This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli about the readings for the 2nd Sunday After Pentecost [C] (1 Kings 19.1-15a, Psalm 42 & Psalm 43, Galatians 3.23-29, Luke 8.26-39). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including proper introductions, For All Mankind, Gary Oldman, hipsterdom, Mt. Horeb, melancholia, Mockingbird, silence, journeys, perfect prayers, Martin Luther, the tonic of grace, living among the dead, and freedom. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: What Are You Doing Here?
I in them and you in me, that they may be completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
Why the United Methodist Church?
This is a question that I receive fairly often throughout the comings and goings of my life. I’ll be sitting in the stands watching my son play tee ball when the subject of employment comes up which inevitably leads to why I serve in the UMC. Or, I’ll preside over a wedding with lots of strangers only to be bombarded with questions about denominational affiliation as soon as the service ends. Or someone will see me working on a sermon at a coffee shop with my clergy collar on and they walk over to ask, “So what kind of Christian are you?”
For what it’s worth, I am a Christian before I am a Methodist. Or, put another way, I’m a Christian who happens to be a Methodist.
I follow Jesus, not John Wesley.
And yet, I find that Wesley’s understanding of the Gospel to be spot on.
There are a great number of moments from his life, and even more from his sermons, that resonate deeply in my soul, but nothing quite compares to his Aldersgate Street experience when he was 35 years old. This is how we wrote about it in his journal:
“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” – John Wesley, May 24th, 1738
What makes his experience all the more profound is how little he felt an assurance before that moment, even though he had been ordained for a number of years!
I love the hymns we sing in the UMC, I love the connectional nature of our church and how we are bound together with other churches, and I love the incarnational focus of our ministries going to where the Spirit moves. But more than anything, I love the relentless proclamation of prevenient grace; God’s love precedes all things.
While sitting at the society meeting at Aldersgate Street, Wesley experienced what I have experienced and what I hope every person will come to experience: There is nothing we have to do to earn God’s love except trust that it is true. And when we live into that trust, we are living in the light of grace which changes everything. It changes everything because it means all of our sins, past/present/future are nailed to the cross and we bear them no more.
The work of Christ frees us from the law of sin and death so that we might live abundantly for God and for others. It is, quite literally, the difference that makes all the difference.
If you want to know more about how God works in the heart through faith in Christ, you can check out the Strangely Warmed podcast which I host. Every week we bring you conversations about the readings from the Revised Common Lectionary and we do so without using stained glass language.
After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
Fleming Rutledge, patron saint of the Crackers & Grape Juice podcast, has often waxed lyrical about the need for preachers to proclaim the Word rather than explain the Word. Explanation often leads to exhortation; the Bible says this so we have to do that. But the Good News is an announcement that God has come into the world and we now live in the light of that in-breaking.
In other words, the gospel is a story – it is the story of God’s people Israel which culminates in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The gospel is not a program, or a set of beliefs, or a collection of rules, or an explanation of how to wind up in the right place when you die.
The gospel is a story, in fact it is the story.
And preachers do well to tell the story, rather than explain it.
Therefore, here just a few days before Palm Sunday and Holy Week, here is one preacher’s attempt to tell the story of Jesus’ last days before the cross and resurrection…
It was early in the morning when Jesus sent two of his disciples to a village to find a suitable farm animal: a donkey. The time had come to enter the holy city of Jerusalem for Passover, a time when the city’s population would balloon up to 200,000 for the celebration. On a Sunday morning, the crowds gathered with palm branch and shouts of “Hosanna!” they placed their cloaks on the road as a sign of their devotion to the arriving king, and Jesus entered Jerusalem.
At the same time, on the other side of the city, Pontius Pilate (the Roman Governor of Judea) entered with at least 1,000 soldiers demonstrating the power of the empire.
One arrived on a donkey, the other arrived on a battle horse.
With the city coming into focus, Jesus began to cry. He looked over the temple and the people of God and he wept.
And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
On Monday Jesus made his way to the Temple with countless other Jews. With the triumphant and parodic entry the day before, all eyes were on this so-called Messiah. As his feet walked over holy ground, Jesus encountered the moneylenders and changers who set up shop in the temple courtyard. They were profiting off those who traveled great distances to make their ritual sacrifices and boosted their prices in anticipation of economic gain.
Jesus, who spent the better part of three years berating the elite for taking advantage of the last, least, lost, little, and dead, became incensed when he saw the poor being ripped off in the name of God. He therefore walked straight over to the tables, lifted them off the ground, and went into a full blown temple tantrum. He declared for all to hear: “This is my Father’s house and you’ve made it into a den of robbers!”
