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.
John said to him, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” But Jesus said, “Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward. If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea. If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut if off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched. For everyone will be salted with fire. Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.”
What happened to the nice, Sunday school, version of Jesus that all of us love?
Love God and love your neighbors as yourselves, treat others as you wish to be treated, make the world a better place. Those are the slogans of our faith!
So what are we to make of this Jesus who tells us it’s better to show up for the kingdom of God with one eye, one leg, and one hand than to have our whole selves and be thrown into hell where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched?
Just last week we were reading about how Jesus said you have to be like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven, and now Jesus is talking about hellfire and damnation.
We don’t talk much about hell. It’s not an appropriate topic for conversation among well meaning Methodists. Hell isn’t a very uplifting subject.
And yet here, in Mark 9, Jesus talks about hell.
The disciples bring to the Lord a complaint: “Excuse us, JC, but we just met someone who was doing work in your name, and we tried to stop him, honestly we tried, because he wasn’t following us.”
We are concerned, Lord. Who knows what kind of crazy stuff some people will do in your name? There has to be some kind of standard when it comes to the work we call church. Otherwise we might wind up with televangelists who fly around the world in airplanes. We might wind up with grocery store front churches that promise wealth and health to those who just have enough faith. We might wind up with churches with big columns and a pipe organ with over 1,400 pipes. So… what should we do Lord?
Jesus says, “Let them be; for if someone performs deeds of power in my name, pretty soon they’ll be on our side, if they aren’t already. The kingdom is bigger than your little minds can even imagine – there are spots at the heavenly banquet for people who wouldn’t never dare to invite. But remember – this party doesn’t belong to you. God is the host.”
And, it would have been nice if Mark, the gospel writer, could’ve left the story right there – this would be a great place for “and immediately they headed toward the next stop on the journey.”
But no. Jesus keeps going. “Listen,” says the Lord, “whenever you try to prevent others from serving in my name, you are putting stumbling blocks in the way of other disciples. And, to be fair, you can stop people all you want, but it would be better for you to put a millstone around you neck and jump into the deep end of the pool.”
But wait, there’s more – “While you’re at it – if there is anything that causes you to sin, be it your eye, your hand, your foot, whatever it is, go ahead and cut it off. It is far better to be part of the kingdom maimed than it is to burn in hell.”
This is not the meek and mild and smiling Jesus that we usually have displayed on paintings around the church – this is not the kind of story we would want to teach during vacation Bible school.
Jesus cranks it up to eleven. He paints a picture for the disciples of frightening and terrifying images – people downed by concrete, followers removing body parts as they enter the kingdom.
A little hyperbole never hurt anyone.
Perhaps Jesus is troubled knowing that his followers will mistakenly lead others astray. Maybe, with the cross growing clearer on the horizon, Jesus is tired of his disciples moving to and fro with every gust of wind and wants to stop them in their tracks. Perhaps Jesus believes that some will think his Gospel is just one of many things we can pick up whenever we want rather than a matter of life or death, heaven or hell.
To be fair – Jesus doesn’t actually call it “hell.” He uses the Aramaic name of a place called Gehenna. This was an actual place, just outside the walls of Jerusalem. We, of course, hear the word hell and we immediately conjure in our minds some version of Dante’s Inferno or some bad low budget b-movie with a tall red figure with a bifurcated tail holding a trident.
Jesus, however, is talking about Gehenna. Long before our Lord arrived on the scene it was the place of pagan idolatry and that’s how it became a place of ill repute. So much so that when Jesus addressed the disciples about the entering the kingdom, Gehenna had become the town dump. It was where rubbish and refuse was deposited, it was a fiery place because people kept throwing their garbage into it.
Therefore, Jesus says it would be better to pluck out our eyes and go into the kingdom missing some part of us than to have our whole bodies thrown into the dump called Gehenna.
Its rather odd how some things haven’t really changed over the last few millennia – we are still a throw-away society whether it’s our literal garbage, or the people we treat like garbage. If something doesn’t fit into our worldview, we are happy to cast it away without ever having to really think about it again.
That’s why we still remove unsightly elements from our lives and relegate them to the place we would call dumps.
We are content to lay our trash on the curb for someone else to come and take away (who knows where?) and we are all too comfortable with allowing prisoners to be locked up in jail without us ever having to think about their conditions, we perpetuate systems in which the poor keep getting poorer and are forced to resort to terrible actions in order to survive. On and on and on.
It’s Gehenna. It’s hellish what people are forced to go through here and now.
And Jesus says that no child of God’s good creation and love is meant for Gehenna.
It would be better for us to sacrifice what we hold so dear in order to help others, than to continue along as if the universe revolves around us.
One of the great challenges of the church today is to rid ourselves of the fallacy that we are somehow better than other people. That’s what the disciples were struggling with when they complained to the Lord about the one doing deeds in the name of Jesus. They saw themselves as right and everyone else as wrong.
Or, to put it another way – they saw themselves as saints and everyone else as sinners. But here’s the kicker: the kingdom of God is populated only and entirely by forgiven sinners.
That doesn’t mean that we can just go around doing whatever we want whenever we want. Sin has consequences here and now, but all of our sins are no match for the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world.
Jesus speak harsh words to us today because the world is a harsh place. It can even be a hellish place.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote that hell is the suffering of being unable to love. Think about that for a moment – when we are unable to love, even our enemies, we create hell on earth for other and for ourselves.
Did you know that more Americans have died from COVID19 than Americans died from the 1918 flu pandemic? Despite all the medical advancements over the last 100 years we’ve buried more people this time than last time. 1 in 500 Americans have died in this crisis!
Why? We can blame the spread of misinformation, and selfishness, and failures in leadership locally and globally. But it’s also because we’ve failed to love one another.
Hell is the suffering of being unable to love.
