This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for the First Sunday After Christmas [A] (Isaiah 63.7-9, Psalm 148, Hebrews 2.10-18, Matthew 2.13-23). Alan is the lead pastor of First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including band names, timeliness, gracious deeds, Christmastide, corporate worship, belonging, praise, Winter Camp, Karl Barth, sanctification, reality, the implications of the incarnation, and presence. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Politics of Christmas
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 12th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 2.4-13, Psalm 81.1, 10-16, Hebrews 13.1-8, 15-16, Luke 14.1, 7-14). Teer is one of the pastors serving Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including cafeteria tables, podcast listeners, satisfaction, the matter of words, the intersection between art and theology, daily psalms, strange hospitality, marriage, books on the parables, and the Supper of the Lamb. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Doom Won’t Last Forever
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Allison LeBrun about the readings for the 11th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Jeremiah 1.4-10, Psalm 71.1-6, Hebrews 12.18-29, Luke 13.10-17). Allison serves Vermilion Grace UMC on the shores of Lake Eerie in Ohio. Our conversation covers a range of topics including dinosaurs in the New Creation, laughter, baptismal vows, Moana, Hildegard von Bingen, the power of words, divine fear, the jewishness of Jesus, acceptable worship, and true sabbath. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Presence Of God Is Awful
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets – who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flowing, and evens chairs and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented — of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Few, if any, of us plan to come to church in order to be astonished. Sure, we might be moved to tears or clapping by a song, there might be a line in a prayer that lingers in our hearts, we might ooh and ahh over the wayward comment of a kid during the children’s message. We might even say “amen” out loud in the midst of a sermon.
Miracles do happen after all.
No thank you.
We don’t have time for astonishment in our manicured machinations on Sunday morning. We like our church, just like we like our God, within our control. We appreciate boundaries and expectations and predicability.
And yet, we come to church today, we gather before the throne of God, we open up and the good book, and what do we find?
“By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.”
How dare the writer of Hebrews! We’ve got the young, and the restless, present in worship. This isn’t the place for such vulgarities!
Other translations soften the blow by calling Rahab a harlot, which is what my grandmother would call her. Whereas other translations up the ante by calling her a, well, I can’t even bring myself to say that word.
But there it is. Clear as day in the strange new world of the Bible: Rahab the prostitute and her faith.
Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, they’re all good and fine, we can handle their stories and we can even understand their faith.
Do you know her story?
Listen: Joshua has guided the people Israel to the edge of the Promised Land. He sends two spies into occupied territory to assess the situation. They approach Jericho, big city, and they wind up, of all places, at Rahab’s in the red light district.
I wonder why they went there…
Anyway, the king receives word that foreign spies have infiltrated his domain, and he dispatches some rough and tough foot soldiers to weed them out. They knock on Rahab’s door, she knows everyone after all, and she lies right to their faces.
“Sure,” she says, “I saw some fellas like you’re describing, but they paid their tabs and left.”
Meanwhile, our little hardworking harlot has actually hidden the spies within the thatch of her roof. She returns to them and says, “I’ve heard of your God and I would appreciate a little mercy begin flung my way when the walls come down.”
She hangs a scarlet thread from her window as a reminder to the spies and their people and, sure enough, when Joshua and the army of God enter Jericho, the red threaded house in the red light district is the only one spared in the entire city.
So, to be clear, Rahab is a prostitute, a lair, and a traitor to her own people.
And the writer of Hebrews includes her in the faith hall of fame!
It’s downright astonishing!
But maybe it isn’t. At least, not really. Because if you spend even the slightest among of time in the strange new world of the Bible you quickly discover that Rahab’s story isn’t unique. Noah gets naked, Abraham abandons, Moses murders, David deceives, Peter perjures, on and on and on.
Apparently, faith is the recognition, oddly enough, that no matter what we’ve done or left undone in the past, God can still use us now and in the future.
The writer of Hebrews is calling to our attention the astonishing fact that if someone like Rahab can be used for the purposes of the Kingdom, just imagine what God can do with someone like you, or even like me.
But then everything shifts. We read of these heroes from the faith, some of whom don’t really seem like heroes in the first place, we read about the abject terror and suffering that the faithful experienced in their response to God, we read of extremely serious and staggering details of the cost of discipleship and and then they all vanish into the great cloud of witness.