The elite and the powerful now had their eyes set on Jesus. It was one thing to have a crowd with palm branches welcoming a poor rabbi into the city, but it was another thing entirely when he disrupted the status quo particularly when it came to the economic practices of the Temple. The leaders started looking for a way to discredit him, or remove him completely.
And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
On Tuesday, Jesus once again entered the Temple and he began to teach. If people were excited to see him enter the city, they were now even more eager for a chance to hear and see the One who had been making waves in Galilee, the One who flipped the tables the day before.
While he was teaching the Pharisees and the religious leaders began interrupting and demanded to know from whom Jesus received such authority.
And Jesus, who used parables to teach his disciples and followers, responded to their accusations with head scratching stories about mustard seeds and prodigal sons and kingly banquets. Over and over he used examples to show how those in the places of authority had lost sight of their responsibility and he labeled them hypocrites, snakes, and broods of vines.
They tried to trap him in his words, but he continued to point to the in-breaking kingdom of God.
And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
On Wednesday Jesus left the arena of the Temple and continued his teaching on the Mount of Olives. Some of his disciples made comments about the glory of the Temple and Jesus responded with talk of destruction. He revealed images of God’s cosmic plan for the world made manifest in himself, and he called for his disciples to stay vigilant.
He continued to speak his parabolic utterances and even offered a sermon describing the great inversion of all things.
His presence and proclamations continued to threaten those in power and they grew afraid.
And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
On Thursday Jesus continued his preaching and teaching until he retreated away with the twelve for their observance of Passover. While sitting at the table they remembered God’s mighty acts for the people Israel as they were delivered from slavery to sin and death into the Promised Land. But before the supper was finished, Jesus did something rather radical. He took a loaf of bread, gave thanks to God, broke it, and gave it to his friends while saying, “This is my body, I’m giving it for you.” Later, he took the cup, gave thanks to God, and gave it to his friends while saying, “This is my blood, and I’m pouring it out for you and the world.”
He knew one of his disciples at the table would shortly betray him to the authorities, and he offered him his body and blood anyway.
Later in the evening they went to the garden of Gethsemane, and Jesus urged his disciples to stay awake while he prayed. He knelt on the ground and ended his prayer by saying, “Lord, with you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want. Let your will be done.”
At the conclusion of the prayer, Judas arrived with soldiers. They grabbed and arrested Jesus while the disciples fled into the distance.
And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
On Friday Jesus was brought to the Roman leader Pontius Pilate. The religious authorities demanded Jesus’ execution by crucifixion, but Pilate could find no fault with Jesus. Pilate then gave the gathered crowds a choice: they could free a rabble rouser named Barabbas or the messianic Jesus of Nazareth.
They chose Barabbas.
Soldiers whipped and beat Jesus nearly to the point of death and then, to mock him, they placed a robe on his shoulder and a crown of thorns on his head. They forced Jesus to carry a cross, his own instrument of death, up to a place called The Skull.
The crowds berated him from either side of the road, “If you really are the Messiah, save yourself!” “Where are all your disciples now!” “Some King of the Jews you are!”
When he made it to the top of Golgotha, the soldiers nailed his hands and feet to the cross and they hung him high to die. With some of his final breaths Jesus offered a prayer that has haunted the world ever since, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
With two thieves on either side hanging from their own cross, while some of his disciples watched from a distance, Jesus died.
And there was evening and there was morning, the final week.
And then, three days later, God gave him back to us. But that’s another story for another day.
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge my with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
In the strange new world of the Bible the greatest triumph, the pinnacle of all moments, is Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Easter. But Easter is not the “happy ending” of a fairytale. It’s not, “despite all the effort of the powers and the principalities, everyone lives happily ever after.”
There’s no resurrection without crucifixion.
But that’s also why there are far more people in church on Easter than on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Easter, for all of its wonder and all of its joy, is only the beginning of a new reality in which the entry point is, in fact, suffering.
Contrary to the cliche aphorisms of the so-called property gospel – if you pray hard enough, God will make you healthy and wealth – struggle is deeply embedded in the faith. It’s why Jesus warns about the cost of discipleship, constantly. It’s why Paul writes about suffering, constantly.
Struggles are present in the life of faith because, when push comes to shove, we usually look out for ourselves at the expense of our neighbors. Paul puts it this way: None of us is righteous. No, not one.
