Grace Plus Nothing

Psalm 78.17-24

Yet they sinned still more against him, rebelling against the Most High in the desert. They tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. They spoke against God, saying, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness? Even though he struck the rock so that the water gushed out and torrents overflowed, can he also give bread, or provide meat for his people?” Therefore, when the Lord heard, he was full of rage; a fire was kindled against Jacob, his anger mounted against Israel, because they had no faith in God and did not trust his saving power. Yet he commanded the skies above, and opened the doors of heaven; he rained down on them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven. 

John 6.25-35

When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

A woman stands up in a crowded sanctuary.

The gathered people called church have been arguing and arguing about the one thing needful, about what they must do to be saved. 

Some suggest the baptism is the singular requirement, though then they begin to squabble about just how much water needs to be used, and how many people need to be present, and how old the person baptized needs to be.

While others offer thoughts about making a public declaration of faith, like kneeling at the front of the church during an altar call.

While still yet others boisterously complain that unless someone tithes to the church, they shouldn’t have any expectations of going anywhere but down at the end of their days.

The woman stands and patiently raises her hand until everyone stops bickering and they all give her their attention.

She says, “I’ve been doing some reading in this here book, and it seems to be that the whole of faith is this: Grace plus Nothing.”

“Excuse me?” A man shouts from a nearby pew, “If its grace plus nothing, then why bother being good or coming to church or doing anything really?”

The woman calmly responds, “Well, we do those things because they make life more fun.”

Another person interjects, “So, what  you’re saying is, in the end it doesn’t matter how you live your life?”

And the woman says, “Of course it matters how we live! But it doesn’t earn us squat in the Kingdom of God.”

It seems for the briefest of moments that the Holy Spirit has finally showed up through the woman, and yet, it only takes a few minutes before the room returns to arguing.

Now there are two camps – those who align themselves with those who raised objections, who were righteously offended by the talk of Grace plus Nothing and eventually they all storm out of the sanctuary to start their own church down the road.

Works-Righteousness UMC.

However, the other half, those who agree with the woman, they all perk up in their pews when she mentions Grace plus Nothing because for the first time they actually hear the good part of the Good News. So while the other half go off and start their own church, the half intoxicated by grace keep showing up week after week, dragging in all their friends – the disabused, the forgotten, the overlooked, the last, least, lost, and little and they relished in the Gospel.

This is a parable of grace.

And God rained down upon them manna to eat, and gave them the grain of heaven.

The Psalms understand the human condition – in them we catch a mirror glimpse of ourselves at our worst and at our best. The Psalmist, time and time again, lifts up their innermost feelings, articulating needs and fears, hopes and shames, in a way that none of us could on our own.

In short, the Psalms tell the truth.

God’s people were a lot more nimble, were forced to live truly by faith, while God was leading them through the desert. They had a portable tent for worship, they had the ark of the covenant which stood to remind them of the call to love God and one another. And yet, they couldn’t help themselves from looking backward all while God was leading them forward.

“Moses! Where are you dragging us? At least, back in Egypt, we had three square meals a day and water to drink. So what if we had to be slaves for it? Better to be a slave and full than to be free and hungry!”

Moses takes the staff that divided the waters of the Red Sea, strikes a rock in the desert, and water streams forth.

But it ain’t enough for the people of God.

“Moses! The water’s nice and all but can God spread a table in the wilderness? We’re hungry!”

Therefore, the Psalmist tells us, when the Lord heard their complaints, God was full of rage, God’s anger mounted against Israel, because they had no faith and did not trust.

Yet.

Yet!

Yet, God rained down on them manna to eat and gave them the grain of heaven.

This is a parable of grace.

Jesus spends the afternoon feeding 5,000 through his divine mercy. And, when all was said and done, bellies full to the brim, a crowd gathers to question the behavior of this God in the flesh. 

Jesus’ response – You all are looking for me but for the wrong reasons. I delight in giving you food to eat, but I also have something else to offer.

“What must we do?” The crowds intone.

“Believe” Jesus answers.

“Okay, we get that, but how do we really know you can make good on your promise? Can you rain down from manna from heaven for us like Moses did?”

And then Jesus says, “Moses didn’t give you the manna! It was God who gave the good gift!”

“Sure,” they say, “That’s fine. We’d like some of that bread from heaven please.”

And Jesus answers them, “Have you not heard anything I’ve said? I am the bread!”

Another parable of grace. 

