Wading for Jesus

Matthew 4.12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. 

We have a new bishop in the Virginia Annual Conference, her name is Sue Haupert-Johnson. She was interviewed this week by the Conference office in order to introduce to the people called Methodist in this place. And, among all the interesting and theological bits from the interview, she was asked about our vision. 

Those without vision are doomed to perish, the scriptures say. So it was a worthy question. And this was her response: “Vision doesn’t come from the top, but rather from the people. However, the heart of the vision of the church always contains this question: How do we introduce people to Jesus?”

John the Baptist is arrested.

That’s how our scripture starts today. It’s an odd beginning, and one that is all too easy to breeze over without realizing the implications of such an introduction.

Why is John arrested? The last we heard of him in Matthew’s Gospel he was out in the wilderness, far removed from the movers and the shakers, proclaiming a baptism for the repentance of sins. That doesn’t sound like much rabble-rousing, let alone enough to warrant being thrown behind bars. But, of course, he did call the Pharisees and the Sadducees “a brood of vipers!” Even still, it’s not like he was committing a crime.

However, whenever the power that be are called into question, they’re going to do whatever it takes to stop those questions. 

John has a sense, a glimpse, of what the world could be. As the herald of the One to come, he stands squarely between the times and beckons the gaze of those with eyes to see that not all is at it seems. Something is on the way. And that something has a name: Jesus.

The drama begins.

John is arrested and how does Jesus react? He retreats to Galilee. That’s a bit odd when you take a step back from the strange new world of the Bible… I mean, we’re talking about the incarnate God! Perhaps we would prefer it if Jesus called the people to arms, if he stormed the gates of the prison to free his cousin, or any other number of reactive activities. 

But, instead, Jesus responds to John’s arrest by preaching.

Words are powerful things, more powerful than we often give them credit for. John’s words were so powerful that they put a target on his back. Jesus’ words wind up sending him to the cross. And today, our words are just as powerful, they can build up and they can destroy. 

Jesus’ mission and ministry in Galilee is for a purpose, one that Matthew begs us to see. Jesus preaches in order to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy.

“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

That text might sound familiar, and if it does it’s because we read those words every Christmas Eve – the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. The great light, now, happens to be the One who preaches in Galilee. 

And then the text moves to the call of the first disciples. 

Jesus is preaching, but he’s also searching. He’s looking for those who can help manifest and live according to the strange new world we call the kingdom of God. Notably, Jesus does not call his disciples from the powerful or the elite, he doesn’t create a big board of draft prospects for kingdom work, rather he calls those who are ordinary knowing that, with the power of the Spirit, they can do extraordinary things.

There are no crowds yet waiting to see what the hope of the world can do, the Pharisees and the scribes haven’t started their plot to get rid of him, because this is still the beginning. And one day, while walking by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and Andrew, casting a net into the lake. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets behind and followed him.

That’s it.

Luke’s Gospel adds some flavor and flourish to the story with some drama out on the water, but according to the Matthew the call of the first disciples was as quick as “Follow me.”

Much has been made about this moment in scripture and what it means for us today as followers of Jesus. 

In other words, this is the story of the first call and what we, in turn, are called to do.

Life, today, often feels a lot like U2’s song, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” We on the search for something. Some of us are looking for fulfillment, or purpose, or belonging. We look for it in people, jobs, vocations. 

I have a friend from seminary who embodied this searching perfectly. Every few months there was a new fad that dominated his existence. At first it was the desire to eat in a more local and healthy manner. He cultivated a backyard garden, read recipes book, even interned with a local farmer in between his classes. And, for a while, it took. Until it didn’t. At some point the garden was overrun by weeds, but by then he was on to the next thing: Barefoot running. He listened to some podcast about how our modern shoes are bad for our posture, and he became convinced that he needed to start running, every day, without shoes. So he did. He adopted a running calendar based on his class schedule and figured out the optimal times and places to run barefoot. And, for a while, it took. Until it didn’t. At some point the weather started to change and running sans shoes was starting to take a toll on his feet, but by then he was on to the next thing: Reading a book every three days. He encountered some article online about the devolution of our minds and the necessity to read as much as possible as quickly as possible. So he did. He set up timed alerts on his phone that told him when and what he was supposed to read. Every moment of the day was calculated down his average page per minute so that he could finish a book every three days. And, for awhile it took, until it didn’t.

I could go on. He certainly did.

He still hasn’t found what he was looking for.

And though curiosity is good, and frankly we could do well to have more of it in some ways, when it comes to the realm of the kingdom, we’ve got it backward. The Bible is not so much a long record of our search for God; rather, it is the amazing account of the extraordinary lengths to which God will go to search for us.

Perhaps that’s why the reference to Isaiah before the call of the disciples is so important: The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. In the darkness of our lives, when we least expect it, God shows up.

The disciples weren’t looking for a teacher to follow, or a barefoot running regimen to adopt, or a spiritual guru who could help bring fulfillment to their lives. If they were looking for anything, it was fish. And then Jesus shows up with the nerve to flip their vocation completely upside down. 

Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.

God in Christ shows up, and then gives us something to do. Though, how we respond to that call is as varied as the people who Jesus delights in calling. What comes to your mind when you hear the commission?

Evangelism can sound like a dirty word in United Methodist circles. It is often manipulative and preys on individual fears in order to get people in the pews. 

Some will take evangelism as our responsibility to save souls, or win people for Jesus, or knock on doors until we find someone who is willing to accept Jesus as their Lord and savior. Some will stand on street corners shouting about the end times, while others (a few blocks away) will hand out tracts with 3 simple steps to make sure you go to the right place when you die.

On and on.

Fishing for people. It’s the Lord’s metaphor, so we’ve got to work with it. Though, I’m always a bit fearful of the language since fishing is inherently a coercive endeavor. We try to trick fish into eating something fake in order to reel them in. 

Maybe that’s not the best metaphor for evangelism. Except for the fact that fishing requires us to go where the fish are. 

Therefore, perhaps we are called to wade for Jesus just as much as we are called to fish for Jesus. The earliest Christians weren’t converted to Christianity because they were looking for something, or because they were convinced or duped by the disciples. The earliest Christians were encountered by the living God and they couldn’t help but follow. 

Wading into the muck and mire of a stream to catch a fish is inherently a messy and frustrating endeavor. The same is true of wading into someone’s mess. But that’s exactly what God did and does for us.

Each of us here are here because, somehow, God showed up in our lives. And, more often than not, God shows up through someone else. 

