Easter Starts In The Dark

John 20.1

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 

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Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

It feels good to say that word! We’ve been avoiding it for an entire liturgical season. It has not hit my lips since before Ash Wednesday. And even in the church we have not used the word in a hymn, in a prayer, or even had it in a bulletin. 

And today we can shout it out with all the pent-up gusto we’ve been bottling up over the last 40 days!

Hallelujah! He is risen!

But then I wonder, should we be so bold with a proclamation such as that this early in the morning? Do you feel that joyful right now? What do you think people are thinking when they drive by and see a group of people outside in the dark on a Sunday morning like this?

The Bible is full of stuff. 

Want to know about an obscure law that guided the Hebrew people 3,000 years ago? The Bible’s got it.

Want to know what Noah planted in the ground after being in the ark for 40 days and forty nights? The Bible’s got it.

Want to know what Jesus’ final words were right before he died? The Bible’s got it.

But, interestingly, the Bible is relatively silent about what happens between the burial of Jesus on Friday and the visit to the tomb on Sunday morning. We don’t really know what the disciples were up to after Jesus was taken down from the cross. We are not privy to any of their conversations or murmurings.

This sunrise service plants us squarely in that strange mystery. 

We walk with the women on their way to the tomb.

We fear with the disciples back in the upper room.

The darkness is a time for wonder.

What will the day bring? We do not know, we only know that it is coming, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

And so we read from the gospel according to John that on the first day of the week, on Sunday, while it was still dark, Mary came to the tomb and saw the stone had been removed.

Why does she go to the tomb?

The other gospels stories write about the women, not just Mary by herself, go to the tomb to anoint the body of the Lord. But in John’s version, Mary goes alone and we know not why.

Why do any of us go to cemeteries? 

Sometimes we go because we don’t know where else to go, we don’t know what else to do. That’s the decisive power of death – it robs us of our rationality.

When the rug is pulled from beneath our feet we do things without knowing why we do them. 

What is Mary thinking about as she trudges along the path? Is she remembering the day that Jesus saved her from being stoned? Is she thinking about what he looked like while he was dragging the cross up to Golgotha? Does she talk to herself in attempts to calm down the grief?

We know little more about Mary’s morning other than the fact that it was dark when she arrived at the tomb.

Perhaps we are encouraged to wonder about her wonder in the dark.

Darkness and lightness are prevailing themes in John’s gospel. At the very beginning we learn that Jesus is the incarnate light comes to shine in the darkness. 

Nicodemus comes under the cover of the night so that no one would will see him with Jesus.

Jesus warns the disciples and the crowds about those who love the darkness.

And Jesus himself declares, “I am the light of the world, whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

And yet this most pivotal of moments in the gospels takes place not in the light of the day, but under the cover of darkness.

A few years ago I was asked to preach at a sunrise service on behalf of all the United Methodist in the city of Staunton, Va. Sunrise services, as you well know, are only for the really faithful people so instead of each church having a small gathering we decided to get all 8 churches together. The tradition started a number of years ago but we always met in one of the church’s parking lots.

Which, if I may be honest, drove me crazy.

If Sunrise services are to happen anywhere, they should be observed in cemeteries.

They should take place among the dead. 

Anyway, after years of fruitless complaining, the churches finally gave in and agreed that we could have our sunrise service in the town cemetery. I promptly put my blood, sweat, and tears into that sunrise service because I finally got my way, and sure enough when the day of Easter arrived and the sun began to ever-so-slightly approach the horizon we had over 150 people standing among the gravestones singing about the resurrection of our Lord.

And, as it happened, I was about halfway through my sermon when I noticed something strange: I saw lots of people from the other churches in town, but no one from my church was in the cemetery. 

I kept going, trying to keep my focus in check, and finished the service with as grand of a benediction as I could muster and sent everyone to their respective churches for the rest of their Easter services.

I drove into town, still dressed in my Sunday robe, and couldn’t shake the fact that none of my people were there. I know I had made plenty of announcements about it from the pulpit, I had printed the information in the bulletin, and yet no one showed up.