The Apostles’ Creed is a an ancient text around which the church has centered its identity.
I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord.
And toward the end of the Creed there is a very, very, important line. We say that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried, and on the third day he rose again. But originally, for centuries, Christians used to say Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried, and he descended into hell.
Jesus was constantly descending into hell. Not just when he died, in those three days before the resurrection, but throughout his earthly ministry. Jesus entered those places we avoid, he encountered those we turn away from, Jesus went to the margins.
Jesus ministered among and in the dumps of the world – Gehenna.
Again and again and again in the Gospel, we discover the oddity of God made flesh who comes to dwell among the people who feel like they’re living in hell on earth.
Because Jesus goes to hell and back for people just like us.
We live in a time in which we are told to never stop trying – there’s always more to be done, more effort we can put it. We’re fed a narrative in which if we really commit ourselves to something, we can do it. And to some degree, that’s true. There are people who are living in hell on earth right now and we can do something about it.
The church has always been called to be the kind of place that willingly goes to Gehenna, to do whatever it can to salvage lives, to literally rescue people, to remind them that they are precious lambs of Jesus Christ, that they have worth and value no matter what the world tells them, and they are not meant for the hells of life.
But when it comes to ourselves, there’s no amount of work (perfect morality, ethical observance, or even self-mutiliation) that can really fix what’s broken in us. We can’t save ourselves. At least, not on our own. We regularly do things we know we shouldn’t, and we regularly avoid doing things we know we should do.
But that’s why the work of Christ, what we in the church often call grace, is so amazing. Grace is not something we earn or deserve, it is something done to us.
All of us, no matter how we might appear to have it all together, all of us are sinners in need of grace. That’s why Jesus’ words today are so good and so terrifying – they convicts us and reminds us that only God is good alone. This passage functions as a mirror to show us the condition of our condition.
Grace, God’s grace, is what happens when, no matter how hard we’ve tried, we see ourselves for who we really are AND we discover that God does not abandon us.
In fact, God comes straight down into the muck and the mire of our lives, right smack dab in our sins, and refuses to let us go.
Later, after all who heard these words straight from the lips of the Lord abandoned him to his fate, he was nailed to a cross and lifted high upon Calvary. If he looked hard enough, Jesus would’ve been able to see Gehenna, the hell of Jerusalem, with its never-ending fire.
Jesus’ deepest experience of hell was right up on that cross.
That’s why we put crosses in our sanctuaries. Not because they are some impotent symbol of the distant past, but because the cross is death.
Jesus died, the incarnate Lord made flesh went to hell and back for us and the world.
Let us therefore never forget: if we want to meet Jesus, the first place to look for him is in hell. Amen.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to the good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set out hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
You learn, after a little while, not to tell people that you’re a preacher.
It doesn’t really matter where the interaction takes place or with whom, the responses are generally the same.
I’ll be at a BBQ and when the beans get spilled everyone starts hiding their beers behind their backs, or I’ll strike up a casual conversation in a grocery store and when the truth gets out the person across from me will confess they haven’t been to church in a very long time, or a fellow parent at a soccer practice, having seen me in my collar, will begin to list off a litany of complaints about the church he/she grew up in.
Right before the pandemic I was introduced to someone as a pastor and the person responded: “Good for you, but I don’t need to go to church.”
I was hooked.
“What do you mean you don’t need to go to church?”
“Well,” he began, “I don’t need someone like you to tell me how I’m supposed to be living my life. I’m a good person already.”
Is that what the church is for? Do we exist to make people into better versions of themselves? Is all of this designed to bring about better moral and ethical behavior?
We put a lot, and by a lot I mean A LOT, of emphasis on self help these days. The pandemic saw immense spike in the sales of Pelotons, designed to make our bodies look the way we really want them to, Diet Programs, designed to make our bellies look the way we want them to, and a whole slew of “How To Be The Best You” books, designed to make us look, think, act, and speak the way we want to.
We like to imagine ourselves as “self-made” individuals and we regularly lift up those who have done so in the greater and wider culture.
And yet Paul, in his letter to the church in Ephesus, speaks not of what we must do, but instead begins by only addressing what God does. And, to really hit the nail on the head, it’s all in the past tense – It’s all already done and decided.
Listen – God has blessed us by choosing us in Jesus Christ. He has made us holy and blameless by bringing us out of bondage to sin and death by the price of his own blood – That’s what redemption means.
Our holiness, whatever it may be, is only because of Christ’s own righteousness. Jesus’ perfect life under the Law has been transferred and credited to us as our own. The Judged judge has come to be judged in our place.
God has done all of this and has made us his children. Children by adoption with an inheritance.
Now, consider – Paul doesn’t say this is all something we must earn by our doing or by our faith – he says its already ours, gifted to us unconditionally and irrevocably by way of Jesus.
This is all God’s work from before the foundation of the world.
And that’s just the first bit of our scripture today!
Paul is emphatic that God is the one who acts, so much so that he strings this entire passage together as one rather long run-on sentence in the Greek. In fact, it’s the longest single sentence in the entire New Testament, and God is the subject of all it’s verbs.
Put simply: It’s all about God.
And yet, we can’t help ourselves, at times, from making church all about us.
Sermons and Sunday school curricula all join the mighty chorus of self-help programs.
We start by telling everyone that God loves them, but before too long we starting dropping lists of expectations if people want God to keep loving them.
We say things like, “God commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves so, you might want to write all of this down because it’s important, you all need to work on your racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ethnocentrism, STOP USING STYROFOAM, go vegan, gluten-free, eat locally, think globally, fight against gentrification, DON’T DRINK SO MUCH, practice civility, mindfulness, inclusiveness, take precautions on dates, keep the sabbath, live simply, practice diversity, do a good deed daily, give more, complain less, and while you’re at it, STOP DRINKING SO MUCH.”
