On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding.
It’s a bit I often use when I’m preaching for a wedding. Something about how, in the Gospels, people are forever asking Jesus about the kingdom of heaven and he has some rather strange and bizarre answers. The kingdom of heaven is like… a mustard seed. The kingdom of heaven is like… treasure buried in a field. The kingdom of heaven is like… yeast. On and on. But the thing Jesus compares the kingdom to most of all is a feast, a party.
I like to bring this up at weddings because immediately following my part, the newlyweds usually lead everyone in attendance to a reception during which they celebrate. It is my attempt at showing how the marriage ceremony, the part with all the religious language, is connected to everything that happens after. Or, to put it bluntly: Jesus is just as much present in the celebration as the ceremony.
And so it came to pass, during one particular wedding, that the bridal party actually listened to what I was saying throughout the ceremony to such a degree that, for the rest of the evening, they shouted “Party Like Jesus!” every time they lifted their campaign flutes.
I’ll admit that it was a rather contradictory moment, and yet it held the promise of the Gospel!
Contrary to how we might like to imagine it, a fair amount of Jesus’ ministry took place over a cup of wine with friends. He, to use the language of Robert Farrar Capon, was literally the Spirit of the party. Therefore, we do well to remember that feasts (maritally oriented or otherwise) are blessed opportunities to have a little slice of heaven on earth.
I love that Jesus compares the kingdom to a feast because a feast (more often than not) is something we’re invited to. It is an ever ringing reminder that no matter what we do, or leave undone, God is the host, and God likes crowded tables. There is no bouncer at the party, save for a king who insists on dragging in people off the street. There is no list of pre-requisites to enter, save for recognizing that we have no business being at the party to which we’re invited. There isn’t even an expectation of reciprocation, save for the fact that we’re encouraged to stumble out from the party doing whatever we can to share the joy of it with others.
Or, as Capon put it:
“Grace is the celebration of life, relentlessly hounding all the non-celebrants in the world. It is the floating, cosmic bash shouting its way through the streets of the universe, flinging the sweetness of its cassations to every window, pounding at every door in a hilarity beyond all liking and happening, until the prodigals come out at last and dance, and the elder brothers finally take their fingers out of their ears.”
And, because I believe that music often does a better job at conveying theological claim than mere words alone, here are some tunes to put us in the party spirit:
Miner is a folk-rock family band based in Los Angeles. Their propulsive “Tomorrow” is simple in terms of its lyrics and yet profound in its arrangement. The thematic “waves washing over” are conveyed through the repetition of the vocals and the drums which build throughout the song. In a time when it feels like we’re bombarded by nothing but bad news, the proclamation of the Good News of better days is something, I think, we can all use right now.
Real Estate is known for their catchy guitar earworms, and their easy rock feel. When I saw them live a few years ago everyone in the audience exuded happiness as they swayed back and forth to the music. The band covered the Grateful Dead’s “Here Comes Sunshine” back in 2016 and I love returning to this track for a little boost every so often. I hope it does the same for you.
May Erlewine is a singer-songwriter from Michigan who teamed up with the Woody Goss (of Vulfpeck fame) Band for an amazing record in 2020. The single “Anyway” has funky drums, a picky guitar riff, and a smooth melody. Who wouldn’t want to hear “I’m gonna love you anyway” over and over?
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 2nd Sunday After Epiphany [C] (Isaiah 62.1-5, Psalm 36.5-10, 1 Corinthians 12.1-11, John 2.1-11). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the 5th Gospel, visible vindication, marital imagery, Good News For Anxious Christians, judgment as transformation, sentimentality, spiritual gifts, communal confirmations, the atonement, and new wine. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Operating System Of The New Testament
An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Here we are on the other side of the manger, the presents have been opened, the zooms with family have taken place, and we find ourselves back in worship waiting on a Word from the Lord.
There’s something about this season that can bring out the very best, and the very worst, in us. I’ve stood in enough churches for enough Christmas services to witness the extent of how true that sentence really is.
It was merely days ago that the children of the church dressed in all the correct costumes and re-created Christmas for us…
But it was also merely days ago that I heard raised voices and arguments out in the church parking lot, disagreements came to the brim at some of our Christmas tables, and long held grudges remain held.
After our 8pm Christmas Eve service, a woman walked up to me who I had never seen before and all she said was, “Thanks for being open tonight. I didn’t want to be alone on Christmas Eve.” And with that she walked out.
Families are complicated.
And perhaps no family was and is more complicated than Jesus’.
The Gospel according to St. John begins with a connection to the cosmos – in the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God.
The Gospel according to St. Mark doesn’t even have an introduction and just hits the ground running with the J the B going buck wild out in the wilderness.
The Gospel according to St. Luke provides some authorial remarks regards the necessity for the transmission of the Gospel in the first place.
And The Gospel according to St. Matthew gets down to earth and puts Jesus’ family tree in the particular context and history of Israel. And the closer you get to earth, the dirtier it all becomes.
Therefore, for the next ten minutes or so, I’m going to attempt to bring us through the genealogy of the baby born King we were worshipping on Christmas Eve. And, hopefully, you will see that my claim of Jesus’ sordid family history is not made in vain.
We start with good ol’ Abe. Father Abraham! The one with whom the covenant was made. I will be your God and you will be my people, and all that. Through you, the Lord says, generations will be blessed.
And Abraham, in his old age, becomes the father of Isaac.
However, it is the faith of Abraham, a major theme of both the Old and New Testaments, that results in Isaac being nearly murdered by his faithful father. Thanks be to God for the ram in the bushes!
Isaac survives to father Jacob, a devilishly tricky young boy who swindles his way into salvation history by pulling one over on his own aging father.
