The Cross In The Manger

Romans 8.1-2

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. 

There are quite a few passage in scripture that just really sing. I mean, I can be in the midst of something with my attention focused elsewhere, and words from the Bible will begin humming in my head and they just get stuck there. 

Over the last few days I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the words from the Holy Scriptures, and in particular some of Jesus final words: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

I’ve been thinking about those words because I believe Jesus to be true – we need forgiveness because we have no idea what we’re doing.

Here’s just a sampling of a few cultural moments that took place since last we met:

A United Methodist Church in California set up their customary and traditional manger scene on their front lawn though they did so with a little twist. Instead of Mary and Jospeh huddling together over the baby Jesus like proud beaming parents, the three figures have been sequestered and separated into their own respective cages lined with barbed wire. The church has publicly affirmed that they did so to call into question the family separation practices that are currently taking place on our southern border since, according to the Bible, Jesus and his family had to flea Bethlehem shortly after his birth as refugees.

One church in one part of the country chose to make a statement with their display and it, of course, made its way into the national discourse with a great number of threats being made against the pastor and the church for daring to make a political statement with baby Jesus.

And while the talking heads on the news, online, and in churches argued and bickered over a church display, a group of doctors showed up with free flu shots to administer them to children being held in detention and were turned away. 

And while they were packing up their free flue shots, meant for some of the most vulnerable people of all, angry groups of people all across the state of Virginia were meeting in their respective localities begging their elected representatives to classify their counties as 2nd Amendment Sanctuaries out of fear that the VA state government is going to come take away their firearms.

And to make matters all the more prescient, in each of those three situations, people on every side – those for the cages and against the cages, those for the flu shots and against the flu shots, those for 2nd amendment sanctuaries and those against them articulated that they did what they did because they felt it was the faithful thing to do.

Lord, forgive us, for we have no idea what we’re doing.

There is a dissonance in our faith that is difficult to get around. Which makes these things the perfect thing to talk about during Advent. Advent, after all, is the most dissonant time of year for Christians as we vacillate between the Good News of Jesus Christ and the religious sentimentality that is never sharper during the year than it is right now.

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I was talking to a friend of mine last week and he told me about how when he was a child, he and his kid brother were playing near the family Christmas tree when his little brother noticed a particular ornament that portrayed a manger scene. In it Mary and Joseph were cradling baby Jesus while all the respective animals waited patiently in the corners. And as his little brother took in the scene he raised and eyebrow and shouted out, “Mom! Why isn’t there a cross in the manger?” Their mother then came into the room and tried to make some sort of sense out of the question but before she could get anywhere the little brother said, “Oh, never mind. I forgot that everyone still liked him when he was a baby.”

That’s a dark and difficult word from a child in the midst of a scene that always feels so precious. It’s like the dissonance of a church display, rejected flu shots, or fights about gun rights. Its leaves us feeling a little bewildered about what it all means.

But here, in Advent, we are compelled to look at the dark. Which, of course, is not what we often expect to hear so close to Christmas, and we might even find it offensive. But the gospel is offensive, it strikes a particularly poignant nerve, and once it gets stuck in our hearts and minds it refuses to let go. That’s what Advent is all about – its about taking a peak behind the curtain of God’s acts in the world, its about trying to muffle our ears from all of the incessant happiness in the Christmas songs on the radio, its about recognizing that there is a cross in the manger.

I don’t know if you know this but, a life of faith is a strange one. Only Christians are willing to wake up on Sunday morning to sit in a room surrounded by people with whom they have nothing in common expect Jesus. Only Christians find comfort in walking down the aisle in a sanctuary to receive a piece of flesh and then dip it in blood. Only Christians can stand and sing songs about never ceasing streams of mercy and know that they are the ones who need mercy.

But perhaps we are at our strangest when we confess the dissonance of two Biblical truths: All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God AND there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

In other words, all of us are sinners AND Jesus saves us anyway.

That we confess “Jesus saves us anyway” is why we can call the Good News good. God does for us what we could not do for ourselves. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

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But it’s not perfect and it comes with a cost. That’s why during Advent we are reminded week after week that its not really Christmas if all we’re thinking about is a nice little baby. That baby will grow up, raise hell against the powers and principalities, and all the violence of the world will expend itself upon his broken, bloody, and naked body. 

Yes the light shines in the darkness, but that doesn’t mean the darkness disappears.

As I said before, even in the manger there is the shadow of the cross.

The cross is a wicked sign of our salvation. It stands as a frightening beacon about the cost of our dismissed condemnation. The cross screams a dissonant message about the beauty of sacrifice. 

And the cross comes with judgment.

Judgment is not a word we like to come across in any moment of our lives, and definitely not at church. It is such a distasteful word that we seldom hear about it unless it is blanketed around something like, “judge not lest ye be judged.”

