A Strange New World

Luke 2.1-14

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and the family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praying God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Merry Christmas!

It doesn’t get a whole lot better than this. No matter how old or jaded we may be, regardless of whether we deserve coal in our stockings or not, Christmas Eve never fails to work its magic.

Maybe its the music, or the candlelight, or the knowledge of what awaits us when we awake – there’s just something different about Christmas that makes all the difference.

And here we are! Some of you were raised in this church and wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else. Others made plans weeks ago and are here for the first time. Some of you are here with questions, and others are just waiting to get home to finish everything on your to-do lists. Some of you made a last minute decision to come and are still wondering if you made the right choice. Others were dragged here against your will. 

There are those among us for whom there are more Christmases ahead than behind, and of course there are those for whom there are only a few Christmases left. 

Whoever you are, and whatever feelings, and thoughts, and questions you’ve brought tonight, it is my hope and prayer that you encounter the light of the world who shines in the darkness, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

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If we hear the story of Jesus’ remarkable arrival in the world we often do so without noticing the explosion and unexpected nature of the whole thing. And scripture is partly to blame. The whole birth in the manger comes in less than a verse and the story just keeps going.

The details, of course, are important – Luke roots us in a time and a place, Luke sets up the main and important characters, but when it comes to the moment for which all of us are here tonight, it comes down to this: “While they were in Bethlehem, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

That’s it.

It’s quite a strange story when we take a step back from it all, if we can. For, this story, the travelings of a young soon to be married couple at the requirement of empire, a baby born in some of the worst conditions imaginable, dirty shepherds receiving the best news the world has ever known, is weird.

Whether Luke intended it this way, the story compels us to enter a strange new world. Every time we take up the Bible we encounter a world that is at first our own, and then is it strange and new beyond our conceptions, only then, sometimes without our knowledge, becomes the world we truly in habit.

We open it and find ourselves among the likes of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We stand on the banks of the sea with Moses as the waters are driven apart. We are invited into the poetic pondering of David and the wisdom of Solomon. And then here, on Christmas Eve, we enter this strange new world to hear about good news of great joy for all people born as Jesus Christ.

But this strange new world is, in fact, our world. And Jesus has come to save it.

A statement like that requires knowledge about what, exactly, Jesus saves us from. We were just singing about it a moment ago: No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground, he comes to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found, far as, far as, the curse is found.

And what is the curse? Well, it is a lot of things. We can call it sin, or death, or self-righteousness. But perhaps this year, the curse Jesus has come to destroy is the idea that it’s all up to us.

Because the truth is actually the opposite: God helps those who can’t help themselves. That’s part of the Good News of Christmas – God in Christ comes to do for us that which we couldn’t do for ourselves!

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I heard a story last week about a woman and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. Back in the 90’s she was a strung out drug addict going through heavy withdrawals while her newborn baby was asleep in the next room. She was at the rock bottom of her life, fearing every day that she wouldn’t be able to get the kick she needed, fearing every day that her child would be taken away, and fearing every day that maybe her child needed to be taken away, from her.

It was 2am and she was lying in the fetal position on the floor trying to will herself into a reckoning. In her hand she kept folding and unfolding a piece of paper with a phone number on it. It was the number for a Christian counselor that her mother had sent in the mail 4 years before, back when they were still talking.

The woman did not know what to do, nor where to turn, and she was so desperate that she picked up the phone and dialed the number. 

A man answered the phone, and the woman said, “I got this number from my mother, do you think maybe you could talk to me?” She heard him shuffling around in his room and he said, “Yes, what’s going on?”

She hadn’t told anyone what was going on, not even herself and she said, “I’m not feeling so good and I’m scared…” And without realizing it she just kept going and told the man that she had a drug problem, and that she was worried about her son, and she didn’t know what else to do.

And the man listened. He didn’t judge, he didn’t offer advice, he just stayed with her on the phone.

The call began around 2am and the man stayed with her on the phone until the sun came up. At some point the woman said, “Thank you for staying with me and I really appreciate your listening, but aren’t you supposed to tell me some Bible verse I should read?”