Incidentally, Jacob was himself duped as well. He wound up sleeping with the wrong bride by mistake and becomes the father of Judah.
And, because families are complicated, Judah accidentally slept with his own daughter-in-law Tamar, who pulled one over on him by dressing up as a harlot (more on that in a moment). And when Judah discovered that his daughter-in-law got knocked up while a lady of the night, he ordered her to be burned at the stake!
He only relented when, of course, he discovered that he, himself, through his midnight machinations fathered the child in her, Perez.
And that’s just the first three verses of the genealogy!
Next we encounter a list of people we know nothing about until we get to Boaz.
The strange new world of the Bible tells us that Boaz was a good and honorable man and his conjugal connections with Ruth, a dirty rotten foreigner outside of the covenant, continue the family line.
Ruth, notably, shows up after Boaz had a few too many ciders on the threshing room floor and, prior to their marriage, uncovers his feet.
If you know what the Bible means…
Anyway, this kind of behavior would’ve been no surprise to Boaz because his mother was Rahab, the harlot who had the sweetest little house on the edge of Jericho, who hid the agents of Joshua, and who, herself, was brought into the family line after a city was massacred.
So Ruth and her Bo-az (get it?) made their life in Bethlehem (ever heard of it?) and they brought Obed into the world, who was the father of Jesse, the father of David.
If you couldn’t tell already, the whole first section of the genealogy is filled with the complicated nature of reproduction.
The next section is filled with violence.
David, after slaying Goliath and playing the harp, after high-tailing it away from King Saul, eventually becomes King. And while King, with all the power it holds, he chanced upon Bathsheba, a woman bathing naked, during some afternoon peeping.
He used the power at his disposal to arrange her husband murder, rapes her, and becomes the father of Solomon, you know, the one with all the wisdom.
The whole story of David is filled to the brim with intrigue and murder.
A lot of murder.
In many ways, David was just a really successful band who, along with the Holy Spirit, brought together a bunch of tribal areas and started a real kingdom.
But, back to the family tree: Solomon’s son Reheboam lost almost all of David’s gain through his insatiable greed. He, according to scripture, encouraged pagan cults and even sacrificed male prostitutes.
The next few names on the list aren’t much to speak us, through at least two of them had some idea about what it meant to be covenanted with the great I Am.
Nevertheless, from Jehosophat through Joram and Ahaziah, it’s quite awful. Should you find yourself with some free time, you can skim through the canon and learn about murdered sons, blood thirsty kinds, assassins, and more!
Perhaps the first Sunday after Christmas isn’t the best time to take a peak behind the curtain of the Holy Family, but it’s all there. All the way up to, and through, the exile.
After the time of being strangers in a strange land, of wrestling between planting roots and getting plucked up, things only get marginally better for this family. But only because most of the next names in Matthew’s genealogy aren’t mentioned anywhere else in scripture.
And finally, finally (!), we make our way down the list until we’re back in the little town of Bethlehem with Joseph who Matthew describes as a just man (which is saying something compared to his ancestors). And who does Joseph brings to the family reunion caused by the emperor’s census? His pregnant virgin fiancé Mary.
No wonder no one wanted to let them stay at their house.
And then, Jesus, son of God and son of Man, light from light eternal, is born in the manger.
That’s it. That’s Jesus’ family tree in all its glory.
So what should we make of it?
Well, not to put too fine a point on it, but Jesus obviously did not belong to the nice clean world of all the worst Hallmark Christmas movies. He did not belong to the reasonable, or honest, or sincere world of decency and that we all too often claim for ourselves today.
Jesus comes from a family of murderers, cheats, cowards, scoundrels, adulterers, and liars.
Jesus comes from people like us, and he came for people like us.
No wonder God had to send his Son into the world; Jesus is the only hope we’ve got. Amen.
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 the 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.
It doesn’t get a whole lot better than this. No matter how old or jaded we may be, regardless of whether or not we deserve coal in our stockings, Christmas Eve never fails to work its magic.
Maybe it’s the hymns or the candlelight or the knowledge of what awaits us when we awake – there’s something different about Christmas that makes all the difference.
And here we are! Some of you were raised in this church and wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else. Other made plans weeks ago and are perhaps here for the first time. Some of you are here with questions, while others are just waiting to get home to finish all of the other items on the to-do list. Some of you made a last minutes decision and are still wondering if you made the right choice.
Some of you were brought here against your will…
There are some here tonight for whom there are more Christmases ahead than behind, and there are those for whom there are only a few Christmases left.
Whoever you are, and whatever feelings, thoughts, and questions you’ve brought, I’m glad you’re here. For, it is to you and for you that the great Good News rings loud and true – 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, “Do not be afraid; 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.”
Luke’s Gospel opens like a movie. We begin with the movers and shakers of the world. In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augusts that all the world should be registered. This took place while Quirinius was governor or Syria.
We’re brought behind the scenes of the power brokers and we are provided all the details we need at the beginning of the story.
But then, very quickly, the director of our film, Luke, draws our gaze and attention somewhere else. He wants us to see behind the curtain of the cosmos, where all the real moving and shaking takes place, a sleep little town called Bethlehem.
Bethlehem, from which King David hailed, from which a new shepherd King is born to us us free.
In a few minutes, we will have the whole thing acted out for us with word and voice and characters and costumes. We will encounter the story as has been done for centuries. But sometimes, if we’re able to take a step back from the whole thing, we can see how unexpected and bewildering the whole thing really is.
According to the strange new world of the Bible, the birth of God is the manger comes in less than one verse, and then the story just keeps going.
The details, of course, are important. We are rooted in a time and a space, we are introduced to all the important characters, but when it comes to the moment for which all of us are gathered here, it comes down to this: While they were there, the time came for Mary to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in the manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
That’s why we’re here right now.
