The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Isaiah 60.1-6

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold, and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

“A banana phone?”

“What am I supposed to do with a banana phone?”

My family was sprawled out around my parents living room, all in matching pajamas, as we patiently awaited the first gift of Christmas.

My mother, having her progeny surrounding her, ripped the wrapping paper with precision, and inside… was a banana phone.

It was yellow and curved, as you’d expect, and it just sat there in her hand as she looked across the room at my father.

“What am I supposed to do with a banana phone?”

“It connects via bluetooth,” he said, with just the hint of self-justification in his voice. “It’s for those times that you can find your cell phone in your purse, you can just grab the banana and bring it to your ear and have a normal conversation.”

“There’s nothing normal about talking into a banana.”

And in the brief moment of awkward silence as all of us took in the scene of not only the first gift of Christmas, but the first strange gift of Christmas, my toddler promptly jumped up and, diffusing the situation, he declared, “I play with the banana phone.”

We didn’t see him for the next ten minutes as he walked around the house having a pretend conversation about who knows what.

I love asking questions, particularly those that even out the playing field and those that give everyone a chance to respond.

What’s one of your favorite Christmas presents of all time? 

That’s a great question, because it immediately gets people thinking nostalgically about the past and inevitably it draws people closer to one another as they share collective memories from the past about toys long forgotten, or no longer created.

But there’s an even better question than the best Christmas present… What’s one of the strangest Christmas presents you’ve ever received?

People will normally furrow their brows in response as they think deeply about an out of left-field gift from days long ago, but usually somebody will start laughing before they even start the story.

I know that for the rest of her life, my mother will consider the banana phone one of the strangest gifts she’s ever received. 

It’s certainly practical, to some degree, thought it’s not something she needs and, more importantly, it’s not something she will ever use.

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Sometime after Jesus was born, though we’ve not entirely sure when, magi or wisemen or astrologers from the east came to visit the newborn Messiah. They conspired with King Herod to discover Jesus’ location but when they discerned his fear and/or jealously, they set out ahead of him until they arrived in Bethlehem. 

They were overwhelmed with joy and entered the house where the little family was huddled together and they opened up their treasure chests: gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Scripture doesn’t tell us a whole lot more than that. We don’t read about Mary and Jospeh’s conversation with the magi, or even if they picked the little baby up in their arms, or even what their names were!

And yet, over the years, I’ve found myself wondering about this particular scene from scripture. 

What did Mary and Joseph think about the gift? 

Where were the magi with the diapers, and pacifiers, and formula? 

Did anyone offer to give the new parents a night out on the town without baby duty? 

Who brought the casserole to put in the refrigerator for late night meals?

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh – Are they the gifts that keep on giving?

Today is Epiphany, an often overlooked moment on the liturgical calendar. It marks the conclusion of the season of Christmas and it celebrates the extension of the gospel to the gentiles. 

In the magis’ moment at the manger we witness the great scope of God’s mission in and through Jesus Christ insofar as it will not be limited to a particular people in a particular place, but will indeed fulfill the words from the prophet Isaiah.

Arise, shine; for the light has come! Darkness cover the earth and all of her people, but the Lord has arisen, and his glory has appeared.

Nations will come to the light, and even kings will be beckoned to the brightness of God’s new dawn. 

Just open your eyes and look around, all have gathered together, and in the seeing we rejoice with radiance because the gifts have arrived.

There is a strange temptation in the season of Christmastide, better known as the time after Christmas, in which we still faintly revel in the music and the lights and even the presents that once sat under our tree. But now, 12 days later, the luster is starting to diminish as the real world catches back up with us. 

Some of the things we opened have already been returned, others have been regifted, and some have been placed in a box never to see the light of day!

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Gold, and frankincense, and myrrh were, and are, gifts that go far above and beyond the recipients. Mary and Joseph were of a certain way of life such that that was probably the first, and only time, they ever saw, let alone held, those kinds of items. They demonstrate the paradoxical subversion of the status quo.

Up until this manger moment, it was the poor and the marginalized who were expected to present presents to those in power – people like the magi.

But now, in Jesus, the first are becoming last and the last are becoming first. That’s the power of the light that shines in the darkness, it draws us in like flies on a hot summer night to a florescent neon glow, and we can’t help ourselves.

The gifts of the wisemen were not particularly helpful to a pair of new parents – they weren’t going to make Jesus fall asleep or quit his crying or even pacify his hunger, but they do point to one of the things that’s right with the church.

The church is the place where the power of the light that shines in the darkness is made intelligible through practices like being the church in worship!

