This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Peter Kwon about the readings for the 9th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Isaiah 1.1, 10-20, Psalm 50.1-8, 22-23, Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16, Luke 12.32-40). Peter is one of the pastors serving Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the unexpected Gospel, Holes, sacrifices, Fleming Rutledge, relationships, LCD Soundsystem, singing our prayers, God’s loquaciousness, judgment, eschatological hope, Dogmatics In Outline, Sunday clothes, and preparation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: One Of Us
Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness and came to Mount Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians and to bring them up our of that land to a good and spacious land, to a land flowing with milk and honest, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. Now go, I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.” But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you, and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.” But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ What name shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I AM has sent me to you.”
God can be so frustrating.
There are times, maybe you’re better than me so you don’t know what I’m talking about, but there are times when I jump into the strange new world of the Bible and I just want to say, “C’mon God! Really?”
Moses is a good-for-nothing shepherd. And he doesn’t even have his own flock to look after. He’s working for his father-in-law. So we’ve got this guy, who needs a handout from a relative, working out and around Mt. Horeb, which means wasteland, and he encounters the burning bush.
Or, better but, the burning bush encounters him.
Does it ever surprise you that the Lord needs numbskulls to bring about God’s will?
I mean, just take a cursory glance at just about any book in the Bible and you liable to come across someone who has no business being in God’s business and yet, that’s how God runs the show.
And that’s not even mentioning who God calls upon outside of the Bible.
To bring it close to home, there are 29 portraits of pastors right underneath us and there’s a better than good chance that the vast majority of them never thought they would have their picture up on the wall of a church.
And yet, here we are.
Sometimes I wish God would start calling better people for God’s purposes. Surely, the world could do to have the best and the brightest working for the kingdom.
But, then again, if God only called the best, then I certainly wouldn’t be here, and neither would any of you.
John Calvin, who gets quoted across the street far more than here once said, “God is so great, that God is able to condescend to miserable people just like us to accomplish God’s good.”
How odd of God.
And, notably, it’s important to notice the distinction between “I found God,” and “God found me.” Throughout the strange new world of the Bible, people do, indeed, go looking for God but they usually go looking in all the wrong places whereas God shows up in the unexpected places.
Contrary to how we might like to imagine it, or even here about it in church, God is not the object of our religious journeys, waiting for us to finally have enough sense to take the right steps or read the right book or get the right job or make the right choice. God is, instead, the instigator of God’s journey to us. From Eden, to the wasteland, to Bethlehem; God finds us.
And that’s why we keep reading these stories week after week, year after year. It’s why we prepare for Vacation Bible School and read scripture at baptisms, weddings, and funerals. We keep listening to the story of how God reveals God’s self to people who otherwise would have never known who God was or is.
And (!) to further complicate the confounding nature of the God who speaks from bushes and books, particularly as it pertains to preaching, is that only God can tell us who God is. It has to be revealed to us.
Listen – All is well in Egypt until it isn’t.
God’s people grow in such size and strength that Pharaoh grows fearful and subjugates them. They are forced to work under the tyrannical rule of the empire and yet, they continue to prosper in power and number.
Pharaoh then decides to order the murder of every first born male among the Hebrew people. A young mother, fearing for her son’s life, places him in a basket and lets him float down the Nile river and, oddly enough, the basket is discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter who chooses to raise the boy and she names him Moses which means “I drew him out of the water.”
Raised in the confines, and under the protection, of Egypt’s ruler, Moses is given access to a life that none of his kinsmen will ever know. And yet, one day, he sees an Egyptian taskmaster whipping a Hebrew slave and, overcome with emotion, Moses reaches out and murders the Egyptian and hides his body in the sand.
Moses flees for his very life, already a recurring theme, and he settles in the land of Midian where he marries Zipporah, the daughter of a priest, and begins to work for his new father-in-law.
So why, why in the world does God call to Moses from the burning bush? What’s so good on his resume, what kind of references did he list while seeking out employment with the Lord?
Moses really only brings three things to the table:
He’s in the middle of his mundane work, guiding the flock in the wasteland, when he turns aside to see the sight of the burning bush. In short, Moses is curious.
That’s not much, all things considered, but to the Lord it is the difference that makes all the difference. Moses turns to take in something unexpected, and rather than lowering his head and getting back to the menial realities of life, he takes a further look.
He is like the proverbial worker surrounded by countless cubicles mindlessly typing away at a keyboard for a job that means nothing when a suddenly flickering in the window draws him up and away from his featureless desk toward the unknown.
It is good and right to maintain a healthy diet of curiosity, of keeping our eyes and ears tuned away from monotony. Be it a strange movie or meal or moment, God tends to work in the unexpected places in unexpected ways.
Or, as one of my favorite authors Haruki Murakami puts it, “If you only read the books everyone else is reading, then you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”
After Moses’ curiosity draws his gaze toward the bush, the next thing he does is wonder. The strange fiery foliage isn’t enough on its own, Moses wants to know why it burns but does not burn up. He is not content to let things be the way they are simply because they are that way, he probes further.
It is good and right to wonder about the workings of God.
It does my ego good to remember that none of you come here with the great desire to hear preachments about the Lord, but instead you are here to daydream about God, to wonder, to ask questions, and rest in whatever answers you discover.
A couple weeks ago one of you asked me, after church, about the Apostles’ Creed and why we say, “I believe in the holy catholic church.” I won’t out you, but this person said, “Why do we say that? We’re Methodists, not Catholics.” And I gave the typical response, “it’s the lower-c catholic which means universal, we’re just saying we believe in the church writ large.”
This kind of question pops up all the time, but what struck me most this time was the fact that the person then said, “I’ve wondered about that my whole life, and I’ve never had the nerve to ask.”
Faith is a strange and wondrous thing that necessities wonder. That’s why the disciples are forever asking Jesus to elaborate on the kingdom of heaven, they want to know more.
Moses is curious and Moses wonders about this strange sight in the wasteland, and when the Lord sees Moses’ curiosity and wonder the Lord says, “Moses, Moses!” And he says, “Here I am.”
In short, Moses responds.
