Unexpected

Mark 16.1-8

When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. 

There is something a little terrible about preaching to an empty sanctuary on Easter Sunday. It’s just me and the camera. It’s empty as a tomb. 

Over the years I have written plenty of sermons, most of them alone in the corner of a coffee shop. But offering a sermon in an empty room? I never thought it possible, but I’ve been doing it for more than a year.

And yet, isn’t this also the triumph of the resurrection? Jesus is not a prisoner in this sanctuary. We can’t keep him still anywhere. He is out and about and on his way to Galilee with other things to do. Thanks be to God.

He is risen!

He is risen indeed!

It happened on a Sunday.

The Gospel is reluctant to give us too many details about the whole thing: We don’t read of the grief the women undoubtedly felt as they went to anoint Jesus’ body. We don’t learn of the disciples’ next plans now that their Master is dead and forsaken in a tomb. We don’t really receive much of anything save for the fact that the women go to the tomb without knowing how they will roll away the stone.

And yet, when they arrive, the stone is not where it’s supposed to be. They peak their heads inside and discover a young man dressed in white.

He says, “Don’t be afraid. I know you’re looking for Jesus, but he ain’t here. He was dead, but now he is resurrected. Look over there, that’s where they laid his body. But now, go, tell the disciples that Jesus is going on ahead of you to Galilee, you will see him there.”

And this is how the story ends: The women run from the tomb as fast as they can and they say nothing to anyone because they are afraid.

Easter.

It really doesn’t get better than this for the church. Out of death, life!

And fear.

I think we all know something of fear this year, perhaps more than any other year. Many of us are still waiting for the chance to get a vaccine, many of us haven’t seen those we love in more than a year, and still yet many of us know someone, or a family, or a friend who suffered tremendously or even died because of the coronavirus.

However, the God of scripture is the God who brings life out of death.

That’s the heart of the Christian proclamation and, for some reason, it’s not what we often hear from the church, particularly on Easter. Instead we’re more likely to hear about how “Easter teaches us that the world needs more love in it,” or “Easter is the symbol of the necessity of transformation,” or “Easter is about the enduring symbols of ultimate truth.”

Notice: in each of those Easter claims, they’re entirely about us, how we respond, and what we do next.

If that’s all Easter has to offer then we should leave it all behind. 

Thankfully, the New Testament says something very different.

He is not here. He is Risen.

God is the One doing the things that get done. 

The disciples, even the women, they do nothing to contribute to the resurrection. They are merely witnesses. And, when they do respond, they run away in fear. 

And perhaps fear is the proper way to respond to the proclamation of Easter because it was, and always will be, entirely unexpected.

The women go to the tomb in the morning for the same reasons that many of us go to cemeteries – we want to connect, somehow, to those who are no longer among the living; we want to seek closure; we want to pay our respects.

But nobody, now or then, goes to a cemetery expecting someone to raise from the dead.

All of the other Easter stuff, the connections to spring and daffodils and butterflies emerging from cocoons, the eggs and the candy, they’re all good and fine, but they don’t have anything to do with the resurrection of the dead.

Hearing about the need to love one another or finding ultimate truth, doesn’t send a group of people running from a tomb, it doesn’t set the faithless disciples on a course to reshape entire societies, it doesn’t result in a faith that is still turning the world upside down. 

Let me put it plainly – What happened on Easter was so unexpected and so earth-shattering that it ignited a tiny band of mediocre fishermen and other marginalized people, all of whom were discredited by the world, because they followed a man who had been publicly executed by the highest authorities of church and state. 

Maybe it was enough to simply hear Jesus’ teachings, or eat some of the miraculous loaves and fishes to set them on fire. But I doubt it. It’s not good news to work so hard for things to change, and to love your enemies, and to pray for those who persecute you, unless the One who shared those words was, in fact, God in the flesh who died and rose again.

The resurrection is what makes everything in the life of faith intelligible. 

The earliest disciples, those hiding away in the upper room after the crucifixion and those walking to the tomb that first Easter morning had not a hope in the world. Their entire worldview was nailed to a cross. But then on Easter he came back.

No wonder they were afraid. 

Today, Easter, is the high point of the Christian year and yet it is always challenging. It is challenging because it was unexpected and there are no good analogies from human experience that can adequately convey it. 

Easter, to put it another way, cannot be explained.

But that’s the heart of Easter: it is unprecedented, unlooked-for, and unimaginable.

Some of us have no doubt seen or experienced what we might call miracles – we know someone who kicked a bad habit, or perhaps we’re aware of an unexplainable change in a medical diagnosis, or something happened that cannot be mere coincidence. But none of us have ever experienced someone dead in the grave for three days resurrected, let alone God in the flesh.

But someone did.

All of our faith, this whole thing we call church, is predicated on a handful of people from long ago who saw and experienced something so unexpected that it radically re-narrated everything in existence.

And all it took were three words: He is risen!

I know that it cannot be proved, I know it isn’t possible as we understand possibility. But I also know that this is a message that explains everything that happened afterward. He is risen! That is truly a piece of such Good News that it would shakes the foundations of the world from then until now. 