But we’re all going to be judged. That’s an ever present reminder in scripture that, try as we might, it cannot be ignored.

In the last day of the Lord, just as the new heaven and the new earth are preparing to reign supreme, King Herod and Pontius Pilate are going to be judged. The crowds who shouted, “Crucify!” are going to be judged. President Trump will be judged. The House Intelligence Committee will be judged.” The pastor who put Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in cages will be judged. The border agents who turned away the doctors with flu vaccines will be judged. The pro-gun rights activists will be judged. America is going to be judged.

And, whether we like it or not, you and I are going to be judged as well. The innermost secrets of our hearts, all of the things we’ve done and the things we’ve left undone will be laid bare before the altar of God. 

We have good reason to fear judgment and to leave it’s being mentioned out of church gatherings. 

Because each of us, in ways big and small, know we lived in such a way that deserves judgment. I tried to cover at least a few controversial subjects in our current cultural climate so that we could fidget enough in our pews about whose side we are on depending on the issue. And however we feel about those things, however we might act regarding them, will be judged by the Lord who is the beginning and the end.

But something has already happened. It started in the manger and it ended up on the cross. The world has been turned upside down and no act on our part will ever flip it back around. The Judge has come but not as we might’ve expected. You see, the judge we all fear was born in that manger and died on that cross. The judge rules from the bench with holes in his hands and a crown of thorns on his head.

And when we begin to see how strange it all is, we realize that the judgment has already happened and it happened in Jesus. The judged Judge came to be judged in our place, he took away our deserved condemnation and he nailed it to the cross instead.

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This is the Good News of the Christian faith – but it is also a dissonant one. We are sinners and we have been freed from sin. There has been an invasion of the divine from on high and we can no longer be what we once were. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ has changed everything. 

There is no longer any room for self-deception, for excuses, or denials, or ignorance. We are not imperfect people who need improvement, we are rebels who must give way to the change that Christ is already making in our hearts, minds, and souls.

There two remarkably powerful verses from Paul in the middle of his letter to Rome, they compel us to ask ourselves, “Are we ready to change? Are we ready to start treating each other with dignity, love, and respect? Are we ready to let Christ rule our lives?”

And the truth is, we’re not ready to change. We’d rather hold on to the old resentments and prejudices. We’re content to keep the other at bay and surround ourselves with people who already hold the same opinions that we do.

And you know what. That’s okay. It’s okay because God is going to change us anyway. God will take our weapons, weapons of personal and communal destruction and God will obliterate them forever. God will keep beckoning us to his table even though we don’t deserve it and we might come into contact with our enemies around it. God will keep pouring out grace upon grace because God will never ever give up on us.

Ultimately, here’s the rub of our faith, this is where the dissonance is most profound: Even if we believe that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, we are still going to be bound together with those who think there still is condemnation. Condemnation for those who use the manger the wrong way, or want to pass out flu shots, or have gun rallies. 

And in God’s strange and infinite wisdom, we who believe there is no condemnation are forever stuck at the party called salvation with people who think other people shouldn’t be at the party. 

It’s strange. It’s like finding a cross in the manger. It’s like feasting with enemies. 

It’s the Gospel. Amen. 

The Gift That Keeps On Giving

Isaiah 60.1-6

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you. Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms. Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you. A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold, and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.

“A banana phone?”

“What am I supposed to do with a banana phone?”

My family was sprawled out around my parents living room, all in matching pajamas, as we patiently awaited the first gift of Christmas.

My mother, having her progeny surrounding her, ripped the wrapping paper with precision, and inside… was a banana phone.

It was yellow and curved, as you’d expect, and it just sat there in her hand as she looked across the room at my father.

“What am I supposed to do with a banana phone?”

“It connects via bluetooth,” he said, with just the hint of self-justification in his voice. “It’s for those times that you can find your cell phone in your purse, you can just grab the banana and bring it to your ear and have a normal conversation.”

“There’s nothing normal about talking into a banana.”

And in the brief moment of awkward silence as all of us took in the scene of not only the first gift of Christmas, but the first strange gift of Christmas, my toddler promptly jumped up and, diffusing the situation, he declared, “I play with the banana phone.”

We didn’t see him for the next ten minutes as he walked around the house having a pretend conversation about who knows what.

I love asking questions, particularly those that even out the playing field and those that give everyone a chance to respond.

What’s one of your favorite Christmas presents of all time? 

That’s a great question, because it immediately gets people thinking nostalgically about the past and inevitably it draws people closer to one another as they share collective memories from the past about toys long forgotten, or no longer created.

But there’s an even better question than the best Christmas present… What’s one of the strangest Christmas presents you’ve ever received?

People will normally furrow their brows in response as they think deeply about an out of left-field gift from days long ago, but usually somebody will start laughing before they even start the story.