“Kick those sandals off your feet, we’ve got holy business to attend to. I am the God of your people, and the time has come to set them free and I have just the person for the job.”
“And who might that be?”
“You, silly goose.”
“Are you out of your mind? You’re a talking bush that’s on fire! And you want me to deliver the Hebrew people from Pharaoh?”
“Have no fear Moses my dear, I will be with you.”
“Maybe you didn’t hear me fiery fig tree, or whatever it is you are, even if what you’re saying is true, no one will believe me when I tell them. I don’t even know your name.”
God says to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.”
The rest is biblical history.
When it comes to the question of “Why Moses?” It doesn’t really matter. Sure, there are some bits to his history that make him a prime candidate for paradigm shifts, he spent time in Pharaoh’s court. In the end, who he is doesn’t matter.
The only thing that matters is that God is the one doing the calling.
You see, God does God’s best work making something of our nothing, of making a way where there is no way whatsoever, of making the impossible possible.
We, today, tend to view ourselves and one another through failures, mistakes, shortcomings. It is the negative that we carry around day after day. But to God, each and every one of us has a potentiality that can be made manifest in the kingdom of God.
Or, to use a very old adage, God doesn’t call the equipped, God equips the called.
Think about Moses! In just a few short chapters this would-be shepherd in the wasteland will be taking care of the flock of God, standing up to the tyranny of Pharaoh, delivering the Hebrew people to the banks of the sea waiting for the God of impossible possibility to do something.
It’s fun to pick on Moses, he’s an easy target. The rest of his tale paints the picture of his relationship with God like an old married couple who constantly bicker and fight and eventually reconcile. For what it’s worth, we read more about Moses than any other person in the Bible with the exception of Jesus. And yet, Moses’ story isn’t even really about Moses – it’s about the One who calls him.
I AM WHO I AM
I love how quickly Moses moves from “Here I am,” to “Who am I?” His curiosity and wonder and response are all good and fine until he hears what the Lord wants him to do. And immediately, Moses has reservations. Who am I to do all of that?
Who am I?
Who are you?
Whatever it is your experiencing in your life right now, whether you feel like you’re wandering through the wasteland or making moves on the mountaintop, God calls miserable and merry people like you and me all the time. It might not be to deliver God’s people from the oppressive rule of a dictator, it might be as simple as the nudge to call someone who needs to feel loved, or the feeling that there’s something we can do to make a difference in this community. And it might not come through a burning bush, it might be as simple as the words of a hymn, or the silence of a prayer, or any other number of possibilities.
Or, as Paige Anderson so wonderfully put it to me this week, “Sometimes all we need in life is the tiniest sign from God to remind us of our purpose.”
What makes the story of the burning bush so good is the fact that, in the end, the call of Moses is a wild and ringing reminder that we don’t have to be saints to be of use for God’s kingdom. If we need anything at all, it’s a little bit of curiosity, wonder, the tiniest smidge of faith.
Faith not in ourselves or our abilities, but faith in the God who is able to do far more than we could ever ask or imagine.
If you ever feel like you’re not good enough, that’s fine. Because God is good enough for all of us. Amen.
And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
Last week I paced through the “seasonal” aisle at the grocery store looking for the right Valentines. Was I searching for the items that would perfectly convey my love for my wife? No. Instead, I was trying to find appropriate cards/items that my son could distribute during his celebration of the holiday in his kindergarten class.
Tucked away behind the heart shaped boxes of chocolate varieties was a solitary box of Mandalorian Valentines, and I knew that Elijah would delight in giving them to all his friends.
And this morning, as I walked him to school, I asked him if he knew why he was bringing Valentines to school and he said, “I’m sure it has something to do with Jesus.”
And he wasn’t wrong!
Valentine’s Day is a particularly striking holiday because of the juxtaposition from how it started to what it looks like today.
There were numerous Christians in the early church named Valentine and many of them were martyred for their faith. That is, their commitment to the kingdom of God was such that the powers and principalities believed the only way to stop them was to kill them.
But perhaps the most famous Valentine was Valentine the Bishop of Terni during the 3rd century. The story goes that he was put under house arrest by Judge Asterius for evangelizing and the two of them eventually struck up a conversation about Jesus. The judge wanted to put Valentine’s faith to the test and brought in his blind daughter and asked for her to be healed. If Valentine was successful, the judge agreed to do whatever he asked.
Valentine, then, placed his hands on the girl’s blind eyes and her vision was restored.
Overcome by the miracle, the judge agreed to get baptized and freed all of the Christian inmates under his authority.
Later, Valentine was arrested (again) for his continued attempts to share the Good News and was sent before the Roman Emperor Claudius II. Valentine attempted to convince the Claudius to convert to the faith, but then Valentine was condemned to death unless he renounced his own faith.
Valentine refused and was beheaded on… (wait for it)… February 14th, 269.
Later additions to the story proclaim that, shortly before his execution, Valentine wrote a letter to the young girl he once healed and he signed it, “from your Valentine” which is said to have inspire the holiday we now enjoy.
So, what does a beheaded Christian martyr have to do with boxes of chocolate and bouquets of roses?
The book of Genesis is full of family betrayals and deceits. Particularly dreadful is the story of Jacob being sold into slavery by his brothers because they couldn’t handle their own jealousy. Jacob makes a name for himself in Egypt and eventually reconciles with the very brothers who abandoned/betrayed him when they come looking for food to eat.
Jacob’s love for his brothers was such that, even though they ruined his life, he “kisses them and weeps upon them.”
Love is awful like that. It can make us do crazy and bewildering things. At least, they are crazy and bewildering according to the world.
But consider what we do on Valentine’s Day: we throw away gobs of money on trivial and fleeting items. The flowers will eventually fade and the chocolate will expire.
But others will say that St. Valentine’s willingness to die for his faith, and Jacob’s willingness to forgives his brothers, is even crazier.
Love is a crazy thing.
It also happens to be how God feels about us.
God, in Christ, full of hope and grace and mercy mounts the hard wood of the cross to die for us. And then, three days later, God gives him back to us.
Happy Valentine’s Day!