We simply can’t keep the promises we make, let alone the promises that God commanded us to keep. It doesn’t take much of a glance on social media or on the news to see, example after examples, of our wanton disregard for ourselves and even for ourselves.
The old prayer book refers to us, even the do gooders who come to an Ash Wednesday service, as miserable offenders.
And yet (!), God remains steadfast with us in the midst of our inability to be good.
That’s one of the most profound miracles of the strange new world of the Bible, and it is a miracle. That ragtag group of would be followers we call the apostles, who betray, abandon, and deny Jesus, they fail miserably and it is to them that the risen Jesus returns in the resurrection.
They were transfigured by the Transfigured One, and their journey of faith began in failure.
And so it is with us, even today. It is through our brokenness, our shattered souls, that God picks up the pieces to make something new – something even more beautiful than who were were prior to the recognition of our brokenness.
There is an ancient Japanese art form that will be shaping our Lenten observance this year at the church – Kintsugi. The story goes that, centuries ago, a disagreement broke out among an emperor and one of his servants which led to a tea pot being smashed into pieces. The emperor threatened to punish the servant but an artisan intervened and promised to make something of the nothing.
A gold binding agent was used by the artist to restore the broken vessel, and in so doing the artist brought to a new newness.
On the front of your bulletins you can see an example of this art form that was made with a broken cross – the gold ribbon brings the cross back together and it becomes more than it was prior to its cracks and fissures.
Like the Kintsugi master, Jesus renders us into a new newness. Jesus comes not to fix us, but to admire us in our potential and to help us recognize beauty even in, and precisely because of, our brokenness.
In church speak we call it redemption.
Psalm 51 had marked the season of Lent for as long as Christians have observed this particular season. It is a penitential psalm – a psalm that expresses sorrow for sin.
And yet, the psalm does not begin with a confession of sin – it begins with a request for forgiveness: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.”
That might not seem like much of a distinction, but it implies that the psalmist knows they have something worth confessing and that if the psalmist is to be helped at all then the sins must be taken away completely but someone else.
It means the psalmist really knows the condition of their, and our, condition. We all do things we know we shouldn’t do, and we all avoid doing things we know we should do.
Some us are are pretty good at pushing that all aside and rationalizing the things we do or leave undone. But at some point or another the guilt begins to trickle in and we lay awake at night unable to do much of anything under the knowledge of who we really are.
But the psalmist sees it all quite differently.
Somehow, the psalmist knows that forgiveness has come even before the sin occurred.
The psalmist knows that God is the God of mercy.
For us, people entering the season of Lent, we are compelled to proclaim the truth that we are justified not after we confess our sins, but right smack dab in the middle of them. At the right time Christ died for the ungodly, God proves God’s love toward us that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, which includes everyone since Jesus has taken all upon himself in and on the cross.
The challenge then, for us, isn’t about whether or not God will forgive us.
The challenge is whether or not we can confess the condition of our condition.
That’s why Ash Wednesday is so important and so difficult. It is a time set apart to begin turning back to God who first turned toward us. It is a remarkable opportunity to reflect on what we’re doing with our lives right now and how those lives resonate with the One who makes something beautiful out of something broken.
Therefore, Ash Wednesday inaugurates the season of honesty:
We are dust and to dust we shall return.
We are broken and are in need of the divine potter to do for us that which we cannot do for ourselves.
Judgment comes first to the household of God, so wrote Peter in an epistle to the early church. We, then, don’t exist to show how wrong the world is in all its trespassed, but instead we exist to confess that we know the truth of who we are all while knowing what the Truth incarnate was, and is, willing to do for us.
We can’t fix ourselves. In any other place and in an other institution and around any other people that is unmitigated bad news. But here, in the church, it’s nothing but Good News. It’s good news because nobody, not the devil, not the world, not even ourselves can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go.
Even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died.
Even the most broken piece of pottery can be made into something new by the divine potter.
I wonder, this Lent, what kind of church we would become if we simply allowed broken people to gather, and did not try to fix them, but simply to love them and behold them, contemplating the shapes that broken pieces can inspire?
I wonder, this Lent, what might happen if we truly confessed who we are all while knowing whose we are?
I wonder, this Lent, what kind of new newness we might discover through the One who comes to make all things new?
You and me, we’re all dust, and to dust we shall return. But dust is not the end. Amen.
Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure. Then I said, ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God’ (in the scroll of the book it is written of me).” When he said above, “You have neither desired nor taken pleasure in sacrifices and offerings and burnt offerings and sin offerings” (these are offered according to the law), then he added, “See, I have come to do your will.” He abolishes the first in order to establish the second. And it is by God’s will that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
“Consequently” is a rather interesting way to start a passage of scripture. It’s like beginning with “therefore.” Whenever we encounter a therefore we need to discern what the “therefore” is there for.
So, if we flip back one verse we will find these words: For it it impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “sacrifices and offerings are not desired, but only the body of the One who comes to do the will of the Lord.”
Contrary to how we might feel on Good Friday, with Easter looming on the horizon, today is actually the most expectant worship service of the year. Sure, Jesus predicted his passion and resurrection no less than three times, but no one seemed to believe him. They abandoned him, betrayed him, and denied him.
But today, we are firmly rooted between the already and the not yet. This is the final Sunday of Advent – everything about our worship (songs, scripture, sermon) is saturated with a sense that something uniquely impossible is about to happen.
You see, for centuries the people of God waited for something. That something took on different shapes and sizes and expectations. And the something had a name: Messiah, the Holy One of Israel, from the righteous branch of David, the one born to set us free.
Freedom is good and all. But freedom from what?
Freedom from tyranny? Freedom from fear and judgment?
What about freedom from sin and death?
There have been plenty of figures throughout history who have come to bring freedom, but freedom from the great enemies of sin and death is only possible if the One born to Mary also happens to be God in the flesh.
It is not yet Christmas, but here on the final Sunday of Advent, we straddle two worlds and two times. And it is from this vantage point that we can’t help but ask ourselves, “What child is this?”
All Christian worship is an attempt to answer that question.
Was Jesus like God? Was Jesus a prophet of God? Was Jesus merely a good ethical teacher?
The fundamental Christian proclamation is that Jesus is not like God, Jesus is God, light from light eternal.
Everything depends on this being true; otherwise the nativity story is just another tale of no real importance.
And here is the challenge set before us today: the child we come to worship on Christmas is, as the writer of Hebrews puts it, the very body that is sacrificed for us.
We don’t talk much about sacrifice in the church these days even though we’ve got plenty of the “bloody hymns” in our hymnal. If we do sing those songs at all we usually save them for the season of Lent during which we’re supposed to feel bad about our badness.
But it’s almost Christmas Eve! Nows not the time to talk about blood and sacrifice!
We are surely ready for that cute little baby to be born for us in the manger – it’s another thing entirely to be prepared for that baby to be the One born to die on the Cross.
Let alone to prepare our hearts for his return to judge both the living and the dead.
And yet, to ignore the language of sacrifice, the shadow of the cross in the manger, is to deny the truth of the strange new world of the Bible.
In the ancient world sacrifice was at the heart of all religious practice. Israel might stand apart in how the God of Abraham did not require human sacrifices (save for that incident with Isaac, but that’s for another sermon). But there are plenty of sacrifices expected by and through the Law for the people of God. For, to sacrifice is to admit there is a need for it. The only way to be holy is to remove sin altogether, and no one can do that.
Sacrifice, therefore, was offered on behalf of God’s people in order to be made right.
However, over time, the sacrifices themselves became empty signs of an empty faith. Again and again the prophets of God rejected the blood spilled by the people when injustice continued to reign. What good is it to sacrifice a bull or a goat when widows, orphans, and the outcasts were ignored?
Therefore, as Hebrews puts it, Jesus’ death is a single offering for all time for those who are sanctified.
There is no holiness without sacrifice. In fact, the very meaning of sacrifice is “making holy.”
Of course, there are some of us who would like to believe that we are beyond the need and the time of sacrifice. That, because of the Cross, we have left sacrifice behind.
But that only betrays how essential sacrifice is to our daily lives.
We sacrifice the land and the lives of animals that we might live.
We make sacrifices in the name of love that we feel for others.
We sacrifice those who serve in the military that we might feel safe.
Sacrificing is part of who we are, and we do so because we often think it is the only way we can make up for the wrongs we have done.
And yet, that feeling of guilt, the knowledge of what we have done and left undone, important as it may be, is in contradiction to the work of Christ who was offered as a single sacrifice for all time.
There’s an unbelievable story that happened on Christmas a little more than 100 years ago, and perhaps some of you have heard about it. It took place in and among the trenches of World War I in 1914. All across the western front there were unofficial ceasefires to observe the holiday that were also due to limited ammunitions along the front. Halting fire for a period of time was nothing special, and has been part of warfare for a long time. But it’s what happened during the cease fire that boggles the mind.
