Like A Whore In Church: Advent Begins In The Dark

Devotional:

Isaiah 1.21-31

How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her – but now murderers!

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Many of you know that I am part of the Crackers & Grape Juice podcast team. Every week we put out 2-3 episodes ranging from interviews with theologians, to unpacking stained glass language, to reflecting on all of the Lectionary texts for the following Sunday. The team is made up of 3 United Methodist Clergy and 2 lay people and we originally started the conversations to keep our theological juices flowing but it has grown far beyond what we could’ve ever imagined. For instance: this year we had our 300,000th download.

A few months ago we decided to produce a daily Advent devotional with contributions from some of our favorite guests, and from the team itself. I drew the unlucky straw of writing our second devotional, following the first by Bishop Will Willimon. If you would like to subscribe to the Advent devotional (receiving each one by email every day) or simply read them as they come out you can do so here: www.AdventBeginsInTheDark.com 

Below is my attempt at approaching the unenviable text from Isaiah 1.21-31…

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There’s a reason that we don’t read Isaiah 1.21-31 out loud at church.

When we think of Advent we conjure up in our minds the Chrismon trees and the lights surrounding the altar. We remember the purple and pink advents candles and the red plumage of the poinsettias. We consider the plight of Mary and Jospeh to the small town of bread knowing not at all what their future would hold.

We like our religious observances to be orderly and helpful and we don’t even mind a sermon that steps lightly on our toes because we know that everyone has room for improvement. But then when we hear these words from the 5th gospel, we experience some painful theological whiplash.

The faithful city has become a whore!

She was once full of justice but now she is full of murderers!

Who wants to hear about that kind of stuff in church?

In her book Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ, Fleming Rutledge writes, “For many years, I thought that, during Advent, one was supposed to pretend that Jesus hadn’t been born, so that we would be more excited when Christmas came. Needless to say, this stratagem didn’t work. For me, it was a revelation years later to learn that the last weeks of Pentecost and the first weeks of Advent look forward to the second coming of Christ… In Advent, we don’t pretend, as I once thought, that we are in the darkness before the birth of Christ. Rather, we take a good hard look at the darkness we are in right now, facing and defining it honestly, so that we will understand with utmost clarity that our great hope and only joy is in Jesus’ final victorious coming.” (Advent: The Once & Future Coming Of Jesus Christ, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids Michigan, 2018), 58.

It is far too easy, today, to take passages like this one from Isaiah and read it through a somewhat anti-semitic lens as if Jesus is the wrath of God being poured upon God’s people. Preachers will foolishly wax-lyrical about the idolatry of God’s people from the past all while giving God the glory for arriving as the baby in Bethlehem

But that kind of reading leaves us imagining that Advent is all about pretending that Jesus hasn’t been born, and it prevents us, to use Fleming’s words, from taking a good hard look at the darkness we are in right now.

Whether we like to admit it or not, we are still the faithful city that has become a whore. The people we look to for guidance and leadership, in politics/business/churches, are rebels and companions of thieves. We worship them and ourselves thinking they/we can provide our salvation when we know how quick we all are to run after those things that cannot give us life. 

We are all coming of age in a world where it is far too easy and far too convenient to ignore the plight of the marginalized while strangely finding comfort in the words of a hymn like Away In A Manger. There was “no crib for a bed” because people like you and I are so consumed by our own needs and desires that the cause of other does not come before us!

But that’s not the kind of message we want to hear during the season of Advent. No, we want to hear about how Jesus’ birth will warm our hearts. We’d rather imagine the animals snuggled closely providing comfort for the King of kings and Lord of lords.

But what if we are the darkness that needs to be blotted out by Jesus’ light?

Throughout the history of the church, Christians have had a remarkable propensity to read themselves into a biblical story. When we hear about the two on the road to Emmaus we imagine ourselves as one of those two listening to, and breaking bread with, Jesus. When we hear about Prodigal Son we imagine God welcoming us back with open arms after going down the wrong path.

And yet when we read about God destroying the rebels and the sinners, we inexplicably reject the notion that we could be the rebels and sinners that need destroying!

What a time to be God’s church! Advent is the season we conjure up the darkness among us and in us and proclaim the bitter and strange truth: We cannot save ourselves.

No amount of Christmas lights, no number of presents under the tree, no perfectly arranged dinner table can rectify the wrongs we have perpetuated in this world. We have become whores to our own desires and dreams at the expense of the orphan, and the widow, and the sojourner, and the marginalized.

