This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Third Sunday After the Epiphany [A] (Isaiah 9.1-4, Psalm 27.1, 4-9, 1 Corinthians 1.10-18, Matthew 4.12-23). Teer is one of the pastors serving Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including church insurance, false backgrounds, repeating readings, the great light, fire, prayer, divisions, ecclesial growth, Sinners In The Hands Of A Loving God, the foolishness of the Cross, and podcast reviews. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Best Laid Plans
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Second Sunday After the Epiphany [A] (Isaiah 49.1-7, Psalm 40.1-11, 1 Corinthians 1.1-9, John 1.29-42). Teer is one of the pastors serving Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including sin, coffee and contemplation, Prayer School, sharp swords, prophetic preaching, miry bogs, Pelagius, trust, sanctification, gifts, blame, low anthropology, the Lamb of God, and discipleship. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Gospel According To Francis Spufford
I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to not other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.
The church has always had a “problem” with looking backward. And, we come by it honest. The scriptures are ripe with stories of God’s people remaining stuck in the past (“At least we had food back in Egypt!”) and refusing to see how God makes all things new.
One of the reasons we’re content with looking backward is the fact that the past feels under our control whereas the future is totally unknowable.
Or, as Jesus bluntly put it, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.”
But, as Christians, we are called to the dance, one that becomes manifest whenever we gather at the Lord’s Table, between remembering and anticipating. We remember God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ as we feast on the bread and cup because they point us to the ways in which God is moving in our midst here, now, and in the future.
There’s a story about a church where a concerned group of members called for a meeting about new ministry opportunities. For hours they went back and forth about each new possibility but they were all struck down because they seemed impossible.
An older man from the congregation sat in silence throughout the meeting until, when he could no longer stand it, he raised his hand and said, “If I hear the word impossible one more time, I will leave this church forever. Have you all forgotten? Nothing is impossible with God!”
Here, at the beginning of a new calendar year, it is good and right for us to wrestle with the impossible possibility of God. The Lord shouts to us through the scriptures, “The former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare!” God is in the business of making all things new. Even the church.
Or, as Will Willimon puts it, “God’s future is for those who ask tough questions, come up with surprising answers, and dare better to align themselves with their core identity and purpose as the Body of Christ in motion.” “The church,” he says, “for any of its faults, is Christ’s big idea to put right what’s wrong with the world.”
In Luke’s Gospel, on the day of Easter, two figures walk toward Emmaus with their heads stuck in the past. Along the road they talk only of what happened to Jesus and they no longer have any hope. That is, until the hope of the world shows up on the road right in front of them.
“What are you talking about?” The strange figure asks.
Clops responds, “Are you the only fool in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that happened?”
“Jesus is dead! Locked up and forsaken in a tomb. We had hoped he was the one who would save us.”
The strange figure spends the rest of the walk preaching, reinterpreting the scriptures, and (sadly) the two are no wiser than they were at the start. Until they get to Emmaus, and decide to share supper together. They break bread, share wine, and suddenly they see.
They race all the way back to Jerusalem with nothing but hope.
Every Sunday is a little Emmaus. We gather with all of our worries, fears, and hopelessness. We can’t help but only look backward. And then, as we open up the strange new world of the Bible, Jesus encounters us proclaiming the scriptures anew. We gather at the table, receiving the gift we do not deserve but so desperately need. And our eyes are opened to God’s new future.
Don’t look back! God is in motion! Let’s go!
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for Baptism of the Lord Sunday [A] (Isaiah 42.1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10.34-43, Matthew 3.13-17). Alan is the lead pastor of First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Pulp Fiction, adult mission trips, tiredness, the NT in the OT, expectations, flames of fire, the voice of the Lord, Dogma, passivity, Jayber Crow, baptism, Karl Barth, and good questions. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Water Is Thicker Than Blood
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for the First Sunday After Christmas [A] (Isaiah 63.7-9, Psalm 148, Hebrews 2.10-18, Matthew 2.13-23). Alan is the lead pastor of First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including band names, timeliness, gracious deeds, Christmastide, corporate worship, belonging, praise, Winter Camp, Karl Barth, sanctification, reality, the implications of the incarnation, and presence. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Politics of Christmas
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.
People come to church for all sorts of reasons. Some come because they always come and they can’t imagine doing anything else. Others arrive because of an invitation. And still yet, others enter because they are at the end of their rope and they need something they can put their hope in.
Christmas, in particular, is a time when a lot of people come to church (some who don’t normally attend) for sentimental and nostalgic reasons. And, as such, they don’t want to encounter the reality of the world – they want sanctuary from it. Which, to be fair, is a worthy reason to show up for worship. And yet, to deny the reality of life furthers these strange assumptions about the church as a place that exists separate from the challenges of life.