I know that for the rest of her life, my mother will consider the banana phone one of the strangest gifts she’s ever received. 

It’s certainly practical, to some degree, thought it’s not something she needs and, more importantly, it’s not something she will ever use.

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Sometime after Jesus was born, though we’ve not entirely sure when, magi or wisemen or astrologers from the east came to visit the newborn Messiah. They conspired with King Herod to discover Jesus’ location but when they discerned his fear and/or jealously, they set out ahead of him until they arrived in Bethlehem. 

They were overwhelmed with joy and entered the house where the little family was huddled together and they opened up their treasure chests: gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Scripture doesn’t tell us a whole lot more than that. We don’t read about Mary and Jospeh’s conversation with the magi, or even if they picked the little baby up in their arms, or even what their names were!

And yet, over the years, I’ve found myself wondering about this particular scene from scripture. 

What did Mary and Joseph think about the gift? 

Where were the magi with the diapers, and pacifiers, and formula? 

Did anyone offer to give the new parents a night out on the town without baby duty? 

Who brought the casserole to put in the refrigerator for late night meals?

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh – Are they the gifts that keep on giving?

Today is Epiphany, an often overlooked moment on the liturgical calendar. It marks the conclusion of the season of Christmas and it celebrates the extension of the gospel to the gentiles. 

In the magis’ moment at the manger we witness the great scope of God’s mission in and through Jesus Christ insofar as it will not be limited to a particular people in a particular place, but will indeed fulfill the words from the prophet Isaiah.

Arise, shine; for the light has come! Darkness cover the earth and all of her people, but the Lord has arisen, and his glory has appeared.

Nations will come to the light, and even kings will be beckoned to the brightness of God’s new dawn. 

Just open your eyes and look around, all have gathered together, and in the seeing we rejoice with radiance because the gifts have arrived.

There is a strange temptation in the season of Christmastide, better known as the time after Christmas, in which we still faintly revel in the music and the lights and even the presents that once sat under our tree. But now, 12 days later, the luster is starting to diminish as the real world catches back up with us. 

Some of the things we opened have already been returned, others have been regifted, and some have been placed in a box never to see the light of day!

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Gold, and frankincense, and myrrh were, and are, gifts that go far above and beyond the recipients. Mary and Joseph were of a certain way of life such that that was probably the first, and only time, they ever saw, let alone held, those kinds of items. They demonstrate the paradoxical subversion of the status quo.

Up until this manger moment, it was the poor and the marginalized who were expected to present presents to those in power – people like the magi.

But now, in Jesus, the first are becoming last and the last are becoming first. That’s the power of the light that shines in the darkness, it draws us in like flies on a hot summer night to a florescent neon glow, and we can’t help ourselves.

The gifts of the wisemen were not particularly helpful to a pair of new parents – they weren’t going to make Jesus fall asleep or quit his crying or even pacify his hunger, but they do point to one of the things that’s right with the church.

The church is the place where the power of the light that shines in the darkness is made intelligible through practices like being the church in worship!

When we gather to sing and praise, when we hear the good news of the gospel, we are living into the drama of the multitudes that Isaiah is describing.

Here in this place at this time we are in the great company of people from all nations and all ages.

And to be abundantly clear, our church lives into this in a way that many others do not. If you take a look around our sanctuary we are not nearly as monolithic as other places of worship are. Thanks to the hard work of those who came before us we are one of the more diverse churches in the area and we are therefore a foretaste of the vision Isaiah describes.

But, lest we walk out of here with heads too big to fit through the door – we certainly have room for improvement. 

The light of Christ shines among us so that we can see ourselves as we truly are, but the light also shows us a glimpse of what can be.

Isaiah’s powerful words about the light made possible in Jesus remind us that the healing and solace we find in a place like the church is not the ultimate reason the church exists. Otherwise we would be just another self-help group among the many others that exist. Instead, God restores us to a newness and a wholeness in and with the church so that we can take our place among the people of God while making room for more to join us.

One of the things that’s right with the church is the fact that it is the powerful place in which we are uplifted in the recognition that we belong to something bigger than ourselves, and that we belong to something different than ourselves.

I’ve said it many times before but the church seems to be the only place left where people willfully gather together with others with whom they fundamentally disagree on a number of issues except for the fact that Jesus is Lord.

We, as the church, are part of a multitude that includes the magi, and the saints, and the martyrs, and the sinners, and everyone in between. There is no other place that can quite build us up while also pointing toward the difficult truths we’d otherwise ignore.

In Jesus we are made perfect, but we are still the fallible sinners in need of Jesus’ saving grace. The church is indeed the better place God has made in the world and God is still not quite done with us yet!

The beginning of Isaiah’s proclamation, Arise and Shine!, is not a suggestion, and it’s not even an invitation – it is a command. Get up! Shine! Go!