There’s a big difference, a huge difference, between trying to convince someone of the Gospel, and living according to the Gospel. For, living according to the Gospel, puts us in relationships with people we would otherwise ignore and, because God has a sense of humor, it usually results in someone seeing how we live and then asking, “Why are you the way you are?”

And the answer, of course, is Jesus. 

Notably, the word evangelism just means, bearing the Good News. After Jesus called the first disciples he went through Galilee proclaiming the Good News and great crowds began to follow.

He didn’t try to coerce them, or frighten them, or even convince them. He just preached the Good News. 

Hear the Good News: You are loved by God. There is a place for you in God’s church. There is nothing in your life, no matter what you do or leave undone, that can ever separate you from God’s love. 

Introducing people to Jesus is at the heart of what it means to follow. How we introduce people to Jesus is actually quite easy. It’s the why we introduce people to Jesus that we often overlook. We, of course, do it because Jesus tells us to. But also because our lives have been changed by God and we want that for others. My life is fundamentally better because of the church’s willingness to relentlessly wade into the muck of my life reminding me of the Good News when everything else sounds like bad news. 

I am who I am because God waded into my life. 

Following the Lord will bring us places and to people we would never have picked on our own. Living according to the Gospel will make us appear strange to those who have not heard it. Strange enough that they might wonder what happened to us. 

And, of course, it’s not what happened to us, but who: Jesus.

The Circumference of the Kingdom

1 Corinthians 10.10

Now I appeal to you, brother and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose.

We were in the middle of nowhere North Carolina and I was receiving a tour of the town from a local clergy person. He pointed out the local watering hole, the 7-11, and the mortician’s brick and mortar funeral parlor.

From my vantage point in the front passenger seat of the aging preacher’s beat up truck it looked like every building was slowly falling apart and no one was bothered to do anything about it. Until we got to the end of the tour and there was a huge, recently leveled, field and construction equipment was strewn about in every direction.

“What’s this going to be?” I asked.

The preacher said, “The new baptist church.”

“What happened to the old baptist church?”

“It’s still here, we passed it a few blocks back. The church got into a big knock-down-drag-out fight about the color of the carpet in the sanctuary. So half the church left to start their own.”

“Do they have a name for the new church?”

“Yeah, they’re calling themselves Harmony Baptist.”

Paul writes to the church in Corinth, “I appeal to you, brothers and sister, in the name of Jesus, that you all be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, that you be united in the same mind with the same purpose.”

In other words, “For the love of everything holy, please stop being so stupid and start getting along with each other!”

It’s notable that, since the very beginning of the church, we’ve been in conflict. The book of Acts is filled with one vignette after another of the church being churchy with their disagreements. All of Paul’s letters, in some way, shape, or form, beg the recipients to start acting like the body of Christ into which they were baptized.

And the church comes by it honest.

For, to start, the church is filled with people like us: a bunch of no good dirty rotten scoundrels (even if we don’t want to admit it). But, more importantly, conflict is actually what makes the church the church!

Jesus’ mission and ministry in the world was filled with dissonance. The Pharisees and religious elites were quick with their accusations of blasphemy, the powers and principalities thought the only way to stop Jesus was the cross, and even the disciples were forever rebuking the Lord for his various proclamations and actions. 

If there’s one thing we can count on in the church, it’s conflict. 

No church has even found a way to follow the crucified God free of fiction.

And yet, friction is, often, what leads to transformation!

Case in point: the early church struggled with the rapid rise of Gentiles in their midst and had to figure out how expansive God’s kingdom really was. And, at the so-called Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, the church formally stated that no matter what scripture said, Christ’s salvation went beyond the bounds of Judaism. Therefore, matters of religious law such as circumcision, sabbath observance, and dietary restrictions were no longer required for those who followed Jesus.

Today, Jesus still refuses to leave us to our own devices and thoughts and even dreams about who the church is for. Jesus delights in sending people into our lives that we would never have picked on our own. And then, because he has a sense of humor, Jesus will see fit to make sure we read some of his words in church on Sunday like, “Love your enemies.”

We know that Jesus is at the center of what we call the kingdom of God, but we cannot know the circumference of the kingdom. In other words, we can’t decide who Jesus is for.

Or, as Barth put it, “This much is certain, that we have no theological right to set any sort of limits to the loving-kindness of God which has appeared in Jesus Christ. Our theological duty is to see and understand it as being still greater than we had seen before.”

Or, as John Wesley put it, “Salvation for all!”

God’s grace is ever expanding and never-ending. Remember: Jesus commands us to go to the ends of the earth proclaiming the Good News. And, as such, we can expect arguments, differences, and even divisions to sprout up again and again. Perhaps that’s why God keeps inviting us back to the table, pardoning us for our mistakes and shortcomings, and offering the body and the blood that makes all of this possible in the first place.

It’s not easy being the church, but nothing important ever is. 

The Beautiful Mess

John 1.29-42

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

Here, toward the beginning of the calendar year, I’ve been doing some thinking. We’re in the midst of a sermon series titled “New Year, New You” and I’ve come to realize some essential truths.

Things are not as they ought to be.

We can listen to the talking heads wax poetic about how politically divided we are, and how we just need to reach across the aisle and all that. But I think it’s far more insidious.

We are so obsessed with our financial gains and economic prosperity that we’ve allowed capitalism to become our dominant religion. We worship money and the accumulation of it. And the evils of capitalism, of which there are many, are as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism.

Did you know that, as a nation, we spend more money on national defense every year than on all of our programs of social uplift combined? Surely, that is a sign of our imminent spiritual doom.

We perpetuate a culture in which 1 out of every 3 black men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives. The price that we must pay for the continued oppression of black bodies in this country is the price of our own destruction.

There is so much injustice in this country – racial injustice, economic injustice, gender injustice. And they cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.

Something’s gotta change.

Now, let us pause for a moment. How did all of that make you feel? Do you agree with what I said? Do you disagree? There’s a better than good chance that saying what I said left most, if not all, of us feeling uncomfortable.

And yet, nearly everything I just said is not original to me. I stole those bits of proclamation from another preacher, one by the name of Martin Luther King Jr. And it was because he was willing to say things that made people uncomfortable that he was murdered. 

It’s been almost 55 years since Dr. King’s assassination. Tomorrow, businesses and schools and all sorts of institutions will close to observe a holiday given in his name, and yet I wonder what it is we remember about Dr. King. Perhaps our minds move to his “I Have A Dream Speech,” or maybe we remember his calm demeanor in the midst of such a perilous time.

However, a year before Dr. King was killed he was widely regarded as one of the most hated men in the country. 63% of respondents in a poll right before his death admitted to being vocally opposed to his words and works. 