He laughed and brushed it aside and she said again, “No I need you to know how grateful I am. How long have you been a Christian counselor?”

And he said, “I’ve been trying to avoid this, I need you not to hang up. That number you called, the one your mom gave you… wrong number.”

She didn’t hang up, but thanked him and they continued to talk until the conversation came to a close. In the hours that followed the woman experienced what she calls a peace she didn’t know existed, that there is love out in the world, and that some of it was unconditional, and that some of it was for her. 

After that everything changed. Not right away, but slowly, her life transformed. 

She ended her story by saying, “I now know, that in the deepest and darkest moment of despair, it only takes a pinhole of light, and all of grace can come in.”

God’s grace is unconditional – we of course despise God’s grace because of this. We can even resist God’s grace because we want to believe that we have contributed something to it. We want to believe that grace is something earned or deserved. But that woman learned the truth that night on the phone, grace comes regardless of our earnings, yearnings, or deservings. And all it takes is the tiniest little spark that can transform a life forever.

Our world is constantly telling us to do more, to be better, and to get it all together. And even in the church, we fall prey to this temptation all the time by telling people about all the stuff we need to do. But all of that is self-defeating because the more we’re told about what we’re supposed to do the more guilty we feel for all we’re not doing.

On Christmas Eve its different. Its different because the strange new world of God’s desire has become our world. The whole story is about how we can’t do all that we need to do and that’s okay. 

We were dead in our sins, but God who is rich in mercy, has sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to deliver us from the dominion of darkness. For some of us that darkness is the darkness of writhing on the floor without a hope in the world. For others the darkness is the loss of someone we loved. For others the darkness is fear over not knowing what the future holds. 

For each of us there is a darkness that Christ has come to destroy.

Hear the Good News: In the end, it’s not up to us. We are never really prepared to do that which we probably should. But Jesus shows up anyway. He shows up in a chance phone call, and in the bread and cup, he even shows up in Christmas presents. 

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Each of us, whether we like to admit it or not, we come into Christmas damaged and bent and broken and sinful. We have contempt for ourselves and for one another. And God shows up as a baby with a triumphant declaration that things are changing.

The birth of Christ marks the beginning of a strange new world, one in which we are not defined by our sins or our short-comings, but instead by the grace of God that knows no bounds. 

So hear the Good News once again, news addressed right to us: “To you is born this day a Savior!” To you! Regardless of who you are, whether or not you understand it, whether or not you are good or bad. The news is meant for you. For you the Christmas story has happened. 

To you is born this day a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. Grace upon grace upon grace! Amen. 

Christmas With Karl Barth

In the latter part of his theological career, Karl Barth would preach for the inmates in the prison of Basel, Switzerland. When the public found out that he was doing so people reacted in a variety of ways – some were amazed that a man of such academic stature would humble himself to do such a thing, while others took it as a sign of his tremendous faith. And a few would joke that the only way to hear Karl Barth preach would be to break the law and go to jail.

In 1954 Barth delivered the Christmas sermon to the inmates. I’ve made a habit of reading the sermon every Christmas Eve almost like a devotional and every year I find more and more in it that just astounds me. This great man whose theology disrupted my life (in the best ways), went down to a prison on Christmas and proclaimed the Good News of Christ’s birth into the world to a group of men who felt no hope in the world at all. 

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Below you can find some of the three most powerful paragraphs from the sermon, and as you read them I encourage you to do so while considering the context and the preacher from whom and for whom these words were preached:

“What does the word Savior convey? The Savior is he who brings us salvation, granting us all things needed and salutary. He is the helper, the liberator, the redeemer as no man, but God alone, can be and really is; he stands by us, he rescues us, he delivers us from the deadly plague. Now we live because he, the Savior, is with us.

“The Savior is also he who has wrought salvation free of charge, without our deserving and without our assistance, and without our paying the bill. All we are asked to do is to stretch out our hands, to receive the gift, and to be thankful.