Just consider a headline from the newspaper this morning: “America’s ‘War on Terror’ has cost the US nearly $6 trillion and killed roughly half a million people with no end in sight.”

What would the rest of this strange and bewildering season look like if we insisted on facing and defining the darkness honestly rather than sugar-coating it with chocolate calendars? 

How might our steps toward Christmas change if we admitted the challenging truth of our own sinfulness before calling it out in someone else?

What habits and practices will we need to crucify before God’s church can experience a new resurrection?

Isaiah’s declaration about the inherent failures of the whoring city doesn’t preach easily. Few pastors are dumb enough, or brave enough, to proclaim these words from the pulpit. They run the risk of running off those who came with expectations of the warm manger scene rather than the destruction of all things.

But today, here in the midst of Advent, we are like oaks whose leaves wither, and we are like gardens without water. We might look around and see families with perfectly behaved children, or individuals who appear perfectly put together, but all of us are perpetuating a world in which our own righteousness has somehow become more important than God’s righteousness.

Advent, therefore, is the right time to look into the heart of our own darkness with the understanding that our greatest hope, and our only joy is in the once and future coming of Jesus Christ. 

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So It Is To Be

Devotional:

Revelation 1.7

Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.

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The church was damp, dark, and devoid of anyone else. I was lost in Chichicastenango, Guatemala and had wandered inside a church hoping that someone from my group would eventually find me. Unlike any church I had been in previously, the ground felt alive under my feet as it gave way to my weight. The walls were covered with black soot from centuries of fires lit by those who sought to destroy the faith. And the once beautiful paintings and decorations had completely disappeared from view. 

The small of melted wax filled my nostrils as I began to creep closer and closer toward what I imagined was the altar. It was the least church-like church I had ever seen. Without the help of lighting, I stumbled over rickety wooden seats until I finally found myself standing by the far wall. There, poised right in front of me, was a magnificent and immaculate sculpture of Jesus. 

In complete contrast with the rest of the space, this Jesus contained not a single blemish and almost shined in the darkness – Jesus stood elegantly with his robes draped over his shoulders and in one of his outstretched hands he held a crown of thorns.

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In that moment I was confronted, perhaps for the first time, about the reality of what it means to believe that Jesus Christ is King. I was surrounded by decay and disregard and yet Christ stood before me in glory. It was right then that I saw the true paradox of the crucifixion: the King was hung on a cross to die, a nearly abandoned church had no semblance of life, and Jesus is still in charge. 

I used to foolishly believe that I was carrying God with me when I went to different places and encountered different people, but that day I learned that God is the one looking for me, waiting to confront me even in places like a dark and empty church. 

Look! Jesus is coming with the clouds and every eye will see him, even those who betrayed him, abandoned him, pierced him, and crucified him. And in response the entirety of creation will wail.

So it is to be. 

As we round out the Christian year, and prepare to start over again with the season of Advent, this final word about the one who is, and was, and is to come sounds frightening and maybe even a little convicting. But Jesus, the King of kings, died on a cross for you and me. He stands abandoned in a cross devoid of light with a crown of thorns in his hand. He calls and searches for us through the Holy Spirit on this side of the resurrection.

How else could we possibly respond except by wailing? 

Lettuce Sermons

Devotional:

Hebrews 10.14 

For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified. 

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Every sermon runs the risk of becoming a “Lettuce” sermon. A “Lettuce” sermon is one that ends with a final, and resounding, paragraph about what we are now supposed to do:

“Let us (get it?) now go forth to collect as many jackets as possible to cloth everyone in our community.” // “Let us remember Jesus’ words about feeding the 5,000 as all of us register to serve at the soup kitchen this week.” // “Let us rejoice in the gifts we’ve been given by committing to tithe to the church for the next year.”

This temptation runs deep in the heart and soul of preachers because we too fall prey to the expectation that people come to church in order to “get something out of it.” And there is a fear that without providing some sort of assignment or expectation, people will receive nothing and are free to leave without any responsibility at all.

Now, to be clear, clothing others, and feeding the hungry, and tithing to the church are all good things – things that we should be doing in our community and in our church. However, ending the proclamation from the pulpit with a call to action implies that we are to act in order to earn our salvation or redeem the world.

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But the message of the gospel is that we have already been saved and that the world has already been redeemed!

Jesus as the single and perfect offering has perfected, for all time (!), those who are sanctified. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection reconciled all that was lost in the Garden such that we have been freed from our bondage to sin and death and have been freed for life and joy in the kingdom. 