It’s hard to remember this, let alone acknowledge it, because everyone today loves Dr. King. We celebrate his transformative work in documentaries and school projects. But we love him now because it’s so much easier to celebrate someone when they’re no longer challenging and upsetting the status quo.

In other words, it’s easier to love a hero when they’re dead.

John says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

For both Johns, the gospel writer and the Baptist, the image of the Lamb of God is central to their understanding of Jesus. We might talk about and think about Jesus as our teacher or our example or some other identifier, but for the Johns, Jesus is the Lamb of God.

And not just a lamb, but the Lamb – the Passover Lamb.

The church today is very comfortable as a safe and sanitary space where the realities of life, and by that I mean things like suffering, are kept at bay. We are good to mention the plight of Ukrainians in our congregational prayers, we will ask for volunteers to help with Family Promise, and all sorts of things. But when it comes to church, we like things neat and clean and ordinary.

We’re not comfortable with death or illness or questioning the status quo.

However, the church, weirdly, is called to be different. The church takes our over-manicured lives and says, “You’re a mess! You don’t want anyone to know it, and you don’t even want to admit it yourself, but things are falling apart!”

Behold the (Passover) Lab who takes away the sin of the world.

The church is a far cry from where we started. When God first gave specifics on how to worship to the people Israel it was messy: Build a temple, and take animals likes doves and bulls and slaughter them there. Take their blood and pour it over all sides of the altar.

Why? Because there is no transformation without sacrifice. 

Moreover, before God’s people made it to the banks of the Red Sea, waiting on a miracle, they had already experienced their miraculous deliverance from Egypt with Passover.

Take a lamb for each family, God says, a perfect and unblemished lamb, and bleed it out completely before you hang it to roast, make sure that none of its bones are broken. The lamb shall be divided in proportion to the people who eat of it. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and you shall eat it hurriedly. 

I’m getting you out of Egypt, says the Lord. Take the blood from the lamb and mark it on your doorposts so that I will know to passover as I bring my vengeance upon the people of Egypt.

It’s not for the faint of heart!

And, though we avoid it today at all costs, we still rely on blood for our worship. We no longer slaughter animals every week, but only because Jesus became the final sacrifice, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Jesus was without sin and was innocent of the charges lobbed against him, just like the Passover lamb is supposed to be perfect and without blemish.

Jesus was beaten to the point of death and stabbed in the side shortly before his death, just like the Passover lamb is supposed to be bled before being hung to roast. 

Jesus was hung up high and though beaten his bones were not broken, just like the lamb’s bones were to remain intact.

I know this is a lot, it’s gruesome and frightening and messy. 

But that’s what church is all about. It stands in stark contrast with so much of what we want our lives to look like. We want people to think we are perfect even though we are far from it. We want everything to be nice and orderly even when life is tearing at the seams. 

Church, in different ways, is God’s way of looking at the mess of our lives and saying, “I know you deserve this not at all, and yet I’m going to save you anyway. ”

Some of John’s disciples are there when he makes his radical proclamation. They understand, somehow, that the new Passover Lamb is right there in front of them. So they leave John behind to follow Jesus. 

They sacrifice whatever their lives might’ve been to follow the Lamb.

The life and ministry of Jesus who they follow is neither neat nor clean. Notably, Jesus is forever spending time with messy people and their messed up lives. His ministry is among and for the last, least, lost, little, and dead.

Even today, we worship the God who willingly chooses to enter into the muck and mire and mess of our lives, which means things are liable to get messy along the way of our own discipleship. 

And yet, that is Good News!

It is Good News because God comes to us in the brokenness of our health and the shipwreck of our family lives and the worst of our mistakes.

Or, as the liturgy puts it, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love toward us.

Do you see? God saves us in our messes, not from them.

When John says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” he means it. He, somehow, knows the future in his present, he knows what will happen to the incarnate God when the holy encounters the unholy. 

Notice, the Lamb of God has not taken away the sins of some – of only the good or the cooperative or those with perfect Sunday attendance in church. 

The Lamb takes away the sin of the world, all of them. 

That’s why we can sing, “My sin oh the bliss of this glorious thought, my sin not in part but the whole, is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more!”

And yet, the very next verse says, “And, Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight, the clouds be rolled back as a scroll; the trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend, even so, it is well with my soul.”

What is the Lord descending to do? The Lord comes to judge the living and the dead.

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We are redeemed by the Lamb already. And yet there’s a bit more to it as well. Even now Jesus is taking our sin away. Like Dr. King, the Lord speaks words of comfort to the afflicted, and affliction to the comfortable.

It’s a both/and. We are set free from the foolishness of our past while at the same time we are called to live new lives here and now based on that redemption.

Jesus is the exodus for the rest of us, he delivers us from our captivity to sin and death into a strange new world we call the Kingdom of God. 

And in its messy in the Kingdom.

I started the sermon with stolen quotes from Dr. King, a man committed to seeing and bringing about a different world. His commitment cost him his life. And I think he knew that it would. For, the night before he was killed, he delivered one of his most moving speeches. Notably, Dr. King was in Memphis in support of a new union for sanitation workers.

That final night he stood before a packed auditorium and ended with these words:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life – longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

The next day he was dead.

The Lamb of God brings a kingdom the world doesn’t want – the blood of the Lamb makes a difference and that difference means we are now different. 

God does not accept the current realities of the world. God is still contending against the powers and the principalities. God will get us to the Promised Land. 

It’s like God is saying to us today: “Come and see what I can do – come and see what we can do together. It’s going to be messy, but change always is.” Amen. 

Don’t Look Back

Isaiah 42.8-9

I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to not other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them. 

The church has always had a “problem” with looking backward. And, we come by it honest. The scriptures are ripe with stories of God’s people remaining stuck in the past (“At least we had food back in Egypt!”) and refusing to see how God makes all things new. 

One of the reasons we’re content with looking backward is the fact that the past feels under our control whereas the future is totally unknowable. 

Or, as Jesus bluntly put it, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.”

But, as Christians, we are called to the dance, one that becomes manifest whenever we gather at the Lord’s Table, between remembering and anticipating. We remember God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ as we feast on the bread and cup because they point us to the ways in which God is moving in our midst here, now, and in the future. 

There’s a story about a church where a concerned group of members called for a meeting about new ministry opportunities. For hours they went back and forth about each new possibility but they were all struck down because they seemed impossible. 

An older man from the congregation sat in silence throughout the meeting until, when he could no longer stand it, he raised his hand and said, “If I hear the word impossible one more time, I will leave this church forever. Have you all forgotten? Nothing is impossible with God!”

