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 Beautiful Mess

John 1.29-42

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

Here, toward the beginning of the calendar year, I’ve been doing some thinking. We’re in the midst of a sermon series titled “New Year, New You” and I’ve come to realize some essential truths.

Things are not as they ought to be.

We can listen to the talking heads wax poetic about how politically divided we are, and how we just need to reach across the aisle and all that. But I think it’s far more insidious.

We are so obsessed with our financial gains and economic prosperity that we’ve allowed capitalism to become our dominant religion. We worship money and the accumulation of it. And the evils of capitalism, of which there are many, are as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism.

Did you know that, as a nation, we spend more money on national defense every year than on all of our programs of social uplift combined? Surely, that is a sign of our imminent spiritual doom.

We perpetuate a culture in which 1 out of every 3 black men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives. The price that we must pay for the continued oppression of black bodies in this country is the price of our own destruction.

There is so much injustice in this country – racial injustice, economic injustice, gender injustice. And they cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.

Something’s gotta change.

Now, let us pause for a moment. How did all of that make you feel? Do you agree with what I said? Do you disagree? There’s a better than good chance that saying what I said left most, if not all, of us feeling uncomfortable.

And yet, nearly everything I just said is not original to me. I stole those bits of proclamation from another preacher, one by the name of Martin Luther King Jr. And it was because he was willing to say things that made people uncomfortable that he was murdered. 

It’s been almost 55 years since Dr. King’s assassination. Tomorrow, businesses and schools and all sorts of institutions will close to observe a holiday given in his name, and yet I wonder what it is we remember about Dr. King. Perhaps our minds move to his “I Have A Dream Speech,” or maybe we remember his calm demeanor in the midst of such a perilous time.

However, a year before Dr. King was killed he was widely regarded as one of the most hated men in the country. 63% of respondents in a poll right before his death admitted to being vocally opposed to his words and works. 

It’s hard to remember this, let alone acknowledge it, because everyone today loves Dr. King. We celebrate his transformative work in documentaries and school projects. But we love him now because it’s so much easier to celebrate someone when they’re no longer challenging and upsetting the status quo.

In other words, it’s easier to love a hero when they’re dead.

John says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

For both Johns, the gospel writer and the Baptist, the image of the Lamb of God is central to their understanding of Jesus. We might talk about and think about Jesus as our teacher or our example or some other identifier, but for the Johns, Jesus is the Lamb of God.

And not just a lamb, but the Lamb – the Passover Lamb.

The church today is very comfortable as a safe and sanitary space where the realities of life, and by that I mean things like suffering, are kept at bay. We are good to mention the plight of Ukrainians in our congregational prayers, we will ask for volunteers to help with Family Promise, and all sorts of things. But when it comes to church, we like things neat and clean and ordinary.

We’re not comfortable with death or illness or questioning the status quo.

However, the church, weirdly, is called to be different. The church takes our over-manicured lives and says, “You’re a mess! You don’t want anyone to know it, and you don’t even want to admit it yourself, but things are falling apart!”

Behold the (Passover) Lab who takes away the sin of the world.

The church is a far cry from where we started. When God first gave specifics on how to worship to the people Israel it was messy: Build a temple, and take animals likes doves and bulls and slaughter them there. Take their blood and pour it over all sides of the altar.

Why? Because there is no transformation without sacrifice. 

Moreover, before God’s people made it to the banks of the Red Sea, waiting on a miracle, they had already experienced their miraculous deliverance from Egypt with Passover.

Take a lamb for each family, God says, a perfect and unblemished lamb, and bleed it out completely before you hang it to roast, make sure that none of its bones are broken. The lamb shall be divided in proportion to the people who eat of it. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and you shall eat it hurriedly. 

I’m getting you out of Egypt, says the Lord. Take the blood from the lamb and mark it on your doorposts so that I will know to passover as I bring my vengeance upon the people of Egypt.

It’s not for the faint of heart!

And, though we avoid it today at all costs, we still rely on blood for our worship. We no longer slaughter animals every week, but only because Jesus became the final sacrifice, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Jesus was without sin and was innocent of the charges lobbed against him, just like the Passover lamb is supposed to be perfect and without blemish.

Jesus was beaten to the point of death and stabbed in the side shortly before his death, just like the Passover lamb is supposed to be bled before being hung to roast. 

