Wading for Jesus

Matthew 4.12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. 

We have a new bishop in the Virginia Annual Conference, her name is Sue Haupert-Johnson. She was interviewed this week by the Conference office in order to introduce to the people called Methodist in this place. And, among all the interesting and theological bits from the interview, she was asked about our vision. 

Those without vision are doomed to perish, the scriptures say. So it was a worthy question. And this was her response: “Vision doesn’t come from the top, but rather from the people. However, the heart of the vision of the church always contains this question: How do we introduce people to Jesus?”

John the Baptist is arrested.

That’s how our scripture starts today. It’s an odd beginning, and one that is all too easy to breeze over without realizing the implications of such an introduction.

Why is John arrested? The last we heard of him in Matthew’s Gospel he was out in the wilderness, far removed from the movers and the shakers, proclaiming a baptism for the repentance of sins. That doesn’t sound like much rabble-rousing, let alone enough to warrant being thrown behind bars. But, of course, he did call the Pharisees and the Sadducees “a brood of vipers!” Even still, it’s not like he was committing a crime.

However, whenever the power that be are called into question, they’re going to do whatever it takes to stop those questions. 

John has a sense, a glimpse, of what the world could be. As the herald of the One to come, he stands squarely between the times and beckons the gaze of those with eyes to see that not all is at it seems. Something is on the way. And that something has a name: Jesus.

The drama begins.

John is arrested and how does Jesus react? He retreats to Galilee. That’s a bit odd when you take a step back from the strange new world of the Bible… I mean, we’re talking about the incarnate God! Perhaps we would prefer it if Jesus called the people to arms, if he stormed the gates of the prison to free his cousin, or any other number of reactive activities. 

But, instead, Jesus responds to John’s arrest by preaching.

Words are powerful things, more powerful than we often give them credit for. John’s words were so powerful that they put a target on his back. Jesus’ words wind up sending him to the cross. And today, our words are just as powerful, they can build up and they can destroy. 

Jesus’ mission and ministry in Galilee is for a purpose, one that Matthew begs us to see. Jesus preaches in order to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy.

“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

That text might sound familiar, and if it does it’s because we read those words every Christmas Eve – the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. The great light, now, happens to be the One who preaches in Galilee. 

And then the text moves to the call of the first disciples. 

Jesus is preaching, but he’s also searching. He’s looking for those who can help manifest and live according to the strange new world we call the kingdom of God. Notably, Jesus does not call his disciples from the powerful or the elite, he doesn’t create a big board of draft prospects for kingdom work, rather he calls those who are ordinary knowing that, with the power of the Spirit, they can do extraordinary things.

There are no crowds yet waiting to see what the hope of the world can do, the Pharisees and the scribes haven’t started their plot to get rid of him, because this is still the beginning. And one day, while walking by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and Andrew, casting a net into the lake. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets behind and followed him.

That’s it.

Luke’s Gospel adds some flavor and flourish to the story with some drama out on the water, but according to the Matthew the call of the first disciples was as quick as “Follow me.”

Much has been made about this moment in scripture and what it means for us today as followers of Jesus. 

In other words, this is the story of the first call and what we, in turn, are called to do.

Life, today, often feels a lot like U2’s song, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” We on the search for something. Some of us are looking for fulfillment, or purpose, or belonging. We look for it in people, jobs, vocations. 

I have a friend from seminary who embodied this searching perfectly. Every few months there was a new fad that dominated his existence. At first it was the desire to eat in a more local and healthy manner. He cultivated a backyard garden, read recipes book, even interned with a local farmer in between his classes. And, for a while, it took. Until it didn’t. At some point the garden was overrun by weeds, but by then he was on to the next thing: Barefoot running. He listened to some podcast about how our modern shoes are bad for our posture, and he became convinced that he needed to start running, every day, without shoes. So he did. He adopted a running calendar based on his class schedule and figured out the optimal times and places to run barefoot. And, for a while, it took. Until it didn’t. At some point the weather started to change and running sans shoes was starting to take a toll on his feet, but by then he was on to the next thing: Reading a book every three days. He encountered some article online about the devolution of our minds and the necessity to read as much as possible as quickly as possible. So he did. He set up timed alerts on his phone that told him when and what he was supposed to read. Every moment of the day was calculated down his average page per minute so that he could finish a book every three days. And, for awhile it took, until it didn’t.

I could go on. He certainly did.

He still hasn’t found what he was looking for.

And though curiosity is good, and frankly we could do well to have more of it in some ways, when it comes to the realm of the kingdom, we’ve got it backward. The Bible is not so much a long record of our search for God; rather, it is the amazing account of the extraordinary lengths to which God will go to search for us.

Perhaps that’s why the reference to Isaiah before the call of the disciples is so important: The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. In the darkness of our lives, when we least expect it, God shows up.

The disciples weren’t looking for a teacher to follow, or a barefoot running regimen to adopt, or a spiritual guru who could help bring fulfillment to their lives. If they were looking for anything, it was fish. And then Jesus shows up with the nerve to flip their vocation completely upside down. 

Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.

God in Christ shows up, and then gives us something to do. Though, how we respond to that call is as varied as the people who Jesus delights in calling. What comes to your mind when you hear the commission?

Evangelism can sound like a dirty word in United Methodist circles. It is often manipulative and preys on individual fears in order to get people in the pews. 

Some will take evangelism as our responsibility to save souls, or win people for Jesus, or knock on doors until we find someone who is willing to accept Jesus as their Lord and savior. Some will stand on street corners shouting about the end times, while others (a few blocks away) will hand out tracts with 3 simple steps to make sure you go to the right place when you die.

On and on.

Fishing for people. It’s the Lord’s metaphor, so we’ve got to work with it. Though, I’m always a bit fearful of the language since fishing is inherently a coercive endeavor. We try to trick fish into eating something fake in order to reel them in. 

Maybe that’s not the best metaphor for evangelism. Except for the fact that fishing requires us to go where the fish are. 

Therefore, perhaps we are called to wade for Jesus just as much as we are called to fish for Jesus. The earliest Christians weren’t converted to Christianity because they were looking for something, or because they were convinced or duped by the disciples. The earliest Christians were encountered by the living God and they couldn’t help but follow. 

Wading into the muck and mire of a stream to catch a fish is inherently a messy and frustrating endeavor. The same is true of wading into someone’s mess. But that’s exactly what God did and does for us.

Each of us here are here because, somehow, God showed up in our lives. And, more often than not, God shows up through someone else. 

There’s a big difference, a huge difference, between trying to convince someone of the Gospel, and living according to the Gospel. For, living according to the Gospel, puts us in relationships with people we would otherwise ignore and, because God has a sense of humor, it usually results in someone seeing how we live and then asking, “Why are you the way you are?”