“The Savior is he who brings salvation to all, without reservation or exception, simply because we all need him and because he is the Son of God who is the Father of us all. When he was made man, he became the brother of us all. To you this day is born a Savior, says the angel of the Lord.”

Merry Christmas

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We Didn’t Start The Fire

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for Christmas Eve [A] (Isaiah 9.2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2.11-14, Luke 2.1-20). Our conversation covers a range of topics including breaking yokes, getting political in church, fire on the altar, Bojack Horseman and Fleabag, singing our faith, making connections, David Bentley Hart, redemptive justice, and loneliness in a connected world. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: We Didn’t Start The Fire

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We Are What We Eat

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for Christ the King Sunday [C] (Jeremiah 23.1-6, Colossians 1.11-20, Luke 23.33-43). Alan serves at First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including a farewell to Year C, the case for weekly communion, King Jesus, outsiders on the inside, sheepish disciples, abstracted justice, Thrice references, flipping power upside down, victory in death, pledging allegiance, family meals, The Highwomen, and praying with Hauerwas. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: We Are What We Eat

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Signs of the Times

Luke 21.5-19

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, “As for these things that you seen, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” They asked him, “Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?” And he said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven. But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” 

The disciples are just like us, and we are just like the disciples.

They’ve spent years with Jesus, listening to him tell story after story. They’ve witnessed countless miracles and have had their bellies filled time and time again. They’ve even seen parade into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. 

But sometimes, even being around the Messiah can’t explain everything. And the disciples are confused. 

Their Lord has talked openly, and frighteningly, about the great overthrowing of all things. The whole “the first will be last and the last will be first” stuff. And now here they are in the shadow of the temple, the very thing Jesus has said that he has come to destroy and the disciples cover their confusion with small talk. “O Lord, what big stones this temple has!”

It’s like those times when you’re gathered around the Thanksgiving table and your filterless uncle starts in on his political ramblings. The whole family will shift around nervously until someone tries to cover up the feeling of discomfort by changing the subject, or simply talking loud enough to drown him out.

The disciples know that their mysterious Lord is acting even more mysterious than normal and instead of facing the mystery, instead of engaging with it, they try their best to bring up something else.

And how does Jesus respond to the tourist like behavior of his disciples?

“Hey guys, come close. You see all this stuff? The big ramparts and the towering walls? You see the guards pacing back and forth? You see the lines of people coming in to present their gifts to God? All of this is going to disappear. Every one of those stones will come crashing down and there’s nothing anybody can do about it.”

This is a shocking claim and an overwhelming revelation. For many of Jesus’ contemporaries the temple was the most sure thing around. So much so, that some worshipped the temple itself instead of the God for whom the temple was built. And to say that it would come crashing down sounds more like the proclamation of a terrorist than the Lamb of God.

Then the disciples ask the question that anyone would have asked, “Lord, when will this happen, and how will we know it’s about to go down.”

What follows is what some call the mini-apocalypse in the middle of the Gospel. Jesus foretells, in a sense, what is to come and he warns his disciples about what this will mean for them. 

“When things start to fall apart, be careful that you are not led astray. There’s going to be a whole lot of people who claim to be me or, at the least, be on my side. Don’t listen to them. They wouldn’t know the Good News if it hit them in the face.”

“When you hear about wars cropping up, or even the rumors of war, don’t be afraid. These things have always taken place, and they will always happen. Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom.”

“And don’t even get me started on the natural disasters – the earthquakes and famines and floods.”

“But before that great disrupting of things occurs, you’re going to get arrested and persecuted. The powers and principalities are going to hand you over to the authorities and the prisons, you’ll be brought before those in charge because of me. And when it happens, don’t worry. This will be an opportunity for you to share the truth.”

“So do me a favor, don’t waste your time coming up with the perfect speech or the perfect story – I will give you the words and wisdom that none who are in power will be able to handle.”

“I know it’s going to be rough. Some of you will even be betrayed by your parents or your siblings or your friends or perhaps your children. Some of you will die because of this. You will be hated because of me. Don’t take it personally.”

