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!

The Naughty List

Hebrews 10.10

And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

On Sunday I stood up and addressed the crowd present for the church’s Christmas Concert and attempted to make the case that we are the stories we tell and the songs we sing – The stories we tell are reflections of how we understand ourselves in the world and the same is true of the songs we belt out. I then suggested (read: demanded) that we know longer sing “Baby It’s Cold Outside” because it only reinforces an extremely problematic understanding of how we relate to one another. 

I mean, it’s basically a date rape song. “Say, what’s in this drink?” 

Go listen to it and I promise you’ll walk away feeling all sorts of gross and uncomfortable.

Had I been a little more bold, I would’ve also suggested (read: demanded) that we also no longer sing “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” 

The words to the song sum up how we all too often imagine the Lord in our minds: “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice; he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…” And then, whether we know it or not, we take these words to be Gospel truth and we believe that God is keeping a ledger against us and only if we have more ticks in the Good column than the Bad column will we receive an everlasting reward.

The same thing is true of how Elf on the Shelf has become such a popular pastime – the purpose of the Elf is to spy on the good and bad behaviors of children and then to report them to Mr. Claus so that the children will be rewarded, or punished, accordingly.

The same thing is true of so many movies and shows and songs that ask us to discern whether or not we, ourselves, have behaved in such a way as to make it on the Nice list or on the Naughty list.

But, according to the strange new world of the Bible, we’re ALL on the naughty list.

That is: all of us do things we know we shouldn’t do and we all avoid doing things we know we should do. 

Paul puts it this way: None of us is righteous. No, not one. 

And yet, that’s Good News. It’s Good News because, thankfully, Jesus isn’t Santa Claus.

Jesus encounters the world’s (read: our) sins with no list to check, no test to grade, no debts to collect, and no scores to settle. Jesus has already taken all of our sins, nailed them to the cross, and left them there forever

Jesus saves not just the good little boys and girls, but all the stone-broke, deadbeat, sinful children of the world who He, in all his confounding glory, sets free in his death and resurrection

Grace, as Robert Farrar Capon so wonderfully put it, cannot prevail until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapses away forever.

But, of course, it sounds too good to be true!

In a world run by meritocracy, the Good News of grace sounds ridiculous if not irresponsible. If we don’t have eternal punishment to hang over the heads of those who follow Jesus, how else can we possibly keep them in line?

Perhaps we have our theological wires crossed. We so often assume that we have to do something in order to get God to do something for us. We believe that so long as we show up to church (online or in-person), and read our Bibles, and say a few prayers, and volunteer every once in a while that it will be enough to punch our ticket to the great beyond. 

And yet, so many (if not all) of Jesus’ parables, proclamations, and pronouncements have nothing at all to do with the behavior of those blessed prior to their blessing.

The Gospel is not about how we justify ourselves – The Gospel is about how God in Christ justifies us. 

God, in all of God’s confounding wisdom, runs out to the prodigal in the street before he has a chance to apologize, offers the bread and the cup to Judas knowing full and well what he will do, and returns to Peter with outstretched arms after his denials.

God chooses to forgive, rather than condemn, the world from the cross.

That’s what grace is all about – it is the unmerited, unwarranted, and undeserved gift from God.

And if we can see grace for what it really is, then Christmas can really come into its own. Like the gifts under the tree that are (hopefully) given not as a response to good works/behavior or the expectation that good works/behavior will come from them – we can celebrate the great gift of God in Christ Jesus who comes to do what we could not do for ourselves.

Or to put it another way: we are all on the Naughty list and God still gives us the present of Jesus’ presence anyway. 

Not To Boast, But…

2 Thessalonians 1.1-4, 11-12

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy, To the church of the Thessalonians in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. We must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of everyone of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring. To this end we always pray for you, asking that our God will make you worthy of this call and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

love_god_love_people_1x

“I’d like to come by and shoot a story about St. John’s.”

The producer from WHSV had called the church and when I heard his request through the phone I was both nervous and excited. A story. About St. John’s. On Television. But then I realized I needed to ask a question.

“About what exactly?”

We do a fair amount for our local community, but I had a feeling this request was for something else. And in the pit of my stomach I was worried that he wanted to do a story about the controversy series we recently finished. After two months of standing up in the pulpit and belaboring different points of friction, I was looking forward to leaving the controversies aside for a little while, and did not want to speak on behalf of a church where we are clearly divided over a number of issues.

But then he said, “I saw on your website that your church is hosting a communion service on Election Day, and I thought that was something more people should know about.”

He arrived about 30 minutes later with a bag full of camera equipment and a spiral bound notebook full of questions. He set everything up in the office and ran a microphone cable under the desk and into my lap to pick up on all of the dialogue. We tested for light and volume levels for a couple minutes, made sure I was in the frame, went over the specifics about looking at him and not directly into the camera, and then he pressed the record button.

“Tell me a little about the church…”

“Well,” I began, “Not to boast, but, this is the best church in the entire Shenandoah Valley. We’ve got a Preschool that has been in existence for about 30 years and has the greatest reputation for its education. The children are nurtured by our beloved teachers, they receive the necessarily information to excel when they leave for Kindergarten, and we strive to teach them about the virtues of love, grace, and mercy.

We have a solid youth group that meets on Wednesday evenings from 7-8pm for communion, discipleship formation, and bible study. The group contains the best and brightest kids from Staunton and they regularly out disciple me, their pastor. They have a hunger for the Word and are willing to vulnerably encounter one another in questions about their faith. To be honest, they give me hope for the future of the church because they believe in what we are doing almost more than most of the adults.

