacation together every year, our first sleepovers were at each others houses, we were together all the time.

Our mothers will tell this story that, one time, they brought all us kids over to Collingwood park and while they stood by the playground with our younger siblings, Tyler and I were running around in the field. And all seemed well, until they really looked at us and they realized we were beating the hell out of each other. So they rushed out into the field and pulled us apart, and the next day were were playing together again.

That is to say: I always felt like Tyler was more of a brother than a friend.

Another confession – during that same ten year period, if I ever got in trouble and some concerned adult asked for my name and my parents name, I never hesitated to say “My name is Tyler Gray, and my parents are Larry and Janet Gray.”

Tyler got in plenty of enough trouble on his own, but Larry and Janet, you probably received at least a few phone calls that were about me and not Tyler.

There are things we did in life that I know we did only because the other one did it. Tyler and I were in cub scouts together and we came to this church for a time on Sunday afternoons to earn our God and Me badge, we went through confirmation together and knelt at this altar in order to respond to God’s grace and mercy, both of which I am sure Tyler did because I did it.

Similarly, Tyler enrolled in German when we were in high school just as I did, and I know for a fact that Tyler never learned a single word. I know he learned nothing because I helped him cheat on every single test and even when he was called upon to stand and respond to our teacher’s questions Auf Deutsch, I would whisper the answer to him and he always answered with a smile on his face.

Entschuldigung Frau.

And it went both ways; I am sure that I signed up to play Ft. Hunt baseball, basketball, and lacrosse because Tyler did. I listened to a lot of punk music in middle school only because Tyler talked about it all the time. I even used to wake up early every morning before school so that I could ride my bike to the Gray’s house and then walk up the hill to ride the bus with Ty.

I wanted to spend as much time with him as I possibly could.

Because I loved him, and he loved me. 

The latter part of high school was rough for Tyler and he went through a lot. So much so that there was a time that we didn’t speak to one another. But when we finally reconnected, one of the first things he told me was that he met a girl on the ski trip.

Sure you did, I thought.

But then he kept talking about Laura, and spent time with Laura, and Tyler started to change, for the better. He became a version of himself that I think he always wanted. In you he found himself. You were the light in his darkness. Your marriage and your girls are a testament to who Tyler became.

He loved you, and you loved him. What a gift.

Larry, Janet, Corey, B, Lauren – you loved Tyler too. You loved the hell out of him. You were patient with him, you were forgiving, you were present.

And he loved you.

No family is perfect, just as no marriage is perfect and no friendship is perfect. But you were all for Tyler in a way that he needed. 

There’s this bit right smack dab in the middle of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome that, for me, I can’t read without thinking about Tyler. Paul has been riffing on the wonders of God’s love and it crescendos up to this remarkable declaration: I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

What makes such a statement so profound is the fact that all those things are constantly trying to separate us from one another and from God. Life, at times, is a seemingly endless battle between where we are and where we should be or want to be and, no matter what we do, we can’t get there. And then Paul shouts through the centuries, rattling our souls, with the reminder that there’s nothing we can do to make God love us any more, or any less. Nothing can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go. 

And yet, the pain of life can sting like nothing else. 

None of us will ever know or understand what happened on Sunday. But today is Good Friday, and if you’ve ever spent time in church you’ll know there really isn’t anything good about today. Churches across the world will gather to worship the King of kings who rules from the arms of the cross. Today is the day we remember Christ’s death.

And, notably, in two of the Gospel accounts Jesus’ final words are, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The incarnate One cries out with his final breaths feeling completely alone, isolated, and abandoned. The Messiah meets his end feeling like he has nothing left.

We will never know what Tyler felt, but Christ does.

And even in death, Jesus isn’t forsaken. 

In three days God gives him back to us.

The promise of Easter is that, one day, we will all feast at the supper of the Lamb with Tyler. We will gather at the table anew when there will be no mourning and no crying.