And the answer, of course, is Jesus. 

Notably, the word evangelism just means, bearing the Good News. After Jesus called the first disciples he went through Galilee proclaiming the Good News and great crowds began to follow.

He didn’t try to coerce them, or frighten them, or even convince them. He just preached the Good News. 

Hear the Good News: You are loved by God. There is a place for you in God’s church. There is nothing in your life, no matter what you do or leave undone, that can ever separate you from God’s love. 

Introducing people to Jesus is at the heart of what it means to follow. How we introduce people to Jesus is actually quite easy. It’s the why we introduce people to Jesus that we often overlook. We, of course, do it because Jesus tells us to. But also because our lives have been changed by God and we want that for others. My life is fundamentally better because of the church’s willingness to relentlessly wade into the muck of my life reminding me of the Good News when everything else sounds like bad news. 

I am who I am because God waded into my life. 

Following the Lord will bring us places and to people we would never have picked on our own. Living according to the Gospel will make us appear strange to those who have not heard it. Strange enough that they might wonder what happened to us. 

And, of course, it’s not what happened to us, but who: Jesus.

The Gospel According To Francis Spufford

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Second Sunday After the Epiphany [A] (Isaiah 49.1-7, Psalm 40.1-11, 1 Corinthians 1.1-9, John 1.29-42). Teer is one of the pastors serving Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including sin, coffee and contemplation, Prayer School, sharp swords, prophetic preaching, miry bogs, Pelagius, trust, sanctification, gifts, blame, low anthropology, the Lamb of God, and discipleship. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Gospel According To Francis Spufford

The Adventure Begins

Matthew 3.13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Tell us what you remember about your baptism.

So spoke the instructor in my Spiritual Formation class in seminary more than a decade ago. We were huddled in a basement classroom, devoid of any natural light, squirming in our plastic chairs, wondering who would be the first to share.

“I remember,” one of them began, “being afraid.”

He described the fear of Y2K and what horrors it could bring. And so, on the last Sunday of the calendar year, he marched up to the font at the end of church and asked to be baptized because, as he put it, “I wanted to make sure I would go to heaven if the world ended when we hit the year 2000.”

“I remember,” another classmate began, “feeling pressured into by my friends.”

She described the teenybopper convictions of her closest friends who told her she had to be baptized. She didn’t even go to church. But then, one Sunday, she was picked up in a minivan by one of her friend’s parents, and a bunch of strangers surrounded her at the font and water was dumped all over her head. When she got home, soaking wet, her parents demanded to know what happened, and all she could say was, “Jesus happened, I think.”

“I remember,” someone else intoned, “the storm.”

She described her reluctance to attend church her entire life until, well into middle age, a particular tragedy drew her in the direction of mystery that happened to be her local church. She started reading the Bible, participated in worship, joined a small group, and felt like God was calling her to be a Christian. So they scheduled her baptism, and in the middle of the service an unexpected thunderstorm rolled through the town. All was well until they began praying over the water and lightning struck nearby with the thunderclap shaking the sanctuary. In the silence that followed she, apparently, shouted, “The devil ain’t got me no more.”

And then I raised my hand and said, “I remember nothing. I was 19 days old.”

We can only ever begin again, Barth once said. Christians, those who follow Jesus, are ever in a state of starting over. We have a liturgical calendar that folds in on itself every year, we return to the same scriptures and the same songs and the same prayers not out of tireless commitment to the old, but because they make us new.

We can only ever begin, again.

Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday, when churches across the world read about Jesus’ baptism by his cousin John in the Jordan. 

It’s a bit odd, when you take a step back and think about it, that John is the one who baptizes Jesus. It’s odd for a variety of reasons. Notably, John shows up in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism for the repentance of sins. He looks out on God’s people who have completely lost their way and he beckons them back, again, to the truth of the Lord who delivered them from captivity into the Promised Land. Like all the prophets before him, John speaks with clarity and authority and power about repentance.

And yet, what does Jesus have to repent? Why does Jesus need to be baptized by John?

Repentance is such a churchy word. Where else can you hear that word thrown around with such reckless abandon?

What is it? Repentance is not feeling bad about what we’ve done, or thinking differently than we once did. Repentance means nothing more than turning around, or returning. The church, in our unending concern with encouraging people to think for themselves and make all the right choices, often confuses God’s kingdom with the benefits of the kingdom. 

We talk about turning our lives around so that we can finally find our purpose. We talk about repentance so that we will finally start behaving and make the world a better place. We talk about making changes or resolutions in order to finally become the people God wants us to be.

And those things are fine, they have their place. But they are not the Gospel. They are just the bonus, the 2-for1 deal which is handed over by the One who hands himself over on our behalf. 

The Gospel is the Good News of Jesus. Repentance is just the word that describes our activity whenever we encounter it.

John, out in the wilderness, is not offering a better way to live. The kingdom does not come about because we actually start doing the things we’re supposed to do. Rather, the kingdom of God is already present in the person of Jesus, and we are not worthy of it. That’s why we repent, we return. We wander off in all sorts of directions, but then in the waters of our baptism we return to the truth of who we are: Sinners in the hands of a loving God. 

Wandering is at the heart of who we are. There’s this gnawing lack of something inside all of us. It’s why we flock to the self-help section in bookstores, hoping we will finally discover who we really are. 

And, again, if self-help books worked, there wouldn’t be any of them anymore.

Find yourself! Says the slogan for clothing companies, vacation destinations, and retirement portfolios. 

Do you want to find yourself? You don’t need to go climb a mountain, literal or figuration. You don’t need to sign-up with a spiritual guru or enroll in a CrossFit class. 

All you need is some water.

Look in it and you’ll see who you are. 

It used to be the case that, when a set of parents brought their child forward for baptism, they only had one name – their family name. And then, someone like me would say, “What name is given this child?” The answer would be the first public declaration of a person’s identity. Our first names, which in certain places are still called Christian names.

Names are gifts. We don’t get to choose them or pick them. They’re given to us.

And then, with the waters of baptism, we receive yet another new name. A larger and more important name: Christian.

Whenever I baptize someone, whether they’re a shiny new baby, or covered in wrinkles with gray hair, I always say the same thing: I baptize you in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit – you are a precious Lamb of Jesus Christ.

I say that last part not because I was taught to say it, but because that’s what one of my grandmother’s has called me my entire life. 

I’m still growing into it.

It takes time for all of us to live into our names, that Christian name in particular. It’s something we return to every so often because sometimes we forget who we are.

It’s easy, all too easy, to forget our identity. The world will strive to tell us who we are, and what we should care about it, and what we should think. We’re told by the world, and others, that our lives are journeys of self-discovery whereas, in baptism, God finds us.

