Don’t Look Back

Isaiah 42.8-9

I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to not other, nor my praise to idols. See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them. 

The church has always had a “problem” with looking backward. And, we come by it honest. The scriptures are ripe with stories of God’s people remaining stuck in the past (“At least we had food back in Egypt!”) and refusing to see how God makes all things new. 

One of the reasons we’re content with looking backward is the fact that the past feels under our control whereas the future is totally unknowable. 

Or, as Jesus bluntly put it, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.”

But, as Christians, we are called to the dance, one that becomes manifest whenever we gather at the Lord’s Table, between remembering and anticipating. We remember God’s mighty acts in Jesus Christ as we feast on the bread and cup because they point us to the ways in which God is moving in our midst here, now, and in the future. 

There’s a story about a church where a concerned group of members called for a meeting about new ministry opportunities. For hours they went back and forth about each new possibility but they were all struck down because they seemed impossible. 

An older man from the congregation sat in silence throughout the meeting until, when he could no longer stand it, he raised his hand and said, “If I hear the word impossible one more time, I will leave this church forever. Have you all forgotten? Nothing is impossible with God!”

Here, at the beginning of a new calendar year, it is good and right for us to wrestle with the impossible possibility of God. The Lord shouts to us through the scriptures, “The former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare!” God is in the business of making all things new. Even the church.

Or, as Will Willimon puts it, “God’s future is for those who ask tough questions, come up with surprising answers, and dare better to align themselves with their core identity and purpose as the Body of Christ in motion.” “The church,” he says, “for any of its faults, is Christ’s big idea to put right what’s wrong with the world.”

In Luke’s Gospel, on the day of Easter, two figures walk toward Emmaus with their heads stuck in the past. Along the road they talk only of what happened to Jesus and they no longer have any hope. That is, until the hope of the world shows up on the road right in front of them.

“What are you talking about?” The strange figure asks.

Clops responds, “Are you the only fool in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that happened?” 

“What things?”

“Jesus is dead! Locked up and forsaken in a tomb. We had hoped he was the one who would save us.”

The strange figure spends the rest of the walk preaching, reinterpreting the scriptures, and (sadly) the two are no wiser than they were at the start. Until they get to Emmaus, and decide to share supper together. They break bread, share wine, and suddenly they see

They race all the way back to Jerusalem with nothing but hope. 

Every Sunday is a little Emmaus. We gather with all of our worries, fears, and hopelessness. We can’t help but only look backward. And then, as we open up the strange new world of the Bible, Jesus encounters us proclaiming the scriptures anew. We gather at the table, receiving the gift we do not deserve but so desperately need. And our eyes are opened to God’s new future.

Don’t look back! God is in motion! Let’s go!

The Reason For The Season

Isaiah 9.2-7

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. 

I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a good Christmas sermon. I certainly haven’t preached one. No commentary, no anecdote, no perfectly delivered joke can ever come close to the outrageously wonderful news of the Christmas story. 

The story is better than any sermon and yet, I wonder what you were thinking as the scriptures were read and the notes from the songs were lifted up… 

Perhaps some of you have heard the Christmas story so many times before that it flew right over your hears. Maybe some of you think it a mere fairy tale, far removed from the realities of life. Perhaps some of you were transported to Christmases past and remembered hearing the story from other people in other ways. Maybe some of you drifted off to the dream-like space where the boundaries of reality become fuzzy.

And then BOOM! Christmas! The angel of the Lord appears and shakes us up. The angel shows up in the Gospel, just as much as the angel of the Lord is present with us right now, downright shouting the Good News for all to hear: “For to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Notice, the angel does not say, “For us is born.”

The angel says, “For you.”

That’s so strange. Which is really saying something because the strange new world of the Bible was plenty strange before this angel showed up with glad tiding to tell.

You see, the Christmas story is not meant for certain people in particular places. This news is for you. You! Regardless of who you are, whether or not you understand it, or even believe it, whether you are on the nice list or the naughty list this year. There are no qualifications for who should receive this news because this news, the Good News, is for you!

And what, exactly is the Good News?

God took on flesh to liberate us from sin and death.

In other words, the Good News is Jesus.

Jesus is the reason for the season. All of the other trimmings and trappings and traditions serve only to point to the One who arrives for you.

And yet, we could just as well say that the reason for the season is the joy of giving.

Indeed, it is true that Jesus says it is better to give than to receive. It is true that our brains release more endorphins when we do something for someone else, than if someone does something for us. 

But Christmas, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible, isn’t about what we’re supposed to do for others. It’s about what God does for us. For you.

Many of us love Christmas because we believe, whether or not it’s true, that Christmas brings out the best in us. Christmas has the power to reform even the Scroogiest among us. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has probably done more to form our notions about this night than Luke’s story of the manger. Luke gives all the agency to God, reminds us through shepherd and song that Christmas is about God’s gift to us, whereas Dickens tell us about how we can give to others.

But that betrays the necessity of the incarnation. God does not take on flesh to help us see that we have the power to save and fix ourselves. God takes on flesh to save us. Full stop.

The Gospels go to great lengths, through various stories, to demonstrate how we can’t help ourselves, how utterly dependent we are on the God who comes to us. 

