Write This Down

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Heather and Daniel Wray about the readings for the 3rd Sunday of Lent [B] (Exodus 20.1-17, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 1.18-25, John 2.13-22). Heather serves as the Director of Connect Ministries at Leesburg UMC in Leesburg, VA and Daniel serves as the pastor at Round Hill UMC in Round Hill, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the pros and cons of clergy couples, connect ministries, rule following, divine jealousy, the freedom of the Law, Thomas Merton, the foolishness of the cross, the S word, musical instruments, and the Temple tantrum. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Write This Down

The Elected Rejected

Isaiah 43.1

But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

Election is, often, a dirty word in the church. In our particularly problematic political times we like to keep people happy so we generally avoid talking about politics and partisan ideologies. We encourage people to think for themselves and make their own decisions in regard to such matters. 

However, even more divisive than American electoral politics is the church’s struggle to respond to the Doctrine of Election.

Put simply – The Doctrine of Election (attempts) to explain the lengths of God’s sovereignty. Or, perhaps even more simply, it is a theological way to respond to questions like “Why did God allow this/that to happen?”

To talk about election is to take steps into mystery. We, of course, don’t care much for mystery. We like to have answers to all of our questions. We like things being neat and orderly. However, God often hands us the complete opposite.

And so, because we like to make order out of chaos, we have disagreed throughout the history of the church about God’s electing work and we now have the great mosaic of denominations rather than “dwelling together in unity.”

Enter Karl Barth. [Barth was a very significant Christian theologian in the middle of the 20th century.]

In II.2 of the Church Dogmatics Barth sets out to define what it is that makes one “elect.” He begins with a general answer about how election is not something to be earned or deserved, but simply is the way that it is. But then, in a profound and rather long excursus, Barth compares the elected and the rejected characters throughout the Old Testament in order to bring home exactly what it means to be elect in Jesus Christ.

Cain and Abel – The difference between the brothers is not based on any prior mark of distinction, but from a decision on God’s behalf concerning them. However, even though Abel is clearly favored and Cain is not, this does not mean that God has abandoned or rejected Cain. Notably, even though Cain killed his brother, God promises to protect Cain’s life.

Jacob and Esau – Esau is the older and favorite son of Isaac, but it is Jacob (the little heel grabber) who ultimately receives the birthright and the blessing. However, God does not abandon either of them to their own devices, but promises to bless the world through their offspring.

Rachel and Leah – Jacob loves Rachel more than Leah but Leah is the one the Lord makes fruitful. However, God does not reject Rachel and she, eventually, gives birth to Joseph.

Joseph and his brothers – Joseph is rejected by his brothers and self off into slavery. However, Joseph is instrumental in the deliverance of God’s people from famine who are then brought into the land of Egypt.

On and on we could go. Barth’s central point is that even though certain figures appear rejected by God, they are, in fact, blessed and intimately involved in God’s great story that culminates in Jesus

Without them the great narrative simply isn’t possible.

And then, in Jesus, we discover both the elect and the reject. The Elect Son of God, born for us and among us, is ultimately rejected by us. 

He is regaled by the crowds and dismissed by the religious authorities. 

He is celebrated by the last, least, lost, little, and dead only to be chased out of town for preaching a sermon about himself. 

He is surrounded by followers who hang on his every word only to be abandoned by all of them when he, himself, hung on the cross. 

And yet, how does Jesus choose to use some of his final earthly breaths?

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

We, all of us, deserve rejection. We all choose to do things we know we shouldn’t do, and we all avoid doing things we know we should do. That, in a sense, is what Lent is all about. This liturgical season is focused on considering the condition of our condition. 

To borrow an expression of Paul’s: There is nothing good in us. 

We, to put it another way, are up the creek without a paddle.   

And yet, strangely enough, the elected rejected Jesus Christ takes all of our sins, nails them to the cross, and leaves them there forever. Thanks be to God. 

Infinite Mercy

Psalm 51

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

The hospital was eerily quiet as I made my late-night rounds.

The sound of my shoes echoed throughout the hallways as I peeked in on different patients, asking if anyone of them wanted “pastoral care.”

Most of them were asleep.

Those who were awake waved me away with their televisions remotes as they sifted through the early morning informercial marathons.

It felt, in that moment, like a rare opportunity to crash on the bed in the dim lit pastoral office and enjoy some blessed rest. But before I turned to head that direction, a message popped up on my beeper beckoning me to another part of the hospital.

She sat up when I entered the room, old enough to be my great-grandmother, and she gestured for me to come closer. I reached for a nearby chair but she patted on the bed. She explained that eyesight and hearing were such that she needed me to be as close as possible, so I obliged. 

She took my hand in hers and said, “Father, I need to confess my sins.”

“Well,” I began, “I’m not actually a priest, and neither am I ordained, I’m basically a glorified pastoral intern.”

She said, “God loves to work through people like you. Will you hear my confession?”