It’s important to remember that the context of the Christmas story in the strange new world of the Bible is a world very much like our own where things are not as they ought to be.
Put another way, God in Christ arrives as the answer to the hope of a people who are on the precipice of disaster. That can be, and is, Good News because it points to the God who is real for a real world.
Otherwise, Christmas becomes yet another holiday that merely distracts us from what is really going on.
There’s an image that circulates this time of year that always captures my attention. It shows a modern rendering of Joseph with a pregnant Mary searching for a place to stay. Amidst all the perfectly sterile renderings of the Holy Family, with their immaculately clean clothes and glowing baby, this image stands in stark contrast. Moreover, the more time you spend with the image, the more details you notice. Such as: the advertisement for “Weisman” cigarettes, Mary’s “Nazareth High School” hooded sweatshirt, and the tiny weed as the new shoot from the stump of Jesse poking through the sidewalk.
The image is decisively real. It renders the holy family in the truth of what the world does to those who have no hope for tomorrow. Which is precisely why God comes into the world as Jesus Christ, taking on our flesh, revealing the real reality of our existence.
The scandal of the Gospel is not just that God comes to save us this way, but that God chooses to save us at all. It takes a whole lot of Christmas courage to confess that we have done things we ought not to have done, and we have left undone things we ought to have done. And yet, when we can confess the condition of our condition, when we can admit Isaiah’s truth that we are people who live in a land of deep darkness, then Christ’s light can truly shine.
The message of Christmas, the message of the Gospel, is that no matter what you have going on in your life, whether good or bad, God is with you in the midst of it. The hymns we sing, the prayers we pray, and even the candles we light are a witness to the One who comes to save us. May the Lord reveal the reality of Christmas to us yet again this year, that we might be people who receive the light, and hope, named Jesus Christ.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Teer Hardy about the readings for Christmas Eve/Christmas Day [A] (Isaiah 9.2-7, Psalm 86, Titus 2.11-14, Luke 2.1-20). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA and Teer is one of the pastors at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including funeral sermons, merchandise, Christmas Unicorns, transitional themes, the truth, pageantry, the Prince of Peace, homiletical imaginations, Joshua Retterer, new songs, judgment, gifts, Sufjan Stevens, fear, and Karl Barth. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Preaching With The Angels
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and can choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
That’s a strange way to start a sermon.
The practice of using gender-inclusive language for the divine has been around for awhile but it really came into vogue shortly before I arrived in seminary. It’s a willingness to confront the masculine pronouns often attributed to God: God as he.
The reason being that God is not a he, unless we’re talking about Jesus.
Of course, scripture and grammar lends itself to this. We pray to God as Father and all of that. But there are actually plenty of moments in the Old Testament when God is given feminine attributes, and even Jesus uses feminine attributes for God in the New Testament, we just rarely talk about them.
Again, what’s at stake here is the fact that God is not like us. God is, to use an expression of Barth’s, totally other. Therefore, to use human attributes, particularly gendered attributes for God, makes God like us.
And so there began a push while I was in school to stop referring to God as he. True story: we would have one point taken away per gendered reference to God in our papers, which taught us how to adapt quickly.
Perhaps you have noticed, but maybe not, when I preach I try my best to not masculinize God. In other words, I try to avoiding pronoun-ing God. And sometimes it makes for a strange sentence. But it’s important. God is not a man. God is God.
Of course there are some, who in order to offer a corrective to the masculinity of God rendered in church, will feminize God and refer to God as she, or mother. Which, I think, can be helpful. God is both paternal and maternal. But it still puts God in our own terms, rather than letting God speak to us about who God is.
And yet, there is a more radical notion about the identity of God that we often overlook or downright ignore.
You know what’s more radical than talking about God as our mother? The fact that God has one.
700 years before the Advent of Christ, the people of God were in a time of war and fear. The city of Jerusalem was besieged during the reign of Ahaz and there seemed to be no hope on the horizon. And in the midst of this terror, the Lord asks Ahaz if he would like a sign of God’s power. And, inexplicably, Ahaz refuses! Which leave the prophet Isaiah to lament, “Is it not enough to weary everyone else, now you’ve moved to wearying God?”
And the Lord offers this sign whether Ahaz wants it or not: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”
Notably, Isaiah does not say that “a” young woman will bear a child named Immanuel. Isaiah says “the” young woman will do so. “The” is the definite article indicating that not just anyone will give birth to this Promised One, but someone in particular would do it. We, of course, did not know who the “the” would be until Mary was singled out to be the Mother of God, the mother of Jesus. Not just any young Jewish girl would do. The one to carry and birth Jesus is Mary.