A few hours later, with the sun high in the sky, I greeted everyone as they made their way into the sanctuary for Easter worship, trying my best to not think about what had happened in the darkness when a group of church people all walked up laughing.

“You’re never going to believe what happened to us this morning?” They said.

“What happened to you?” I thought to myself, “What about what happened to me!?”

I motioned for them to go on and one of them said, “We went to the wrong cemetery!”

Under the cover of darkness, a faithful group from my church met in the parking lot to drive over to the cemetery as a carpool. And when they arrived at the wrong cemetery, they kept driving around wondering where everyone was until they saw a very small group of people huddled together near the top of the hill. They quickly parked their cars and ran up to the group and joined together in the singing of hymns. 

The group from my church nearly tripled the number of people at that sunrise service and it was only when a much older woman stepped forward to preach did they realize they had gone to the wrong place. 

But they were good and faithful Christians, so they stayed and they listened to the resurrection story. They let it fill their souls and they offered up all their Hallelujahs.

When their service came to a conclusion the female pastor walked up to the group and asked how they found out about their Sunrise service. She told them that it filled her with such tremendous warmth to know that so many people had come. To which one of my people told her that God works in mysterious ways.

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New life always starts in the dark. Whether it’s a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb. New life starts in the dark.

The resurrection happened at night. No one was there when it happened. By the time Mary arrived Jesus was already gone. He arose from the kingdom and dominion of sin and death into the victory of life and resurrection. By the time the sun rose on the tomb all it revealed was that the victory had already taken place. 

Some of the best, and most important things in the world take place without us having to do anything. That is a strange and troubling word to a people who constantly feel as if they’re never doing enough.

The message of Easter, of the mystery in the darkness, is that the resurrection happens without us. We are only witnesses. But that’s good enough. Amen.

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Enough Is Enough

John 12.1-8

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep if for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

“How are you?”

A rather innocuous question and one that we drop all the time. So much so that we aren’t really asking because we want an answer, but because it has become a filler. 

We ask the question and we are asked the question in the grocery store line, while we’re sitting in the waiting room, and even when we’re passing the peace on Sunday morning.

And how do we usually answer the question?

“I’m fine.” “I’m good.” And the best of all, “I’m busy.”

“I’m busy.” It’s almost as if it’s become a reflex these days to respond with our busyness. And it’s not untrue.

Take one of my day’s this week as an example. Woke up early to get breakfast and coffee ready, rushed out the door with my kid in tow to get him to preschool on time. Drove straight to church to start going over financial documents, sermon prep, phone calls, emails, and then had to leave to get home in time to get my kid to soccer practice, which went late, we didn’t have time to cook dinner so we had to grab something on our way home, just to get him to bed late knowing that it would be another crazy day tomorrow.

So, if you had asked me how I was doing this week, I’m sure that I would have made a comment about how busy I am. 

And then I picked up a copy of David Zahl’s new book Seculosity. 

In it he writes about how our busyness has become a new religion. “To be busy is to be valuable, desired, justified. It signals importance and therefore, enoughness. Busy is not how how we are but who we are – or who we’d like to be.”

When we feel busy, we make connections between what we do with who we are. Which, of course, is a problem.

And today, many of us cannot imagine who we are outside of what we do. So we build these ladders out of whatever we have around and construct scoreboards of our own design measuring everything we do against everyone and everything else. 

And we never feel like we have, or have done, enough. 

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We chase after the elusive “enough” when in our heart of hearts we know that we will never really have enough. The perfect meal leaves us hungry mere hours later, the perfect spouses ages with time and knows how to cut through our armor, the perfect children grow up and rebel against our wishes, the perfect church gets a pastor or a program or a piety that rubs us the wrong way, and on and on and on.

We just can’t shake the feeling that there’s always more for us to do.

In the prelude to his Passion, on the eve of Palm Sunday, Jesus arrives in Bethany and goes to the home of Lazarus. Lazarus, Mary, and Martha decide to throw a little dinner party and the disciples gather around the table to kick up their feet. The food is brought out, and probably some wine, when Mary walks over with a pound of Chanel No.5 and pours the entire bottle out on Jesus’ feet and she wipes them with her hair. 