“I guess so.”

“I lied to the nursing staff this afternoon. They asked if I was comfortable and I said ‘Yes’ even though I feel terrible. They asked if I like the food here and I said ‘Yes’ even though I wouldn’t feed it to my dogs. And they asked if I needed anything and I said ‘No’ even though, honestly, I need a miracle.”

We sat in silence for a moment and then she said, “Aren’t you supposed to say something.”

“Yes,” I muttered, “In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”

“Thank you,” she replied as I saw the worry drift away from her face, “I know God already forgives me, but sometimes it’s just nice to hear someone else say it.”

I then prepared to get up from sitting next to her on her bed when she tightened her grip around my hand and said, “Now its your turn.”

“My turn to do what?” I asked.

“To confess your sins to me.”

So I did.

Psalm 51 is read by the people of God to mark the beginning of the Lenten season. It is, as we call it in the church, one of the penitential psalms – a psalm that expresses sorrow for sin.

And yet, Psalm 51 does not begin, as we might suspect, with a confession of sin. Rather, it begins with a request for forgiveness. “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.”

That might not seem like a big deal – but it implies that the psalmist knows they have something worthy confessing, that if the psalmist is to be helped (at all) then the sins must be taken away completely, that the psalmist cannot do this on their own, and that the psalmist can ask for forgiveness because the psalmist worships a merciful God.

And that is astonishing.

Let me put it this way. In so much of our lives it go like this: We do something wrong or we avoid doing something we know we should do. And then, for awhile, we stew over what happened, or didn’t happen. We know we should probably admit what we did but it’s terrifying. What if we wronged someone and when we tell them the truth they cut us out of their lives forever? Or we wrestle with it because we don’t want to admit that we’re the kind of person who could do such a thing. And then we either bite the bullet and confess, or we keep in in our heart of hearts as it seeps throughout our being and does far more damage and the initial indiscretion.

But the psalmist sees it different. 

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

The psalmist worships a God who mercy knows no bounds.  

The psalmist understands that God can redeem even the worst mistake.

For us, people entering the season of Lent, this is something to keep at the forefront of our minds – we are justified not after we confess our sins, but right smack dab in the middle of them. At the right time Christ died for the ungodly, while we were yet sinners God proved God’s love toward us, there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (who, by the way, happen to be everyone since Jesus has taken all upon himself in and on the cross).

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

The challenge is whether or not we have the constitution to confess the condition of our condition.

Because even if we can summon the words, Lord have mercy upon me, most of us go around convincing ourselves that we’re, all things considered, pretty decent people.

After all, we’re tuning in to a midweek first day of lent service online!

Sure, we know we’re not perfect but at least we’re not like those other people (whoever they may be). We’re happy to get on Facebook and Twitter to call out the specks in other’s eyes all while ignoring the log in our own. 

That’s why Lent is both so important and so difficult. It is a time set apart to turn back to the Lord who came to dwell among us – it is a remarkable opportunity to reflect on what we’re doing with our lives and how those lives resonate with the One who breathed life into us.

But Lent is also a time for honesty.

Honesty about who we are, how we have fallen short, and how in need of grace we really are.

Judgment comes first to the household of God, the disciple Peter writes in an epistle to the early church. We, the church, then don’t exist to show the world how wrong it is in its trespasses but to confess first that we are sinners in need of a Savior who can do more with us and for us than we could ever do on our own. 

Confession, what we’re doing tonight, is not just an apology, it’s not just a feeling bad about what we’ve done. It’s about agreeing with God about who we really are. 

We are dead in our sins. 

And we have no hope in the world of being anything else, except for the fact that God has come not to fix the fixable or teach the teachable, but to raise the dead.

We can’t fix ourselves. But that’s actually Good News. It’s good news because nobody, not the devil, not the world, not even ourselves can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go. Even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died. 

The Kingdom is heaven is populated entirely and only by forgiven sinners. Hell is thinking we need no part of forgiveness. Amen. 

Jesus Saves

Psalm 110

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. 

Luke 20.41-47

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: 

“Jesus Saves”

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. 

Not you.

Not me.

Only Jesus saves. Amen.

Help!

Psalm 118.21-25

I thank you that you have answered and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!

Luke 20.9-19

He began to tell the people this parable: “A man planted a vineyard, and leased it to tenants, and went to another country for a long time. When the season came, he sent a slave to the tenants in order that they might give him his share of the produce of the vineyard; but the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. Next he sent another slave; that one also they beat and insulted and sent away empty-handed. And he sent still a third; this one also they wounded and threw out. Then the owner of the vineyard said, ‘What shall I do? I will send my beloved son; perhaps they will respect him.’ But when the tenants saw him, they discussed it among themselves and said, ‘This is the heir; let us kill him so that the inheritance may be ours.’ So they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.” When they heard this, they said, “Heaven forbid!” But he looked at them and said, “What then does this text mean: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.” When the scribes and the chief priest realized that he had told this parables against them, they wanted to lay hands on him at that very hour, but they feared the people.

