The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.
I stood up on Sunday morning and led worship for a new church. At least, it’s a new church for me. Methodists are, usually, used to pastors moving around to serve different appointments, but it’s always a little jarring going from one pastor to another in the matter of a week.
When the service was over we all milled about on the front lawn sharing lemonade and I received my first round of Sunday morning comments: “We’ve got some great weather today!” “Got any plans for the afternoon?” and so on.
But there was one comment that really stood out. A woman old enough to be my grandmother waited patiently for an opportunity to step forward, she grabbed me by the hand, and said, “It’s nice to know that God is still God no matter who stands in our pulpit.”
That’s some good theology.
While certain United Methodists are starting over because of new pastoral appointments, we’re all in the process of starting over because, in ways big and small, we’re transitioning to a time called life after Covid. It means we have to relearn what it means to be in physical spaces with one another. It means we have to be cognizant of those who are not ready to return to the way things were. It means the church has the challenge and the opportunity to be the church in a time that is so unknown.
But we’re also all in the process of starting over because that’s what the liturgy does to us. No matter what we have going on in our lives, no matter what we’ve done or failed to do, God speaks truthful words through our worship about who we are and whose we are.
On Sunday, I got to look out at an entirely different congregation than the one the week before and yet I was able to say, with assurance, the same thing: “Now hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners; that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven!”
Forgiveness is the beginning to which we return to over and over again and it’s what makes the life of faith so exciting in the first place.
And, because I often feel like music does a better job at conveying theological claims than mere words alone, here are some tunes to help us think about what it means to start over:
Chris Stapleton’s “Starting Over” is a song made for couples along the road of a relationship. The singer-songwriter’s baritone is met, beautifully, by his wife’s accompanying harmonies as they proclaim a beautiful chorus about holding on to something while everything else seems to change.
Lucy Dacus’ music haunts me. Her voice sounds like she just consumed a cup of cream and her lyricism paints these landscapes of memory. “VBS” is her reflection on growing up in the church and coming to grips now with what it all meant. If nothing else, stick around for the face-melting guitar riff near the end of the song.
So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord — for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
Most stories follow a common structure.
Or, to put it another way, they share similar shapes.
And all stories with shapes can be drawn out on a piece of paper or, for the sake of preachments such as this, demonstrated by hand.
All stories have a beginning and an end. And all stories, one way or another, deal with good news and bad news.
Allow me to demonstrate (show beginning on the left, end on the right; good news going up, bad news going down):
There’s a girl, perhaps 16 or 17 years old, and her life is garbage. Why? Her mother died. Now, that would be enough but then her father went off and married a horrible woman with two equally horrible daughters who treat our heroine terribly.
And then, wonder of wonders, there’s a ball to be held at the castle, and all the daughters are invited. Do you know the story? Our soot-covered protagonist is left behind while everyone else goes to have a good time.
But that’s when the story gets good. Lo and behold: The Fairy Godmother. She bestows gifts upon the girl better than her wildest imagination: clothes, transportation, and even glass slippers. And she goes to the ball. And she dances with the prince!
But then the clock strikes twelve and all of her magical enhancements disappear. Back to square one, or perhaps a little higher. At least now she can remember her one night of fun.
Narrative angst ensues until a specter of a missing shoe is used to identify the mystery woman, who then marries the prince, and they live happily ever after. Off the charts.
Now, the rise and fall of Cinderella might, at first, appear unique. It is, after all, this indelible story of bad news turning into good news, but it’s just like all the rest.
There’s a travel bookstore owner and operator. He lives in a rather posh area of London but sales are miserable. One day, miraculously, a beautiful and famous actress enters his shop and purchases a book. Later, however, he spills orange juice all over her in a chance encounter on the sidewalk and invites her to his flat to get cleaned up. The chemistry crackles on the screen, hijinks ensue, they become a couple, but then it is too much and they break it off. The man is down in the dumps, until he realizes the error of his ways, makes a public declaration of affection, and they live happily ever after. Off the charts. [Notting Hill]
There is a meta narrative to these stories and you can apply the same charted rise, fall, and rise again to a great swath of stories including, but not limited to, Toy Story, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Moana, Romeo and Juliet (though that one ends with a major bummer).
There’s a beginning and an end; there’s good news and and bad news. That’s how stories work.
Kurt Vonnegut wrote some of the most memorable stories in the 20th century including Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, and Slaughterhouse Five. His writing is a mess of paradoxes and contradictions, both science fiction and biting contemporary criticism, dark and funny, counter-cultural and sentimental.
Here are some of Vonnegut’s tips for the creation of a story:
Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
Every character should want something even if it’s only a glass of water.
Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
Start as close to the end as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
I love all of those tips but the one that, to me, is the most fascinating is the bit about starting as close to the end as possible.
Let’s apply that tip to, say, the story of Cinderella.
Rather than starting with a depressed young teenager stuck with two terrible step sisters and an even more horrific step-mother, we begin with her dancing around the palace, moving to and fro in the arms of the prince. As far as anyone can tell, this woman has always been in places like this, she’s supposed to be in places like this except, you, the reader or the viewer, notice that amidst all the perfection of the scene that this beautiful young woman has soot, cinders, clinging to her nylons.
How did it happen? Who is she, really? What’s the story?
Now, that’s an exciting beginning.
You see, we might think we care about how things conclude. But how we get to the conclusion is far more interesting and compelling.
TS Eliot wrote, “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”
The end is where we start from.
Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord – for we walk by faith and not by sight”
Paul, in a sense, was saying: “Look: We already know how the story ends. We need not fret about what happens on the last page because that’s up to God! The only thing we have to concern ourselves with is this: what are we going to do until we get there?”