If people have ever been evangelized by fear mongering or higher moral standards, they might be converted away from something, but not to the Gospel.
To be clear: that long list is, undoubtedly, filled with good things, things we should all probably work on, but Jesus comes not to make us struggle under the weight of additional expectations, he doesn’t wait up on the cross until we’ve righted all of our wrongs, he doesn’t hide behind the stone in the tomb until we have enough faith.
Jesus does what Jesus does for us without us having to do much of anything AT ALL.
Last week, after worship, a lot of you said a lot of things to me. But one of you said something I haven’t been able to get out of my head: “It’s good to know that God is still God no matter who stands in the pulpit.”
That’s some pretty good theology!
And, to be clear, I didn’t actually say that in my sermon, nor was it said in any other part of the service. But if that’s what was conveyed, well then “Thank you Holy Spirit!”
You see, we’re not the Good News. Not pastors, not lay people, not even the church.
It’s actually very Good News that we’re not the good news, because if we were then we’d be doing a terrible job.
We’re not the Good News. We all do things we know we shouldn’t and we all avoid doing things we know we should.
But here’s where the Good News gets really good: we’re the objects of it.
That is: God does for us what we could never, and would never, do on our own.
God, bewilderingly, chooses to come to us, and not the other way around.
Sure, there are plenty of people in scripture who seek the Lord, but not a one of em deserved anything the Lord gave em.
Have you heard about the wee little man up in a tree? The one who stole money from the likes of you and me? Well, Jesus invites himself over to lunch at Zacchaeus’ house and transforms his life forever.
Do you know about the crowds who were hungry after listening to Jesus preach for an entire afternoon? Well, he multiplies some loaves of bread and a handful of fish without even taking the time to discern whether or not the people were really worthy of such a miracle.
Again and again in the strange new world of the Bible, God meets the people of God in the midst of their sins, down in the muck of life, and offers grace.
And grace, as Robert Farrar Capon so wonderfully puts it, grace isn’t cheap or even expensive, its free.
God says to us, “Look, I don’t care what the world has told you about who you are. That’s not who you are! You are mine and I am thine!”
The thing that makes the church different than any other organization, different from political parties or rotaries or corporations is the Gospel.
The Gospel is what God has chosen to do, from before time!
For us, by the cross.
And through us, by the Spirit.
In the end, we don’t really bring much of anything to church. Sure, we can sing and we can pray, we can even drop some money in the offering plate when it comes around, but all of the pales in comparison to what God has already done for us.
If we bring anything here, week after week, we bring our brokenness in hopes and anticipation that God will make something of our nothing.
Do you see it? Church isn’t about what we do – it’s about being reminded, again and again, of what God has done for us.
And then, and only then, in the knowledge of what is already done, we get to take steps into the adventure that is called faith.
There was a man in one of my churches who I just couldn’t stand.
Now, I know that’s not very pastoral, but I’m a sinner in need of grace just like the rest of you.
Everything about this guy drove me crazy. He was older than dirt, he treated people like dirt, he was extremely racist, and he always felt it necessary to drive over to the church once a week to tell me how I, and the entire church, were failing to do what we were supposed to do.
He was regarded similarly by nearly about everyone I met. Just about once a week some poor soul would stumble into my office having been ripped a new one by the man in question.
I even tried to work the Gospel on him when I had the chance, but it never worked. He stuck to his well-worn path of belittling everyone within earshot, scoffed at the thought of ever needing to change any of his opinions, and rested comfortably knowing he was always the smartest, wisest, and all around best person to ever walk on the face of this earth.
And then he died, and I had to do his funeral.
In the days leading up to the service I lamented the fact that we would have a nearly empty sanctuary for his funeral. Even though he drove me wild, no one should be laid to rest without a church to worship in the midst of it all.
And so it came to pass that I stood at the doors of the church, ready to begin the service for a small gathering of people when, all of the sudden, cars started steaming into our parking lot. I could hardly believe my eyes when, one by one, church members who had been so wronged by the now dead man made their way into the sanctuary.
The last person to cross the threshold was a fiery old woman who was a regular target of the dead man’s insults and I grabbed her my the arm and said, “What are you doing here? I thought you hated the man.”
“Preacher,” she said, “Aren’t you the one who said we have to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us?”
“Well, yeah I’m sure I said…”
“And didn’t you also say that even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died?”
“Well, that’s certainly one way…”
“And didn’t you declare from the pulpit just last week that nothing, literally nothing, can get between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus?”
“Uhh, that might’ve been…”
“Well then so be it!”
And with that she marched right into the sanctuary to worship.
Our forgiveness, offered before the foundation of the cosmos, is the beginning to which we return to over and over again. It’s what we need to be reminded of throughout our lives lest we fall prey to the temptation of believing that we have to save ourselves. And it runs so counter to everything we think we know because it doesn’t make any earthly sense.
But that’s why God is God, and we are not.
We’re told, in ways big and small, that we have to do it all.
The Gospel tells us that it’s all already done.
Paul beckons our attention to the truth of our condition in that God willed our blessing before ALL things.
Put another way, before God said “Let there be light,” God’s first words were, “Let there be Gospel.”
That’s why, as my parishioner so vividly reminded me, Paul can proclaim in another letter that nothing, literally nothing, can get between us and the love of God in Christ Jesus because God’s love for us precedes all things.
Which is all just another way of saying, God loves you and there ain’t nothing you can do about it. Amen.
So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord — for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
Most stories follow a common structure.
Or, to put it another way, they share similar shapes.
And all stories with shapes can be drawn out on a piece of paper or, for the sake of preachments such as this, demonstrated by hand.
All stories have a beginning and an end. And all stories, one way or another, deal with good news and bad news.