But that day is not today. Today we weep and we mourn because Tyler is gone.

Sometimes, I fear, we’re too noisy around people who are suffering, trying to make things okay with our words. Nothing will make this okay. What we do need is presence, we need one another. 

So it is my prayer that, in the days, weeks, months, and years ahead that we hold tight to each other. That we give thanks to the Lord who gave Tyler to us. Amen.

One Week

Luke 19.28

After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. 

Fleming Rutledge, patron saint of the Crackers & Grape Juice podcast, has often waxed lyrical about the need for preachers to proclaim the Word rather than explain the Word. Explanation often leads to exhortation; the Bible says this so we have to do that. But the Good News is an announcement that God has come into the world and we now live in the light of that in-breaking.

In other words, the gospel is a story – it is the story of God’s people Israel which culminates in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The gospel is not a program, or a set of beliefs, or a collection of rules, or an explanation of how to wind up in the right place when you die.

The gospel is a story, in fact it is the story. 

And preachers do well to tell the story, rather than explain it.

Therefore, here just a few days before Palm Sunday and Holy Week, here is one preacher’s attempt to tell the story of Jesus’ last days before the cross and resurrection…

It was early in the morning when Jesus sent two of his disciples to a village to find a suitable farm animal: a donkey. The time had come to enter the holy city of Jerusalem for Passover, a time when the city’s population would balloon up to 200,000 for the celebration. On a Sunday morning, the crowds gathered with palm branch and shouts of “Hosanna!” they placed their cloaks on the road as a sign of their devotion to the arriving king, and Jesus entered Jerusalem. 

At the same time, on the other side of the city, Pontius Pilate (the Roman Governor of Judea) entered with at least 1,000 soldiers demonstrating the power of the empire. 

One arrived on a donkey, the other arrived on a battle horse.

With the city coming into focus, Jesus began to cry. He looked over the temple and the people of God and he wept. 

And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

On Monday Jesus made his way to the Temple with countless other Jews. With the triumphant and parodic entry the day before, all eyes were on this so-called Messiah. As his feet walked over holy ground, Jesus encountered the moneylenders and changers who set up shop in the temple courtyard. They were profiting off those who traveled great distances to make their ritual sacrifices and boosted their prices in anticipation of economic gain.

Jesus, who spent the better part of three years berating the elite for taking advantage of the last, least, lost, little, and dead, became incensed when he saw the poor being ripped off in the name of God. He therefore walked straight over to the tables, lifted them off the ground, and went into a full blown temple tantrum. He declared for all to hear: “This is my Father’s house and you’ve made it into a den of robbers!”

The elite and the powerful now had their eyes set on Jesus. It was one thing to have a crowd with palm branches welcoming a poor rabbi into the city, but it was another thing entirely when he disrupted the status quo particularly when it came to the economic practices of the Temple. The leaders started looking for a way to discredit him, or remove him completely. 

And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

On Tuesday, Jesus once again entered the Temple and he began to teach. If people were excited to see him enter the city, they were now even more eager for a chance to hear and see the One who had been making waves in Galilee, the One who flipped the tables the day before.

While he was teaching the Pharisees and the religious leaders began interrupting and demanded to know from whom Jesus received such authority.

And Jesus, who used parables to teach his disciples and followers, responded to their accusations with head scratching stories about mustard seeds and prodigal sons and kingly banquets. Over and over he used examples to show how those in the places of authority had lost sight of their responsibility and he labeled them hypocrites, snakes, and broods of vines.

They tried to trap him in his words, but he continued to point to the in-breaking kingdom of God.

And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

On Wednesday Jesus left the arena of the Temple and continued his teaching on the Mount of Olives. Some of his disciples made comments about the glory of the Temple and Jesus responded with talk of destruction. He revealed images of God’s cosmic plan for the world made manifest in himself, and he called for his disciples to stay vigilant.

He continued to speak his parabolic utterances and even offered a sermon describing the great inversion of all things. 

