Pay Attention

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for Transfiguration Sunday [A] (Exodus 24.12-18, Psalm 2, 2 Peter 1.16-21, Matthew 17.1-9). Drew is a United Methodist Pastor serving Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including a face like the sun, locating the Transfiguration, apocalyptic language, refining fires, upending expectations, witnesses, the power of a pinhole, the strange new world of the Bible, and Sufjan Stevens. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Pay Attention

We Are (Not) United

1 Corinthians 1.10-18

Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” Has Christ been divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 

The church is on the brink of schism.

On either side people, lay and clergy alike, keep flinging their disappointments and their differing theologies at one another and it seems as if there is no future in which we stay together.

One pastor put it this way, “I have spent twenty of the best years of my life serving the church in which I have grown closer to more people than I can count. For a long time it was my friendships within the church that kept me with the church. But for the sake of a high and holy cause, I can let all of those friends go. I can no longer live solely for myself, nor for the present age alone, but only for God for eternity. I have prayed, and I have waited, and I must either submit myself to the way things are, or to leave. I have chosen the latter.”

Another said this: “It is not just for the great number of Methodists across the world that we plead, not even the millions we have yet to reach, but simply for the church herself. We wish to speak the truth in love. Treating people the way we have is simply wrong, cruel, and unjust in all parts and principles because we have denied freedoms, numbed the mind, and killed the soul. How we have belittled particular individuals must cease now and forever.”

And still yet another said this, “It matters not how we treat particular people – this is the way it has been and it is the way it shall continue. The matters of individual liberties belong to Caesar, and not to the church – otherwise God would have intervened.”

Have you heard people speak this way about the church? Or perhaps you’ve read an article in the newspaper about our irreconcilable differences? Great and powerful leaders in the church are looking through the legalities of separation because it seems like we can no longer remain together.

By the way, does anyone happen to know what year it is? I can’t quite remember. 2020? Oh, you’re surely mistaken. The year is 1844 my friends, how could you have forgotten!?

Those quotes I read, contrary to what we might’ve thought, were not shared over the last few weeks by pastors offering too much information on their respective Facebook pages. Actually, they are all from the year 1844 when the Methodist Church was fighting about whether or not to stay together. And what was the actual matter at hand? Slavery.

One of the great ironies in the church is that we call ourselves United Methodists and we are anything but united.

The church in Corinth was similarly divided. In Paul’s first letter alone we can count at least fifteen different problems the apostle had to confront including lawsuits, idolatry, prostitution, and a whole lot more. But here, right after his pronouncement of grace upon God’s people, he got down to the business of addressing partisanship – otherwise known as divisions.

We’re not entirely sure how it happened, or even why, but the Corinthian Christians factionalized behind different leaders. Some followed Paul, some Cephas, and some Apollos. And the disrespect they held for the rival leaders extended down to the individual followers as well, such that some of the followers of Jesus refused to break bread with one another.

It doesn’t make any sense.

I mean, how can an organization founded upon the principles of total inclusion descend into such rampant division? How can a people told to love their neighbors as themselves cease to love their literal neighbors? How can something as united as a church break down into different factions?

Those questions were asked in Corinth, they were asked in 1844, and they’re still being asked today.

The gospel itself doesn’t make a lot of sense. As I said last week, and will be saying over the coming weeks, grace is really really messy. It is not simple – For, what God did, makes no sense to us. It makes no sense to us because we would not have done what God did had it been up to us.

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The gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, the message of salvation made available to all, is so contrary to everything we think we know about the world and even, at times, contrary to everything to what we think we know about the church!

I mean, is the gospel really for all? What about the real sinners (let your minds wander), do they have a place in the church? How would we feel about the outsiders being let into the inside?

We might bristle at the thought, but we can’t ignore that making the outsiders the insiders was exactly Jesus’ cup of tea. 

Faith, whatever it may be, is confounding precisely because it runs counter to so much of what we’ve been taught to expect about the world. It is challenging to wrap our minds around which, incidentally, is why we keep coming back to church week after week in hopes that we’ll get a better angle on all this.

Now, of course, there will be plenty of other folk who will try their best to convince us that there are easy steps to Christianity, that if we follow a simple formula we will get our lives perfectly sorted out. Countless books are sold every year on that premise alone. 

There will always be Cephases and Apolloses vying for our allegiance.

But the word from scripture, and in particular within the Pauline corpus, is that if the steps to a better church or a better life are easy, then they are completely bogus. The most challenging things in life, namely change, require communities of people to sustain us through something as difficult as transformation.