Listen.

There was a man who planted a great vineyard. But it was too big for him to manage it all by himself so he leased it out to tenants and then decided to go on a little vacation. 

When the appointed season came, the landowner sent someone to the tenants in order to receive his share of the harvest.

But the tenants, they beat him up, insulted him, and sent him away with nothing.

The landowner, not one to give in easily, sent someone else, but this one was also wounded and tossed to the dirt. 

This pattern kept repeating itself until the landowner decided to send his son, his beloved son, the one with whom he was well pleased, but when the son arrived the tenants decided to murder him where he stood in order that they might receive his inheritance.

What do you think the landowner will do next?

Jesus’s parabolic stories are, as Robert Farrar Capon puts it, used not to explain things to our satisfaction, but to call attention to the unsatisfactoriness of all our previous explanations and understandings. 

This story, this parable of the so-called “wicked tenants” is, as we like to call it in the church, a parable of judgment. However, the parables of judgment don’t often function the way we think they’re supposed to work. Judgment, after all, is supposed to come down on all the evil-doers and the sinners and the riffraff with swift condemnation. 

And yet, Jesus presents divine judgment in all sorts of stories against the backdrop of an all-inclusive grace. That is, characters are completely included far before they are excluded – they are accepted before they are judged. 

Grace and mercy, rather than punishment and retribution, are the starting points.

Contrary to how the church so often functions, Jesus isn’t really trying to convince us, or the crowds, of anything. He simply stands to deliver story after story giving us glimpses behind the curtain of the cosmos and dares us to do nothing more than believe.

But, of course, that sounds too good to be true.

No matter how much we talk about God’s mercy, no matter how many times we talk about God as love, no matter how many times we sing Amazing Grace, we don’t really like it. Because, taken seriously, God’s grace is far too available. It throws parties for prodigal sons, it drags in undeserving people right off the street, it makes space for the last, least, lost, little, and dead and it doesn’t have much of anything to do for those who consider themselves “good” people. 

Therefore, the hearers of Jesus’ parables of judgment, including us, are those in need of help. We, too often, forget about God’s mercy for sinners. We’ve deluded ourselves into thinking that, by and large, we’re all perfectly fine (thank you very much). 

No need for forgiveness if you haven’t made any mistakes.

No need for absolution when you haven’t sinned.

The only problem with all this is the fact that we’re all sinners!

We all do things we know we shouldn’t, and we all avoid doing things we know we should.

But we like the church, part of God’s incarnate Kingdom, to be a little more orderly. 

We can take it from here God! We don’t need You mucking up our good thing. 

We assure people that God loves them, but we make it clear that they all need to fit into a certain mold before they will fit in with the rest of us. We want the kingdom of our own making rather than the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom in which the first will be last and the last will be first.

And for that, we stand accused. 

But, it’s precisely here that the Gospel really comes into its own. Because, as the accused, we haven’t a change in hell of making an argument for ourselves. But then, wonder of wonders, Jesus as the judge and the jury stands not only to defend us, but also to take our sentence upon himself, seeing us free for no good reason except the Gospel!

Listen – Jesus’ authority has been called into question, yet again, and he responds with a parable: A man planted a vineyard. Vineyards, notably, are a favorite setting of Jesus’ and they echo throughout the scripture from Genesis, to Isaiah, to Jesus’ favorite playlist of all, the Psalms.

The man plants the vineyard and leases it out to tenants. But when he sends a messenger to collect his portion of the harvest, the tenants beat him and send him away. 

Jesus, throughout his ministry, tells a whole lot of strange tales, and this one is no different in it’s bizarreness. 

Consider – There is no good reason for the landowner to expect that the wicked tenants will do anything but murder his son just as they had done horrible things to his previous messengers. 

Equally crazy is the tenants thinking that by murdering the heir of the vineyard they, themselves, will inherit it. The only thing they’ll inherit is the unquenchable wrath of the landowner who will now bring down the hammer of righteousness. 

In the end, the problem with the tenants (in addition to their violent and murderous rampage) is that they, simply, can’t and don’t trust the landowner. Who, by the way, gave them land to till that they never would have had were it not for the landowner’s generosity!

The tenants trust only in themselves and look where it gets them.

Having thus parabolically flipped things on their head, Jesus dangles a question and answer for the authorities who called into question his authority – What will the landowner do next? He will come and destroy the tenants and give their land to other people.

“Heaven forbid!” they reply.

And then Jesus ties it all up with, of all things, a reference to the Psalms: “What do you think it means that the stone the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone?” 

“Don’t you see?” Jesus seems to say, “All of this is exactly what God has promised from long ago. The Messiah is not like you have imagined, the Messiah is not like the tenants who take matters into their own hands and use violence as the means by which they accomplish their goals. The Messiah is going to be rejected, murdered, and abandoned.”