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Joanna Paysour about the readings for the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost [B] (Ruth 1.1-18, Psalm 146, Hebrews 9.11-14, Mark 12.28-34). Joanna serves at Trinity UMC and Greene Memorial UMC in Roanoke, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including cheesy novels, the tenacity of human relationships, relevance, wedding texts, biblical agency, praise, faithful children, bloody hymns, at-one-ment, the words of life, and the end of questions. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: God Goes Buck Wild
The Lord says to my lord, “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.” The Lord sends out from Zion your mighty scepter. Rule in the midst of your foes. Your people will offer themselves willingly on the day you lead your forces on the holy mountain. From the womb of the morning, like dew, your youth will come to you. The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.” The Lord is at your right hand; he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath. He will execute judgment among the nations, filling them with corpses; he will shatter heads over the wide earth. He will drink from the stream by the path; therefore he will lift up his head.
Then he said to them, “How can they say that the Messiah is David’s son? For David himself says in the book of Psalms, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ David thus calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?” In the hearing of all the people he said to the disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
A political movement turned radically violent.
The mob stormed gates, climbed walls, destroyed doors, and they shattered any assumptions of safety and sanctity.
Anyone who stood in their way was attacked, beaten to the ground, and left behind. The insurrectionists used whatever they could to turn their feelings into signs of force, from flags to banners to fists.
Once inside, they searched methodically for those who represented what they came to destroy. They obliterated images and symbols that for centuries stood the test of time.
And outside, while the crowds chanted with frightening vigor, a sign was held high above for all to see:
Sadly, what took place in and around the Capitol at the beginning of January was not as unprecedented as some have claimed. Throughout history there have been countless examples of those who took matters into their own hands and did whatever they thought necessary to bring about a change.
And, even sadder, has been the use of Christian images/words/symbols to encourage such destruction.
Before they started throwing objects through windows, members of the far-right group, the Proud Boys, kneeled in the streets to pray in the name of Jesus.
Contemporary Christian music was played and performed in order to give a righteous feeling to a wholly unrighteous display of aggression.
Among the signs and shirts and slogans from the likes of QAnon, and the Confederate Flag, and Anti-Semitic fervor, there were an equal number of “Jesus 2020” and “The Armor of God” among the rioters.
Even pastors were present in the crowd, yelling into bullhorns about the mission to “save the republic for Christ” all while the throngs screamed in response: “Jesus is Lord!”
The great cacophony of Christianity contains multitudes. There’s a reason there are more Christian denominations than we can keep track of because we cannot agree on what it means to keep the main thing, the main thing.
Part of this challenge stems from the fact that the Bible, what we take as an authority over what it means to follow Jesus, is so wild.
Not only are there different books within The Book, but they come from all sorts of different places: from Galilee to Galatia, Antioch to Rome, from tiny towns and massive metropolises, rural farms and seaside ports, prisons and palaces, and all from a wide range of times – 1,500 years!
The Bible contains just about every literary genre from law codes to genealogies to parables to poems, and it was put together by people we don’t know anything about!
And yet, despite all of that, we lift up this bewildering book and confess it to be God’s word for us.
So we take it up and read. We open it right to the middle and come across a Psalm, and we find these words: “The Lord says my lord, ‘sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’ The Lord sent out from Zion your mighty scepter… The Lord is at your right hand; he will scatter kings on the day of his wrath. He will execute judgment among the nations.”
Now, some Christians will respond to these words by taking up matters into their own hands to make their enemies their footstool. They will claim that God is on their side, and they are the righteous messengers of God’s judgment and justice.
Others, of course, will dismiss such a Psalm as being connected to the so-called “violent God of the Old Testament.” They will insist that their God just wants everybody to get along, and to let love rule.
But here’s the thing: The strange new world of the Bible tells the story of the God who is always the one who bends and breaks the bonds of creation in order to get what God wants.
And it’s not always pretty:
The God of scripture sends a flood to wipe out every living being (except for a few who fortunately catch a ride in a very large boat). God breaks down a tower in order to confuse the our speech and scatters humanity across the earth. God hardens Pharaoh’s heart only to then cast him and his riders into the sea.
I could go on.
Thus, for centuries, people have embraced the violence of God for their own purposes, or they have rejected “that God” in order to embrace something they believe they can find in the hippy dippy lovely dovey God of the New Testament.
But thats not actually how scripture works.
For as righteously angry as God gets in the Old Testament, God is equally ridiculous in loving a people undeserving – God rains down manna from heaven to feed those who complain about God, God brings back a idolatrous nation after years in captivity, God remains faithful to the covenant that God’s people fail, again and again, to hold up.
And, for as much as God is love (revealed in Jesus) in the New Testament, God is equally filled with bitterness.
“Do not think I have come to bring peace to the earth,” Jesus says, “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
“You have turned my Father’s house into a den of robbers,” Jesus says after going off the deep end with his Temple tantrum.
“If any of you cause someone else to stumble,” Jesus says, “it would be better if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were dumped you into the ocean.”
Are we sure we want to worship this Jesus?
Truthfully, though we confess Jesus as Lord with our lips, most of us live as if we are the lords of our lives. We do this because, whether we could articulate it or not, we generally believe that history is developing in an ongoing process of progress. That is, the world is better now than it once was and that we are all responsible for making it better for future generations.
We believe in the power of humanity! With all of our enlightened sensibilities, we assume, sooner or later, we will finally get the chaos of the cosmos under control and we will set everything as it should be.
Which is why so many sermons end with a “lettuce” statement – let us now go forth to make the world a better place, or, frighteningly, let us go and save the republic for Christ.
But here’s the thing: if we could’ve made the world a better place, or even the best place, we would’ve done it long ago.
The challenge for those who wish to follow Jesus is the confession that even though certain things might appear to be better (whatever that might mean) we are still very much who we are: sinners in need of grace.
The question/answer period of Jesus’ ministry in Jerusalem ends after a whole bunch of controversy regarding authority with Jesus asking his own question. There is disagreement among the religious leaders about this would-be carpenter-Messiah who claims to be from the line of David. At the time, David-like dimensions of Messianic expectation were a dime a dozen – every time a new political leader garnered some power, it was assumed that, like David, he (because it was always a he) would take back the throne in Jerusalem.