Our lives are the adventure of being lost and being found over and over again. 

Martin Luther, the great reformer of the church, was often prone to depression and anxiety. And he said that in those most awful moments, those dark nights of the soul, it was a great comfort to take a drop of water, place it on his forehead, and say, “I am baptized.”

Why?

Because we belong to God and that can never ever be taken away.

Or, as Paul puts it, I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

We return to that promise because sometimes we forget.

In the end, becoming and being a Christian is something done to us and for us before it is anything done by us.

In other words: faith requires others. Just like baptism. Someone has to hold us, pray over the water, tell us about Jesus and the promise of what he has done, is doing, and will do. Someone has to model that faith, a whole life of faith. Otherwise, we would have no idea what we are baptized into.

To know who Jesus is and what he means has got to come to us through others as a gift – a gift like grace.

Before the church was called church is was called EKKLESIA, which just means gathering. Church, then, is people who are together. People who hold fast to one another as we hold fast to the promise of the Gospel. 

And that’s why the church gives us this day, this same Sunday every single year, that we might remember who and whose we are.

I don’t remember my baptism. There was no peer pressure, or fear, or even reluctance. I had no choice in the matter. But the choice made on my behalf has made all the difference in the world. 

And that’s true for all of us, whether we marched to the font on our own or someone carried us to it. From the moment of our baptisms, it becomes impossible to explain our lives without reference to the water, the promise, the story, and the others who made it possible.

Baptism is where the adventure we call faith begins. 

Jesus’ baptism by John unleashes him into the world. The heavens are opened and he sets out on the adventure of preaching, healing, teaching, feeding, dying, and living again that makes possible the rectification of all things, even us. This is where his journey begins, as do our own, in the waters of baptism.

Don’t Look Back

Isaiah 42.8-9

I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to not other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them. 

The church has always had a “problem” with looking backward. And, we come by it honest. The scriptures are ripe with stories of God’s people remaining stuck in the past (“At least we had food back in Egypt!”) and refusing to see how God makes all things new. 

One of the reasons we’re content with looking backward is the fact that the past feels under our control whereas the future is totally unknowable. 

Or, as Jesus bluntly put it, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.”

But, as Christians, we are called to the dance, one that becomes manifest whenever we gather at the Lord’s Table, between remembering and anticipating. We remember God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ as we feast on the bread and cup because they point us to the ways in which God is moving in our midst here, now, and in the future. 

There’s a story about a church where a concerned group of members called for a meeting about new ministry opportunities. For hours they went back and forth about each new possibility but they were all struck down because they seemed impossible. 

An older man from the congregation sat in silence throughout the meeting until, when he could no longer stand it, he raised his hand and said, “If I hear the word impossible one more time, I will leave this church forever. Have you all forgotten? Nothing is impossible with God!”

Here, at the beginning of a new calendar year, it is good and right for us to wrestle with the impossible possibility of God. The Lord shouts to us through the scriptures, “The former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare!” God is in the business of making all things new. Even the church.

Or, as Will Willimon puts it, “God’s future is for those who ask tough questions, come up with surprising answers, and dare better to align themselves with their core identity and purpose as the Body of Christ in motion.” “The church,” he says, “for any of its faults, is Christ’s big idea to put right what’s wrong with the world.”

In Luke’s Gospel, on the day of Easter, two figures walk toward Emmaus with their heads stuck in the past. Along the road they talk only of what happened to Jesus and they no longer have any hope. That is, until the hope of the world shows up on the road right in front of them.

“What are you talking about?” The strange figure asks.

Clops responds, “Are you the only fool in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that happened?” 

“What things?”

“Jesus is dead! Locked up and forsaken in a tomb. We had hoped he was the one who would save us.”

The strange figure spends the rest of the walk preaching, reinterpreting the scriptures, and (sadly) the two are no wiser than they were at the start. Until they get to Emmaus, and decide to share supper together. They break bread, share wine, and suddenly they see

They race all the way back to Jerusalem with nothing but hope. 

Every Sunday is a little Emmaus. We gather with all of our worries, fears, and hopelessness. We can’t help but only look backward. And then, as we open up the strange new world of the Bible, Jesus encounters us proclaiming the scriptures anew. We gather at the table, receiving the gift we do not deserve but so desperately need. And our eyes are opened to God’s new future.

Don’t look back! God is in motion! Let’s go!

The Reason For The Season

Isaiah 9.2-7

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. 

I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a good Christmas sermon. I certainly haven’t preached one. No commentary, no anecdote, no perfectly delivered joke can ever come close to the outrageously wonderful news of the Christmas story. 

The story is better than any sermon and yet, I wonder what you were thinking as the scriptures were read and the notes from the songs were lifted up… 

Perhaps some of you have heard the Christmas story so many times before that it flew right over your hears. Maybe some of you think it a mere fairy tale, far removed from the realities of life. Perhaps some of you were transported to Christmases past and remembered hearing the story from other people in other ways. Maybe some of you drifted off to the dream-like space where the boundaries of reality become fuzzy.

And then BOOM! Christmas! The angel of the Lord appears and shakes us up. The angel shows up in the Gospel, just as much as the angel of the Lord is present with us right now, downright shouting the Good News for all to hear: “For to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Notice, the angel does not say, “For us is born.”

The angel says, “For you.”

That’s so strange. Which is really saying something because the strange new world of the Bible was plenty strange before this angel showed up with glad tiding to tell.

You see, the Christmas story is not meant for certain people in particular places. This news is for you. You! Regardless of who you are, whether or not you understand it, or even believe it, whether you are on the nice list or the naughty list this year. There are no qualifications for who should receive this news because this news, the Good News, is for you!

And what, exactly is the Good News?

God took on flesh to liberate us from sin and death.

In other words, the Good News is Jesus.

Jesus is the reason for the season. All of the other trimmings and trappings and traditions serve only to point to the One who arrives for you.

And yet, we could just as well say that the reason for the season is the joy of giving.

Indeed, it is true that Jesus says it is better to give than to receive. It is true that our brains release more endorphins when we do something for someone else, than if someone does something for us. 

But Christmas, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible, isn’t about what we’re supposed to do for others. It’s about what God does for us. For you.

Many of us love Christmas because we believe, whether or not it’s true, that Christmas brings out the best in us. Christmas has the power to reform even the Scroogiest among us. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has probably done more to form our notions about this night than Luke’s story of the manger. Luke gives all the agency to God, reminds us through shepherd and song that Christmas is about God’s gift to us, whereas Dickens tell us about how we can give to others.

But that betrays the necessity of the incarnation. God does not take on flesh to help us see that we have the power to save and fix ourselves. God takes on flesh to save us. Full stop.