Jesus was hung up high and though beaten his bones were not broken, just like the lamb’s bones were to remain intact.

I know this is a lot, it’s gruesome and frightening and messy. 

But that’s what church is all about. It stands in stark contrast with so much of what we want our lives to look like. We want people to think we are perfect even though we are far from it. We want everything to be nice and orderly even when life is tearing at the seams. 

Church, in different ways, is God’s way of looking at the mess of our lives and saying, “I know you deserve this not at all, and yet I’m going to save you anyway. ”

Some of John’s disciples are there when he makes his radical proclamation. They understand, somehow, that the new Passover Lamb is right there in front of them. So they leave John behind to follow Jesus. 

They sacrifice whatever their lives might’ve been to follow the Lamb.

The life and ministry of Jesus who they follow is neither neat nor clean. Notably, Jesus is forever spending time with messy people and their messed up lives. His ministry is among and for the last, least, lost, little, and dead.

Even today, we worship the God who willingly chooses to enter into the muck and mire and mess of our lives, which means things are liable to get messy along the way of our own discipleship. 

And yet, that is Good News!

It is Good News because God comes to us in the brokenness of our health and the shipwreck of our family lives and the worst of our mistakes.

Or, as the liturgy puts it, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love toward us.

Do you see? God saves us in our messes, not from them.

When John says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” he means it. He, somehow, knows the future in his present, he knows what will happen to the incarnate God when the holy encounters the unholy. 

Notice, the Lamb of God has not taken away the sins of some – of only the good or the cooperative or those with perfect Sunday attendance in church. 

The Lamb takes away the sin of the world, all of them. 

That’s why we can sing, “My sin oh the bliss of this glorious thought, my sin not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more!”

And yet, the very next verse says, “And, Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight, the clouds be rolled back as a scroll; the trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend, even so, it is well with my soul.”

What is the Lord descending to do? The Lord comes to judge the living and the dead.

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We are redeemed by the Lamb already. And yet there’s a bit more to it as well. Even now Jesus is taking our sin away. Like Dr. King, the Lord speaks words of comfort to the afflicted, and affliction to the comfortable.

It’s a both/and. We are set free from the foolishness of our past while at the same time we are called to live new lives here and now based on that redemption.

Jesus is the exodus for the rest of us, he delivers us from our captivity to sin and death into a strange new world we call the Kingdom of God. 

And in its messy in the Kingdom.

I started the sermon with stolen quotes from Dr. King, a man committed to seeing and bringing about a different world. His commitment cost him his life. And I think he knew that it would. For, the night before he was killed, he delivered one of his most moving speeches. Notably, Dr. King was in Memphis in support of a new union for sanitation workers.

That final night he stood before a packed auditorium and ended with these words:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life – longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

The next day he was dead.

The Lamb of God brings a kingdom the world doesn’t want – the blood of the Lamb makes a difference and that difference means we are now different. 

God does not accept the current realities of the world. God is still contending against the powers and the principalities. God will get us to the Promised Land. 

It’s like God is saying to us today: “Come and see what I can do – come and see what we can do together. It’s going to be messy, but change always is.” Amen. 

We Begin (And End) With Grace

1 Corinthians 1.3

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

The first thing you say and the last thing you say matter far more than everything in between.” So spoke one of my preaching professors in seminary and his advice is applicable for preachers and non-preachers alike. It is a great challenge in our frenetic and fast-paced world to hold anyone’s attention. Therefore, we must be particularly mindful of the first thing we say, and the last thing we say, in any conversation.

I have had a long-standing habit of starting Sunday worship with the same words every week: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I also use those words to start every congregational letter, every pastor’s pen, and a handful of other communications.

I do so because, as my professor noted, first things matter. And I also do so because Paul begins his letters to the various churches in the first century with a similar salutation!

Which is just another way of saying: we begin with grace.

What is grace? Grace is one of those grace churchy words that we throw around all the time and it’s not altogether clear we know what we mean when we say it. 

Robert Farrar Capon defined grace as “the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world. It is a floating, cosmic bash shouting its way through the streets of the universe, flinging the sweetness of its cassations to every window, pounding on every door in a hilarity beyond all liking and happening, until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ears.”