The stone will be rejected by the builders, and will still become the chief cornerstone of God’s cosmic victory! 

It is precisely in rejection, in unacceptability, that the Messiah brings salvation. 

The world, in the end, isn’t saved through works, or in goodness, or in any other of our machinations – the world is, instead, saved through the rejection of the Jesus, in his crucifixion, death, and resurrection.

Now, that all sounds good, but in our heart of hearts we mutter, along with the authorities of Jesus’ day, “Heaven forbid!” 

We don’t really want the landowner’s son to come up to us and say that all has been forgiven. We think of ourselves as generally good people who do good things – for what then would we need forgiveness?

We don’t really like to consider the ramifications of the Good News and what it means for all of us. Because if the Good News is really for everyone, then God’s inviting to his party a whole lot of people we wouldn’t be caught dead with. 

We don’t really want this to be true, because we’ve been spoon fed a version of faith in which we think being well behaved, or pious, or holy, is more important than trusting God to do what God said God would do.

In the end, we want to be the ones in control. We, like the foolish tenants in the story, we try to stop the paradoxical power of grace that alone can save us, and instead we take refuge in a who lot of nonsense that only insures we will lose in the end.

We flock to the likes of Facebook and Twitter assuming that our self-righteousness will be enough to correct all the problems with other people.

We assume that if we just elect the right politicians everything will be perfect. 

We take matters into our own hands whenever possible believing we know what’s best for ourselves and for the world.

But, and here’s the truly Good News, we can’t stop the paradoxical power of grace that is Jesus Christ! Jesus died for the sins of those who killed him, even for the sin of believing in ourselves more than in the One who has come to save us.

For as bizarre as the parables are, perhaps the most confounding part of Jesus’ stories is that, having told all of them, he then goes and acts out what he’s been talking about from the beginning. Like the psalm pointing ahead to the rejection of the stone that will become the cornerstone, it’s in Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection that he makes manifest the mystery of the kingdom in which no one has to do anything to be saved except truth that someone has done it all for us. 

The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Amen. 

From The Mouth Of Babes

Psalm 8.1-5

O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.

Matthew 21.14-17

The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he cured them. But when the chief priests and the scribes saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children crying out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became angry and said to him, “Do you hear what these are saying?” Jesus said to them, “Yes; have you never read, ‘Out of the mouths of infants and nursing babies you have prepared praise for yourself’?” He left them, went out of the city to Bethany, and spent the night there. 

It was a busy Sunday morning.

The confirmands were getting confirmed.

The choir was trying out a new anthem.

The sermon was a sitting at a solid B-.

Nevertheless, I stood and addressed the people of God, all while constantly referring to the overstuffed bulletin in hopes that I wouldn’t, accidentally, skip over part of the service.

God gathered us. God spoke God’s word to us. And the time had come for us to respond. The confirmands were, finally, confirmed, and were therefore the first in line to receive communion. They, being the good and holy tweenagers they were, made silly faces at me when I offered the bread, doing their best to mess me up. I kept my cool, being all holy up at the front with my long robe and made a mental note to teach those kids some some respect after the service.

I kept distributing the bread with the solemnity required at such a moment. 

Eye contact.

Knowing head nods.

The subtle tap on the hand.

Until, the very end when the final person came forward to receive the body and the blood of our Lord. 

Owen. 

I confess I was momentarily surprised to see Owen standing before me and below me in the middle of the sanctuary because Owen was barely three years old, a child from our preschool, and his family had never been to church before.

I looked around for his mother, and father, and little sister and found them frantically rushing around the back of the church as if they had lost something.

The something they lost was standing right below me.

“It’s my turn pastor Taylor,” he said, “I want some Jesus please.” And he opened his mouth like a little baby bird and waited for me to drop a piece of bread in.

So I did.

I then, of course, picked him up and carried him to the back of the church where his family expressed their gratitude for the lost having been found, and then I sprinted down the center aisle to get us back on track.

As the big, grown-up, entirely responsible, never child-like adult that I am, I am quite good at making myself the center of all things.

It doesn’t matter whether I’m at a dinner party or standing up in a space like this on Sunday morning – I get used to things going a certain way, the ritual of it all, the comforting domestication of life. So much so that I, occasionally, forget to pay attention to the Spirit who insists on defying and upending expectations. 

God, bewilderingly, likes to drop road signs pointing us in the right direction, or smacking us in the face with stop sign to halt us dead in our tracks. 

God’s ways are not our ways.

One day, Jesus was walking with the disciples, teaching them about the Kingdom of God. All of them, being good and faithful disciples, were frantically taking down notes so as to not miss any of the important details. 

But they were distracted.

One of them, perhaps Peter, interjected, “Lord, can’t something be done about all these kids who keep following us around? Shouldn’t we send them to the nursery, or children’s church, or maybe we could just put them down in front of an episode of Paw Patrol? They’re so distracting!”