In certain areas along the trench lines, soldiers left the safety of their barricades and met in the middle of No Man’s Land to celebrate Christmas.
There was one area where the ringing of church bells gave certain soldiers the courage to bravely enter the disputed space between the trenches.
In other places the soldiers saw Christmas trees being hastily decorated on either side and ventured out for a closer look.
But my favorite miracle took place when a group of German soldiers started singing Stille Nacht, and when they came to the end of one of the verse, the English soldiers on the other side took it up and started singing it on their own.
It sounds too good to be true, but all the best stories are like that. We have letters from soldiers who expressed total surprise by what they experienced on that Christmas Eve. How, they exchanged gifts and food in the middle of No Man’s Land with the very people they had been trying to kill.
There were even football (soccer) matches that occurred in various locations that Christmas Eve.
One soldier later recalled that, at the end of the celebration, they returned to their respective sides and woke up on Christmas morning to a dead silence. He said both sides shouted merry Christmas back and forth, but that no one felt particularly merry anymore. And then, the silence ended in the early afternoon of Christmas Day and the killing started again.
He said, “It was a short peace in a terrible war.”
Sacrifices were made in the name of peace, just hours after they were singing together about the dawn of redeeming grace.
Throughout the great collection of scripture we are told again and again what we can, and what we can’t do. Thou shall not and all that. And, if thou hast done something, this is how thou shall atone for what thou has done.
But, the primary function of the Law, as Jesus says in John 5 and Paul says in Romans 3, is to accuse us. That is, the Law exists to show us who we are in relation to it – we’re sinners. The Law reveals the complete and total righteousness we require to acquire the Kingdom of Heaven, and how we might meet the Holy One of Israel blameless and justified.
The only problem is, none of us can do it.
We’re all on the naughty list.
We delude ourselves, we self-rationalize all sorts of behaviors, we feel as if we can justify all sorts of things, so long as we feel like we’re growing closer to God.
But the truth is that God is the one hellbent on coming to us.
Contrary to how we so often talk about it, the Law doesn’t bring us to the mountaintop of God’s domain.
The Law, instead, bring us down to our knees.
Or, to put it another way, the Law gets us to see ourselves with enough clarity that we can ask the question, “How could God love someone like me?”
Ask that question and you are not far from the kingdom of God.
In theological and ecclesial circles, there is a lot of talk about the atonement – what is accomplished by Jesus’ death on the cross?
There are an array of ideas about the work of cross – we owed a debt to God via our sins and Jesus paid it all, or the death of Jesus satisfied God’s wrathful anger against us.
That have all the makings of seminary basement debates.
But the theologian Gerhard Forde dispenses with all of those theories in favor of seeing the cross simply as our being caught up in a murder. He argues that any theory that tidily explains the death of God’s Son pales next to the great Good News that the One we tried to do away with on the cross speaks a surprising word of reconciliation int he resurrection.
When the incarnate God in Jesus Christ comes to us, we nail him to the cross. And then, three days later, God gives him back to us.
Which is just another way of saying: Hear the Good News, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that prove’s God’s love toward us.
And perhaps that’s why we read these words from Hebrews just shy of Christmas Eve; they forever and always declare the very same thing declared in the incarnation: God is for us. There is therefore literally nothing on earth or in heaven that can ever separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ.
In the full knowledge of our sins, past/present/future, our propensity toward violence, even against those who worship the same baby in the manger – God joined our lives to be life for us, becoming one of us, to free us from the attempt to be more than we were created to be.
Jesus arrives, fully God and fully human, down in our miserable estate and is obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, to end forever any sacrifice not determined by his cross.
Consequently, Christmas comes with a cost – the baby born for us is the God who dies for us. God is the dawn of redeeming grace. God is our peace. God is the one who sanctifies us.
Come, thou long expected Jesus!
Born to set thy people free;
From our fears and sins release us,
Let us find our rest in Thee!
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
John the Baptist is one wild guy. He shows up in the gospel story with some questionable attire (camel fur) and dietary habits (locusts), he proclaims a new baptism alongside the repentance of sins, and his first recorded words in the Bible are, “You brood of vipers!”
Advent is the season during which the church makes a serious and concerted effort to faithfully proclaim the oddity of the biblical witness. In churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary, John the Baptist (or as I like to call him: J the B) gets two Sundays to shine and he is not an easy figure to handle.
While we might want to rest our eyes on the glistening lights of the Christmas tree, or lift our voices with a cheerful carol, J the B shows up with a finger in our faces about who we are and who we pretend to be.