God, light from light eternal, is born into the world as us to save us.
Sometimes it can feel as if we’re just playing at Christmas – we dress up the house, we dress up in costumes in the sanctuary, we put on a feeling of joy even if we don’t really feel it deep down.
We hang the lights and come up with perfect dinner menus. We buy the just the right presents and we send all the Christmas cards with a picture of color-coordinated outfits taken by a semi-professional photographer.
And why do we do all of that? Perhaps we do so out of habit, or tradition. Or maybe we do all of it because we think we’re supposed to even if we’re unsure of why.
The Christian proclamation is that we do so because God is born to us and for us.
And that is such a confounding claim that we can’t help but try to act it out year after year.
Christmas Pageants are always a strange enterprise. The story our children will shortly bring to life will be cute and faithful and a little bit awkward. But the story to which they point is full of fear and pain and hardship. There is a seriousness to the story that can never fully understand.
Particularly when we dress up our children to act it all out.
I experienced a pageant one year in which one of our shepherds, having executed all of his lines appropriately, decided to turn his shepherd’s staff upside and whip it around the chancel area like a light saber looking for someone to cut in half.
I experienced another pageant once in which the little Mary grew bored of having to cradle the plastic baby Jesus, grabbed him by the ankle, and began smashing his head against the altar.
And still yet there was a pageant one year during which one of the wisemen, no doubt tired from having followed the star, decided to fall asleep on one of the steps in the chancel area and remained there until the very end of the service when he woke up to a bunch of people waving candles around and singing silent night.
There was nothing silent about his terror of waking up to that scene.
And you know what? I find all of those moments to be nothing but grace upon grace! Why? Because there is nothing perfect about Christmas! We have all of our anxieties even today about this time of year which is fitting because of the plight that fell upon Mary and Joseph and Jesus.
We can dress Christmas up as much as we want, but it will never cover the truth of who we are and how we experience the world.
You see, it’s not just that God was born into the world as Jesus. It’s that we desperately needed God to be born into the world as Jesus.
And that’s why we keep retelling the story. Not to retreat away from the harsh truths of the world for a little while every year, but to remember that God chose to be born into our broken and harsh world to shine as the light in the darkness.
God breaks into the world in order to make all things new, even us.
Therefore, when we say Merry Christmas, we are also saying, “Do Not Be Afraid.” We needn’t be afraid because this story is in fact our story. God has not abandoned us to a life of merely doing one thing after another. God has arrived in the world to show us the wonderful good news that no matter what we do or leave undone, God is still for us.
God makes a way where there is no way, bringing us grace and truth and mercy. This gift isn’t cheap, and it isn’t even expensive. It’s free.
Which is why, in the end, we don’t need to worry about whether or not we’re just playing at Christmas. We may think we’re only pretending year after year, dressing up with the same trimmings and trappings, but, by God’s grace, God makes us what we pretend to be!
This is Christmas! Rejoice! From our fears ands sins God has released us!
This is the time, the sacred time, to meet the One who comes to us, the One who lives, dies, and lives again that we might do the same.
That is the good news of great joy for all people that the angelic host shared with the shepherds, and it is the good news of great joy that our children will now share with us.
To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’ (in the scroll of the book it is written of me).” When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
“Consequently” is a rather interesting way to start a passage of scripture. It’s like beginning with “therefore.” Whenever we encounter a therefore we need to discern what the “therefore” is there for.
So, if we flip back one verse we will find these words: For it it impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “sacrifices and offerings are not desired, but only the body of the One who comes to do the will of the Lord.”
Contrary to how we might feel on Good Friday, with Easter looming on the horizon, today is actually the most expectant worship service of the year. Sure, Jesus predicted his passion and resurrection no less than three times, but no one seemed to believe him. They abandoned him, betrayed him, and denied him.
But today, we are firmly rooted between the already and the not yet. This is the final Sunday of Advent – everything about our worship (songs, scripture, sermon) is saturated with a sense that something uniquely impossible is about to happen.
You see, for centuries the people of God waited for something. That something took on different shapes and sizes and expectations. And the something had a name: Messiah, the Holy One of Israel, from the righteous branch of David, the one born to set us free.
Freedom is good and all. But freedom from what?
Freedom from tyranny? Freedom from fear and judgment?
What about freedom from sin and death?
There have been plenty of figures throughout history who have come to bring freedom, but freedom from the great enemies of sin and death is only possible if the One born to Mary also happens to be God in the flesh.
It is not yet Christmas, but here on the final Sunday of Advent, we straddle two worlds and two times. And it is from this vantage point that we can’t help but ask ourselves, “What child is this?”
All Christian worship is an attempt to answer that question.
Was Jesus like God? Was Jesus a prophet of God? Was Jesus merely a good ethical teacher?
The fundamental Christian proclamation is that Jesus is not like God, Jesus is God, light from light eternal.
Everything depends on this being true; otherwise the nativity story is just another tale of no real importance.
And here is the challenge set before us today: the child we come to worship on Christmas is, as the writer of Hebrews puts it, the very body that is sacrificed for us.
We don’t talk much about sacrifice in the church these days even though we’ve got plenty of the “bloody hymns” in our hymnal. If we do sing those songs at all we usually save them for the season of Lent during which we’re supposed to feel bad about our badness.
But it’s almost Christmas Eve! Nows not the time to talk about blood and sacrifice!
We are surely ready for that cute little baby to be born for us in the manger – it’s another thing entirely to be prepared for that baby to be the One born to die on the Cross.
Let alone to prepare our hearts for his return to judge both the living and the dead.
And yet, to ignore the language of sacrifice, the shadow of the cross in the manger, is to deny the truth of the strange new world of the Bible.