Allow me to demonstrate (show beginning on the left, end on the right; good news going up, bad news going down):
There’s a girl, perhaps 16 or 17 years old, and her life is garbage. Why? Her mother died. Now, that would be enough but then her father went off and married a horrible woman with two equally horrible daughters who treat our heroine terribly.
And then, wonder of wonders, there’s a ball to be held at the castle, and all the daughters are invited. Do you know the story? Our soot-covered protagonist is left behind while everyone else goes to have a good time.
But that’s when the story gets good. Lo and behold: The Fairy Godmother. She bestows gifts upon the girl better than her wildest imagination: clothes, transportation, and even glass slippers. And she goes to the ball. And she dances with the prince!
But then the clock strikes twelve and all of her magical enhancements disappear. Back to square one, or perhaps a little higher. At least now she can remember her one night of fun.
Narrative angst ensues until a specter of a missing shoe is used to identify the mystery woman, who then marries the prince, and they live happily ever after. Off the charts.
Now, the rise and fall of Cinderella might, at first, appear unique. It is, after all, this indelible story of bad news turning into good news, but it’s just like all the rest.
There’s a travel bookstore owner and operator. He lives in a rather posh area of London but sales are miserable. One day, miraculously, a beautiful and famous actress enters his shop and purchases a book. Later, however, he spills orange juice all over her in a chance encounter on the sidewalk and invites her to his flat to get cleaned up. The chemistry crackles on the screen, hijinks ensue, they become a couple, but then it is too much and they break it off. The man is down in the dumps, until he realizes the error of his ways, makes a public declaration of affection, and they live happily ever after. Off the charts. [Notting Hill]
There is a meta narrative to these stories and you can apply the same charted rise, fall, and rise again to a great swath of stories including, but not limited to, Toy Story, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Moana, Romeo and Juliet (though that one ends with a major bummer).
There’s a beginning and an end; there’s good news and and bad news. That’s how stories work.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote some of the most memorable stories in the 20th century including Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, and Slaughterhouse Five. His writing is a mess of paradoxes and contradictions, both science fiction and biting contemporary criticism, dark and funny, counter-cultural and sentimental.
Here are some of Vonnegut’s tips for the creation of a story:
Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
Every character should want something even if it’s only a glass of water.
Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
Start as close to the end as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
I love all of those tips but the one that, to me, is the most fascinating is the bit about starting as close to the end as possible.
Let’s apply that tip to, say, the story of Cinderella.
Rather than starting with a depressed young teenager stuck with two terrible step sisters and an even more horrific step-mother, we begin with her dancing around the palace, moving to and fro in the arms of the prince. As far as anyone can tell, this woman has always been in places like this, she’s supposed to be in places like this except, you, the reader or the viewer, notice that amidst all the perfection of the scene that this beautiful young woman has soot, cinders, clinging to her nylons.
How did it happen? Who is she, really? What’s the story?
Now, that’s an exciting beginning.
You see, we might think we care about how things conclude. But how we get to the conclusion is far more interesting and compelling.
TS Eliot wrote, “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”
The end is where we start from.
Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord – for we walk by faith and not by sight”
Paul, in a sense, was saying: “Look: We already know how the story ends. We need not fret about what happens on the last page because that’s up to God! The only thing we have to concern ourselves with is this: what are we going to do until we get there?”
Think about Paul, the person. But, in keeping with the theme, let us begin at the end. This evangelism traveling the greater Mediterranean with a desire to do nothing but preach Christ and him crucified. Imagine him, if you can, walking the streets of Corinth and you overhear murmurs from the crowds: “Wasn’t he the one who killed Christians?”
That’s a crazy beginning! How did he get there? What set him aflame for the Gospel?
Or, we can do the same thing to the story of Jesus.
We start not with a manger in the middle of the night but instead with the tomb of Easter from which the resurrected Christ departs. A dead man resurrected!
Boom! That’s a way to kick off a story! Who is this guy? What happened to him? On and on and on the question go.
The end is where we start from.
That’s what Paul did in every town he shared the Good News. Can you imagine if Paul entered into Corinth with a list of ten reasons to believe Jesus was the Son of God? Can you imagine him passing out tracks about why you need to accept Jesus so that you won’t burn in hell? Can you imagine him picketing various community events with big signs and slogans with various moralisms?
No. Paul told the story and he started with the end.
If we are beside ourselves, he writes, if we appear wild and off our rockers it is because Christ has grabbed hold of us and refuses to let us go. This Christ loves us, loves us so fervently for reasons we cannot even fathom, and it has set us aflame for the Gospel. Hear the Good News, Paul declares, because one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died that his resurrection might be our resurrection. So we need not live merely for ourselves alone. If we live for Christ we live for all!
We, unlike the world, do not regard one another from a human point of view.
That’s the end which is our beginning.
Paul was writing to an early church community that was wrestling with all of the implications of what it means to follow Jesus. Want to get a taste of a very early soap opera? Read 1st and 2nd Corinthians. The community was divided over eating habits, clothing options, and moral behavior. They were falling apart before they even had a chance to really come together.
And its in the midst of all the friction that Paul drops this remarkable bombshell: If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
We might rejoice in viewing one another through our mistakes and our shortcomings, but in the kingdom of God we are viewed only through what Christ did and does for us.
We might enjoy holding our judgments and prejudices against one another, but in the kingdom of God Jesus knows none of deserve anything, and yet we receive everything.
We might love propping up all of our good works for everyone else to see, but in the kingdom of God there is a judgment that comes for each and every single one of us.
Contrary to how we so often imagine Jesus in our minds, or present him in church, he’s not some do-gooder wagging his finger at every one of our indiscretions. Jesus is actually far more like that wayward uncle who shows up at a funeral with a sausage under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. And, while everyone else is dabbing their eyes, Jesus says, “Why are you weeping? Don’t lose heart! This is not the end!”