In a similar vein, Frederick Buechner described grace thusly: “Grace is something you can never get, but only be given. There’s no way to earn it or deserve it or bring it about, anymore than you can deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth. A good sleep is grace, and so are good dreams. Most tears are grace. The smell of rain is grace. Somebody loving you is grace. Loving somebody is grace.”

Whatever grace is, it is a gift given to us by God. And, a crucial eccentricity of our faith is that we are saved by grace. 

It’s not an easy thing to admit, particularly with the way that our wider culture emphasizes meritocracy at all times, but there is nothing we can do or accomplish in this life that can make us worthy of standing as justified in God’s sight. We, to use the language of the old Prayer Book, are miserable offenders. We follow too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. Even the best of our good works, whatever they may be, are tainted with self-interest, pride, and a whole host of other problems. 

God is perfect; we are not.

God is holy; we are not.

We can’t earn our righteousness or save ourselves. It is by grace, and only by grace, that we are saved by God. 

And, thankfully, grace is God’s first word toward us. Grace is the fuel that makes possible and intelligible the gift that is the church. Grace is what beckons us to the table with the bread and the cup. Grace is co-mingled with the waters of our baptisms. Grace is the reminder that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Grace is the beginning and grace will lead us home. Thanks be to God. 

God Is God And We Are Not

Psalm 8

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 being 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. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Christmas Pageant stories are a dime a dozen.

I, myself, stood in a different pulpit helping narrate a particular pageant when one of the shepherds turned his staff upside down and ignited it like a lightsaber. Were it not for a daring dive from the aforementioned pulpit, the shepherd would’ve beheaded a wiseman, an angel, and at least three sheep.

There was another pageant when a kid dressed as a donkey decided to take a nap on the chancel steps in the middle of the drama, and remained there until after the applause died down at the end and everyone heard him say, “Mom?”

There’s a wonder and a beauty to the way children lead us in worship. Whether it’s the theological daring answers during a Children’s message, to the way they give themselves over completely to the movement of the Spirit, to the various pageant pronouncements, the glory of the Lord is revealed.

There’s a story that passes around this time of year every year about a certain pageant and the child who played the innkeeper. For weeks and weeks all the children practiced their positions and their lines, they were ready. But when Christmas Eve arrived, and the little Mary, Joseph, and plastic Jesus arrived at the cardboard cut out entrance to the inn, they knocked on the door and the innkeeper froze. Little Mary kept repeating her line, “Please let us in. We’re cold and we really need a place to stay!” Getting louder with each repetition. Until, finally, the innkeeper looked out into the congregation and said to the pageant coordinator, “I know I’m supposed to say, ‘No,’ but can I let them in anyway?”

Kids get it.

The Psalmist declares, “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.”

There’s a better than good chance that every one of us here has a story in which a child or a kid or a youth pointed us to a greater reality about the kingdom, than we could come to on our own. For instance, I was with my family in Alexandria this last week, celebrating the holidays, and we decided to go visit my grandmother’s grave on the anniversary of her death. She died last year at this time. 

And as we were dressing the kids and getting them into our various cars, my nephew asked, “Where are we going?” And I said, “We’re going to see Omi.” And he gave me this puzzled look and said, “But Omi’s with Jesus now.”

Kids get it.

But then the psalmist drops this on our dozing heads: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human being that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”

What a brutal question!

That God considers us, at all, is beyond our deserving. That God listens to our prayers is downright ridiculous. We tend to look at all we’ve done and said with such pride and glory, but compared to the works of God we are a bunch of ants. 

The God who called the universe into being out of nothing, who brought forth order out of chaos, who breathed life into creation, is probably not very impressed with the Lego set I built a few days ago, or the meal I cooked for my family, or even this sermon I crafted.

All things considered, there’s nothing terribly special about humanity. We’re a bunch of creatures who often make a mockery of the creation that God has given to us. 

Sure, we can point to some of our achievements, save for the fact that some of the worst things we’ve ever done as a species were done in the name of progress. 

What makes us unique isn’t what we can, or can’t, do, but the fact that God becomes one of us. God did not become a penguin, God became a human, a particular human in the person of Jesus Christ. And, notably, God did not just show up as a fully formed adult human being – God shows up as a baby!

That’s the message of the incarnation. And it is so bewildering that people like us decorate trees, and exchange gifts, and light candles year after year to celebrate God’s unwavering commitment to us. 