We are addressed. Across the great centuries of the church, the writer address us. You and me.
Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
Their stories come to fruition in us. We are the fruit of the seeds planted long ago.
Look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who mounted the hard wood of the cross on our behalf, and who now rules at the right hand of God.
In short: you and me, we’re not alone.
We are bound to those from the past, those in the present, and those in the future in ways we can scarcely imagine. We are caught up in the triumph of the Trinity and are no longer defined by our sins and our shortcomings, but only by the grace and peace made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ.
All these verses in Hebrews, the faith hall of fame, they ring out for everyone to hear: our faith is not in us.
What rotten luck it would be if our faith was in us.
Have you watched the news recently? Paul is right, none of us is righteous, no, not one.
We are not the pioneers and perfecters of the faith. Jesus is.
And what wondrous Good News it is to hear of Jesus as our pioneer and perfecter. Particularly at a time when we spend most of our time thinking about, talking about, going backward.
Jesus is ahead of us, beckoning us into a new and astonishing reality.
What we might call, the church of tomorrow.
Christianity, contrary to how we might understand it, isn’t actually a religion. Religions are systems of beliefs and rituals that get the divine to do something for us. Whereas Christianity is the story of the God who does the unimaginable for us without us having to do anything in return.
The Lord is not waiting with arms crossed until we get our acts together. Instead, God condescends to our miserable estate and gathers us together and says, “follow me.”
To be the church in the world today is a strange endeavor. If we find ourselves concerned only with matters of life after death, or if we are consumed only by thoughts of holy figures and sacred rituals, we are not the church. We may be and do those things, but to be the church means being part of an alternative way of being in the world right now.
Put simply: we’re different.
We’re different in terms of space because we are geared in an outward matter. We are different in terms of story because we understand who we are not as something we earn or achieve, but instead a gift received. And we are different in terms of time because we believe God’s future is already overlapping with the present.
We are people who have received new pasts, in which our faults and failures no longer define who we are, and we have receive new future in which impossible possibilities rain down for nothing.
We are different. We are like Rahab: with the tiniest pinch of faith, we step into a future, God’s future, and everything is changed.
It’s too easy, at times, to lose sight of how weird it is to be part of the church. For many years we have endeavored to appear as appealing as possible to those outside. Whereas the real test of whether or not the church is the church is if we are sufficiently unacceptable to the world.
We are not yet another club or social gathering that provides a needed distraction from all that is wrong in the world.
We are the body of Christ for the world – we model God’s future in the present.
We live, oddly enough, by grace. We practice trust and honesty and forgiveness in the midst of a time in which those things sound like fairytales.
The church is God’s parable for the world.
We are the wild and weird story for a time and place that is desperate for a new narrative, albeit one that leaves people scratching their heads.
The kingdom of God is like a woman walking down the hallway at the hospital in the middle of the night, having just received word that her husband needs emergency surgery in order to survive. And as she walks, all alone, and the terror of the moment starts to sink in, she steps into the waiting room with nothing but fear, until she realizes the room is full to brim with the people from church who have come out in the middle of the night, simply to make sure she knows she’s not alone.
The kingdom of God is like a parent in the midst of Vacation Bible School who approaches a certain bald and bearded pastor, incredulous that the church would be willing not only to watch her children for a week, but that we would also love them, feed them, and teach them about Jesus for free.
The kingdom of God is like the man who shuffled down the center aisle last week, and approached the aforementioned pastor, with tears streaming down his face and his hands outstretched for the gifts of God. The same man who, when the pastor approached him after worship to make sure he was okay, declared, “Tears of joy. They were tears of joy!”
I don’t know if you knew what you were getting into when you walked into the church. Whether you’ve been here for decades or this is your first Sunday. The truth is, none of us really knows what’s in store once we hear the call of God.
The Gospels make it wonderfully clear that the disciples had not the foggiest idea of what was going to happen next. With a simple, “follow me” Jesus invites ordinary, if not awful, people to come out and be part of an adventure, a journey, that astonishes at every turn.
You and me, we’re not alone. We are all surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses, people like Rahab, who brought us to where we are right now. And because we are caught up in their story, because it is being perfected in us, we can do wild and wonderful things, we can cast away the works of darkness, we can be the place where loneliness is eradicated, we can befriend the friendless and love the loveless, we can do all these things because the grace of Jesus Christ really is the difference that makes all the difference.