Here, at the beginning of a new calendar year, it is good and right for us to wrestle with the impossible possibility of God. The Lord shouts to us through the scriptures, “The former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare!” God is in the business of making all things new. Even the church.

Or, as Will Willimon puts it, “God’s future is for those who ask tough questions, come up with surprising answers, and dare better to align themselves with their core identity and purpose as the Body of Christ in motion.” “The church,” he says, “for any of its faults, is Christ’s big idea to put right what’s wrong with the world.”

In Luke’s Gospel, on the day of Easter, two figures walk toward Emmaus with their heads stuck in the past. Along the road they talk only of what happened to Jesus and they no longer have any hope. That is, until the hope of the world shows up on the road right in front of them.

“What are you talking about?” The strange figure asks.

Clops responds, “Are you the only fool in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that happened?” 

“What things?”

“Jesus is dead! Locked up and forsaken in a tomb. We had hoped he was the one who would save us.”

The strange figure spends the rest of the walk preaching, reinterpreting the scriptures, and (sadly) the two are no wiser than they were at the start. Until they get to Emmaus, and decide to share supper together. They break bread, share wine, and suddenly they see

They race all the way back to Jerusalem with nothing but hope. 

Every Sunday is a little Emmaus. We gather with all of our worries, fears, and hopelessness. We can’t help but only look backward. And then, as we open up the strange new world of the Bible, Jesus encounters us proclaiming the scriptures anew. We gather at the table, receiving the gift we do not deserve but so desperately need. And our eyes are opened to God’s new future.

Don’t look back! God is in motion! Let’s go!

God Is God And We Are Not

Psalm 8

O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human being that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Christmas Pageant stories are a dime a dozen.

I, myself, stood in a different pulpit helping narrate a particular pageant when one of the shepherds turned his staff upside down and ignited it like a lightsaber. Were it not for a daring dive from the aforementioned pulpit, the shepherd would’ve beheaded a wiseman, an angel, and at least three sheep.

There was another pageant when a kid dressed as a donkey decided to take a nap on the chancel steps in the middle of the drama, and remained there until after the applause died down at the end and everyone heard him say, “Mom?”

There’s a wonder and a beauty to the way children lead us in worship. Whether it’s the theological daring answers during a Children’s message, to the way they give themselves over completely to the movement of the Spirit, to the various pageant pronouncements, the glory of the Lord is revealed.

There’s a story that passes around this time of year every year about a certain pageant and the child who played the innkeeper. For weeks and weeks all the children practiced their positions and their lines, they were ready. But when Christmas Eve arrived, and the little Mary, Joseph, and plastic Jesus arrived at the cardboard cut out entrance to the inn, they knocked on the door and the innkeeper froze. Little Mary kept repeating her line, “Please let us in. We’re cold and we really need a place to stay!” Getting louder with each repetition. Until, finally, the innkeeper looked out into the congregation and said to the pageant coordinator, “I know I’m supposed to say, ‘No,’ but can I let them in anyway?”

Kids get it.

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

There’s a better than good chance that every one of us here has a story in which a child or a kid or a youth pointed us to a greater reality about the kingdom, than we could come to on our own. For instance, I was with my family in Alexandria this last week, celebrating the holidays, and we decided to go visit my grandmother’s grave on the anniversary of her death. She died last year at this time. 

And as we were dressing the kids and getting them into our various cars, my nephew asked, “Where are we going?” And I said, “We’re going to see Omi.” And he gave me this puzzled look and said, “But Omi’s with Jesus now.”

Kids get it.

But then the psalmist drops this on our dozing heads: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human being that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”

What a brutal question!

That God considers us, at all, is beyond our deserving. That God listens to our prayers is downright ridiculous. We tend to look at all we’ve done and said with such pride and glory, but compared to the works of God we are a bunch of ants. 

The God who called the universe into being out of nothing, who brought forth order out of chaos, who breathed life into creation, is probably not very impressed with the Lego set I built a few days ago, or the meal I cooked for my family, or even this sermon I crafted.

All things considered, there’s nothing terribly special about humanity. We’re a bunch of creatures who often make a mockery of the creation that God has given to us. 

Sure, we can point to some of our achievements, save for the fact that some of the worst things we’ve ever done as a species were done in the name of progress. 

What makes us unique isn’t what we can, or can’t, do, but the fact that God becomes one of us. God did not become a penguin, God became a human, a particular human in the person of Jesus Christ. And, notably, God did not just show up as a fully formed adult human being – God shows up as a baby!

That’s the message of the incarnation. And it is so bewildering that people like us decorate trees, and exchange gifts, and light candles year after year to celebrate God’s unwavering commitment to us. 

But the only reason we, that is Gentiles, even know about this enough to celebrate it is because of what we call Epiphany, the feast that marks the visit of the Magi and the expansion of the kingdom to those outside the people Israel. 

According to Matthew’s Gospel, after Jesus’ birth wise men/magi from the East come to Jerusalem looking for the king of the Jews because they observed a rising star and came to pay their respect. There’s a frightening plot by King Herod to put to an end any threat to his power, but the magi make haste to Bethlehem where they discover the star leading them to the location of the baby Jesus. 

When they encounter the baby born king they do something strange. It would be one thing to bring gifts to a king, stranger still to give those gifts to a baby born to a poor Jewish woman and her soon-to-be husband. But scripture says that when the magi saw Jesus, they knelt down and worshipped him and were overwhelmed with joy.

Epiphany is the celebration of that moment. We mark it on the liturgical calendar because it both points to the wild character of the incarnation, God in the flesh as a baby, but also to the way in which the glory of Jesus’ birth stretches beyond the confines of Israel.

Jesus will certainly grow to enact miracles and make various proclamations about the ever widening nature of the kingdom, but this is the radical beginning of that expansion. 

Jesus comes for a lot of reasons – to save us, to show us how the kingdom works, to reveal the nature of God. But one of the things we often overlook is that Jesus helps us to become fully human.

That’s a strange claim to make. You might expect to hear that Jesus helps us to become better Christians, or fuller Christians. And yet, if Herbert McCabe is right, we can only be fully human as we are incorporated into the fullness of humanity named Jesus Christ. Jesus, McCabe argues, “was the first true human for whom to live was simply to love – for this is what human beings are for.”

The kingdom of God, therefore, isn’t just for certain sets of people in particular places. The kingdom of God is for everyone. When we say that Jesus is fully human and fully divine, we mean that he is the fullness of humanity and the fullness of God. If we want to know what it means to be human, we need not look further than Jesus Christ, for his life was love. 

Maybe that’s why the magi fell to their knees and worship. Not because they intellectually understood the proclamation of the incarnation, of because they rationally deduced the momentous moment in front of them, but because they encountered love in the flesh, true and full humanity in a baby.