And then Judas jumps up from his seat and screams for everyone to hear, “Woman! What’s wrong with you? Why didn’t you sell this perfume for a year’s worth of salary and give the proceeds away to the poor?”

Jesus, ever calm, merely replies, “Judas, leave her alone. She bought it so that she could use it for my burial. There will always be poor people, but I won’t be here forever.”

What a story and the details are incredible. But perhaps most interesting of all is how some of the details just sit there without elaboration or explanation. 

The home of Lazarus is casually mentioned, you know the guy who Jesus raised from the dead! I don’t know about you but I have a hard time imagining a guy once dead just merely sitting around at the dinner table – the miracle made possible for him through Jesus seems to demand more demonstration than hosting a dinner party.

Martha served the food. Apparently Martha hadn’t quite learned her lesson as the constant busybody from a previous interaction with Jesus and continues to preoccupied with the comings and goings in the kitchen.

And then Mary takes a pound of perfume. A whole pound (!) and begins pouring it on Jesus’ feet. Today, perfumes and colognes are often contained in tiny one ounce bottles, so we have to broaden our minds to a pound of this stuff being poured out.

In Matthew and Mark’s version of this story the woman anoints Jesus’ head, a prophetic witness to his the truth that he is the King and Messiah in the midst of the empire ruled by Caesar.

But here in John’s version, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet – another kind of prophetic act. Though in this scene, it points to his imminent death, as he is anointed ahead of his burial. 

Mary, unlike the inner circle of the disciples and unlike the rest of the crowd who have been following him, sees Jesus for who he is. She comprehends and accepts what others can not – Jesus will die.

But then Judas goes off the rails.

You know, the one about to betray Jesus!

Why are you wasting that perfume when we could’ve sold it to help the poor?! And he drops the fact that they could’ve sold that pound of perfume for 300 denarii, which roughly equates to a year’s worth of wages.

Which, alone, begs our consideration.

How in the world did Mary procure such an expensive quantity of perfume? Where did the money come from? How long had she been holding on to it?

And, of course, scripture doesn’t provide us any more details than the ones on the page. We are left with a scene of a wasteful woman and a nonchalant Jesus.

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Judas, for good reason, gets a bad rap in the Bible. After all, he is the one who ultimately hands Jesus over to the authorities. But can we but not sympathize with him in this moment? He’s certainly not wrong, they could’ve sold that perfume and given the proceeds to the poor.

John, makes sure that we know what Judas was really up to with the narrative interruption: He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.

Even still Mary seems to be wasting what she had, and it could’ve been used in a different way, perhaps an even better way…

Throughout the gospel according to John, Jesus regularly provides blessed abundance. When he and the disciples arrives in Cana he creates 18 gallons of new wine to keep the wedding party going. By the Sea of Galilee Jesus produces enough food to feed the 5,000 with plenty of leftovers. After fishing all night without anything to show for it, Jesus instructs Peter to put his nets in one more time and he pulls up such a haul that the boat begins to sink.

The abundance made possible in Christ is offered to those in need. Whether its food, or wine, or companionship, Jesus provides. But at this particularly weird dinner party, the abundance is reversed. 

It is a prelude to the passion. Mary anoints him ahead of time for the burial he is to receive. 

Again and again people ask something of Jesus: Lord, give us a sign, heal my daughter, feed the hungry crowds. And Jesus obliges over and over. 

But here, less than a week away from the moment of his crucifixion, John tells us that Jesus turns his attention to different direction: the cross.

Much of religion today focuses on that which is useful, practical, and cost-effective. We spend most our time thinking about and planning upon what we should do in order to achieve what we want to do.

This type of fanatical religious observance has been on display in the last week, though not inside the church – it has been in the frightening dedication of wealthy parents who bought their children spaces in elite colleges.

Have you heard about this? An agency, for a steep price, could procure a diagnosis from a psychologist that would enable your child to take the SATs over two days rather than a few hours. And a hired proctor would be provided to either help guide the students to the right answers, or simply fill out the test on their behalf.

For another fee, the agency would hire someone to take online high school classes under the name of student in order to boost their grade point average.