Here, on the day of Epiphany, as we celebrate the total scope of the gospel extending to the gentiles, we are challenged by Isaiah’s words to move out of the waiting of Advent darkness, and beyond the mystery of the Christmas incarnation, toward the brilliance of the brightness in Christ the Lord.

But the brilliant brightness is only necessary because of the thick darkness that covers the people. During the time of Isaiah the darkness was nothing new to the people Israel. They truly knew what it means to dwell in thick darkness while exiled in Babylon. And today, we too dwell in our own version of exilic darkness.

We are far more persuaded by the talking heads on television than we are by the gospel of Jesus Christ.

We are regularly fearful of the other and anything that appears strange and yet Jesus Christ is the strange incarnation of God in the flesh.

We are more likely to turn our heads away from the suffering in the world around us even though Jesus regularly walked into it again and again.

So what’s right with the church? 

If we are broken people in need of grace, if we routinely make the wrong choices or avoid making the right choices, if we perpetuate the thick darkness that Jesus came to destroy can we really say there is anything right with the church?

Jesus is what is right with the church, not us. Jesus is the one great gift that really keeps on giving. But he does not bring us prosperity and peace and preferential treatment. 

The great gift of Christ, the light that shines and never fades, is nothing but the cross upon which he was killed.

As I said on Christmas Eve, the same baby in the manger is the one who was hung for the sins of the world. The same child to which the magi brought their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh is the same one who broke free from the chains of death. 

Jesus Christ will forever be the gift that keeps on giving because he gives himself for you and me, knowing full and well who we are who and who we are meant to be. Amen. 

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Bad Baby Gifts

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for Epiphany Sunday (Isaiah 60.1-6, Psalm 72, Ephesians 3.1-12, Matthew 2.1-12). Teer is the associate pastor of Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA, and is part of the Crackers & Grape Juice Team. Our conversation covers a range of topics including the star of the podcast team, epiphanic moments, keeping the magi out of the manger, prevenient grace, prayers from the Buddha, God’s judgment on the ungodly, the mediation of Christ, and weird gifts. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Bad Baby Gifts

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Missing From The Manger

“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.”

It doesn’t get a whole lot better than this: Christmas Eve! 

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. 

The lights are hung in the sanctuary, the candles are burning, the poinsettias are blooming. 

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

There are some here tonight with more Christmases ahead than behind, young parents with children, kids with long wish lists. And of course there are some for whom there are only a few Christmases left, and with each passing season we feel more nostalgic about the past.

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 in Jesus Christ.

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I am beside myself.

It’s one of my grandmother’s favorite things to say. And, to be honest, I’m not sure what it means. I don’t even know if she knows what it means.

And yet she says it all the time.

It can be used in both exhilarating and terrifying ways. Like when she gets a card from someone in the mail with whom she has not conversed with in years. She will pick up the phone and tell me about it, and to describe the feeling she says, “I am beside myself!”

Or like when she turns on the news and learns of yet another senseless tragedy taking place somewhere in the world, she will pick up the phone and tell me about it, and to describe the feeling she says, “I am beside myself!”

I love my grandmother with every fiber of my being, and I will contend that she decorates for holidays better than anyone on the planet. 

Who else has 76 Easter bunnies that she hides in the house for her grandchildren, and now great-grandchildren to discover every spring? 

But the greatest decoration of all, her pride and joy, is her manger scene.

Every year she sets aside the time to pull out the box with every individual character wrapped in their own paper to place them perfectly in their pre-ordained spot. The camels are so life-like they look as if they could spit on the bureau where they are situated during December. The magi are so majestic I am convinced that if you opened up their tiny gift boxes you would indeed discover gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The detail in the faces of Mary and Joseph are so incredible that you can see both their excitement and their terror about the new baby boy in their lives.

But one year, when the whole family gathered at her house, she greeted us at the front door with her preferred expression from both sides of the emotional spectrum: “I am beside myself!”

I had hoped that she was beside herself in joy that her entire family was waiting by the door, but I was wrong. No, she was beside herself because baby Jesus was missing – and you can’t have Christmas without baby Jesus.

The manger appeared as perfect as planned, except there, right in the middle was the tiny feeding trough without a Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes. 

So we looked, and we looked, and we looked looked looked looked. We checked the box where the manger scene spent the other 11 months of the year, we checked under the bureau, we even found ourselves looking in the refrigerator.

But the longer we looked the more beside herself my grandmother became.

Jesus was indeed missing.

Only later, having gone through every sock drawer, and basement box, and even the trash, did we find him.

When my grandmother set up the manger that year, she put the trough in upside down. It looked like it was empty, when in fact if you looked close enough you could see baby Jesus’ little hands and feet sticking out of the bottom, crushed under the weight of his make-shift crib, and all we had to do was flip it around.