The presence of the magi in the manger means that the love that is God is for people even like us. And whenever we encounter that total radical love, whether it’s here in church, or at school, or at work, or around the dinner table, we can’t help but worship. It is nothing short of amazing that God, author of the cosmos, loves us and is as close to us as a baby being rocked in our arms or the bread and cup at the table.

An important theological claim is that God is God and we are not. It keeps things squarely where they are supposed to be. What are human beings that God is mindful of us, and all that.

But then, in the incarnation, everything takes on a strange and wondrous dimension. Because even though God is God and we are not, God willingly choose to become us, that we might discover who we are and whose we are.

Which, in the end, is why the psalmist can sing: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Amen.

Preaching With The Angels

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Teer Hardy about the readings for Christmas Eve/Christmas Day [A] (Isaiah 9.2-7, Psalm 86, Titus 2.11-14, Luke 2.1-20). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA and Teer is one of the pastors at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including funeral sermons, merchandise, Christmas Unicorns, transitional themes, the truth, pageantry, the Prince of Peace, homiletical imaginations, Joshua Retterer, new songs, judgment, gifts, Sufjan Stevens, fear, and Karl Barth. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Preaching With The Angels

The Mother of God

Isaiah 7.10-16

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and can choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.

Gender-inclusive language. 

That’s a strange way to start a sermon. 

The practice of using gender-inclusive language for the divine has been around for awhile but it really came into vogue shortly before I arrived in seminary. It’s a willingness to confront the masculine pronouns often attributed to God: God as he. 

The reason being that God is not a he, unless we’re talking about Jesus. 

Of course, scripture and grammar lends itself to this. We pray to God as Father and all of that. But there are actually plenty of moments in the Old Testament when God is given feminine attributes, and even Jesus uses feminine attributes for God in the New Testament, we just rarely talk about them.

Again, what’s at stake here is the fact that God is not like us. God is, to use an expression of Barth’s, totally other. Therefore, to use human attributes, particularly gendered attributes for God, makes God like us.

And so there began a push while I was in school to stop referring to God as he. True story: we would have one point taken away per gendered reference to God in our papers, which taught us how to adapt quickly. 

Perhaps you have noticed, but maybe not, when I preach I try my best to not masculinize God. In other words, I try to avoiding pronoun-ing God. And sometimes it makes for a strange sentence. But it’s important. God is not a man. God is God.

Of course there are some, who in order to offer a corrective to the masculinity of God rendered in church, will feminize God and refer to God as she, or mother. Which, I think, can be helpful. God is both paternal and maternal. But it still puts God in our own terms, rather than letting God speak to us about who God is.

And yet, there is a more radical notion about the identity of God that we often overlook or downright ignore. 

You know what’s more radical than talking about God as our mother? The fact that God has one. 

700 years before the Advent of Christ, the people of God were in a time of war and fear. The city of Jerusalem was besieged during the reign of Ahaz and there seemed to be no hope on the horizon. And in the midst of this terror, the Lord asks Ahaz if he would like a sign of God’s power. And, inexplicably, Ahaz refuses! Which leave the prophet Isaiah to lament, “Is it not enough to weary everyone else, now you’ve moved to wearying God?”

And the Lord offers this sign whether Ahaz wants it or not: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”

Notably, Isaiah does not say that “a” young woman will bear a child named Immanuel. Isaiah says “the” young woman will do so. “The” is the definite article indicating that not just anyone will give birth to this Promised One, but someone in particular would do it. We, of course, did not know who the “the” would be until Mary was singled out to be the Mother of God, the mother of Jesus. Not just any young Jewish girl would do. The one to carry and birth Jesus is Mary.

It’s difficult, I fear, for us to imagine the bewildered reception of Isaiah’s proclamation. We are so storied by the story of Christmas, moved by its majesty, that we can scarcely fathom the oddity of the prophet’s promise.

The city is under siege, hope is lost, and the Lord says, “A baby is coming.”

A baby? What about a ruthless warrior, or a fearsome king, or a charismatic leader? Surely that’s what God people needed! And yet, God says the sign is the woman who will bear a child named Immanuel.

That God chooses the woman as the sign, that God enacts God’s purposes through this young woman is so confounding. 

  What we dare to proclaim about God is that God willingly gets involved in the flesh and blood and bone of human life. The God we worship is en-wombed in Mary.

There’s a reason we don’t talk much about Mary. There are a lot of reasons actually. Most of them stem from our patriarchal renderings of existence. Some of them stem from the fact that we are Protestant and don’t want to be associated with the Mary-worship that happens in the Catholic Church. And yet, to ignore Mary, is to ignore the radical notion of the Incarnation. 

The ignorance of Mary results in a form of Christendom in which men continue to feel as if they are superior to women.

Patriarchy is real, the unjust rule of men over women exists and its wrong. And not just because of our modern sensibilities of equality, it’s wrong because of the fact that God is born of Mary!

Listen – Mary, as we say in certain theological circles, is the THEOTOKOS, the God-bearer. And, so named, she safeguards the fleshiness of God. Without her the God we worship remains aloof, but with her, the God we worship becomes one of us.

There is something almost outrageously particular about the fact that God’s fleshy presence in the world is localized in the womb of an unmarried teenage girl from Nazareth. Which is made all the more wild when we realize that Isaiah told God’s people this would happen 700 years before it did.

We tend to lob all these titles and distinctions upon God. God is almighty, omnipotent, omniscient, or whatever big seminary word we want to use. And all of that is fine. God is the author of the cosmos after all. But to claim God as enfleshed, that God has a birth and a death, is at the heart of the scandal that makes our faith, faith.

Even Martin Luther, who so famously broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, (which was simply called church until Luther started something different), Luther was wary of the church’s veneration of Mary and how close it was coming to idolatry. But even Luther was quick to note, “Mary breastfed God, rocked God to sleep, prepared broth and soup for God.”

Have you ever thought about the Gospel that way before?

If we take the strange new world of the Bible seriously, then Mary also changed God’s diapers, taught God songs to sing, taught God the stories of the faith, even the promise of the coming Messiah who was rocking in her arms the entire time.

Similarly, Charles Wesley praised Mary as one, “Who gave all things to be, what a wonder to see, God born of this creature, and nursed on her knee.”

Mary, an ordinary young woman from Nazareth, keeps the incarnation scandalous. 

Artist: Scott Erickson

Not to jump too solidly into the New Testament, but, Mary’s “Let it be” opens the way for a new eruption of grace into the world. We might call “Let it be” the Gospel according to Paul McCartney, but its actually the Gospel according to Mary!