Hear the Good News: The battle is over. Even though the the ugly forces of sin and death insist on rearing their heads, it is only because they haven’t heard about the forfeit. We live in the in-between, the already-but-not-yet. The old is past; behold it has all become new.

The story of Easter, the thing that terrified the women, is the fact that the greatest enemies ever faced, sin and death themselves, are defeated in Jesus Christ. Ultimately, they have no power over us.

No matter what we encounter in this life here and now, there is one thing that will always hold true – the unexpected victory of Jesus. He is risen. 

Easter then, is and isn’t about us. It’s not about trying to get us to live better lives here and now, even though we probably should. It isn’t about making a commitment to making the world a better place, even though it wouldn’t hurt. 

Easter is about what God does for us.

In just about every other part of our lives, there are expectations.

And yet, Jesus is all about the unexpected.

Jesus doesn’t wait on the cross until we right all of our wrongs.

Jesus doesn’t hide behind the stone in the tomb until there’s enough do-goodery in the world.

Instead, the proclamation of Easter is we don’t have to do anything, because the everything we’ve always needed is already done.

If Easter becomes anything less bizarre and unexpected than that, then faith is turned into standing on your tiptoes to see something that isn’t going to happen.

We can’t make Easter happen – we can’t raise Jesus, or ourselves, from the dead.

It happens in spite of us entirely, which is exactly what makes the Good News so good.

The promise of Easter for people like you and me is wild beyond all imagining. It is the gift of life in the midst of death. It is a way out simply by remaining in. It is everything for nothing! Hallelujah. 

He is risen.

He is risen indeed. Amen. 

A Hoped For Hope

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Dane Womack about the readings for Palm Sunday [B] (Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29, Mark 11.1-11). Dane serves at First UMC in Paragould, Arkansas. Our conversation covers a range of topics including church costumes, rejected stones, hosannas on repeat, political parodies, stretched imaginations, simple obedience, and meta-narratives. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: A Hoped For Hope

Between Love & Hate

Psalm 35.17-21

How long, O Lord, will you look on? Rescue me from their ravages, my life from the lions! Then I will thank you in the great congregation; in the mighty throng I will praise you. Do not let my treacherous enemies rejoice over me, or those who hate me without cause wink the eye. For they do not speak peace, but they conceive deceitful words against those who are quiet in the land. They open wide their mouths against me; they say, “Aha, Aha, our eyes have seen it.”

John 15.18-25

“If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘Servants are not greater than their master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates me hates my Father also. If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not have sin. But now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. It was to fulfill the word that is written in their law, ‘They hated me without a cause.’”

Something happened.

It’s not altogether clear what the something is that happened, but something definitely happened.

We live in a very different world than we once did.

And I don’t just mean because of the pandemic.

There was a time when everyone seemed to assume that you would grow up, go to school, get married, have two kids, pay your taxes, and go to church.

That world no longer exists.

Whatever the something is that happened, it had a major impact on the church. For, it is no longer assumed that new people will keep streaming in through the sanctuary doors (back when we could have in-person services) nor will they willfully sit through an entire service from the comfort of their couches simply because that’s what people are supposed to do.

Church, now, is a choice. And it is a choice among a myriad of other choices regarding what we can do with our time. 

So, how has the church responded to this something that happened?

Well, in large part, we’ve decided that the best path forward is to convince people to love us because we’re a people of love.

Which, all things considered, isn’t such a bad idea. God is love, after all. Jesus does tell us to love God and neighbor. Maybe, just maybe, love is all we need.

So we, as an institution, created banners proclaiming the necessity of love, we crafted sermon series about how God loves everyone just the way they are, we dropped the L word as often as we could when, frighteningly, we’re not entirely sure we know what we mean when we talk about love.

Here’s an example from a sermon I listened to recently: “God loves you just the way you are, but God doesn’t want you to stay just as you are.”

What in the world does that mean?

Therefore, we find ourselves in a place where love is the key to being the church and even if we don’t know what it means, or even what it looks like, we at least know that, in the end, we all want to be loved.

And yet, Jesus tells his disciples, and us, that following him means the world will hate us.

“Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world – therefore the world hates you…If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But they will do all these things to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.”

Which, if we’re being honest, isn’t an easy thing to hear from our Lord. 

Particularly when we’ve convinced ourselves the whole point of church is to love and be loved in return.

Here’s a brief thought-experiment – Let’s imagine, if we can, Jesus showing up today. What would he look like? With whom would he spend his time? What would he preach about?

Usually, when we picture Jesus, he’s this hippy-dippy character who throws up a peace sign every once in a while, he asks us to all get along, and above all he is nice.

But Jesus wasn’t nice. You don’t crucify someone for being nice.

If God just wanted us to be more loving, why did Jesus have to come to tell us that? 

If God is all about love, then why did God go through all the trouble of being this particular person, Jesus, at a particular time and a particular place?

Jesus knew that life wasn’t all that it’s often cracked up to be. He told stories about giving money away, he regularly ridiculed the rich, he belittled the religious authorities, he called into question all of the powers and principalities of his day.