Advent, like J the B, is peculiar. It’s out of phase with our surrounding culture and witness. Advent beckons us to look straight into the darkness, into our sin, whereas the rest of the world spends this time of year pretending as if everything is exactly as it should be.
And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. For those of us still suffering under the weight of the pandemic and all of its uncertainty, for those of us worried about what tomorrow will bring, for those of us who will see an empty chair for the first time during our Christmas dinner this year, the joy of the season might be exactly what we need. Perhaps we should delight in driving around to look at the Christmas lights, and cranking up the radio to 11 every time “Rocking Around The Christmas Tree” comes on, and purchasing all sorts of presents for all sorts of people.
And yet, to skip over Advent is to deny the strange and wondrous delight of Christmas.
That is: without coming to grips with the darkness we are in and the darkness we make, we have no need for the light that shines in the darkness.
J the B stands on the precipice of the times. He has one foot squarely placed in the ways things have always been, and one foot in the incarnate reality of time made possible in and through Jesus Christ. And it’s from that bewildering vantage point that J the B declares the Lord is going to prepare his own way – every hill shall be made low and every valley will be lifted up.
Therefore, Advent is the time in which we prepare ourselves for God’s great leveling work – the already and not yet of the coming of the Lord. It means opening ourselves to the ways God works in the world, it means laying aside the works of darkness that we might put on the armor of light, it means rejoicing in the great Good News that God’s power is changing you and me in ways seen and unseen.
J the B shines in the gospel story not because he is the light but because he points to the light. He draws our attention toward the darkness so that we can begin to see the beauty of the light who is Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world, including ours. He reminds us that this season has a reason and that reason’s name is Jesus.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Josh Munnikhuysen about the readings for the Reign of Christ [B] (2 Samuel 23.1-7, Psalm 132.1-18, Revelation 1.4b-8, John 18.33-37). Josh serves Trinity UMC in Orange, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including liturgical history, DUNE, soundtracks, last words, running with the sun, the undoing of death, clean hearts, righteous clothing, atonement, the already but not yet, contrasting kingdoms, the son of the father, and lives of reflection. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The King of the Kingdom
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”
What frightens you more – the hospital or the cemetery?
We have an aversion to death in our culture. We take pills that promise to make us look, or feel, younger even though they don’t. We listen to doctors tell us about our need to reduce sodium or sugar but then we find ourselves coming out of the Drive Thru lane with a super sized soda and a mountain of French fries. We read the numbers and the statistics of those who die, but we assume that the same fate can’t, or won’t, befall us.
When death rears its ugly head, we do everything we can to run in the opposite direction.
I meet with families to prepare a service of death and resurrection and I am told that they don’t children present for fear of frightening them about the finality of death. In the days before COVID, I would visit people in the hospital who told me how bad they wished others would come and sit with them, but they understood the reluctance – no one wants to get too close to the truth.
When I was in seminary, we were required to tour a funeral home in order to learn everything that happens to dead bodies from arrival until burial or cremation. We were escorted through the embalming process, shown the vast array of color coordinated coffins, and we were even shown the inner workings of the crematory which had to get hot enough to turn bones into ash.
And then, shortly before it was all over, we were shown the viewing room in which a recently dead woman lay in her coffin, ready to receive her friends and family that evening. We paid our respects, but more than a few of my peers stood frozen in their tracks – it was the first dead body many of them had ever seen, and it shocked them so much they couldn’t move.
Death has an ugly color. I have seen it more times than I can count. Rare are the calls to a pastor when something has gone well. I’m the one they call when death shows up.
Why are we talking about such things today in church? Why are we talking about death?
Well, for one thing, today is Halloween. What better day could there be to talk of death? Tonight, scores of children will dress as super heroes from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, defenders of peace and justice from the Galactic Empire, and even extinct creatures that used to roam the earth. And, of course, there will be some who dress as more frightening figures, those who straddle the thin line between life and death.
Halloween forces us to confront death in an odd way – through children. I’ve come to rejoice in this strangest of holidays not only because I already get to dress up in somewhat of a costume every week in church, and not only because I have an unhealthy appetite for KitKats, but because it is a necessary opportunity for all of us to come close to an inconvenient truth – no one makes it out of this life alive.
And yet, this year, I’m not sure how badly we need the reminder… Every day we are bombarded with the statistics about COVID19 and its disregard for our pretensions, we are met with masks on the young and old alike making it impossible to deny the gravity of our situation. Even with the vaccine on the imminent horizon for 5-12 year olds, death keeps rearing it ugly head.