Mary writes the best (can we say that?) song in the Gospels, a song we refer to as the Magnificat. It demonstrates her profound knowledge and love of the scriptures, and is perhaps the must frequently sung song throughout all of church history. 

Mary is present and is also the instigator of Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee (water to wine). And she and others are present at the cross when the disciples flee.

Moreover, Mary is in the upper room at Pentecost, the only woman present who is named, and she receives the same Spirit that sets the church in motion.

But wait, there’s more: Throughout the early history of the church up through the Middle Ages, there were more paintings done of Mary than of Jesus!

The young woman with child of Isaiah’s proclamation is Mary, the flesh and blood Mother of God. Mary is not an idea, she is not a myth. She is a real person, as real as you and me. She is a real person who made decisions upon which our faith depends. 

We often fail to embody the embodied nature of our faith because, at some point, we assume that whatever our faith is it is at least a set of ideas or slogans. Ideas that help us make sense of the world, or slogans to help us behave better and therefore fix the world. 

But the witness of the faith cannot be summarized on a bumper sticker or in a tweet. It cannot be expressed through ideas or slogans.

It cannot because our faith, oddly enough, hinges on a young Jewish woman named Mary.

Here we are, at the end of Advent, preparing to dress up the kids next week for a pageant, and perhaps we do well to remember that Mary was not only real, she was also unlikely. That God chooses her, from a forgotten town with no bright hope for tomorrow, is wild beyond imagining. 

That God chooses any of us for God’s purposes is outrageous.

We would never have chosen to do it this way.

But, then again, we are not God. Thank God we are not God.

Because of the proclamation of Mary’s womb, God has given us more than we deserve, God has given us reason to be patient because the cosmos hinges not upon what we do, but upon what has been done for us. 

Therefore, here on the last Sunday of Advent, we are given the hope that we can learn to wait. Not unlike the Israelites waited for God to keep God’s promise. Not unlike Mary waited nine months with her belly swelling. Not unlike the disciples waited three days after the crucifixion. 

Waiting is part of the discipline of learning what it means to be creatures of time.

Time is a gift and a burden. That we have time at all is nothing short of God’s grace. But our time is limited. We must be born and we must die – Advent refuses to let us pretend otherwise. And yet, at the same time, Advent stories us. That is, Advent teaches us who we are and whose we are. 

Stories, of course, come in all shapes and sizes. Some are short and some are long. Some are funny and some are not. Some are defined by all sorts of words, and others can be summarized with “Let it be.” 

We, all of us, are storied creatures.

And, strangely, the great Good News of Advent is that our time has been storied by Jesus Christ, born of Mary. Mary makes possible our stories because she bears God into the world. God takes on flesh and dwells among us which gives us the grace to be, and become, fully human. 

It’s rather extraordinary, when we can take a step back from it all, that we know the name of the Lord’s mother! And yet, even more extraordinary is the fact that God chose to come and make time for us, redeeming out time, and making possible the salvation that disrupts time forever. 

Our time is so redeemed because Mary’s son is Immanuel, God with us.

No matter what.

Whether we are on the naughty list or the nice list, God is with us.

Whether we have gobs of presents under the tree, or if we haven’t had the time to get a tree at all, God is with us.

Whether we have more Christmases ahead of us, or only a few left, God is with us. 

Behold! The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. Thanks be to God. 

The Naughty List

There’s a lot of good music to listen to this time of year both inside, and outside, the church. When the congregation belts out O Come, O Come, Emmanuel it brings tears to my eyes, just as Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” can make me extra nostalgic for Christmases from the past.

But for as many good songs as there are this time of year, there are also some awful songs as well. And perhaps none are worse than “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” (If that song is your absolute favorite, then I apologize for the rest of this)

What we worship and celebrate during Advent is the antithesis of what that song conveys. Santa Claus may be watching your each and every move in order to reward you (or punish you) on Christmas, but Jesus arrives regardless of whether we’re on the naughty list or the nice list. Though, spoiler warning, we’re all on the naughty list, which is why Jesus is born into the world in the first place! We need all the help we can get!

And, thankfully, as Isaiah reminds us, we remain loved by God even when we knowingly choose to do the things we know we shouldn’t. In other words, the real gift of Christmas can never be taken away because Jesus Christ is coming to town!

Water In The Desert

Isaiah 35.1-10

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. 

It’s a thing that takes place, more often than I would like. Someone wanders into my office and before long they say, “Why did this happen?”

Why do Russian forces continue to attack civilians in Ukraine, killing innocents daily?

Why did my cells mutate into a cancer that is trying to kill me?

Why would my husband hurt me so much?

Those are worthy Advent questions.

Why? 

We’ve got the lights and the cocoa, some of us already have presents wrapped under the tree and are putting together the menu for when the relatives arrive. We’ve got all this other stuff going on and yet we know that not all is as it ought to be.

Even if you feel like you’ve got it all figured out, spend one minute watching the nightly news and you are likely to be bombarded with stories and images of all that is wrong with this world. 

Why is this world so broken? What can we, the church, say about all the sorrow, the waste, the vengefulness that populates the evening news and keeps us awake at night?

John the Baptist had the same questions. Sure, he prepared the way out in the wilderness, he called for the baptism for the repentance of sins, he talked about the One to follow. But his talk was incendiary, downright revolutionary, according to the powers and the principalities, and it got him locked up.

And from prison John starts to wonder about his cousin Jesus. “He sure seems like the Messiah. He walks like the Messiah, he talks like the Messiah. And yet, where is all the grand and Messianic stuff to inaugurate this time? Why isn’t Jesus more like me?”

So John sends word by way of his disciples, “Hey cuz, are you the real deal? Or are we to wait for another?”

And Jesus, in typical Jesus fashion, responds in his own weird way. He says to his own disciples, “Tell my cousin what you have seen and heard: the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the poor have good news.”

Jesus, notably, quotes the prophet Isaiah, the very text we read this morning. A text from 700 years before Jesus arrived on the scene and John got locked up.

Jesus is saying to John, by way of his disciples, that he is, indeed, the One to come and the time has already arrived. “The kingdom is breaking in, J the B, you’ve set your sights too low. You want to defeat the empire called Rome. Well, I’ve come to vanquish the empire of sin and death. It’s already begun because I am here. I am the kingdom in the flesh.”

This proclamation, this promise, of the blind seeing, the lame walking, the deaf hearing, it’s a recurring theme in scripture. Isaiah has a glimpse of it. Jesus preaches on it in his first sermon. The disciples witness it. 