It’s difficult, I fear, for us to imagine the bewildered reception of Isaiah’s proclamation. We are so storied by the story of Christmas, moved by its majesty, that we can scarcely fathom the oddity of the prophet’s promise.
The city is under siege, hope is lost, and the Lord says, “A baby is coming.”
A baby? What about a ruthless warrior, or a fearsome king, or a charismatic leader? Surely that’s what God people needed! And yet, God says the sign is the woman who will bear a child named Immanuel.
That God chooses the woman as the sign, that God enacts God’s purposes through this young woman is so confounding.
What we dare to proclaim about God is that God willingly gets involved in the flesh and blood and bone of human life. The God we worship is en-wombed in Mary.
There’s a reason we don’t talk much about Mary. There are a lot of reasons actually. Most of them stem from our patriarchal renderings of existence. Some of them stem from the fact that we are Protestant and don’t want to be associated with the Mary-worship that happens in the Catholic Church. And yet, to ignore Mary, is to ignore the radical notion of the Incarnation.
The ignorance of Mary results in a form of Christendom in which men continue to feel as if they are superior to women.
Patriarchy is real, the unjust rule of men over women exists and its wrong. And not just because of our modern sensibilities of equality, it’s wrong because of the fact that God is born of Mary!
Listen – Mary, as we say in certain theological circles, is the THEOTOKOS, the God-bearer. And, so named, she safeguards the fleshiness of God. Without her the God we worship remains aloof, but with her, the God we worship becomes one of us.
There is something almost outrageously particular about the fact that God’s fleshy presence in the world is localized in the womb of an unmarried teenage girl from Nazareth. Which is made all the more wild when we realize that Isaiah told God’s people this would happen 700 years before it did.
We tend to lob all these titles and distinctions upon God. God is almighty, omnipotent, omniscient, or whatever big seminary word we want to use. And all of that is fine. God is the author of the cosmos after all. But to claim God as enfleshed, that God has a birth and a death, is at the heart of the scandal that makes our faith, faith.
Even Martin Luther, who so famously broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, (which was simply called church until Luther started something different), Luther was wary of the church’s veneration of Mary and how close it was coming to idolatry. But even Luther was quick to note, “Mary breastfed God, rocked God to sleep, prepared broth and soup for God.”
Have you ever thought about the Gospel that way before?
If we take the strange new world of the Bible seriously, then Mary also changed God’s diapers, taught God songs to sing, taught God the stories of the faith, even the promise of the coming Messiah who was rocking in her arms the entire time.
Similarly, Charles Wesley praised Mary as one, “Who gave all things to be, what a wonder to see, God born of this creature, and nursed on her knee.”
Mary, an ordinary young woman from Nazareth, keeps the incarnation scandalous.
Not to jump too solidly into the New Testament, but, Mary’s “Let it be” opens the way for a new eruption of grace into the world. We might call “Let it be” the Gospel according to Paul McCartney, but its actually the Gospel according to Mary!
Mary writes the best (can we say that?) song in the Gospels, a song we refer to as the Magnificat. It demonstrates her profound knowledge and love of the scriptures, and is perhaps the must frequently sung song throughout all of church history.
Mary is present and is also the instigator of Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee (water to wine). And she and others are present at the cross when the disciples flee.
Moreover, Mary is in the upper room at Pentecost, the only woman present who is named, and she receives the same Spirit that sets the church in motion.
But wait, there’s more: Throughout the early history of the church up through the Middle Ages, there were more paintings done of Mary than of Jesus!
The young woman with child of Isaiah’s proclamation is Mary, the flesh and blood Mother of God. Mary is not an idea, she is not a myth. She is a real person, as real as you and me. She is a real person who made decisions upon which our faith depends.
We often fail to embody the embodied nature of our faith because, at some point, we assume that whatever our faith is it is at least a set of ideas or slogans. Ideas that help us make sense of the world, or slogans to help us behave better and therefore fix the world.
But the witness of the faith cannot be summarized on a bumper sticker or in a tweet. It cannot be expressed through ideas or slogans.
It cannot because our faith, oddly enough, hinges on a young Jewish woman named Mary.
Here we are, at the end of Advent, preparing to dress up the kids next week for a pageant, and perhaps we do well to remember that Mary was not only real, she was also unlikely. That God chooses her, from a forgotten town with no bright hope for tomorrow, is wild beyond imagining.
That God chooses any of us for God’s purposes is outrageous.
We would never have chosen to do it this way.
But, then again, we are not God. Thank God we are not God.
Because of the proclamation of Mary’s womb, God has given us more than we deserve, God has given us reason to be patient because the cosmos hinges not upon what we do, but upon what has been done for us.
Therefore, here on the last Sunday of Advent, we are given the hope that we can learn to wait. Not unlike the Israelites waited for God to keep God’s promise. Not unlike Mary waited nine months with her belly swelling. Not unlike the disciples waited three days after the crucifixion.
