Losing Our Religion

Matthew 16.21-28

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan, You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life? “For the Son of man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and the chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

But Peter? Peter wasn’t having any of that.

“Um, Jesus, Lord, I don’t mean to interrupt but, are you out of your mind? If you’re the Messiah I’ve confessed you to be, then you know that you can’t die. That’s losing. And in the kingdom you promised us there’s supposed to be nothing but winning!”

“Pete” the Lord calmly intones, “Get out of my way! You’re stuck on earthly things, but the kingdom is bigger and better than your feeble little head can imagine.”

Then Jesus looks out at everyone else, “Hey, listen up. This is important. If you want to be part of this whole turning the world upside down endeavor, then your world’s need to get flipped right now. If you want to save your lives, go find some other teacher. But if you’re willing to accept that this life ain’t much to begin with, that’s what actually leads to salvation. Because, in the end, you can be the perfect version of yourself, but it won’t even come close to what I can do through you.”

We’ve struggled with Jesus’ mission of world turning since the very beginning. Peter was unable to imagine the strange new world inaugurated in God’s Son because he was so wedded to the way things were. 

And we’re no different.

Think about parents compelling their kids to go to college even when they don’t want to go.

Or the rat race to earn more money to buy the bigger house and have the more expensive car. 

Or the never ending quest in the realm of the church to produce perfect specimens of Christians who never make the wrong choices and always make the right ones.

All of that has little, if anything, to do with Jesus kingdom.

Notice: Jesus doesn’t command his followers to take up their crosses and then begin a five step program toward spiritual formation. He doesn’t require them to sit for hours on end studying the scriptures so that all of the secrets might be revealed. He doesn’t compel them to become the best versions of themselves by abstaining for everything wrong with the world.

Instead he says, “Follow me.”

Most preachers, myself included, preach a theology of Peter far more than a theology of Jesus. Which is just another way of saying, we preachers are also wedded to the ways of the world, to the ways we discern what is and isn’t successful, and we drop it on our dozing congregations. We tell people like all of you to shape up, start reading the Bible daily, fix your problems, pray with fervor, all that Jazz. 

We preach a Gospel where we are saved by our efforts to live the good and righteous life.

But that’s not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the strange good news that we are saved in our deaths.

Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the 20th century, spent some of his final years humbling preaching to prisoners in jail in Basel, Switzerland. A man whose tomes of theology line my shelves would stand to proclaim the Good News for a people who had been locked behind bars for making all the wrong choices.

In one such sermon, near the end of his life, Barth reflected on how all the crowning achievement’s of a person life will be nothing but a mole hill at the end. That, in time, all of the things we do in this life, whether great or small, will fade away and in our deaths none of it will do us any good. 

At that moment, all of us will stand before the throne of the Lord and we will have nothing better to do than to hope for something none of us deserve.

Can you imagine? This incredible theologian and pastor proclaiming a Word of truth to a people undeserving, that is prisoners, and he counts himself among their ranks?

No matter how good we are or how bad we are, we all will stand before the throne and we will have nothing else to rely on, not our works and not our achievement, but only the mercy of God.

Karl Barth

That’s why Jesus can look out at the crowds and tell them to lose their lives for the Good News because the only one who can redeem their lives is Jesus. No amount of good works could ever put us back in God’s good graces, it’s only the unknowable love of God in Christ Jesus that makes us holy and becomes the mercy seat by which our lives and deaths become transformed.

Martin Luther one wrote, “The law says, ‘do this’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘believe in this,’ and everything is already done.”

The world is forever telling us to do more to be better to earn and produce and reform and things largely stay the same.

Jesus, on the other hand, is forever telling us that the most important thing has already been finished, the only thing we have to do is trust him. 

Peter, like us, wants so desperately to be the master of his own fate, he wants to be in control of what happens and to whom. His imagination of the Kingdom of God is limited by his imagination of earthly kingdoms. But Jesus didn’t come to bring us more of the same.