His presence and proclamations continued to threaten those in power and they grew afraid.

And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

On Thursday Jesus continued his preaching and teaching until he retreated away with the twelve for their observance of Passover. While sitting at the table they remembered God’s mighty acts for the people Israel as they were delivered from slavery to sin and death into the Promised Land. But before the supper was finished, Jesus did something rather radical. He took a loaf of bread, gave thanks to God, broke it, and gave it to his friends while saying, “This is my body, I’m giving it for you.” Later, he took the cup, gave thanks to God, and gave it to his friends while saying, “This is my blood, and I’m pouring it out for you and the world.”

He knew one of his disciples at the table would shortly betray him to the authorities, and he offered him his body and blood anyway.

Later in the evening they went to the garden of Gethsemane, and Jesus urged his disciples to stay awake while he prayed. He knelt on the ground and ended his prayer by saying, “Lord, with you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want. Let your will be done.”

At the conclusion of the prayer, Judas arrived with soldiers. They grabbed and arrested Jesus while the disciples fled into the distance. 

And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

On Friday Jesus was brought to the Roman leader Pontius Pilate. The religious authorities demanded Jesus’ execution by crucifixion, but Pilate could find no fault with Jesus. Pilate then gave the gathered crowds a choice: they could free a rabble rouser named Barabbas or the messianic Jesus of Nazareth.

They chose Barabbas.

Soldiers whipped and beat Jesus nearly to the point of death and then, to mock him, they placed a robe on his shoulder and a crown of thorns on his head. They forced Jesus to carry a cross, his own instrument of death, up to a place called The Skull.

The crowds berated him from either side of the road, “If you really are the Messiah, save yourself!” “Where are all your disciples now!” “Some King of the Jews you are!”

When he made it to the top of Golgotha, the soldiers nailed his hands and feet to the cross and they hung him high to die. With some of his final breaths Jesus offered a prayer that has haunted the world ever since, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” 

With two thieves on either side hanging from their own cross, while some of his disciples watched from a distance, Jesus died.

And there was evening and there was morning, the final week.

And then, three days later, God gave him back to us. But that’s another story for another day. 

Beauty In Brokenness

Psalm 51.1-17

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge my with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. 

In the strange new world of the Bible the greatest triumph, the pinnacle of all moments, is Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Easter. But Easter is not the “happy ending” of a fairytale. It’s not, “despite all the effort of the powers and the principalities, everyone lives happily ever after.”

There’s no resurrection without crucifixion.

But that’s also why there are far more people in church on Easter than on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

Easter, for all of its wonder and all of its joy, is only the beginning of a new reality in which the entry point is, in fact, suffering.

Contrary to the cliche aphorisms of the so-called property gospel – if you pray hard enough, God will make you healthy and wealth – struggle is deeply embedded in the faith. It’s why Jesus warns about the cost of discipleship, constantly. It’s why Paul writes about suffering, constantly. 

Struggles are present in the life of faith because, when push comes to shove, we usually look out for ourselves at the expense of our neighbors. Paul puts it this way: None of us is righteous. No, not one.

We simply can’t keep the promises we make, let alone the promises that God commanded us to keep. It doesn’t take much of a glance on social media or on the news to see, example after examples, of our wanton disregard for ourselves and even for ourselves.

The old prayer book refers to us, even the do gooders who come to an Ash Wednesday service, as miserable offenders.

And yet (!), God remains steadfast with us in the midst of our inability to be good.

That’s one of the most profound miracles of the strange new world of the Bible, and it is a miracle. That ragtag group of would be followers we call the apostles, who betray, abandon, and deny Jesus, they fail miserably and it is to them that the risen Jesus returns in the resurrection.

They were transfigured by the Transfigured One, and their journey of faith began in failure.

And so it is with us, even today. It is through our brokenness, our shattered souls, that God picks up the pieces to make something new – something even more beautiful than who were were prior to the recognition of our brokenness.