And still yet for another fee, coaches at elite universities would take a bribe to say that they needed a particular individual for their team, regardless of whether the high schooler had ever played the sport or not.

The news broke through a number of arrests and articles and the overwhelming response wasn’t one of shock and awe but one of, “meh, sounds about right.”

I mean, who are we to blame those ultra wealthy parents for doing everything in their disposal to help their children? (sarcasm)

But they, and we, suffer from the Judas-like fixation that enough is never enough. We move to a particular neighborhood only to start planning out the finances required to move to an even better neighborhood. We enroll our children in after-school programs and we aren’t content with their participation until it garners them a spot on the best team, in the best social group, or at the best school. We work until we are able to retire and then spend most of our retirement wondering is we really saved enough.

The frightening truth that Judas hints at with his question is that there will always more work to be done. The question isn’t what needs to be done, but whether we know what enough looks like.

Now, this is not as some churches have foolishly used as a claim that frees us from caring for the last, least, and lost. We don’t have to help the poor, and we aren’t freed from helping the poor, we get to free the poor because of what happens to and through Jesus.

The anointing of Jesus’ feet is a recognition that the week will end with those feet being nailed to the cross. In that most of God’s triumphant condescension, Jesus does for us what we could not. Jesus is sent into a world that did not request him and yet acts entirely for the world’s benefit. Were it up to us alone, even with our best intentions, the poor would get poorer and the rich would get richer, the hungry would starve and the filled would bloat. 

Enough would never feel like enough.

But Jesus lays down his life for God’s people not because he is asked to do so, but because he chooses to give himself for us. 

We can, of course, initiate new programs to fee the hungry in the community. We should do that work. We can also give away clothing to those in need, or start offering micro-loans to small local businesses, or help teach individuals and families how to budget their money.

The list could go on and on and on.

And it would never be enough.

There will always be more for us to do, but the one thing we could never do has already been done for us. The work of Christ, life-death-resurrection, provides all the enoughness we could ever really hope for. It is the sign that though we are unworthy, Christ makes us worthy, though we have sinned, Christ offers pardon, though we feel empty, Christ proclaims that we are enough.

Because Christ is enough. Amen. 

The Hopes And Fears Of All The Years

“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.” 

I waited until the last second to buy our communion bread for tonight, which was a mistake. I foolishly made the assumption that NO ONE would be at the grocery store on Christmas Eve and when I arrived at Giant, there was not a single available spot in the parking lot – I had to park in front of a Long John Silvers. And then, when I finally got inside, I discovered the fact that they had run out of bread!

So I had to drive to the next grocery store, Safeway. Thankfully, they had some available parking but the inside of the store was packed. But I trudged my way though to the back, procured a few loaves of bread, and then waited in line for an eternity to make my purchase.

Now, to be clear, I was wearing my clergy collar and florescently bright plaid pants, but somehow no one noticed me. Perhaps everyone else was fretting just like me. 

At least, that’s what it felt like until I felt the tap on my shoulder.

I turned around and saw an older woman with a few items in her hands staring down at the floor, and she said,“This is my first Christmas without my husband. He died a few months ago.”

I just stood there balancing the bread, and asked if she was okay.

She said, “Not really. I just needed to tell someone, because no one else has asked.”

And then I asked if I could pray with her.

I dropped the bread to the ground and we took each other’s hands while waiting in line, and we prayed.

And at the end, when I said, “Amen,” the six closest people said, “Amen,” as well.

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie; above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

The hopes AND fears of all the years.

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Sometimes, throughout the hustle and bustle of this season, I miss the subtle details. I gloss over a profound detail in the scriptural story, or I overlook the miracles in my midst, or I sing words countless times without thinking about what I’m saying.

The hopes and fears.

On Christmas Eve, when we’re singing praises to baby Jesus, and lighting the candles, and enjoying one another, we also encounter the strange truth of our fears being met in the one born in the manger. 

While Mary and Joseph were there in Bethlehem, the time came for Mary to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.

But the angel said, “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.”

There is an understated wealth in the titles attributed to the baby by the angel out in the fields – Savior, Messiah, Lord. 