The promise of the Gospel is that our end is, in fact, our beginning.
And here’s the bad news: no amount of good works, of fervent prayers, of regular and weekly attendance in worship will put us into the category of the good. Not a one of us is truly good, no not one. We do things we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing things we know we should do. If some young writer we to analyze our lives in detail, if they wanted to display them like I did earlier, the things we do and the things done to us, in the end, put us down at the bottom.
But, there is Good News, very good news: Even though all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, Jesus has come to be the judged judge in our place. He takes all of our sins and removes them from the record, forever. He, in a way that we never could on our own, makes us new. And not just us, but the entire cosmos as well.
That’s the beauty and the wonder of the Gospel: the end is already decided.
The couple lived right next to the church in a nursing home: Howard and Ruth. I tried to visit as often as I could, I got to learn their life story, how their relationship came to be. I learned about their children, their grandchildren, and even their great grandchildren. We shared lemonade and laughter, we prayed and pondered. And then Howard took a turn. I saw less and less life in his eyes with every passing visit. Our time together became far more quiet.
And then Ruth called one day. She said, “Preacher, I think Howard isn’t long for this world, and I thought you ought to know.” I packed up my bag, went across the yard to the nursing home, and by the time I got to their room Howard was dead in bed.
Ruth, however was sitting calmly on the couch, drinking some lemonade.
“I’m so sorry Ruth,” I began, and she waved it off and invited me to come sit beside her. We sat in silence for awhile, and every time I tried to start a conversation she lifted her hand as if to say “shh.”
Until, finally, when I could no longer stand it, I said, “Ruth, you have to say something. You husband is dead over on the bed.”
And she smiled and said, “Honey, everything is okay. I know where he really is, and I know who he’s with.” Amen.
Despite the protests of fearful and cynical individuals who decry that “we are who we are,” and that “things are doomed to stay the same,” and that “it doesn’t do any good to do any good because nothing ever changes” – that’s not the proclamation of the Gospel!
We are indeed a sinful people. We do terrible things and terrible things are done to us. Just this week saw yet another innocent black man die at the hands of the police and people all across the country have tribalized themselves, again, putting up walls of division rather than avenues of connection.
We are a people sick and tired – whether we’re sick and tired in our boring and monotonous lives, or we’re sick and tired of all the horrendous things that keep happening no matter how hard we declare that other people need to change.
And so much of this is because we have failed to open our eyes to all of the wild possibilities that life after Easter makes possible. We have been freed from the tyranny of sin and death – they no longer have control over us. And yet, we keep insisting that they are the most important things in the world. It’s why we spend more money on the military than we do on social uplift. It’s why we ask to tell people to pull themselves up by the bootstraps even when they don’t own any boots. It’s why we keep viewing people through the lens of sin rather than the lens of grace.
But here’s the good news, the really truly good news of life after easter: If God can raise a crucified and dead Jesus from the grave, then never again can we be so sure of what is and isn’t possible.
Jesus is alive!
Because of Easter, we don’t believe in rejection – we believe in resurrection. We aren’t defined by what we’ve failed to do – we are defined by what Jesus has done. We can’t stay shackled to the way things were or are – God has sent us free for the way things can be.
Here are some tunes that can help us wrestle with the already but not yet of what it means to be a Christian in the world today:
Mandolin Orange’s “Wildfire” tells the epic narrative of slavery, sin, and The South coupled with guitar, mandolin, and haunting harmonies. The duo from Chapel Hill, North Carolina use the metaphor of a wildfire to convey how hatred has always rested at the heart of “the Land of the Free” and spreads, frighteningly, even now.
Kevin Morby released “Beautiful Strangers” in 2016 as a protest song that feels/sounds more like a hymn than it does an anthem of hoped-for societal change. All of the proceeds from the song have gone to Everytown For Gun Safety (a nonprofit aimed at gun violence prevention) and Morby still plays the song at every live performance in order to help “spread the word.” The percussion propels the song forward, the acoustic guitar is wonderfully melodic, but its Morby’s voice and lyrics that remain long after the song ends.
Do yourself a favor: Carve our 15 minutes to sit down and listen through the entirety of Ross Gay’s incredible poem “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude” set to the flowing synths of Bon Iver. The poem proclaims a degree of wonder for that which has been given in addition to that which has been taken away (Job 1.21). And, because I don’t know how else to convey it, the whole thing feels alive. Enjoy.
When the sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome brought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. They had been saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” When they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had already been rolled back. As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed. But he said to them, “Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
There is something a little terrible about preaching to an empty sanctuary on Easter Sunday. It’s just me and the camera. It’s empty as a tomb.
Over the years I have written plenty of sermons, most of them alone in the corner of a coffee shop. But offering a sermon in an empty room? I never thought it possible, but I’ve been doing it for more than a year.
And yet, isn’t this also the triumph of the resurrection? Jesus is not a prisoner in this sanctuary. We can’t keep him still anywhere. He is out and about and on his way to Galilee with other things to do. Thanks be to God.
He is risen!
He is risen indeed!
It happened on a Sunday.
The Gospel is reluctant to give us too many details about the whole thing: We don’t read of the grief the women undoubtedly felt as they went to anoint Jesus’ body. We don’t learn of the disciples’ next plans now that their Master is dead and forsaken in a tomb. We don’t really receive much of anything save for the fact that the women go to the tomb without knowing how they will roll away the stone.
And yet, when they arrive, the stone is not where it’s supposed to be. They peak their heads inside and discover a young man dressed in white.
He says, “Don’t be afraid. I know you’re looking for Jesus, but he ain’t here. He was dead, but now he is resurrected. Look over there, that’s where they laid his body. But now, go, tell the disciples that Jesus is going on ahead of you to Galilee, you will see him there.”