He came to raise the dead.

And the dead can’t raise themselves.

In this moment, Peter is losing his religion. Religion, properly understood, is the stuff we are must do in order to get a higher power to do something for us. And Jesus takes all of Peter’s religion, is former understanding of the way things work, and he flushes them down the toilet.

In a sense Jesus says to Peter, “You don’t get it. You’re so obsessed with it making sense that you think you know what I have to do and what you have to do. But here’s the deal Pete – I’m going to do everything for you and for everyone else.” 

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that God loves us whether we stop sinning or not, because our sins are no problem for the Lord who takes away the sins of the world and nails them to his cross. 

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that all the earthly means and measures of success don’t mean beans in the Kingdom of God because the Lord has already gone and accepted every last one of us in his Son and loves us in spite of ourselves. 

The Good News of Jesus Christ is that even our deaths can’t stop the Lord from getting what he wants because the Lord works in the business of raising the dead.

We can spend our whole lives in fear, like Peter, wondering if we’ll ever measure up to the expectations of the world. But Christ comes into the midst of our lives, offering a Word of transformation, “Follow me.”

Jesus didn’t come to improve the improvable, or reform the reformable, or teach the teachable. None of those things work. 

He didn’t come to bring about a better version of whatever already existed but to transform the entire cosmos.

We can follow Jesus and we can lose our lives because Jesus came to raise the dead. 

And that’s Good News. Amen. 

The Hardest Part Of Being A Christian

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Matt Benton about the readings for the 10th Sunday After Pentecost [A] (Genesis 37.1-4, 12-28, Psalm 105.1-6, 16-22, 45b, Romans 10.5-15, Matthew 14.22-33). Matt is the pastor of Bethel UMC in Woodbridge, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Coronatide, NOVA, the case for Karl Barth, narrative theology, dreamers of dreams, church leadership as evangelism, different righteousnesses, exegetical grammar, and God’s oddness. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Hardest Part Of Being A Christian

The Closest Thing to Grace

Matthew 14.15-18

When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them to me.”

I might appear cheerful in my Sunday morning streamed services on Facebook and YouTube, but I can assure you that recording those services is anything but cheerful. There is the never-ceasing dread that the internet will cut out or I’ll lose my train of thought or no one will actually watch or etc. And yet, week after week I stand inside of an empty sanctuary, staring into a camera, hoping that it will result in faithful worship.

But there have been plenty of mistakes.

One week I was 3/4 of the way through the services when my computer went completely dark signifying that the live-stream had stopped. So I made my way over to the device thinking I could get it back on, all while muttering un-pastoral words under my breath, without realizing that the live-stream had somehow continued in the madness.

One week, I tried recording the service early so that I could premiere the video on Sunday morning when a supercell thunderstorm rolled in and the sanctuary shook with every thunder clap leaving me to cower a little more with each successive burst (I decided to wait that one out and record a few hours later).

And last week, I set up the camera up via my iPhone and talked for 45 minutes straight only to realize that none of it recorded because someone called me in the first five minutes and my phone switched apps.

What can you do but laugh?

I mean, these really are crazy times and we preachers are trying crazily to keep the Word fresh and faithful in a time when we cannot gather together in-person.

I confess that, on more occasions than I care to admit, I have fallen down to the floor in the sanctuary with nothing but crazed laughter knowing how many mistakes I’ve made throughout the pandemic when it comes to being a pastor.

Laughter, to put it another way, has saved me.

If Jesus’ original disciples weren’t able to laugh at themselves, I’m not sure how they were able to make it as disciples at all.

Jesus laid it all out at least three times about his whole death and resurrection and they still abandoned him on the cross.

Jesus went on and on about the Kingdom of heaven and they never stopped asking him when it was going to happen and what it was going to look like.