It can take a lifetime of coming to the table over and over again before we really start to believe that Jesus would do what Jesus did, even for us!

It can take decades of Sundays hearing the gospel story before it finally starts sounding like good news.

It can take generations of patient faithfulness before we begin to see how foolish the message of the cross is, and how everything we do hangs on it.

Which leads us back to Corinth, and in a sense back to 1844, and back to the church today. All churches throughout time have fallen prey to the temptation of easy answers. And who can blame them? If people provide the answers we already want to hear, then why not follow them? 

There have been plenty of Apolloses and Cephases over the centuries. As Christians we so regularly self-identify around particular leaders who give us what we want to hear. Tribalism runs rampant in the church such that since the very beginning of the church there have been alternative modes of the church within the church!

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But the cross demands something different and something far more difficult.

Most of us here today have come of age in a world in which we are so comfortable with crosses dangling around our necks and adorning the top of our steeples, that we cannot conceive of crosses as anything but sterile symbols of something vaguely religious.

But the cross is, and forever shall be, a shocking thing. 

2,000 years of church life has made it next to impossible to consider how shocking it was to preach a crucified Messiah during the time of Paul. The next closest thing would be hanging hypodermic needles around our necks, or placing electric chairs on top of churches, or hanging nooses on the walls of our living rooms.

The cross is death. Which is why Paul can say, “The cross is foolishness to those who are perishing but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”

The world doesn’t want death – it wants other signs of worldly power. And yet our King of kings rules from a cross, and one of his final pronouncements is not an exhortation about all we must do to earn a spot in his kingdom. Instead, Jesus uses some of his final earthly breaths to declare one of the strangest things of all, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.”

And, indeed, we have no idea what we are doing. We are a people at war – not necessarily in the conventional sense but we are certainly at war with one another these days. 

The United Methodist Church is battling about who can marry who and who can get ordained. We appear at the brink of schism, dooming ourselves to repeat 1844 all over again. 

Our partisan finger wagging continues to divide families, and friends, and co-workers. We identify who is in and who is out by the name of a candidate on a bumper sticker or by the avenue by which they receive their news.

We write people off for Facebook posts and tweets and delight in our ever tightening tunnel vision about reality.

Our tribalism is going off the rails and, shockingly worst of all, it seems like we actually enjoy it.

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The word of the cross is not easy to proclaim. It wasn’t easy for Paul, it wasn’t easy for the church in the decades leading up to the Civil War, and it’s not easy today. 

The word of the cross is a stumbling block to those who call themselves religious and it is foolishness to those who delight in the rise of secularism precisely because the cross stands as a beacon to a different reality, a reality we wouldn’t choose for ourselves.

For as much as the cross is a sign to the world about the forgiveness of sins, it is equally a reminder that we have plenty of sins for which we all need forgiveness.

Or, to put it another way, we cannot look at the cross without confronting the inconvenient truth that we are the sinners for whom Christ died.

We confess, however, that we would much prefer to hear a different kind of message about the cross. Perhaps something a little more uplifting, or at the very least something optimistic. 

Ultimately, whether we like to admit it or not, what we really want is to be told that we are right and they, whoever they are, are wrong.

But, again, the cross tells us something different – the cross tell us we’re all wrong.

Jesus was put to death by the legitimate powers of his time – He was denounced by the Roman governor, flogged and beaten, and was taken along with common criminals to be executed outside of the city.

He was condemned to death by all of the best people of church and state, and was condemned for crimes against religion and government.

This is a challenging thing to confront – particularly for those of us who feel good in our piety, or happy in our political proclivities… Jesus went to the other side, he went to be with the people we would rather ignore, and he took his place upon a cross because we put him there.

We hate it, we don’t want to even get near it, here in the ivory towers of our own making. But Jesus, the one we worship and adore, Jesus is on both sides. He is on the side of the victims and on the side of the perpetrators. He eats with sinners and tax collectors. He speaks to the powerful and to the weak.

That is why the gospel is so overwhelmingly radical – When we say Jesus is for all, we really mean all.

We are not united. We have plenty of divisions cropping up all the time that keep us from one another. But there is something that truly unites us – the gospel. It is radically inclusive in ways we can’t even dream of. Whether we like it or not the gospel refuses to divide the world up into the correct and the incorrect, the righteous and the unrighteous, the innocent and the guilty. Jesus takes all of that into himself and says I forgive you.