In the ancient world sacrifice was at the heart of all religious practice. Israel might stand apart in how the God of Abraham did not require human sacrifices (save for that incident with Isaac, but that’s for another sermon). But there are plenty of sacrifices expected by and through the Law for the people of God. For, to sacrifice is to admit there is a need for it. The only way to be holy is to remove sin altogether, and no one can do that.
Sacrifice, therefore, was offered on behalf of God’s people in order to be made right.
However, over time, the sacrifices themselves became empty signs of an empty faith. Again and again the prophets of God rejected the blood spilled by the people when injustice continued to reign. What good is it to sacrifice a bull or a goat when widows, orphans, and the outcasts were ignored?
Therefore, as Hebrews puts it, Jesus’ death is a single offering for all time for those who are sanctified.
There is no holiness without sacrifice. In fact, the very meaning of sacrifice is “making holy.”
Of course, there are some of us who would like to believe that we are beyond the need and the time of sacrifice. That, because of the Cross, we have left sacrifice behind.
But that only betrays how essential sacrifice is to our daily lives.
We sacrifice the land and the lives of animals that we might live.
We make sacrifices in the name of love that we feel for others.
We sacrifice those who serve in the military that we might feel safe.
Sacrificing is part of who we are, and we do so because we often think it is the only way we can make up for the wrongs we have done.
And yet, that feeling of guilt, the knowledge of what we have done and left undone, important as it may be, is in contradiction to the work of Christ who was offered as a single sacrifice for all time.
There’s an unbelievable story that happened on Christmas a little more than 100 years ago, and perhaps some of you have heard about it. It took place in and among the trenches of World War I in 1914. All across the western front there were unofficial ceasefires to observe the holiday that were also due to limited ammunitions along the front. Halting fire for a period of time was nothing special, and has been part of warfare for a long time. But it’s what happened during the cease fire that boggles the mind.
In certain areas along the trench lines, soldiers left the safety of their barricades and met in the middle of No Man’s Land to celebrate Christmas.
There was one area where the ringing of church bells gave certain soldiers the courage to bravely enter the disputed space between the trenches.
In other places the soldiers saw Christmas trees being hastily decorated on either side and ventured out for a closer look.
But my favorite miracle took place when a group of German soldiers started singing Stille Nacht, and when they came to the end of one of the verse, the English soldiers on the other side took it up and started singing it on their own.
It sounds too good to be true, but all the best stories are like that. We have letters from soldiers who expressed total surprise by what they experienced on that Christmas Eve. How, they exchanged gifts and food in the middle of No Man’s Land with the very people they had been trying to kill.
There were even football (soccer) matches that occurred in various locations that Christmas Eve.
One soldier later recalled that, at the end of the celebration, they returned to their respective sides and woke up on Christmas morning to a dead silence. He said both sides shouted merry Christmas back and forth, but that no one felt particularly merry anymore. And then, the silence ended in the early afternoon of Christmas Day and the killing started again.
He said, “It was a short peace in a terrible war.”
Sacrifices were made in the name of peace, just hours after they were singing together about the dawn of redeeming grace.
Throughout the great collection of scripture we are told again and again what we can, and what we can’t do. Thou shall not and all that. And, if thou hast done something, this is how thou shall atone for what thou has done.
But, the primary function of the Law, as Jesus says in John 5 and Paul says in Romans 3, is to accuse us. That is, the Law exists to show us who we are in relation to it – we’re sinners. The Law reveals the complete and total righteousness we require to acquire the Kingdom of Heaven, and how we might meet the Holy One of Israel blameless and justified.
The only problem is, none of us can do it.
We’re all on the naughty list.
We delude ourselves, we self-rationalize all sorts of behaviors, we feel as if we can justify all sorts of things, so long as we feel like we’re growing closer to God.
But the truth is that God is the one hellbent on coming to us.
Contrary to how we so often talk about it, the Law doesn’t bring us to the mountaintop of God’s domain.
The Law, instead, bring us down to our knees.
Or, to put it another way, the Law gets us to see ourselves with enough clarity that we can ask the question, “How could God love someone like me?”
Ask that question and you are not far from the kingdom of God.
In theological and ecclesial circles, there is a lot of talk about the atonement – what is accomplished by Jesus’ death on the cross?
There are an array of ideas about the work of cross – we owed a debt to God via our sins and Jesus paid it all, or the death of Jesus satisfied God’s wrathful anger against us.
That have all the makings of seminary basement debates.
But the theologian Gerhard Forde dispenses with all of those theories in favor of seeing the cross simply as our being caught up in a murder. He argues that any theory that tidily explains the death of God’s Son pales next to the great Good News that the One we tried to do away with on the cross speaks a surprising word of reconciliation int he resurrection.
When the incarnate God in Jesus Christ comes to us, we nail him to the cross. And then, three days later, God gives him back to us.
Which is just another way of saying: Hear the Good News, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that prove’s God’s love toward us.
And perhaps that’s why we read these words from Hebrews just shy of Christmas Eve; they forever and always declare the very same thing declared in the incarnation: God is for us. There is therefore literally nothing on earth or in heaven that can ever separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ.
In the full knowledge of our sins, past/present/future, our propensity toward violence, even against those who worship the same baby in the manger – God joined our lives to be life for us, becoming one of us, to free us from the attempt to be more than we were created to be.
Jesus arrives, fully God and fully human, down in our miserable estate and is obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, to end forever any sacrifice not determined by his cross.
Consequently, Christmas comes with a cost – the baby born for us is the God who dies for us. God is the dawn of redeeming grace. God is our peace. God is the one who sanctifies us.