And this is how the story ends: The women run from the tomb as fast as they can and they say nothing to anyone because they are afraid.
It really doesn’t get better than this for the church. Out of death, life!
I think we all know something of fear this year, perhaps more than any other year. Many of us are still waiting for the chance to get a vaccine, many of us haven’t seen those we love in more than a year, and still yet many of us know someone, or a family, or a friend who suffered tremendously or even died because of the coronavirus.
However, the God of scripture is the God who brings life out of death.
That’s the heart of the Christian proclamation and, for some reason, it’s not what we often hear from the church, particularly on Easter. Instead we’re more likely to hear about how “Easter teaches us that the world needs more love in it,” or “Easter is the symbol of the necessity of transformation,” or “Easter is about the enduring symbols of ultimate truth.”
Notice: in each of those Easter claims, they’re entirely about us, how we respond, and what we do next.
If that’s all Easter has to offer then we should leave it all behind.
Thankfully, the New Testament says something very different.
He is not here. He is Risen.
God is the One doing the things that get done.
The disciples, even the women, they do nothing to contribute to the resurrection. They are merely witnesses. And, when they do respond, they run away in fear.
And perhaps fear is the proper way to respond to the proclamation of Easter because it was, and always will be, entirely unexpected.
The women go to the tomb in the morning for the same reasons that many of us go to cemeteries – we want to connect, somehow, to those who are no longer among the living; we want to seek closure; we want to pay our respects.
But nobody, now or then, goes to a cemetery expecting someone to raise from the dead.
All of the other Easter stuff, the connections to spring and daffodils and butterflies emerging from cocoons, the eggs and the candy, they’re all good and fine, but they don’t have anything to do with the resurrection of the dead.
Hearing about the need to love one another or finding ultimate truth, doesn’t send a group of people running from a tomb, it doesn’t set the faithless disciples on a course to reshape entire societies, it doesn’t result in a faith that is still turning the world upside down.
Let me put it plainly – What happened on Easter was so unexpected and so earth-shattering that it ignited a tiny band of mediocre fishermen and other marginalized people, all of whom were discredited by the world, because they followed a man who had been publicly executed by the highest authorities of church and state.
Maybe it was enough to simply hear Jesus’ teachings, or eat some of the miraculous loaves and fishes to set them on fire. But I doubt it. It’s not good news to work so hard for things to change, and to love your enemies, and to pray for those who persecute you, unless the One who shared those words was, in fact, God in the flesh who died and rose again.
The resurrection is what makes everything in the life of faith intelligible.
The earliest disciples, those hiding away in the upper room after the crucifixion and those walking to the tomb that first Easter morning had not a hope in the world. Their entire worldview was nailed to a cross. But then on Easter he came back.
No wonder they were afraid.
Today, Easter, is the high point of the Christian year and yet it is always challenging. It is challenging because it was unexpected and there are no good analogies from human experience that can adequately convey it.
Easter, to put it another way, cannot be explained.
But that’s the heart of Easter: it is unprecedented, unlooked-for, and unimaginable.
Some of us have no doubt seen or experienced what we might call miracles – we know someone who kicked a bad habit, or perhaps we’re aware of an unexplainable change in a medical diagnosis, or something happened that cannot be mere coincidence. But none of us have ever experienced someone dead in the grave for three days resurrected, let alone God in the flesh.
But someone did.
All of our faith, this whole thing we call church, is predicated on a handful of people from long ago who saw and experienced something so unexpected that it radically re-narrated everything in existence.
And all it took were three words: He is risen!
I know that it cannot be proved, I know it isn’t possible as we understand possibility. But I also know that this is a message that explains everything that happened afterward. He is risen! That is truly a piece of such Good News that it would shakes the foundations of the world from then until now.
Hear the Good News: The battle is over. Even though the the ugly forces of sin and death insist on rearing their heads, it is only because they haven’t heard about the forfeit. We live in the in-between, the already-but-not-yet. The old is past; behold it has all become new.
The story of Easter, the thing that terrified the women, is the fact that the greatest enemies ever faced, sin and death themselves, are defeated in Jesus Christ. Ultimately, they have no power over us.
No matter what we encounter in this life here and now, there is one thing that will always hold true – the unexpected victory of Jesus. He is risen.
Easter then, is and isn’t about us. It’s not about trying to get us to live better lives here and now, even though we probably should. It isn’t about making a commitment to making the world a better place, even though it wouldn’t hurt.
Easter is about what God does for us.
In just about every other part of our lives, there are expectations.
And yet, Jesus is all about the unexpected.
Jesus doesn’t wait on the cross until we right all of our wrongs.
Jesus doesn’t hide behind the stone in the tomb until there’s enough do-goodery in the world.
Instead, the proclamation of Easter is we don’t have to do anything, because the everything we’ve always needed is already done.
If Easter becomes anything less bizarre and unexpected than that, then faith is turned into standing on your tiptoes to see something that isn’t going to happen.
We can’t make Easter happen – we can’t raise Jesus, or ourselves, from the dead.
It happens in spite of us entirely, which is exactly what makes the Good News so good.
The promise of Easter for people like you and me is wild beyond all imagining. It is the gift of life in the midst of death. It is a way out simply by remaining in. It is everything for nothing! Hallelujah.
Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
After Epiphany, on the other side of the magi making silly faces at the baby born King, the new parents were left alone with the incarnate Lord. Christmas came and went in that tiny little town of bread and life after Christmas started to settle in.
One night an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to get the hell out of Bethlehem because Herod was coming for the little Messiah. And so, being the good man that he was, Joseph took his family and set off for Egypt-land where they would wait until Herod died.
Meanwhile Herod, fueled by fear and megalomania, sent soldiers to the little the village of David with orders to kill any child under the age of two.