When we gather to sing and praise, when we hear the good news of the gospel, we are living into the drama of the multitudes that Isaiah is describing.

Here in this place at this time we are in the great company of people from all nations and all ages.

And to be abundantly clear, our church lives into this in a way that many others do not. If you take a look around our sanctuary we are not nearly as monolithic as other places of worship are. Thanks to the hard work of those who came before us we are one of the more diverse churches in the area and we are therefore a foretaste of the vision Isaiah describes.

But, lest we walk out of here with heads too big to fit through the door – we certainly have room for improvement. 

The light of Christ shines among us so that we can see ourselves as we truly are, but the light also shows us a glimpse of what can be.

Isaiah’s powerful words about the light made possible in Jesus remind us that the healing and solace we find in a place like the church is not the ultimate reason the church exists. Otherwise we would be just another self-help group among the many others that exist. Instead, God restores us to a newness and a wholeness in and with the church so that we can take our place among the people of God while making room for more to join us.

One of the things that’s right with the church is the fact that it is the powerful place in which we are uplifted in the recognition that we belong to something bigger than ourselves, and that we belong to something different than ourselves.

I’ve said it many times before but the church seems to be the only place left where people willfully gather together with others with whom they fundamentally disagree on a number of issues except for the fact that Jesus is Lord.

We, as the church, are part of a multitude that includes the magi, and the saints, and the martyrs, and the sinners, and everyone in between. There is no other place that can quite build us up while also pointing toward the difficult truths we’d otherwise ignore.

In Jesus we are made perfect, but we are still the fallible sinners in need of Jesus’ saving grace. The church is indeed the better place God has made in the world and God is still not quite done with us yet!

The beginning of Isaiah’s proclamation, Arise and Shine!, is not a suggestion, and it’s not even an invitation – it is a command. Get up! Shine! Go!

Here, on the day of Epiphany, as we celebrate the total scope of the gospel extending to the gentiles, we are challenged by Isaiah’s words to move out of the waiting of Advent darkness, and beyond the mystery of the Christmas incarnation, toward the brilliance of the brightness in Christ the Lord.

But the brilliant brightness is only necessary because of the thick darkness that covers the people. During the time of Isaiah the darkness was nothing new to the people Israel. They truly knew what it means to dwell in thick darkness while exiled in Babylon. And today, we too dwell in our own version of exilic darkness.

We are far more persuaded by the talking heads on television than we are by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We are regularly fearful of the other and anything that appears strange and yet Jesus Christ is the strange incarnation of God in the flesh.

We are more likely to turn our heads away from the suffering in the world around us even though Jesus regularly walked into it again and again.

So what’s right with the church? 

If we are broken people in need of grace, if we routinely make the wrong choices or avoid making the right choices, if we perpetuate the thick darkness that Jesus came to destroy can we really say there is anything right with the church?

Jesus is what is right with the church, not us. Jesus is the one great gift that really keeps on giving. But he does not bring us prosperity and peace and preferential treatment. 

The great gift of Christ, the light that shines and never fades, is nothing but the cross upon which he was killed.

As I said on Christmas Eve, the same baby in the manger is the one who was hung for the sins of the world. The same child to which the magi brought their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh is the same one who broke free from the chains of death. 

Jesus Christ will forever be the gift that keeps on giving because he gives himself for you and me, knowing full and well who we are who and who we are meant to be. Amen. 

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Bad Baby Gifts

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for Epiphany Sunday (Isaiah 60.1-6, Psalm 72, Ephesians 3.1-12, Matthew 2.1-12). Teer is the associate pastor of Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA, and is part of the Crackers & Grape Juice Team. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the star of the podcast team, epiphanic moments, keeping the magi out of the manger, prevenient grace, prayers from the Buddha, God’s judgment on the ungodly, the mediation of Christ, and weird gifts. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Bad Baby Gifts

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Monsters At The Manger

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast we have a bonus episode for Christmas Eve. In it I speak with Teer Hardy and Jason Micheli about the readings for the Nativity of the Lord [C]: Isaiah 9.2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2.11-14, and Luke 2.1-20. Teer is the associate pastor of Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA and Jason is the senior pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including some enneagram bashing, Methodists with the BCP, the highs and lows of worship on Christmas Eve, the peril of just retelling the story, the importance of time and place, the eschaton in the manger, the all-ness of salvation, and God’s great “nevertheless.” If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Monsters At The Manger

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Ending With A Promise

Devotional:

Isaiah 12.2

Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. 