Think about Paul, the person. But, in keeping with the theme, let us begin at the end. This evangelism traveling the greater Mediterranean with a desire to do nothing but preach Christ and him crucified. Imagine him, if you can, walking the streets of Corinth and you overhear murmurs from the crowds: “Wasn’t he the one who killed Christians?”
That’s a crazy beginning! How did he get there? What set him aflame for the Gospel?
Or, we can do the same thing to the story of Jesus.
We start not with a manger in the middle of the night but instead with the tomb of Easter from which the resurrected Christ departs. A dead man resurrected!
Boom! That’s a way to kick off a story! Who is this guy? What happened to him? On and on and on the question go.
The end is where we start from.
That’s what Paul did in every town he shared the Good News. Can you imagine if Paul entered into Corinth with a list of ten reasons to believe Jesus was the Son of God? Can you imagine him passing out tracks about why you need to accept Jesus so that you won’t burn in hell? Can you imagine him picketing various community events with big signs and slogans with various moralisms?
No. Paul told the story and he started with the end.
If we are beside ourselves, he writes, if we appear wild and off our rockers it is because Christ has grabbed hold of us and refuses to let us go. This Christ loves us, loves us so fervently for reasons we cannot even fathom, and it has set us aflame for the Gospel. Hear the Good News, Paul declares, because one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died that his resurrection might be our resurrection. So we need not live merely for ourselves alone. If we live for Christ we live for all!
We, unlike the world, do not regard one another from a human point of view.
That’s the end which is our beginning.
Paul was writing to an early church community that was wrestling with all of the implications of what it means to follow Jesus. Want to get a taste of a very early soap opera? Read 1st and 2nd Corinthians. The community was divided over eating habits, clothing options, and moral behavior. They were falling apart before they even had a chance to really come together.
And its in the midst of all the friction that Paul drops this remarkable bombshell: If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
We might rejoice in viewing one another through our mistakes and our shortcomings, but in the kingdom of God we are viewed only through what Christ did and does for us.
We might enjoy holding our judgments and prejudices against one another, but in the kingdom of God Jesus knows none of deserve anything, and yet we receive everything.
We might love propping up all of our good works for everyone else to see, but in the kingdom of God there is a judgment that comes for each and every single one of us.
Contrary to how we so often imagine Jesus in our minds, or present him in church, he’s not some do-gooder wagging his finger at every one of our indiscretions. Jesus is actually far more like that wayward uncle who shows up at a funeral with a sausage under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. And, while everyone else is dabbing their eyes, Jesus says, “Why are you weeping? Don’t lose heart! This is not the end!”
The promise of the Gospel is that our end is, in fact, our beginning.
And here’s the bad news: no amount of good works, of fervent prayers, of regular and weekly attendance in worship will put us into the category of the good. Not a one of us is truly good, no not one. We do things we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing things we know we should do. If some young writer we to analyze our lives in detail, if they wanted to display them like I did earlier, the things we do and the things done to us, in the end, put us down at the bottom.
But, there is Good News, very good news: Even though all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, Jesus has come to be the judged judge in our place. He takes all of our sins and removes them from the record, forever. He, in a way that we never could on our own, makes us new. And not just us, but the entire cosmos as well.
That’s the beauty and the wonder of the Gospel: the end is already decided.
The couple lived right next to the church in a nursing home: Howard and Ruth. I tried to visit as often as I could, I got to learn their life story, how their relationship came to be. I learned about their children, their grandchildren, and even their great grandchildren. We shared lemonade and laughter, we prayed and pondered. And then Howard took a turn. I saw less and less life in his eyes with every passing visit. Our time together became far more quiet.
And then Ruth called one day. She said, “Preacher, I think Howard isn’t long for this world, and I thought you ought to know.” I packed up my bag, went across the yard to the nursing home, and by the time I got to their room Howard was dead in bed.
Ruth, however was sitting calmly on the couch, drinking some lemonade.
“I’m so sorry Ruth,” I began, and she waved it off and invited me to come sit beside her. We sat in silence for awhile, and every time I tried to start a conversation she lifted her hand as if to say “shh.”
Until, finally, when I could no longer stand it, I said, “Ruth, you have to say something. You husband is dead over on the bed.”
And she smiled and said, “Honey, everything is okay. I know where he really is, and I know who he’s with.” Amen.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and the family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praying God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
It doesn’t get a whole lot better than this. No matter how old or jaded we may be, regardless of whether we deserve coal in our stockings or not, Christmas Eve never fails to work its magic.
Maybe its the music, or the candlelight, or the knowledge of what awaits us when we awake – there’s just something different about Christmas that makes all the difference.
And here we are! Some of you were raised in this church and wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else. Others made plans weeks ago and are here for the first time. Some of you are here with questions, and others are just waiting to get home to finish everything on your to-do lists. Some of you made a last minute decision to come and are still wondering if you made the right choice. Others were dragged here against your will.
There are those among us for whom there are more Christmases ahead than behind, and of course there are those for whom there are only a few Christmases left.
Whoever you are, and whatever feelings, and thoughts, and questions you’ve brought tonight, it is my hope and prayer that you encounter the light of the world who shines in the darkness, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
If we hear the story of Jesus’ remarkable arrival in the world we often do so without noticing the explosion and unexpected nature of the whole thing. And scripture is partly to blame. The whole birth in the manger comes in less than a verse and the story just keeps going.
The details, of course, are important – Luke roots us in a time and a place, Luke sets up the main and important characters, but when it comes to the moment for which all of us are here tonight, it comes down to this: “While they were in Bethlehem, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
It’s quite a strange story when we take a step back from it all, if we can. For, this story, the travelings of a young soon to be married couple at the requirement of empire, a baby born in some of the worst conditions imaginable, dirty shepherds receiving the best news the world has ever known, is weird.