And do you know what Jesus did? He plucked up the nearest kid and sat her down right in the middle of all of the disciples and said, “When you receive one such child… Surprise! You receive me also.”

One day Jesus was hanging out with his disciples in the Temple. Upturned tables littered the area and the money lenders grumbled in the corners. Meanwhile, the blind and lame came to Jesus and he cured them, he made them whole. But when the big whigs, the movers and the shakers, saw the amazing things that he did, and heard the children singing out in the temple, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they became very angry with Jesus. 

They said to him, “Do you hear what they’re singing???” Jesus replied, “Of course I can hear them singing! Don’t you remember what it says in Psalm 81? Oh, you don’t remember that one? Well, let me refresh your memory: ‘O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is you name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.’”

And then Jesus left them standing there with the jaws on the floor.

Stanley Hauerwas is famous for saying: “Beware when you hear a Methodist minister quote his/her twelve-year old in a sermon. When that happens you know you’re fixin’ to hear some baloney.”

Though, when he says it, he uses a much saltier expression than baloney.

That he says it so often is indicative of his desire for sermons to be about God rather than about us. For, when someone like me stands in a place like this regaling people like you with stories of “Kids Say The Darndest Things” moments, it is worth wondering what, at all, that has to do with the Gospel.

We aren’t here to hear stories that make us chuckle about the whimsy of youth. 

We’re here to hear a Word from the Lord, from God almighty!

And yet, as Jesus so wonderfully reminds us today, the child sitting in the middle of the crowd, the kid who sneaks away from his parents in the middle of a worship service, the children singing in the courtyard of the temple, they are here to distract us from our big, serious, but utterly self-centered adult religion, all so that another kid, a baby actually, might get our attention about what’s really important.

How odd of God to chose a baby born to an unwed virgin to change the cosmos. 

How odd of God to chose the baby turned adult to speak greater truth than we could possibly bear. 

How off of God to chose children singing songs by the temple to shake up the religious sensibilities of those in charge then and now!

Notably, when Karl Barth (the great theologian of the 20th century) was asked to summarize the entirety of his theology he responded by singing: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so!”

Shortly before his wild temple tantrum, Jesus settled a dispute between his disciples about greatness by telling them, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven!”

So, should there be any children paying extra close attention to the sermon today, the next time you hear an adult tell you to “act you age” you have pastoral permission to respond by saying, “Well Jesus says that unless you start acting like a kid you’ll never enter the kingdom!”

Of course, it’s not just about having a child-like faith. We’re not called to be naive about the world. But, at least according to this moment from Matthew, when Jesus spins a verse from his favorite playlist The Psalms, it has less to do with being small or unintelligent and more to do with the fact that even babies and children proclaim the goodness of God.

Consider, for a moment, what it is that the children are singing that day in the temple courtyard: “Hosanna to the Son of David.” 

Literally, “Save us, Son of David.”

The adults, the chiefs priests and elders, are all angry because they can’t stand the thought of Jesus being God, being the promised Messiah. They can’t stand to hear children confessing a truth that runs counter to everything they think they know. Perhaps they’re furious because they can’t imagine a world in which someone like Jesus, a wandering rabbi with a rag tag group of would-be disciples, could actually be the one to bring about the salvation of the cosmos.

But the kids… the kids that day see something more than the adults do, they hope for something more than the adults could wrap their heads around. 

In Jesus, they see God. 

They witness the abundant mercy of the Messiah who stoops to heal the sick, and the blind, and the lame. 

They encounter the power of the Anointed One who rids the temple of its economic disparity for a reality in which all are welcome to worship no matter the size of their wallet. 

They experience the King of kings who, in the end, rules from the hard wood of the cross and uses his final earthly breaths to declare, of all things, forgiveness.

Sometimes, kids get it better than we do.

It all began, the father starts his story, a few Christmases ago when my 4 year old daughter began asking questions about what the holiday meant.

So I began explaining to her that this was in celebrating the birth of Jesus and she wanted to know more about that so I went out and got a children’s Bible and we would read together at night. She loved it. She wanted to know everything about Jesus.

So we read a lot about his birth and his teachings and she would ask constantly about this one particular phrase and I would explain that it was “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And we would talk about those old words and what it all meant.

One day we were driving past a big church and out front was this big crucifix and she asked, “Who’s that?!” And I guess I never really told that part of the story, so I had to sort of fill the rest in. I told her that Jesus ran afoul of the Roman government and that his message was so radical and unnerving to the authorities at the time that they came to the conclusion that he would have to die.

About a month later her preschool had the day off for Martin Luther King Day and I took off the day from work and we went out for lunch together. We were sitting and right on the table was the local newspaper with a giant picture of Dr. King on the front. And she said, “Who’s that?” I said, “That’s Martin Luther King Jr. and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. This is the day we celebrate his life.”