It’s foolishness according to the world, but to us it is the power of God. Amen.

Favor Fades

Devotional:

Matthew 4.12

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.

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Having the favor of the people can disappear in an instant. I have known too many beloved leaders in their respective communities who took one step too far and then lost the popularity or the respect they once held. Preachers, politicians, and professionals alike are often at the whim, and the opinions, of the people they serve. 

Jesus was widely praised by crowds of people when he first initiated his earthly ministry, but then he was run out of town (incidentally, his home town) as soon as he claimed that the scriptures were being fulfilled in him. Likewise, Martin Luther King Jr. was revered and praised for the kind of prophetic proclamations he made, but in the end those kind of declarations led to his assassination.

Years ago I was asked to speak at a community gathering in memory of Martin Luther King Jr. and, to be honest, it was terrifying. How could I possibly do justice to the man who I had admired throughout most of my life? How could I find the right words to offer in memory of a preacher I still strive to emulate on a regular basis? How could I speak a word of hope and truth while so many people are still being persecuted for the color of their skin?

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But then, shortly before I was invited forward toward the microphone, I remembered a few words that Martin Luther King Jr. often said, words that Jesus similarly uttered in the garden of Gethsemane: “I just want to do God’s will.”

Whatever we do in our lives, it should have less to do with what we think people will think, and more to do with striving to live out God’s will for, and in, our lives. Rather than sugar-coating messages of false hope, we are called to seek justice for the many ways we have failed to love our brothers and sisters with every fiber of our beings.

Which is all to say, sometimes our faith will drive others crazy.

And now, in honor of Dr. King, I would like to end this devotional with a prayer from the man himself – a prayer that is worth our time and consideration particularly today…

“Thou eternal God, out of whose absolute power the infinite intelligence of the whole universe has come into being, we humbly confess that we have not loved thee with our hearts, souls, and minds, and we have not loved our neighbors as Christ loved us. We have all too often lived by our own selfish impulses rather than by the sacrificial love as revealed by Christ. We often give in order to receive. We love our friends and hate our enemies. We go the first mile but dare not travel the second. We forgive but dare not forget. And so as we look within ourselves, we are confronted with the appalling fact that the history of our lives in the history of an eternal revolt against you. But thou, O God, have mercy upon us. Forgive us for what we could have been but failed to be. Give us the intelligence to know your will. Give us the courage to do your will. Give us the devotion to love your will. In the name and spirit of Jesus, we pray. Amen.”

We Are (Not) Accepted

1 Corinthians 1.1-9

Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. 

Do you ever feel like things couldn’t get worse?

Natural disasters across the globe keep ravaging particular communities.

Political discourse and partisan rhetoric are dividing families and friends and churches.

It’s becoming ever more expensive to live and yet wages continue to stagnate.

Things just feel so broken.

Here in the US we are so obsessed with financial gains and economic prosperity that the rich keep getting richer and the poor just get poorer. So much so that we’ve allowed capitalism to become our religion – it is what we worship. And the evils of capitalism, of which there are many, are as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism.

We are currently spending more money on national defense every year than we are on all of our programs of social uplift combined – when weapons become more important than people it is clearly a sign of our imminent spiritual doom.

In ways big and small we are perpetuating 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. 

Now, before we go on, I want to be clear that most of what I just said is not original to me, I didn’t sit down this week and pull those thoughts out of thin air. Most of what I just said actually came from another preacher named Martin Luther King Jr.

Ever heard of him?

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Across the country, countless students will have the day off from school tomorrow in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. and rightly so. He was a man committed to a vision of the kingdom that others refused to see, and it cost him his life. But one of the things that we forget, here in 2020, is that shortly before his assassination, he was one of the most hated men in the entire country. Though he is remembered as a bastion of freedom and equality, 2/3 of the country opposed his work and words the year before his death.

It’s hard to remember this, for those of us old enough to do so, because today everybody loves Dr. King. Partly because we’ve sanitized his message, and it’s a lot easier to love someone when they’re no longer challenging, and upsetting, the status quo.

It’s easier to love a hero when they’re dead. 

Dr. King was not only an activist for the Civil Rights movement, but was also a frustrating voice to the powers and principalities in regard to the Vietnam War, capitalism, and rampant poverty. 

But we’re far more content with simply remembering his speech about having a dream of a different future. However, that future (which we are still yearning for) is not possible without transformation. His life, and death, is an ever present reminder that things cannot merely remain as they are.

Grace is messy.