The Gospels go to great lengths, through various stories, to demonstrate how we can’t help ourselves, how utterly dependent we are on the God who comes to us. 

The great joy of Christmas is that we do nothing to make it happen – Christmas happens to us. Even the biblical characters that we read and were singing about, they are all so wildly passive in the story. They are recipients of God’s grace made manifest in the manger.

This is often the way God loves us. Not with a drill-master attitude of begging us to see our potential if we would only work harder. But with strange gifts that we did not know we needed, gifts that transform us into people we don’t necessarily want to be. 

Christmas is about the great gift given to us, to you. And that gift has a name: Jesus.

The angel address us personally, individually, with the gift of the one born. But, at the same time, the angel’s proclamation ties all of us together. For in receiving the gift, in receiving the news, no one is first and no one is last. 

The Christian life is one great communion, the great fellowship that transcends all things.

Christmas created and creates a new community called church. At any given time and place we have no idea what it will look like, except we know it will be filled with people whom we would not have chosen if we were not friends with Jesus.

Put another way, through the gift of Jesus Christ, God has also given us each other.

Look around. You might not know it, or even believe it, but these are the people God has chosen for you to be with this Christmas. Men and women. Old and young. Conservative and liberal. Gay and straight. Courageous and cowardly. Stupid and smart. Hideous and handsome. Saints and sinners. 

All sorts of people who are only here because of Jesus.

Jesus is the Good News, Jesus is our only hope, Jesus is the reason for the season.

There’s this thing that we do every Christmas Eve, in addition to the drama and the lines and the songs, we end worship same way every year: with the lighting of candles and the singing of Silent Night. It’s a tradition. Some of my earliest memories are of standing up on the seat of a pew on Christmas Eve, holding up my little candle, and watching wax fall onto the floor. 

But last year, as we rounded out our worship, I came forward with my tiny little candle, and brought it up to the Christ Candle. From that one candle the light spreads throughout the church. And I’ve done this countless times. But last year something happened to me. I brought the light down to the first person sitting in the first pew, I don’t even remember who it was, but I remember their eyes. I remember seeing the light of the candle flickering in their eyes, and I remember them crying. And right then, and it hit me hard in the chest, a sensation I can’t quite describe with words, I was overwhelmed by the conviction that it’s true. All of it. The light of God’s love outshines the darkness.

In the candlelight spreading across the sanctuary, I saw and felt the Good News of Jesus Christ.

God in Christ, born to us, has brought us salvation. God is our helper, liberator, and redeemer. God rescues and delivers us. We live because God is with us.

God in Christ, born to us, has brought salvation to all, without reservation or exception, simply because that is who God is.

God in Christ, born to us, has changed the cosmos free of charge, without our earning or deserving. The only thing we are asked to do is stretch out our hand, receive the gift, and be thankful.

To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 

Merry Christmas.

Good News!

Luke 2.8-14

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

It was my first Christmas Eve service as a pastor. I was standing by the main doors welcoming the last stragglers in for worship. And just as the organist began to play the opening hymn, during which I was supposed to walk down the center aisle looking like I knew what I was doing, one final car pulled into the parking lot.

So I had a choice – either get the show on the road and parade down the aisle or stay by the door and greet the one last, and perhaps lost, sheep.

I chose the sheep.

I could feel the organist’s eye like daggers cutting through me as the song went on without a pastor, but I waited.

And I waited.

Out of the car stepped an old little man who shuffled across the lot with the help of a walker and a decisively Ebenezer Scrooge scowl across his face. By the time he made it to the door the organist had started the hymn over again, much to the surprise of the congregation. So I very quickly, but politely, offered him hand and started to make a break for the sanctuary but the man grabbed me by the robe, pulled me down and said, “Listen son – I only come to church once a year so the Good News better be good.”

That man’s quick quip has stayed with me over the years because, I think, we all feel that way. We want, in fact we need, Good News. We need good news because it feels like all we ever encounter is bad news. We can’t turn on our TVs, or turn to our phones, without being bombarded by all that is wrong with the world.

But then we come to a place like this at a time like this. 

Chances are most of us, if not all of us, know the story we’re about to hear through scripture, drama, and song.

We know how the holy family traveled to Bethlehem with a pregnant Mary riding on the back of a donkey. We know how they were turned away by a greedy innkeeper. We know how Jesus was born in a stable, laid in a manger, surrounded by farm animals, admired by shepherds, and sung to by angels.

Never mind the fact that half of these details aren’t actually in the strange new world of the Bible! But we’re ready to remember it that way!

Indeed, it is a tradition to remember the story with these details. We sing the songs, we read the scriptures, we get out the pipe cleaner halos, and the plastic baby Jesus.

Tradition is one of those words that we either love or hate. Some of us rejoice in traditions, the habits and practices passed on to us. Others of us find those things to be constrictive, or even oppressive.

And yet, traditions serve to root us in the world. Traditions teach us who we are and, more importantly, whose we are.

The tradition of Christmas, of gathering with others for the worship of God, locates us in a community constituted by hope, peace, joy, and love.

Which is why we need things like child-led dramas, Christmas pageants, because they brings great godly things down to earth. Often, in church, the things we talk about seem so far away, removed, and distant. Even preachers fall prey to the stained glass language that flies over the heads of our dozing congregations.

And then Christmas! This is the Good News! It is a story that is down to earth because God comes down to us. It has all the hallmarks of real life: birth, death, marriage, relatives, taxes, babies, work.

It was into this world that God arrived as one of us. And, oddly and wonderfully, the great joy of Christmas is that we do nothing to make it happen – Christmas happens to us. Notice, during our pageant, how wildly passive all the biblical characters are. They, like us, are recipients of God’s grace made manifest in the manger.

The story itself, as I noted before, is so warm and familiar that the shock of it all has dimmed. And yet, Christmas is absolutely astonishing!

God, the author of the cosmos, chose a young woman from a forgotten village to birth God’s very self in a sleepy little town in a tucked away corner of the empire. The first to know of God’s birth were shepherds, those relegated to the margins of society and ignored by most. 

Jesus, fully God and fully human, grew into an adult who had a brief public ministry that was spent among the riff-raff and the elite, announced God’s forgiveness of sin for a world undeserving, and in whose death and resurrection, we are made holy.

And it doesn’t matter who are you or what you’ve done. This all happens for you.

The world will tell us again and again and again that we are not worthy, that there is always more to do. Christmas tells us the opposite. God makes us worthy. There is nothing we have to do, except open our hands to the gift that is Jesus Christ. 

That is how the Good News works, it’s good news.