The distinction that is often lost in the church today is that we do good and wonderful things for the people around us not because we have to, but because we want to. Clothing others, feeding the hungry, and giving money to the church doesn’t help us and it certainly doesn’t earn us anything. They are simply our natural responses when we encounter the immense generosity of the Lord who gave us the greatest gift of all: Jesus.

The (Christian) Problem With Elections

Devotional:

Psalm 146.3

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.

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We’re often told to not mix politics with religion – political opinions and religious beliefs are supposed to be kept in the private sphere and therefore they are things we can think about on our own time but the world has no right to interfere with either.

Except the world interferes with both all the time! We hear about things like the Christian Coalition, and the need for Christians to take back their role in politics, and I even get letters in the mail from political parties asking me to endorse particular candidates from the pulpit!

Whether we like it or not, the so-called “separation of church and state” actually looks more like a very complicated marriage where neither partner is sure why they are still together.

It then becomes remarkably difficult for Christians to think theologically about what it means to be political, and we wind up privatizing whatever it is we do on Sundays at the expense of letting it influence how we behave Monday-Saturday. 

However, as Christians, we believe that our truest citizenship does not lie in our geography, or our nationstate, or even our socio-economic bracket. Instead, we believe our citizenship is in heaven.

We follow and worship a Lord whose kingdom is very different from the one that surrounds us in the world. All of our assumptions about what it important, who we are to be, and what we are to care about are changed by Jesus Christ who is our Lord of lords.

But then a question naturally follows: If our truest citizenship is in heaven, should we still participate in the forms of citizenship made manifest in something like an election?

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The answer, of course, is yes. By all means we can participate in the political process of our country and we can certainly vote in something like an election.

And yet, the Lord cautions us with a very particular and poignant word: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.”

Today we tend to throw all of our eggs in our respective political baskets and we, foolishly, believe that so long as our candidate gets elected everything will be fine for us. But politicians and political ideologies have come and gone, people have rejoiced and people have wept, and many things have remained the same. 

The democratic practices we hold so dear are very important, but they will not bring us salvation.

Or, to put it more succinctly, Stanley Hauerwas says:

“I think voting is way overvalued. We forget that voting is inherently a coercive activity – its where 50.1% get to tell 49.9% what to do! People forget that voting is not an end in itself… Democracy, in its fundamental form, is patience; it requires us to listen, in the Pauline sense, to the lesser member. And we have to wait, oftentimes, if the lesser member isn’t convinced.”

So this election day, as we wrestle with the call to be both faithful and political, let us pray that the Lord might grant us the patience necessary to bear with one another in love, knowing full and well that whomever is elected will not bring us salvation, but that we wait with hope and joy for the Lord of lords, Jesus the Christ, whom we did not elect. 

Instead, he elected us. 

Jesus Still Weeps

Devotional:

John 11.35

Jesus wept.

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Jesus’ emotions in the gospel accounts are often overlooked. We, the readers, often become so consumed by his actions (like the miracles) and his teachings (like the parables) that we miss how Jesus was also fully human in his experiences. Preachers and teachers will gloss over profound verses in which we can discover how Jesus was just like us, in favor of verses where he is anything but us.

And even if we do emphasize Jesus’ emotions it usually comes in the form of focusing on his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane or his cry of dereliction from the cross – both of which are remarkably important, but in those moments we encounter the inner turmoil of the Messiah in a way that is difficult for us to resonate with.

But in John’s gospel we find a small window and vignette into the humanity of Jesus when he cried over the death of his friend Lazarus.

In a strange way, Jesus’ emotional turmoil over the death of his friend brings great comfort to we who call ourselves Christians, because in that moment we see how Jesus still weeps with us as we encounter hardship and injustice and suffering in this world. However, Jesus’ emotional solidarity is not an apathetic response to the world’s tragedies, but instead it is a deep and profound desire for the world to to wake up to the senseless disregard for life that is still all too present.

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Last Wednesday a man in Kentucky attempted to enter a predominately black church and when he failed to get inside he drove to a nearby Kroger grocery store in which he murdered two black individuals in cold blood.

Jesus wept.

On Friday law enforcement officers arrested a man in Florida after he sent at least 13 potential explosive devices to prominent political and media figures in the days preceding. And after searching his property they found a list he created of more than 100 other potential targets.

Jesus wept.

On Saturday morning a man stormed into the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA shouting his hate for Jews while shooting worshipers with an AR-15 in a 20 minute long rampage. 11 were killed and 6 were injured.

Jesus wept.