Whether Luke intended it this way, the story compels us to enter a strange new world. Every time we take up the Bible we encounter a world that is at first our own, and then is it strange and new beyond our conceptions, only then, sometimes without our knowledge, becomes the world we truly in habit.
We open it and find ourselves among the likes of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We stand on the banks of the sea with Moses as the waters are driven apart. We are invited into the poetic pondering of David and the wisdom of Solomon. And then here, on Christmas Eve, we enter this strange new world to hear about good news of great joy for all people born as Jesus Christ.
But this strange new world is, in fact, our world. And Jesus has come to save it.
A statement like that requires knowledge about what, exactly, Jesus saves us from. We were just singing about it a moment ago: No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground, he comes to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found, far as, far as, the curse is found.
And what is the curse? Well, it is a lot of things. We can call it sin, or death, or self-righteousness. But perhaps this year, the curse Jesus has come to destroy is the idea that it’s all up to us.
Because the truth is actually the opposite: God helps those who can’t help themselves. That’s part of the Good News of Christmas – God in Christ comes to do for us that which we couldn’t do for ourselves!
I heard a story last week about a woman and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. Back in the 90’s she was a strung out drug addict going through heavy withdrawals while her newborn baby was asleep in the next room. She was at the rock bottom of her life, fearing every day that she wouldn’t be able to get the kick she needed, fearing every day that her child would be taken away, and fearing every day that maybe her child needed to be taken away, from her.
It was 2am and she was lying in the fetal position on the floor trying to will herself into a reckoning. In her hand she kept folding and unfolding a piece of paper with a phone number on it. It was the number for a Christian counselor that her mother had sent in the mail 4 years before, back when they were still talking.
The woman did not know what to do, nor where to turn, and she was so desperate that she picked up the phone and dialed the number.
A man answered the phone, and the woman said, “I got this number from my mother, do you think maybe you could talk to me?” She heard him shuffling around in his room and he said, “Yes, what’s going on?”
She hadn’t told anyone what was going on, not even herself and she said, “I’m not feeling so good and I’m scared…” And without realizing it she just kept going and told the man that she had a drug problem, and that she was worried about her son, and she didn’t know what else to do.
And the man listened. He didn’t judge, he didn’t offer advice, he just stayed with her on the phone.
The call began around 2am and the man stayed with her on the phone until the sun came up. At some point the woman said, “Thank you for staying with me and I really appreciate your listening, but aren’t you supposed to tell me some Bible verse I should read?”
He laughed and brushed it aside and she said again, “No I need you to know how grateful I am. How long have you been a Christian counselor?”
And he said, “I’ve been trying to avoid this, I need you not to hang up. That number you called, the one your mom gave you… wrong number.”
She didn’t hang up, but thanked him and they continued to talk until the conversation came to a close. In the hours that followed the woman experienced what she calls a peace she didn’t know existed, that there is love out in the world, and that some of it was unconditional, and that some of it was for her.
After that everything changed. Not right away, but slowly, her life transformed.
She ended her story by saying, “I now know, that in the deepest and darkest moment of despair, it only takes a pinhole of light, and all of grace can come in.”
God’s grace is unconditional – we of course despise God’s grace because of this. We can even resist God’s grace because we want to believe that we have contributed something to it. We want to believe that grace is something earned or deserved. But that woman learned the truth that night on the phone, grace comes regardless of our earnings, yearnings, or deservings. And all it takes is the tiniest little spark that can transform a life forever.
Our world is constantly telling us to do more, to be better, and to get it all together. And even in the church, we fall prey to this temptation all the time by telling people about all the stuff we need to do. But all of that is self-defeating because the more we’re told about what we’re supposed to do the more guilty we feel for all we’re not doing.
On Christmas Eve its different. Its different because the strange new world of God’s desire has become our world. The whole story is about how we can’t do all that we need to do and that’s okay.
We were dead in our sins, but God who is rich in mercy, has sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to deliver us from the dominion of darkness. For some of us that darkness is the darkness of writhing on the floor without a hope in the world. For others the darkness is the loss of someone we loved. For others the darkness is fear over not knowing what the future holds.
For each of us there is a darkness that Christ has come to destroy.
Hear the Good News: In the end, it’s not up to us. We are never really prepared to do that which we probably should. But Jesus shows up anyway. He shows up in a chance phone call, and in the bread and cup, he even shows up in Christmas presents.
Each of us, whether we like to admit it or not, we come into Christmas damaged and bent and broken and sinful. We have contempt for ourselves and for one another. And God shows up as a baby with a triumphant declaration that things are changing.
The birth of Christ marks the beginning of a strange new world, one in which we are not defined by our sins or our short-comings, but instead by the grace of God that knows no bounds.
So hear the Good News once again, news addressed right to us: “To you is born this day a Savior!” To you! Regardless of who you are, whether or not you understand it, whether or not you are good or bad. The news is meant for you. For you the Christmas story has happened.
To you is born this day a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. Grace upon grace upon grace! Amen.
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
On Saturday morning I will meet with a small group of people to baptize the daughter of one of my oldest friends. It will be its own worship service with scripture and prayer, song and sermon, and sacrament and silence. The occasion has been in the works for quite a long time and I count myself blessed for being invited into the midst of it.
As I hold that precious baby girl in my arms on Saturday, I know that I will have to hold back the emotions that will undoubtedly well up within me and I will be immediately transported back to a year and a half ago when I stood in a very different place, but doing a very similar thing, when I married that girl’s parents together. It’s no accident that the movements and vows of baptism are intricately tied together with the covenant and celebration of marriage. And for me to know that I was there, and will be there, for these two holy events is nothing short of a miracle.