And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
On Sunday I stood up and addressed the crowd present for the church’s Christmas Concert and attempted to make the case that we are the stories we tell and the songs we sing – The stories we tell are reflections of how we understand ourselves in the world and the same is true of the songs we belt out. I then suggested (read: demanded) that we know longer sing “Baby It’s Cold Outside” because it only reinforces an extremely problematic understanding of how we relate to one another.
I mean, it’s basically a date rape song. “Say, what’s in this drink?”
Go listen to it and I promise you’ll walk away feeling all sorts of gross and uncomfortable.
Had I been a little more bold, I would’ve also suggested (read: demanded) that we also no longer sing “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.”
The words to the song sum up how we all too often imagine the Lord in our minds: “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice; he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…” And then, whether we know it or not, we take these words to be Gospel truth and we believe that God is keeping a ledger against us and only if we have more ticks in the Good column than the Bad column will we receive an everlasting reward.
The same thing is true of how Elf on the Shelf has become such a popular pastime – the purpose of the Elf is to spy on the good and bad behaviors of children and then to report them to Mr. Claus so that the children will be rewarded, or punished, accordingly.
The same thing is true of so many movies and shows and songs that ask us to discern whether or not we, ourselves, have behaved in such a way as to make it on the Nice list or on the Naughty list.
But, according to the strange new world of the Bible, we’re ALL on the naughty list.
That is: all of us do things we know we shouldn’t do and we all avoid doing things we know we should do.
Paul puts it this way: None of us is righteous. No, not one.
And yet, that’s Good News. It’s Good News because, thankfully, Jesus isn’t Santa Claus.
Jesus encounters the world’s (read: our) sins with no list to check, no test to grade, no debts to collect, and no scores to settle. Jesus has already taken all of our sins, nailed them to the cross, and left them there forever.
Jesus saves not just the good little boys and girls, but all the stone-broke, deadbeat, sinful children of the world who He, in all his confounding glory, sets free in his death and resurrection.
Grace, as Robert Farrar Capon so wonderfully put it, cannot prevail until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapses away forever.
But, of course, it sounds too good to be true!
In a world run by meritocracy, the Good News of grace sounds ridiculous if not irresponsible. If we don’t have eternal punishment to hang over the heads of those who follow Jesus, how else can we possibly keep them in line?
Perhaps we have our theological wires crossed. We so often assume that we have to do something in order to get God to do something for us. We believe that so long as we show up to church (online or in-person), and read our Bibles, and say a few prayers, and volunteer every once in a while that it will be enough to punch our ticket to the great beyond.
And yet, so many (if not all) of Jesus’ parables, proclamations, and pronouncements have nothing at all to do with the behavior of those blessed prior to their blessing.
The Gospel is not about how we justify ourselves – The Gospel is about how God in Christ justifies us.
God, in all of God’s confounding wisdom, runs out to the prodigal in the street before he has a chance to apologize, offers the bread and the cup to Judas knowing full and well what he will do, and returns to Peter with outstretched arms after his denials.
God chooses to forgive, rather than condemn, the world from the cross.
That’s what grace is all about – it is the unmerited, unwarranted, and undeserved gift from God.
And if we can see grace for what it really is, then Christmas can really come into its own. Like the gifts under the tree that are (hopefully) given not as a response to good works/behavior or the expectation that good works/behavior will come from them – we can celebrate the great gift of God in Christ Jesus who comes to do what we could not do for ourselves.
Or to put it another way: we are all on the Naughty list and God still gives us the present of Jesus’ presence anyway.
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
John the Baptist is one wild guy. He shows up in the gospel story with some questionable attire (camel fur) and dietary habits (locusts), he proclaims a new baptism alongside the repentance of sins, and his first recorded words in the Bible are, “You brood of vipers!”
Advent is the season during which the church makes a serious and concerted effort to faithfully proclaim the oddity of the biblical witness. In churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary, John the Baptist (or as I like to call him: J the B) gets two Sundays to shine and he is not an easy figure to handle.
While we might want to rest our eyes on the glistening lights of the Christmas tree, or lift our voices with a cheerful carol, J the B shows up with a finger in our faces about who we are and who we pretend to be.
Advent, like J the B, is peculiar. It’s out of phase with our surrounding culture and witness. Advent beckons us to look straight into the darkness, into our sin, whereas the rest of the world spends this time of year pretending as if everything is exactly as it should be.
And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. For those of us still suffering under the weight of the pandemic and all of its uncertainty, for those of us worried about what tomorrow will bring, for those of us who will see an empty chair for the first time during our Christmas dinner this year, the joy of the season might be exactly what we need. Perhaps we should delight in driving around to look at the Christmas lights, and cranking up the radio to 11 every time “Rocking Around The Christmas Tree” comes on, and purchasing all sorts of presents for all sorts of people.
And yet, to skip over Advent is to deny the strange and wondrous delight of Christmas.
That is: without coming to grips with the darkness we are in and the darkness we make, we have no need for the light that shines in the darkness.
J the B stands on the precipice of the times. He has one foot squarely placed in the ways things have always been, and one foot in the incarnate reality of time made possible in and through Jesus Christ. And it’s from that bewildering vantage point that J the B declares the Lord is going to prepare his own way – every hill shall be made low and every valley will be lifted up.
Therefore, Advent is the time in which we prepare ourselves for God’s great leveling work – the already and not yet of the coming of the Lord. It means opening ourselves to the ways God works in the world, it means laying aside the works of darkness that we might put on the armor of light, it means rejoicing in the great Good News that God’s power is changing you and me in ways seen and unseen.