Welcome to the church of tomorrow – it’s astonishing. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Allison LeBrun about the readings for the 10th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Isaiah 5.1-7, Psalm 80.1-2, 8-19, Hebrews 11.29-12.2, Luke 12.49-56). Allison serves Vermilion Grace UMC on the shores of Lake Eerie in Ohio. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Twitter handles, mysteries, This Here Flesh, dinosaurs, Narnia, vineyards, the invisible church, The Chicks, good gifts, rewriting the psalms, the faith hall of fame, martyrdom, division, and James Baldwin. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Real Restoration
Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he was promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old – and Sarah herself was barren – because he considered him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, “as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.” All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.
We do a lot of looking backward in the church. And we come by it honest. We say words from ancient creeds, we sometimes sing songs written long before we were born, we sit in a room week after week constructed by people long dead, and we read from a book that has been passed down generation after generation.
Even the writer of Hebrews is quick to mention ancestors of the faith like Abraham and Sarah, and yet, we are also wonderfully reminded that faith is about looking forward, it’s about leaning toward God’s promises that have not yet come to fruition.
Consider this church for a moment…
At some point, 100 years ago, a group of people looked out at the world. A world coming out of a devastating global pandemic, teetering on the edge of a recession and depression, threats of international war hovering on the horizon, and they decided that the thing Roanoke needed most, this neighborhood in particular, was a church.
That had hope for things not yet seen.
They had hope for us.
Sometimes I’ll wander into our history room downstairs for a dose of wonder. We’ve got all the pictures and documents and we’ve even got a giant quilt, and whenever I’m surround by the stories and the people of this church, I wonder if they daydreamed about us. I wonder if they pictured us sitting in these pews singing these songs hoping these hopes.
I wonder if we day dream about those who will be here after we’re gone.
Part of the future is a relative unknowability. We do not, and cannot, know what tomorrow brings.
We only know that whatever tomorrow brings, God will be there.
And that’s faith.
Faith is such a churchy word. It’s in our scriptures and songs and prayers. It’s up on the wall of our classrooms, and it’s in our hearts. Faith is our word and yet it shows up in all sorts of unchurchy places. We talk of having faith in the economy, we hear about placing our faith in our politicians, we talk about movies being faithful to their source-text.
But what is faith?
Better put, what makes faith faithful?
I put the question out to a ton of people this week, online and in-person, churchy folk and decisively non-churchy folk. And I got a lot of answers. But I also got a lot of blank stares, and more than a few of those were from church people!
What is faith?
Faith is a five letter word that begins with f and ends with h and people use it to mean all sorts of things.
Faith is a possible wordle answer.
Faith is what keeps me going.
Faith is the gift to trust that the narrative shape of Jesus’ death and resurrection is the constitution of reality.
Faith is a genuine response to the experience of God.
Faith is accepting God’s acceptance of you.
Faith is a kind of homesickness, an inclination toward something you have not seen but you sense.
Martin Luther said that faith is often nothing more than believing God when God makes a promise.
It seems that Luther stole that from Hebrews.
Listen – By faith, by trust, Abraham responded to the call of God and traveled as a stranger in a strange land. He did not know where he was going. He only knew the One who called him to go. He stayed for a time living in tents, as did his descendants Isaac and Jacob who were also part of the promise of God.
Abraham looked forward to the city whose architect and builder is God.
Taking a step back from the strange new world of the Bible, it’s a bit odd that Abraham was so willing to march toward the unknown. When the comfort of familiarity surrounds us, why in the world would we leap into mystery? We read and read of Abraham’s faith, but his faith isn’t special, at least not really. It’s not some super gift that he had, or a blessing that was uniquely his.
What makes Abraham’s faith faith, it’s not the one who had it, but what his faith was in.
It’s like the thief on the cross next to Jesus. I’ve said this before, but I can’t wait to meet him in the resurrection of the dead. I want to ask him how it all worked out.
I can only imagine the angels whispering about his person. And then, a well-meaning delegate of the Lord steps up and says, “Excuse me, are you familiar with the doctrine of justification by faith?”
“Never heard of it.”
“Oh, well, did you tithe to the church? Were you present in worship at least 50% of the Sundays each year? Did you serve on any church committees?”
