This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for the 4th Sunday of Lent [A] (1 Samuel 16.1-13, Psalm 23, Ephesians 5.8-14, John 9.1-41). Alan is a United Methodist pastor serving First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including DBH and universalism, wider circles, Saved By The Bell: The College Years, a terrible Karl Barth impression, the story behind the story, having eyes to see, being stuck in a groove, the theologies of Methodism, and the miracle of evangelism. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: On The Fence Inside The Big Tent
Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord. Happy are those who keep his decrees, who seek him with their whole heart, who also do no wrong, but walk in his ways.
Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Jesus said that.
And he meant it.
Or so I, and countless Christians, have been told over and over again. We Christians must hold ourselves to a higher standard! How else will the rest of the world know how badly they need to repent and turn their lives back to the Lord?
When I was in college, those statements covered much of what I heard about the church. While classmates were off doing whatever it was they did on the weekends (whether I joined them or not) I was made to feel guilty or ashamed for the choices I was making because, I was told, I would be happier if I was “walking in the law of the Lord.”
The same comments about the church were made while I was in seminary, and I’m sure that for a while in the beginning of my ministry I made the same points.
But they never really made me feel happy, no matter how well behaved I was. I was caught in a conundrum – Either be perfect and unhappy, or let my guard down and feel guilty.
It took me a long time to realize that when Jesus calls his disciples to be perfect as God is perfect, he does so knowing that we won’t be able to do it. That’s kind of the whole point of the gospel – God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
But does that mean we shouldn’t try? Of course not. But if the gospel is only about how we have to constantly do better all the time, then we will walk away from church without the Good News sounding like good news.
Karl Barth put it likes this:
“Basically, the gospel is a very simple thing. The gospel is no system of this or that truth, no theory on life in time and eternity, no metaphysics or the like, but simply the sign that God has blessed the world, this poor world in which we live, with all its difficulties, with all its misery, with this whole ocean of death. And in this world we dare to live in the knowledge that God loves us, but not only us Christians who believe that God loves the whole world. Every person, even the most miserable, even the most evil, is loved by God. This is the privilege: to be commissioned and enabled as a Christian to proclaim that.” (Barth in Conversation – Volume II. Interview with George Casalis on November 7th, 1963.)
It is a rather radical proposition and yet it is precisely what makes the Good News so good.
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. In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then 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 to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praying God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
It doesn’t get a whole lot better than this. No matter how old or jaded we may be, regardless of whether we deserve coal in our stockings or not, Christmas Eve never fails to work its magic.
Maybe its the music, or the candlelight, or the knowledge of what awaits us when we awake – there’s just 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. Others made plans weeks ago and are here for the first time. Some of you are here with questions, and others are just waiting to get home to finish everything on your to-do lists. Some of you made a last minute decision to come and are still wondering if you made the right choice. Others were dragged here against your will.
There are those among us for whom there are more Christmases ahead than behind, and of course there are those for whom there are only a few Christmases left.
Whoever you are, and whatever feelings, and thoughts, and questions you’ve brought tonight, it is my hope and prayer that you encounter the light of the world who shines in the darkness, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Then 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 to them, “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.”
If we hear the story of Jesus’ remarkable arrival in the world we often do so without noticing the explosion and unexpected nature of the whole thing. And scripture is partly to blame. The whole birth in the manger comes in less than a verse and the story just keeps going.
The details, of course, are important – Luke roots us in a time and a place, Luke sets up the main and important characters, but when it comes to the moment for which all of us are here tonight, it comes down to this: “While they were in Bethlehem, 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’s quite a strange story when we take a step back from it all, if we can. For, this story, the travelings of a young soon to be married couple at the requirement of empire, a baby born in some of the worst conditions imaginable, dirty shepherds receiving the best news the world has ever known, is weird.
Whether Luke intended it this way, the story compels us to enter a strange new world. Every time we take up the Bible we encounter a world that is at first our own, and then is it strange and new beyond our conceptions, only then, sometimes without our knowledge, becomes the world we truly in habit.
We open it and find ourselves among the likes of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We stand on the banks of the sea with Moses as the waters are driven apart. We are invited into the poetic pondering of David and the wisdom of Solomon. And then here, on Christmas Eve, we enter this strange new world to hear about good news of great joy for all people born as Jesus Christ.
But this strange new world is, in fact, our world. And Jesus has come to save it.