Life after Christmas has always been one of the best, and one of the worst, times of year. The light of the world is born on earth setting the cosmos on a trajectory toward resurrection and reconciliation, and yet we are (often) hellbent on keeping things exactly where they are. We spend weeks (and sometimes months) preparing ourselves for our own Christmases only to take down the lights, get rid of the trees, and go back to life as before.
I was up on the roof this weekend, patiently moving along removing every strand of multicolored lights, when a neighbor walked up and yelled to me from the sidewalk. She offered some unsolicited advice about how the lights could’ve looked better had they been hung in a different way but then, after a rather pregnant pause, she said, “This is the worst time of year. I don’t want to go back to life before Christmas. I wish we could keep these lights and this feeling all year long.”
As Christians, life can’t go back to the way that it was and that’s good news! What makes it good news is the fact that, as the baptized, we have been deadened with Christ in order to have new life, and life abundant.
The season after Epiphany, this strange nebulous time between Christmas and Lent, is a reminder that our lives are constituted by the Lord who is the light who shines in the darkness. It pushes and prods us to consider who we are and whose we are. It reminds us that the glory of the Lord has risen upon us and nothing (nothing!) can ever take that away.
I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.
The words of the dreadful Christmas song “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town” sum up perfectly how we all too-often imagine the Lord in our minds: “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice; he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice…” We take those words to be Gospel truth and we believe that it will be like this into the dark night of all the tests that our broken world will never ever pass.
We do it with children this time every year with threats of the Elf On The Shelf returning to the North Pole to report certain behaviors to Mr. C.
We have it reiterated to us over and over again with movies and shows and songs asking us to discern whether or not we’ve behaved in such as way as to make it on the Nice or the Naughty list.
But Jesus (thanks be to God) ain’t Santa Claus.
Jesus will come to the world’s sin with no list to check, no test to grade, no debts to collect, and no scores to settle. He has already taken all of our sins, nailed them to the cross, and left them there forever.
Jesus saves not just the good little girls and boys, but all the stone-broke, deadbeat, sinful children of this world who He, in all of his confounding glory, sets free in his death.
Grace, as Robert Farrar Capon so wonderfully reminds us, cannot prevail until our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapses away forever.
But it all sounds just a little too good, doesn’t it?
In a world run by meritocracy, the Good News of grace sounds ridiculous if not inadvisable. If we don’t have eternal punishment to hold over the heads of those who follow Jesus Christ, what will possibly keep them in line?
Part of the problem stems from the fact that most of us have our theological wires crossed. We assume that we’ve got to do something in order to get God to do something for us. We believe that so long as we show up to church (or watch worship on Facebook) and read our Bibles and say a few prayers and volunteer every once in a while that it will be enough to justify life everlasting.
And yet, so many of Jesus’ parables, and teachable moments, and healing miracles have nothing AT ALL to do with the behavior of those blessed prior to their blessing.
They’re not about how we justify ourselves, but about how God in Christ justifies us.
God, in all of God’s confounding wisdom, runs out to the prodigal in the street before he has a chance to apologize, offers the bread and wine to Judas knowing full and well what he will do, and chooses to forgive (rather than condemn) the world from the cross.
We don’t strive to change ourselves to get God on our side, but we are transformed by God who chooses to be for us when we deserve it not one bit.
That’s what grace is all about – the unmerited, unwarranted, undeserved gift from God.
And, when we see grace for what it really is, then Christmas can really come into its own. Like the gifts under the tree that are (hopefully) given not as a response to good works or as an expectation that good works will come from them – we can celebrate the great gift of God in Christ Jesus who comes to do what we could not do for ourselves.
The Justice Department executed Brandon Bernard by lethal injection on Thursday for his part in a 1999 double murder-robbery when he was 18 years old.
Bernard was the ninth man killed by the federal government since July and he spent more than half of his life waiting on death row.
While public support for capital punishment has decreased, it is still advocated for in the Christian church and this is a problem.
Though denominations like the United Methodist Church have opinions against the death penalty clearly spelled out in governing documents like the Social Principles (“We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings.”) the day to day experience and support for the death penalty is felt and experienced differently throughout the American church.
Capital punishment, killing someone in response to a crime, is as old as civilization itself. Some of the earliest archaeological discoveries of law codes contain the ramifications for shedding blood or taking someone’s life and, more often than not, it comes down to “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, a limb for a limb, a life for a life.” It’s there in Hammurabi’s code from ancient Babylon, and it is present in the Christian Bible.
The Death Penalty has been around for a very long time, and it is still employed for a lot of reasons, though it has only recently come back into practice by the Federal Government. Some advocate for the death penalty because it is the only way to guarantee that someone will never recommit a violent crime, others claim that it helps as a deterrent to influence others away from committing similar crimes, and still yet others say it brings closure to families who grieve the loss of someone murdered.
There are roughly 2,620 people on death row right now in the United States. And the state of Virginia, where I live, has executed more prisoners than almost any other state.
And again, for Christians, this is a problem because Jesus was killed by the Death Penalty.
The main reasons that people use to justify the death penalty can just as easily be used from a different perspective. Deterrence? In the south, where 80% of all death penalty convictions occur, it is the only part of the country where crime rates continue to increase. Closure? Statistics has shown that there is benefit for the families in the short term, but in the long term they tend to experience bouts of depression and grief from another person’s death.
And, since 1976, about 1 in every 9 death row inmates have been exonerated, usually after decades of living in a prison cell.
And even among these statistics and facts, for Christians it is inconceivable to support the death penalty when the Lord we worship was killed by the same means.
Christians love crosses. We put them up in our sanctuaries and in our living rooms, we tattoo them on our skins and wear them around our necks. But many of us have become desensitized to what the cross means: death.