J the B shines in the gospel story not because he is the light but because he points to the light. He draws our attention toward the darkness so that we can begin to see the beauty of the light who is Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world, including ours. He reminds us that this season has a reason and that reason’s name is Jesus.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 3rd Sunday of Advent [C] (Zephaniah 3.14-20, Isaiah 12.2-6, Philippians 4.4-7, Luke 3.7-18). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including interesting introductions, Tom Waits, grace, The Muppets Christmas Carol, singing with singers, advent questions, problematic language, bad timing, the wells of salvation, the longest night of the year, Christmas trees, and the order of operations. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Come On Up To The House
I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
Love is terrible. It hurts, it’s scary. It makes us do all sorts of things we shouldn’t – it leads to judgment and pain and doubt. Love makes us weird and selfish and annoying. It keeps us awake at night, it distracts us from the rhythms of life, it stings.
Love is the one thing everyone wants and we’ll go through hell to get it.
Love isn’t easy. It requires a commitment that goes beyond what anyone would consider normal. We enter into love knowing full and well that we know nothing of what we are doing. Love is hard work.
And love requires a tremendous amount of hope.
It requires hope because none of us really know what we’re doing when we enter into it – it’s something we have to figure out along the way.
Love is terrible. And yet, love is just about the most important thing in the world.
Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi is full of love. I mean, listen to how he butters up the budding little community of faith: I thank God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.
Translation: You’re just the most special little church I ever did see.
Paul writes with confidence that the Lord will bring to fruition all of the Good News made manifest in their community because (and this is the key) God is the one who does the work.
Sure, Paul will praise the people for keeping him in their prayers while he, himself, is imprisoned. He will boast of their faith in the midst of tribulation. He will even long to be reunited with all of them. But only because the compassion of Jesus Christ has changed them and him forever.
And then Paul has the gall to write: “And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.”
I love Paul, I love his epistles, I love his theology, I even love his language. But reading this makes me wonder if Paul really knew what it was like to be among the people called church.
I mean: A church with love that overflows? That sounds great to me, but the only problem is the fact that church is filled with sinners like you and me.
Our slogan might be open hearts, open minds, open doors, but we definitely keep the doors locked, we’re pretty stuck in our ways of thinking, and we certainly have a penchant for judgment even though someone once told us: Judge not, lest ye be judged.
The church isn’t a bunch of good people getting better – instead, we’re a bunch of bad people dealing with our inability to be good.
And, of course, this can become manifest in a number of ways. A preacher like me can stand in a place like this only to wax lyrical about how badly you all need to stop being so bad. I can end every sermon with a list of exhortations on how to finally become the best versions of yourselves. And, should the occasion call for it, I could drop some of that good ol fire and brimstone to whip you all into shape.
But here’s the rub: that kind of church stuff never ever works. At least, not really.
A buddy of mine tells this story about how, when he was a teenager, he went to a church youth conference. Big stage with musicians and altar calls and all that. And on the final night of the conference, right at the pinnacle of the final worship service, the fire alarm off. A brief terror ensued as those in charge frantically ushered a bunch of screaming teenagers out of the building and the streamed out in the parking lot. And there, scattered among the spaces were life boats.
Any rational human being might pause and wonder why, but not a bunch of frightened youth. The adults started yelling at the kids to get into the lifeboats. And a moment later the alarm stopped, and someone shouted from a loudspeaker: “Look around, there aren’t enough spaces in the lifeboats for everyone… Are you ready to really give yourselves to Jesus?”
The fear of that moment might’ve led some of the teenagers to something, but it certainly wasn’t the Jesus revealed in the strange new world of the Bible.
Shame is a powerful thing. Like love, it can make us do all sorts of crazy things.
But the church doesn’t exist to bring more shame into the world. In fact, the church exists to proclaim grace, which is the antidote to shame.
Shame teaches us that love is only for those who deserve it and earn it. Shame is the burden of perfection whether it is moral, spiritual, or something in between. Shame destroys us, it eats away at the very fabric of our being because it’s always dangling in front of our eyes, like a carrot on a string, telling us that we are never enough.
But Jesus doesn’t come to bring us more of the same, nor does Jesus comes to bring us shame; Jesus comes full of grace. His very being in the world, born as a baby in Bethlehem, runs completely counter to the idea that only when we get it right do we get to see the Lord. The grace of our Lord is given freely before we have a chance to earn it or deserve it because we never will.
According to the strange new world of the Bible the beginning of the Christianity journey is receiving love.
Think about that for a moment. Faith doesn’t begin when we make some sort of change, or public affirmation. Faith doesn’t kick in when we finally get our acts together.
Faith begins when we begin to see that God’s love precedes all things.
And yet, sometimes even God’s love is terrible. God’s love is terrible because it compels us to look at ourselves hard enough to see how wild it is that God would love us at all.
Or, to put it another way, if God loves us as we are, then we (on some level) have to come to grips with who we really are, and that’s not really anyone’s idea of a good time.
Consider the desire to take a holiday picture of your family, or the outfit you want to wear to a holiday party, or any other number of examples from this time of year – it’s all about making sure only the best of us is seen, and the worst of us is hidden. At least, that’s true on a physical level, but we also do similar things with our conversations, in our relationships, in our work.
We are all experts at wearing the masks of our own making such that we, and everyone else, don’t have to see us for who we really are.
But God knows exactly who we are and God loves us anyway.
How odd of God!
In the life of faith we flourish not because we love, but because we are loved.
When we begin to see, and experience, the divine love called Jesus Christ that never ever stops, that never runs dry, that endures all things (to borrow another line from Paul) then we encounter the building blocks of the faith and the cosmos.
We are made to be loved.
In my line of work, you always have to keep your eyes and ears open for the ways the Spirit moves in the world. Whether it’s a show, or a book, or a painting, or a conversation, it’s all about tuning in to God’s frequencies because you never know what you can use in a moment like this.