A statement like that requires knowledge about what, exactly, Jesus saves us from. We were just singing about it a moment ago: No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground, he comes to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found, far as, far as, the curse is found.
And what is the curse? Well, it is a lot of things. We can call it sin, or death, or self-righteousness. But perhaps this year, the curse Jesus has come to destroy is the idea that it’s all up to us.
Because the truth is actually the opposite: God helps those who can’t help themselves. That’s part of the Good News of Christmas – God in Christ comes to do for us that which we couldn’t do for ourselves!
I heard a story last week about a woman and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. Back in the 90’s she was a strung out drug addict going through heavy withdrawals while her newborn baby was asleep in the next room. She was at the rock bottom of her life, fearing every day that she wouldn’t be able to get the kick she needed, fearing every day that her child would be taken away, and fearing every day that maybe her child needed to be taken away, from her.
It was 2am and she was lying in the fetal position on the floor trying to will herself into a reckoning. In her hand she kept folding and unfolding a piece of paper with a phone number on it. It was the number for a Christian counselor that her mother had sent in the mail 4 years before, back when they were still talking.
The woman did not know what to do, nor where to turn, and she was so desperate that she picked up the phone and dialed the number.
A man answered the phone, and the woman said, “I got this number from my mother, do you think maybe you could talk to me?” She heard him shuffling around in his room and he said, “Yes, what’s going on?”
She hadn’t told anyone what was going on, not even herself and she said, “I’m not feeling so good and I’m scared…” And without realizing it she just kept going and told the man that she had a drug problem, and that she was worried about her son, and she didn’t know what else to do.
And the man listened. He didn’t judge, he didn’t offer advice, he just stayed with her on the phone.
The call began around 2am and the man stayed with her on the phone until the sun came up. At some point the woman said, “Thank you for staying with me and I really appreciate your listening, but aren’t you supposed to tell me some Bible verse I should read?”
He laughed and brushed it aside and she said again, “No I need you to know how grateful I am. How long have you been a Christian counselor?”
And he said, “I’ve been trying to avoid this, I need you not to hang up. That number you called, the one your mom gave you… wrong number.”
She didn’t hang up, but thanked him and they continued to talk until the conversation came to a close. In the hours that followed the woman experienced what she calls a peace she didn’t know existed, that there is love out in the world, and that some of it was unconditional, and that some of it was for her.
After that everything changed. Not right away, but slowly, her life transformed.
She ended her story by saying, “I now know, that in the deepest and darkest moment of despair, it only takes a pinhole of light, and all of grace can come in.”
God’s grace is unconditional – we of course despise God’s grace because of this. We can even resist God’s grace because we want to believe that we have contributed something to it. We want to believe that grace is something earned or deserved. But that woman learned the truth that night on the phone, grace comes regardless of our earnings, yearnings, or deservings. And all it takes is the tiniest little spark that can transform a life forever.
Our world is constantly telling us to do more, to be better, and to get it all together. And even in the church, we fall prey to this temptation all the time by telling people about all the stuff we need to do. But all of that is self-defeating because the more we’re told about what we’re supposed to do the more guilty we feel for all we’re not doing.
On Christmas Eve its different. Its different because the strange new world of God’s desire has become our world. The whole story is about how we can’t do all that we need to do and that’s okay.
We were dead in our sins, but God who is rich in mercy, has sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to deliver us from the dominion of darkness. For some of us that darkness is the darkness of writhing on the floor without a hope in the world. For others the darkness is the loss of someone we loved. For others the darkness is fear over not knowing what the future holds.
For each of us there is a darkness that Christ has come to destroy.
Hear the Good News: In the end, it’s not up to us. We are never really prepared to do that which we probably should. But Jesus shows up anyway. He shows up in a chance phone call, and in the bread and cup, he even shows up in Christmas presents.
Each of us, whether we like to admit it or not, we come into Christmas damaged and bent and broken and sinful. We have contempt for ourselves and for one another. And God shows up as a baby with a triumphant declaration that things are changing.
The birth of Christ marks the beginning of a strange new world, one in which we are not defined by our sins or our short-comings, but instead by the grace of God that knows no bounds.
So hear the Good News once again, news addressed right to us: “To you is born this day a Savior!” To you! Regardless of who you are, whether or not you understand it, whether or not you are good or bad. The news is meant for you. For you the Christmas story has happened.
To you is born this day a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. Grace upon grace upon grace! Amen.