Christmas is the end of the beginning and its the story we are about to receive through pageant and song, but before I hand it over, I want to share one final thought:

There’s this thing that we do every Christmas Eve, in addition to the drama and the lines and the songs, we end worship same way every year: with the lighting of candles and the singing of Silent Night. It’s a tradition. Some of my earliest memories are of standing up on the seat of a pew on Christmas Eve, holding up my little candle, and watching wax fall onto the floor. 

But last year, as we rounded out the pageant, I came forward with my tiny little candle, and brought it up to the Christ Candle. From that one candle the light spreads throughout the church. And I’ve done this countless times. But last year something happened to me. I brought the light down to the first person sitting in the first pew, I don’t even remember who it was, but I remember their eyes. I remember seeing the light of the candle flickering in their eyes, and it hit me hard in the chest, a sensation I can’t quite describe with words, I was overwhelmed by the conviction that it’s true. All of it. The light of God’s love outshines the darkness.

In the candlelight spreading across the sanctuary, in the little children in their costumes, I saw and felt that the Good News really is good.

God in Christ, born to us, has brought us salvation. God is our helper, liberator, and redeemer. God rescues and delivers us. We live because God is with us.

God in Christ, born to us, has changed the cosmos free of charge, without our earning or deserving. The only thing we are asked to do is stretch out our hand, receive the gift, and be thankful.

God in Christ, born to us, has brought salvation to all, without reservation or execution, simply because that is who God is.

To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 

Merry Christmas.

Happy Advent, You Brood Of Vipers!

Matthew 3.7

But when John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

Tomorrow morning my six year old son will open up his Star Wars Lego Advent Calendar and will promptly put together a little droid, or a mini-figure, or some other object from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. 

And he will rejoice.

But it’s hard for me to call it an actual “Advent” calendar. First, Advent started last Sunday, not December 1st. Second, the little trinkets are certainly fun but they don’t really have anything to do with the “hastening and waiting” that define this season. And, finally, Advent points to the arrival (and return!) of our Lord Jesus Christ, whereas most (if not all) Advent calendars point to the arrival of presents under a tree on Christmas morning.

Fleming Rutledge, my theological Advent hero, was once similarly struck by the strange juxtaposition of Advent calendars and the real message of Advent and said that the best Advent calendar would be one in which, every time you opened the next day/box, a strange bearded and camel-hair wearing man would jump out and shout, “You brood of vipers!”

John the Baptist gets to shine this time of year in church because he straddles the already but not yet. He sees the new world coming and warns the people of “the wrath that is to come.”

It just happens that the wrath of God is made manifest in the cross that is our salvation.

The church, in Advent, takes up John’s mantle and proclaims the truth that something is coming, and that we do need to prepare for it, but only because to miss it would ruin all the fun. 

And yet, there is a strong temptation to make the call for preparation all about our need to finally make the world a good enough place for Christ to arrive. Preachers and pontificators alike will stand up and say things like, “You need to work on your racism, sexism, ageism, stop using styrofoam, go vegan, gluten-free, eat locally, think globally, live simply, practice diversity, give more, complain less, stop drinking so much.”

Which are all worthy things for us to do. But Christ arrives whether we do them or not. Frankly, Christ arrives because we do not do the things we should do. That’s the whole point!

Therefore, we don’t come to church in Advent (or any other time of year) to hear about what we need to do. Instead we come to hear about what’s been done, for us!

Or, as Martin Luther put it, “The Law says, ‘Do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘Believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”

The sad and bitter truth of this season is that we are “a brood of vipers” and that we have much to repent. And yet, the truly Good News of Advent is that Christ comes for us anyway. That’s why we sing of the hopes and fears of all the years – it is downright terrifying to be loved by God because we simply don’t deserve it.

But that’s also why the Good News is so good

The First Word

Luke 23.33-43

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

“Jesus for President.”

That’s what the sign said. I saw it when I was going for a run during a particularly contentious election season (aren’t they all?). In just about every yard there was a red sign or a blue sign, with one name or the other.

I’ve always found political yard signs to be problematic.

I mean, why do we put them up? Do we honestly think anyone has ever changed their vote because of a yard sign?

I think we put those signs up in our yards, and attach them to our bumpers, and post them on Facebook, not because we want to change anyone, but because we want everyone to know where we stand. 

We want everyone to know what side we’re on.

And so seeing yard signs is fairly normative. In fact, its the houses without signs that seem strange. Until I saw, “Jesus for President.”

It was so shocking I remember stumbling over my feet and nearly wiping out on the sidewalk.

Jesus for President?

Perhaps someone thought it fitting to cut through the political paraphernalia that year with some sort of prophetic pronouncement. Maybe they really thought Jesus presiding in the Oval Office would be a good idea. 

Except, “take up your cross” doesn’t poll well. Turn the other cheek is a strange campaign slogan. And that’s not even mentioning the first will be last, and the last will be first. That doesn’t sound like a milk toast soundbite from a politician, it sounds like a threat.

Jesus for President. It could never work. Particularly since Jesus is already our King – Jesus is Lord. 

Today is Christ the King Sunday. A remarkable offering on the liturgical calendar. With Advent hovering on the horizon, churches across the globe gather today with proclamations about the Lordship of Christ. And yet, this is a recent addition to our liturgical observances, as far as those things are concerned. We’ve celebrated Christmas for centuries and marked Easter for millennia, but Christ The King only started in 1925.

Why? Nearly 100 years ago, Pope Pius XI looked out at a world in which Mussolini had been in charge of Italy for 3 years, Hitler had just published his autobiographical manifesto Mein Kampf, and the economic frivolity the led to the Great Depression was in full effect. And bearing witness to the world at that moment led the Pope to announce a new liturgical holiday – Christ the King Sunday would round out the year to remind Christians across the globe that we have our own King, and it is to him alone we owe our allegiance.

Over the last year we’ve read from Genesis to Revelation, we’ve encountered the living God who encounters us, we’ve been transformed by the Lord who transforms bread and cup, and all of it, all of the Sundays all of the studies all of the sacraments, they all pointed to one thing: Jesus Christ is Lord.

That’s the thing about us Christians, everything starts and ends with Jesus. He is the first word and the last word.

And yet, we do well to remember that this King of ours is strange…

Listen, there was a man named Jesus who hailed from the town of Nazareth. He was poor and had no real standing in the world but he preached about the kingdom of God, and he usually drew a pretty good crowd. For centuries the people Israel had suffered hardship after hardship, persecution after persecution, and they waited for the One who was promised. And Jesus said, “I am he.” 

Many signs and wonders were done, healings happened, bellies were filled, and the crowds grew until they didn’t. The more he talked the more he was rejected. The more he did the more people grumbled. And he was betrayed, arrested, and condemned to death.

By us.