And for that, and more, he was hated.

Take the whole Gospel in: the crowds grow and grow only to leave him abandoned in the end. 

Are we sure that we want to follow this Jesus?

If we can’t imagine being hated for our discipleship, we can, at the very least, recover how odd of a thing it is to be Christian. This whole proclamation we call the Gospel is an extraordinary adventure, and that’s not that same thing as wanting to be liked/loved by everyone.

Consider – Last week we looked at Jesus’ temptations from the Devil out in the wilderness. He doesn’t eat for forty days, he contends against the powers of Satan, and then he returns to call upon the first disciples. And, in our minds, we just kind of assume the earliest conversations went something like this: “Okay, so I’m God in the flesh. I’m the Messiah. And I finally figured out how to solve all the world’s problems… All we need is love. Now, go and tell everyone what I said.”

But, of course, that’s not what happened.

Because, again, if all Jesus came to do what push us in the direction of love, then why did everyone reject him. Why did the crowds, to use the language of our passages today, hate him?

Perhaps Jesus was hated because he refused to give the people what they wanted on their own terms. Remember – the Devil offered Jesus the power to institute feeding programs, the power over all earthly kingdoms, and even the power to instill faith in all people.

But Jesus refused.

Jesus refused because God’s kingdom cannot become manifest through the devil’s means.

But that doesn’t mean that Jesus is a Messiah of apathy, laziness, or indifference.

Jesus is very political – in fact, he is an entirely new politic. But the Kingdom Jesus inaugurates through his life, death, and resurrection is one that comes through the transformation of the world’s understanding of how to get things to happen.

Unlike the world, Jesus refuses to use violence in order to achieve peace.

Unlike the world, Jesus refuses to use coercive measures in order to make the Kingdom come.

Unlike the world, Jesus refuses to use the powers and principalities to do anything

Therefore, the offense, the thing people hate, is not that Jesus wanted his followers to be more loving – the offense is Jesus himself. 

Over and over again he talks about bringing down the mighty and lifting up the lowly because he’s in the business of rectification.

He talks about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked for no reason other than the fact that they’re hungry and naked.

He talks about dying in order to be raised so that the whole of the cosmos can be raised with him for FREE.

Is is then any wonder that the world wasn’t prepared to welcome this Messiah?

It is any wonder that people have hated Jesus and his followers since the beginning?

Jesus was ultimately put to death not because he thought that the world could use a little more love, though we certain could. Jesus was killed because he embodied and proclaimed an entirely different reality that threatens anyone with any power.

Put simply, Jesus was killed for telling the truth.

For us today, the problem with Jesus’ truth-telling is that we, and the world, are drunk with deception, we hoard half-truths, and we live by lies.

Telling the truth is no easy endeavor – it got Jesus killed and it can upturn everything about our lives. But contrary to how we often water-down the gospel, there’s nothing safe about Jesus, no matter what VeggieTales might tell us.

Jesus offers freedom from our anxieties by giving us, of all things, a yoke to wear around our necks.

Jesus shares the possibility of transformation here and now by inviting us into his death (baptism) so that we might rise into new life.

Jesus promises our resurrection from the dead not with a wave of a magic wand, but by making of members of his very body redeemed by his blood so that we can become a community that is an alternative to the world.

And for that, the world might just hate us.

Why? 

Jesus forms us into a people who live by strange ways and by strange means. We are a community who gathers (even virtually) with people we share nothing in common with except that Jesus binds us to one another.

We are a community who believe in the transformative power of praying for our enemies, turning the other cheek, feeding the hungry, befriending the friendless, and hoping against hope.

We are a community committed to the least of these even if (and when) the world tries to convince us to do otherwise.

God in Christ has knit us together to be a people of love in a world that runs by hate, which is a very dangerous way to live.

It might sound difficult or even frightening, but its at least an adventure. The Gospel is not merely one thing after another, it’s the only things that really matters – it’s the difference that makes the difference.

Hear the Good News, the Gospel: Despite our best efforts, and all of our best intentions, we couldn’t climb all the way up to God. We couldn’t save ourselves and we couldn’t save the world even though we certainly tried. We convinced ourselves that if we just loved each other a little bit more that things would finally be set right. But things largely stayed the same.

So what did God do? Was God delighted to give us an A for effort but an F for execution and therefore closed the door of the kingdom right in our faces? 

Actually, in a wild act of humility (read: humiliation) God came down to us, became one with us.

We always thought that the whole purpose of this thing called faith, this thing called church, was so somehow get ourselves closer to God. And then God came down to us, down to the level of the cross, straight into the muck and the mire of this life, all the way down into the very depths of hell.

He who knew no sin took on our sin so that we might be free of it.

Listen- This is not something that happened just for other people in other places – God still stoops down into your life and into mine. God has taken stock of all of our choices, the good and the bad, and still chooses to come and be God for us, with us, in spite of us. 

God loves you so much that God was willing to die.

Jesus died for you.

He lived his whole life as a refugee and amidst poverty, he endured reproaches and derision and abuse just so that you and I could escape death.