Well, it’s Advent time which, for most people, means it’s Christmas time. And one of the joys of this time of year is returning to movies about this time of year.
And one of my all time favorites, is Home Alone.
I know that, while growing up, I loved Home Alone because I rejoiced in the ways that Kevin McAllister was able to booby trap his house, the holiday soundtrack was perfect, and because it had the perfect amount of 90’s humor.
But now I love the film because it’s all about grace.
Whether or not you are actually doing it, I can sense the furrowed brows among the congregation, so let me attempt to prove my point…
For those of you unaware of the cultural phenomenon that was, and is, Home Alone, here’s a brief synopsis:
Kevin is a the youngest sibling in a family that fights and argues the night before flying to Paris for the holidays. In the scuffle to make the flight in time, Kevin is left home alone, and his parents don’t notice their mistake until their halfway over the Atlantic.
Kevin rejoices in the freedom from his family but discovers that the neighborhood is under the threat of two criminals who are casing houses for a little B&E.
Meanwhile, Kevin’s mother frantically seeks out ways to return to her abandoned child and the usual Christmas chaos ensues.
Kevin defends his home with booby traps and works to have the criminals arrested.
And then, perfectly, on Christmas morning, the mother returns home and the two reconcile and embrace.
And here’s the grace:
There is a short scene right before the climax of the film when, on Christmas Eve, Kevin enters a nearby church (which, for those of you keeping score, is a United Methodist Church!). He sits and listens to a children’s choir practicing for their evening performance when his spooky neighbor Old Man Marley approaches him.
Kevin, terrified, shrinks in his pew, but the man wishes Kevin a merry Christmas.
They talk about why each of them are there.
Kevin feels bad about how he treated his family.
Old Man Marley feels bad about how he is estranged from his own son, and how the only way he can hear his granddaughter sing is to come to this practice, but that he’s not welcome later.
And then he says: “How you feel about your family is a complicated thing… deep down you will always love them, but you can forget that you love them. You can hurt them, and they can hurt you.”
To which Kevin replies, “You should call your son.”
“What if he won’t talk to me?”
“At least you’ll know. Then you could stop worrying about it. Then you won’t have to be afraid anymore. Will you do it?”
“We’ll see what happens. Merry Christmas.”
It’s so short, and I’m sure its not the scene that everyone remembers most, but to me it’s the most important. These two strangers, reeling from the overwhelming power of love to hurt and heal, heal one another with offerings of grace.
And, recognizing that it is a movie, Kevin is reconciled with his mother and family and then looks out the window to see Old Man Marley doing the same thing with his own family. It’s beautiful stuff.
And yet, life isn’t a movie. Sometimes that hoped for reconciliation doesn’t happen.
But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
The church exists in the time in between, the time being, as the poet Auden put it. We keep watch for the ways in which God’s love might overflow even for us such that God’s love might flow out from us to others. But even when we don’t experience the kind of love we yearn for, we also have this promise: There is a place where God will always meet us.
God is present in this sacrament. God meets us here, where we are, in the midst of our sins, not in our successes. God knows our mistakes and our short-comings. And in that knowledge God says, I am giving myself for you. For you!
And this is our prayer, that our love may overflow more and more!
Because God love us! We are made to be loved. Amen.
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
I don’t know if any of you remember this but, a few years ago there was this very contentious presidential election. Someone named Hillary Clinton and someone named Donald Trump both really wanted to be president. More money was spent during that election than any other election in history (until the most recent presidential election). Families were divided in a way that they never had been before, or so said the talking heads on all the news channels every night.
I, myself, tried to bring some semblance of fidelity to the season by hosting a prayer service in which I sought to remind people that, through Christ, we have more in common than our political proclivities would allow us to believe. I planned to break bread with all who gathered so that, no matter what happened with the election, we would remember that we belong to the kingdom of God and that we, together, are disciples of the King of kings.
“Welcome!” I intoned from the pulpit to the crowd. “Welcome to our church for our worship service. However, before we begin, I would like all of the Republicans to sit on the right side of the sanctuary, all of the Democrats can move to the left, and anyone else can take a seat somewhere in the center aisle.”
No one laughed.
Apparently, the presidential election wasn’t funny, not even in church.
Well, when the day of the election arrived, I made my way to my voting location which just happened to be the local Seventh Day Adventist Church. I pulled into the parking lot and witnessed Red Hats screaming at Blue Shirts and Blue Shirts screaming at Red Hats. Yard signs adorned every available spot on every available yard. And I can distinctly remember all of the poll workers looking decisively dreadful.
I ascended the outdoor stairs into the church’s fellowship hall and took my place in line. I waited patiently for my opportunity to fill out my vote and did some people watching. I saw slumped shoulders, furrowed brows, fidgeting fingers, and it was as if the previous months of political vitriol had sucked the very life out of our community.
And then it was my turn.
I filled out my form, brought it over to a machine that promptly consumed it with a ding, and sighed a relief knowing that it was finally over.
Then I looked up.
And right there, stretching across the wall of the Fellowship Hall was a mural of Jesus.
It wasn’t Jesus dying on the cross.
It wasn’t even Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Instead it was a mural of Jesus laughing his butt off.
And it was perfect.
The disciples have betrayed, abandoned, and denied Jesus. Arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, dragged before the High Priest and scribes, and now he stands accused before Pontius Pilate.
“Who are you exactly?” the political occupier intones. Mind you, when Jesus entered the city on the back of a donkey, surrounded by a modest crowd, Pilate was also entering the city, but he came with pomp and circumstance, imagine horses and soldiers and banners and such.
And now, a few days later, the two of them sit face to face.
“Are you the King of the Jews?” As in, “Are you a threat to my emperor’s empire?”