Those two words are tough to admit, or even fathom. But they’re true. At the heart of the Christian witness is the fact that, when push comes to shove, we nail the Son of God to the cross. And, incidentally, it’s why we sing, every Good Friday, “I crucified thee.” The strange new world of the Bible refuses to let us walk away with our hands clean.

The soldiers place a purple robe on his shoulders, a crown of thorns upon his head, a cross on his back, and they force him to march to The Skull.

Jesus is painfully quiet in this moment. The gifted preacher and parable teller has no words left to share. The crowds, of course, are loud. Sick with anticipation. Hungry for blood.

And he’s nailed to the cross.

Only here, hung high for all to see, does Jesus speak his first words as king. Make no mistake, this is when Jesus is crowned our king and Lord. And what is his first decree?

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

How odd of God.

With all the possible words of recrimination, condemnation, accusation, the first thing Jesus says is, “Father, forgive.” 

Earlier he commanded us to forgive our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Easy to preach, hard to practice.

On the cross, Jesus dares to pray for his worst enemies. Us.

It’s rather strange that God units ignorance with forgiveness. We usually act and behave as if ignorance is the enemy of forgiveness. We want people to know they’re wrong before we forgive them. We want repentance before mercy.

And yet, for God in Christ, it is always preemptive forgiveness. Forgiveness is the first word.

Jesus doesn’t hang up on the cross until we realize we made a mistake. He doesn’t wait until someone from the crowds shouts, “Um, maybe we went a little too far this time. Sorry Jesus.” Jesus doesn’t forgive after we come to our senses, but right in the thick of our badness, Jesus’ offers his goodness.

Oddly enough, forgiveness is what it costs God to be with people like us who, every time God reaches out in love, beat God away.

Perfection in the Garden – We reject it for the taste of a little knowledge dangling from a tree.

Unified Community – We reject for selfish desires of power.

Covenanted Relationship – We reject it in favor of other hopes and dreams.

The story of the Bible is the story of our rebellion and foolishness. We worship at the altars of other gods, moving from one bit of idolatry to the next, over and over and over again.

And then, in the midst of our muck and mire, God arrives in the flesh. 

Jesus Christ, the incarnate One, fully God and fully human, comes to make all things new, with promises of hope and peace and grace and mercy.

God looks at our miserable estate and condescends to our pitiful existence, God’s attaches God’s self to us sinners, and what happens? We nail God to the cross!

And look at us, with all the means at our disposal, with power and prestige, with sin and selfishness, what happens? We are forgiven.

The first word from the cross, from the throne, is forgiveness.

It’s strange! But then again, it should come as no surprise even though its the most surprising thing in the history of the cosmos. Jesus was forever walking up to people and, without warning, saying to those whom he met, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Have you ever noticed that almost none of them ever asked to be forgiven?

I’ve heard it said, and perhaps you have too, that this moment, when Jesus hangs on the cross, is when God is in total solidarity with humanity. The suffering crucified God. 

And yet, that forgiveness is the first word is completely contrary to us. For us, if we forgive, it is almost always with conditions. 

We wait around for an apology, we wait for amends to be made, and then (and only then) will we forgive.

Forgiveness is the currency of God’s kingdom. Forgiveness, as Dolly Parton notes, is all there is.

And it’s also the the hardest thing to do.

St. Augustine, theologian and preacher from the 4th century, once preached a sermon on forgiveness, and in the sermon he admonished his congregation because some of them, if not all of them, were omitting the phrase from the Lord’s prayer that said, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespasses us.” 

They would let those words remain silent every time they came around, and they would just skip to the next phrase. They refused to say those words, according to Augustine, because they knew they’d be lying if they said them out loud.

Forgiveness is hard, and it always has been. 

Perhaps that’s why Jesus preached about it so much, told so many stories about grace, and tossed around forgiveness every where he went. Even on the cross! With nails in his hands, with thieves at his sides, abandoned by his closest friends and disciples, before asking anything for himself, he asks something for us, Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

Our King rules not with an iron fist, but with an open hand. The first word of the kingdom is forgiveness.

And if that were all, it would be enough to pop every circuit breaker in our minds, it would leave us scratching our heads bewildered at the outcome. We don’t deserve it one bit. Frankly, we deserve nothing. And instead we get everything.

But the story isn’t over!

The first word is forgiveness, a prayer within the Trinity, and then Jesus speaks to the criminal on his side.

The One who was forever accused of consorting with sinners now hangs next to one. The One who ate with sinners now dies with them.

One of the criminals looks at Jesus and says, “C’mon King of the Jews, it’s miracle time! Save yourself and us!”

But the other replies, “Are you not afraid? We deserve what we’re getting, but this guy has done nothing wrong.” And then he looks over to Jesus and says, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Is the thief confessing his sin? Perhaps. At the very least, he owns up to getting what he deserves. But confession has nothing to do with getting forgiven. It is not a transaction, it is not a negotiation. Confession is nothing more than the after-the-last gasp we offer when we know the truth of who we are and whose we are.

We don’t confess to get forgiven. We confess because we are forgiven.

Forgiveness surrounds us, beats upon our lives constantly. Preachers proclaim it. We sing about it. We pray for it. And, miracle of miracles, we receive it.

When we confess, we confess only to wake ourselves up to what we already have.

Perhaps the thief is bold to ask Jesus to remember him because he was the first person to hear Jesus’ first word from the cross, “Father, forgive.”

It was almost 100 years ago when Christians across the globe needed the first Christ the King Sunday. They needed a day set apart to reflect on how the Lordship of Christ outshines even the most powerful of dictators and the most devastating of depressions.

Today, we need it just as much. We need Christ the King Sunday because it reminds us, beats upon us, that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. It forces us to confront the strange reality that our King rules from a cross. It compels us to hear the Good News, the very best news, the strangest news of all: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven! Amen. 

Nuts & Bolts

Mark 2.1-12

When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home. So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hears? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’, or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of man has authority on earth to forgive sins” – he said to the paralytic – “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go home.” And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

“They didn’t teach me that in seminary,” is a favorite line among clergy-types. When the pandemic came in earnest, I heard countless colleagues make that remark with regard to moving church online. It shows up turning denominational turns as we’re tasked with communicating bizarre elements of our polity with our laity. And it’s the go-to expression whenever something goes wrong with a church building and all the eyes turn the pastor for direction.

And yet, the irony is, there is no type of schooling that fully prepares someone for their vocation. Imagine how boring our lives would be if we knew everything we needed to know the day we graduated.

However, I must confess, the words “they didn’t teach me that in seminary” left my mouth the very first time I was tasked with a committal to the grave. 

Grief counseling? Services of Death and Resurrection? Theological proclamation in Bible study? No problem. But then, after my first funeral service, I found myself driving to the cemetery without knowing what I was supposed to do.