We have a lectionary bible study of which more than half of the attendees are not members of our church. Every week they gather in the room next door to read four scripture texts and prayerfully discern what God is saying to them through the text. They bring their experience and love of the bible to that group and all of us have grown in our faith because of that bible study.

On Sunday mornings we have some of the best worship that any church in Staunton has to offer. Our order of worship is streamlined for maximum impact, our hymns directly relate to the greater theme and narrative of worship, most of the time the sermons aren’t half bad, and we’ve got an organist who can really make our organ move and groove. The kind of hospitality that our church members extend to strangers and longtime members is worthy of imitation by all churches and they are truly the reason people come back week after week.

On any given week our building is used by a number of local civic organizations including girl scouts, cub scouts, and boy scouts. We have a quilt-for-a-cause team that regularly works on quilts that are then given away to local children in need. We’ve got a group of volunteers called the Cheer Team who take time to visit with those who are lonely or afraid in the community. We’ve got others who go to the Trinity Soup kitchen to cook and serve food to the homeless. We send a mission team of youth every summer to help different communities in need. We’ve got…”

“Just a little bit” he said. “Now,” he went on, “tell me about this Election Day communion service.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to know more about St. John’s? I really could go on, I was only really getting started.”

“No, let’s try to stay on task.”

So for the next 45 minutes he recorded as we went back and forth about the current state of politics in our country, we waxed lyrical about pamphlets and fliers we’ve received here at the church about who we should vote for as Christians, we explored the theological implications of a communion service in the midst of such political division, and we even discussed the practical matters of how much bread to purchase and how many people we should expect to attend.

All in all, we examined just about every aspect of the Election Day Communion service and when we had gone through all his questions, we shook hands and he left to get some exterior shots of the building. The last thing he said was, “It should be on the evening news in the next day or two.”

We don’t have cable at the parsonage, but you better believe I kept checking the WHSV website for the story about our church. With every click to reload the page I dreamt about how many people would see the wonderful descriptions of the church, I imagined how many people would hear all the things I boasted about, and I began picturing our pews filled to the brim on Sunday morning.

Two days later, the story finally appeared on in the news cycle. The opening shot was an image of our altar, the one right behind me, and as the news anchor began introducing the story my teeth chattered with excitement.

The anchor said, “St. John’s Pastor Taylor Mertins has this to say….”

Then the shot cuts to me in the office, with Star Wars figurines and works of theology on my shelves. Here was the big moment. And then I watched myself say, “We are going to pray for our political leaders whether it’s the person we voted for or not. That would be the most Christian thing we could do.”

And then it ended. 10 seconds. The vast majority of our conversation was left on the cutting room floor, and 45 minutes of bragging was reduced to a 10 second sound bite.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am grateful that WHSV came to do a story about our Election Communion Service, it will be a profound moment of unity in the midst of chaos and division, I only wish that everyone watching got to hear and experience all the things that make our church what it is.

And then I reread our scripture text for this morning.

2 Thessalonians is one of the earliest Christian documents that the church has. It is the second letter written by Paul to the church in Thessalonica. And apparently, the Thessalonians have their act together. Not only does Paul mention the fact that he gives thanks and prays for their little community, but also Paul boasts about their church to all the other churches. They are the city on the hill to which all the others churches should aspire to, they are the standard by which other churches should measure themselves, and they are worth bragging about.

But why did Paul choose to brag about them?

Was it the number of people they had in the pews on Sunday morning? Perhaps they had a remarkable preschool that was helping to shape the future? Maybe they had a youth group that met once a week for communion, fellowship, and bible study? Or perhaps they had streamlined their worship services to connect all of the hymns with the scripture, and the sermon, and the offering, and the prayers?

No.

Paul boasted about the Thessalonians because they remained steadfast in their faith in the midst of persecutions and afflictions. Paul boasted about their church because they grasped and lived into the mission of the church: to grow in love of God and love of neighbor.

We, the church, are a different people. We, the church, are an alternative form of community. Rather than being labeled and defined by the marks of culture that surround us – consumption, power, greed, political parties, nationalities, sexual identities, economics – we are like strangers living in a strange land.

What we value and desire is not what the world values and desires.

            What we proclaim and believe is not what the world proclaims and believes.

            What we worship and affirm is not what the world worships and affirms.

            We are a different people, we Christians.

Though the world may change, though new presidents may reside in the oval office, though new pastors can be sent to different churches, we grow in love of God and love of neighbor. That is our mission, and if anyone can say we love God and others, if that’s what they boast about, well that’s good enough.

love-god-love-others-720-e1340940523238

So perhaps, the ten-second sound bite about the Election Day Communion service is precisely what the community should know about our church. They don’t need to know about our different activities and ministerial programs, they don’t need to know the specifics of our Sunday liturgy, they don’t need to hear a forty-five minute speech about all the best things we’ve got going on at St. John’s.

All they need to know is that we are growing in love of God and neighbor by putting aside things like all of our political differences and joining together to feast at God’s table. Instead of being captivated by the world as the results pour in on Novembers 8th, we will be here loving one another and remembering that we worship the living God.

Therefore, maybe it is our sense of challenge, our willingness to return to this place Sunday after Sunday that connects us with the church in Thessalonica from so long ago. They suffered under persecution and affliction and were able to keep the faith. We wrestle with the competing narratives that vie for our allegiance and we keep the faith. Rather than falling prey to the whims of the world, instead of being consumed by the popularity of politics, we remember that we are God’s people. This land is going through a time of great division and schism, but because of God’s grace, we have not lost sight of who we are and whose we are.

To this end we pray, asking that God will continue to make us worthy of the call and that God will fulfill by His power every good resolve and work of faith so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in us, and us in him, according to the grace and mercy of God.

The mission of the church, and the mission of all Christians, is to love God and love others. That’s it. Amen.