And yet, for all the newness of the occasion(s), I am reminded that God really doesn’t do anything new. At least, not in the way we think about it. Sure, there will be a newish child, she will enter a new period in her life, her parents will (have to) come to grips with the fact that their daughter will be baptized into the resurrection and death of Jesus.
But that’s not actually new.
All that truly matters has already happened, once and for all, by the Lamb slain before the foundation of the cosmos. The baptized, and those who gather with her, might be unable to believe this or even faintly grasp it, but it doesn’t really matter.
Baptism isn’t about what we do. It’s not about what we believe. It’s not even really about the person being baptized.
It’s about what has been done for us.
In baptism, we affirm that through the water, and through the work of Christ, that we’ve already been forgiven for the sins we’ve committed. The thing done for us also conveys the forgiveness of the sins we’re committing right now. And it even forgives us for a whole lifetime of sins to come!
To me, baptisms have to be one of the strangest and most beautiful things we do within the work of the church because they powerfully proclaim the gift of grace and all of its unmerited qualities. We currently live in a world so consumed by what we consume that we fool ourselves into believing that all the stuff we’re doing earns us something – both tangible and intangible.
And yet God, in all of God’s wondrous knowledge, chose to make a way where there was no way, chose to do the one last new thing, through the person of Christ in whose baptism we share.
And, best of all, it’s true whether we perceive it or not.
O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.
I love the so-called “good ol’ hymns.” I love them because I grew up with them, because they remind me of particular people in particular places, and because the theology behind them is remarkable. All I need are the first verses of “Amazing Grace” to draw me to all of the saints that have gone on to glory during my life, or the opening melody of “Jesus Calls Us O’er The Tumult” will bring forth memories of my grandmother humming the tune in her kitchen, or I’ll read through the words of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and it will give me goose-bumps thinking about how Christians have used those words for over a thousand years.
The “good ol’ hymns” are called as such accordingly; they are good and they are old.
In the church today, however, there is a strong temptation to employ something new simply for the sake of being new. Rather than relying on tradition or theology, we’re inclined to pull out the shiny new songs in hopes that they will bring about some sort of change or transformation. And, though many new songs are ripe with good theology, many of them fail in that particular category. New songs can have catchy melodies, and stir up emotional responses, but if the words we proclaim are unfaithful, we have to ask ourselves: “Is this the new song God wants us to sing?”
Over the last few weeks I’ve been talking with the choir at Cokesbury about new and different ways to praise God through voice and song; but not necessarily with new songs. So, we prayed about it, and on Sunday morning I got out my cajon and started playing along with our pianist to the tune of “I Surrender All.” For what it’s worth: “I Surrender All” was written in 1896 and it has been a favorite of Christians for more than a century. But for us on Sunday morning, it felt new. It felt new because we did not somber along with the verses, we did not say the words devoid of meaning. Instead we passed around a microphone to members of the choir, some over 70 and some under 17, and let them sing the verses as the Spirit led them.
It was beautiful, it was powerful, and it was new.
What songs from the hymnal move you the most? What is it about those particular hymns that resonate with you? How has God used a particular song to speak a new word at a particular moment in your life?
The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”
4 years ago I received the phone call about being appointed to St. John’s. And over the last 4 years I learned what it really means to love God through the people of St. John’s. Through every rolled sleeve to clean dishes, through every casserole provided for a family in grief. Through every committee meeting, bible study, and Circle gathering. Through every mission trip, hospital visit, and church picnic.
St. John’s UMC has increased my faith.
While here I have watched people who were spiritually dead be resurrected into new life through the faithfulness of the church. I have seen people surrounded in the midst of sorrow and grief when they needed it most. I have seen tears spilt over the precious sacrament of baptism, and in recognition of the incredible gift of communion.
In the United Methodist Church clergy people like me make a vow to go where the Spirit leads us. When I was finishing seminary I lived into the promise when I received the phone call about coming here and I embraced it. I came to St. John’s not knowing what it would look like, how it would feel, or whether or not it would be fruitful.
And I can say today that serving St. John’s has been the greatest privilege of my life.
But the Spirit is moving. Over the last few months the leadership of the church and I have been praying for God’s will to be done and we have discerned that the time has come for me to respond to the Spirit yet again in a new place, and that the Spirit is calling a new pastor to serve St. John’s. And in response to that prayer and discernment, our Bishop has projected to appoint me to serve as the Pastor of Cokesbury UMC in Woodbridge, VA at the end of June.
I am grateful beyond words for the community of Staunton, VA and for the people of St. John’s for increasing my faith. I have nothing but hope and faith that the church will continue to pour out God’s love onto the last, the least, and the lost. I rejoice in the knowledge that our God makes all things new.
This is a time of new life for St. John’s: a new pastor, a new chapter, and new beginning.
In the coming weeks of transition I ask that you please keep my family in your prayers and I encourage you to continually seek out new ways to increase the faith of the people around you like you’ve done for me.
When I was in seminary, Dr. Stephen B. Chapman told a remarkable story about a survey that had been done in past. All of the faculty and doctoral candidates at Duke Divinity School were once asked to name the top 3 books or articles that had shaped their call to ministry or academia. Though many were quick to respond with something like “The Bible” or “1 Corinthians” the survey challenged people to think more specifically about works outside of the bible that had shaped their lives.