When we all arrived, we stood around the casket of the recently departed, and all the eyes turned to me. And then, because God provides, a story from the scriptures appeared in my mind.

Listen: Jesus returned to Capernaum shortly after calling the disciples to follow him. It was reported among the community that he was home and crowds began to gather. Rumor had it that this particular son of a carpenter could make the impossible possible. 

Soon, so many people arrived that they were spilling out onto the road, waiting for their turn.

And, it came to pass, that a group of friends caught word of the Word’s arrival and they put together a plan. Their friend was paralyzed, and so they carried him through the streets of Capernaum until they arrived at the house. Upon discovering the size of the crowd, the climbed up on top of the house, used shovels to dig through the roof, and they lowered their friend to the Lord.

When Jesus saw their faith… notice, not the faith of the paralytic… when he saw their faith, he said to the man, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

If the story ended there, it would already be radical enough for the Gospel. It’s got all the markings of a remarkable tale: friendship, hope, overcoming adversity, and a delightful conclusion. And yet, Jesus forgives the man his sins. 

Isn’t that strange?

If this were a proper story, Jesus would’ve reached out to the man, and healed his legs. 

But instead, Jesus forgives his sins.

Of course, the story keeps going because some scribes were near by, the do-gooding religious types. Perhaps they couldn’t help but hope for a glimpse of heaven on earth, even if they didn’t really believe everything they heard. And they grumbled.

“Who does this guy think he is? It’s blasphemy I tell you! No one can forgive but God alone.”

And Jesus said, “Check this out: Which is easier, to tell him he’s forgiven or to tell him to walk. But so that you may know heaven is standing here right in front of you, I’m going to do both.”

He looked over at the forgiven paralytic and said, “Go home.” And the man stood up and left.

Everyone was amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!”

The family stood staring at me, pondering why this story, of all stories, was the one I proclaimed at the grave. And then I said, “Gathering here, we are like those friends who carry the one we love to Jesus. With our faith, we witness to the promised truth that this is not goodbye, this is, “until next time.” Until we gather together at the Supper of the Lamb that goes on without end. 

And then I reached down to the dirt, laid it on the casket, and I sang: Softly and Tenderly…

It is a strange thing to be a Christian. There was a time, of course, when it was expected or assumed that Christianity was a normative experience for people. But now, today, the church is a rather radical witness to the work of God in the world. In short, we approach the throne of God with a trembling hope because we know that we cannot take any of this for granted.

To be a Christian is to know that time is now fleeting the moments are passing. It is to know that we are defined not by our mistakes but by the grace of God. It is to know the great Good News that Jesus Christ is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

Those descriptors might not sound strange to our ears, but to the world they are as confounding as can be. The world tells us that, so long as we purchase certain products, and dress a particular way, that we can hang around forever. The world hangs our mistakes around our necks and compels us to carry them everywhere. And the world forces us to believe that we are completely alone and can only ever depend on ourselves.

To be a Christian is to be different. 

We worship a God who became one of us, who arrived in the muck and mire of our lives, to be the difference that makes us different! We follow the Lord Jesus who is not only capable of forgiving our sins, but also of raising the dead!

The fundamental difference between the world and the church, is that the world assumes we can earn or achieve everything we need, whereas the church reminds us that the everything we really need has already been finished for us in Jesus Christ.

Therefore, the church exists to mediate Christ to us through sermon, song, and sacrament. The church teaches us who we are. The church proclaims the Good News to a world drowning in bad news. 

Notice, the friends from scripture today bring their friend to Jesus and they won’t let anything stand in their way. The do something wild and reckless: They trust that this 1st century rabbi can make a way where there is no way, and they’re willing to dig through a roof to see it happen!

And then, when Jesus does his Jesus thing, the crowds glorify God and say, “We have never seen anything like this!”

When the church is at her best, we all depart with those same words, either aloud or in our hearts, and we can’t help ourselves from living differently because of the Good News.

Today we’re talking about, and thinking about, witness, the final aspect of church membership. When someone joins a United Methodist Church they make a vow to support the church with their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. It’s all too easy to take the theme of witness and boil it down to something like a church growth strategy.

Put another way, we often confuse witness with evangelism. 

There’s a church, not too far from here, that is busting at the seams. Each week they have to pull out more and more folding chairs to make space for people. And, when the pastor was asked to what he could attribute the increase, he said, “It’s our iPad giveaway program.”

You see, at this particular church, they raffle off an iPad every single Sunday, and you receive more raffle tickets depending on the number of people you bring to church with you.

Those people are being converted to something, but I don’t think we can call it the kingdom of God. 

Notably, in our denominational neck of the woods, there’s a rather sobering statistic that haunts me: Today, the average United Methodist invites someone else to worship once every 38 years.

And even so, the location of the church today is a great gift! For, it gives us the space and opportunity to rediscover how unusual it is for us, Methodists of all people, to be the church of Jesus Christ. 

The early church grew, despite all the reasons it shouldn’t have, not because they gave away tablets, or went door to door, or handed out tracks in downtown Corinth. 

The early church grew because the witness of Christ in the world was life-changing.

Rich Mullins, who I’ve been quoting a lot recently, once said, “I am a Christian, not because someone explained the buts and bolts of Christianity, but because there were people willing to be nuts and bolts.”

In other words, people carried him to Jesus.

The God we worship is a healer of broken things. And yet, the brokenness that God heals is not just our broken bodies. God heals broken hearts, broken spirits, broken promises. 

In the cross and resurrection of Jesus we see how the one who said, “Your sins are forgiven,” had the power to do exactly that.

Notice, the paralytic did absolutely nothing to earn his forgiveness. Save for the fact that he had some good friends. And those good friends were already living according to the difference that Christ makes. 

All of us this morning are here, whether we know it or not, because someone or some people carried us to Jesus. We are products of those who made Jesus real for us, those who were willing to be nuts and bolts.

And, in the end, that exactly what it means to witness. It’s living according to the Good News of God in the world as if our lives depended on it, because they do.

Whatever Christianity is, it is at least the discovery of friends we did not know we had. Friends who are possible only because Jesus has gathered us in for God’s great parable to the world we call the church. Friends who are willing to carry us to Jesus over and over again because Jesus is the difference that makes all the difference. Amen.

Are We Able?

Mark 10.35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hands and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.” When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

“Love” has got to be one of the most overused and therefore underwhelming words that we use on a regular basis. What was once reserved for the intimate connection between individuals, and for the divine, is now the word we use to describe any affection toward anything.

I tried to keep track this week of how many times I heard the word and I lost count rather quickly. I heard of the love of our fall weather, the love of a certain gritty Star Wars Disney + series, and even, I kid you not, the love of Taco Bell.