The great joy of Christmas is that we do nothing to make it happen – Christmas happens to us. Even the biblical characters that we read and were singing about, they are all so wildly passive in the story. They are recipients of God’s grace made manifest in the manger.

This is often the way God loves us. Not with a drill-master attitude of begging us to see our potential if we would only work harder. But with strange gifts that we did not know we needed, gifts that transform us into people we don’t necessarily want to be. 

Christmas is about the great gift given to us, to you. And that gift has a name: Jesus.

The angel address us personally, individually, with the gift of the one born. But, at the same time, the angel’s proclamation ties all of us together. For in receiving the gift, in receiving the news, no one is first and no one is last. 

The Christian life is one great communion, the great fellowship that transcends all things.

Christmas created and creates a new community called church. At any given time and place we have no idea what it will look like, except we know it will be filled with people whom we would not have chosen if we were not friends with Jesus.

Put another way, through the gift of Jesus Christ, God has also given us each other.

Look around. You might not know it, or even believe it, but these are the people God has chosen for you to be with this Christmas. Men and women. Old and young. Conservative and liberal. Gay and straight. Courageous and cowardly. Stupid and smart. Hideous and handsome. Saints and sinners. 

All sorts of people who are only here because of Jesus.

Jesus is the Good News, Jesus is our only hope, Jesus is the reason for the season.

There’s this thing that we do every Christmas Eve, in addition to the drama and the lines and the songs, we end worship same way every year: with the lighting of candles and the singing of Silent Night. It’s a tradition. Some of my earliest memories are of standing up on the seat of a pew on Christmas Eve, holding up my little candle, and watching wax fall onto the floor. 

But last year, as we rounded out our worship, I came forward with my tiny little candle, and brought it up to the Christ Candle. From that one candle the light spreads throughout the church. And I’ve done this countless times. But last year something happened to me. I brought the light down to the first person sitting in the first pew, I don’t even remember who it was, but I remember their eyes. I remember seeing the light of the candle flickering in their eyes, and I remember them crying. And right then, and it hit me hard in the chest, a sensation I can’t quite describe with words, I was overwhelmed by the conviction that it’s true. All of it. The light of God’s love outshines the darkness.

In the candlelight spreading across the sanctuary, I saw and felt the Good News of Jesus Christ.

God in Christ, born to us, has brought us salvation. God is our helper, liberator, and redeemer. God rescues and delivers us. We live because God is with us.

God in Christ, born to us, has brought salvation to all, without reservation or exception, simply because that is who God is.

God in Christ, born to us, has changed the cosmos free of charge, without our earning or deserving. The only thing we are asked to do is stretch out our hand, receive the gift, and be thankful.

To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 

Merry Christmas.

Good News!

Luke 2.8-14

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, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

It was my first Christmas Eve service as a pastor. I was standing by the main doors welcoming the last stragglers in for worship. And just as the organist began to play the opening hymn, during which I was supposed to walk down the center aisle looking like I knew what I was doing, one final car pulled into the parking lot.

So I had a choice – either get the show on the road and parade down the aisle or stay by the door and greet the one last, and perhaps lost, sheep.

I chose the sheep.

I could feel the organist’s eye like daggers cutting through me as the song went on without a pastor, but I waited.

And I waited.

Out of the car stepped an old little man who shuffled across the lot with the help of a walker and a decisively Ebenezer Scrooge scowl across his face. By the time he made it to the door the organist had started the hymn over again, much to the surprise of the congregation. So I very quickly, but politely, offered him hand and started to make a break for the sanctuary but the man grabbed me by the robe, pulled me down and said, “Listen son – I only come to church once a year so the Good News better be good.”

That man’s quick quip has stayed with me over the years because, I think, we all feel that way. We want, in fact we need, Good News. We need good news because it feels like all we ever encounter is bad news. We can’t turn on our TVs, or turn to our phones, without being bombarded by all that is wrong with the world.

But then we come to a place like this at a time like this. 

Chances are most of us, if not all of us, know the story we’re about to hear through scripture, drama, and song.

We know how the holy family traveled to Bethlehem with a pregnant Mary riding on the back of a donkey. We know how they were turned away by a greedy innkeeper. We know how Jesus was born in a stable, laid in a manger, surrounded by farm animals, admired by shepherds, and sung to by angels.

Never mind the fact that half of these details aren’t actually in the strange new world of the Bible! But we’re ready to remember it that way!

Indeed, it is a tradition to remember the story with these details. We sing the songs, we read the scriptures, we get out the pipe cleaner halos, and the plastic baby Jesus.

Tradition is one of those words that we either love or hate. Some of us rejoice in traditions, the habits and practices passed on to us. Others of us find those things to be constrictive, or even oppressive.

And yet, traditions serve to root us in the world. Traditions teach us who we are and, more importantly, whose we are.

The tradition of Christmas, of gathering with others for the worship of God, locates us in a community constituted by hope, peace, joy, and love.

Which is why we need things like child-led dramas, Christmas pageants, because they brings great godly things down to earth. Often, in church, the things we talk about seem so far away, removed, and distant. Even preachers fall prey to the stained glass language that flies over the heads of our dozing congregations.

And then Christmas! This is the Good News! It is a story that is down to earth because God comes down to us. It has all the hallmarks of real life: birth, death, marriage, relatives, taxes, babies, work.