The Messiah, to the religious authorities, would be the one to save the people Israel through a new military regime that put the people of God back on top.
And for Jesus, this was not acceptable.
Therefore, being a good teacher, Jesus uses scripture to interpret the present circumstances. “How can it be,” Jesus asks, “for the Messiah to be David’s son? Don’t you all remember what David wrote in the psalms? ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ If David called him Lord, than how can he be David’s son?”
This might seem a trivial point of order, but for Jesus, on the basis of the Psalm, the Messiah is not merely from the line of David. In fact, the Messiah is the Lord of David.
Jesus is then not just another revolutionary come to set the people free from tyrannical oppression, Jesus is God in the flesh come to dwell among the very people who will, in the end, betray him.
“Jesus is Lord” has been a confession of faith since the very beginning. Today, we Christian types often take that confession to mean something to the effect of Jesus being the Lord of my life. And, even though that’s true, it’s also so much more. For, to confess Jesus as Lord is also to confess that Jesus is God.
And Jesus, as God, is going to get what Jesus wants. Jesus will make his enemies his footstool, whether we like it or not.
Again and again in the New Testament, Jesus announces the imminent implementation of a new regime, but it’s not one the people of God were prepared for.
They assumed a military victory, parades of power, and a new throne.
Instead, the were told about a kingdom in which the rich would give to the poor, the captives would be free, the blind would see, and the lame would walk.
Which, all things considered, wasn’t anything new! Those words come from the prophet Isaiah!
Do you see? God doesn’t change from the Old Testament to the New. There’s not some God of the Old Testament and a different God in the New. They are one and the same. They are Trinity.
God, in Christ, puts the enemies of sin and death, the powers and the principles, squarely under the heel of the divine.
But, of course, it happens not in the way anyone could’ve imagined.
A suffering Messiah who is enthroned at the right hand of God? The incarnate Lord dies on the cross only to be raised again? No one expected such a thing to happen.
A Lord who calls his followers to pray for their enemies, to sell their possessions in order to help the poor, to lose their lives in order to save them? Who wants to worship such a reckless God?
The Messiah, the Anointed One, God in the flesh, is always more than we think. In our limited and finite (and frankly foolish) notions of how things work, we assume that power is demonstrated in strength. But Jesus comes to show us how real power comes in weakness.
We assume that our job is to make the world look more like us. But Jesus comes to conquer and overcome the world.
We assume that if we just work hard enough, we can set everything the way it is supposed to be. But then Jesus shows up to remind us that we are sinners, all of us.
Jesus is not just some ethical teacher who wants us to behave ourselves.
Jesus is not some political revolutionary whose words we can cherry pick to suit our needs.
Jesus is not a new David come to elevate us to the places of power and prestige.
Jesus is God!
In himself he is the new creation.
When we open up the strange new world of the Bible, when we read about the Lord in the Psalms, the Lord who brings victory, we are reading about Jesus. But his victory comes not how we or anyone could’ve predicted. Jesus takes our sins and our misery upon himself and away from us. He is able to do this because he is not only the Messiah, but also God, the almighty Creator and Lord who knows me and you better than we know ourselves.
Jesus brings the victory.
Only Jesus saves. Amen.
“I suppose I’ve always thought that Christianity isn’t really an optimistic religion. After all, it tells us that when the Son of God, Jesus Christ, comes to live with us, we end up killing him. But it is a hopeful religion because it also says that’s not the end of the story. When we’ve done the worst we can think of, there is still something that God does – God has resources that we don’t. So when kill Jesus Christ, he is raised from the dead. God turns the worst we can experience, the worst we can do to each other, and God turns that into a way of coming closer to us. Christianity is a profoundly hopeful religion because we trust in God’s ability to bring life out of death, rather than our own ability to do the best that we can.” – Dr. Jane Williams
In this time after Epiphany but before Lent, the lectionary texts regale us with stories of those who are called by God. We hear about Samuel sleeping in the temple, some fishermen down by the sea, and even Jonah (reluctantly) warning the Ninevites about the wrath to come. And, sadly, there is a righteous temptation to so read ourselves into those stories that we walk away from worship thinking more about what we need to do for God and less about what God has already done for us.
Trusting in God’s ability to do more than we ever could really is is at the heart of the Christian witness.
As someone who consumes more music than I’m proud to admit, here are some tunes that, to me, reflect God’s primary agency in the life of faith.
The Decalogue is a 2017 soundtrack album composed by Sufjan Stevens (and performed by Timo Andres) to a ballet of the same name. The ten tracks correspond with the Ten Commandments handed down at Sinai and each of them offer a little world worth resting in. “V” begins with rising arpeggios that, tonally, stay with the listener long after the song ends. The commands in scripture can easily fall into the category of “what we do for God” but this offering from Sufjan forces us to reflect on the One who gives these commandments to us in the first place.
I was recently introduced to the music of Andy Shauf and I keep getting lost in the brief narratives of his songs. In “Neon Skyline” the protagonist invites a friend to a bar of the same name to join him as he “washes his sins away.” The rest of the lyrics paint the scene of the evening in which there’s nothing better than wasting a bit of time. I can’t help but think about God “wasting” time with us whether it’s continually making something of our nothing, or actually being the One who washes our countless sins away.
My final offering this week is, perhaps, a little too on the nose, but I couldn’t help myself. Rayland Baxter’s “Strange American Dream” feels incredibly prescient in our particular moment and I will let the song speak for itself, particularly the chorus: “Now the world world is wired up / On the red, white, and the green / And all the boys and girls are growin’ up / In a strange American dream.”
What makes the American dream so strange, at least to Christians, is that we are forever being told to make something of ourselves when, in fact, God is the one who makes something of all of our nothings.
God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” They have neither knowledge or understanding, they walk around in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken. I say, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.” Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!
The Jews took up stones agin to stone him. Jesus replied, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?” The Jews answered, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.” Jesus answered, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’ – and the scripture cannot be annulled – can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” Then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped form their hands.
Imagine, if you can, two separate courtroom dramas.
BUM BUM (a la the theme to Law & Order)!