“What’s a church?”
And then finally, overwhelmed by the ridiculousness of this fellow, the angel says, “On what basis are you here?”
And he says, “The guy on the middle cross said I could come.”
From Abraham to Isaac to Jacob to Joseph to Moses, all of them died in faith without having received the promises. From a distance they saw the holy city; in faith they longed for something. Each of them, in their own way, were seeking a homeland, a place of knowing.
Faith, then, seems to be a homesickness for a home that is not yet here. A world in which the lion lays down with the lamb, where death is no more, where God wipes away all of our tears.
We catch these glimpses, every one in a while, in which our faith is made manifest in the present. It is the in-breaking of the kingdom of God, it is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
It’s the line of the faithful, marching forward to the table with hands outstretched ready to receive a gift we simply do not deserve, but the gift that is the difference that makes all the difference in the world.
It’s the kids of Vacation Bible School going buck wild singing songs about Jesus, cultivating friendship that are only possible because of the friendship of God.
It’s the man who came by the church this week, sheepishly knocking on the door, hoping for something to eat after being turned away from so many other places.
It’s the note in the song that lands so perfectly that we feel the tension easing out of our shoulders, or we find tears landing on the hymnal, or our smiles widen so much that we can’t even sing the next line.
And yet, each of those are not about what we do. When it comes to the matter of faith, we don’t bring much of anything to the table. The gospel doesn’t tell us to have faith, it gives us Jesus to place our faith in.
Again, think of the Table. When we come forward someone offers us the bread and the cup saying, “This is Jesus for you.”
There’s no talk of faith, or what we must believe, even though it’s true that everything depends on our believing in. The bread and cup, the body and blood of the Lord, direct our attention away from faith, which after all is weak and not much bigger than the size of a mustard seed. Instead of telling us to believe, it builds up our faith by giving us Jesus in the flesh.
I heard once that the church is like a beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. And perhaps there’s some truth in that. But it’s also deeply flawed. If all we can muster is the advice or the recommendation of where to find some sustenance for our bellies, then it’s not good news. If we’re really that hungry, we might not have the strength to go find the bread we’ve been directed toward.
Instead, the church is not one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread, it’s one beggar giving bread to another beggar. It’s someone standing at the front of the church and saying, “This is Jesus” and then placing it right in your hands.
The only thing you have to do, is receive it.
Faith is not a list of mental calculations that make you good enough to be part of the church. It’s not adhering to a set of doctrinal creeds that guard our theology.
Faith is merely a way of being.
And yet, the “merely” in that sentence betrays the wonderful and joyful truth of faith that changes everything.
Faith, for being the churchy word that it is, gets tossed to and fro all the time. We sing of faith, we literally have a hymnal called The Faith We Sing, we’re told to keep the faith, or that we must guard the faith.
But faith, again, isn’t about us. Faith is about Jesus.
Robert Farrar Capon, beloved grace-filled theologian, writes, “Faith doesn’t do anything.”
Talk about grabbing your audience from the first sentence.
“Faith doesn’t do anything; it simply enables us to relate ourselves to someone else who has already done whatever needs doing.”
And then he has this remarkable metaphor for faith.
Imagine you’re laid up in the hospital. There’s been an accident and your bones are broken. In time you will heal, but it will take time. And while you’re waiting for your body to get back in shape, you friend comes by to visit you upon occasion. You’re a half-decent person, you try to stay on the sunny side, but when your friend comes you can’t help but complain. The hospital food is atrocious, you don’t know if any of the hospital staff even know your name, and there are so many things you should be doing, but you can’t. Your house is a mess, the outside needs to be painted, a few of the boards on the deck need to be replaced, on and on and on.
And then, one day, your friend walks into the hospital room and says, “Listen, I hired a contractor to fix all the problems at your house. It’s all taken care of. It’s a gift from me to you.”
So what can you do?
You have two choices: you either believe your friend, or you don’t. Remember, you’re stuck in the hospital, and you can’t go inspect all the changes for yourself.
So, if you disbelieve your friend, well then you go on being a miserable bore whose no fun to be around.
But if you believe your friend, well then you have your first good day in a really long time.
Do you see? Faith doesn’t do anything.
Faith doesn’t paint houses. Painters do. Faith doesn’t fix the deck. Carpenters do.