Jesus performed countless miracles and one day, when the crowds were especially large, the disciples thought it would be better for the people to be sent home because they didn’t have enough food. How, in the world, could they not have known that Jesus would be able to feed the crowds that day? Had they not been paying attention at all???

It’s not in scripture, but I am convinced that those days after the resurrection and before the ascension were filled with the disciples laughing at themselves for having been so obtuse the entire time.

Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the 20th century, wrote “Having a sense of humor means not being stiff but flexible. Humor arises when we have insight into the contradiction between our existence as children of God and as children of this age, and we become conscious of our actions in a lively way… Those who laugh at themselves are also allowed to laugh at others and will joyfully also pass the ultimate test of being laughed at themselves – a test that much alleged humor usually fails miserably.”

It is good and right for us to laugh at ourselves, particularly in the light of our discipleship, for we are nothing more than people stumbling around in the darkness hoping that God can make something of our loving.

And if we are able to laugh at ourselves then we are in good shape. For, laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God. 

Someone Reigns!

Matthew 28.16-18

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed the,. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”

On the evening of December 9th, 1968, Eduard Thurneysen had a telephone conversation with Karl Barth. Later that night, Barth died in his sleep. Thurneysen explained later that much of their conversation dealt with the world situation at the time, and that Barth’s final words were as follows:

“Indeed, the world is dark. Still, let us not lose heart! Never! There is still someone who reigns, not just in Moscow or in Washington or in Peking, but from above, from heaven. God is in command. That’s why I am not afraid. Let us stay confident even in the darkest moments! Let us not allow our hope to sink, hope for all human beings, for all the nations of the world! God does not let us fall, not a single one of us and not all of us together! Someone reigns!” (Barth In Conversation, Volume III). 

Karl Barth was never one to shrink away from speaking truth to power. He was removed from his teaching position in Germany for refusing to pledge allegiance to Hitler before the second World War, he ridiculed the United States for it’s criminal justice system in the 1960’s, and wrote about the childishness of the Vietnam War in his later years.

And it brings me great comfort that with some of his final breaths, he still remembered that, even in the darkest moments, the One who chose to come and dwell among us still reigns. That, as Christians, we know how the story ends which frees us for “joyful obedience” to a kingdom the world would never choose for itself. 

The Gospel is something that comes to us from outside of us. We are saved by God in Christ not because we deserve it (just turn on your TV for one minute these days and you’ll see how little we deserve to be saved), but because God choses to do so in God’s infinite freedom. That is what the Gospel is – it is our salvation granted to us by the only One who could – the judged Judge who comes to stand in our place – the shackles to sin and death have been vanquished forever.

Which is all to say, Christians, in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ see the world differently. We rebel against the insidious power of despair and seek out ministries that reflect the graceful work of Christ who came to raise the dead. 

Someone reigns – that someone is Jesus Christ.

He is the difference that makes all the difference. 

Lies We Wrap In Love

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to pray in the midst of a time like this. A time when all you have to do is get on Twitter or television and you’re bombarded with images and videos from our local community and across the nation of people in anguish and fear, and the ways others are responding to it.

This morning, I arrived at church and went to the sanctuary to pray as I always do and I was at a loss for what to share with the Lord. I felt like I had no words to offer in regard to everything being experienced.

From protestors being hit by police cars, to the President tear-gassing a church so that he could have a photo opportunity with a Bible in his hands, to the countless images of violence being perpetrated against those who are demonstrating peacefully.

It’s difficult to know how to put into words how I’m feeling, how to communicate it to God, and how we should (perhaps) all be feeling about this. And I was reminded this morning, particularly as a pastor who feels like I always have to be coming up with new, fresh, and insightful things to say, that I can rely on the words of others.

And, in particular, I can rely on the prayers of others.

Karl Barth once said, “To clasp hands together in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”

That’s how I try to think of prayer whenever I pray whether it’s individually or corporately.