In the latter part of his theological career, Karl Barth would preach for the inmates in the prison of Basel, Switzerland. When the public found out that he was doing so people reacted in a variety of ways – some were amazed that a man of such academic stature would humble himself to do such a thing, while others took it as a sign of his tremendous faith. And a few would joke that the only way to hear Karl Barth preach would be to break the law and go to jail.
In 1954 Barth delivered the Christmas sermon to the inmates. I’ve made a habit of reading the sermon every Christmas Eve almost like a devotional and every year I find more and more in it that just astounds me. This great man whose theology disrupted my life (in the best ways), went down to a prison on Christmas and proclaimed the Good News of Christ’s birth into the world to a group of men who felt no hope in the world at all.
Below you can find some of the three most powerful paragraphs from the sermon, and as you read them I encourage you to do so while considering the context and the preacher from whom and for whom these words were preached:
“What does the word Savior convey? The Savior is he who brings us salvation, granting us all things needed and salutary. He is the helper, the liberator, the redeemer as no man, but God alone, can be and really is; he stands by us, he rescues us, he delivers us from the deadly plague. Now we live because he, the Savior, is with us.
“The Savior is also he who has wrought salvation free of charge, without our deserving and without our assistance, and without our paying the bill. All we are asked to do is to stretch out our hands, to receive the gift, and to be thankful.
“The Savior is he who brings salvation to all, without reservation or exception, simply because we all need him and because he is the Son of God who is the Father of us all. When he was made man, he became the brother of us all. To you this day is born a Savior, says the angel of the Lord.”
Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved.
There are few things I look forward to more than the moment when everyone is singing “Silent Night” while holding tiny candles on Christmas Eve. For most of my life I stood in solidarity among those in the pews and I hosted my candle up high like a banner for Jesus. And then when I became a pastor I noticed something during Christmas Eve worship that I missed from the pews: all of the glowing faces.
From the vantage point of the altar, the sharing of the flame begins in the darkness but it ends with the entire sanctuary basked in a glowing light that began in Jesus. It is a rather profound thing to witness from the front of the church, all of the glowing faces, and it is something that I hold dear each year.
In that moment we are witnessing to the once-and-for-all-ness of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. And yet, I have tried to imagine different ways that we can hold on to that beauty even after we leave the sanctuary. Because, as we all know, we go from worship back to our homes, back to our trees, back to our presents, back to our in-laws, back to our problems, and very soon the glow from the flame has all but disappeared.
Karl Barth, the great theologian, puts it this way:
“The Savior no longer needs to be born. He was born once for all time. But he would like to come stay with us. The place where the Savior would like to come stay with us has in common with the stall of Bethlehem that it too is not at all beautiful but looks rather desolate, not at all cozy but downright sinister, not worthy of human beings but quite close to the animals. Our inns, proud or modest, and we as their residents – that is only the surface of our life. Hidden underneath there is a depth, a bottom – indeed, an abyss. And there below are we human beings, each in our way, only poor beggars, only lost sinners, only sighing and dying creatures, only people who are not at their witness end. And at this very time Jesus Christ comes to stay with us, and what’s more: he has already come to stay with us. Yes, thanks be to God for this dark place, for this manger, for this stall also in our life! There below we need him, and eve there he can also need us, each one of us. There we are just the right ones. There he only waits for us to see him, to know him, to believe in him, to love him. There he greets us. There we can do nothing other than greet him again and bid him welcome. Let us not be ashamed to be down there right beside the ox and the ass! Right there is where he holds fast to us all.” (Barth, Insights. 28)
So may we enter into this final week before Christmas knowing that Christ is with us both in the light, and in the darkness.
Many years ago, Karl Barth was invited to give a lecture on theology during his visit to the United States. After waxing lyrical in his high-pitched Swiss accent, he spent some time answering questions and mingling with those in attendance. A young man who was able to snag a chair in the back mustered up the courage to walk to the front and shake the hand of the man who he believed had changed his life. After waiting and waiting he finally reached out his hand and said, “Professor Barth I want to thank you for all that you’ve done. I’ve read everything you’ve ever written and it has changed my life.” Barth looked inquisitively at the young man, took his hand and said, “Son, not even I have read everything I’ve written.”
Or so I was told long ago. Stories about Barth are like great myths that you can never really prove, but they wonderfully add to what we imagine he was like. That simple story of his interaction with a young man was my first introduction to Karl Barth prior to purchasing my copy of The Epistle to the Romans. From the story, and from my first reading, I quickly learned that to read Barth’s work is work. He held a long time motto that what really matters is “to say the same thing again and again in different words.” This is true of his writing, his preaching, and his influence in the world of theology today.