Jesus was there the entire time.

These days the season of Christmas is filled with lots of stuff. And rather than bemoaning the commercialization and the commodification of the holiday, we can just focus on the church herself. We’ve got all sorts of decorations, we’ve got some of the best songs from the hymnal, we will even end this service under the beauty of candlelight. 

But contrary to what we see or even hear this time of year, the biblical story itself is strikingly simple, brief, and straightforward.

Jesus’ birth barely gets one verse.

According to Luke all of the clutter that might distract people like us from the profound truth of the incarnation of God in the flesh is pushed to the side. 

There are no magi in the manger, we don’t even hear about any animals nuzzled in close for warmth.

It’s just Mary, Joseph, and a baby.

However, Luke does share with us this incredibly powerful moment where the heavenly host proclaims the arrival of someone and something new to the shepherds out in the fields.

It would be one thing to expect the divine declaration about the in-breaking of the kingdom arriving in front of the emperor back in Rome, or even in the governor’s palace in Jerusalem. 

But God does something incredibly different and contrary to the systems and expectations of the world. 

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While people even today focus on the people and the places of worldly power, Luke draws our attention toward the margins.

There’s a reason the shepherds lived out in the fields – it wasn’t just the place where their livestock lived, but also because they were seen as a sub-class, not fit to even be in the cities, towns, and villages.

And that’s where the glory of the Lord shined the brightest! 

This is the sign for you – you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger – he is the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord.

Most of us have heard this story enough time that the weight of that particular proclamation no longer carries the weight it once did. The angel of the Lord announces the triumphant entry of God into the world to the least likely people – and even more outrageous is the fact that God chooses to enter through Jesus. 

How can this baby, a tiny and weak and vulnerable thing, be the Savior, Messiah, and Lord?

Only a God like ours would see if fit to transform the very fabric of reality with something tiny, weak, vulnerable. Gone are the days when militaristic might would reign supreme, no longer would economic prosperity dictate the terms of existence. God brings forth a wholeness of life in the life of God’s only Son through whom God ordains a restoring of balance to all the forces of creation and all the things that have influence over our lives.

Luke begins this story with Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius, but that’s not where the story ends. The birth of Jesus into the world establishes a new order in which the last will be first and the first will be last. The arrival of the Savior, Messiah, and Lord upsets all of the expectations and assumptions that we’ve foolishly made about this world.

Today we assume we know where Jesus is or, at the very least, where Jesus should be. We elevate particular politicians because we think they are on Jesus’ side, or we dismiss entire populations of people because we think Jesus is on our side. 

We relegate the incarnate Lord to our perfect manger scenes only to pack him away in a few days.

But the story of Christmas is that God cannot, and will not, be stopped.

God saw and sees the disparities of this world and makes a way where there was and is no way. God knows better than us about what is best for us. And the Lord, the one often missing from the manger scenes of our lives, arrives as Jesus Christ, perfectly vulnerable and weak to transform everything.

Because that very same baby, the one with teeny tiny toes and the one resting in the feeding trough, is the same person who walked through Galilee, who was transfigured magnificently, who feed the people abundantly, who walked on water miraculously, who suffered on the cross tragically, and rose from the grave majestically.

The womb and the tomb could not and cannot contain the grace of God, and no matter whether or not we think Jesus is missing, he is there, he is here, and he always will be. Amen. 

The Abyss of Christmas

Devotional:

Psalm 80.3

Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved. 

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There are few things I look forward to more than the moment when everyone is singing “Silent Night” while holding tiny candles on Christmas Eve. For most of my life I stood in solidarity among those in the pews and I hosted my candle up high like a banner for Jesus. And then when I became a pastor I noticed something during Christmas Eve worship that I missed from the pews: all of the glowing faces.

From the vantage point of the altar, the sharing of the flame begins in the darkness but it ends with the entire sanctuary basked in a glowing light that began in Jesus. It is a rather profound thing to witness from the front of the church, all of the glowing faces, and it is something that I hold dear each year.

In that moment we are witnessing to the once-and-for-all-ness of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. And yet, I have tried to imagine different ways that we can hold on to that beauty even after we leave the sanctuary. Because, as we all know, we go from worship back to our homes, back to our trees, back to our presents, back to our in-laws, back to our problems, and very soon the glow from the flame has all but disappeared.