But the only reason we, that is Gentiles, even know about this enough to celebrate it is because of what we call Epiphany, the feast that marks the visit of the Magi and the expansion of the kingdom to those outside the people Israel. 

According to Matthew’s Gospel, after Jesus’ birth wise men/magi from the East come to Jerusalem looking for the king of the Jews because they observed a rising star and came to pay their respect. There’s a frightening plot by King Herod to put to an end any threat to his power, but the magi make haste to Bethlehem where they discover the star leading them to the location of the baby Jesus. 

When they encounter the baby born king they do something strange. It would be one thing to bring gifts to a king, stranger still to give those gifts to a baby born to a poor Jewish woman and her soon-to-be husband. But scripture says that when the magi saw Jesus, they knelt down and worshipped him and were overwhelmed with joy.

Epiphany is the celebration of that moment. We mark it on the liturgical calendar because it both points to the wild character of the incarnation, God in the flesh as a baby, but also to the way in which the glory of Jesus’ birth stretches beyond the confines of Israel.

Jesus will certainly grow to enact miracles and make various proclamations about the ever widening nature of the kingdom, but this is the radical beginning of that expansion. 

Jesus comes for a lot of reasons – to save us, to show us how the kingdom works, to reveal the nature of God. But one of the things we often overlook is that Jesus helps us to become fully human.

That’s a strange claim to make. You might expect to hear that Jesus helps us to become better Christians, or fuller Christians. And yet, if Herbert McCabe is right, we can only be fully human as we are incorporated into the fullness of humanity named Jesus Christ. Jesus, McCabe argues, “was the first true human for whom to live was simply to love – for this is what human beings are for.”

The kingdom of God, therefore, isn’t just for certain sets of people in particular places. The kingdom of God is for everyone. When we say that Jesus is fully human and fully divine, we mean that he is the fullness of humanity and the fullness of God. If we want to know what it means to be human, we need not look further than Jesus Christ, for his life was love. 

Maybe that’s why the magi fell to their knees and worship. Not because they intellectually understood the proclamation of the incarnation, of because they rationally deduced the momentous moment in front of them, but because they encountered love in the flesh, true and full humanity in a baby.

The presence of the magi in the manger means that the love that is God is for people even like us. And whenever we encounter that total radical love, whether it’s here in church, or at school, or at work, or around the dinner table, we can’t help but worship. It is nothing short of amazing that God, author of the cosmos, loves us and is as close to us as a baby being rocked in our arms or the bread and cup at the table.

An important theological claim is that God is God and we are not. It keeps things squarely where they are supposed to be. What are human beings that God is mindful of us, and all that.

But then, in the incarnation, everything takes on a strange and wondrous dimension. Because even though God is God and we are not, God willingly choose to become us, that we might discover who we are and whose we are.

Which, in the end, is why the psalmist can sing: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Amen.

The Obstinance of God

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent [A] (Isaiah 7.10-16, Psalm 80.1-7, 17-19, Romans 1.1-7, Matthew 1.18-25). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Christmas gifts, The Alabama Shakes, ghosts, signs, weariness, keeping the cross in Christmas, the bread of tears, salvation, epistolary preaching, grace, belonging, Sam Wells, prophecy, and The Mother of God. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Obstinance of God

The Gospel Is A Promise

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent [A] (Isaiah 35.1-10, Psalm 146.5-10, James 5.7-10, Matthew 11.2-11). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the film Spirited, seasonal food/drinks, Cage The Elephant, Fleming Rutledge, Advent themes, the glory of the Lord, grief, radical goodness, divine agency, narrative theology, patience, Love Actually, and water in the desert. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Gospel Is A Promise

The Love That Is The Cross

Isaiah 11.1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious. 

“I’m going to keep this short.”

That’s an incredible way to start a speech, or even a sermon.

And 99% of the time, it isn’t true. 

To start with such a declaration puts people at ease because they’ve been duped into thinking they only have to pay attention a little. For, brevity leads to clarity, doesn’t it?

“I’m going to keep this short,” is usually the prelude to a lot of pontificating that often leaves us no wiser than when we began.

It’s usually an indication that whatever follows wasn’t thought through, and is usually off the cuff.

Which, in a place like this, is a bad idea. Who knows what kind of random theological riff-raff might come forth from a short stump speech.

And, to be clear, I’m not railing against the strange promise of a short declaration just because Fred Sistler started his sermon that way last week.