Even in the church, we drop the “l” word all the time. We talk about loving God and loving neighbor, we sing of the gift of love, we participate in missional work in the name of love.

To quote a popular movie from a season that is just around the corner, “Love actually is all around.”

And yet, if love is actually all around, what difference does it make?

Notably, according to the strange new world of the Bible, love is not found in affection, or hallmark cards, or Romantic Comedies. Instead, love is found in service.

I love the thunder brothers: James and John. Peter is often seen as our proxy in the New Testament, always rushing in and saying more than he knows, but the thunder brothers are the perfect paragons of pathetic performance.

Jesus teaches his disciples about the mysteries of the Gospel, he offers them miraculous food when they see nothing but scarcity, he even spells out the whole death-and-resurrection business, the exodus for the rest of us, as literally as he can, and the thunder brothers still don’t get it.

They approach Jesus and demand cabinet positions in the kingdom of God.

They want power while God in the flesh has just told them, moments before, that glory comes in weakness. For the third time.

Perhaps we should give them the benefit of the doubt – maybe, confronted with bad news, you know the whole “the son of man will be handed over to the chief priests, he will be condemned to death, and they will murder him” thing, maybe the thunder brothers would prefer to stay on the sunny side of things.

“Excuse us Jesus, it’s all nice to hear all about the Son of Man stuff, but can we talk about what it will be like when this is all over and you’re finally in charge? We have some ideas we’d like to share with you. We think we’d be good for positions in upper management. What do you think?”

And Jesus, ever the good rabbi, answers their question with his own:

“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

“Lord, we are able! Our spirits are thine!

“Okay, okay, you don’t need to sing it. But let’s be sure we’re all on the same page. Remember, I’m in the death and resurrection business. I’m here to turn the world upside down. So, for God’s sake, literally, pay attention as I say this one more time: if you want to be first, you have to be last. If you want to great, you have to be the least. For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. Got it?”

Are you able? Are we able?

It’s a great question. And the answer is yes, and no.

We are able to follow the Lord, but we do not know where following the Lord will take us.

The thunder brothers want glory, power, prestige. In short, they want what we all want. They want the easiest way to the top in the shortest about of time with the least amount of resistance.

But glory, real faithful glory, isn’t what we often imagine it to be. We might picture the corner office, or the perfect stock portfolio, or the kids going to the right colleges, or going to seminary so that people will call you Reverend one day.

But this is how Jesus describes glory: service.

And Jesus serves the sinful who seek glory by the wrong means for the wrong reasons. You know, people like us.

Discipleship, which is just another word for following Jesus, is a strange and wondrous thing. It is strange because we really have no idea where we’re going, and it is wondrous because we do know that God in Christ is with us for the ride.

Contrary to how we might imagine the faith, it is not made up of theological propositions or lists of righteous behaviors. The marks of the Christian can actually be summed up rather simply: Are we following Jesus or not?

And yet, the simplicity of that question betrays the magnitude of discipleship.

Whatever our faith may be, whatever it may look like, it is found in the following. In the end, discipleship is often nothing more than stumbling behind the Lord on the roads of life, going from one adventure to the next, with the knowledge that Jesus is leading the way.

Which means, oddly enough, we never really choose to be Christians.

Discipleship is something done to us.

I’ve never not been a Christian, I’ve only known this life. Credit to my parents, church has always been part of my reality. But even to those who come to faith later in life, we do so not by choice. We do so because something happens to us and we eventually finds ourselves in a place like this. 

That something is named Jesus Christ.

Jesus gathers people like us in on a journey that we might not have ever chosen on our own, and Jesus drags us places we might not have ever discovered on our own.

And, more often than not, service is the crucible of discipleship.

Put another way, following Jesus eventually brings us toward opportunities to serve, and to be served.

However, serving others, putting the needs of others before our own, doesn’t actually make us righteous. Service is not a salve and it definitely doesn’t earn us any reward in heaven. No amount of good works can make up for our lack of goodness. The only thing service does is rightly orders our disordered lives. 

Rich Mullins poignantly put it this way: “Christianity is not about building an absolutely secure little niche in the world where you can live with your perfect family and your perfect little house where you never encounter anyone with any problems. Christianity is about learning to love like Jesus and Jesus loved the poor and Jesus loved the broken.”

Jesus says to his disciples, then and now, “Take up your cross and follow me.” And Jesus spends his time among the last, least, lost, little, and dead.

Notice, Jesus rightly rebukes the thunder brothers and their request. Even after all the miracles and the parables and the public displays of religious affection, they still don’t get it. And yet, Jesus also makes them a promise in this moment! Jesus’ promises them, and all of us, that we need not live in fear, we need not worry about what tomorrow might bring, we need not even scheme to accrue as much power as possible. Jesus doesn’t promise protection, safety, or power. Jesus promises us the cross!

Jesus’ ministry, from beginning to end, was not about power, or at least not about power as defined by the world. Again and again throughout the gospels we are bombarded by Jesus’ work of bearing the suffering that always comes as a result of caring for the weak and putting the last first.

Flannery O’ Connor once said, “Most people come to the Church by means the church does not allow, else there would be no need their getting to her at all.”

Which is just another way of saying that Jesus meets us where we are, not where we ought to be. But then Jesus takes us somewhere else. 

That journey might look like spending a week helping out with Vacation Bible School showing love and grace to kids who might not know what those words even mean. Or it might look like working hard in the kitchen week after week to make sure bellies are full here at the church and in the community, particularly for those who do not know what it feels like to have a full belly. Or it might look like serving in worship whether singing, or reading, or praying, helping others experience God’s profound mercy. Or it might look like contributing to the financial aspects of the church, making a way for ministries where there is no way.

Or it might look like something we haven’t even thought of yet! If it is guided by grace, or moved with mercy, or filled with faith, then it is probably some part of the journey we call discipleship. 

To love is to serve. To serve is to love.

And yet, at the same time, to receive love is to receive service.

This is often an under-discussed part of our faith. It’s all good and fine to talk about all the things we can do, all the differing ways we can serve the needs of our community, and so forth. It’s another thing entirely to put ourselves in the position of receiving service. Of mustering of the humility to recognize that we, ourselves, need help.

But we do. All of us. No matter how much we like to pretend we have it all figured out, the truth is we’re all making it up as we go and we can all use all the help we can get. 

Thankfully, God chooses to become weak in order to dwell among us, God chooses to serve a people undeserving, and God gives God’s life as a random for many, including us.

If, and when, we serve, it is only ever because God first served us.

Put another way: we love because God first loved us.

Discipleship is an adventure – there’s always more to do and more to receive. Which, in the end, it what makes it so much fun. Amen.