And so long as we believe that violence reigns supreme, so long as we continue to act and move and speak with such disregard for human life, so long as these types of stories continue to flood our world, Jesus will continue to weep.

May God have mercy on us all. 

Getting Out Of The Way

Devotional:

Job 42.17

And Job died, full and old of days. 

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Eugene Peterson died yesterday.

Peterson was a pastor, scholar, author, and poet. Throughout his life he wrote over thirty books, and served a church in Bel Air, Maryland for almost 30 years.

His name might not be familiar, but he leaves behind a legacy of bringing people closer to the Word through The Message. The Message is Peterson’s paraphrased version of the Bible for the modern vernacular. The story goes that in his early days of leading a church, he would “translate” passages in little bits as devotionals for the congregation, but as they became more and more popular, he eventually tackled the whole of scripture and had it published.

By 2015, The Message had sold more than 6 million copies.

To be clear: The Message is not a translation of the Bible, but is an interpretation of what it might sound like had the Bible been written today. There are of course problems with trying to adapt any piece of writing this way, but Peterson’s commitment to the paraphrase most definitely brought people to the church in a way that was exciting, refreshing, and life-giving.

I am grateful for Peterson’s work, and in particular The Message. I have used parts of his paraphrases throughout my ministry in order to bring people closer to the God that has come close to them. There is a comfort with hearing what God has said, as if God was saying it right now in a conversation.

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But Peterson’s contribution to the church extend far beyond The Message and his memoir (The Pastor), which was published in 2011, played a huge roll in my call to ministry. In fact, the passage below was so powerful, that I copied it in a notebook when I read it for the first time and have kept it in my top desk drawer ever since:

“What does it mean to be a church of Jesus Christ in America? We had let Luke’s storytelling in The Acts of the Apostles give us our text. We saturated our imaginations in the continuities between the conception, birth, and life of Jesus and the conception, birth, and life of the church. As we let Luke tell the story, it became clear that being the church meant that the Holy Spirit was conceiving the life of Jesus in us, much the same way the Holy Spirit had conceived the life of Jesus in Mary. We weren’t trying to be a perfect model or a glamorous church. We were trying to get out of the way and pay attention to the way God worked in the early church and was working in us. We were getting it: worship was not so much what we did, but what we let God do in and for us.” (Eugene Peterson, The Pastor. 171-172)

Like Job, Eugene Peterson lived a full life. The church is better for having had him in it and his legacy will last long after his death. His life was never so much about what he did with it, but what he let God do in and through him. 

We would be so blessed if someone said the same for us when we die. 

Sheep Without A Shepherd

Devotional:

Isaiah 53.6

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

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My son’s preschool class announced a few weeks ago that there was going to be a school wide field trip to a farm in order to celebrate the season of fall. Parents were encouraged to attend and act somewhat like chaperones as the children would have access to most of the property including many of the animals. In the days leading up to the field trip, I didn’t give it much thought, until yesterday morning when we arrived at the farm and saw the hundreds of other kids and families descending on the farm.

The place was massive and filled with all sorts of activities – there were pirate ships to climb on, pumpkin patches to weave through, and a 45 min long hay ride through the whole property.

The best way to sum up the experience was something I overheard between a husband and his wife (outside of earshot from their children), “Who needs Disney World when we have this???”

All in all it was a great experience, and one that my son talked about all afternoon, evening, and even while I was putting him to bed last night. And I hope he will remember with fondness the slides, and the doughnuts, and the castles, but the thing I will always remember will be the wandering sheep.

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It should go without saying that sheep are dumb. They are some of the most simple minded creatures and they have to be taken care of with particular attention.

The sheep at the farm yesterday morning was wandering around outside of any fence or pen and no one seemed to notice. But the longer it paced back and forth, the more it commanded my attention. At least, it did until one of the farm workers walked over and presumably began directing the sheep back to its proper place, and when he saw me watching he said, “She’s nothing without a shepherd.”

“All we like sheep have gone astray,” says the prophet Isaiah, “we have all turned to our own way.” We modern people tend to think that we’ve got all of this life stuff figured out; we wake up day after day and go through the motions we presume give us meaning. But the hard truth of the matter is that, many of us, are no better than the wandering sheep. 

When we become so consumed by our own desires, our own hopes, our own expectations, we become like that farm animal trapped in our own loop of isolation.

Thanks be to God, then, that we have a shepherd named Jesus – the one who comes when we are lost and guides us back to the flock – the one who pulls us out of our self-absorption and helps us to see that there is a better way.