What wondrous good news it is that, when Jesus showed up proclaiming the beginning of God’s new kingdom, he did so not with sermons about the Trinity, or the atonement, or justification, or any other big and abstract theological mishmash. Instead, Jesus began by pointing right at our stomachs, to that gnawing, unsatisfied, emptiness within and then invited us to dinner. 

Jesus feeds the hungry – that who Jesus is.

Notably, he fills the 5,000 and then tells the gathered people to work for the food that endures forever. The crowds prepare themselves to hear Jesus’ religious pitch (before he can speak again they’re already asking what’s required). 

But this time it doesn’t end with the guilt trip they’ve all heard so many times before. 

There’s no “I fed you so now you all have to go feed fifty people” or “Because I did this for you, now you have to do something for me. 

Jesus just says, “I, myself, am the bread. Whosoever eats of me will never be hungry.” Think of the crowds during the days of Moses and during the days of Jesus, imagine how they felt while eating the bread. 

Did they deserve it? Did they earn it?

No!

The Psalmist reminds us that they had done everything but deserve it! God’s wrath was kindled against them and yet God gave them the bread anyway. The 5,000 didn’t have to lay out all their good works before Jesus delighted in filling their bellies. 

This is grace.

Grace plus Nothing.

Just when we, the people of God, expect to be clobbered with guilt – You didn’t listen in the wilderness! You haven’t loved your neighbors enough! – we actually get clobbered by grace. 

And, when that happens, we begin to realize that whenever we’ve gone looking for peace or happiness by doing this, that, and the other we’ve actually overlooked the God who has always been looking for us.

The One who offers us the gift we simply don’t deserve.

The heart of Christianity is this – We don’t have to give or say or pay anything – In Christ it has all been given, said, and paid for us. 

And yet, it can be very VERY difficult to receive the gift of God’s grace. 

Consider – Even after being delivered from slavery, God’s people still grumbled. Even after the feeding of the 5,000 the crowds want to know what they have to do. 

It is difficult for us to receive God’s gift because in our “you get what you deserve” world, accepting a gift can be one of the hardest things we’re ever asked to do. 

We’ve always been consumed by the fantasy of self-made people, that we can work for and earn anything our hearts desire. 

The grace of God, however, tells us that there is nothing about God’s love which we can earn, deserve, or work for. It has to be given. It can come only as a gift.

It is by grace and only by grace that we are accepted by God. 

Can God spread a table in the wilderness?

That question is often still our question. We look at the wildness of our lives, we spend more time looking backward than forward, and whenever we encounter our own disappointments and shortcomings, we wonder if God can really do anything about it. 

Frankly, it’s why some of us keep showing up to church week after week, even if we can only do so online – we want an answer to our question. Can God make something of our nothing? Can God spread a table in the wilderness?

And the answer is, quite simply, yes.

God can and God does all the time. God is the Good Shepherd who goes after the one lost sheep, God is the Prodigal Father who rushes out to find us in the street even before we have a chance to apologize, God is the One who, rather than leaving us to our own devices, comes to dwell in the muck and mire of this life to offer us Grace plus Nothing. Amen. 

Covenants Are Made To Be Broken

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for Baptism of the Lord Sunday [B] (Genesis 1.1-5, Psalm 29, Acts 19.1-7, Mark 1.4-11). Drew serves at Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Epiphanytide, the beginning of beginnings, creative speech, Genesis and Jesus, the voice of the Lord, grace-full baptisms, coronatide, ecumenical families, divine parabolas, Greek-ing out, and Deus Dixit. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Covenants Are Made To Be Broken

Disturbing The Peace

Psalm 69.6-9 

Do not let those who hope in you be put to shame because of me, O Lord God of hosts; do not let those who seek you be dishonored because of me, O God of Israel. It is for your sake that I have borne reproach, that shame has covered my face. I have become a stranger to my kindred, an alien to my mother’s children. It is zeal for your house that has consumed me; the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.  

John 2.13-22

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” The Jews then said to him, “What sign can you show us for doing this?” Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews then said, “This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?” But he was speaking of the temple of his body. After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.

It was only a few days after the ordeal at the wedding. They had slept off the hangovers, returned to life as normal, but they couldn’t help but feel as if nothing would ever be normal again.

They were guests at the wedding, one of those affairs where they knew someone who knew someone. It didn’t matter, then, that they were sat at the reject table. They knew how to have a good time and how to make the most of the least.

At least they did, until the wine ran out.

If you’ve ever had the misfortune of being at a wedding party that ran out of booze you’ll have some idea how the tension in the room percolated straight to the surface.