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Karl Barth, the great theologian, puts it this way:

“The Savior no longer needs to be born. He was born once for all time. But he would like to come stay with us. The place where the Savior would like to come stay with us has in common with the stall of Bethlehem that it too is not at all beautiful but looks rather desolate, not at all cozy but downright sinister, not worthy of human beings but quite close to the animals. Our inns, proud or modest, and we as their residents – that is only the surface of our life. Hidden underneath there is a depth, a bottom – indeed, an abyss. And there below are we human beings, each in our way, only poor beggars, only lost sinners, only sighing and dying creatures, only people who are not at their witness end. And at this very time Jesus Christ comes to stay with us, and what’s more: he has already come to stay with us. Yes, thanks be to God for this dark place, for this manger, for this stall also in our life! There below we need him, and eve there he can also need us, each one of us. There we are just the right ones. There he only waits for us to see him, to know him, to believe in him, to love him. There he greets us. There we can do nothing other than greet him again and bid him welcome. Let us not be ashamed to be down there right beside the ox and the ass! Right there is where he holds fast to us all.” (Barth, Insights. 28)

So may we enter into this final week before Christmas knowing that Christ is with us both in the light, and in the darkness. 

The Humanity of God – Christmas Eve Sermon on Luke 2.1-7

Luke 2.1-7

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 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.

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Christmas Eve! No matter how old or jaded we may be, no matter what kind of year precedes this night, Christmas Eve never fails to brighten our spirits. I look forward to Christmas Eve with a kind of painful excitement: I know there are people here tonight who will not be here the rest of the year, I know this holiday carries with it more meaning than can be contained in a 15 minute sermon, and yet to share the story of salvation is one of my greatest privileges.

But then the question must be asked: Why are you here tonight? Some of you were raised in this church and can’t imagine being anywhere else. Some of you have come alone; others are with large families taking up an entire pew. Some of you have been planning to come here for weeks and some of you decided on a last-minute impulse. Some of you have been dragged here against your will, out of loyalty and guilt. And some of you are here for the first time in a very long time.

Some of you are young and are full of hope and anticipation; most of your Christmases are still in front of you. Some of you who are older are filled with memories of Christmases past that will never come again. Some of you are looking forward to getting back home to the fireplace and the presents and the tree; others dread going home. Whoever you are, and whatever you’re feeling, I’m glad you’re here tonight.

 

On April 26th, I woke up to the sounds of my excited wife declaring, “I think it’s happening.” The due date for our son had come and gone and each day we waited with anticipation of his coming arrival. So, being the incredible husband that I am, I started offering Lindsey all kinds of things: “Do you want me to make you breakfast? Can I massage your feet? Would you want me to call the doctor?”

She, however, was distracted from my offers by the pain she was starting to experience.

As the day progressed I must’ve checked our hospital bag no less than 42 times, I made sure we had enough clothes and snacks, I went through the 3 birthing playlists (one for calm, one for happy, one for pushing), and I asked Lindsey how she was feeling every fifteen minutes. While I was frantically going through my list over and over, Lindsey was on the couch trying to find a comfortable position to sit in until things really got going.

Mary and Joseph spent the day before their son’s birth traveling over harsh terrain while Joseph led the donkey that was carrying his pregnant fiancé. With every bump and slip, the pain Mary experienced increased and she hoped against hope they would find a place to stay in Bethlehem.

When my wife’s contractions started coming at a regular interval we called the doctor’s office and they told us to come in. Under the caring gaze of the nurses and medical staff Lindsey went through a number of tests before they told her, as kindly as they could, that it was still too early to go to the hospital, so we went home instead.

Mary’s contractions must’ve started to really ramp up as they arrived in the sleepy little town of Bethlehem. All the people they encountered were busily talking about the census that the emperor had required, how they all had to be there in Bethlehem without a choice. To the degree that no one even noticed the man escorting the pregnant woman on a donkey as they passed through the outskirts of the town.

We waited all day and finally at 9pm, the contractions we regularly occurring at such intensity that we knew the time had come. Being the good husband that I am, the car had been packed with our hospital bags for hours and all I had to do was gingerly walk Lindsey to the car and drive to the hospital with care and focus. When we were given a room time seemed to increase in speed dramatically. With every passing minute the contractions were intensifying and the nurses came in at a higher frequency to check on Lindsey and the baby.

Mary and Joseph wandered through the town at a snail’s pace hoping to find somewhere to stay, or a relative to encroach upon. But the farther they walked, the less hope they had of finding a place for the night.

At some point, my beloved wife was breathing strongly through a particularly rough contraction when the nurse said, “Honey, I think it’s time to talk about pain management.” I, watching her go through this thought to myself, “Gee, I think its time for me to have some pain management.” But, being the good husband that I am, I knew not to speak that thought out loud.

Joseph guided the donkey to their last hope, the inn, while his wife was breathing heavily through a particularly rough contraction. The innkeeper saw them walking up and went to the door to announce: “We’re full.” Being the good man that he was, Joseph then led the donkey and Mary to a stable, the only place left and helped her down into some crinkly hay.