Some of the greatest works from Christian History were all named such as Calvin’s Institutes, Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, Wesley’s Sermons, and Augustine’s Confessions. Others were quick to name works from more contemporary writers like Schweitzer, Bonhoeffer, Merton, Yoder, Hauerwas, and Nouwen. The survey demonstrated that there were an abundance of texts from a variety of traditions that had shaped the minds of those called to serve the church. However, even with all the variations of answers and all the different denominations that were represented, there was one article that was mentioned more than any other: Karl Barth’s “The Strange New World Within The Bible.”
Barth’s article can be found in chapter 2 of his seminal work The Word of God and The Word of Man originally written in 1928. When I read the article for the first time I underlined so many sentences that it was difficult to read it a second time. The margins are now covered with thoughts, exclamation points, and asterisks. It is nothing short of transformative.
In it, Barth attempts to answers the following questions: What is there within the Bible? What sort of house is it to which the Bible is the door? And What sort of country is spread before our eyes when we throw the Bible open?
Like most of Barth’s writing, it cannot be explained but only proclaimed. The best way to experience it is by reading the thing itself. Therefore, I have attached a PDF of the chapter to end of this post for anyone to read.
But after rereading the article again this week, and looking through all my old notes and markings, I decided to write my own version of the chapter relying on Barth’s original to guide my thoughts…
The Strange New World Within The Bible
We are to attempt to find an answer to the questions, What is there within the Bible? What sort of house is it to which the Bible is the door? What sort of country is spread before our eyes when we throw the Bible open?
We are with Adam and Eve in the Garden. We hear the Lord warn them about the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. We hear the slithering serpent calling them (and us) to rebel against the One who loves us. And Adam and Eve reach for that forbidden fruit inevitably driving them away from the Lord and into the unknown. We can feel that there is something of ourselves in these two standing at the edge of Eden looking back to what they once were and unsure of what would come in the days ahead.
We are with Noah kissing the ground after the Flood. We see the rainbow cast across the sky and we feel the colors reflecting off the pools of water around Noah’s feet. We hear the promise from the Lord to never abandon creation again. We believe that Noah is the new beginning, another chance for humanity to get things right. But then we see him tilling the ground, preparing the vines, and eventually getting drunk from the wine. In him we see the failures of the past reaching forward into the present and we know that there is something behind all of this.
We are with Abraham in a strange land. We hear a call from the Lord, which commands him to go to a land that has been prepared. We hear a promise to Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation and your descendants will be more numerous than the stars.” And we see that Abraham believed the promise! We feel the Spirit moving through the space as the story moves ever forward.
We are with Moses on a rocky hillside. We feel the warmth of a bush burning but not being consumed. We hear the voice of the Lord speak to the wandering shepherd: “Tell them I AM sent you.” We experience the calling that will forever define an entire nation of people, a delivery from slavery to Egypt, and freedom in the Promised Land. We hear these strange words and promises and we know that they are unlike anything else we have ever read. We know that it is a story, but it is a story about us.
We are with Joshua at the edge of the new land. We remember the painful journey and the years of struggle that led to this moment. We experience fear and excitement with the other sojourners, as they are about to cross the threshold into God’s promise. We hear about Rahab and what she was willing to do for God’s people and it gives the people confidence to actually be God’s people.
We are with Samuel asleep on the floor. Again we hear a call three times “Samuel, Samuel!” We see the young man run to the priest Eli to share his experience and we begin to connect this call with others. We know that Samuel has heard the Lord and that he must obey. We know the journey will not be easy, but it will be good.
We read all of this, but what do we experience? We are aware of some greater power beneath the word, a faint tremor of something we cannot know or fully comprehend. What is it about this story that makes our hearts beat with such tempo? What is opening up to us through the words on the page?
We are with David when he puts the rock into the sling and takes down the mighty Goliath.
We are with Solomon when he prays for the Lord to give him the gift of wisdom.
We are there when Isaiah feel the coal being placed on his lips.
We are with Elijah when he hears the Lord not through the wind, not the storm, nor the fire, but through the still small voice.
Then come the incomprehensible days when everything changed; that strange and bewildering moment in a manger in Bethlehem when the Word became flesh. When a man and a woman fled to save their child’s life. When that baby grew to be a man who was like no other man. His words we cause for pause and alarm and delight and fear. With unending power and resonating grace he calls out: Follow me. And they do.
Through him the blind begin to see. The lame begin to walk. The hungry are fed. The powerful are brought low. The poor are made rich. The deaf hear. The blind see.
And then we are there when the sky turns black. We hear his final words and we feel a faint echo from those first words so long ago. But that echo continues for three days until it reaches a triumphant crescendo in an empty tomb, in resurrection.
We are there with the disciples in the upper room. We watch the Holy Spirit fill their mouths with the words to proclaim. We go with them across the sea and over the dry land. We watch them use water and word to bring new disciples into the faith. We smell the bread being broken and we can taste the wine being shared at the table. We can feel the parchment of letters sent to church far away in our fingers.
And then it ends and The Bible is finished.
What is it about scripture that makes it different from everything else we read? What is so important about the connections from Adam to Jesus? What are we to make of the prophets and the apostles? What do we do with statements like “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” and “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing”?
These are difficult and dangerous questions. It might be better for us to stay clear of the burning bush and the coal for our lips and the call to the cross. Perhaps we would do well to not ask because in our asking is the implication that The Bible has an answer to every question. Yet it does provide something just as the Lord provided for Abraham.
It is not merely a history or a genealogy.
It is neither a myth nor a fable.
What is there within The Bible? The answer is a strange, new world, the world of God.
We want The Bible to be for us. We want to mine it for all its precious metals. We want it to answer our questions. We want to become masters of the text.
But The Bible is itself and it drives us out beyond ourselves to invite us into to something totally other. We are invited regardless of our worth and our value, regardless of our sin and failures, to discover that which we can only barely comprehend: a strange new world.