So they sat there, minding their own business, wondering how long they’d have to stay before it was appropriate for them to duck out the side door to see what else Cana had to offer. But then they heard their teacher arguing with his mother.

The discomfort of a dry wedding is one thing, but having to listening to an adult son fight with his mother? That’s another thing entirely.

They tried not to eavesdrop, but it was loud enough for most of the guests to hear. And then, all of the sudden, their guy disappeared into the basement. 

Within 15 minutes the wedding host announced that a miracle had occurred, and they now had enough wine to last them through the night and into the next day. And who were they to turn down an invitation like that from their host?

And so it was, a few days later, on the other side of all the pinot noir and all the partying, they found themselves in Jerusalem.

It was Passover, and all the Jews were making their way to the holy city including the fumbling crew who were still regaling one another with stories about what happened at the wedding.

They arrived at the temple and took in the scene before them. There were groups of people in every direction engaged in the economics of temple worship – some were selling cattle, sheep, and doves, while other exchanged the different currencies to make the system as simple as possible.

It had gone like this for some time.

But then Jesus disappeared again. Though this time he didn’t retreat into a dimly lit basement to turn water into wine, this time he marched straight toward the closest table, grabbed it by the corner, and flipped it high into the air. Coins went flying in every direction as jaws hit the dusty ground.

But he wasn’t done yet. Next he grabbed a leather whip and started chasing after everyone within distance, all while shouting insults about how they ruined his Father’s house.

He ragtag crew of would-be followers stood off to the side and let Jesus do his Jesus thing and they whispered among themselves:

“Is this really such a good idea?”

“If he keeps this up, he’s going to get himself killed.”

And then one of them, maybe Peter, said, “‘Zeal for you house will consume me’ isn’t that what the Psalm says?”

And they all nodded in agreement.

Just then a group of Jews shouted at the mad men with the whip in his hands, “What sign can you show for doing all of this?”

Jesus said, “I’m going to tear this Temple down and in three days raise it up!”

But it made no sense to the crowds that day, and neither did it register with his disciples. Only after he had lived, died, and rose again did they realize that he was talking about himself as the Temple of the Lord.

According to John’s Gospel, this moment by the temple not only kicks off Jesus’ ministry, but it’s also the event that puts a target on his back until he’s nailed to the cross. In one moment of physical and audible proclamation he put the religious elite in their place and shook things up.

Zeal for they house has consumed me.

The New Testament is filled with references to the Old Testament – both explicitly and implicitly. From biblical characters literally quoting from one of the prophets, to simple allusions that run back and forth, to people saying more than they know with the words they use – the two testaments are inextricably tied up with one another. 

Of all the Old Testament books, the prophet Isaiah and the Psalms are quoted the most in the New Testament. In fact, in my line of work, people often refer to Isaiah as the fifth gospel because it show up so much in the other four.

But there is just something special about the way the Psalms show up in the Gospel stories. 

Notably, Jesus, as a good rabbinic jew, would’ve had the whole psalter memorized and the words of Psalms are used by Jesus to refer to himself, and by others to make sense of what they experienced in Jesus. 

Put simply – the psalms are the prayer book of Jesus Christ int he truest sense of the world – Jesus prayed the psalter and now it has become his prayer for for all time.

So when Jesus shows up in the Temple, starts flipping tables and chasing people with the whip, his followers immediately process the scene through one of the Psalms: “zeal for your house has consumed me.”

Contrary to how Jesus is often portrayed with his weak and quiet and reserved demeanor, whether its in sermons or Sunday school classes or even in movies, home boy was quite zealous. That is, he was on fire for things not yet seen.

In our text today he has a temple tantrum, flipping over tables and calling out the powers and principalities all as a commentary against what the faith of God’s people had become.

Regularly throughout his earthly ministry Jesus spent time among the movers and shakers and called them out for taking advantage of the last, least, lost, little, and dead.

Time and time again Jesus walked straight into complicated and even dangerous situations to reveal the confounding nature of grace and faith from meeting Mary Magdalene shortly before her being stoned to death to stopping to talk with the woman at the well.

Jesus was nothing if not zealous.

So much so that, on one notable occasion, his family thought he was completely bonkers and tried to stop him from continuing on the path that inevitably led to his cross.

Or, as the psalmist puts it, I have become a stranger to my kindred, an alien to my mother’s children. It is zeal for your house that has consumed me!