Jesus does this knowing full and well that we are the very people who would’ve shouted crucify.

Jesus is peculiarly obstinate.

And it is wonderful. 

Jesus does not need us, but we certainly need him. 

And that’s the scandal of the Gospel – Jesus, God in the flesh, chooses to live, die, and live again for us and we don’t deserve it one bit. 

No one does.

And we are now called to live in the light of that perplexing Good News. That light helps us to see ourselves and one another not according to the ways of the world where we measure everyone and everything by worth, but according to the One who is the way, the truth, and the life. 

The world might hate us for it, but Jesus has overcome the world.

Something has happened. And things are not as they once were. But this is still good news, because the something that happened is called Jesus. Amen. 

Infinite Mercy

Psalm 51

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

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

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

Most of them were asleep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I guess so.”

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

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

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

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

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

“My turn to do what?” I asked.

“To confess your sins to me.”

So I did.

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

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

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

And that is astonishing.

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

But the psalmist sees it different. 

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

The psalmist worships a God who mercy knows no bounds.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Lent is also a time for honesty.

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

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

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

We are dead in our sins. 

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

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

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

From The Mouth Of Babes

Psalm 8.1-5

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

Matthew 21.14-17

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

It was a busy Sunday morning.

The confirmands were getting confirmed.

The choir was trying out a new anthem.

The sermon was a sitting at a solid B-.

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

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

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

Eye contact.

Knowing head nods.

The subtle tap on the hand.

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

Owen. 

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

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

The something they lost was standing right below me.

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

So I did.

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

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

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

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

God’s ways are not our ways.

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

But they were distracted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Literally, “Save us, Son of David.”

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

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

In Jesus, they see God. 

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

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

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

Sometimes, kids get it better than we do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Far As The Curse Is Found

Isaiah 9.2-7

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

All the angels were gathered around the heavenly throne for a conversation. Things were quite a mess down on earth (as usual). And the Creator was growing concerned about the state of Creation – endless wars, frivolous fighting, frightening famines.

“I’ve tried everything!” God complained. “I’ve shared with them some of the most beautiful words any of them could ever hope to hear. The Psalms! The Hymns! The Covenant! They love to hear about peace and goodwill and mercy, but they certainly don’t like to live it!”

God continued, “Then I sent them the prophets. They love Isaiah and the promise of release from their sufferings, freedom from their exile. But do they follow the precepts of the prophets about justice and righteousness rolling down like waters? Never!”

There was then widespread discussion of the sad state of affairs on earth. Many of the angels – Gabriel, Michael, and others had gone down there on many an occasion. They had seen for themselves the sources of God’s lament and they too shared God’s concern.

“I think,” God began, “The only thing left is for one of you, a member of the heavenly court, to go down to earth. Live with them, not just for a moment, but every day. Get to know them, become one of them, let them get to know you. Only then will heaven’s intent be truly communicated to them. Only then will they take notice of the great gap between the way they have been living and the way they were created. Only then will we be able to reveal to them who I created them to be.”

The angels all stood in awkward silence. They had been among the people of God before, delivering messages on behalf of the Lord. They weren’t about to volunteer for long-term duty in such a murderous, sinful, and difficult place.

The silence lasted for an eternity. Finally, God spoke quietly but with determination, “It was always going to be me. I will go.”

This is a parable of Incarnation.

The first Christmas was one that the people Israel had been hoping for. Again and again in the Old Testament we read of the deplorable state of world, the need for deliverance and redemption, only to return the miserable estate of humanity. The people, as Isaiah intones, walked in darkness. 

Stuck in exile.

No hope for tomorrow.

A loss of all that was good, and right, and holy.

And then, Christmas.

Those who walked in darkness have seen a great light. The oppressive rule of sin and death come to the beginning of their end in the baby born King of kings. The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay (as the old hymn goes) is the one in whom all things move and live and have their being. Authority rests on his shoulder – he is the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

He is God in the flesh.

Notice – the power of today, of Christmas Eve, is not found in the fact that the baby lying in the manger becomes the eternal judge of the living and the dead. What strikes us to our heart of hearts is this: the eternal Judge, very God of very God, the Alpha and the Omega, has become that little baby!

Christmas, ultimately, is about the utter absurdity of God’s humility. And when we come to grips with the great chasm across which God traversed to dwell among us, how God in the flesh’s story ultimately leads to us putting him on the cross, we realize, frighteningly, that God doesn’t really need us. God could do very well without us mucking up His creation all the time. 

And yet, God is moved by our need of him. 

God, bewilderingly, condescends to come and be with us, among us, and ultimately die for us.

God, confoundingly, takes our place and surrenders himself for us, binding himself to us forever and ever. 

God, bizarrely, chooses to take on flesh in the form of a baby to shine light in a world stuck in chaos and darkness. 

The arrival of God into the world incarnated in Christ fundamentally shakes reality to the core. For God has come for all – for those who celebrate this Christmas Eve with frivolity and joy, for those who are afraid of what tomorrow might bring, for those who have plenty to repent of, and for those in detail of having any need for repentance. 