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Today, thanks to Tommie Marshell’s excellent devotional for the Advent Begins In The Dark series, I was reminded of some words from the phenomenal preacher Fleming Rutledge:

“The sermon should end with a promise because God’s purposes cannot be defeated; that’s God’s promise. So that if we have received the gift of faith, we need to know that God is present in that gift of faith and even when we think we are losing our faith, God is still there.”

God is still there…

Many years ago, when I was a teenager, I used to run the sound system at my home church. Every Sunday I could be found in the back of the sanctuary tinkering away with all the knobs and slides so that everyone could hear whatever it was the preacher was saying. And, on Christmas Eve, I would do the same.

On one particular Christmas Eve I drew the short straw and was asked to run the board for the 11pm service. The preacher that night was exhausted by that point, having already preached at 3, 5, 7, and 9pm services, and the sanctuary was not as filled as it had been earlier in the evening. But nevertheless a faithful remnant stood vigil and offered the hymns with gusto. To be honest, I don’t remember much from the service that night except that the sermon ended with a promise: “God is born in Jesus for you.”

After we blew out the final candle and turned off all the lights, I got in my car and drove home to my parents’ house. Longing for the warmth of my bed, and the hopeful joy of presents in the morning, I drove with anticipation. 

Until I saw the fleshing red and blue lights ahead of me.

My home was down the street from an old stone bridge that runs across the George Washington Parkway in Alexandria, VA and as I pulled up to the bridge I went into Boy Scout mode without really thinking about what I was doing. And before I knew it I had parked the car and ran down to the road offering to help in any way that I could to the first police officer I encountered.

He looked up from the road and said, “Son, go home and forget that you saw any of this. Merry Christmas.”

And I wish that I could forget what I saw.

But I can’t.

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Because that night, shortly before I arrived in my car, a man from our community had been standing on the edge of the bridge for a long time waiting and waiting. He waited until he saw a large SUV coming down the road, and when he felt that it was the right moment, he jumped.

The SUV was carrying a family on their way home from their own Christmas Eve service, a family ready for the warmth of their beds, and the hopeful joy of presents in the morning, a family that would be forever changed.

In the many years since that night I have tried my best to forget what I saw on the road. I’ve tried to fill that memory with the light and the glow of the sanctuary instead of the red and blue lights. 

But I can’t. 

And that’s okay; this world of ours is broken and flawed and people are hurting. It doesn’t do any of us any good to sugar-coat this season like the candy-canes we have displayed in our homes. But we mustn’t forget the promise: “God is born in Jesus for you.”

For me.

For the man who jumped.

For the family in the car.

And for you.

I Am What’s Wrong With The World

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Scott Jones about the readings for the 3rd Sunday of Advent (Zephaniah 3.14-20, Isaiah 12.2-6, Philippians 4.4-7, Luke 3.7-18). Scott is the host of my rival lectionary podcast Synaxis. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the greatest crossover podcast of all time, Top Gun references, shaming people in church, sin as unbelief, self-justification projects, evangelism as the heart of mission, witness vs. with-ness, doing crazy things in worship, praying to baby Jesus, and John the Baptist as the OG PK. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: I Am What’s Wrong With The World

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Like A Whore In Church: Advent Begins In The Dark

Devotional:

Isaiah 1.21-31

How the faithful city has become a whore! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her – but now murderers!

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Many of you know that I am part of the Crackers & Grape Juice podcast team. Every week we put out 2-3 episodes ranging from interviews with theologians, to unpacking stained glass language, to reflecting on all of the Lectionary texts for the following Sunday. The team is made up of 3 United Methodist Clergy and 2 lay people and we originally started the conversations to keep our theological juices flowing but it has grown far beyond what we could’ve ever imagined. For instance: this year we had our 300,000th download.

A few months ago we decided to produce a daily Advent devotional with contributions from some of our favorite guests, and from the team itself. I drew the unlucky straw of writing our second devotional, following the first by Bishop Will Willimon. If you would like to subscribe to the Advent devotional (receiving each one by email every day) or simply read them as they come out you can do so here: www.AdventBeginsInTheDark.com 

Below is my attempt at approaching the unenviable text from Isaiah 1.21-31…

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There’s a reason that we don’t read Isaiah 1.21-31 out loud at church.

When we think of Advent we conjure up in our minds the Chrismon trees and the lights surrounding the altar. We remember the purple and pink advents candles and the red plumage of the poinsettias. We consider the plight of Mary and Jospeh to the small town of bread knowing not at all what their future would hold.

We like our religious observances to be orderly and helpful and we don’t even mind a sermon that steps lightly on our toes because we know that everyone has room for improvement. But then when we hear these words from the 5th gospel, we experience some painful theological whiplash.

The faithful city has become a whore!