There is an ancient Japanese art form that will be shaping our Lenten observance this year at the church – Kintsugi. The story goes that, centuries ago, a disagreement broke out among an emperor and one of his servants which led to a tea pot being smashed into pieces. The emperor threatened to punish the servant but an artisan intervened and promised to make something of the nothing.

A gold binding agent was used by the artist to restore the broken vessel, and in so doing the artist brought to a new newness. 

On the front of your bulletins you can see an example of this art form that was made with a broken cross – the gold ribbon brings the cross back together and it becomes more than it was prior to its cracks and fissures.

Like the Kintsugi master, Jesus renders us into a new newness. Jesus comes not to fix us, but to admire us in our potential and to help us recognize beauty even in, and precisely because of, our brokenness.

In church speak we call it redemption.

Psalm 51 had marked the season of Lent for as long as Christians have observed this particular season. It is a penitential psalm – a psalm that expresses sorrow for sin.

And yet, the psalm does not begin with a confession of sin – it begins with a request for forgiveness: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.”

That might not seem like much of a distinction, but it implies that the psalmist knows they have something worth confessing and that if the psalmist is to be helped at all then the sins must be taken away completely but someone else.

It means the psalmist really knows the condition of their, and our, condition. We all do things we know we shouldn’t do, and we all avoid doing things we know we should do.

Some us are are pretty good at pushing that all aside and rationalizing the things we do or leave undone. But at some point or another the guilt begins to trickle in and we lay awake at night unable to do much of anything under the knowledge of who we really are.

But the psalmist sees it all quite differently.

Somehow, the psalmist knows that forgiveness has come even before the sin occurred. 

The psalmist knows that God is the God of mercy.

For us, people entering the season of Lent, we are compelled to proclaim the truth that we are justified not after we confess our sins, but right smack dab in the middle of them. At the right time Christ died for the ungodly, God proves God’s love toward us that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, which includes everyone since Jesus has taken all upon himself in and on the cross.

The challenge then, for us, isn’t about whether or not God will forgive us.

The challenge is whether or not we can confess the condition of our condition.

That’s why Ash Wednesday is so important and so difficult. It is a time set apart to begin turning back to God who first turned toward us. It is a remarkable opportunity to reflect on what we’re doing with our lives right now and how those lives resonate with the One who makes something beautiful out of something broken.

Therefore, Ash Wednesday inaugurates the season of honesty: 

We are dust and to dust we shall return.

We are broken and are in need of the divine potter to do for us that which we cannot do for ourselves.

Judgment comes first to the household of God, so wrote Peter in an epistle to the early church. We, then, don’t exist to show how wrong the world is in all its trespassed, but instead we exist to confess that we know the truth of who we are all while knowing what the Truth incarnate was, and is, willing to do for us.

We can’t fix ourselves. In any other place and in an other institution and around any other people that is unmitigated bad news. But here, in the church, it’s nothing but Good News. It’s good news because nobody, not the devil, not the world, not even ourselves can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go.

Even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died.

Even the most broken piece of pottery can be made into something new by the divine potter.

I wonder, this Lent, what kind of church we would become if we simply allowed broken people to gather, and did not try to fix them, but simply to love them and behold them, contemplating the shapes that broken pieces can inspire?

I wonder, this Lent, what might happen if we truly confessed who we are all while knowing whose we are?

I wonder, this Lent, what kind of new newness we might discover through the One who comes to make all things new?

You and me, we’re all dust, and to dust we shall return. But dust is not the end. Amen. 

The End Has No End

Ezekiel 37.1-6

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”

Luke 23.32-43

Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And wended have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” 

The first church I served after seminary had a preschool and I made it a point to be at the doors every morning welcoming the children, and their parents, to the building. I would teach a “chapel time” lessons once a week in the sanctuary, helping to convey stories from the Bible to a group of kids, many of whom had never heard of the Bible in the first place.