It’s the ministry of divine inversion. It’s no different than Isaiah talking about streams in the desert and the hills being brought low. The work of the Lord makes a way where there is no way.

And yet, Jesus’ answer to his cousin, his pointing to the work made manifest in the flesh, is somewhat incomplete. The rugged Advent faith compels us to admit that something is amiss. Yes, Jesus did heal a few blind people, but only a few. Yes, he did feed the hungry and cure the sick. But how many?

The signs of the in-breaking kingdom, the work of the Lord then and now, is left undone.

That’s the strange tension of Advent – of living between the already but not yet, of being stuck in the time being.

The kingdom of God is mysterious. 

Mysteries are fundamentally unsatisfying. We are not content to rest under the shadow of the unexplained. So we bring our expectations and questions to Jesus over and over again, not unlike John did from behind bars, and Jesus, more often than not, gives us mystery.

Preachers like me are always looking for stories, these moments of impact where the Gospel hits us in the heart. And sometimes the stories arrive from unexpected places.

Rob Delaney is an actor and comedian, known for bit parts in various films and a short-lived British series titled Catastrophe. He’s made a career out of making people laugh. And this week Delaney has been making the day-time and late-night tv circuit promoting his new memoir titled A Heart That Works. The title comes from a song lyric: A heart that hurts, is a heart that works.

That’s a strange title for a memoir from a comedian.

The book tells of Delaney’s experience of profound loss and pain. His third son, named Henry, around the time of this 1st birthday got sick. Very sick. It took a long time to figure out what was going on, and they eventually discovered that Henry had a brain tumor. He had extremely invasive surgery and chemotherapy that left him disabled. After a year and a half of time in and out of the hospital, the tumor returned and he died.

When asked about why Delaney chose to write the memoir, again and again he has responded, “I wanted to return to humanity, and I didn’t know how other than to write about it.”

And so, day after day, Delaney has sat down for interview after interview, being forced to relive something that no one should ever have to experience. 

And this week, while sitting down for a conversation on CBS, Delaney interrupted the program and looked across the table to Gayle King and said, “Gayle, you came up to me this morning before we came out here in front of the cameras and you hugged me, and asked me genuine questions, and you cried. You offered me a beautiful and human response. And I want you to know it’s the best thing that’s happened to me in days.”

Gayle King, unflappable Gayle King, stared back at him with this bewildered look and said, “How can that be the best thing?”

And Delaney said, “You had a genuine response. I don’t want people to ask these perfunctory questions, and say ‘Oh, your grief,’ and then move on as if nothing happened. I want people to cry. My boy is dead. I won’t hold him again. I hold him in my heart and I think about him all the time. But you had a response like that and that was like water to me in the desert. It was beautiful.”

“It was like water in the desert.” The prophet Isaiah speaking through a comedian, on CBS. 

And what makes that interaction even all the more extraordinary, is that Delaney is an atheist. Except, later in the week, this time while on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Delaney was pushed by the host to reflect on what his grief has done to him and he said, “It’s a big problem for me that, as an atheist, my faith organ has been growing in the years after my son’s death.”

Water in the desert. 

We tend to treat grief like a plague. We stay away from it. We close our doors to it. And if we have it, we do whatever we can to get rid of it. But you know, grief is actually good. 

Grief is just unexpressed love. Grief is how love perseveres.

It’s Advent. It’s that time of year when we pull our the greenery and we sing the songs and we light the candles. Today, the pink candle is lit. It’s Gaudete Sunday, rejoice, the Sunday for joy, pink is the liturgical color for joy. It’s a bit odd, I think, that we keep lighting this pink candle year after year.

Because, how can we be joyful in a time like this?

How can someone like Rob Delaney be joyful?

Grief is like a hole that cannot be filled no matter how hard we try. No number of presents can make up for the pain that we too often encounter in this life. And yet we are bold to light that candle.

We light it not as a denial of the harsh realities of life, but because joy is something that is done to us.

Joy is what happens when we dare to trust the Lord to do for us that which we cannot do on our own.

Joy is what happens when we are able to look at what we have, and had, and know that all of it, the good and the bad, came as a gift. Something rather than nothing.

Joy is what happens whenever we encounter water in the midst of the deserts of our grief.

When we weep with others, or even rejoice with others, does it fix everything? Does it set everything right? 

What good is a cup of water in the desert? It doesn’t get rid of the desert!

And yet, the mystery of God’s activity in the world is that even the tiniest signs of faithfulness and love and mercy and hope are the pointers to the glory that will come when the Lord comes to make all things new. 

The hope of Advent, of all time really, is possible precisely because what we have now is not all there is. We have these lights, and prayers, and songs because the point us to the greater reality that beats upon our lives ever day: God loves us, and this is not the end. 

I don’t know if this was the sermon you expected to hear this morning. I can assure you, this is not the sermon I thought I would be preaching at the beginning of the week. And yet, we worship the God of the unexpected. The God who provides water in the desert. The God who lifts the valleys up and brings the mountains low. The God who takes on flesh to dwell among us. The God who mounts the hard wood of the cross for us. The God who breaks forth from the empty tomb and returns to us. 

The proclamation of the gospel is that God comes to us in the brokenness of our health, in the shipwreck of our family lives, in the loss of all possible peace of mind, even in the thick of our sins. God, oddly, saves us in our disasters, not from them. 

Isaiah says the redeemed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

That is God’s promise to us. And until it comes to fruition, the least and the best we can do, is be water in the desert for others. Amen. 

The Love That Is The Cross

Isaiah 11.1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious. 

“I’m going to keep this short.”

That’s an incredible way to start a speech, or even a sermon.

And 99% of the time, it isn’t true. 

To start with such a declaration puts people at ease because they’ve been duped into thinking they only have to pay attention a little. For, brevity leads to clarity, doesn’t it?

“I’m going to keep this short,” is usually the prelude to a lot of pontificating that often leaves us no wiser than when we began.

It’s usually an indication that whatever follows wasn’t thought through, and is usually off the cuff.

Which, in a place like this, is a bad idea. Who knows what kind of random theological riff-raff might come forth from a short stump speech.

And, to be clear, I’m not railing against the strange promise of a short declaration just because Fred Sistler started his sermon that way last week.

I would never do something like that.

I’m a Christian!

Stump speeches. They are a regular occurrence in the political fabric of our reality. They trace back to the 19th century during which politicians would go about from town to town “stumping” – offering brief highlights on what they planned to do in office should they get elected, usually with key words and phrases that they repeated over and over and over again.

A stump speech is like having one sermon and using it week after week.

And, of course, the “stump” part of “stump speech” comes from the practice of standing on a tree stump to get high enough for better visibility and greater oration. 