Waiting is part of the discipline of learning what it means to be creatures of time.
Time is a gift and a burden. That we have time at all is nothing short of God’s grace. But our time is limited. We must be born and we must die – Advent refuses to let us pretend otherwise. And yet, at the same time, Advent stories us. That is, Advent teaches us who we are and whose we are.
Stories, of course, come in all shapes and sizes. Some are short and some are long. Some are funny and some are not. Some are defined by all sorts of words, and others can be summarized with “Let it be.”
We, all of us, are storied creatures.
And, strangely, the great Good News of Advent is that our time has been storied by Jesus Christ, born of Mary. Mary makes possible our stories because she bears God into the world. God takes on flesh and dwells among us which gives us the grace to be, and become, fully human.
It’s rather extraordinary, when we can take a step back from it all, that we know the name of the Lord’s mother! And yet, even more extraordinary is the fact that God chose to come and make time for us, redeeming out time, and making possible the salvation that disrupts time forever.
Our time is so redeemed because Mary’s son is Immanuel, God with us.
No matter what.
Whether we are on the naughty list or the nice list, God is with us.
Whether we have gobs of presents under the tree, or if we haven’t had the time to get a tree at all, God is with us.
Whether we have more Christmases ahead of us, or only a few left, God is with us.
Behold! The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. Thanks be to God.
There’s a lot of good music to listen to this time of year both inside, and outside, the church. When the congregation belts out O Come, O Come, Emmanuel it brings tears to my eyes, just as Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” can make me extra nostalgic for Christmases from the past.
But for as many good songs as there are this time of year, there are also some awful songs as well. And perhaps none are worse than “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” (If that song is your absolute favorite, then I apologize for the rest of this)
What we worship and celebrate during Advent is the antithesis of what that song conveys. Santa Claus may be watching your each and every move in order to reward you (or punish you) on Christmas, but Jesus arrives regardless of whether we’re on the naughty list or the nice list. Though, spoiler warning, we’re all on the naughty list, which is why Jesus is born into the world in the first place! We need all the help we can get!
And, thankfully, as Isaiah reminds us, we remain loved by God even when we knowingly choose to do the things we know we shouldn’t. In other words, the real gift of Christmas can never be taken away because Jesus Christ is coming to town!
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
I’m a sucker for book recommendations. Whether it’s a passing comment in a conversation, or a deliberate “you should read this book,” I’m very quick to add titles to my Amazon shopping cart. Perhaps it’s because there are just so many books out there, that I’d rather read those recommended titles than choose something on my own. And, here at the end of the calendar year, there are all sorts of lists of “books of the year” that people are encouraged to purchase.
And my Amazon cart gets fuller and fuller.
Stephen Colbert, host of The Late Show, was recently asked in an interview to make a book recommendation. I think the interviewer assumed he would offer The Lord of the Rings because Colbert is an avid fan of Tolkien. But instead this is what Colbert said: “The Bible. But I’m not saying it for religious purposes. In a Western context, there is almost nothing from about the 4th century on that isn’t influenced by that book. Regardless of whether or not the book means anything to you, you should read it to know what all the other writers were talking about.”
In other words, the Bible is where (most) literature comes from.
That’s an interesting claim, and one that is well founded. For instance, the parable of the prodigal son has shown up time and time again in various coming-of-age narratives. The Messianic hero is another recurring theme in western literature. On and on the connections go.
Which means, sometimes we are reading “biblical stories” without realizing they are biblical stories.
And it’s not just literature that the Bible has impacted, our sense of time is fundamentally biblical.
Here’s how Karl Barth put it:
“The other day I came across a nearly 600-year-old parchment document, with seal affixed. It was the contract for the conveyance of a house, and it was written in the solemn language that was required in such matters even in those days. The date read as follows: ‘Given at Basle on the first Monday after Pope St Urban’s day in the 1371st year counting from the birth of God… Whether or not we know about it or think about it, Christmas reminds us of the secret of our age, our history, and our life. Christmas is where we come from; that is where everything ‘counts’ from.”
The world we inhabit, whether we know it or not (whether we believe it or not) is a product of the Gospel proclaimed every Sunday in the church. From the books we read, to the shows we enjoy, to the watches on our wrists, the One from whom all blessings flow continues to make blessings flow.
Therefore, the Bible is not just some collection of religious texts from long ago. Instead, in lives and breathes and gives meaning to the lives we live in ways seen and unseen. Similarly, Christmas is not just some religious holiday with various rituals that get us from one season to the next. Instead, Christmas makes intelligible the time we are given in our lives.
Or, as Barth put it, “Christmas is where we come from; that is where everything ‘counts’ from.”