She said, “Well, who is he?” And I said, “He was a preacher.” She looks up at me and goes, “For Jesus?” And I said, “Yeah, yeah he was. But there was another thing that he was famous for. He had a message. He said that you should treat everybody the same no matter what they look like.” 

She thought about that for a moment and then she said, “Well that’s what Jesus said.” 

I said, “I guess it is. I never thought about it that way but it is like ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’”

And my daughter looked down at the table for a long time before she said, “Did they kill him too?”

O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. Amen.

Offensive

Psalm 82

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!

John 10.31-39

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.

Two scenes.

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?

No.

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. 

Covenants Are Made To Be Broken

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for Baptism of the Lord Sunday [B] (Genesis 1.1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19.1-7, Mark 1.4-11). Drew serves at Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Epiphanytide, the beginning of beginnings, creative speech, Genesis and Jesus, the voice of the Lord, grace-full baptisms, coronatide, ecumenical families, divine parabolas, Greek-ing out, and Deus Dixit. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Covenants Are Made To Be Broken

The World Turned Upside Down

Luke 2.1-14

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 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!”

Merry Christmas!

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Jesus Christ tonight!

There’s just something about Christmas isn’t there?

No matter how old or jaded we may be, regardless of whether or not we deserve coal in our stockings, Christmas never fails to work some magic.

Maybe its the music, or the candles, or the knowledge of what tomorrow might bring – Christmas is the difference that makes the difference.

And here we are! 

Albeit, not in the way we wanted and not in the way we would’ve imagined. We’re tuning in for Christmas worship this year unlike any other. Some of you were perhaps raised in this church and wouldn’t dream of doing anything else but sit behind your computer or phone or iPad tonight to hear what God has to say. While some of you were just scrolling through social media and decided to stop. Some of you, no doubt, are being forced to watch this against your will! Perhaps God will have something special in store for you tonight!

Whoever you are and whatever feelings, thoughts, and questions you have tonight, it is my hope and prayer that you encounter the incarnate Lord who makes his blessing flow far as the curse is found.

“Do not be afraid” the angel says, “For see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Odd. 

That’s what Christmas really is.

It’s strange.

Now, it might not feel strange, with all of our sanitized nativity scenes set up throughout our homes, and our lights hanging from the gutters for the last few weeks, and Nat King Cole’s voice crooning through our bluetooth speakers.

But Christmas is, for lack of a better word, different.

And we bring to this oddest of nights all sorts of thoughts and expectations. We assume that Christmas is the time that sets everything right. You know, Christmas is the time to come home, to return to those types of memories when all was warm and bright, when everything that’s come upside down in our lives is set, at least for a few days in December, right side up.

And this year, it feels like everything is wrong. 

A global pandemic.

Economic devastation.

Gathering restrictions on how many people we can actually be with.

And so, we believe, that Christmas stands as this beacon where, in spite of whatever confusion might be happening in world, tonight things are set right.

Yet, according to the strange new world of the Bible, Christmas was the time when everything was turned upside down.

Consider – It wasn’t about a perfect mother who had the right pregnancy reveal on Instagram and subsequent photos of the color-coordinated nursery and the cutest invitations to her catered baby shower. It was about Mary, an unwed mother-to-be, pregnant in an upside down and impossible way, forced by governing authorities to relocate to a city where there was no room for her, her finance, and the Logos momentarily waiting in her womb.

Consider – The message of the incarnation, the birth of the baby born King doesn’t come through the official state sanctioned media outlet, there’s no announcement in the Jerusalem Times, there’s not even a carefully crafted and endlessly retweeted tweet. It was delivered in a song sung by angels.

Consider – The Good News came not to the learned and the powerful, not to the president or the president elect, not to the movers and the shakers. It was shared first with a bunch of dirty shepherds working the night shift.

Consider – The Word made flesh wasn’t surrounded by the best medical team with a crew of doctors ready to jump in at a moment’s notice. He was placed in a feeding trough.

Christmas isn’t when everything was right – but it’s certainly when God started really turning things upside down. It’s when God shows up in the strangest and most vulnerable of ways to reconstitute the fabric of reality not to make it the way things used to be, but to set the cosmos on a course to how things can be.

And maybe, just maybe, that’s why you find yourself watching and listening tonight. Because your world might not be all that it could be. But, be warned. It is risky coming before the babe at Bethlehem, for God delights in grabbing the rug right under our feet, and when the Lord pulls, no one knows where we’ll wind up.

O come let us adore him, we sing. We come to the manger scene expecting to meet what we have already thought before we arrive. We come expecting, and perhaps hoping, for the fulfillment of our desires, the confirmation of all our prejudices and preconceived notions. 

In some way, we want to know that Jesus is on our side, whatever that might mean.

But we are wrong.

Dead wrong.

For Jesus is like us but he is also totally unlike us. Jesus is the Lord made flesh.