It was into this world that God arrived as one of us. And, oddly and wonderfully, the great joy of Christmas is that we do nothing to make it happen – Christmas happens to us. Notice, during our pageant, how wildly passive all the biblical characters are. They, like us, are recipients of God’s grace made manifest in the manger.

The story itself, as I noted before, is so warm and familiar that the shock of it all has dimmed. And yet, Christmas is absolutely astonishing!

God, the author of the cosmos, chose a young woman from a forgotten village to birth God’s very self in a sleepy little town in a tucked away corner of the empire. The first to know of God’s birth were shepherds, those relegated to the margins of society and ignored by most. 

Jesus, fully God and fully human, grew into an adult who had a brief public ministry that was spent among the riff-raff and the elite, announced God’s forgiveness of sin for a world undeserving, and in whose death and resurrection, we are made holy.

And it doesn’t matter who are you or what you’ve done. This all happens for you.

The world will tell us again and again and again that we are not worthy, that there is always more to do. Christmas tells us the opposite. God makes us worthy. There is nothing we have to do, except open our hands to the gift that is Jesus Christ. 

That is how the Good News works, it’s good news.

Christmas is the end of the beginning and its the story we are about to receive through pageant and song, but before I hand it over, I want to share one final thought:

There’s this thing that we do every Christmas Eve, in addition to the drama and the lines and the songs, we end worship same way every year: with the lighting of candles and the singing of Silent Night. It’s a tradition. Some of my earliest memories are of standing up on the seat of a pew on Christmas Eve, holding up my little candle, and watching wax fall onto the floor. 

But last year, as we rounded out the pageant, I came forward with my tiny little candle, and brought it up to the Christ Candle. From that one candle the light spreads throughout the church. And I’ve done this countless times. But last year something happened to me. I brought the light down to the first person sitting in the first pew, I don’t even remember who it was, but I remember their eyes. I remember seeing the light of the candle flickering in their eyes, and it hit me hard in the chest, a sensation I can’t quite describe with words, I was overwhelmed by the conviction that it’s true. All of it. The light of God’s love outshines the darkness.

In the candlelight spreading across the sanctuary, in the little children in their costumes, I saw and felt that the Good News really is good.

God in Christ, born to us, has brought us salvation. God is our helper, liberator, and redeemer. God rescues and delivers us. We live because God is with us.

God in Christ, born to us, has changed the cosmos free of charge, without our earning or deserving. The only thing we are asked to do is stretch out our hand, receive the gift, and be thankful.

God in Christ, born to us, has brought salvation to all, without reservation or execution, simply because that is who God is.

To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 

Merry Christmas.

Someone Reigns!

Luke 2.8-14

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, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

On the evening of December 9th, 1968, Eduard Thurneysen had a telephone conversation with the theologian Karl Barth. Barth died a few hours later in his sleep. In the days that followed Thurneysen explained how their conversation dealt with various situations in the world and that Barth’s final words were:

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

On Christmas Eve, we are reminded that to be Christian is to be different. The great gift of God into the world in the person of Jesus is the difference that makes all the difference. We, then, have the courage to rebel against the insidious powers of despair because we have the means of grace and the hope of glory! We have Jesus Christ! Jesus reigns! Thanks be to God.

Preaching With The Angels

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Teer Hardy about the readings for Christmas Eve/Christmas Day [A] (Isaiah 9.2-7, Psalm 86, Titus 2.11-14, Luke 2.1-20). Jason is the lead pastor of Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA and Teer is one of the pastors at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including funeral sermons, merchandise, Christmas Unicorns, transitional themes, the truth, pageantry, the Prince of Peace, homiletical imaginations, Joshua Retterer, new songs, judgment, gifts, Sufjan Stevens, fear, and Karl Barth. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Preaching With The Angels

The First Word

Luke 23.33-43

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were handed there kept deriding him and saying, “Are you the not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned just, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” 

“Jesus for President.”

That’s what the sign said. I saw it when I was going for a run during a particularly contentious election season (aren’t they all?). In just about every yard there was a red sign or a blue sign, with one name or the other.

I’ve always found political yard signs to be problematic.

I mean, why do we put them up? Do we honestly think anyone has ever changed their vote because of a yard sign?

I think we put those signs up in our yards, and attach them to our bumpers, and post them on Facebook, not because we want to change anyone, but because we want everyone to know where we stand. 

We want everyone to know what side we’re on.

And so seeing yard signs is fairly normative. In fact, its the houses without signs that seem strange. Until I saw, “Jesus for President.”

It was so shocking I remember stumbling over my feet and nearly wiping out on the sidewalk.

Jesus for President?

Perhaps someone thought it fitting to cut through the political paraphernalia that year with some sort of prophetic pronouncement. Maybe they really thought Jesus presiding in the Oval Office would be a good idea. 

Except, “take up your cross” doesn’t poll well. Turn the other cheek is a strange campaign slogan. And that’s not even mentioning the first will be last, and the last will be first. That doesn’t sound like a milk toast soundbite from a politician, it sounds like a threat.

Jesus for President. It could never work. Particularly since Jesus is already our King – Jesus is Lord. 