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Each of Paul’s letters begin with a blessing on the recipients of the epistles with “grace”. Even to the famously fractured Corinthians, Paul begins by saying, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Grace is one of those all too important words in the church and, frankly, it’s a word we throw around all the time without thinking or talking about what it actually means.

Sometimes when I hear about grace, and even when I talk about it, it comes off like some nebulous gas that’s floating around affecting various people as they breathe it in.

Which, to some degree, is true. But grace is about a whole lot more than that.

The arrival of Jesus Christ into the world, mediating a new reality with God and God’s creation is a gift. It is all part of this cosmic plan for unending communion and it frees us from our own slavery to sin and death. It comes in spite of of our earnings and deservings and is made available to all without cost. Grace is, in every sense of the word, a gift. 

We have been gifted with a rescue from something and regathered into something we call communion.

But this gift we call grace runs counter to how we so often think about gifts today. Namely, when we receive something for nothing we almost always respond by immediately planning how to repay the gift. We want to out-gift the gift-giver. We live under the tyrannic rule of reciprocity such that we must always make the scales even again, even if it is outside of our ability.

But in the early church, grace was not about repaying what could not be repaid – grace was a reality. 

It both named the concrete gift of Jesus for the world, along with the generosity of God who sent him. And yet, it was not confined to some idea about who Jesus was, it was a lived reality in and through the ways people lived. 

The early church community gifted among themselves things like food, and money, and clothing, and healing to those who needed it the most. And they did so without keeping some sort of ledger about who owed what – it was simply done and thats it.

So whatever the gathering of Christians looks like today, it is supposed to look like a community of grace.

The gathering of disciples we call church are called to lives of generosity that is so obvious and known that only a God generous enough to give his only Son for an evil and sinful humanity can explain it. 

Grace, understood as such, changes everything, including us.

Or, to put it another way, we can’t remain what we once were.

There’s a lot of talk in the church these days about how God loves you just the way you are. Which, though true, is a denial of the power of grace working in and through us. 

The letters of Paul and the stories of Jesus show us that there is more to grace than simply being accepted for who we are. And, no doubt, we are accepted – after all, grace abounds. But we are now in a kingdom bound by that grace which means we have been changed.

Can you imagine what Martin Luther King Jr. work would’ve have looked like without a call to change? What good is a dream of something new if only we stay committed to the past? 

Here’s where grace gets messy: Grace is a gift, given for free. We don’t have to change or do anything before receiving it. And, we don’t have to do anything or change after receiving it. Paul will remind the good Corinthians about this – grace is less about out need to change and more about how God is already in the business of changing us. 

Were it up to us alone to change, we wouldn’t do it. It is far easier to remain the same and hold on to the old visions of the past than it is to try embarking on a different journey. Our captivity to sin keeps us firmly planted instead of taking steps or leaps of faith. But, thankfully, God will not leave us to our own devices.

God is changing us.

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Now, if you’re anything like me, we don’t particularly like all this talk of personal development or change. All the “shoulds” and “musts” leave us exhausted. Which is why it’s of paramount importance to remember the the Kingdom of God isn’t conditional. It exists whether we participate in it or not, the empty tomb remains empty whether we change or not. And yet God is using all of the means at God’s disposal to show us that our lives are being reknit, even right now. 

The world, just like us, cannot remain as it is. God won’t allow it. God is faithful, even when we are not. God believes in us even when we can’t. God is working toward a vision of things not yet seen, and God is bringing us along for the ride.

We can resist it all we want, but God is on the move.

Which is all to say that, when properly considered, the kingdom is about more than acceptance. We are at war with the powers and principalities of this world that insist on making the last laster and the first firster. Our King of kings is fundamentally different – Jesus does not rule with an iron fist or with boots on the ground – our King rules from a cross.

What could be messier than that?

I started all of this today with talk of Martin Luther King Jr.’s forgotten quotes. He was radically committed to seeing a different world and, to some degree, knew it would cost him his life. In fact, the night before he was killed he delivered one of his most moving speeches. It was not about securing the right to vote for black individuals, nor was it on dismantling Jim Crow laws, but was actually about establishing a union for sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee.

He stood before a packed crowd that night and after speaking at length on the subject at hand he ended it all by saying this:

“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. 

God’s grace is about being part of a kingdom the world doesn’t want – it’s about how God makes a difference and that difference means we are now different.

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that we have been transformed through the waters of baptism and the meal at the table – we are made new.