Faith isn’t some special gadget that makes the impossible possible. Faith is just a trust in a person who can actually makes the impossible possible.
Faith doesn’t save us. Jesus does. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Peter Kwon about the readings for the 9th Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Isaiah 1.1, 10-20, Psalm 50.1-8, 22-23, Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16, Luke 12.32-40). Peter is one of the pastors serving Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the unexpected Gospel, Holes, sacrifices, Fleming Rutledge, relationships, LCD Soundsystem, singing our prayers, God’s loquaciousness, judgment, eschatological hope, Dogmatics In Outline, Sunday clothes, and preparation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: One Of Us
Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’ (in the scroll of the book it is written of me).” When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
“Consequently” is a rather interesting way to start a passage of scripture. It’s like beginning with “therefore.” Whenever we encounter a therefore we need to discern what the “therefore” is there for.
So, if we flip back one verse we will find these words: For it it impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “sacrifices and offerings are not desired, but only the body of the One who comes to do the will of the Lord.”
Contrary to how we might feel on Good Friday, with Easter looming on the horizon, today is actually the most expectant worship service of the year. Sure, Jesus predicted his passion and resurrection no less than three times, but no one seemed to believe him. They abandoned him, betrayed him, and denied him.
But today, we are firmly rooted between the already and the not yet. This is the final Sunday of Advent – everything about our worship (songs, scripture, sermon) is saturated with a sense that something uniquely impossible is about to happen.
You see, for centuries the people of God waited for something. That something took on different shapes and sizes and expectations. And the something had a name: Messiah, the Holy One of Israel, from the righteous branch of David, the one born to set us free.
Freedom is good and all. But freedom from what?
Freedom from tyranny? Freedom from fear and judgment?
What about freedom from sin and death?
There have been plenty of figures throughout history who have come to bring freedom, but freedom from the great enemies of sin and death is only possible if the One born to Mary also happens to be God in the flesh.
It is not yet Christmas, but here on the final Sunday of Advent, we straddle two worlds and two times. And it is from this vantage point that we can’t help but ask ourselves, “What child is this?”
All Christian worship is an attempt to answer that question.
Was Jesus like God? Was Jesus a prophet of God? Was Jesus merely a good ethical teacher?
The fundamental Christian proclamation is that Jesus is not like God, Jesus is God, light from light eternal.
Everything depends on this being true; otherwise the nativity story is just another tale of no real importance.
And here is the challenge set before us today: the child we come to worship on Christmas is, as the writer of Hebrews puts it, the very body that is sacrificed for us.
We don’t talk much about sacrifice in the church these days even though we’ve got plenty of the “bloody hymns” in our hymnal. If we do sing those songs at all we usually save them for the season of Lent during which we’re supposed to feel bad about our badness.
But it’s almost Christmas Eve! Nows not the time to talk about blood and sacrifice!
We are surely ready for that cute little baby to be born for us in the manger – it’s another thing entirely to be prepared for that baby to be the One born to die on the Cross.
Let alone to prepare our hearts for his return to judge both the living and the dead.
And yet, to ignore the language of sacrifice, the shadow of the cross in the manger, is to deny the truth of the strange new world of the Bible.
In the ancient world sacrifice was at the heart of all religious practice. Israel might stand apart in how the God of Abraham did not require human sacrifices (save for that incident with Isaac, but that’s for another sermon). But there are plenty of sacrifices expected by and through the Law for the people of God. For, to sacrifice is to admit there is a need for it. The only way to be holy is to remove sin altogether, and no one can do that.
Sacrifice, therefore, was offered on behalf of God’s people in order to be made right.
However, over time, the sacrifices themselves became empty signs of an empty faith. Again and again the prophets of God rejected the blood spilled by the people when injustice continued to reign. What good is it to sacrifice a bull or a goat when widows, orphans, and the outcasts were ignored?
Therefore, as Hebrews puts it, Jesus’ death is a single offering for all time for those who are sanctified.
There is no holiness without sacrifice. In fact, the very meaning of sacrifice is “making holy.”
Of course, there are some of us who would like to believe that we are beyond the need and the time of sacrifice. That, because of the Cross, we have left sacrifice behind.
But that only betrays how essential sacrifice is to our daily lives.