At 7am on April 27th, Lindsey started to push. She was surrounded by a team of medical staff, machines monitoring every heartbeat and contraction, and by me trying to figure out what I could to do help.

When Mary could tell that the time had arrived, she started to push. She was surrounded by dirty animals huddled together for warmth, hay that was covered in dirt and hair from the animals, and a man who was trying to figure out what he could do to help.

And with a final push, a son was born into the world. The baby was quickly placed into his mother’s arms and for a fleeting moment nothing happened. In our hospital room the medical team waited with blankets and devices, in the stable the animals watched as the miracle of life came to fruition.

And then, with what sounded like a rush of wind, the baby sucked and breathed in air for the very first time.

From a dirty barn house to an immaculately clean hospital delivery room, the first breath of Jesus and my son Elijah highlights the fragility of this thing we call life. And don’t we take it for granted? All of us have been breathing throughout this sermon without even thinking about it, but we can only live because we can breathe.

In the beginning God’s breathed the breath of life into Adam, God breathed life into Jesus, God breathed life into my son Elijah, God breathed life into every one of you.

It is something worth celebrating because it is a miracle.

But this service, what we’re doing here tonight, is not a mere celebration of a mother and her newborn child’s arrival into the world. It is about more than the miracle of life. This is the unique story of God in the flesh. The baby placed in the manger is not us and we are not Him. He is totally other.

And yet – and this is the real mystery of Christmas – Jesus is the incarnation of the living God, but at the same time, though he is entirely other than us, he has become one of us. Nothing less than God himself has become Emmanuel, God with us.

In Jesus’ birth, God entered history in a new and strange way with the promise that in the kingdom that has no end, sadness will be turned into joy, sin will be destroyed by righteousness, and death will be defeated by resurrection.

But it all started in a tiny little stable with a couple all-alone in the world. That is the true miracle of Christmas – the fragility and humanity of God in a breath. For it is in our breathing that we constantly encounter the one thing we have to do to survive and the one thing we have from the beginning to the end of our days. And that is where God is; with every single breath we inhale the Spirit of the Lord who first breathed life into us. And in our breathing we connect with the one who breathed for the first time in the manger long ago…

And through that first breath, God emptied himself of all power and reign and might and majesty, leaving it all behind to enter our corrupted, polluted, and tragic world. Gone were the days of abandonment, gone were the times of uncertainty, and gone was the power of death. For God came into the world through a baby in a manger to save us from ourselves; to be with us in every single breath; to offer us the true gift of Christmas: God with us.

Merry Christmas. Amen.

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Palms Beneath My Feet – Sermon on Mark 11.1-11

Mark 11.1-11

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back immediately.’ “ They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

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Weekly Chapel Time requires a willing and humble spirit. What we do here on Sunday mornings carries an air of sophisticated and focused liturgy. But when I bring the Preschoolers in during the week… there are no rules. When we worship together most of us have fairly decent attention spans, but the 2, 3, and 4 year-olds need to be consistently bombarded with images and ideas in order to stay focused.

I’ll freely admit that I treat our preschoolers the same way that I treat our worshippers (I’ll let you decide whether or not that is a good thing) because we are all working toward the same goal: a greater awareness of God’s love and mercy in the world.

Anyway, this week, in preparation for Palm Sunday, we gathered the children in the sanctuary for their lesson. They sat in the pews up here in the choir loft, with their little legs dangling in the air, excited and nervous to keep learning about this guy named Jesus. I love quizzing them on previous stories because they are fascinated by scripture. For instance: If I could get all of us to be as excited about Zacchaeus, the wee-little man, climbing up a sycamore tree, just imagine how faithful we would become.

I shared with the children that Jesus needed to get to a strange place called Jerusalem to do something incredible for his friends. They gathered together outside the city and Jesus sent two men to find a donkey for him to ride on. The closer the came to the gates, more and more people gathered palms from the surrounding area and waved them in the air, and placed them on the ground all while shouting “Hosanna!” which means “save us!”

I then had all the children line up with their own palm branches in the center aisle and we were going to recreate the story. I found a young boy to be Jesus and when I asked who they thought the donkey should be they all emphatically yelled, “You Pastor Taylor!” I’m not sure how I felt about them so quickly identifying me with that particular animal, but I let it go.

So there I was on my hands and knees with a child saddled across my back making our way into Jerusalem. I had instructed all the children to either wave their palms or place them on the ground and shout “save us!” to the boy on my back. The entire journey down the center aisle took longer than I thought because I did not want to drop the Jesus on my back, but as I walked forward and saw the palms beneath my feet I was struck by the Holy Spirit.

The children continued to scream and beg for their salvation, the Jesus on my back kept kicking into my rib cage to make me go faster, but all I could think about was what the donkey must have experienced when he carried Jesus into Jerusalem, what it must have been like to deliver the Lord to his death.