Today is Christ the King Sunday. A remarkable offering on the liturgical calendar. With Advent hovering on the horizon, churches across the globe gather today with proclamations about the Lordship of Christ. And yet, this is a recent addition to our liturgical observances, as far as those things are concerned. We’ve celebrated Christmas for centuries and marked Easter for millennia, but Christ The King only started in 1925.

Why? Nearly 100 years ago, Pope Pius XI looked out at a world in which Mussolini had been in charge of Italy for 3 years, Hitler had just published his autobiographical manifesto Mein Kampf, and the economic frivolity the led to the Great Depression was in full effect. And bearing witness to the world at that moment led the Pope to announce a new liturgical holiday – Christ the King Sunday would round out the year to remind Christians across the globe that we have our own King, and it is to him alone we owe our allegiance.

Over the last year we’ve read from Genesis to Revelation, we’ve encountered the living God who encounters us, we’ve been transformed by the Lord who transforms bread and cup, and all of it, all of the Sundays all of the studies all of the sacraments, they all pointed to one thing: Jesus Christ is Lord.

That’s the thing about us Christians, everything starts and ends with Jesus. He is the first word and the last word.

And yet, we do well to remember that this King of ours is strange…

Listen, there was a man named Jesus who hailed from the town of Nazareth. He was poor and had no real standing in the world but he preached about the kingdom of God, and he usually drew a pretty good crowd. For centuries the people Israel had suffered hardship after hardship, persecution after persecution, and they waited for the One who was promised. And Jesus said, “I am he.” 

Many signs and wonders were done, healings happened, bellies were filled, and the crowds grew until they didn’t. The more he talked the more he was rejected. The more he did the more people grumbled. And he was betrayed, arrested, and condemned to death.

By us.

Those two words are tough to admit, or even fathom. But they’re true. At the heart of the Christian witness is the fact that, when push comes to shove, we nail the Son of God to the cross. And, incidentally, it’s why we sing, every Good Friday, “I crucified thee.” The strange new world of the Bible refuses to let us walk away with our hands clean.

The soldiers place a purple robe on his shoulders, a crown of thorns upon his head, a cross on his back, and they force him to march to The Skull.

Jesus is painfully quiet in this moment. The gifted preacher and parable teller has no words left to share. The crowds, of course, are loud. Sick with anticipation. Hungry for blood.

And he’s nailed to the cross.

Only here, hung high for all to see, does Jesus speak his first words as king. Make no mistake, this is when Jesus is crowned our king and Lord. And what is his first decree?

Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

How odd of God.

With all the possible words of recrimination, condemnation, accusation, the first thing Jesus says is, “Father, forgive.” 

Earlier he commanded us to forgive our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Easy to preach, hard to practice.

On the cross, Jesus dares to pray for his worst enemies. Us.

It’s rather strange that God units ignorance with forgiveness. We usually act and behave as if ignorance is the enemy of forgiveness. We want people to know they’re wrong before we forgive them. We want repentance before mercy.

And yet, for God in Christ, it is always preemptive forgiveness. Forgiveness is the first word.

Jesus doesn’t hang up on the cross until we realize we made a mistake. He doesn’t wait until someone from the crowds shouts, “Um, maybe we went a little too far this time. Sorry Jesus.” Jesus doesn’t forgive after we come to our senses, but right in the thick of our badness, Jesus’ offers his goodness.

Oddly enough, forgiveness is what it costs God to be with people like us who, every time God reaches out in love, beat God away.

Perfection in the Garden – We reject it for the taste of a little knowledge dangling from a tree.

Unified Community – We reject for selfish desires of power.

Covenanted Relationship – We reject it in favor of other hopes and dreams.

The story of the Bible is the story of our rebellion and foolishness. We worship at the altars of other gods, moving from one bit of idolatry to the next, over and over and over again.

And then, in the midst of our muck and mire, God arrives in the flesh. 

Jesus Christ, the incarnate One, fully God and fully human, comes to make all things new, with promises of hope and peace and grace and mercy.

God looks at our miserable estate and condescends to our pitiful existence, God’s attaches God’s self to us sinners, and what happens? We nail God to the cross!

And look at us, with all the means at our disposal, with power and prestige, with sin and selfishness, what happens? We are forgiven.

The first word from the cross, from the throne, is forgiveness.

It’s strange! But then again, it should come as no surprise even though its the most surprising thing in the history of the cosmos. Jesus was forever walking up to people and, without warning, saying to those whom he met, “Your sins are forgiven.”

Have you ever noticed that almost none of them ever asked to be forgiven?

I’ve heard it said, and perhaps you have too, that this moment, when Jesus hangs on the cross, is when God is in total solidarity with humanity. The suffering crucified God. 

And yet, that forgiveness is the first word is completely contrary to us. For us, if we forgive, it is almost always with conditions. 

We wait around for an apology, we wait for amends to be made, and then (and only then) will we forgive.

Forgiveness is the currency of God’s kingdom. Forgiveness, as Dolly Parton notes, is all there is.

And it’s also the the hardest thing to do.

St. Augustine, theologian and preacher from the 4th century, once preached a sermon on forgiveness, and in the sermon he admonished his congregation because some of them, if not all of them, were omitting the phrase from the Lord’s prayer that said, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespasses us.” 

They would let those words remain silent every time they came around, and they would just skip to the next phrase. They refused to say those words, according to Augustine, because they knew they’d be lying if they said them out loud.