We sacrifice the land and the lives of animals that we might live.
We make sacrifices in the name of love that we feel for others.
We sacrifice those who serve in the military that we might feel safe.
Sacrificing is part of who we are, and we do so because we often think it is the only way we can make up for the wrongs we have done.
And yet, that feeling of guilt, the knowledge of what we have done and left undone, important as it may be, is in contradiction to the work of Christ who was offered as a single sacrifice for all time.
There’s an unbelievable story that happened on Christmas a little more than 100 years ago, and perhaps some of you have heard about it. It took place in and among the trenches of World War I in 1914. All across the western front there were unofficial ceasefires to observe the holiday that were also due to limited ammunitions along the front. Halting fire for a period of time was nothing special, and has been part of warfare for a long time. But it’s what happened during the cease fire that boggles the mind.
In certain areas along the trench lines, soldiers left the safety of their barricades and met in the middle of No Man’s Land to celebrate Christmas.
There was one area where the ringing of church bells gave certain soldiers the courage to bravely enter the disputed space between the trenches.
In other places the soldiers saw Christmas trees being hastily decorated on either side and ventured out for a closer look.
But my favorite miracle took place when a group of German soldiers started singing Stille Nacht, and when they came to the end of one of the verse, the English soldiers on the other side took it up and started singing it on their own.
It sounds too good to be true, but all the best stories are like that. We have letters from soldiers who expressed total surprise by what they experienced on that Christmas Eve. How, they exchanged gifts and food in the middle of No Man’s Land with the very people they had been trying to kill.
There were even football (soccer) matches that occurred in various locations that Christmas Eve.
One soldier later recalled that, at the end of the celebration, they returned to their respective sides and woke up on Christmas morning to a dead silence. He said both sides shouted merry Christmas back and forth, but that no one felt particularly merry anymore. And then, the silence ended in the early afternoon of Christmas Day and the killing started again.
He said, “It was a short peace in a terrible war.”
Sacrifices were made in the name of peace, just hours after they were singing together about the dawn of redeeming grace.
Throughout the great collection of scripture we are told again and again what we can, and what we can’t do. Thou shall not and all that. And, if thou hast done something, this is how thou shall atone for what thou has done.
But, the primary function of the Law, as Jesus says in John 5 and Paul says in Romans 3, is to accuse us. That is, the Law exists to show us who we are in relation to it – we’re sinners. The Law reveals the complete and total righteousness we require to acquire the Kingdom of Heaven, and how we might meet the Holy One of Israel blameless and justified.
The only problem is, none of us can do it.
We’re all on the naughty list.
We delude ourselves, we self-rationalize all sorts of behaviors, we feel as if we can justify all sorts of things, so long as we feel like we’re growing closer to God.
But the truth is that God is the one hellbent on coming to us.
Contrary to how we so often talk about it, the Law doesn’t bring us to the mountaintop of God’s domain.
The Law, instead, bring us down to our knees.
Or, to put it another way, the Law gets us to see ourselves with enough clarity that we can ask the question, “How could God love someone like me?”
Ask that question and you are not far from the kingdom of God.
In theological and ecclesial circles, there is a lot of talk about the atonement – what is accomplished by Jesus’ death on the cross?
There are an array of ideas about the work of cross – we owed a debt to God via our sins and Jesus paid it all, or the death of Jesus satisfied God’s wrathful anger against us.
That have all the makings of seminary basement debates.
But the theologian Gerhard Forde dispenses with all of those theories in favor of seeing the cross simply as our being caught up in a murder. He argues that any theory that tidily explains the death of God’s Son pales next to the great Good News that the One we tried to do away with on the cross speaks a surprising word of reconciliation int he resurrection.
When the incarnate God in Jesus Christ comes to us, we nail him to the cross. And then, three days later, God gives him back to us.
Which is just another way of saying: Hear the Good News, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that prove’s God’s love toward us.
And perhaps that’s why we read these words from Hebrews just shy of Christmas Eve; they forever and always declare the very same thing declared in the incarnation: God is for us. There is therefore literally nothing on earth or in heaven that can ever separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ.
In the full knowledge of our sins, past/present/future, our propensity toward violence, even against those who worship the same baby in the manger – God joined our lives to be life for us, becoming one of us, to free us from the attempt to be more than we were created to be.