Which makes our Christmases even stranger. We often present tonight as something spiritual or mystical. Or, on the other hand, we criticize others for making this time of year too materialistic. 

But Christmas really is a reminder that Christianity is inherently materialistic. God becomes material in Jesus. 

God becomes us.

Is God in Christ, then, the perfect, magnanimous, and serene figure often displayed in stained glass windows? Is he holier than thou, looking down upon us in our misery every chance he gets? Is he perennially shaking his head with regard to the disappointing efforts of human progressivism?

Or, is Jesus as Jesus is revealed in the strange new world of the Bible?

For the baby we worship tonight grows not to be very respectable at all – he breaks the sabbath, consorts with crooks and criminals, and he even insists on a public demonstration of protest by flipping over the tables in the temple.

He eats dinner with sinners. He shares wine with the last, least, lost, little, and on one memorable occasion, the recently dead.

He dies as a criminal. He becomes sin for us sinners, weak for us weaklings, lost for us losers.

And the angel says this is Good News.

What makes the Good News of Christ so good is the fact that everybody, even the worst stinker in the world, is somebody for whom Christ was born and for whom Christ died.

Contrary to how we’ve made it out in church, God isn’t born into the world to see if we are good little girls and boys, instead he comes to disturb the conventions by which we pretend to be good.

God isn’t born into the world to see if we are sorry for all of our sins, instead he already knows our repentance isn’t worth the hot air we put into it because we’ all jump back in the sinning business just as soon as we apologize for it.

God isn’t born into the world to come and count up all of our mistakes, instead he lives, he dies, and he lives again all while throwing out the ledger against us forever.

In short, Christmas turns the world upside down forever because God in Christ comes only to forgive.

For free.

For nothing.

On no basis on our part.

Because we are far too gone, and up the creek without a paddle, to do much of anything for ourselves in the first place.

Christ is our only hope. 

He, himself, is the Good News.

And in him the dawn of redeeming grace has arrived, the world turned upside down. Amen.

Unsettled

2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16

Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.” But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.

It was the perfect Christmas Eve service.

The weather was just cold enough with the faintest hints of snows falling from the sky without it worrying people away from driving to the local church. 

The little cherubic children had practiced “Away In A Manger” for months and were ready to sing before the gathered people with little pipe cleaner halos hanging above their heads.

The pastor had prepared the perfect pulpit proclamation with enough humor and theological gravitas to get the ChrEasters (Christmas and Easter only people) back in church the following Sunday.

And the highlight of highlights was the so-called Living Nativity scene outside on the front lawn with the holy family, magi, angels, shepherds, sheep, goats, and one particularly cheerful looking donkey.

Like I said, it was perfect.

At the end of the service, while groups made their way up to the altar to take their traditional family color coordinated Christmas Eve pictures for Instagram, as the pastor shook hands and made small talk with all the unfamiliar faces, while the organist went through a carefully crafted holiday medley, as the poinsettias were passed out to later adorn dining room tables, while children scarfed down the sweets that were promised for good behavior during the service, as the ushers counted the largest offering ever received on a Christmas Eve… Joe and Maria, a man and young pregnant woman, stood outside the church shivering in the cold. 

Their clothes were mismatched from an assortment of thrift stores, their bellies rumbled at a volume that could only rival the braying donkey, and they prayed that someone, anyone, would be able to help.

So they waited, listening to the laughter and frivolity that was taking place on the other side of the sanctuary doors.

And finally, while families fell out of the church, the couple spoke softly and humbly as asking if anyone had a place they could stay for the night, and every single person, pastor included, walked right passed them as if they didn’t exist.

Merry Christmas indeed.

King David was feeling high and mighty, all settled in his house. He sent for the prophet Nathan and said, “Don’t you think it’s about time we built a temple for the Lord who has delivered us from the hands of our enemies? I mean, we’ve got all this power and wealth and what good is it if we don’t show it off? I mean, for God!”

And the prophet intoned, “Sure, the Lord is with you.”

But that very same night, while the prophet was asleep in his bed, the word of the Lord came to Nathan and said, “Are you out of your mind? Go tell that David these words: I don’t need a house to live in, I don’t need a box for you to hide me away. I am the Lord God. I’m a mover and a shaker. I’ve got things to do, and you can’t domesticate this Spirit. Remember – It was me, The I AM, who took you from your father’s fields, I was with you when you took down the mighty Goliath, I was with you when you danced before the ark, and I will be with until the end. I’ve got plans for my people. So don’t waste your time with a temple, greater things are in store for the people Israel.”

An apt and succinct summary for this passage from 2 Samuel might be: My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.

In the strange new world of the Bible we come across a king and a prophet who are contradicted by the Word of the Lord – with all of their comfort and complacency they were so sure that they had it all figured out only to have it turned upside down.

Today, we’ve got plenty of examples in which, both in the religious and political realms, there are those who have no doubt what God’s purposes and plans are only to have them 180’d.