Reading The Bible pushes us further through the story that has no end. In it we find the people and places and things that boggle our thoughts. We read decrees that shatter our understanding of the real. We experience moments of profound joy and profound sorrow. We find ourselves in the story when we did not know we had a story.
And it causes us to ask even more questions: Why did they travel to this place? Why did they pray this way? Why did they speak such words and live such lives? And The Bible, for all its glory, rejects answers to our Why.
The Bible is not meant to be mastered; instead we are called to become shaped by the Word. And this is so happen in a way we cannot understand. For the heroes of the book are seldom examples to us on how to live our daily lives. What do David and Amos and Peter have to teach us except to show us what it means to follow God?
The Bible is not about the doings of humanity, but the doings of God. Through the Bible we are offered the incredible and hopeful grain of a seed (as small as a mustard seed), a new beginning, out of which all things can be made new. This is the new world within the Bible. We cannot learn or imitate this type of new life, we can only let it live, grow, and ripen within us.
The Bible does not provide us with simple tools on how to live like a disciples, or what to do in a particular situation. It does not tell us how to speak to God, but how God speaks to us. Not what we need to do to find the Almighty, but how he has found they way to us through Jesus Christ. Not the way we are supposed to be in relationship with the divine, but the covenant that God has made with God’s creation.
The strange new world within the bible challenges us to move beyond the questions that so dominate our thoughts. Questions like “What is within the Bible?” and “Who is God?” Because when we enter the strange new world within the Bible, when we discover ourselves in the kingdom of God, we no longer have questions to ask. There we see, we hear, and we know. And the answer is given: God is God!
Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it.
During my first year of college I felt like a stranger in a strange land. I grew up in a family that believed in sitting together for dinner every night. I was raised in a church that took the baptismal vows seriously and helped me pursue my vision of ministry. I had friends that supported my belief systems, and wanted me to be happy. I was strongly rooted in my home, and when I left I felt like I was wandering around without a map.
In the beginning, college was completely unlike home. Instead of eating with my family, I was lucky to eat a meal in the dining hall with anyone. Instead of a supportive church, I tried out a number of campus ministries that made it clear that if I wasn’t converting my heathen classmates I had no business being a part of their group. Instead of friends that loved me, I had surface level connections that were based on a system of consumerism more than genuine friendship.
The things I had grown to love (the comforts, the familiarity, and the rhythms) were gone and I felt like a stranger in a strange land.
Imagine, if you can, the prophet Ezekiel sitting by the river among the exiles. They had been taken from their homeland, uprooted, and planted in a new place. Families were separated, homes were lost, and they no longer knew how to worship their Lord. But the Lord continued to call prophets to proclaim the truth, even in the midst of the unknown.
Ezekiel, a prophet to the exiles, declared what the Lord had said. The Lord will take a branch from the full top of a cedar tree and will set it apart. Then the Lord will break off one of the most tender pieces of the young twigs and plant in on a high and grand mountain. The Lord will plant this piece so that it would produce boughs and bear fruit and become a noble tree unlike any other. Under it, in the protection of its shade, every kind of bird will live and find comfort.
All the rest of the trees will know what the Lord has done. Because the Lord brings low the high tree, and makes the low tree grow. The Lord dries up the green tree, and helps the dry tree flourish. The Lord has spoken, and he will do it.
The message is beautiful and hopeful. The poetic language of God’s creation helps us to imagine a mighty cedar giving life and shade to all who are in need. We can almost smell the scent of the cedar wafting through the air as we hear the words. We are reminded of God’s great power in upsetting normal expectations.
But when we remember who the words were for, when we remember the exiles in captivity, the passage becomes all the more powerful.
The remaining faithful had been carried off into captivity in Babylon. Their suffering was great and their questions were many. “Why has the Lord abandoned us?” “When will we return to the great city of Jerusalem?” “Where is the Lord in the midst of our suffering?”
The foundations of their religion were laid waste by a rampaging army. Those who survived would have witnessed the destruction of the temple, they would have smelled the burnt scrolls in the air, they would have heard the screams of fear and suffering.
The new home of Babylon brought subjection, and powerlessness. The people were small in number, weak in strength, and limited in faith.
They were strangers in a strange land.
Yet, in all of the great stories from scripture, a small people, of little account and worth, are the ones chosen by God to do something incredible. Though insignificant by the world’s standards, they were extraordinary in the eyes of God.
In the midst of the unknown, while their fear was real and palpable, Ezekiel shared this tender message from the Lord. I, the Lord your God, am the one who turns things upside down. I will have the final say about what it going on in your lives. You see the powers around you and you believe they have prevailed, but I will make things new, I will plant the seed that gives shade to the tired, strength to the weak, and life to the dead.
Today we are celebrating our graduates, those who have mastered their present set of educational expectations and are moving on to new horizons.
We have graduates from high school that will be entering the new area of the university. We have graduates with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees that will be entering the new area of the so-called “working world.”
In a few minutes they will stand before the congregation and we will pray for God’s blessing on them in all that they do. But before we send them off, we need to help open their eyes to the truth.
Soon, and very soon, you will feel like strangers in a strange land. No matter how confident you feel taking the next steps in your life, there will be things that happen that shake the very foundation of what you know and believe. You will encounter new and strange ideas. You will miss your friends, and your family, and hopefully your church.
Moments will come that you will ask the same kinds of questions that the exiles did in Babylon: “Why has the Lord abandoned me?” “When will things get back to normal?” “Where is God in the midst of all this?”
So, this message from the Lord through Ezekiel is meant for you as much as it was meant for them. God’s message of love and presence and growth is directed to you in a time of new beginnings and uncertainty. Whether you are about to start at a new school or a new job, let these words be comforting and full of life.