It was awesome.

It’s awesome teaching kids about scripture because they enter into the strange new world of the Bible with wonder and delight. They ask all the questions that adults are too afraid to ask, and they rest in the bewildering rather than dismissing it away.

Over the years I served that church I got to know a lot of those preschool families and would run into people all over the community. There’s nothing quite like walking down the aisle in a grocery store and hearing a 4 year old scream, “Pastor Taylor! What are you doing here?”

As if I wasn’t allowed out of the church or something.

Anyway. One morning, while I stood by the doors to the preschool, one of the moms approached me with mascara streaming down her face and her daughter completely oblivious.

The mom ushered the girl into the school and then asked if we had a moment to talk. We retreated into the reading room outside of earshot from everyone else and she said, “My husband died yesterday, and I don’t know how to tell our daughter. Will you tell her for me?”

Death is the one thing that guaranteed for each of us, and it also happens to be the one thing most of us deny all the time. It’s why all the ads we come across online, or the commercials we watch on tv, are all designed at selling us the idea that we get to stick around forever. 

Take this pill and you’ll lose the weight you never really meant to gain.

Wear these clothes and you’ll appear like you did in high school.

Go to this vacation destination and you can look like the models in these images enjoying their time on the beach.

But the heart of the matter is this: The bell will toll for us all. We know not when, only that it will happen. 

Some of us get to live good long lives. Some of us don’t. Some of us make it to the end of our days with no regrets. Some of us won’t. 

When we’re dead, we’re dead.

Which is why the language of death and dying is so important, whether you’re talking to a preschooler or not.

We say things like, “so and so passed away.”

What does that mean? Where did they pass to? What does that mean about their body? 

We say things like, “God just wanted another angel in heaven.”

Which makes God into a monster and the author of all suffering in the world.

After the mother retreated to her car, I walked into the sanctuary and prayed for a good long while before I went back into the preschool. I waited until they went out onto the playground and I called the little girl over to talk.

I said, “Your mom and I talked this morning and,”

“My daddy died” she interrupted.

“Yeah… but she told me you didn’t know…”

“He was sick, and he told me he was going to die. And now he’s dead.”

“How are you feeling?” I asked.

“I’m sad, I think. But it’s okay. Daddy told me that when he died he was going to be with Jesus, the guy you talk about all the time. So, it’s okay. But I am sad.”

Christian truths are delivered in Scripture through images and stories. Most of us, however, are literalists. We want clarity above all else. But that doesn’t stop us from consuming all sorts of media designed to keep us guessing. Because for as much as we might we addicted to certainty, the world, and the kingdom of heaven for that matter, run on mystery.

What happens in the end? The strange new world of the Bible has all sorts of answers about life after death, some of which we will explore shortly, but let me tell you this: that little preschool girl proclaimed the one thing we can say with certainty about death. When we die, we are with Jesus.

Everything else is a mystery. 

And yet, if we’re asked to imagine what heaven is like, we will conjure in our minds all sorts of ideas and images that, frankly, come from Hallmark more than they come from scripture. 

St. Peter hanging by the pearly gates discerning who makes it in or not is the center point of a good many jokes, but it’s not in the scriptural witness.

Gobs of folks clothed in robes relaxing on puffy clouds might show up in movies and television shows, but it’s not in the scriptural witness.

Among the many images for the kingdom of heaven in scripture, one of the most predominant is that heaven will be like a never ending worship service. Which, to some people, probably sounds more like hell than it does heaven.

So other than being with Jesus at the end, what else can we say about it?

What’s at stake in our two scriptures today is that the resurrection of the dead is precisely that, the bodily resurrection, the reconstitution of our bodies after our deaths. And that our experience of it will be immediate – hence Jesus’ words to the thief on the cross: today you will be with me in Paradise.

Our bodies are good gifts given to us by God and they aren’t just vessels for our souls during earthly life. This proclamation is important for the ways we experience our bodies here and now and how we treat others. 

