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.

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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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Sheep Without A Shepherd

Devotional:

Isaiah 53.6

All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

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My son’s preschool class announced a few weeks ago that there was going to be a school wide field trip to a farm in order to celebrate the season of fall. Parents were encouraged to attend and act somewhat like chaperones as the children would have access to most of the property including many of the animals. In the days leading up to the field trip, I didn’t give it much thought, until yesterday morning when we arrived at the farm and saw the hundreds of other kids and families descending on the farm.

The place was massive and filled with all sorts of activities – there were pirate ships to climb on, pumpkin patches to weave through, and a 45 min long hay ride through the whole property.

The best way to sum up the experience was something I overheard between a husband and his wife (outside of earshot from their children), “Who needs Disney World when we have this???”

All in all it was a great experience, and one that my son talked about all afternoon, evening, and even while I was putting him to bed last night. And I hope he will remember with fondness the slides, and the doughnuts, and the castles, but the thing I will always remember will be the wandering sheep.

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It should go without saying that sheep are dumb. They are some of the most simple minded creatures and they have to be taken care of with particular attention.

The sheep at the farm yesterday morning was wandering around outside of any fence or pen and no one seemed to notice. But the longer it paced back and forth, the more it commanded my attention. At least, it did until one of the farm workers walked over and presumably began directing the sheep back to its proper place, and when he saw me watching he said, “She’s nothing without a shepherd.”

“All we like sheep have gone astray,” says the prophet Isaiah, “we have all turned to our own way.” We modern people tend to think that we’ve got all of this life stuff figured out; we wake up day after day and go through the motions we presume give us meaning. But the hard truth of the matter is that, many of us, are no better than the wandering sheep. 

When we become so consumed by our own desires, our own hopes, our own expectations, we become like that farm animal trapped in our own loop of isolation.

Thanks be to God, then, that we have a shepherd named Jesus – the one who comes when we are lost and guides us back to the flock – the one who pulls us out of our self-absorption and helps us to see that there is a better way.

Mercy Precedes Judgment

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Mikang Kim about the readings for the Trinity Sunday – Year B (Isaiah 6.1-8, Psalm 29, Romans 8.12-17, John 3.1-17). Mikang serves as the pastor of Epworth UMC on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Licensing School, Jacob’s ladder, instagram, strangers in a strange land, visitation as proclamation, the keys of heaven, the chaos of God, and the intimacy of the Trinity. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Mercy Precedes Judgment

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Jesus is Back, Jack!

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy and Jason Micheli about the readings for the Resurrection of the Lord [Year B] (Isaiah 25.1-9, Psalm 118.1-2, 14-24, 1 Corinthians 15.1-11, Mark 16.1-8). Teer serves as the associate pastor at Mt. Olivet UMC and Jason is the executive pastor of Aldersgate UMC (both in Northern Virginia). Our conversation covers a range of topics including bad impressions, shout outs to Scott Jones, bible translations, Easter as NOT the celebration of spring, God’s time, the challenges of recording live, Paul’s little Easter, female preachers, and God as an iceberg. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Jesus is Back, Jack

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