“Because in the end, all will be well – I promise. It will be well because I have destroyed death, and you will live with me in the Resurrection. The end has no end.”

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Jesus goes full end of the world stuff here, rambling on like one of those men dressed in a sign on the street corners of life. And, to be honest, this reflection from the Lord has been used to inflict some serious damage across the history of the church. Leaders have held these verses over the heads of Christians in order to frighten them into faith.

Which, to be clear, doesn’t work.

Telling teenagers that unless they accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior they will suffer the consequences for eternity only leads to teenagers staying as far away from the church as possible. 

Telling new parents that unless they baptize their child the flames of hell will be their reward only leads to parents writing frightening Facebook posts about what they heard in church on Sunday. 

Telling people at the end of their lives to give more money to church or suffer the wrath of God leads only to emptier and emptier pews on Sunday morning. 

It doesn’t work and it shouldn’t.

Jesus declaration is not meant as a description of the nightmare that can be, and is, discipleship. It’s about what he is about to do, and what he has done, for us.

The world’s passion is taken up in Jesus’ passion. And by passion I mean the suffering that leads to a new creation. What we miss, what the church has often overlooked, is that what Jesus gets into here is not a catalogue of all the bad that’s awaiting us, but instead it is Jesus painting a picture of a dying and rising Lord who reigns in the midst of the world falling apart.

Jesus saves the world in its, and in his, death. But we are so afraid of death that we choose to believe something else about Jesus’ work. 

We like Easter without having to think about Good Friday. So much so that when we hear about all these horrible things happening in the world we only think about them in terms of how they might affect us as individuals instead of seeing how God already did the most horrible thing of all to save us.

Fanatical and apocalyptic Christians might warn us about how “The End Is Near” but what we’ve missed is that the real end has already arrived through the disaster that was the cross until the resurrection.

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In many ways, what Jesus said to his disciples and what he says to us today is this: “You may see signs that you think are the end. But they are not the end.”

Redemption, pointed to through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, involves neither the rejection of the world in its weakness nor the fixing of all the weakness by stepping in. All that matters is recognizing that resurrection comes out of death. 

And yet many of us have fallen prey to the myriad of ways a text like this has been used to manipulate, frighten, and even coerce those who hear it. 

We’ve left church on Sunday mornings afraid of God for all the wrong reasons. 

Instead of announcing the grace of God and the resurrection of the dead being made available to all, we lift up words like these as a potential punishment for those who don’t believe it.

Instead of resting in the strange grace of God’s unending love, we fixate on fixing all the world’s problems with programs that often lead to more doomed living. 

We try and we try and we try, and the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. 

We embark on a new campaign and the lost keep wandering and the found keep yelling. 

We announce a volunteer program and the least wither away while the greatest smile proudly.

I don’t know how it all happened, we could probably blame sin and our own self-righteousness I guess, but in the church we behave as if we will only allow sinners to gather among us so long as they try to not look like sinners. We perpetuate systems of salvation that both deny the truth of who we are and lay it out as if its all up to us. 

For far too long, Christians have left their places of worship with the understanding that the world can only be saved by getting its act together. Or, worse, I can only be saved if I get my act together.

Now, sure, all of us would do well to get some things sorted out, but in the end that’s not what saves us. The world has never gotten its act together and neither have we nor will we. We chose the things we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing the things we know we should.

That’s the disaster of history – we cannot save ourselves and neither can the world. 

So when Jesus speaks to his friends and disciples, when he tells them about things they cannot yet imagine, he is offering us, today, a corrective for the ways we’ve lost sight of the whole thing. Late or soon, the world is going down the drain. Just pick up a newspaper (do any of us still read the newspaper?) or pull out your phone and you will see how prophetic Jesus’ words really are. But as the world spins down the drain Jesus reminds us that only a Savior who is willing to work at the bottom of the drain can do anything about it. 

The world has a future and the church is the one entrusted with proclaiming that future. Much to the chagrin of Hallmark and certain pastors, it is not a future of pie in the sky or even pie on the earth – it is resurrection from the dead. And without death there can be no resurrection.