“Do you really want to know, or did others tell you about me?”
“Look, why do you keep answering all my questions with questions? It’s your own people who have delivered you to my throne, so tell me, what did you do?”
“My kingdom,” Jesus says, “is not from this world. If it were, my disciples would be storming the gates of your palace and doing everything in their power to take your power away. But, as it is, my kingdom is different.”
“So you are a king then?” Pilate asks.
“If you say so. But it really doesn’t matter. For this I was born, for this I came into the world. I’m here to tell the truth. And everyone who belongs to the truth listen to my voice.”
And Pilate says, “What is truth?”
That’s where the text for today ends: this unanswerable question dangling in the air.
But I want to remind all of us what happens next, for I believe it actually answers the question…
After this, Pilate goes out to the religious leaders again and tells them that he finds no case against Jesus. And yet, Pilate knows there is a custom every year on Passover during which the empire’s representative would release one person from captivity. So Pilate goes to the crowds and he says, “Do you want me to release Jesus, this so-called king of the Jews?” And they yell in response: “No! Give us the insurrectionist Barabbas instead!”
Pilate let the crowds choose who they will save, Jesus is beaten and bedraggled, he is adorned with a crown of thorns and a purple robe, he carries the instrument of his own death to the place called The Skull, and they put an inscription over him that says, “This is the King of the Jews.”
Why was Jesus killed?
That’s almost as difficult as a question to answer as, “What is truth?”
After all, wasn’t Jesus just trying to get us all to be a little kinder to one another? If the Gospel, and the ministry of the Lord, is merely, “Treat others as you wish to be treated,” then why did Jesus end up on the cross?
You don’t kill someone for asking you to be nice.
You kill someone when you can’t handle their truth.
What happens in and to Jesus is not something that is personal or private, as we sometimes water down the faith. What happens in and to Jesus is very public and political. If the authorities wanted to be rid of Jesus they could’ve taken care of it easily and tossed his body in some random alley in Jerusalem. But they wanted to make an example of him. This is what happens for those who call into question the truth of the empire.
And yet, here on Christ the King Sunday, we confront the terrifying and life-giving reality that our King rules from the cross. Jesus’ throne is not built on the blood of his enemies. His throne is cruciform. The only blood it contains is his own.
Notably, Christ the King Sunday is a more recent addition to the liturgical calendar. It was established by Pope Pius XI in 1925 in large part as a response to the horrific and murderous realities of WWI and the rise of fascism all across Europe.
Celebrating the reign of Christ is but one way of proclaiming the gospel truth – If we believe that Jesus is Lord then that means something has to change about who we are and what we do.
Or, to put it simply, what we believe shapes how we behave.
The salvation wrought by cross and resurrection involves making us citizens of a time and space that is in tension with all other forms of citizenship.
The world tells us to earn all we can.
The kingdom tells us we already have what we need.
The world tells us that winners finish first.
The kingdom tells us that the last shall be first.
The world tells us that we are defined by our mistakes.
The kingdom tells us that we are defined only by our King.
It doesn’t get more political than this in church. And yet, inherent in today’s proclamation is the challenge of coming to grips with what it means to pledge allegiance to our King. We live in a democracy, we don’t know what it means to have a King.
Kings are not chosen.
So, to be clear, Jesus is not our president. And for good reason. We never would’ve picked him.
Turn the other cheek? Go the extra mile? Take up your cross and follow me?
Those don’t make for very good campaign slogans.
Contrary to how it’s been portrayed in the church or even in our wider culture, we never really pick Jesus. When all is said and done, when the King of kings and Lord of lords comes to dwell among us, we nail him to the cross.
We, to put it bluntly, pick Barabbas instead.
Which makes some of Jesus’ final words are the more powerful: “Forgive them Lord, for they do not know what they are doing.”
Jesus isn’t trying to win an election, he’s not trying to convince us of anything, he’s not offering empty promises about the next 2-4 years.
Instead, Jesus elects us to a kingdom that we would never choose on our own – he brings the future and the truth to us.
Some of us are here this morning because we can’t imagine being anywhere else. It is Sunday after all. But there’s a good chance that a whole lot of us are here because we are looking for the truth.
For as much as the kingdoms of the world are built on the blood of enemies, they are also founded on fabrications – the world is built and sold and traded on lies.
But not here.
Not in the church.
We are an outpost of the kingdom of God in foreign territory.
We are strangers in a strange land.
Many of us are suffocating under the oppressive power of deception. The powers and principalities of this world are constantly vying for our allegiances. They do everything in their power to convince us that power come through strength, that tribalism will rule the day, and that the most important animal is either a Donkey or an Elephant. It’s why so many of us now dread the Thanksgiving table because it forces us to confront that wayward uncle with the undesirable political opinion who, with every extra glass of wine, continues to say things that boil our blood.
The Donkey and the Elephant can’t and won’t save us. They, in large part, exist to instill a sense of freedom that actually results in isolation. They attempt to rid us of our baptismal identities to tell us that our political identities are more important. They promise a salvation that just leads to more division.
But here’s the Good News, the really really Good News: Our King rules from the throne of the cross, the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world, ours included.
And that’s why Jesus laughs.
Jesus laughs at our foolishness in thinking that we can save ourselves, that we can fix all the problems in the world.
You want to know what’s wrong with the world? We are!
When the bonds forged by the names on our bumpers become more determinative than the bonds that are forged in baptism, then we have fallen prey to the elephant and the donkey in the room.
But we are Jesus people! We believe that telling the truth is the beginning of a revolution of the heart. We confess Jesus as our Lord which means that the most important political animal is Lamb of God!
Jesus is the truth incarnate come to set us free. Thanks be to God. Amen.