Our existence is upended because a child has been born to us, and he is our salvation. Our salvation, regardless of whether we understand it or believe it, whether or not we are good or pious people. This child is born for us. 

We now live in the new day which God has made, a day ruled by the light of the world who shines in the darkness. 

Year ago, on one of my first Christmas Eves as a pastor, I stood outside the doors of the church welcoming in the last stragglers before the service began. I had already greeted more unfamiliar faces than I could count, made small talk with people I saw every week and with people I would never see again, and the final car pulled into the parking lot while the organist started playing the first hymn.

I had a choice to make in that moment; either, get the show on the road, walk in the church, and sing at the top of my lungs or, wait, let the service start without me, and greet the last person to arrive.

I chose the latter.

The choir frantically flocked around wondering what to do while I shewed them down the center aisle and I went back outside in the dark and cold night. Out of the car came a little old man who shuffled with the help of cane and with a decisively Ebeneezer Scrooge scowl on his face. By the time he made it to the door the organist had started the hymn over again wondering where I was. So I politely, and quickly, offered him my hand, opened the door, and welcomed him to church. But before I had a chance to run down the aisle he grabbed me by the stole and said, “Sonny, I only come to church once a year so I better hear some Good News tonight.”

It seems that, no matter how hard we try, the world just keeps drowning in bad news. 

Global pandemic.

Economic uncertainty.

Restrictions on numbers of people gathering together.

We are not unlike the people who, to use Isaiah’s word, “walked in darkness.”

All of us, the tall and the small, the good and the bad, we are in need of some Good News.

So hear the Good News: God in Christ, born to us this day, has brought us salvation. God is our helper, liberator, and redeemer. God rescues us and delivers us. We live because God is with us.

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

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

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined. Merry Christmas. Amen.

The World Turned Upside Down

Luke 2.1-14

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Merry Christmas!

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

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

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

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

And here we are! 

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

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

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

Odd. 

That’s what Christmas really is.

It’s strange.

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

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

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

And this year, it feels like everything is wrong. 

A global pandemic.

Economic devastation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But we are wrong.

Dead wrong.

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

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

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

God becomes us.

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

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

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

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

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

And the angel says this is Good News.

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

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

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

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

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

For free.

For nothing.

On no basis on our part.

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

Christ is our only hope. 

He, himself, is the Good News.

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

Unsettled

2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16

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

It was the perfect Christmas Eve service.

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

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

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

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

Like I said, it was perfect.

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did they use the money to start a feeding ministry?

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

Did they use the finances to start job training programs?

Nope.

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

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

But this also comes as a great challenge. 

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

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

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

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

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

But God does not rest on God’s laurels.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Remember – God delights in the surprise!

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

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

God is God and we are not.

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the God we worship.

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

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

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

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

And how does God respond to our attempts of permanence?

God laughs.

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

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

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

Stuck In Advent

Isaiah 64.1-9

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence — as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil — to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned. Because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people. 

In most churches there are two types of people: 

There are those who, seeing the purple paraments and the tree and the wreath and hearing the scriptures about sin, judgment, and wrath think to themselves, “Thank God! It’s finally Advent again!

And there are those who, seeing and hearing the same things think to themselves, “What is happening? Where’s the Christmas spirit? I thought this was supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year…

Advent, for better or worse, is a habit. And it takes a whole lot of courage and consideration to get used to this season.

Because outside of the Christian community, Advent is just an excuse to speed up toward Christmas – the decorations have been on sale since before Halloween, Black Friday begins before Friday, and just about every online retailer is constantly bombarding all of us with reminder to purchase our presents now before its too late!

Advent, in the church at least, teaches us to delay Christmas in order to rejoice in it fully when it finally arrives. 

Advent habituates us into seeing how the message of Christmas vanishes if we are not willing to walk toward the shame and pain that is all around us. 

Advent reminds us that we need the light of the world because we’re stuck in the darkness.

Which is why Advent always begins in the dark…

Isaiah, appropriately, depicts the stark nature of this liturgical season with a perceived absence of God. 

God, can’t you just come down here and start shaking things up! We could do for some trembling mountains and boiling rivers! We remember the mighty deeds with which you delivered us from the snares of death. And yet, for years and years no one has heard or seen or experienced anything divine except for you, and work in and through those who know what it means to wait. But you were angry with us and our miserable estate. You looked down upon our sinfulness, our wanton disregard for the last, least, lost, little, and dead. We’re unclean. All of our supposedly good deeds are like a filthy rag. Yet, O Lord, you are the Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter. We are the work of your hand. So don’t be exceedingly angry with us Lord, and do not remember our sins forever. We belong to you.

The language in our appointed scripture passage is not for the faint of heart, and it is certainly not what most of us are used to this time of year. We’d prefer to hear about hope, and love, and joy or maybe reflect on the theological value of The Grinch, It’s A Wonderful Life, and Home Alone.

And, to be fair, even though it’s not what we would necessarily prefer, the words of Isaiah are already echoed in our living in the world…

Tables were set this week for Thanksgiving with empty seats either because people could not travel in light of the Coronavirus, or because they are part of the quarter of million people who have died in this country because of the pandemic. Our holidays have the potential to both bring out our gratitude and our anger. We can be thankful for what we have while, at the same time, be filled with rage because of how the world continues to spin while we suffer.