Let me put it this way: If Jesus died 100 years ago, Christians would be wearing nooses around our necks. If Jesus died 50 years ago, Christians would bow before electric chairs in our sanctuaries on Sunday mornings. If Jesus died today, Christians would hang hypodermic needles in our living rooms.
The cross was the electric chair for the Romans. The cross is like the hangman’s nooses of lynching mobs. The cross is like the lethal injections in modern prisons. It is the way people were killed by the state as a punishment for their crimes.
And, I’ll admit it, there are scriptures in the Bible that justify the practice of capital punishment. But there are also people in the Bible who committed capital crimes and God still used them for the kingdom.
We like the think about Moses talking to the burning bush, and leading God’s people to the Promised Land, but we don’t like to think about the fact that Moses murdered an Egyptian in cold blood before he met God in the wilderness.
We like to think about David defeating Goliath, and dancing in front of the Ark of the Covenant, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that David ordered one of his soldiers to die so that he could sleep with and rape his wife.
We like to think about Paul being knocked to the ground on the road to Damascus, and writing his letters to the churches by candlelight, but we don’t like thinking about the fact that Paul murdered Christians before his conversion.
One of the tenants of Christian theology is that nothing is impossible for God. But when we kill people for killing people, then we effectively remove all possibility of change in that person’s life. If we Christians really believe in the resurrection of Christ and the possibility of reconciliation coming through repentance, then the death penalty is a denial of that belief.
The beginning and the end of theology is that with God’s help and grace all things are possible. An alcoholic can kick the bottle, an atheist can discover faith, and a sinner can receive forgiveness. Why then do we keep slinging our nooses? Who do we keep sending people to the electric chair? Why do we strap people down for lethal injections? Why do we keep nailing people to crosses?
The message of Jesus’ ministry, of the cross, is mercy. And mercy triumphs over judgment.
That doesn’t mean that people who commit horrendous crimes get to walk away scot-free, nor does it mean that we should break down the walls of our prisons and let everyone run wild, but it does require us to fundamentally reshape our imagination regarding the so-called justice system.
For centuries the death penalty was something that took place in public – crosses on a hill, nooses in a tree. The state used the death penalty to publicly frighten potential criminals from committing crimes. But now capital punishment takes place in hidden rooms with minimal witnesses. It has retreated from the public arena and can happen without disrupting our daily lives such that when Brandon Bernard was killed yesterday, it was merely a blip on the radar in terms of our collective response.
But we are murdering people for murder.
Jesus once said, “You have heard that it was said an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Interestingly, President Trumps has made it known on more than one occasion that this is his favorite verse from the Bible. But Jesus doesn’t stop there: “But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone trikes you on the right cheek turn the other also.”
Violence only begets violence.
An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.
God sent God’s son into the world to transform the world. Not with the ways of the world, not with power and prestige, nor with armies and aggression, but with mercy and sacrifice.
God in Christ ministered to the last, least, lost, little – people like those who are waiting for the end of their days on death row.
And Jesus carried death on his back to the top of a hill to die so that we might live.
So long as we employ the death penalty, we will deny the power of God to redeem, restore, and transform all of us. As long as we sling our nooses, and prepare our needles, we will prevent grace from making new life in those who have sinned. As long as we murder murderers, we will never give God the chance to make the impossible possible.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
In Advent, we begin again.
It’s notably strange that we, Christians, continue to repeat ourselves year after year with this bewildering season. We pull out the purple paraments, we decorate our Advent wreaths, and we start singing tunes about “ransoming captive Israel.” Advent, for better or worse, is a season all about waiting – waiting for the birth of Jesus in the manger AND waiting for his return at the end of all things.
And, every year, we spend this season living into the tension of the already but not yet.
It’s just the best.
And yet, Advent can feel like a drag. We hear, week after week, about preparation, but it’s not altogether clear what we are preparing for. Sure, we’ve got to get the lights up on the house and purchase all the perfect presents and send out the color-coordinated family picture, but what does any of that have to do with Jesus?
The beginning of Mark’s gospel starts with the beginning. John the Baptist is out in the wilderness preparing the way of the Lord proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
He, prophetically, points to the sinfulness within each of us to make sure we know what it is that Jesus is showing up for. He calls us to look into the darkness inside of us, and then points us toward the One who will rectify the cosmos, including us.
This is no easy task.
Therefore, Advent can be a little frightening as we prepare our hearts, minds, and souls for the One who shows up to cancel out our sins. But Advent is equally a time for celebration! We celebrate because Jesus has already done the good work of rewriting reality, and we now simply wait for his return and the knitting of the new heaven and the new earth.
Advent is a time in which we balance out both the beginning and the end all while looking straight into the darkness knowing that the dawn will break from on high. Advent is both convicting and celebratory. It is the church at her very best.
Robert Farrar Capon puts it this way:
“Advent is the church’s annual celebration of the silliness (from selig, which is German for “blessed”) of salvation. The whole thing really is a divine lark. God has fudged everything in our favor: without shame or fear we rejoice to behold his appearing. Yes, there is dirt under the divine Deliverer’s fingernails. But no, it isn’t any different from all the other dirt of history. The main thing is, he’s got the package and we’ve got the trust: Lo, he comes with clouds descending. Alleluia, and three cheers…What we are watching [waiting] for is a party. And that party is not just down the street making up its mind when to come to us. It is already hiding in our basement, banging on our steam pipes, and laughing its way up our cellar stairs. The unknown day and hour of its finally bursting into the kitchen and roistering its way through the whole house is not dreadful; it is all part of the divine lark of grace. God is not our mother-in-law, coming to see whether he wedding present-china has been chipped. God is, instead, the funny Old Uncle with a salami under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. We do indeed need to watch [wait] for him; but only because it would be such a pity to miss all the fun!” – (Capon, The Parables of Judgment)
So here’s to the season of repentance and celebration where we begin, again! Amen.