In The Epistle to the Romans there is a great passage where Barth juxtaposes the law with faith: “The truly creative act by which men become the children of Abraham, by which stones are transformed into sons, does not lie in the possible possibility of the law, but in the impossible possibility of faith.” His expression of the impossible possibility of faith is one that, I believe, is indicative of Karl Barth’s greater contribution to theology. His writing is some of the most difficult to comprehend but, like Joyce’s Ulysses and Wallace’s Infinite Jest, it will change you.
About a month ago I set out to write a number of reflections on what I consider are some of Barth’s best exegeses from Church Dogmatics. In preparation I pulled out my heavily earmarked and notated copies of the different volumes and dove back into the strange new world of dialectic theology. To do theology dialectically is to think in unresolved contrasts. It means that Barth can write, “God is God” which looks like a sentence that is an explanation, but it actually really does not explain anything at all. Barth, unlike so many theologians, rejected the temptation to explain, and thereby limit, God. Instead, Barth leaves it at “God is God.”
This kind of theology is powerful and it is frustrating. We are so conditioned to expect explanation and clarity that when reading Barth we are left reeling and waiting for the notes to resolve, but they don’t. Like any great jazz improvisationalist, Barth leaves us wanting more because the work of theology is never finished.
Just as it is hard to read Barth, it is hard to write about Barth. When I first read his reflections on Creation, the Tower of Babel, the Doctrine of Election, and the Strange New World within the Bible, it fundamentally changed me as a person and as a Christian. When I returned to those works over the last month I experienced the same excitement of transformation once again but when I opened my computer to write, I stared at a blank screen for a long time. How could I adequately reflect on explaining the unexplainable? How could I limit a 44-page exegesis to a 2,000-word blog post? How could I share my thoughts on something that gives me theological whiplash (in the best way)?
Writing about Barth’s writing is difficult precisely because Barth is impossibly possible.
God is God. Three words that say everything and nothing at the same time. God is God; an impossibly possible statement. To say, “God is God,” is to affirm that we cannot control God. We cannot start with “God is…” and fill in the blank with whatever we want God to be. God is what God is, and we are not. (Hence the instruction to Moses: “Tell them ‘I Am” sent you.”)
“God is God” in its frustrating impossible possibility, reminds us that God can only be known through God. This does not mean that God is somehow hidden from creation, or completely unknowable, but that God is revealed to us according to God’s will. We cannot go digging for God throughout the bible, we cannot go out into the peaceful wilderness to find the divine; it is God who finds us. Or, as Barth puts it, “[the grace of God] is like an arrow from the other side of a shore on which we will never set foot, yet it hits us.”
What Barth’s impossibly possible theology sets forth is a theology that is never finished. Like the shorter ending to the gospel according to Mark, we are left in God’s great ellipses. We are now part of God’s great story being told until God makes all things new. There is no end to the work of theology because there is no end to God. Faith, similarly, never concludes because every moment is a new opportunity to be met by God and to be transformed over and over again.
 Barth, Karl. The Epistle to the Romans (London: Oxford University Press, 1933), 138.
 Ibid., 98.
Election is a dirty word in the United Methodist Church. In this particularly problematic political season we like to keep people happy so we generally avoid talking about politics and elections. We want people to think for themselves and pray for the Spirit to guide them in such matters. Otherwise we leave the topic at arms length. However, even more divisive than American Politics has been the church’s response to the Doctrine of Election.
The topic of God’s divine election is one that we often get hung up on in our weekly Bible studies at church. We can be talking about any number of things from scripture when all of the sudden the conversation moves to whether or not God ordained a specific tragedy to occur, or why would a loving God elect some for salvation and some for damnation. Then we tend to travel down the deep rabbit hole in arguments about free will and God’s sovereignty.
To talk about election is to take steps into mystery. We like to have answers to all of our questions, we like things to be neat and orderly, and God often gives us the opposite. Only God, in God’s infinite knowledge and power, could elect certain individuals and only humanity, in our sinfulness and selfishness, could spend centuries arguing about what it means to be part of the elect.