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

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Jesus Christ because something new has begun – a newness that contains a reorienting of all things where we are no longer in control of everything we wish to control.

No. A tiny and weak and vulnerable baby will change the world. 

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 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. 

Hope and fear are brought near to us in Jesus because this is the beginning of a story that finds its greatest triumph not in a manger scene, not even in the angels singing out in the fields, but in an empty tomb.

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Christmas isn’t just about the warm and fuzzy feelings of warm fires and delicious eggnog. We can rip open the presents tomorrow morning with reckless abandon all we want. But if we take Christmas and the announcement of God as seriously as the shepherds did out in the fields then maybe our proper response is fear.

Not because God will punish us, and not because God is inherently terrifying, but simply because if God gets God’s way, then that means we might not get ours.

The God of scripture is one who finds life, hope, and promise from the margins rather than from the elite and powerful. God consistently uses the least likely of people in the least likely places to achieve the most extraordinary things. The incarnation of God in Jesus is a witness to the fact that we cannot remain as we are.

And that can be a rather terrifying prospect. 

The fears of our years are made evident by the many things we cling to that do not provide us life. For some of us it will be the presents we open tonight and tomorrow morning, for others its the paycheck that comes in ever 2 weeks, and for others its a broken relationship or a fractured family.

We put our trust and our hope in so many things these days and we are so regularly disappointed. 

We vote for the politician of change only to experience the same bureaucratic bumbling as before.

We seek out new employment opportunities only to still feel exhausted at the end of every day.

We even try out different churches hoping they will fix the problems we’re experiencing.

We might like to imagine that Christmas really is the most wonderful time of the year, but it can be equally frightening.

Particularly if its the first one without someone we love. 

And yet, as wonderfully weird as is befitting the faith, the angel declares, “Do not be afraid! I am bringing you news great joy!”

To you is born the Savior, Messiah, and Lord.

You need not be responsible for saving yourself and transforming yourself. 

You are not alone.

God is already working on you and in you through Jesus Christ! The sign is a child wrapped in swaddling clothes laying in a feeding trough. God has and will transform the very fabric of the cosmos through that baby.

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 who can terrify us even at this time of year, 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. Even in the darkest moments of our lives there is an everlasting light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Jesus tonight. Amen. 

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. 

Fruit Of The Womb

Luke 1.39-55

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 

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Mary was the first to carry the gospel. 

Our choir was singing those words with a particular gusto because the truth of that statement is a profound one. In Protestant circles Mary tends to be overlooked and is relegated to the side of the Advent/Christmas stories. Sure, she is the Theotokos, the God-bearer, but she was just a vessel right?

Wrong.

No. Mary is much much much more than a vessel and her role in the salvation of the world is one worthy of our time and attention.

She is a young and engaged version with the angel Gabriel shows up with supposedly good news. Imagine having to tell your fiancé that you were now pregnant with the Son of God!

And yet her faithfulness in the midst of something that appears terrible is bewildering. 

Let it be with me according to thy will…

Harmonizing with God’s purposes in the world is no easy endeavor, and in Mary’s case it sends her to relatives’ house, Elizabeth and Zechariah. 

Now, remember, this is a time before Facebook and viral pregnancy announcements, there was no gender reveal party or even an opportunity for a baby shower. Mary merely enters the house, and John the soon-to-be Baptist leaps inside his mother, Elizabeth’s, womb.

I’ve been playing the drums for a very long time and I’ve taken as many opportunities as I could to play with a variety of groups in a variety of places. I’ve played in jazz combos at bars, I’ve classical music in benefit concerts, and I’ve played jam-band music in more garages than I can count.

But my first love of drums came in worship music. I played for a contemporary Christian worship band nearly every Sunday from the time I was 16 until I was 25. And I loved it.

I loved practicing with a group during the week, I loved bonding over music, and I loved providing the rhythm for the praising of God during worship. And the people I’ve played with other the years are some of my very favorite people.

While I was living in North Carolina I practiced with a group every Tuesday night, and we would play for a worship service every Sunday evening. We would always wait until everyone arrived for practice and then we would circle up to pray before we did anything else. It became an important habit that shaped how we practiced such that we always remember for whom we were playing.