Forgiveness is hard, and it always has been. 

Perhaps that’s why Jesus preached about it so much, told so many stories about grace, and tossed around forgiveness every where he went. Even on the cross! With nails in his hands, with thieves at his sides, abandoned by his closest friends and disciples, before asking anything for himself, he asks something for us, Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

Our King rules not with an iron fist, but with an open hand. The first word of the kingdom is forgiveness.

And if that were all, it would be enough to pop every circuit breaker in our minds, it would leave us scratching our heads bewildered at the outcome. We don’t deserve it one bit. Frankly, we deserve nothing. And instead we get everything.

But the story isn’t over!

The first word is forgiveness, a prayer within the Trinity, and then Jesus speaks to the criminal on his side.

The One who was forever accused of consorting with sinners now hangs next to one. The One who ate with sinners now dies with them.

One of the criminals looks at Jesus and says, “C’mon King of the Jews, it’s miracle time! Save yourself and us!”

But the other replies, “Are you not afraid? We deserve what we’re getting, but this guy has done nothing wrong.” And then he looks over to Jesus and says, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Is the thief confessing his sin? Perhaps. At the very least, he owns up to getting what he deserves. But confession has nothing to do with getting forgiven. It is not a transaction, it is not a negotiation. Confession is nothing more than the after-the-last gasp we offer when we know the truth of who we are and whose we are.

We don’t confess to get forgiven. We confess because we are forgiven.

Forgiveness surrounds us, beats upon our lives constantly. Preachers proclaim it. We sing about it. We pray for it. And, miracle of miracles, we receive it.

When we confess, we confess only to wake ourselves up to what we already have.

Perhaps the thief is bold to ask Jesus to remember him because he was the first person to hear Jesus’ first word from the cross, “Father, forgive.”

It was almost 100 years ago when Christians across the globe needed the first Christ the King Sunday. They needed a day set apart to reflect on how the Lordship of Christ outshines even the most powerful of dictators and the most devastating of depressions.

Today, we need it just as much. We need Christ the King Sunday because it reminds us, beats upon us, that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. It forces us to confront the strange reality that our King rules from a cross. It compels us to hear the Good News, the very best news, the strangest news of all: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven! Amen. 

The End Is Here

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 see, 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 on your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”  

A Modest Proposal For Peace: Let The Christians Of The World Agree That They Will Not Kill Each Other.

The Mennonite Central Committee came up with that slogan many years ago and started printing the words on posters. My former professor Stanley Hauerwas was quite taken by the sentiment of the poster, and hung one on his office door more than twenty years ago. 

He also hung it up because he likes to stir up controversy whenever possible.

For, over the last twenty years, countless students (and professors) knocked on his door with anger and frustration. Each of them, in their own way, would barge into his office and declare, “Your sign makes me so mad. Christians shouldn’t kill anyone.”

And Hauerwas would reply the same way every single time: “The Mennonites called it a modest proposal – we’ve got to start somewhere.”

The disciples were walking by the temple, like a bunch of tourists with their eyes in the sky, taking in the beauty, and the large stones, and the gifts dedicated to God. And Jesus said to them, “The days are coming when not one of these stone will be left upon another.”

And, of course, the rag-tag group of would-be followers follow Jesus’ proclamation with a question, “How will we know this is taking place? What signs should we look for?”

It’s easy to knock the disciples for their hard-headedness. They’ve had the benefit of hearing and seeing and witnessing Jesus day after day for three years and they still can’t get it through their thick skulls what he’s all about.

But we’re no better.

We’re still obsessed with signs that will clue us in so that we might catch a peek behind the curtain of the cosmos.

The ever-enduring “next thing” demands our attention and allegiance. The next politician. The next prophet. The next program. We hope that one day, the next big thing will finally get it right and set things right. We pour our trust into these fleeting and flawed figures and we are disappointed time and time again. And, worse, we are led astray.

And Jesus warned us this would happen!

Listen – Many will come in my name, Jesus says, and they will lead you away from the kingdom of God. They will tell you that the end is near. Do not listen to them. Nation will rise against nation, kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and famines, and pestilence, terror, and great signs from heaven.

We well-meaning Methodists are not necessarily familiar with this type of language, at least in the church. We can hear all about it on the news at night. But here, on a Sunday morning, no thank you. We’re accustomed to hearing about God’s love and the need to be a little kinder toward our neighbors. We’re used to hearing about the relative comfort of the present, rather than being concerned with the terror of the future.

But Jesus, when asked about the possibilities for the future, was upfront about the end. Stones will be thrown down, wars will be waged, famines and plagues. It’s right there in the Bible, and it’s on our televisions, and it’s in our doom scrolling on Twitter. 

And we can’t look away.

Paul Zimmer was 19 when the US Army sent him to Camp Desert Rock in 1955 to do something he was totally unprepared for. He wrote about his experience with these words:

“I’d seen pictures of Hiroshima, I knew it was bad, but I thought getting to watch atomic explosions would be kind of cool, a story to interest girls. I had no special training and the first time I had no idea what to expect. We traveled by bus at night out into the desert, chain smoking until we were ordered into the trenches. We wore steel helmets, and our fatigues, but nothing else. I did not become fearful until the countdown was broadcast. 