In spite of travel restrictions and warnings about gatherings with too many people, airports across the country swelled as they always do during this time of year which has led many epidemiologists to intone – “It’s fine to have a big family gathering right now so long as your prepared to bury someone by Christmas…”

And it’s not just the pandemic that brings all these things into focus. More people suffer from depression at this time of year, more people end their own lives at this time of year, more couples get divorced at this time of year, more car accidents happen at this time of year, I could go on and on and on.

So here, in the midst of a world drowning in bad news, it’s not hard to imagine raising our clenched fist to the sky and shouting, “God! Where the hell are you?”

That is an Advent question.

It is perhaps the Advent question.

This isn’t the easiest stuff to contemplate and mull over at this time of year. I rejoice in setting up the lights on my house, and tuning the radio to the old familiar Christmas hits, and quoting along with all my favorite holiday movies. And yet, to so engage in this festive atmosphere can be a denial of the reality of this life.

Advent, fortunately or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, requires us to look straight into the heart of darkness. Particularly when we are afraid that we might see ourselves in the darkness.

Isaiah reminds us today that even the best of us are distorted and unclean – all that we do can be compared to a filthy old rag. We, all of us, chose to do things we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing things we know we should. Whether it’s leaving a nasty comment on social media, or dropping a scathing critique of a family member, to avoiding the apology and reconciliation we know, deep in our bones, that we need to do.

To confess the condition of our condition requires a constitution made possible only by the community called church in which we are reminded who we are over and over again.

We are, of course, beloved children of God, crafted in the image of the divine, fearfully and wonderfully made. And, at the same time, we, all of us, are sinners desperately in need of grace.

That is why we begin the church year with Advent, a season that begins in darkness. We, unlike the crowded ways of life, know the truth of ourselves, that there is nothing good in us, that we all fade away like leaves.

Therefore, the authentically hopeful Advent spirit is not looking away from the darkness, it is not filling our lives with fluff in order to deny the truth. 

It is, instead, praying for Holy Spirit to give us the courage and the conviction to look straight into the muck and mire of this life.

For, in the end, that’s exactly where God chose, and still chooses, to show up for us.

Jesus Christ, for whom our hearts long for and are prepared for, is the One who identifies not with the people who’ve got it all figured out, and have the perfect decorations on the house, and have all the presents already wrapped under the tree. 

Jesus comes for the last, least, lost, little, and dead. Who, if we’re honest, also includes all the people who seem like they have it all together on the surface. But under our masks, we are all the same – sinners in need of grace.

Jesus, thanks be to God, comes to take on our shame and pain by being born into this world, he shows up in the midst of our darkness, and gives himself up to die the brutal and dehumanizing death of a slave. 

There’s a reason Jesus spent his earthly ministry among the marginalized, because they were those who had been crying out for rectification. 

There’s a reason we nailed Jesus to the tree after all his healing and teaching – no one wants to be told they’re a sinner. 

So we killed God, or at least we thought we did. Despite our best efforts, the grave could not contain the Lord, and he rose on the third day in order to save us from ourselves. He taught the disciples about the way, the truth, and the life, and then ascended to the right hand of the Father.

But that is not the end of the story. In fact, it is the beginning of the end. For as much as we are Easter people, we are also Advent people. The church lives in Advent and we are stuck in it. We are a people between, and out of, time. We worship the once and future King Jesus Christ. We live in the light of his resurrection while anticipating his return to transfigure the cosmos into a new heaven and a new earth. 

We, to put it bluntly, are a people who know what it means to wait.

We are ripe with bad news in the world right now. Between the never-ending political in-fighting and civil unrest and an extremely communicable virus, there’s plenty of horrible things happening. And it always seems to coincide with this season we call Advent. But we also have the benefit of knowing the story behind the story. When we pick up the paper, or flip through the news, or doom-scroll on Twitter, we can rightly observe, “No wonder God had to send his Son into the world.”

Because Jesus is the only hope we’ve got.

Our hope won’t come from the world. It will never come from the next political candidate, or the next policy initiative, or the next fiscal plan, or the next diet, or the next pharmaceutical breakthrough. If our hope could come from the world it would’ve happened a long long time ago. We don’t have the power on our own to fix what is in us, despite what every commercial tries to sell us. 

No peloton, no diet, no queer eye makeover can transform us into our dream-selves.

No job, no paycheck, no material possession can fill the hole we feel in the depths of our souls.

No gift under the tree, no light on the house, no curated Christmas carol playlist can cover up the truth about who we really are.

The comfort we so need and seek must come from somewhere else – in a burst of power breaking upon us from beyond us altogether.

The joy of Advent then comes from a different place. It comes from the Lord who chose to do the inexplicable for a people undeserving. It comes from the Son who chose to live by forgiveness rather than vengeance. It comes from the Spirit who chooses to move in and through us even though we’re nothing but a bunch of filthy rags.