Christianity isn’t a spiritual faith, it’s an embodied one.

It’s why we baptize with water and we break bread and share from the cup.

When scripture talks about the new heaven and the new earth, they are not replacements for the old ones. We are not beamed away from here to go somewhere else. The strange new world of the Bible says that, in the eschaton, God transfigures what we have and what we are. The redeemed order is not the created order forsaken. God doesn’t look at us and all we’ve done and say, “meh, it wasn’t good enough.” Instead God will take the created order, all of it, and raise it in glory.

And for us, in our deaths, we go to be with the Lord. Our dead bodies will be cremated or buried in the ground, but our experience of it is such that, when the bell tolls, we arise. 

There’s no waiting room for the kingdom of heaven with an endless supply of People magazines from the 1990’s. We don’t pull off a tab and wait for our turn like we do at the DMV. 

Today, Jesus says, today you will be with me in paradise.

Robert Farrar Capon used to tell this story about how, for years, his local fire house would run the siren at exactly five minutes to 5 pm every Friday afternoon. For a while he thought it must be part of the weekly test of the system, but it was a rather odd time to do so. And then, one day, it dawned on him – rather than run the risk that the festivity of the weekend be delayed even one minute beyond the drudgery of the work week, some gracious soul had decided to proclaim the party of the weekend from the top of the fire house, five minutes ahead of schedule.

That, Capon says, is heaven. 

Heaven is the party of the streaming sunlight of the world’s final afternoon. Heaven is when all the dead beats and all the success stories, all the losers who never got anything right and all the winners who finally give up on winning, simply waltz over to the judgment seat called the Kingdom of God, with nothing to show for their lives except an eternal invitation from the host of the party that goes on forever.

Heaven is a bash that has happened, that insists on happening, and will happen forever and ever.

And the celebration is so good and so loud and so fun that it drowns out all the party poopers in the world.

Which is why we should take seriously the words we say week after week in the Lord’s Prayer – thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

It’s also why the sharing of the Good News is really the most important thing we can ever do. Being a part of the community called church means living into the reality that we have a role to play in making people experience heaven on earth rather than hell. It’s why we sing the songs we sing and pray the prayers we pray. We received the witness and the testimony of the end, which frees us to live fully now in anticipation of the Supper of the Lamb.

We can do all sorts of wild and wonderful things right here and right now because the end has no end.

Heaven, in short, is fun.

What is, of course, the question at hand today, but the question of who is just as important. Lots of people, even Christians, think that only good people make it to heaven, whatever heaven may be. But, as I’ve noted on numerous occasions, it’s important for us to remember that the only people in heaven are forgiven sinners. You don’t go to hell for being bad, or not being good enough. You go to heaven by being bad and accepting forgiveness.

Now, does that mean that we have permission here and now to be bad? If you want to stick you hand in a meat grinder you are free to do so, but the only thing it accomplishes is making your life into one heck of a mess. 

God doesn’t run the universe as a system of punishment or reward.

God has consigned all to disobedience that God might be merciful to all.

In the end, our ends aren’t up to us. That’s reason enough to rejoice because it frees us to freely live here and now. Jesus came not to reform the reformable, or teach the teachable, or fix the fixable. Jesus came to raise the dead. 

That’s not just great news, its Good News. Amen. 

Embodiment

Hebrews 10.5-10

Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’ (in the scroll of the book it is written of me).” When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. 

“Consequently” is a rather interesting way to start a passage of scripture. It’s like beginning with “therefore.” Whenever we encounter a therefore we need to discern what the “therefore” is there for.

So, if we flip back one verse we will find these words: For it it impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “sacrifices and offerings are not desired, but only the body of the One who comes to do the will of the Lord.”

Contrary to how we might feel on Good Friday, with Easter looming on the horizon, today is actually the most expectant worship service of the year. Sure, Jesus predicted his passion and resurrection no less than three times, but no one seemed to believe him. They abandoned him, betrayed him, and denied him. 