Therefore, I would like to share a prayer from someone else, a prayer that has meant a lot to me, and feels even more important considering the condition of our current condition:

Lies We Wrap in Love – Stanley Hauerwas

Lord, we often ask you to invade our lives,

To plumb the secrets of our hearts unknown even to ourselves.

But in fact we do not desire that.

What we really want to scream,

If only to ourselves, 

Is “Do not reveal to us who we are!”

We think we are better people if you leave us to our illusions.

Yes, we know another word for a life of illusion is hell. 

But we are surrounded by many caught up in such a hell – 

People too deficient of soul even to be capable of lying, 

But only of self-deceit.

Dear God, we ask for your mercy on all those so caught,

Particularly if we are among them.

The loneliness of such a life is terrifying.

Remind us, compel us to be truthful, painful as that is.

For without the truth, without you, we die.

Save us from the pleasantness which too often is but a name for ambition.

Save us from the temptation to say to another what we think he/she wants to hear

Rather than what we both need to hear.

The regimen of living your truth is hard,

But help us remember that any love but truthful love is cursed.

The lie wrapped in love is just another word for violence.

For God’s sake, for the world’s sake, give us the courage to speak truthfully,

So that we might be at peace with one another and with you. Amen. 

So, whether it’s with your own prayers, or the prayers of those who came before, I pray that today you find a way to clasp your hands in prayer such that is a beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world. 

Open Minds

Luke 24.45

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. 

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I’m grateful that Jesus, shortly before ascending to the right hand of the Father, opened the minds of the disciples to understand the scriptures.

I’m still waiting for that miracle to fall into my lap.

Unlike those first disciples, I regularly encounter scriptural passages that leave me feeling more confused than edified on the other side.

I might put up a good front in Sunday School, or in Bible Studies, or even in Worship, but scripture, to me, often feels like a rather bizarre enigma.

There’s a reason Karl Barth referred to scripture as the “strange new world of the Bible,” for it is strange and new.

Which is all to say, I am deeply suspicious of anyone who claims the Bible is “clear” on anything.

And yet, the more time I’ve spent with the Word, the more I preached and prepared to preach, the more grateful I’ve become for the bizarre nature of the Holy Scriptures. Nothing in life is very clear, and to know that the Bible we come to week after week is as confounding as our lives can be is a great and comforting thing. It means that it can speak something new and good and true into the midst of our messed up and broken lives.

I’ve been spending a lot of time reading while we’ve been sequestered away from one another, and I came across this quote from Robert Farrar Capon earlier in the week that hits home the topsy-turvy nature of the Word:

“One of the peculiarities of biblical miracles is the way in which they stand the cause-and-effect sequence on its head. We normally expect that, when someone heals us, the order of events will be first the treatment, then the restoration of wholeness and finally, when we are quite sure we’re out of trouble, the celebration of the happy issue out of our afflictions. But the scriptural order is very often the reverse: the first step is a command to celebrate – to act as if we already had something we obviously don’t; the second step is the discovery that suddenly we’ve got it; and the third step – the actual treatment that achieves the remedy – never actually appears in the process at all.” (Robert Farrar Capon, Party Spirit)

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For many of us, preachers included, we tend to bring our own expectations to the scriptures assuming we have an idea about “what it all means.” When, more often than not, the Bible doesn’t give a flip about what we think we know. 

Suffering? Try rejoicing and see what happens.

Unsure of the future? Throw a party; God is with you.

Anxiety bringing you down? Celebrate that God has already done for you that which you could never do for yourself.

That’s pretty weird stuff. But so is life. And so is God.

On The Fence Inside The Big Tent

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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

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Make The Good News Good Again

Devotional:

Psalm 119.1

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.

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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-smoking

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.

A Strange New World

Luke 2.1-14

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!”

Merry Christmas!

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.”

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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.”

That’s it.

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!

Away-In-A-Manger

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. 

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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. 

Christmas With Karl Barth

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. 

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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.”

Merry Christmas

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