God will come again, God’s justice will prevail over all that is wrong in this life, God will fully destroy evil and pain forever and ever. 

Advent, this blessed and confounding season in the church, is all about looking straight into the darkness, its about seeking solidarity with those whose lives are nothing but darkness, all while living in the unshakable hope of those who expect the dawn to break in from on high.

To follow Jesus it to recognize that we are a people stuck in Advent, and the only way out is through the Lord who delights in making a way where there is no way. Amen.

The Waiting Game

Matthew 25.1-13

Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them; but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was s shout, “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.” But the wise replied, “No! There will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut. Later the bridesmaids came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.” Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Advent traditionally starts the Sunday after Christ the King Sunday.

Which is basically the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

And, as God’s people in the world, who live and speak his praise, we know well enough to keep holidays, holy days, in their place.

It’s why we sigh and lament when we see Halloween decorations in the store in the middle of the summer, and Christmas decorations adorning homes before Thanksgiving.

And yet, as Christians, we’re always living in Advent. That is, the time in between the first arrival of Christ and his second coming.

There’s never really been a time for the church that wasn’t Advent – and Advent is its best when we see it as the season of waiting.

So today, despite the power of proper liturgical location, we’re going to have a little Advent. Because if Jesus’ parable is about anything, it’s about waiting.

Listen – Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this…

The biggest wedding in a century is about to take place, and the whole community has been abuzz. Did you see her dress? Can you believe all the imported decorations? Is that a real band we hear warming up for the reception?

Ten bridesmaids are waiting from the groom, because what good is a wedding feast if one of the wedding partners is missing?

The wedding is scheduled at 2pm, but the bridesmaids have arrived with plenty of time and with all of their lamps. You see, it was a tradition in this town to welcome the groom with a festival of lights upon his arrival but, seeing as how the wedding was supposed to start in the middle of the afternoon, just as the sun prepares to set, they only brought what they thought they needed.

At least, that’s what half of the bridesmaids did.

The other half, inexplicably, showed up with a couple barrels of kerosene to keep those lamps going even though they wouldn’t need it.

But, unexpectedly, the groom is behind schedule. Hours pass and the bridesmaids can scarcely keep their eyes open when finally, at midnight and with trumpet sound, someone declares, “Behold! The groom is here! The time has come to light the lamps!”

The half with the kerosene barrels are dancing and giggling with excited expectation while the other half start bargaining for more oil.

But there’s not enough to go around.

Therefore, the reasonably unprepared crew sets off for the nearest 7-11 in hopes of procuring the necessary flammable liquids.

By the time they return, however, the doors to the reception have been closed, and despite the girls’ best puppy dog eyes and earnest pleadings, the doors remain closed and they hear the groom’s voice from the other side, “Truly I do not know you.”

Therefore stay awake, because you don’t know what you don’t know.

So much for Jesus being a kind and fair Lord, right?

So much for open hearts, open minds, and open doors, right?

So much for a crowded kingdom of heaven, right?

If we’re honest, this parable rubs us the wrong way. We’re fine with a little nudge toward Good-Samaritan-like behavior, we can even handle the subtle hints about the need for forgiveness in the story of the Prodigal family, but who does Jesus think he is telling us that some don’t get in to the wedding banquet?

Notably, the central figure in this confounding little parable is absent. There’s no miraculous gift of talents, or the prophecy of a coin in a fishes mouth, or even the chopping down of a fig tree – The bridegroom is missing and the bridesmaids are waiting.

It’s an Advent story.

But notice, dear friends, before Jesus reigns down judgement upon the foolish and sleepy bridesmaids, the total inclusion of the wedding feast prior to the party’s beginning. 

All ten are part of the wedding party waiting for the party from the very start.

They’ve done nothing to earn their invitation, we learn nothing of their miraculous morality or their gobs of good works, we don’t even know if they were kind to the bride, they’re simply the people for whom an invitation arrived in the mail.

Contrary to how we so love to talk about it in church, good behavior doesn’t save or damn anyone, God has thrown out the ledger book forever, the invitation have been sent out indiscriminately.

What we do with those invitations, however, is something different.

Because, in this parable, there is condemnation. But the condemnation only comes for those who trusted in themselves and in the world more than the Lord.

And, though this certainly ruffles feathers, it’s sound theology.

After all, when salvation by faith alone is proclaimed (when we say things like we don’t have to do anything because Jesus has done everything) it feels like salvation has been made too easy. It means that anybody could get in for nothing. 

Faith, then, is belittled to mere mental assent, and we can’t help ourselves from wondering, “If the real work is already done, if we’re already saved, then why should we try to be good, or kind, or loving?” And “If the world is saved in its sin, then why shouldn’t we keep on sinning?”

But, faith isn’t just some decision we make in our brains. Faith is all the intricacies within a trust-relationship with a person – Jesus. And being in relationship means we will always be doing something, not just thinking some things.

Therefore, the question would be better positioned like this: “Since Jesus, through his life-death-resurrection, has already invited me to the Supper of the Lamb, why shouldn’t I live as if I’m already at the party?”