On one such night, we went around the circle sharing our concerns, when our leader, the pregnant pianist, suddenly departed for the bathroom and left us standing there holding hands.

We patiently waited for her to return until we heard her scream in the bathroom, and the girls from the band immediately ran to check on her.

Later, we found out that she was spotting and assumed that she lost the baby. The terror in her voice has haunted me ever since.

She went to the doctor the following day and, miraculously, she learned that the baby was okay. But she didn’t feel him kicking or moving around.

The doctor, the trained professional, had told her everything she could’ve possibly hoped to hear, but because of her experience, it didn’t feel real. She had to make it through day after day in that horrible tension of being told something that didn’t seem true.

Until Sunday, when she had to sit at the piano and sing to the Lord.

I can remember that Sunday evening, sitting behind the drums, playing away, and looking over at her as she stared off into the distance. She was there, but not really there. She was playing all the right notes, and singing all the right words, but her heart wasn’t into it.

But we kept playing anyway.

And then, in a way that is difficult to describe, it felt like the Holy Spirit blew through the room as I looked over at her in the middle of a song, and she was crying with a giant smile on her face. The tears were falling on the keys and she was singing in a way that none of us had ever experienced – it felt like the heavenly hosts were lifting her voice up to praise.

As soon as the song ended she looked back over her shoulder at the band and she said, “The baby started kicking along to the song, he was leaping in my womb.”

The jumping of John in his mother’s womb was enough to get Mary singing a song that Christians like us have been proclaiming and declaring for centuries. “My soul magnifies the Lord!” The Spirit moved in and through her to sing from the depth of her being that God was doing a new thing. That God refused to leave God’s people. That God would do whatever it took to rectify this world.

And so, what else can we do, but magnify the Lord with our songs? 

Impossible Possibility

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Scott Jones about the readings for the 4th Sunday of Advent (Micah 5.2-5a, Psalm 80.1-7, Hebrews 10.5-10, Luke 1.39-55). Scott is the host of my rival lectionary podcast Synaxis. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Netflix as the cost of empire, the young Karl Barth, little towns, Caspian and the Narnians, the peace of Christ, rectification vs. forgiveness, God’s anger, looking like an idiot int he pulpit, church marquees, and the gratuitous nature of salvation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Impossible Possibility

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An Old-Fashioned Christmas

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.

           Merry Christmas! There’s just something different about Christmas. No matter how young or old we may be, no matter what kind of year precedes this night, Christmas Eve never fails to brighten our spirits. I look forward to this night unlike any other night with a kind of joyful anxiety: I know this holiday carries with it more meaning than can be contained in any sermon, and yet to share the story of the incarnation is one of my greatest privileges.

But there is a question I must ask: 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, and others are with large families taking up an entire pew. Some of you have been planning to be in this place at this time for weeks, and some of you decided to come on a last minute impulse. Some of you have been dragged here against your will, out of loyalty or guilt. And some of you are here perhaps for the very first time.

Some of you are young and 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 to the presents and the trees, and some of you dread going home. So hear this: whoever you are, and whatever you’re feeling, I’m glad you’re here.

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.

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I ask a lot of questions, it comes with the job. But around this time of year I tend to ask the same question over and over: “What’s the best Christmas present you’ve ever received?” And the funny thing is, people have the hardest time answering. And not because they have so many gifts with which that have to weigh out and evaluate their answer, but because they just can’t remember.

For instance, can any of you remember what you opened three years ago on Christmas morning? What about last year?

Of course, there’s a better question to ask: “What’s one of your most beloved Christmas memories?” People can answer that one, and the response is almost always about spending time with a particular person; a beloved spouse, or child, or grandmother, or friend.

That’s what we remember most about Christmases past, the people we spend time with. It’s all we have to give to another, it’s all we really want to receive, and it’s what God gives to us.

Not a present under a tree, not a trite response to a prayerful need. God gives himself to us at Christmas.