In the first, God sits behind the judgment seat looking out over a room full to the brim with God’s people. They have all meandered in, carrying their own hopes and fears, sins and shames, on their sleeves. They have been elevated to the status of angels because they, unlike the rest of humanity, have received the Torah. And yet they have taken this privilege and squandered it with injustice.
God smacks the gavel and all those gathered sink even lower into their chairs.
God declares, “What is wrong with all of you? How long will you continue to make such a mess of things? All I ask is that you give justice to the weak and the orphan, maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute, rescue the weak and the needy. For once you were no people but now you are my people – start acting like it!”
But they don’t.
They are more concerned with themselves than with others. They do whatever they can to rise to the top and care not one bit about what it costs. They walk around like a people stuck in darkness and they have no hope.
God shakes the very foundations of the earth from God’s divine courtroom and proclaims the verdict: “You are gods, you are children of the Most High, all of you belong to me. Nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.”
Justice is served.
In the second courtroom, the tables have turned (literally). Now it is God’s people who sit in the seat of judgment and Jesus, God in the flesh, is the one on trial.
Jesus has given his whole pitch, proclaimed the kingdom parabolically, as the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. But he ends the head-scratching discourse (Consider: what good does it do for the sheep for their shepherd to give his life away?) with a reoccurring connection between himself and the Father.
And now the gathered faithful surround the accused: “How long will you keep us in suspense?” they demand. “How long are you going to annoy us with your stories and cheap parlor tricks? Just tell us who you really are!”
They are looking for some good old plain truth.
But there is nothing plain about Jesus.
Born God in the flesh to an unwed virgin in Bethlehem.
Heals the sick and feeds the hungry.
Elevates the lowly and brings down the mighty.
There is nothing plain about the Messiah, about a God who speaks from a burning bush, about the One who makes a way where there is no way.
“Look,” Jesus begins, “I have told you again and again who I am, but you don’t believe me. Have you not seen the wonders wrought through these hands? Have you not received parables about the coming and present Kingdom? Have you not witnessed the Father’s work here and now?”
The crowds of judgment bicker among themselves.
“Well, he did feed those 5,000 people…”
“My cousin told me that his friend’s coworker saw him make a blind man see…”
“I heard he can cast out demons…”
Jesus interrupts their discussion, “It’s simple really. The Father and I are one.”
That’s enough for the judge, jury, and executioner! They all rush forward to put him to death but Jesus merely lifts his hands and says, “I have done so many good things for all of you. For which of them are you going to kill me?”
They answer in unison, “It’s not for a good work that we are going to stone you to death, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.”
“I seem to remember another courtroom of sorts in the Psalms,” Jesus says, “when the Lord called those who received the Word gods. So can you really call me a blasphemer even though I have been sanctified and sent into the world as God’s Son? If you don’t think I’m doing God’s work then fine, don’t believe me. But, at the very least, you can believe in the things I do and maybe, just maybe, you’ll start to understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.”
And they rush forward to enact justice against Jesus, to kill him where he stands, but he escapes, again.
Here’s the matter at hand from the strange new world of the Bible today – Jesus is in a standoff with the religious authorities. He has told them who he is, he has demonstrated who he is, and they still do not believe. The whole of it feels on edge, like a powder keg ready to go off.
The people are dismayed, confused, and downright angry. They want to know when the truth will be revealed. They want to get a glimpse behind the curtain. They want to know who Jesus really is.
But Jesus’ answer fills them not with satisfaction, but with rage.
The Father is in me, and I am in the Father.
Jesus has equated himself with the Lord and the gathered people don’t like it one bit.
And yet, they want to kill him for it?
It can all feel a little exaggerated when we encounter this story, particularly when the Jesus of our minds is the hippie-dippy Jesus who just wants people to get along, a little more love in the world, and would be an excellent guest on the Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.
But that’s not who Jesus is, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible.
Jesus was offensive.
Jesus was offensive to those who trusted in their own reason, in their own understandings of how things were supposed to go because he ran counter to just about everything they could think of.
Jesus was offensive to the practitioners of religious observance because he was forever eating dinner with outcasts, those deemed unclean.
Jesus was offensive to those who sat in the positions of power because with every passing parable and proclamation the calls for the first to be last and the last to be first sounded more like a threat and less like a theory.
But more than all of that, more than the taking people to task, more than upending all the expectations, more than dropping story after story that made things more confusing rather than more clear, the most offensive thing about Jesus to the crowds is that he equates himself with God.
Why should he, a nobody from a nobody town, be the Son of God?
Isn’t God supposed to be perfect, and clean, and morally pure, and removed, and distant, and holy, and hidden, and powerful?
And here’s this Jesus, who insists on spending time with the last, least, lost, little, and dead. He breaks bread with sinners, he dwells in and among the lowliest of the low, he reveals the secrets of the Kingdom, and he demonstrates his power, ultimately, through weakness.
What seems to disrupt and offend the crowds so much is the fact that Jesus points to a truth they can’t stand.
As my friend Kenneth Tanner put it this week: The poverty of God is the greatest wealth in the cosmos, the weakness of God in the human Jesus is the conversion of the world and stronger than any power visible or invisible.
And yet for the crowds, and even for us, that rubs the wrong way. We are a people who are drunk on the illusion of power than comes from human hands, from our own ways and means, but God comes in Christ to remind us that power, real power, comes not from a throne or from violence, but from the cross and from mercy.
And so the crowds rush forward to kill the One in whom they live and move and have their being and Jesus spins the scriptures right back in their faces – How can saying “I am the Son of God” be blasphemy if Psalm 82 does not hesitate to call “sons of God” those to whom the word of God came.
Apparently, even Jesus liked to proof-text every once in a while.
Notably, the “gods” of Psalm 82 lose their divine-like status for failing to take serious the justice of God and here, in Jesus, the justice of God is made manifest to a people undeserving, namely all of us.
God is Jesus and Jesus is God.
God is at least as nice as Jesus, and at least as zealous as Jesus.
The hiddenness of God is revealed in the person of Christ. The incomprehensibility of God is made known through the life, the teaching, the parables, the miracles, the healings, the feedings, and ultimately the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Which, when you think about it, is rather confounding. Or, perhaps it would be better to call it offensive.