And I only became terrified when I saw the flash; a flash so bright that, even with my eyes closed, I could see the bones of my hands over my eyes. A shockwave crashed over us, and we were ordered out of the trenches. We saw the mushroom cloud, glowing purple and changing colors, rising and rising. I saw 8 atomic blasts in total. Some from the air, some from underground. Some created such massive shockwaves that we were buried in our tenches and we had to claw our way out from our own graves. When clearance was radio’d over, were were ordered to march forward into the blast area and bear witness. As far as I could tell, bearing witness was the only reason we were there. Ozone hung in the air. Maimed animals in every direction. Houses were splintered and scattered. Total devastation. We never had to write reports, nor did anyone ask us what we saw. Because, it turns out, they were watching us. They wanted to see how young men reacted to an atomic blast. Lately, I’ve begun to realize that I am one of the last people living in America to have actually experienced close up explosions of Atomic bombs. Now, in my old age, when I can conjure that brief and surreal period of my youth I try in vain to make sense of it. It has become my responsibility to share how that great flash and blast permanently reached into my young mind and heart. How the sounds still ring in my ears even today. I feel it my duty to tell of the reckless absurdity of it all. We keep threatening to use these weapons, and I am sure that one day we will. Most of us have forgotten what we are capable of, I have not.

I heard Zimmer’s story years ago, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. To have experienced what he did, to turn on the news like we do every night with nothing but bad news, it’s easy to feel like the end is near.

And yet, it isn’t.

The end isn’t near, it’s already here. Our faith is predicated on the notion that we have already seen “the end,” that the world has come to a decisive crisis in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

In Jesus’ death we believe that the whole history of the cosmos reached a turning point. At that moment, as the sky turned black, as the temple curtain tore in two, as he was nailed to the cross, the conflict between life and death, good and evil, was resolved in favor of Jesus’ lordship over everything. 

We know the end because we know Jesus Christ and him crucified. We read the last chapter before the introduction. We heard the postlude before the anthem. 

God establishes a new kingdom through the cross and it is not dependent on us getting everything solved, or by getting the right person elected, or by finally making the world a better place.

Do you know what the mission of the church is? Our denomination says we exist to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. That’s fine. But it betrays the central claim of the Gospel. God has already transformed the world in the person of Jesus Christ!

The kingdom we live in is based upon what God has done and is doing for us, rather than upon what we do. 

The church doesn’t have a mission – we are the mission. Our being is based on the presumption that we are witnesses first and foremost to Christ who is the difference that makes all the difference. We bear the marks of his life that gives life to us and others. Jesus has already made us different.

We, then, don’t exist to make changes, but living in the world made possible by the cross will, naturally, lead to transformation. It will lead to transformation because we embody the joy that comes from being part of Jesus’ body. It will lead to transformation because we can’t rest easy while the world is flushed down the toilet. It will lead to transformation because we know the truth (his name is Jesus) and that peace comes through weakness, not violence.

Paul Zimmer was commanded to bear witness to the power of our self-made destruction. We spend our days bearing witness to the brokenness of the world around us. And yet, more often than not, we dare not question why things are the way they are!

Jesus tells the disciples they will be hated because of his name. I don’t know if any of us here today have ever felt hated because of our discipleship. But I can assure you, the world will hate us if we call into question the powers and the principalities. To question our wanton disregard of the environment, or our obsession with weapons of mass destruction, or our never ending political industrial complex, will put us at odds with the world. 

Put another way, in order to bring it a little closer to home, Thanksgiving is coming up, that hallowed occasion to gather with family and friends over a shared meal. Imagine, while seated at the table, when you are up to your elbows in mashed potatoes, what would happen if you said, “Can we have a conversation about our nuclear arsenal?”

I don’t know if you will be hated, per se, but you might not be invited back next year. And yet, to raise such a subject would be, at the very least, faithful!

Hear the Good News: the power of Jesus’ love is such that, even though we will be hated, we will be carried by his love through life. Even in distress we can trust, even in times of fear we can rejoice, because Jesus Christ is Lord.

I heard someone on the news a few weeks ago who expressed a total lack of hope for the future. They waxed lyrical about how politicians keep failing to live up to their promises, how we spend so much money on our military might all while kids go to bed hungry at night, how we willfully ignore the devastation we are wreaking on the environment, on and on.

And I thought, “No wonder they don’t have hope.” They could only imagine their hope being in us, in our ability to make things right. Let me tell you, we are hopeless. We’ve known, for longer than we care to admit, what we should and shouldn’t do, and yet we still continue to do things we shouldn’t and we avoid doing things we know we should! 

We don’t have a hope in the world, unless the hope of the world comes to dwell among us. Which is exactly what Jesus did.

Jesus says we will be hated because of his name. And yet, we should rejoice because in those moments we will be given opportunities to testify, to bear witness. Which, in the end, is nothing more than living according to the world made new in the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord. 

The old hymn is right and true: Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. Christ is the solid rock upon which we stand, and all other ground is sinking sand.

Wars and rumors of wars will come. Churches will be built, and churches will crumble. Families will grow, and they will fall apart. And even though the world will change, we can hold fast to the truth, we can tell the truth, because we know how the story ends. 