But today, we are firmly rooted between the already and the not yet. This is the final Sunday of Advent – everything about our worship (songs, scripture, sermon) is saturated with a sense that something uniquely impossible is about to happen.

You see, for centuries the people of God waited for something. That something took on different shapes and sizes and expectations. And the something had a name: Messiah, the Holy One of Israel, from the righteous branch of David, the one born to set us free.

Freedom is good and all. But freedom from what?

Freedom from tyranny? Freedom from fear and judgment? 

What about freedom from sin and death?

There have been plenty of figures throughout history who have come to bring freedom, but freedom from the great enemies of sin and death is only possible if the One born to Mary also happens to be God in the flesh.

Incarnation.

It is not yet Christmas, but here on the final Sunday of Advent, we straddle two worlds and two times. And it is from this vantage point that we can’t help but ask ourselves, “What child is this?”

All Christian worship is an attempt to answer that question.

Was Jesus like God? Was Jesus a prophet of God? Was Jesus merely a good ethical teacher?

The fundamental Christian proclamation is that Jesus is not like God, Jesus is God, light from light eternal.

Everything depends on this being true; otherwise the nativity story is just another tale of no real importance.

And here is the challenge set before us today: the child we come to worship on Christmas is, as the writer of Hebrews puts it, the very body that is sacrificed for us.

We don’t talk much about sacrifice in the church these days even though we’ve got plenty of the “bloody hymns” in our hymnal. If we do sing those songs at all we usually save them for the season of Lent during which we’re supposed to feel bad about our badness.

But it’s almost Christmas Eve! Nows not the time to talk about blood and sacrifice!

We are surely ready for that cute little baby to be born for us in the manger – it’s another thing entirely to be prepared for that baby to be the One born to die on the Cross.

Let alone to prepare our hearts for his return to judge both the living and the dead.

And yet, to ignore the language of sacrifice, the shadow of the cross in the manger, is to deny the truth of the strange new world of the Bible.

In the ancient world sacrifice was at the heart of all religious practice. Israel might stand apart in how the God of Abraham did not require human sacrifices (save for that incident with Isaac, but that’s for another sermon). But there are plenty of sacrifices expected by and through the Law for the people of God. For, to sacrifice is to admit there is a need for it. The only way to be holy is to remove sin altogether, and no one can do that.

Sacrifice, therefore, was offered on behalf of God’s people in order to be made right.

However, over time, the sacrifices themselves became empty signs of an empty faith. Again and again the prophets of God rejected the blood spilled by the people when injustice continued to reign. What good is it to sacrifice a bull or a goat when widows, orphans, and the outcasts were ignored?

Therefore, as Hebrews puts it, Jesus’ death is a single offering for all time for those who are sanctified.

There is no holiness without sacrifice. In fact, the very meaning of sacrifice is “making holy.”

Of course, there are some of us who would like to believe that we are beyond the need and the time of sacrifice. That, because of the Cross, we have left sacrifice behind.

But that only betrays how essential sacrifice is to our daily lives.

We sacrifice the land and the lives of animals that we might live.

We make sacrifices in the name of love that we feel for others.

We sacrifice those who serve in the military that we might feel safe.

Sacrificing is part of who we are, and we do so because we often think it is the only way we can make up for the wrongs we have done.

And yet, that feeling of guilt, the knowledge of what we have done and left undone, important as it may be, is in contradiction to the work of Christ who was offered as a single sacrifice for all time. 

There’s an unbelievable story that happened on Christmas a little more than 100 years ago, and perhaps some of you have heard about it. It took place in and among the trenches of World War I in 1914. All across the western front there were unofficial ceasefires to observe the holiday that were also due to limited ammunitions along the front. Halting fire for a period of time was nothing special, and has been part of warfare for a long time. But it’s what happened during the cease fire that boggles the mind.