God does not accept the current realities of the world, nor does God accept the banalities of evil that run all too rampant. But God believes in us, God will remain faithful, and the kingdom of God is at hand. We will get to the Promised Land.

What a strange and wondrous thing grace really is – for by grace we have been saved, and are being saved, even now. Amen. 

Fencing Grace

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What happens when a presidential candidate is refused communion at church? Ryan Couch wrote a brilliant reflection on the subject and Jason Micheli and I invited him to join us for an episode of Crackers & Grape Juice to talk about grace, closed tables, and baptizing the town drunk. If you would like to read his original post you can do so here: Joe Biden, The Town Drunk, And The Sacraments

And you can listen to our conversation here: Fencing Grace

 

 

A Strange New World

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 the 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, praying God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Merry Christmas!

It doesn’t get a whole lot better than this. No matter how old or jaded we may be, regardless of whether we deserve coal in our stockings or not, Christmas Eve never fails to work its magic.

Maybe its the music, or the candlelight, or the knowledge of what awaits us when we awake – there’s just something different about Christmas that makes all the difference.

And here we are! Some of you were raised in this church and wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else. Others made plans weeks ago and are here for the first time. Some of you are here with questions, and others are just waiting to get home to finish everything on your to-do lists. Some of you made a last minute decision to come and are still wondering if you made the right choice. Others were dragged here against your will. 

There are those among us for whom there are more Christmases ahead than behind, and of course there are those for whom there are only a few Christmases left. 

Whoever you are, and whatever feelings, and thoughts, and questions you’ve brought tonight, it is my hope and prayer that you encounter the light of the world who shines in the darkness, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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 people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

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If we hear the story of Jesus’ remarkable arrival in the world we often do so without noticing the explosion and unexpected nature of the whole thing. And scripture is partly to blame. The whole birth in the manger comes in less than a verse and the story just keeps going.

The details, of course, are important – Luke roots us in a time and a place, Luke sets up the main and important characters, but when it comes to the moment for which all of us are here tonight, it comes down to this: “While they were in Bethlehem, 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.”

That’s it.

It’s quite a strange story when we take a step back from it all, if we can. For, this story, the travelings of a young soon to be married couple at the requirement of empire, a baby born in some of the worst conditions imaginable, dirty shepherds receiving the best news the world has ever known, is weird.

Whether Luke intended it this way, the story compels us to enter a strange new world. Every time we take up the Bible we encounter a world that is at first our own, and then is it strange and new beyond our conceptions, only then, sometimes without our knowledge, becomes the world we truly in habit.

We open it and find ourselves among the likes of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We stand on the banks of the sea with Moses as the waters are driven apart. We are invited into the poetic pondering of David and the wisdom of Solomon. And then here, on Christmas Eve, we enter this strange new world to hear about good news of great joy for all people born as Jesus Christ.

But this strange new world is, in fact, our world. And Jesus has come to save it.

A statement like that requires knowledge about what, exactly, Jesus saves us from. We were just singing about it a moment ago: No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground, he comes to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found, far as, far as, the curse is found.

And what is the curse? Well, it is a lot of things. We can call it sin, or death, or self-righteousness. But perhaps this year, the curse Jesus has come to destroy is the idea that it’s all up to us.

Because the truth is actually the opposite: God helps those who can’t help themselves. That’s part of the Good News of Christmas – God in Christ comes to do for us that which we couldn’t do for ourselves!

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I heard a story last week about a woman and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. Back in the 90’s she was a strung out drug addict going through heavy withdrawals while her newborn baby was asleep in the next room. She was at the rock bottom of her life, fearing every day that she wouldn’t be able to get the kick she needed, fearing every day that her child would be taken away, and fearing every day that maybe her child needed to be taken away, from her.

It was 2am and she was lying in the fetal position on the floor trying to will herself into a reckoning. In her hand she kept folding and unfolding a piece of paper with a phone number on it. It was the number for a Christian counselor that her mother had sent in the mail 4 years before, back when they were still talking.

The woman did not know what to do, nor where to turn, and she was so desperate that she picked up the phone and dialed the number. 

A man answered the phone, and the woman said, “I got this number from my mother, do you think maybe you could talk to me?” She heard him shuffling around in his room and he said, “Yes, what’s going on?”

She hadn’t told anyone what was going on, not even herself and she said, “I’m not feeling so good and I’m scared…” And without realizing it she just kept going and told the man that she had a drug problem, and that she was worried about her son, and she didn’t know what else to do.