The Lord God almighty took a sprig, a tiny and powerless little thing, and planted him in a place called Bethlehem. He grew up as the son of a carpenter and was ignored by most people until he started to give shade to all the birds of the air, when he started inviting the multitudes into the kingdom of God. Through his words and actions Jesus Christ gave hope to the hopeless, strength to the weak, and life to the dead. Through him the people began to know and experience the love of God and the world was turned upside down.
Doesn’t all of this sound familiar? The Lord will plant a new tree… just like the sower who goes into the field… just like a tiny mustard seed become the greatest of all the plants. The Lord will make high the low tree and make low the high tree… just like the first shall be last and the last shall be first… just like the poor being welcomed into the kingdom of God and the religious elite were left scratching their heads.
This kind of inversion has been part of God’s great cosmic plan all along and we are still being swept up in it. The Lord calls on the strangers in a strange land to give hope for the world. The Lord uses the weak and least of these to show how the great tree of life in Jesus Christ gives shade and comfort to all of God’s children.
To those who are about to embark on something new: take heart and know that the Lord is with you. Even when you feel lost and alone, you are not. We, the gathered people, are praying for you and will continue to so long as we have life. But more importantly the Lord has faith in you to do incredible things, to help continually turn the world upside down.
To those who remain: look upon these graduates with hope. Because just as the Lord planted Jesus Christ to be a source of hope, the Lord is about to do the same thing with all of them. He will scatter them like seeds in the earth, he will nurture them through the power of his Spirit, and they will stretch out their arms to the world and will be a source of light in the darkness. Wherever they are planted, they will bear fruit for the world.
During my first year of college I felt like a stranger in a strange land. I wanted to cry out to the Lord like one of the lost exiles in Babylon. I felt abandoned, I felt alone, and I felt afraid. Weeks passed and nothing changed, my relationships started to suffer, and I started putting in the minimal amount of effort necessary in my classes. But it was also when I really learned how to pray.
I didn’t read about it in some book about faith, but I read about it in the book of faith. I looked for the times that Jesus prayed. It helped put things in perspective about what I was going through. It didn’t change my circumstances, but it changed me.
Because true prayer is not about asking God to fix something. True prayer is the gutsy willingness to let God be God in your life. So I gave it over, I prayed less like myself and more like Jesus, I prayed for God’s will to be done in my life instead of for my life to get better. But it did.
When we really pray, its not important what we say, but that we let God have time to speak. Prayer is far more about listening than it is about speaking. Prayer is not listing what we want, but a risk of being exposed to what God wants.
Prayer really changes things, and sometimes what prayer changes is us.
So, whether we are about to embark on a new experience in a new place or we are still spreading our roots here in Staunton; whether we are confident in our faith, or filled to the brim with doubt; whether we feel surrounded by discipled witnesses, or feel completely alone. We are all strangers in a strange land.
As Christians we are called to see the world through the resurrection which means we will never feel comfortable where we are. We love our enemies and turn the other cheek. We offer a tenth of our income and pray for the weak. We listen for the Lord and lift up the meek. Being Christian is about living in the tension between what the world explains and what the Lord proclaims.
But with prayer, by taking time to be holy, we start to see the world turned upside down, we experience the beauty of God’s kingdom, and we find rest in the shade of God’s great cedar tree: Jesus Christ. So let us pray:
O Lord, let your will be done, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.
O Lord, let your will be done, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.
O Lord, let your will be done, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.
And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets — who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented — of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
Today we conclude our Advent Sermon Series on “New Beginnings.” This is the final Sunday leading up to Christmas day, and over the last few weeks we have prepared our hearts and minds for the coming of God in Christ. We began with Abram being called into a strange land. Next we looked at Samuel being called by name in the temple. Last week we explored Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. This morning we conclude by looking at the Faith Hall of Fame from Hebrews 11.
And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Fletcher Swink, Sam Stanley, Zig Volskis, Patricia Meadows, and the other pastors — who through faith endured frustrating congregations, proclaimed God’s presence, fought for justice, became mighty in honor, and brought people to the Lord.
Hebrews 11 contains what I call the “Faith Hall of Fame.” The entire chapter is devoted to the great leaders and prophets from the Old Testament and their willingness to stand up for God even when it meant certain doom. They so fervently believed that God was with them, that they were willing to embark on new beginnings when others refused to obey.
The closest thing we have to a Faith Hall of Fame here at St. John’s can be found in our parlor next to the narthex. Inside you will discover a picture of every pastor that has had the good fortune to serve this church since 1954. From Fletcher Swink to yours truly, every pastor has been framed and dated, hung with care, and honored with a spot on the wall.
Have you ever taken the time to look through the pictures? It was one of the first things I did when I was newly appointed, and frankly the room terrifies me. Whenever I sit in the parlor with a group of people, I feel the heavy gaze of the pastors, they look down from their Faith Hall of Fame, and I can’t help but wonder what they think of me.
Marshall Kirby begged me my first week to give him a picture so that he could put me up with everyone else. I hesitated. For weeks he bugged me about getting the picture, about having it be just the right size and tint to blend in with the others. But I continued to put it off. I kept making excuses about how busy I was, or about the priorities I needed to focus on, but the truth is, I didn’t feel worthy of going on the wall. I had been here for such a short amount of time and felt that I hadn’t done anything that earned me a spot in the Hall of Fame.
When I’m in the parlor, when I experience the St. John’s Hall of Fame, I think about all the things they must have gone through to bring this church to where it is. I think about Fletcher Swink starting the church down the road at the Auto Parts store. I imagine that it required a tremendous amount of faith to believe that God had call him from Durham, NC to Staunton, VA to start a new church; to make something of nothing. How many nights did he pray for God to send him people, how many afternoons did he spend worrying about the new building project, how often did he confront frustrated parishioners about his sermons?