Church, oddly enough, is one of the few places where, even though the rest of the world actively engages in the denial of death, we stare into it week after week.
We put up crosses, we sing songs about those who from their labors rest, we even occasionally feast on the Lord. We are compelled to face the truth that we would rather avoid.
Death is ugly.
And it is here, squarely staring death in the face, do we dare to proclaim the Gospel of God:
There is a new heaven, and a new earth! A loud voice shouts from the throne, “See, the home of God is among the people! God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more! Mourning and crying and pain will be gone!” And the one seated on the throne said, “See I am making all things new!”
Do you have goosebumps?
Did you hear the Good News?
In the end, death is no contest for the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Death is defeated by the King of kings who comes to die in our place. The death of death is made possible by the One who broke forth from the tomb in resurrection.
Revelation is a wild ride, one worthy of Halloween worship. The whole book contains these fantastical images and scenes that go beyond our ability to comprehend. They point to God’s cosmic victory over the cosmos. The vision granted to John boldly proclaims that no amount of pain, no number of graveyards, no heap of hospital hallways have the final word.
Sure, they will sting like nothing else on earth – they might even derail everything we think we know to be true – but they are not the truth.
There’s a reason that this text, this vision, has been associated with Christian burials since the very beginning. There’s a reason that we read these words when we bury our friends, our families, and even our children.
They are words of hope for a people who feel no hope in the world. Whether it was the earliest Christians suffering under the weight of the Roman Empire, or someone who just said their final goodbye, these words mean something.
These are the words that guide, shape, and nurture the saints.
Today, in addition to Halloween, is when we celebrate All Saints. We read and remember the names of those who have died in the last year. It is a somber and holy moment in which we pause to reflect on how God worked in and through those now dead. It is an opportunity to imagine what God might even be up to with us.
And the “all” in “All Saints” is important. Lest we fall prey to the temptation of believing that saints are only those perfect Christians – Saints are just sinners in the hands of a loving God. In fact, if there’s any real requirement for being a saint, it is merely the admission that we are not yet what we can be. It’s about coming to grips with the condition of our condition all while holding fast to the wonderful Good News that Jesus does his best work with people like us – Jesus deals in the realm of impossible possibility – Jesus is in the resurrection business.
John sees the New Heaven and the New Earth and notice, they are not replacements for the old ones. In our deaths we are not beamed away to some distant realm of existence. God does not reject the created order. The New Heaven and the New Earth are transfigurations of what we have right now – they are the created order raised and glorified.
Which means that wherever we find brokenness today – in our lives, in our families, in our institutions, God is actively working to rectify those wrongs right now. God calls us, even us, to live into the reality of all things being made new.
Do you see? What John sees has already happened, it is happening, and it will happen.
God made all things new in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God makes all things new whenever one of us is in Christ (there is a new creation), and God will make all things new in the Eschaton.
All Saints, what we do today, allows us to be re-communed with every saint that has come before us, with the saints in our midst now, and strangely enough with the saints who will arrive long after we’re gone.
We belong to and believe in the communion of saints, the great cloud of witnesses, past, present, and future.
The church is a peculiar thing – we move forward by looking back and we live now because of death. We are what we are because of what we’ve inherited, but we are also who we are because, in baptism, we’ve died with Christ in order that we might live, truly live.
There is, of course, a lingering question – How can we know this to be true?
None of us know the writers of the scriptures, we don’t know the authors of the hymns and songs we’re singing today, we don’t even know the names of the people who adorn our windows in this sanctuary.
We, I, can’t prove any of this. The resurrection of the dead, the communion of the saints, the great cloud of witnesses, is not that kind of knowledge. It is a gift of faith, of trust.
I know it to be true because my grandmother told me its true. I know it to be true because I’ve had countless individuals, saints, who lived lives according to that truth, people who showed me the way. I trust the witnesses, because that’s what we all are, in the end. We testify and listen to those who testify to the truth.
On this spookiest of holidays, as we prepare to look death squarely in its face, as we take time to give thanks for the saints, we do so in the light of this news, this truth:
Descending from the realm of light and life, invading the horrid darkness of the kingdom of Death and destroying it forever, comes One who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. To us he speaks the enduring words of the Gospel: “I am the resurrection and I am life, whoever trusts in me shall live.” He is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.
A friend of mine from seminary just co-authored a piece in Christianity Today that should drive people in droves to local churches. Even though only 36% of Americans view religion with a “great deal of confidence” (down from 68% in 1975), and even though only 29% of Americans say they go to church every week (down from 43% in 2011), regular corporate worship attendance strongly promotes health and wellness.