I would never do something like that.

I’m a Christian!

Stump speeches. They are a regular occurrence in the political fabric of our reality. They trace back to the 19th century during which politicians would go about from town to town “stumping” – offering brief highlights on what they planned to do in office should they get elected, usually with key words and phrases that they repeated over and over and over again.

A stump speech is like having one sermon and using it week after week.

And, of course, the “stump” part of “stump speech” comes from the practice of standing on a tree stump to get high enough for better visibility and greater oration. 

Other stumpy items from the 19th century included tables, chairs, and even whiskey barrels.

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, rather famously stood on his father’s gravestone in order to proclaim the gospel since he was no longer welcome to preach in churches.

I, myself, prefer preaching from a ladder.

But even here, right in the middle of the chancel area, slightly elevated, this is somewhat of an ecclesial stump where I, and plenty others, have stumped for Jesus.

We might call it our sanctified stump for salvation.

And stump speeches, though often short and repetitive, really can make all the difference in the world. Sometimes all it takes is one story, one word even, for the skies to open up, and all of God’s grace comes pouring down.

When the Good News actually sounds like good news, it changes everything.

Even us.

My former professor Stanley Hauerwas is known for his stump speeches. He has these recurring quotes and proclamations that he goes back to over and over again. I remember a classmate asking him why he said the same thing so many times, and he said, “Because they’re true.”

Some years ago, while lecturing in Scotland, using those same stumpy proclamations, Dr. Hauerwas was asked to preach at the cathedral of Edinburgh. Massive building with a huge pulpit, hardly a stump. The pulpit there is so large, in fact, that it has its own staircase that the preacher has to ascend in order to preach. And, when the appointed time arrived, Hauerwas marched up the stairs but right before he made it to the top, he heard a small door close behind him as well as a key turning in the lock. 

Hauerwas, bewildered by the turn of events, demanded to know what was happening, when someone on the other side of the pulpit door said, “It’s a tradition in this church, dating back to the days of the Reformation. We lock the preacher in the pulpit, and we keep the preacher there until they give us the Gospel.”

Stumping for Jesus.

And yet, a stump is no glorious thing.

A stump, after all, is only possible if a tree has been chopped down. Stumps are signs of death. 

By the time the prophet Isaiah rolls around, the Davidic kingdom is nothing but a stump. All the promise, all the hope, all the dreams had fizzled out. The holy city was sacked again and again, people were sent to live in exile. There was no bright hope for tomorrow.

And Isaiah says, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots!”

How strange. It’s as if the prophet has lost his ever-loving mind. He looks out on failed promises, idolatry, ruin, and yet he sees something more.

Feeling stumped is, sadly, all too familiar for God’s people even today, particularly during Advent. We might rejoice in memories from years ago, but we know that things can never really be like they once were. We might sit comfortably in these pews, but there’s a better than good chance that we’re also feeling the anxiety that is all to common during this season. We might sing the songs, and purchase the presents, and drive around looking at lights, but that doesn’t automatically make this the most wonderful time of the year.

We know what it means to be stumped, to feel as if nothing good is left.

And what do we do when we’re stumped? To whom do we turn? What relief can we find?  

Netflix with the never ending assortment of holiday movies that follow the exact predictable formula over and over? Discounts at the ABC store? Scrolling through instagram seeing perfect people with their perfect lives?

Kurt Vonnegut once opined that no one should read beauty magazines because they will only make us feel ugly.

The same could be said of Instagram.

And yet, when Isaiah sees the stump, he sees hope! The roots are still pulling nutrients from the soil, a new shoot will sprout forth bringing life and life abundant. The new shoot from Jesse’s stump is the promise that God isn’t done with God’s people. 

That’s what happens when you worship the God of impossible possibility, even stumps can bring about something new.

And that something new is a person.

Listen – the Spirit will rest upon him and he will know the fear of the Lord. He will even delight in his fear! He will come with judgment and righteousness and he will make all things right.

Sounds pretty good. This new shoot will be the difference maker, a warrior. But what strange weapons! He shall slay the enemy with the Word, not with swords. He will destroy all opponents with the Spirit, not by slaying. He will wear a belt of righteousness for the battle, not Batman’s belt with gadgets and gizmos aplenty.

And with the victory comes even stranger results! The wolf will live with the lamb, the calf and the lion and the fatling together. The cow and bear shall graze. And a little child shall lead them.