Other stumpy items from the 19th century included tables, chairs, and even whiskey barrels.

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, rather famously stood on his father’s gravestone in order to proclaim the gospel since he was no longer welcome to preach in churches.

I, myself, prefer preaching from a ladder.

But even here, right in the middle of the chancel area, slightly elevated, this is somewhat of an ecclesial stump where I, and plenty others, have stumped for Jesus.

We might call it our sanctified stump for salvation.

And stump speeches, though often short and repetitive, really can make all the difference in the world. Sometimes all it takes is one story, one word even, for the skies to open up, and all of God’s grace comes pouring down.

When the Good News actually sounds like good news, it changes everything.

Even us.

My former professor Stanley Hauerwas is known for his stump speeches. He has these recurring quotes and proclamations that he goes back to over and over again. I remember a classmate asking him why he said the same thing so many times, and he said, “Because they’re true.”

Some years ago, while lecturing in Scotland, using those same stumpy proclamations, Dr. Hauerwas was asked to preach at the cathedral of Edinburgh. Massive building with a huge pulpit, hardly a stump. The pulpit there is so large, in fact, that it has its own staircase that the preacher has to ascend in order to preach. And, when the appointed time arrived, Hauerwas marched up the stairs but right before he made it to the top, he heard a small door close behind him as well as a key turning in the lock. 

Hauerwas, bewildered by the turn of events, demanded to know what was happening, when someone on the other side of the pulpit door said, “It’s a tradition in this church, dating back to the days of the Reformation. We lock the preacher in the pulpit, and we keep the preacher there until they give us the Gospel.”

Stumping for Jesus.

And yet, a stump is no glorious thing.

A stump, after all, is only possible if a tree has been chopped down. Stumps are signs of death. 

By the time the prophet Isaiah rolls around, the Davidic kingdom is nothing but a stump. All the promise, all the hope, all the dreams had fizzled out. The holy city was sacked again and again, people were sent to live in exile. There was no bright hope for tomorrow.

And Isaiah says, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots!”

How strange. It’s as if the prophet has lost his ever-loving mind. He looks out on failed promises, idolatry, ruin, and yet he sees something more.

Feeling stumped is, sadly, all too familiar for God’s people even today, particularly during Advent. We might rejoice in memories from years ago, but we know that things can never really be like they once were. We might sit comfortably in these pews, but there’s a better than good chance that we’re also feeling the anxiety that is all to common during this season. We might sing the songs, and purchase the presents, and drive around looking at lights, but that doesn’t automatically make this the most wonderful time of the year.

We know what it means to be stumped, to feel as if nothing good is left.

And what do we do when we’re stumped? To whom do we turn? What relief can we find?  

Netflix with the never ending assortment of holiday movies that follow the exact predictable formula over and over? Discounts at the ABC store? Scrolling through instagram seeing perfect people with their perfect lives?

Kurt Vonnegut once opined that no one should read beauty magazines because they will only make us feel ugly.

The same could be said of Instagram.

And yet, when Isaiah sees the stump, he sees hope! The roots are still pulling nutrients from the soil, a new shoot will sprout forth bringing life and life abundant. The new shoot from Jesse’s stump is the promise that God isn’t done with God’s people. 

That’s what happens when you worship the God of impossible possibility, even stumps can bring about something new.

And that something new is a person.

Listen – the Spirit will rest upon him and he will know the fear of the Lord. He will even delight in his fear! He will come with judgment and righteousness and he will make all things right.

Sounds pretty good. This new shoot will be the difference maker, a warrior. But what strange weapons! He shall slay the enemy with the Word, not with swords. He will destroy all opponents with the Spirit, not by slaying. He will wear a belt of righteousness for the battle, not Batman’s belt with gadgets and gizmos aplenty.

And with the victory comes even stranger results! The wolf will live with the lamb, the calf and the lion and the fatling together. The cow and bear shall graze. And a little child shall lead them.

Everything about this proclamation is unexpected. The line of David is nothing but a stump, forsaken and dead. And yet, from it the ruler of the cosmos will come. Animals that have no business being together shall live in peace. And a child shall lead them. 

It sounds so good and so perfect. And yet, 700 years after Isaiah’s announcement, John the Baptist arrives on the scene, preparing the way of the Lord, announcing a baptism for the repentance of sins. He calls the religious elite broods of vipers because they have lost sight of Isaiah’s vision.

John says, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees!” 

The stump of Jesse, the ax at the roots. John and Isaiah together see a reality that no one else does. They see the sign of the time. “On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples.”

What is the sign?

Have you ever wondered what became of the tree that was chopped down in order to make the stump? Have you ever seen the connection between Isaiah’s proclamation and John’s declaration?

The stump is only possible because a tree was brought down. And do you know what we did with the tree? We nailed Jesus to it.

The root of Jesse is the cross. It stands on a hill far away, the emblem of suffering and shame. And it is glorious. 

Some will say, this time of year, that we need to keep Christ is Christmas. Sure. That’s fine. But if we’re going to keep Christ in Christmas, we should also consider what it might mean to keep the Cross in Christmas. 

It’s Advent. This is the time of year when we hear the most difficult, demanding, bad news to ever be called good – The Cross. Every Advent we have our worlds’ rocked, tables turned, foundations shaken, demons put to rot, and dead dreams brought back to life. 

All things are possible in Advent because we worship the God of impossible possibly. The God who delights in upending all of our expectations of how the world is supposed to work.

Jesus really is the reason for the season, as is his cross. And lest we domesticate the Lord to mere flannel graphs and perfectly manicured manger scenes, Jesus was and is still so provocative that the powers and principalities are forever trying to shut him up. But nothing can stop Jesus. He’s going to say and do things that change everything.

Not even the cross can stop him.

In fact, the cross is our salvation. It’s a stump that brings forth new life. That’s why we can call it glorious.

Therefore, whenever someone stands in this place and stumps for Jesus, we are called to do exactly that – We point to Jesus Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, the shoot from the stump of Jesse, the one who makes a way where there is no way.

The promise of Advent is that no matter what stumps us in this life, God is going to get what God wants. Predator and prey will dwell together. Peace will reign. And a child will lead us. 

The promise of Advent is that Jesus is the shoot, the branch that grows into a cruciform tree bearing the fruit that is salvation because Jesus is always stumping on our behalf, even when it costs him his life. 

The promise of Advent is that new life always starts in the dark, whether in the womb or the tomb, whether underground or the lost being found; new life starts in the dark.

Therefore, the next time you encounter a stump, take a good look at it, because you may be looking at your salvation. Amen.