When Christ shall come with trumpet sound, O may we then in him we will be found, dressed in his righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne… On christ the solid rock we stand, all other ground is sinking sand, all other ground is sinking sand. Amen. 

Chosen By The Word

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Mikang Kim about the readings for the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost [C] (Isaiah 65.17-25, Isaiah 12, 2 Thessalonians 3.6-13, Luke 21.5-19). Mikang is the pastor of Epworth UMC on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Our conversation covers a range of topics including itinerancy, the prophet Isaiah, pandemic preaching, joy, skepticism, Pauline discomfort, deadly sins, apocalyptic imagery, ecclesial hatred, and the difference Christ makes. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Chosen By The Word

Remembered

Luke 6.20-31

Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets. But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

Sermons are strange things. 

Someone spends a week in prayer, pouring over the text, hoping against hope for something to say. Meanwhile, everyone else sits in the pews on a Sunday morning, waiting on a Word from the Lord.

It’s a bit odd that this is one of the ways God’s speaks to us. Most of us can understand, or at the very least appreciate, God speaking through scripture. Many of us are indeed moved by God speaking through music. 

But preaching?

The theologian Karl Barth famously noted that “preachers dare to talk about God.” Barth told his students that preaching is meant to be risky in order to ensure that it hasn’t lost its nerve. He dared his students to get out of the way so God could use their sermons to speak. 

For, it’s not a sermon until God shows up. 

Sermons come and go, some inspire and others bore, some give life while others kill. Preachers must be mindful of the words they use whenever they dare to talk about God.

Which is made all the more confounding when we jump into the strange new world of the Bible only to discover a sermon that God dares to preach about God!

Listen – shortly after choosing the 12 apostles, after word spread about his teachings and healings, Jesus stood on a level place among a great crowd and offered a Word:

“Blessed are those whose lives are an absolute mess, for God does God’s best with broken pieces. 

Blessed are the humiliated, for they have been relieved from the burden of self-righteousness. 

Blessed are the broken-hearted, for grace falls through the cracks. 

Blessed are those who grieve, for what is grief if not love persevering? 

Blessed are the last, least, lost, little, and dead, for to them the kingdom has been prepared. 

Blessed are the forgivers, for, at the end of the day, what else is there? 

And blessed are the forgiven, for they have nothing left to hide.”

“But woe to you who think salvation is yours to earn through power, wealth, and pride, you will be disappointed. 

Woe to the fat cats and the hedonists, there will come a time when you are empty. 

Woe to those who think life goes on forever and ever, for you will die.”

“Therefore, live wild and reckless lives, for in so doing you will inherit the kingdom of God. Love the unlovable. Forgive the unforgivable. If someone asks for food, invite them to your table. If someone is in need of clothing, give them the jacket off your back. None of it was ever yours in the first place.”

“Love others the way you would like to be loved.”

In the name of the Father, myself, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Upon first inspection, it might not seem like Jesus’ sermon dares to speak about God. In fact, it sounds a lot like it only deals with us. Blessed are you, woe to you, do this, do that, and so on.

And yet, the blessings, woes, do’s and don’ts are only made possible and intelligible by God in the flesh who proclaims these words. 

Today is All Saints’ Sunday – the blessed occasion to name and remember the saints in worship, to give thanks to God for putting them in our lives, and to praise God for raising them up into the great cloud of witnesses. And yet, in so doing, we often paint pictures of the saints as being holy and perfect people.

The saints of God’s church are and were anything but perfect.

It’s all nice and fine to elevate biblical characters from the New Testament, but it’s important to remember that people like Peter and Paul were perjurers and murderers. And, for some strange reason, we can’t stop naming churches after them!

Or, to leave the Bible for a moment, do you know the story of St. Nicholas? Yes, that St. Nicholas, the one who famously provided gifts for children in the middle of the night. Well, the story goes that during the Council of Nicea in 325 a certain Christian named Arius was arguing that Jesus was not co-equal to the Father but was instead created by God. And, unable to restrain his disdain for such a theological back-step, St. Nicholas marched across the floor, and punched Arius in the face!

The saints, contrary to how we might like to imagine them, or hide them away in museum-like churches, are far more complicated, and therefore faithful, than our limited perspectives of perfection.

To put it another way, as Oscar Wilde said it, “The only difference between saints and sinners is that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.”

Sermons, strange and daring as they are, give us the language to express the difference Jesus makes. For, we Christians are a threatening bunch to the order of things.

Just think about what Jesus preached! Love your enemies? Do good to those who hate you? Turn the other cheek? Those proclamations run against everything we’re taught about what it means to exist in the world. 

And yet, Jesus proclaims this strange and even bizarre sermon not because these things work. Loving your enemies doesn’t make them disappear, just as turning the other cheek doesn’t stop us from getting hit. In fact, it usually guarantees it.

Saints exists because of a community we call church that nurtures and shapes people who, while often unfaithful, learn the story of God through Jesus’ preaching. 

Jesus preaches this sermon not because it works, but because it tells us who God is. 

And God changes everything.

In the book of Acts, those outside the church called the earliest followers of Jesus “world-turners” because they kept flipping things upside down. The first will be last, resurrection out of death, etc. But by the 2nd century, those outside the church described those who followed Jesus as a burial society.