Jesus arrives, fully God and fully human, down in our miserable estate and is obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, to end forever any sacrifice not determined by his cross.
Consequently, Christmas comes with a cost – the baby born for us is the God who dies for us. God is the dawn of redeeming grace. God is our peace. God is the one who sanctifies us.
Come, thou long expected Jesus!
Born to set thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee!
And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
On Sunday I stood up and addressed the crowd present for the church’s Christmas Concert and attempted to make the case that we are the stories we tell and the songs we sing – The stories we tell are reflections of how we understand ourselves in the world and the same is true of the songs we belt out. I then suggested (read: demanded) that we know longer sing “Baby It’s Cold Outside” because it only reinforces an extremely problematic understanding of how we relate to one another.
I mean, it’s basically a date rape song. “Say, what’s in this drink?”
Go listen to it and I promise you’ll walk away feeling all sorts of gross and uncomfortable.
Had I been a little more bold, I would’ve also suggested (read: demanded) that we also no longer sing “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.”
The words to the song sum up how we all too often imagine the Lord in our minds: “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice; he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…” And then, whether we know it or not, we take these words to be Gospel truth and we believe that God is keeping a ledger against us and only if we have more ticks in the Good column than the Bad column will we receive an everlasting reward.
The same thing is true of how Elf on the Shelf has become such a popular pastime – the purpose of the Elf is to spy on the good and bad behaviors of children and then to report them to Mr. Claus so that the children will be rewarded, or punished, accordingly.
The same thing is true of so many movies and shows and songs that ask us to discern whether or not we, ourselves, have behaved in such a way as to make it on the Nice list or on the Naughty list.
But, according to the strange new world of the Bible, we’re ALL on the naughty list.
That is: all of us do things we know we shouldn’t do and we all avoid doing things we know we should do.
Paul puts it this way: None of us is righteous. No, not one.
And yet, that’s Good News. It’s Good News because, thankfully, Jesus isn’t Santa Claus.
Jesus encounters the world’s (read: our) sins with no list to check, no test to grade, no debts to collect, and no scores to settle. Jesus has already taken all of our sins, nailed them to the cross, and left them there forever.
Jesus saves not just the good little boys and girls, but all the stone-broke, deadbeat, sinful children of the world who He, in all his confounding glory, sets free in his death and resurrection.
Grace, as Robert Farrar Capon so wonderfully put it, cannot prevail until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapses away forever.
But, of course, it sounds too good to be true!
In a world run by meritocracy, the Good News of grace sounds ridiculous if not irresponsible. If we don’t have eternal punishment to hang over the heads of those who follow Jesus, how else can we possibly keep them in line?
Perhaps we have our theological wires crossed. We so often assume that we have to do something in order to get God to do something for us. We believe that so long as we show up to church (online or in-person), and read our Bibles, and say a few prayers, and volunteer every once in a while that it will be enough to punch our ticket to the great beyond.
And yet, so many (if not all) of Jesus’ parables, proclamations, and pronouncements have nothing at all to do with the behavior of those blessed prior to their blessing.
The Gospel is not about how we justify ourselves – The Gospel is about how God in Christ justifies us.
God, in all of God’s confounding wisdom, runs out to the prodigal in the street before he has a chance to apologize, offers the bread and the cup to Judas knowing full and well what he will do, and returns to Peter with outstretched arms after his denials.
God chooses to forgive, rather than condemn, the world from the cross.
That’s what grace is all about – it is the unmerited, unwarranted, and undeserved gift from God.
And if we can see grace for what it really is, then Christmas can really come into its own. Like the gifts under the tree that are (hopefully) given not as a response to good works/behavior or the expectation that good works/behavior will come from them – we can celebrate the great gift of God in Christ Jesus who comes to do what we could not do for ourselves.
Or to put it another way: we are all on the Naughty list and God still gives us the present of Jesus’ presence anyway.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 4th Sunday of Advent [C] (Micah 5.2-5a, Psalm 80.1-7, Hebrews 10.5-10, Luke 1.39-55). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including The Trumpet Child, grace and love, time signatures, John Coltrane, Jingle All The Way, the importance of place, outside words, HOAs and Christmas decorations, sanctified sacrifices, the mother of God, virgin righteousness, and the radical nature of the incarnation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: A Love Supreme