She was once full of justice but now she is full of murderers!

Who wants to hear about that kind of stuff in church?

In her book Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ, Fleming Rutledge writes, “For many years, I thought that, during Advent, one was supposed to pretend that Jesus hadn’t been born, so that we would be more excited when Christmas came. Needless to say, this stratagem didn’t work. For me, it was a revelation years later to learn that the last weeks of Pentecost and the first weeks of Advent look forward to the second coming of Christ… In Advent, we don’t pretend, as I once thought, that we are in the darkness before the birth of Christ. Rather, we take a good hard look at the darkness we are in right now, facing and defining it honestly, so that we will understand with utmost clarity that our great hope and only joy is in Jesus’ final victorious coming.” (Advent: The Once & Future Coming Of Jesus Christ, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids Michigan, 2018), 58.

It is far too easy, today, to take passages like this one from Isaiah and read it through a somewhat anti-semitic lens as if Jesus is the wrath of God being poured upon God’s people. Preachers will foolishly wax-lyrical about the idolatry of God’s people from the past all while giving God the glory for arriving as the baby in Bethlehem

But that kind of reading leaves us imagining that Advent is all about pretending that Jesus hasn’t been born, and it prevents us, to use Fleming’s words, from taking a good hard look at the darkness we are in right now.

Whether we like to admit it or not, we are still the faithful city that has become a whore. The people we look to for guidance and leadership, in politics/business/churches, are rebels and companions of thieves. We worship them and ourselves thinking they/we can provide our salvation when we know how quick we all are to run after those things that cannot give us life. 

We are all coming of age in a world where it is far too easy and far too convenient to ignore the plight of the marginalized while strangely finding comfort in the words of a hymn like Away In A Manger. There was “no crib for a bed” because people like you and I are so consumed by our own needs and desires that the cause of other does not come before us!

But that’s not the kind of message we want to hear during the season of Advent. No, we want to hear about how Jesus’ birth will warm our hearts. We’d rather imagine the animals snuggled closely providing comfort for the King of kings and Lord of lords.

But what if we are the darkness that needs to be blotted out by Jesus’ light?

Throughout the history of the church, Christians have had a remarkable propensity to read themselves into a biblical story. When we hear about the two on the road to Emmaus we imagine ourselves as one of those two listening to, and breaking bread with, Jesus. When we hear about Prodigal Son we imagine God welcoming us back with open arms after going down the wrong path.

And yet when we read about God destroying the rebels and the sinners, we inexplicably reject the notion that we could be the rebels and sinners that need destroying!

What a time to be God’s church! Advent is the season we conjure up the darkness among us and in us and proclaim the bitter and strange truth: We cannot save ourselves.

No amount of Christmas lights, no number of presents under the tree, no perfectly arranged dinner table can rectify the wrongs we have perpetuated in this world. We have become whores to our own desires and dreams at the expense of the orphan, and the widow, and the sojourner, and the marginalized.

Just consider a headline from the newspaper this morning: “America’s ‘War on Terror’ has cost the US nearly $6 trillion and killed roughly half a million people with no end in sight.”

What would the rest of this strange and bewildering season look like if we insisted on facing and defining the darkness honestly rather than sugar-coating it with chocolate calendars? 

How might our steps toward Christmas change if we admitted the challenging truth of our own sinfulness before calling it out in someone else?

What habits and practices will we need to crucify before God’s church can experience a new resurrection?

Isaiah’s declaration about the inherent failures of the whoring city doesn’t preach easily. Few pastors are dumb enough, or brave enough, to proclaim these words from the pulpit. They run the risk of running off those who came with expectations of the warm manger scene rather than the destruction of all things.

But today, here in the midst of Advent, we are like oaks whose leaves wither, and we are like gardens without water. We might look around and see families with perfectly behaved children, or individuals who appear perfectly put together, but all of us are perpetuating a world in which our own righteousness has somehow become more important than God’s righteousness.

Advent, therefore, is the right time to look into the heart of our own darkness with the understanding that our greatest hope, and our only joy is in the once and future coming of Jesus Christ. 

Mercy > Merit

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kameron Wilds about the readings for All Saints Sunday [B] (Isaiah 25.6-9, Psalm 24, Revelation 21.1-6a, John 11.32-44). Kameron is an ordained elder for the United Methodist Church in the Virginia Conference and currently serves at Smith Memorial UMC in Collinsville, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including All Saints habits, the problem with stained glass language, really long communion tables, being mindful of the malleability of time, removing disgrace, holiness and hand sanitizer, open doors, funeral texts, and the universality of death. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Mercy > Merit

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