There’s just something about Christmas that’s different. And there’s nothing quite like an old-fashioned Christmas. Do you know what I mean? A Christmas where all the kids actually showed up, all the presents were wrapped in time, there were no iPhones to distract us from conversations, no drones to charge before their first flight. Old-fashioned Christmases were all about the family, and the singing of carols, and feeling the warmth of the fire.

My father grew up in Germany, and his most vivid memories of old Christmases were waiting to see what would happen to the Christmas tree. Because unlike our contemporary trees filled with pre-lit LED lights that can do more than a stage production, his Christmas trees were covered in real candles. And on every Christmas Eve every candle would be painstakingly lit, and my father would sit there, like any young child would, waiting for the whole thing to catch on fire.

An old-fashioned Christmas.

There’s a church in our community that worships in a new building, but they still have the original sanctuary on the property. And all year long it just stands there off in the corner like the forgotten island of misfit toys, until Christmas Eve when they open the doors, brush off the dust, light the kerosene lanterns and have an old-fashioned Christmas service. That was the case, until a few years ago when they forgot to open a window, and the kerosene lamps sucked up all the oxygen and parishioners started passing out left and right.

But a real old-fashioned Christmas, which is to say a biblical Christmas, is altogether different. The strange new world of scripture opens up for us a scene where kings rage and wickedness rules the day, where the threat of taxation forces young couples to retreat to the comfort of their parents’ homes, and countries who think of themselves as the very best have forgotten the very least.

            You know, completely unlike today.

It’s strange how Christmas, at least the version we encounter at the mall, becomes a dream. We escape into the Christmases of the past, falsely assuming they held a tinge of perfection. But in the bible, Christmas is no dream; it is reality. And it is one that begins in the dark.

The darkness – evil, sin, suffering, distress, destruction – they are very much part of the world, even if we’re made to believe they are absent during Christmas. We live in a time of war, violence, anger, and wrongful use of power. And the darkness is not just out there, beyond the comfort of the sanctuary, it is very much here as well. The darkness of family fights, disease and death, aging parents, rebellious children, fear and guilt, loneliness, and shame.

And we have to take the darkness seriously, even when we’d rather not. We take the darkness seriously because Isaiah certainly did, because darkness is very much part of our experience, and because darkness is what the light of Christ makes it’s way into.

This time of year challenges us to search for meaning. I mean, every bad Hallmark channel movie struggles to define the reason for this season, but the closest we can get to the meaning of Christmas is right here in Isaiah: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.

Light is how we experience the presence of God, the arrival of grace, mercy, and peace. Light shines in the darkness.

That’s why we always end Christmas Eve worship with the lighting of candles. It is a strange and beautiful thing because it begins in the dark!

Our candles, as a witness to the one Christ candle, burn as a promise, a pledge, and perhaps as an act of defiance. Our flickering candles are what the life of faith look like as it resists the evil temptations of the world.

It looks like our faith because it is fragile.

Our flames are as fragile as a new baby born into the worst circumstances.

opt-the-day-after-christmas from Life Magazine Jamie Wyeth

But new life always starts in the dark, whether it’s a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, new life starts in the dark.

It is a strange, subversive, and dynamic way to change the world. It runs counter to all our assumptions of what it means to hold power. It is fragile like a flame, like a baby born in a manger, and like our faith can be at times.

But one flame, one baby, one faithful hope can be all that it takes to spark a rebellion that changes everything.

An old-fashioned Christmas is challenging because it is truer than all of the perfect manger scenes on our mantles and inflated on our front lawns. The incarnation of God is not some spiritual and mythical concept; it is very much the totality of God taking on flesh to enter this world of ours with all its agonies and joys, sorrows and splendor.

For a fleeting moment, we might experience a time where all is calm and all is bright while we are in this place holding our candles high. But we do so with the knowledge that the world still marvels at the darkness. So come to feast at this, Christ’s table, greet one another in the love that Christ offers us, and declare your defiance of the world’s expectations through the fragile flickering flame.

Because tonight, a night unlike any other night, we join together to wonder at the mystery of God’s power embodied in the fragile flesh of a newborn baby. Tonight, we join together as God’s light that shines in the darkness. Tonight we remember what an old-fashioned Christmas really looks like. Amen.