In certain areas along the trench lines, soldiers left the safety of their barricades and met in the middle of No Man’s Land to celebrate Christmas.

There was one area where the ringing of church bells gave certain soldiers the courage to bravely enter the disputed space between the trenches.

In other places the soldiers saw Christmas trees being hastily decorated on either side and ventured out for a closer look.

But my favorite miracle took place when a group of German soldiers started singing Stille Nacht, and when they came to the end of one of the verse, the English soldiers on the other side took it up and started singing it on their own.

It sounds too good to be true, but all the best stories are like that. We have letters from soldiers who expressed total surprise by what they experienced on that Christmas Eve. How, they exchanged gifts and food in the middle of No Man’s Land with the very people they had been trying to kill.

There were even football (soccer) matches that occurred in various locations that Christmas Eve.

One soldier later recalled that, at the end of the celebration, they returned to their respective sides and woke up on Christmas morning to a dead silence. He said both sides shouted merry Christmas back and forth, but that no one felt particularly merry anymore. And then, the silence ended in the early afternoon of Christmas Day and the killing started again.

He said, “It was a short peace in a terrible war.”

Sacrifices were made in the name of peace, just hours after they were singing together about the dawn of redeeming grace.

Throughout the great collection of scripture we are told again and again what we can, and what we can’t do. Thou shall not and all that. And, if thou hast done something, this is how thou shall atone for what thou has done.

But, the primary function of the Law, as Jesus says in John 5 and Paul says in Romans 3, is to accuse us. That is, the Law exists to show us who we are in relation to it – we’re sinners. The Law reveals the complete and total righteousness we require to acquire the Kingdom of Heaven, and how we might meet the Holy One of Israel blameless and justified.

The only problem is, none of us can do it. 

We’re all on the naughty list.

We delude ourselves, we self-rationalize all sorts of behaviors, we feel as if we can justify all sorts of things, so long as we feel like we’re growing closer to God.

But the truth is that God is the one hellbent on coming to us.

Contrary to how we so often talk about it, the Law doesn’t bring us to the mountaintop of God’s domain.

The Law, instead, bring us down to our knees.

Or, to put it another way, the Law gets us to see ourselves with enough clarity that we can ask the question, “How could God love someone like me?”

Ask that question and you are not far from the kingdom of God.

In theological and ecclesial circles, there is a lot of talk about the atonement – what is accomplished by Jesus’ death on the cross? 

There are an array of ideas about the work of cross – we owed a debt to God via our sins and Jesus paid it all, or the death of Jesus satisfied God’s wrathful anger against us.

That have all the makings of seminary basement debates.

But the theologian Gerhard Forde dispenses with all of those theories in favor of seeing the cross simply as our being caught up in a murder. He argues that any theory that tidily explains the death of God’s Son pales next to the great Good News that the One we tried to do away with on the cross speaks a surprising word of reconciliation int he resurrection.

When the incarnate God in Jesus Christ comes to us, we nail him to the cross. And then, three days later, God gives him back to us.

Which is just another way of saying: Hear the Good News, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that prove’s God’s love toward us.

And perhaps that’s why we read these words from Hebrews just shy of Christmas Eve; they forever and always declare the very same thing declared in the incarnation: God is for us. There is therefore literally nothing on earth or in heaven that can ever separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ.

In the full knowledge of our sins, past/present/future, our propensity toward violence, even against those who worship the same baby in the manger – God joined our lives to be life for us, becoming one of us, to free us from the attempt to be more than we were created to be.

Jesus arrives, fully God and fully human, down in our miserable estate and is obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, to end forever any sacrifice not determined by his cross.

Consequently, Christmas comes with a cost – the baby born for us is the God who dies for us. God is the dawn of redeeming grace. God is our peace. God is the one who sanctifies us.

Come, thou long expected Jesus! 

Born to set thy people free; 

From our fears and sins release us,

Let us find our rest in Thee!