Of course, the church is more than just a burial society, but we are also exactly that!

We are a burial society because we gather to mourn the dead, and yet we do so with hope because we know death is not the end! All of us experience death prior to our deaths because we are baptized. In baptism we are buried with Christ that we might rise with Christ.

How strange it is to be a Christian.

Week after week, we pull out this old book and find that it is alive and speaks into our existence here and now. We baptize the young and the old alike knowing that it incorporates us into something we might now have ever discovered on our own. We gather at the table and we are made participants in the communion of the saints. We hold fast to the truth of the gospel that only God can tell us who we are.

I remember coming forward for communion once when I was a kid. My hands were outstretched in line with everyone else. Right in front of me was an older man, and I could hear him crying as he walked forward. As soon as he stood in front of the table, our pastor looked on his tears and said, “Why are you crying?!”

And I heard him say, “I’ve been a bad man.”

And without missing a beat our preacher said, “As have we all! But take heart! You belong to God.”

Hear the Good News of the Gospel: God does not make anyone a saint who is not first a sinner, nor does God provide love to any but the wretched. God has mercy on none but the bad, and gives grace only to those who are in disgrace.

Which is why we can do the strange things we do in church. Whether its preaching, or baptizing, or serving. Whether its crying or laughing. We can even happily remember the saints, not as a denial of their deaths, but as a recognition that their deaths are not their ends.

Jesus does not say, “Bring to me your perfect lives and your perfect jobs and your perfect families.”

Instead, Jesus says, “Bring to me your burdens, and I will give you rest.”

Jesus does not look at our choices and our actions in order to weigh out whether we’ve done enough to make it through the pearly gates.

Instead, Jesus says, “I have come to save sinners and only sinners.”

Jesus does not write us off for our faults and failures.

Instead, Jesus says, “You are mine, and I am thine.”

On All Saints, we remember the Saints, all of them.

Notably, the “all” in “All Saints” is the acknowledgment by the church that we do not know the names of all who have lived and died to make possible what we are about to do: gather at the table of God. 

If sermons are strange, communion is even stranger. For, when we gather at the table, we commune not just with God, but we commune with all the saints who have come before us, those who surround us now, and those who will be here long after we’re gone. 

This feast stretches across time and is a foretaste of the Supper of the Lamb when we will gather with those we have lost. 

Today, we bring all of our emotions to the table. The joy and gratitude for the saints, the grief and the pain that they are no longer here. And we can bring all of our feelings because Jesus says “Heaven belongs to those who cry, those who grieve and ache and wish that it wasn’t so, those who know not all is as it should be.”

In short, heaven belongs to the saints, and to us. 

Thanks be to God. 

Jesus Changes Everything

Luke 20.38

Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive. 

The Sadducees ask Jesus a question. If a woman remarries 7 times, to whom will she be married in the resurrection of the dead?

Jesus has two choices in terms of an answer. 

1) He could pick 1 of the 7 husbands, perhaps the first, or the last, or one in the middle, to be her husband in heaven. But none of them make for a good answer since 6 of the former husbands would be left to inherit the wind.

2) He could admit that the Sadducees have a point – If she can’t be married to one of her husbands in the resurrection, then perhaps there is no promised resurrection.

But, of course, Jesus doesn’t go with either of those options. Instead, he breaks through with an answer previously unthought of. Jesus simply asserts that the resurrection is an entirely new ballgame in which the present rules and assumptions about marriage no longer apply. Additionally, he furthers his answer with the claim that the Torah proves the resurrection since God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all of whom were not alive at the same time and if God is to be their God they all must be alive together in some other way

Jesus’ answer is less about the nuts and bolts of marriage, and more about how the kingdom of God works. He asserts, in just a few verses, that the people we marry and bury in this life don’t really belong to us.

And that’s Good News.

However, for some of this this might actually sound like radically bad news; we shudder to think of a time when we will lose the people we’ve taken hold of in this life. We don’t want to imagine a moment in which someone wearing a ring is no longer bound by that ring.

But that’s exactly the kind of assumption that Jesus is overturning.

It’s why we say, “‘Till death do us part.”

Jesus changes everything. The life, death, and resurrection of the Lord obliterates all of our previous notions of possession, particularly when it comes to people. Notably, the Sadducees held to a rigid understanding that women belonged to men as if property. But then Jesus stands and offers a truly radical witness to marriage: We aren’t lesser halves or better halves until (and after) we get married. We are fully and wonderfully made by God whether we get married or not. Marriage is something that happens in this life, but in the resurrection of the dead all notions of labels fade away as we gather at the Supper of the Lamb. 

It’s as if Jesus addresses the crowd and says, “Listen up! A new world is colliding with the old. Behold, I am doing a new thing, something beyond even your wildest imaginations. In this world, the world you’re so wedded to, there is death. But in the world I’m bringing there is life and life abundant. In this world, your world, people are made to feel less than whole. But in the world to come, all people are children of the living God.”

On Sunday, Christians across the globe will gather to remember the saints (unless they did so already on Tuesday). It is an occasion for us to give thanks to God for those now dead while, at the same time, rejoicing with the knowledge that they now await us at the Supper of the Lamb. Oddly enough, we can happily remember the saints, even in our grief, because we worship the God of the living.