Even on the UMC’s denominational website there is a long essay about whether or not United Methodists believe “once saved, always saved” or can we “lose our salvation.” And in the essay, a good amount of space is spent address Calvin’s so called “TULIP” theological principles (Total Depravity; Unconditional Election; Limited Atonement; Irresistible Grace; and Perseverance of the Saints). For Calvin, God has chosen, based on God’s own criteria, whom to save and whom not to save, long before anyone was born. Moreover, Jesus’ act of “atonement” from the cross is efficacious only for those whom God has elected for salvation.
John Wesley however, influenced by Jacobus Arminius, believed that only God can save and God does so unconditionally for all. There is no pre-selected list in the mind of God about who will be rewarded with salvation and who will be punished with damnation. Instead God’s grace is offered preveniently to all, and humanity has the capacity to respond to this grace. We have the ability (through free will) to reject God’s grace and in so doing we remove ourselves from the equation of salvation.
These types of distinctions about divine election or rejection have been debated throughout the history of the church and have played a primary role in the propagation of the seemingly endless amount of Christian denominations. We disagree about what we believe God is up to with election and therefore we create schisms in the church that result in the mosaic of churches rather than dwelling together in unity.
Karl Barth saw the Doctrine of Election differently.
In Church Dogmatics II.2 Barth sets out to confront what it is that makes one “elect.” He begins with a general answer that those who are elect are elect without reference to their person or in recognition of any special attributes or achievements. There is nothing that one can do to earn their elect status. To be elect is to enter into a way of being that corresponds with election; those who are elect are what they are.
Barth then, in a profound and wonderful excursus, compares the elect and the rejected throughout the Old Testament as a means by which to point at what it means to be elect in Jesus Christ. He begins with the dualism of Cain and Abel from Genesis 4. The difference between the brothers is not based on any prior mark of distinction, but from a decision of God’s concerning them. However, even though one is clearly favored and the other is not, this does not mean that God has abandoned or rejected Cain in the way we so commonly assume. It is true that God does not accept Cain and his family for the murder of his brother, but he is not abandoned by God because of this. Instead he receives the promise that God will protect his life.
Thus begins a great trajectory throughout the Old Testament of mutually intersecting differences between people. Esau is the older and favorite son of Isaac, but it is Jacob (the younger brother) who receives the birthright and the true blessing. Yet, God does not abandon him. Jacob loves Rachel more than Leah but Leah is the one the Lord makes fruitful. And yet Rachel does not remain barren and eventually gives birth to Joseph. And Joseph, though rejected by his older brothers and sold into slavery is intimately connected with the future of God’s people and the brothers (though treacherous) are not abandoned to the famine but are instead forgiven and brought into the land of Egypt.
The same holds true for the dynamic between Saul and David (Saul is actually blessed far more than David even through the Lord moves the blessing from the former to the latter), and other figures from the Old Testament scriptures. Barth demonstrates again and again that though they appear rejected by the Lord, they are in fact blessed and intimately involved in God’s great story that culminates in Jesus Christ.
And it is here where Barth shines a light on the darkness of our understanding of election. For it is precisely in the person of Jesus Christ that we discover not only the elect but also the reject. “According to His divine nature, Jesus Christ is the (elect) eternal Son who reposed in the bosom of the eternal Father, and who coming thence took our flesh upon Him to be and to offer this sacrifice, for the glory of God and for our salvation, and by taking our place to accomplish our reconciliation to God. But as such and in the accomplishment of this reconciliation He is, necessarily, the Rejected. Like the (scapegoat) He must suffer the sin of many to be laid upon Him, in order that He may bear it away… out into the darkness, the nothingness from which it came to which it alone belongs.” In the humiliation of the cross, Christ was also exalted. In the rejection of the Son on the cross (who cries out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), Christ was also the elect who shares the beauty of reconciliation.
In Christ we discover one who is reject and elect. In the incarnation of God in the flesh we encounter the mystery of what it means to be chosen by God and what it means to respond to that call.
In the one man on the one cross (as reject and elect) we see all of the dualisms of the Old Testament, all of the people who were either elected or rejected. But through the resurrection, all who are either elect or rejected remain in Him, and in Him the Word of God conquered death which shall be proclaimed through eternity.
For Barth, it is not so much that God began the mysterious work of creation with a list of all who will be elected for salvation and all who will be rejected for damnation. Instead, God remains steadfast even with those who move away (by their choice or the Lords – only God knows), God offers the grace forever even if it is rejected over and over again, and God provides the means by which all can be saved through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
 Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics II.2 (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), 365.