We don’t have to do anything to get in, that’s Jesus department. But as invited members to the wedding feast, it’s good and right for us to live into that joyous celebration now in anticipation of then. 

As to the question of continuing in sin, part of the problem is, no matter what, we’re going to keep on sinning. Sin is not really something we have any choice about. Sin is very much who we are. 

Sure, we might be able to kick some of our bad habits, but we won’t be able to ditch the root of the problem. No matter how good or bad we are, all of us choose to do things we shouldn’t, and we all avoid doing things we know we should do.

The expression “nobody’s perfect” is meant to comfort us when we mess up. But it’s also just true – nobody’s perfect.

And yet, in spite of our imperfection, God sees fit to hand us a new creation gratis and invites us to live as if we trust that gift. 

That trust is what we, in the church, call faith. And faith is a gift – there’s no easy answer as to why some of us trust the Lord better than, or more than, others. Except, perhaps, by what Jesus offers us in the parable in question. But faith is a gift, offered freely to all. God, however, will not force us to accept this gift.

And its here, in recognition of the gift of God, that we start to squirm in our seats. Because, apparently, in spite of God’s total desire for salvation for the cosmos, there is a moment when the present will come into contact with God’s divine reality and the party will begin.

But there is no space at the party for party poopers.

All of the parables point to God’s graceful and grace-filled actions in the world. And here, in a parable of judgment, God will triumph in bringing the party to fruition while also separating those who rejoice in the mystery from those who are hellbent on keeping things the same.

Which leads us back to the parable.

Ten girls are on their way to a party, tickled to death for having been invited in the first place. 

Five of them are wise, five of them are foolish.

Pause – let us consider, “God has made foolish the wisdom of the world.”

Okay, the foolish bridesmaids are those who are wise according to the ways of the world. And the wise bridesmaids represent the wisdom of faith which means trusting in the foolishness of the cross. 

But for now, they all have what they need – an invitation.

The foolish, though, took lamps with them but no oil. They are those who live according to the logic of the world and what should happen. They are a bunch of happy winners, rejoicing in their win streak, who believe that their good fortune will always hold out because it always has.

These five foolish bridesmaids, knowing its a daytime wedding, reasonably assume they have no need of extra oil – they are rather sensible in their preparation.

The the other five, the so-called wise bridesmaids, insist on lugging around a bunch of kerosene, just in case – nothing could be more dumb. They have complicated their lives by preparing for nothing. They’ve packed their parka for a trip to the beach, and a bathing suit for their trip to the arctic.

And this is when the parable becomes a parable – something goes wrong.

The bridegroom is late, so late that the bridesmaids fall asleep.

BOOM the clock strikes 12, and Behold, the Bridegroom, finally, arrives!

The unexpected happens, just like it does in life and in the strange new world of the Bible.

The bridesmaids, even in their dozing off, have done what all Christians do – they wait.

For as much as we are Easter people, we are also Advent people – We wait, in faith, and it is in our waiting that all the good work of the kingdom comes to fruition.

Because waiting is all we have to do – whether we’re like Peter or Judas, if God really does take away the sins of the world, then all we need is faith to accept the invitation of waiting for the party.

The bridesmaids wake up, and they get to work. However, half of them discover they don’t have enough oil for their lamps. They don’t have enough because they never believed they would need it. 

In the end, it comes down to trusting in something that is foolish to the world and wise in the Kingdom of God.

The foolish girls run off to buy more oil, at midnight no less, but it is too late. When they return, the door to the party is closed.

The shut door is an image that us well-meaning Christians don’t particularly enjoy, but it is God’s answer to the foolish wisdom of the world. For, in the death of Jesus, God closed forever the ways of winning and rightness. 

But the wise bridesmaids, those who are foolish in the eyes of the world, who were willing to trust God more than themselves, were found in their lastness, leastness, lostness, and even deadness to rejoice and celebrate at the party. 

And all of the do-gooders who were so sure they could save themselves when it really came down to it, they’re stuck out in the dark with an unusable invitation.

God is a God of judgment, but it is not a judgment based on the political meritocracy that we find in the world, it’s not a judgment of who is good enough, it is a judgment of trust. 

Are we willing to rejoice in the knowledge that we get invited even though we don’t deserve it?

Or, do we want to believe that we can make the case for our own deserving even though we deserve nothing?

“Keep alert,” Jesus says at the end, “Because you don’t know when the waiting will end.”

This parable can frighten, and it can confound, but when we come to the conclusion the most appropriate response is, strangely, to laugh (if we can).

We laugh because the thing we’re waiting for is a party!

And that party is not some exclusive club in the hippest part of town with a giant bouncer holding a tiny list of VIPs. The party is already here in Christ who delights in bringing the party to us rather than waiting for us to earn our way in.

I then end with these all too important words from Robert Farrar Capon, “God is not our mother-in-law coming to see if her wedding-present china has been used, or if it has been chipped. God is our funny old uncle who shows up with a salami under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. We do indeed need to watch for him; but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun.”

Jesus is the life of the party and he wants a big crowd – the only thing we need to do is trust in him, nothing more, less, or else. Amen.