Whether we like it or not, Jesus’ proclamation to the disciples outside the temple walls compels us to ask ourselves questions. 

Questions like:

Who are we and what in the world are we doing?

Are we like the disciples wandering around merely marveling at the scenery around us?

Are we “signs of the times” police, attacking anyone outside of what we think is the Gospel?

What is the church and what it is supposed to be?

We can begin to scratch at the surface of those first questions by addressing what the church is not. The church is not an exclusive club of the saved. It is not a gathering of people who will be granted the lifeboats of salvation while the world falls apart because of our superior faith or morality. It is not a museum for saints.

If the church is anything it is a sign for the whole world about the salvation of the cosmos made possible in and through Jesus Christ. 

Sometimes it feels like the church is in the midst of a crisis. It should come as no surprise that less and less people come to church week after week, the world feels like is twirling down the drain faster than ever before, and that’s not even getting into the specifics of cultural and societal changes. But if the church really is in a crisis it is because we have foolishly convinced ourselves that we are a bunch of good people getting better. The truth of the church is quite the opposite: we are a bunch of bad people who are coping with our failure to be good.

And Jesus has a word for those of us with ears to hear and eyes to see: You don’t have to put your faith in political action, or moral achievement, or spiritual proficiency because those things can’t and won’t save the world. 

We need only trust that’s its not up to us in the end. And what better news is there than that? Amen. 

The End

Devotional:

Isaiah 65.17

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. 

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On Sunday countless Christians across the globe will hear words from the lips of Jesus as recorded in Luke 21. The particular passage is often hailed as a mini-apocalypse in the midst of the Gospel, and is present in the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). The imagery and language has been examined again and again over the centuries and have caused many to interpret contemporary signs as signs of “the end.”

“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.”

“There will be earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues.”

“There will be dreadful rainfall and great signs from heaven.”

Every new war and every climate related disaster get viewed through this lens of Christianity and we are left wondering if what we’re seeing right now is the end. 

Part of that theological process often includes reflections about who is in and who is out if this in fact the end. We create measurements of morality, or degrees of faithfulness, that would grant someone passage into the great beyond. Or, to use the language of Isaiah, the new heavens and the new earth.

For a regrettably long period of time, the church has used this language as a tool to convince or persuade others to give their lives to Christ in order to be saved from the coming wrath. 

Robert Farrar Capon, however, offers a great alternative to those Christians who would desire to “scare people into faith” using the apocalyptic language of Jesus:

Immediately after the tribulation of those days, he says, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light and the stars will fall from heaven and the powers of the heaven will be unsettled.”

This is the hour of grace, the moment before the general resurrection when a whole dead world lies still – when all the successes that could never save it and all the failures it could never undo have gone down into the silence of Jesus’ death.

“And then the sign of the Son of man will appear in heaven and all the tribes of the earth will mourn.”

This is the hour of judgment, the moment of the resurrection when the whole world receives its new life out of death. And it is also the moment of hell, when all those who find they can no longer return to their old lives of estrangement foolishly mourn their loss of nothing and refuse to accept the only reality there is.

“And they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”

This, at last, is the end: the triumph of the acceptance that is heaven and the catastrophe of the rejection that is hell. And the only difference between the two is faith. No evil deeds are judged, because the whole world was dead to the law by the body of Christ (Romans 7.4). And no good deeds are required, for Christ is the end of the law so that everyone who believes may be justified (Romans 10.4). Judgment falls only on those who refuse to believe there is no judgment – who choose to stand before a Judge who no longer has any record and take their stand on a life that no longer exists.

And heaven? Heaven is the gift everyone always had by the death of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. All it ever took to enjoy it was trust. (Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Judgment).

May it be so.

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Look At Jesus

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Isaiah 65.17-25, 2 Thessalonians 3.6-13, Luke 21.5-19). Alan serves at First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including what its like to preach against the text, hiding in the lectionary, the truth, Revelation in the Old Testament, endless patience, unthinkable peace, throwing the skunk on the table, and being stuck in time. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Look At Jesus

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