And the man listened. He didn’t judge, he didn’t offer advice, he just stayed with her on the phone.

The call began around 2am and the man stayed with her on the phone until the sun came up. At some point the woman said, “Thank you for staying with me and I really appreciate your listening, but aren’t you supposed to tell me some Bible verse I should read?”

He laughed and brushed it aside and she said again, “No I need you to know how grateful I am. How long have you been a Christian counselor?”

And he said, “I’ve been trying to avoid this, I need you not to hang up. That number you called, the one your mom gave you… wrong number.”

She didn’t hang up, but thanked him and they continued to talk until the conversation came to a close. In the hours that followed the woman experienced what she calls a peace she didn’t know existed, that there is love out in the world, and that some of it was unconditional, and that some of it was for her. 

After that everything changed. Not right away, but slowly, her life transformed. 

She ended her story by saying, “I now know, that in the deepest and darkest moment of despair, it only takes a pinhole of light, and all of grace can come in.”

God’s grace is unconditional – we of course despise God’s grace because of this. We can even resist God’s grace because we want to believe that we have contributed something to it. We want to believe that grace is something earned or deserved. But that woman learned the truth that night on the phone, grace comes regardless of our earnings, yearnings, or deservings. And all it takes is the tiniest little spark that can transform a life forever.

Our world is constantly telling us to do more, to be better, and to get it all together. And even in the church, we fall prey to this temptation all the time by telling people about all the stuff we need to do. But all of that is self-defeating because the more we’re told about what we’re supposed to do the more guilty we feel for all we’re not doing.

On Christmas Eve its different. Its different because the strange new world of God’s desire has become our world. The whole story is about how we can’t do all that we need to do and that’s okay. 

We were dead in our sins, but God who is rich in mercy, has sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to deliver us from the dominion of darkness. For some of us that darkness is the darkness of writhing on the floor without a hope in the world. For others the darkness is the loss of someone we loved. For others the darkness is fear over not knowing what the future holds. 

For each of us there is a darkness that Christ has come to destroy.

Hear the Good News: In the end, it’s not up to us. We are never really prepared to do that which we probably should. But Jesus shows up anyway. He shows up in a chance phone call, and in the bread and cup, he even shows up in Christmas presents. 

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Each of us, whether we like to admit it or not, we come into Christmas damaged and bent and broken and sinful. We have contempt for ourselves and for one another. And God shows up as a baby with a triumphant declaration that things are changing.

The birth of Christ marks the beginning of a strange new world, one in which we are not defined by our sins or our short-comings, but instead by the grace of God that knows no bounds. 

So hear the Good News once again, news addressed right to us: “To you is born this day a Savior!” To you! Regardless of who you are, whether or not you understand it, whether or not you are good or bad. The news is meant for you. For you the Christmas story has happened. 

To you is born this day a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. Grace upon grace upon grace! Amen. 

Christmas With Karl Barth

In the latter part of his theological career, Karl Barth would preach for the inmates in the prison of Basel, Switzerland. When the public found out that he was doing so people reacted in a variety of ways – some were amazed that a man of such academic stature would humble himself to do such a thing, while others took it as a sign of his tremendous faith. And a few would joke that the only way to hear Karl Barth preach would be to break the law and go to jail.

In 1954 Barth delivered the Christmas sermon to the inmates. I’ve made a habit of reading the sermon every Christmas Eve almost like a devotional and every year I find more and more in it that just astounds me. This great man whose theology disrupted my life (in the best ways), went down to a prison on Christmas and proclaimed the Good News of Christ’s birth into the world to a group of men who felt no hope in the world at all. 

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Below you can find some of the three most powerful paragraphs from the sermon, and as you read them I encourage you to do so while considering the context and the preacher from whom and for whom these words were preached:

“What does the word Savior convey? The Savior is he who brings us salvation, granting us all things needed and salutary. He is the helper, the liberator, the redeemer as no man, but God alone, can be and really is; he stands by us, he rescues us, he delivers us from the deadly plague. Now we live because he, the Savior, is with us.

“The Savior is also he who has wrought salvation free of charge, without our deserving and without our assistance, and without our paying the bill. All we are asked to do is to stretch out our hands, to receive the gift, and to be thankful.

“The Savior is he who brings salvation to all, without reservation or exception, simply because we all need him and because he is the Son of God who is the Father of us all. When he was made man, he became the brother of us all. To you this day is born a Savior, says the angel of the Lord.”

Merry Christmas

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