There’s a church in San Francisco that was having a problem. On Sunday mornings, while families and individuals walked through the main doors, they were treated to the smells and the sights and the sounds of the homeless who had slept in the alcove the night before. Sure, the ushers had shoo’d most of them away before the service but their presence was still palpable. 

Week after week the pastor and the leadership of the church fielded complaints about the problem and people wanted to know what the church could do to help.

So, like any good church, they formed a committee and started a fundraiser. In a few short weeks they amassed $20,000 and decided to put it to good use.

Did they use the money to start a feeding ministry?

Did they use the funds to subsidize some low-income housing for those in need?

Did they use the finances to start job training programs?

Nope.

They used that 20 grand to install a motion sensor sprinkler system with the solitary purpose of spraying water every sixty seconds throughout the night to prevent anyone from trying to gather in the alcoves. 

The Word from the Lord today in 2 Samuel serves as a warning against any overly assured reading of the will of God and reminds us, pertinently, that God is God and we are not.

But this also comes as a great challenge. 

For, we are so sure, most of the time, of what God is up to (particularly during Advent). Most of us have heard the story of Mary and Joseph making their way to Bethlehem so many times, or we’ve seen enough plastic nativity scenes, or we’ve heard the crooning Christmas carols over and over again, such that we cannot see or hear how bewildering the story really is.

Our Advents and Christmases are far too domesticated for the Lord who refuses to be kept in a box.

Consider – God scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, God brings down the mighty form their thrones, God lifts up the lowly, God fills the hungry with good things, God sends the rich away empty.

We worship a God who acts before we do and, more often than not, catches us by surprise.

David lived a life of surprises: He was anointed by the prophet Samuel after taking care of the sheep one afternoon, he confoundingly took down the mighty Goliath, he hid away from the wrath of Saul in a cave, he became king over Israel. Sure he was handsome and crafty, but the only reason David got to be the David we know is because God was with him. And yet, near the end of his days, he thought it only right to build a dwelling place for the Lord who had delivered him, and his people, time and time again. 

But God does not rest on God’s laurels.

God is in the business of finding dwelling places not for God’s self but for God’s people. God is always ahead of us, from making the covenant with Abraham to waiting in Galilee for the disciples on the other side of the resurrection, God is moving and acting and shaking things up in ways that will surprise us.

Who could’ve imagined that the second born heel-grabbing twin would be the one through whom God’s blessing would be bestowed?

Who would’ve imagined that a harlot who lived on the edge of Jericho would be part of salvation’s genealogy?

Who could’ve imagined that a little shepherd boy would one day be king?

In all times and in all places, we do well to dwell upon where, today, God is moving ahead of us and acting in ways that we cannot even imagine.

What assumptions do we have about what is perfect and pleasing in God’s sight?

In what ways are we still trying to domesticate the wildness of God’s Spirit?

How receptive are we to the God who blows where He chooses and not necessarily where we choose?

Remember – God delights in the surprise!

Over and over again in scripture, and in life, God chooses the unexpected to bring about the Kingdom. God plucks people out of complacency and says, in different ways, shapes, and forms, “I’ve got a job for you!” God stirs up our understandings of the world, flips them upside down, and calls it Good News.

This is the final Sunday of Advent, our time between time. This season has a way of setting the stage for the already but not yet all while getting under our skin. Advent compels us, forces us, to slow down, wait, and notice what we so often miss. 

God is God and we are not.

God works and moves in the world in ways that we would not, were it up to us.

And here, on the final Sunday of Advent, with thoughts of David and Nathan, with thoughts of Mary and Joseph, we cannot help ourselves but relish in the strange and wondrous and confounding Good News of Christmas.

For, the Messiah is born in the last place left in the little town of bread, to a virgin named Mary who has no standing in the world. 

He grows up in the hick town of Nazareth, and leaves only to spend the rest of his days among the last, least, lost little, and dead.

And, (most surprisingly) he becomes obedient, even to the point of death – death on a cross.

That’s the God we worship.

God is not some perfect and clean and respectful and tame deity that we often domesticate throughout the church.

Our God is on the move, upsetting expectations, calling upon people we would usually ignore, and making a way where there is no way.

God reminds Nathan, and therefore David, that God is perfectly comfortable remaining in the tent. Why? Because tents are made to be moved. We, on the other hand, we rejoice in building temples and monuments and buildings to proclaim stability and importance. We do this, in large part, because we are afraid.

We are afraid of being forgotten. We are afraid of death. We are afraid that we won’t have anything to show for the lives we’ve been given

And how does God respond to our attempts of permanence?

God laughs.

God laughs at our feeble attempts at immortality by kicking up the winds of change and declaring that all things are being made new. 

God laughs at our struggles for perfect moral existence and proclaims forgives for sins. 

God laughs at our certainty and shows up in the most surprising of ways, as a baby, to change the world. Amen.