It is all so offensive because while God in Christ is like us, God in Christ is also completely unlike us.
Consider – How does God in the flesh react to those who are hellbent on stoning him to death?
Does Jesus respond with retribution and damnation and destruction?
Does Jesus take up the sword to put people in their place?
Does Jesus react the way we would?
In the end, God in Christ responds to all that we do with, of all things, forgiveness.
And forgiveness can be the most offensive thing of all.
There’s this great YouTube channel I came across this week where they ask people to respond to a question in one minute or less. They’ve been interviewing theologians and pastors which makes the premise all the better because pastors and theologians aren’t known for their brevity.
Nevertheless, this week they asked Dr. Jane Williams where she finds hope in a time such as ours and her answer was perfect.
She said, “I suppose I’ve always thought that Christianity isn’t really an optimistic religion. After all, it tells us that when the Son of God, Jesus Christ, comes to live with us, we end up killing him. But it is a hopeful religion because it also says that’s not the end of the story. When we’ve done the worst we can think of, there is still something that God does – God has resources that we don’t. So when kill Jesus Christ, he is raised from the dead. God turns the worst we can experience, the worst we can do to each other, and God turns that into a way of coming closer to us. Christianity is a profoundly hopeful religion because we trust in God’s ability to bring life out of death, rather than our own ability to do the best that we can.”
The offensive nature of the gospel is both that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human, and that God does for us what we could not do for ourselves.
It’s offensive, but it’s also the gospel. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Ben DeHart about the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent [B] (2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16, Luke 1.46b-55, Romans 16.25-27, Luke 1.26-38). Ben is the Associate Rector at Calvary-St. George’s Church in NYC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including phenomenal music, the uncontrollable God, riffing on the Magnificat, Kingdom ethics, the Prayer of Humble Access, obedience, impossible possibility, Israel’s calling, Hell, and Fleming Rutledge. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Give God The Verbs
When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: “What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?” They said to him, “The son of David.” He said to them, “How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet”’? If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?” No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions.
He liked to mow his lawn early in the morning while it was still cool. It was a welcome reprieve from his busy life to just drive back and forth with his riding lawn mower week after week. And, one morning, after finishing the lawn, the man maneuvered the mower back toward the garage when out of nowhere BAM he was tackled off of the mower and onto the ground.
The man and his assailant rolled down the driveway and grappled until they came to a stop, and that’s when the fighting really began.
Hours later the formerly mowing man was resting in the hospital with five broken ribs wondering what in the world had led to all of this.
The man, as it turns out, was Rand Paul, the junior Republican Senator from the state of Kentucky. And for months the media speculated as to why the scuffle took place. In our heightened political atmosphere, with tensions running rampant, there was immense suspicion that the attacker was an avid opponent of Ran Paul’s political proclivities who felt the only the only recourse for their disagreements was violence.
It was a frightening moment for lawmakers across the country as they each wondered if it could happen to them too.
Months later, when the assailant was finally brought before a judge, the truth came out: The attacker was Rand Paul’s neighbor, and he was tied of Rand Paul’s lawn clippings getting blown into his yard.
While a great sum of people assumed that Rand Paul’s political leanings were to blame for the attack, while the media continued to postulate theories about a “national political scandal,” it was all about a neighbor squabble.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
Every week the Christian church is compelled and downright forced to rediscover the strange new world of the Bible.
Whether it’s a church in Northern Virginia streaming its worship to the likes of Facebook and YouTube, or a house church meeting in a dingy basement, or the greatest of cathedrals with giant stained glass windows, we are all invited into the scriptures to learn more about who we are and whose we are.
And it is, indeed, a strange new world that Matthew describes for us today. Therefore, our task, the church’s task, is not the make the Gospel intelligible in the light of the world we live in – we don’t start with the world and then do what we can to accommodate God’s Word to it. Rather, we allow the strange new world of the Bible to reveal how the world we live in has already been transformed through the new creation wrought in Jesus Christ.
This is no easy task.
For, many of us are too familiar with certain scriptures such that we no longer consider them strange. After all, what could be strange about a church preaching love?
And yet, when we read about this little moment containing Jesus pronouncement of love, we do not see how it is meant to turn the world, our world, upside down.
Throughout most of the church’s history, it has been all too easy to remake and reimagine Jesus in our own image. It’s why, today, any of us can drive through our neighborhoods and see what appears to be a presidential election sign in someone’s front yard but then upon closer inspection we discover it says “Jesus 2020,” and its not altogether clear whether a Republican or a Democrat lives in the house.
That this happens is indicative of the fact that all of us, at times, are guilty of picking and choosing our own verses from the strange new world of the Bible in order to project a version of Jesus that makes him into our image rather than the other way around.
And, most of the time, ideological divides notwithstanding, the Jesus we tend to choose is a harmless, gently suggestive, long-haired hippy; a Jesus we can imagine playing Kumbaya around the fire; a Jesus who just wants us to all get along.
That Jesus is the same kind of “quivering mass of availability” (as Stanley Hauerwas puts it) that many of my fellows pastors and I have become. We’ve leaned so far into our inherent people pleasing sensibilities that we try so hard to be all things to all people and we neglect to offer the Words of Jesus to the people we serve.
But Matthew’s Gospel, particularly here in these string of passages leading up to the crucifixion, presents the Lord who knows that, sometimes, there are things worth getting worked up about, things worth arguing over, things that call for a louder voice and a deeper conviction.
Listen – Having silenced the scribes and the Sadducees, the Pharisees picked a lawyer to trap Jesus in his words, again. “Teacher, which of the commandments is the greatest?”
“Um” Jesus says, “Have you all not been reading the scriptures and going to synagogue? You know the answer: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. It’s in Deuteronomy. Go look it up.”
The lawyer nods his head in approval but Jesus keeps going, “But there’s another one just like it. This one’s from Leviticus: You shall love you neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
And after hearing that, no one dared to ask him another question.
“Love God and love neighbor – that’s it,” Jesus seems to say. And that line of thinking and proclamation easily leads to a Hallmark version of the church where all we ever do is meekly suggest that a little kindness every once in a while wouldn’t hurt anybody.