The article points out that “a number of large, well-designed research studies have found that religious service attendance is associated with greater longevity, less depression, less suicide, less smoking, less substance abuse, better cancer and cardiovascular disease survival, less divorce, greater social support, greater meaning in life, greater life satisfaction, more volunteering, and greater civic engagement.”
Literally: church is good for you.
Now, of course, the point of the Good News isn’t to lower our cholesterol, or to add years to our lives, but there is something about the gathering of people for worship that makes things better for people.
The psalmist writes, “O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.” When we gather in worship together, we enter the strange new world of the Bible only to discover that it is, in fact, our world and that God delights in being made known to us in the breaking of bread and the waters of baptism. These sacraments are the activities that make our lives intelligible in which we are told/reminded that we belong to God and that despite our best (and worst) efforts we are a people who live in the light of forgiveness.
Which is all just another way of saying: when the Good News actually sounds like good news then it can make all the difference in the world.
To be clear: just showing up Sunday after Sunday won’t make us happy; it’s not some magic flourish of the wrist that makes all the bad things go away. But, at the same time, being part of a community of faith means that we’ve been incorporated into something such that, when the bad things happen, we know we will not face them alone.
I had the opportunity last year to lead a short online class with the theologian Phillip Cary and I asked him during the final session to make the case for why people should go to church. He said, “People should go to church because it is true, it is beautiful, and it makes life better.”
He was right.
And now we have the research to prove it!
And, because I often feel like music does a better job at conveying theological insights than mere words alone, here are some tunes to help us think about what it means to be part of something that makes life better:
The Westerlies are a brass quartet from New York whose sonic ventures would do well in sanctuaries, concert halls, and living rooms. Their music has hints of jazz, chamber music, and even rock and roll. “Robert Henry” is a foray into pulsing trombone rhythms with stylized trumpet syncopation that is sure to get stuck in your head and bring a smile to your face.
Mia Gargaret is a singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and producer from Chicago. While she was in the midst of a tour in 2019 she lost her singing voice due to a sickness and retreated to her synthesizer for comfort. She began creating ambient meditations that drew inspiration from philosopher Alan Watts lecture “Overcome Social Anxiety.” Her song “Body” samples the lecture with a synthesized assortment of arpeggios.
The British band Bombay Bicycle Club released a 16 minute cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Terrapin Station” back in May in honor of “World Turtle Day.” The song is nothing short of a sonic journey. I invite you to sit back with some good headphones and enjoy the ride.
Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.
It was a few Christmases ago when a daughter asked her father what the holiday really meant. He explained that Christmas is about the birth of Jesus and the more they talked the more she wanted to know so the father purchased a children’s Bible and began reading it to her every night.
She loved it.
They read the stories of Jesus’ birth and teachings, and the daughter would ask her father to explain some of Jesus’ sayings like, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” And the father said, “Jesus teaches that we are supposed to treat people the way we want to be treated. And with each passing story, the daughter became more and more enamored with Jesus.
They were driving around town a few weeks later when they passed by a Catholic Church with an enormous crucifix on the front lawn. The giant cross and it’s dying figure were impossible to miss and the daughter quickly pointed out the window and said, “Dad… Who’s that?”
The father realized in that moment that he never told her the end of the story. So he began explaining how the person on the cross was Jesus, how he ran afoul of the Roman government because his message was so radical and they thought the only way to stop his message was to kill him, so they did.
The daughter was silent for the rest of the drive.
A few weeks went by and when his daughter had the day off from school in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr the father decided to take the day off as well and treat his girl to lunch. And while they were sitting at a table waiting for their food, his daughter reached for the local newspaper, pointed at the figure on the front-page and said, “Dad… Who’s that?”
It was Dr. King.
“Well,” the father began, “That’s Martin Luther King Jr and he’s the reason you’re not in school today. We’re celebrating his life. He was a preacher”
And she said, “For Jesus?!”
“Yes,” he said, “But there was another thing that he was famous for; he had his own message and said that people should treat one another the same no matter what they look like.”
She thought about that for a minute and said, “Well Dad, that sounds a lot like do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
The father said, “Yeah, I never thought about it like that, but it is just like what Jesus said.”
The daughter was silent for a moment or two, and then she looked up at her father with tears in her eyes and she said, “Did they kill him too?”
There’s a reason Jesus said that unless we receive the kingdom like a child we will never enter it. Kids get it. If only the same could be said about us adults.