Everything about this proclamation is unexpected. The line of David is nothing but a stump, forsaken and dead. And yet, from it the ruler of the cosmos will come. Animals that have no business being together shall live in peace. And a child shall lead them. 

It sounds so good and so perfect. And yet, 700 years after Isaiah’s announcement, John the Baptist arrives on the scene, preparing the way of the Lord, announcing a baptism for the repentance of sins. He calls the religious elite broods of vipers because they have lost sight of Isaiah’s vision.

John says, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees!” 

The stump of Jesse, the ax at the roots. John and Isaiah together see a reality that no one else does. They see the sign of the time. “On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples.”

What is the sign?

Have you ever wondered what became of the tree that was chopped down in order to make the stump? Have you ever seen the connection between Isaiah’s proclamation and John’s declaration?

The stump is only possible because a tree was brought down. And do you know what we did with the tree? We nailed Jesus to it.

The root of Jesse is the cross. It stands on a hill far away, the emblem of suffering and shame. And it is glorious. 

Some will say, this time of year, that we need to keep Christ is Christmas. Sure. That’s fine. But if we’re going to keep Christ in Christmas, we should also consider what it might mean to keep the Cross in Christmas. 

It’s Advent. This is the time of year when we hear the most difficult, demanding, bad news to ever be called good – The Cross. Every Advent we have our worlds’ rocked, tables turned, foundations shaken, demons put to rot, and dead dreams brought back to life. 

All things are possible in Advent because we worship the God of impossible possibly. The God who delights in upending all of our expectations of how the world is supposed to work.

Jesus really is the reason for the season, as is his cross. And lest we domesticate the Lord to mere flannel graphs and perfectly manicured manger scenes, Jesus was and is still so provocative that the powers and principalities are forever trying to shut him up. But nothing can stop Jesus. He’s going to say and do things that change everything.

Not even the cross can stop him.

In fact, the cross is our salvation. It’s a stump that brings forth new life. That’s why we can call it glorious.

Therefore, whenever someone stands in this place and stumps for Jesus, we are called to do exactly that – We point to Jesus Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, the shoot from the stump of Jesse, the one who makes a way where there is no way.

The promise of Advent is that no matter what stumps us in this life, God is going to get what God wants. Predator and prey will dwell together. Peace will reign. And a child will lead us. 

The promise of Advent is that Jesus is the shoot, the branch that grows into a cruciform tree bearing the fruit that is salvation because Jesus is always stumping on our behalf, even when it costs him his life. 

The promise of Advent is that new life always starts in the dark, whether in the womb or the tomb, whether underground or the lost being found; new life starts in the dark.

Therefore, the next time you encounter a stump, take a good look at it, because you may be looking at your salvation. Amen. 

The Peaceable Kingdom

Isaiah 11.1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious. 

When I worked as the on-call chaplain at Duke University Hospital, I would receive pages from patients who wanted a visit, and it was almost always because they received bad news. Upon arrival, we would read scripture, and share prayers, and go through tissues, but then I would have to leave to go to the next room and the next patient.

And it came to pass, after a particularly rough shift, I felt a deep desire for something comforting after so much discomfort. So I did what any enterprising young seminarian would do, I flocked to YouTube. At first I thought watching clips of comedians would cure my despair, but it was fleeting. Next, I considered blooper reels from famous television shows, but they only provided a brief salve. But then I stumbled across something that actually made a difference: cute videos of animals becoming friends. 

There’s something almost miraculous about watching a monkey play with a dog, or a cat cuddling with a kangaroo, that left me changed on the other side. 

Thousands of years ago, Isaiah provided a vision to the people Israel of a time in which various animals will dwell together as a sign of God’s grace. What we wait for this Advent season, is nothing short of the miracle of a rewritten cosmos where despair is vanquished forever.

If you have time today, I encourage you to spend some time on YouTube looking at cute videos of animals together. Oddly enough, those videos are a foretaste of God’s kingdom come.

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the First Sunday of Advent [A] (Isaiah 2.1-5, Psalm 122, Romans 13.11-14, Matthew 24.36-44). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Handel’s Messiah, Chicago, Advent themes, the house of the Lord, church attendance, Fleming Rutledge, hopes and fears, worldly preferences, divine peace, Good Mythical Morning, progress, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

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.