It’s why pastors, including myself, have used the story of Rand Paul and his driveway throw-down as a way to convince congregations to be nicer to their neighbors.
And yet, according to Matthew’s Gospel, all of the things leading up to this exchange, the flipping of the tables in the temple, and the belittling of the biblical literacy of the scribes and the Pharisees, and the mic-dropping at the end of a brief discourse on tax avoidance, are all part of how Jesus loves.
Jesus, our Lord, chooses this moment, after all the conflict and controversy, to patiently explain that the most important thing of all, the great of all the laws and commandments, is to love God and neighbor.
Which begs the question, “Do we really know what that kind of love looks like?”
More often than not, the love we preach about in church is used as an excuse to do whatever is necessary to keep as many people happy as possible – the path of least resistance has become our way of loving God and neighbor.
When truth-telling would be far too uncomfortable, we practice silence and call it love.
When showing up to call into question the powers and principalities of this life requires too much of us, we remain content to stay home and we call it love.
When confronting our neighbors in their sinfulness feels too difficult, we build up higher fences and call it love.
Love, then, becomes the codeword for letting people get away with just about anything and everything.
However, the earliest Christians, those who truly put their lives on the line for their faith, were not persecuted for what they believed (Jesus is Lord) but for what they refused to believe (Caesar is Lord). The church, today and always, is distinguished not only by what we stand for, but also by what we condemn.
We can stand and call for love until we’re blue in the face, but what good is love if nothing ever changes?
A pastor named Carlyle Marney used to reject his fellow pastors for degenerating into a preaching style that came off as self-help therapy. He would say, “You preachers are always saying, ‘Bless, bless, bless’ when you ought to be saying, ‘Damn! Damn! Damn!’”
Consider: “God loves you just the way you are,” is an all too common refrain in the church these days and I am guilty of it as well. There are people who need to be told those words for a great number of reasons. But there are also an equal number of people who need to be reminded, myself included, that remaining as we are only makes a mockery of what God in Christ did for us.
Here’s an example: A beloved hymn of the church is Just As I Am (the hymn we used earlier in the service)
“Just as I am without one plea” sounds an awful lot like God loves us just the way we are. Except, the very next words are, “But that thy blood was shed for me.”
Christ’s blood was shed for us precisely because of who we are! The rest of the hymn goes on to talk about the poor, the wretched, the blind and fighting and fears within and without. Those words aren’t describing other people – they’re describing us! The ones for whom Christ died!
The cross and resurrection rectify us, the make right what was wrong, they change us. That means we cannot remain as we were or as we are. We, all of us, the good and the bad, are being worked on by God in ways both seen and unseen.
But that doesn’t sound like the kind of love we so often talk about in church. We’re content to hear the call to do a nice thing every once in a while, or the need to spread a little kindness, or a host of other lovely opportunities.
And yet love, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible, doesn’t look like what happens on Valentine’s Day, or even suggestions from a local civic organization.
Instead, love looks like the cross.
And that kind of love is dangerous.
The Jesus we encounter in the strange new world of the Bible understands that to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is demanding and risky.
Following the path of love, at least for Jesus, means jumping into debates, it means calling into question the powers and principalities, it means not letting the world continue on in its backwards and broken ways.
And that kind of love got Jesus killed.
Of course, we are not the Lord, thanks be to God. In the end God does what we wouldn’t and couldn’t. And that’s the whole point.
We are called to a love that we regularly fail to do.
To know what it means to love God and neighbor, as Jesus defines it, requires us to take seriously the way Jesus loved. His love is seen in his willingness to eat with the outcast, to reach out to the untouchable, to embrace the powerless, to confront the demonic, to outmaneuver the manipulative, and to correct the clueless.
And we can only know what it means to love God because of God’s love for us. This Godly love can be, at times, harsh and dreadful, because to be loved by God is to know ourselves truthfully.
It is to know that we don’t deserve God’s love.
In this remarkably delicate situation we find ourselves in, days away from a presidential election in the midst of a pandemic that has wrought horrific economic and cultural unrest, we hear these enduring words from scripture about loving God and neighbor and it should give us pause. Not just a pause to consider whether or not we actually love God and neighbor, but also to consider how bewildering it is to be loved by God and neighbor when we don’t deserve it.
Because when we begin to witness the condition of our condition, that we are loved in spite of all evidence to the contrary, that’s when things begin to change.
And, God is love.
Contrary to all of its complications, love is the heart of the life of the church and every single disciple of Jesus. And yet, the presumption that love is just something we do, or that its easy or natural, does a disservice to the One who died in the name of love. To love rightly, that is faithfully, is to recognize the hard demands of love made manifest in Christ who, from the hard wood of the cross, still pronounced a word of love and forgiveness over a world hellbent on hatred and retribution.
Love, the kind of love that God has for us and that we are called to have for God and neighbor is way more strange than we often make it out to be. But without it, we would be lost. Amen.
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
We might not realize it, but we often “sing our faith.”
Well, at least we did back in the days we actually got together in-person for worship.
Nevertheless, in the United Methodist Church we take seriously the act of singing and how much it teaches us about who we are and who we are.
There are some hymns that, even if I just sing part of verse, you will probably be able to fill in the rest:
Jesus loves me this I know ______
Amazing Grace how sweet the _____
O come, o come, Emmanuel _____
Jesus Loves Me, known among Christians and nonChristians alike, was written in 1860. I learned it from my great-grandmother who would sing it just about every time I visited her, it’s one of the de facto songs of Sunday school classrooms, and I can even remember it being used in Preschool as a way to get all of our attentions.
But Jesus Loves Me, for all of its lovely qualities, has only been around for 160 years.
Amazing Grace, known among Christians and nonChristians alike, was written in 1779. It’s ubiquity cannot be overstated. I can’t think of a funeral I’ve done where it wasn’t the number one requested hymn – it shows up in the background of hit Television shows, and I’ve heard it quoted from the lips of more politicians than I can count.
But, even with all the amazing qualities of Amazing Grace, it’s only been around 240 years.