The following is an imaginative retelling of the story from the donkey’s perspective…

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With palms beneath my feet, Jesus, there are so many things I wish I could tell you. Carrying you while the crowds scream on our sides, I wish I could share all the things I have seen and heard. This might be the only chance I’ll get, and it already feels too late.

I was there Jesus. I was there in the manger when you were born. Your parents had come into the tiny room and your mother looked like she was about to burst. I was but a young foal back then, but I remember. They were so afraid and alone when they cuddled together holding you close. While they were filled with fear, I was filled with joy. I knew from the moment I saw you that you were special, that you were the Son of God. The other animals could feel it too, and while your family fell into the familiar rhythm of sleep, we gathered around you to share our warmth. I watched you sleep all night and I could feel that our lives were connected, and I knew that I would see you again one day.

You left from Bethlehem but as the years passed I heard stories about your life. I would be in the marketplace, or moving about the village and rumors would fall upon my ears.

When you were a child they said that you stood apart. Other children would spend their days running around and getting into mischief, but you would sit in the synagogue and teach the elders. Your command of the scriptures spread before you even started your ministry. I would watch the people while they talked about you and they were filled with such hope. Words like “messiah, lord, and savior” were used to describe you and I could tell that the Lord was among us.

Then it came to pass that you were baptized by your cousin John in the Jordan river. Witnesses said they saw the sky open up and they heard the voice of God. While others denied the claims, I knew it was true, I could feel that your ministry was about to begin and that everything would change.

You traveled throughout Galilee proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. You healed the sick, gave sight to the blind, and restored the outcasts to their families. Everywhere you went stories about your love and mercy traveled ahead and the crowds grew larger and larger. You fed the multitudes by the sea, you walked on water, and you brought Lazarus back from the dead. You spoke of mustard seeds, prodigal sons, and good samaritans. You ate with sinners, worked on the sabbath, and argued with the Pharisees. Some say that even just a few weeks ago you were on the mountaintop when Moses and Elijah appeared and you were transfigured.

This morning I was tied up near the door when two of your disciples came close. One of them spoke to my owner and said, “The Lord needs him” and they brought me to you. I knew the time had come when we would be reunited, but the joy I expected to feel has been mixed with trepidation.

Jesus, how I wish you could hear me, how I wish I could tell you all I have seen and heard. We departed early this morning and the crowds gathered around us. It feels as if the closer we get to Jerusalem the people grow louder and more eager to cry out. Do they know what they mean when they say, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”?

I’m beginning to worry Jesus. I don’t think they know who you really are. The people sound more like an angry mob waiting for you to overthrow the Romans than a faithful group waiting for the kingdom of God. They want another Moses to lead them out of physical bondage, they want another David who can lead them into battle, they want another Solomon to build a giant temple.

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These people have suffered but they believe in you. Did you see them take off their cloaks and place them in the road? I have been walking over garments for hours. Did you see them rush into the fields for palm branches to wave them in the air and create a royal pathway? The palms beneath my feet are a sign of how much these people believe in you.

What are you going to do Jesus? I can hear people murmuring about your coming mission, some are saying that you are going to the temple and you are going to overthrow the tables. Some are saying that you are going to lead the rebellion and kill the chief priests and scribes. Some are saying that you are going to destroy the temple and then build a new one.

Jesus I’m afraid for your life! These people don’t know who you really are and what you’ve come to do. They shout “Hosanna, Hosanna!” but I fear their shouts will soon turn to “Crucify, Crucify!” They are only concerned about themselves. Even your disciples on either side of us, I can smell their fear.

Jesus, I was there when you were born. I felt God’s presence in you and I knew you would save the world. But please Jesus, let me take you away from this place. Jerusalem can only bring about your death. We still have a chance to turn around and head home.

Or is it too late? 

The crowds are starting to thin Jesus. The people are beginning to head home. We are stepping through the gate and the palms are no longer beneath my feet. I want to believe in you and what you are doing. I want to believe this is God’s will. But I’m so afraid.

Jesus, I am an old donkey and I don’t know how much further I can carry you.

It’s just us now and the sun is beginning to set.

What will happen? What are you going to do?

If this is the last time I will see you, I wish I could talk to you. I wish I could warn you about what is to come. I wish I could stop you.

You swing your legs around and are standing right before me. Your eyes contain the same hope they did the day you were born in the humble manger. As you pet my old matted fur I can feel all the people you have already touched and healed. I can feel the sick children and parents, I can feel the blind and the lame, the last, least and lost.

What a privilege it was to carry you today my Lord. I knew that we would meet again, I only wish I could do something to warn you.

You’re now leaning in close to whisper in my ear. Is this goodbye? Is this the end?

You said, “No my old friend. I know exactly what I am doing. And this is only the beginning.” Amen.