When I’m in the parlor, when I experience the St. John’s Hall of Fame, I think about Patricia Meadows being appointed as the first female pastor. I wonder about how hard she had to work to gain the trust of the people, what lengths she had to go to to reignite the flame of faith. I imagine the deep prayers she offered to God about sending new sheep to her flock, the lonely days of sermon preparation, and the terrifying moments of standing by the graveside with friends and family from the church. How often did she wrestle with her call when she felt persecuted, how many days did she spend praying for the people of our community when they were no longer able to offer their own prayers, how did she feel standing up against the injustices around her?
I wonder about all the pastors of this church, and what they went through for God’s kingdom. What was it that set them apart? What did they do that helped to grow and nurture faith in this community?
Last week I was standing in the parlor, admiring the past, when I realized how similar our Faith Hall of Fame is to the one listed in Hebrews 11.
The people of Israel’s past were not of special value. Gideon was hesitant and timid when he was called by God; Barak had to be shamed by Deborah into fighting for the Lord; Jephthah is remembered mostly for his rash oath; Samson was weak of mind and conscience.
Similarly, there is nothing particularly special about those who have served our church. Though undoubtedly unique, they contained no special powers that set them apart from other clergy. Each of them had strengths and weaknesses that became manifest while they served the church.
Our pastors, and the heroes from Israel’s past, were set apart because they did all things “through faith.” They worked knowing that the real significance of what they had done would never be seen in their own time, but something that would come much later. They suffered through persecution and injustice because they believed in God’s goodness even when the world claimed the contrary.
We remember the ways our pastors have suffered: Angry emails/letters about inappropriate sermons, knowing glances and whispers from the committee members in the parking lot (where the real meetings happen). Shouts and finger pointing during counseling sessions. Years of loneliness serving a church full of people who cannot see the pastor as anything other than pastor. Doubts when preparing funerals for people in the community.
We read about all the ways the faithful of Israel suffered: torture, mocking, flogging, chains and imprisonment. Stoned to death, sawn in two, killed by the sword, wandered about in the skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, and tormented.
This is what evil does to the good. It attacks at the core of our being, shakes our faith, and encourages us to doubt. Yet, reading these words and remembering our church’s past should bring us courage and hope. We see in them the willingness of people to go and risk it all for God. Pastors who remained brave and faithful when others tried to break them down. Prophets who spoke the truth when others sought to kill them. We see in them the true courage that faith can develop.
It only takes a moment to see this tremendous faith in the world today, people standing up against injustice when the world argues the contrary. Consider the droves of people standing with their hands up and holding signs that say “Black Lives Matter” in response to Ferguson. Consider the droves of people standing shoulder to shoulder with the LGBTQ community during Pride marches in response to fanatical attacks against sexuality.
We remember and read and see the ways people suffer for God’s kingdom and we commend them for their willingness to go and be grace for the world. God sends into our confused and cruel humanity his messengers and prophets. God sends them into the midst of the wolves so that we might not be left to our evil ways, that we may see in them hope for tomorrow, and in response turn back to the God of mercy.
Yet all these, though they are commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. Whether Gideon, Barak, Fletcher Swink, or Zig Volskis, their completion depends on us. Their faith rested in God who would fulfill his promises. They served the Lord as an anchor cast into the days ahead; faith is built on hope for the future.
Abraham’s faith would have been in vain if his descendants never made it to the Land of Promise. Samuel’s faith would have been in vain if he had not responded to God calling him by name in the temple. Paul’s faith would have been in vain if the resurrected Christ had not appeared to him on the road to Damascus.
Apart from us they cannot be made perfect. The completion of those from the Faith Hall of Fame depends on us. We can fulfill their faith even today by going out and being Christ’s body for the world.
We remember the past of scripture, and the past of our church, but we are not to idealize it. We cannot be blind to the mistakes of those who came before us, or allow the past to fasten its dead hand upon us, binding us down to fruitless ideas, ancient prejudices, and old failures. We look back so that we can look forward. Just because “thats the way we’ve always done it” does not mean “thats the way we must do it now.”
Yet too often we forget how indebted we are to the past. We neglect to remember how faithful Abram, Samuel, and Paul were. We brush aside all the pastors who worked with every fiber of their being to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth. Every good thing that we have and enjoy was consecrated by the sacrifices of the past. We have faith because the people of the past passed it along to us. So today, we in our turn cast our anchors into the future. Without those who are to come after us, without the youth of our church and without the children of our preschool, we shall not be made perfect.
We are who we are because of the past. We will become what God intends for us because of the legacy we pass on to the future. Our new beginning comes when we cast our hope into the future of God’s kingdom, when we stand up for something new and different that breaks from the past, when we take steps in faith knowing that God is with us.
God is with us. In a few days we will gather again to celebrate Christ being born into the world to be God with us. We will look to that lowly manger and remember that God came to dwell among us and encourage us to be brave people of faith who remember the past and cast our hope into the future. Our purpose does not depend on our own power, but on the strength of love that comes from the Lord and in community with one another.
I still feel uncomfortable whenever I’m in the parlor. Sets of eyes follow me from the past, and I see in them everything they went through to bring our church to where it is. I believe in their hope cast into the future. In all of you I see the seeds that they planted long ago that are blossoming into true discipleship today.
I see my picture on the wall and feel unworthy. But that’s when I remember that it’s not about me and it’s not about what I do. It’s about what God does through me. It’s about what God does through you. Amen.