Ah, which brings us to O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. It’s one of the preferred songs for the season of Advent, it has been covered by bands from the likes of Pentatonix to Sufjan Stevens, and it was written in the 9th century.
It’s over 1,000 years old.
I mean, think about that for just a moment…
Christians have used these words to articulate our faith for a very long time.
The hymn is older than the United States, the printing press, and even Timbuktu!
And there’s something notable about Christian hymns and how they’ve changed over time. For, if you take a gander at O Come, O Come, Emanuel, the hymn is largely about Jesus, and only secondarily about us. That is, those who follow him.
But as the years and the centuries pass by, the hymns start to flip, they focus more on us and only secondarily about Jesus.
It’s why you can tune to a Christian radio station today and the subject of almost every song is us.
“I’m so in love with you Jesus!”
“Our God is greater, Our God is stronger!”
In our singing, we’ve become the subject of our own worship.
St. Paul, in his letter to the church in Philippi, written from behind bars, contains one of the most interesting elements of any of his letters: a hymn.
The so-called Christ Hymn is tucked away here in the second chapter and it predates Paul’s letter.
It’s older than the epistles, it’s older than the gospels, it’s a song the earliest Christians used to articulate their faith.
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
It might not sound as catchy as something you can experience on YouTube or on the Radio today, but it’s radical.
It’s meant to shock us, this little collection of verse that Paul shares with the Philippians. Most of us, however, barely respond to it at all because we’ve heard it all before.
But listen again to this: Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend… and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Again, those lines aren’t original to Paul, in fact, the early Christians who put the hymn together got the words from Isaiah 45 which contains one of the Bible’s fiercest statements against idolatry.
Idolatry is whatever happens when we worship any of the little g gods in our life rather than God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Idolatry is when we hold up a political candidate as if they will be the ones to save us.
Idolatry is when we are willing to sacrifice people’s lives so long as we can keep the economy stimulated.
Idolatry is when we are so wedded to the powers and principalities of this life that we no longer notice the sin we’re in.
So what is it that Paul does with this song against idolatry. Or, better put, what did the earliest Christians do with it? They stuck Jesus right in the middle.
They, to put it in theological terms, violated the Law with the power of the Gospel.
It’s as is Paul is saying, or perhaps singing, “Jesus knew that power and might aren’t things to be taken but instead given up. Jesus emptied himself of all things. Jesus made himself poor even though he was rich. Jesus gave up his royal robes for a servant’s towel. Jesus humiliated himself to the point of humility. Jesus blessed those who persecuted him. Jesus turned the other cheek, went the extra mile, and forgave no matter the cost. And because that who Jesus is, God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.”
And that’s shocking – it’s shocking because the name that is above every name is Yahweh – I AM. It is the One who spoke from the burning bush to Moses, the one who delivered a people enslaved all the way to the Promised Land, the One who turned the world upside down.
Paul mics drops through the centuries this frighteningly Good News – The Lord is Jesus.
John Wesley, founder of this crazy thing we call Methodism today, said that if God wanted to, God could’ve been Sovereign. That is: God could’ve controlled us like puppets and made us do every little thing that God wanted. God could’ve smacked us into shape for stepping out of line or rewarded us with little prizes for making good choices.
But instead, Wesley said, God chose to be Jesus.
God chose to come across the great chasm between Creator and Creature to dwell among us in the muck and mire of life.
God took on flesh, in humility humiliated God’s self to come and be with us.
God became Jesus for us.
It happens a lot in my line of work – the unannounced drop by, the casual (but not really) phone call, the email filled with ellipses. Someone shows up in my life, offers a few remarks that really have little to do with anything, when they finally share what they’ve kept all bottled up.
A wife who’s been cheating on her husband.
An individual who fled the scene after a hit and run.
A kid who made one too many bad choices at a party.
And almost every one of those conversations ends the same way – with a question.
Having emptied themselves of the baggage, having confessed the condition of their condition, they then ask, “Do you think I’m a sinner?”
“Do you think I’m a sinner?”
And one of the great privileges of my profession is that I get to answer that question like this:
“Of course you’re a sinner… but so am I. And Jesus happens to loves sinners.”
What do we really think God is like? Is God angry with us, is God a totalitarian dictator who is willing to torture us into better behavior? Is God keeping a ledger of every little mistake we make in order to determine where we should end up in the end?
Or, is God like Jesus?
Is God the One who, in humility, takes on flesh just to welcome outcasts and sinners?
Is God the One who, time and time again, describes the Kingdom like a wedding feast to which all of the wrong kinds of people are invited?
God became what we are. That’s what the Christ Hymn is all about, it’s what Paul is banging over the heads of the disciples in Philippi – God became what we are.
It is in God’s unending graciousness that God travel into the far country, into the brokenness of this world, our world, which is not God and is so often against God. And God made, and makes, that journey to us, for us.
Jesus is God, says the hymn that has articulated the faith longer than any other hymn.
And, in Jesus, God refuses to cast stones.
God says to the woman caught in adultery, “I don’t condemn you,” even though scripture condemned her behavior.
God says to the sinning tax collector, and the murderer, and the fill in the blank, “I’m feasting with you tonight,” even though scripture calls them unclean.
God says to the thief hanging on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” even though scripture claims the opposite.
God in the flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, forgives those who haven’t a clue in the world and those who know exactly what they’re doing. God eats and drinks and cavorts with the very people we wouldn’t be caught dead with.
Which is kind of the whole point.
God chose to die, even death on a cross, out of love for the sinners we are.
Contrary to how we often discuss it, both publicly and in secret, God doesn’t respond to the crosses we build in this life with more crosses. God doesn’t abide by an eye for an eye. Instead, God’s answer to our brokenness and our sinfulness is Easter.
And that is humiliating.
It’s humiliating because we don’t deserve it.
We worship a crucified God, hanging dead on the cross because we put him there.
And God comes back, to us!
Jesus, whose name is above all names, Jesus is the one to whom we owe our allegiance – the one we worship. Jesus is God. And God, knowing our sin, chose to be with us and for us.
That’s the faith we sing.
Not some version of our own progress toward better-ness. Not some repetitive chorus about where we become the subjects of our worship.
The faith we sing is that God humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross – for us. Amen.