But they didn’t stop him. You see, nothing could stop Jesus from doing when he did – he was consumed with zeal for his Father’s house. 

Jesus sees possibilities where we, too often, see failure. 

Jesus believes in those who have quit believing in themselves.

Jesus makes a way where there is no way.

That’s exactly who Jesus is!

And, lest we ever forgets, God is at least as nice as Jesus which also means that God is at least as zealous as Jesus.

Because Jesus, as Paul reminds us, is the fullness of God revealed.

God is not merely sitting idly by watching the world spin down the toilet – God is showing up in places, flipping the tables of complacent, and is probing us to wonder and the ways things are so that we might move to where things can be

Taking at step back from the scene in the temple, with the tables overturned and the money-lenders cowering in the corner, it’s not hard to imagine the headline in the next issue of the Jerusalem Times: Jesus – The Disturber of the Peace

There have always been disruptors of the peace, those zealots who shake up the status quo.

And yet, the peace disturbed by Jesus that day, and still disturbs today, was no real peace. The weak and the marginalized were getting abused forced into economic hardships all while God’s blessing were being construed as something to be purchased or earned.

And then God in Christ shows up to remind us there is no real transformation without disruption. Faithful following is only every possible because of disruption and dislocation – otherwise we are doomed to remain exactly as we are.

Or, as others have put it, we never move unless someone steps on our toes.

And, for some of us, that doesn’t sound too bad. Some of us would do quite well is things remained exactly as they are. But God is in the business of making something from nothing, of taking us from here to over there, of deliverance.

We might reject transformation and disruption, we might cling with all of our strength to the status quo, we might not be comfortable with Jesus’ zealous side, but none of us could ever rejoice in the knowledge of salvation were it not for Jesus’ disruption of the way things were that eventually led to his crucifixion and resurrection.

Change, real change, good change, is never painless. It’s why we put crosses in our sanctuaries, an ever present remind of what happened should any of us start asking all of the right questions.

We have a method for dealing with disturbers of the peace.

And yet, it only takes a minor gander of the great stories of history to be reminded that the most important shifts from one thing to another have always come because of disruption. 

We can point to the real change makers of the world, those who refused to accept things as they were, but Jesus, whether we like it or not, is the most striking example of disruption, dislocation, and painful challenge to our status quo. Ever since he showed up we’ve never really be able to return to normal because God in Christ is marching on, all while bringing us along for the ride.

“Zeal for your house will consume me,” the psalmist writes and the disciples apply to Jesus. And they were right – The zeal Jesus had for a new day did consume him. So much so that we killed him for it.

But even the grave couldn’t stop our disturber of the peace. Amen.

Families Are Complicated

Matthew 1.1-17

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Merry Christmas!

Here we are on the other side of the manger, the presents have been opened, the zooms with families have taken place, and we find ourselves back in worship waiting on a Word from the Lord.

There’s something about this season that tends to bring out the very best, and the very worst, in families whether or not we are in a pandemic. 

In some homes, Christmastide is the blessed opportunity to be together, to rejoice in the past, present, and future of the people we are connected to. And, in other homes, Christmastide is when everyone waits anxiously for the inevitability of all the old arguments bubbling to the surface.

I can remember one particular Christmas Eve when, after the service ended, an extended family made their way up to the altar to take that perfect holiday photo with two adult brothers flanking either end of the framing with their respective families.

They hadn’t talked in 10 years but they never failed to have their families together for a picture.

Families are complicated.

And perhaps no family was and is more complicated than Jesus’.

The Gospel according to John begins with a connection to the cosmos – in the beginning was the Word. 

The Gospel according to Mark doesn’t even have an introduction and just hits the ground running with J the B out in the wilderness. 

The Gospel according to Luke gives us some authorial remarks regarding the necessity for the transmission of the Good News.

The Gospel according to Matthew gets down to earth and puts the family of Jesus in the particular context and the history of Israel. And the closer you get down to earth, the earthier it all becomes.

So, for the next 10 or so minutes, I’m going to try and bring us through the genealogy of the baby born King we were worshipping on Christmas Eve. And, hopefully, you will see that my claim of Jesus’ sordid family history is not in vain.

We begin with Abraham. We start with good ol’ Abe because everything that follows hangs on him and his faith. He is the one in whom and with whom God makes the covenant, in him the promise of blessed generations begins. Finally, near the end of his days when he was good and old, Abraham becomes the father of Isaac.

And yet, the faith of Abraham, a staple in both the Old and New Testaments, meant that, while Isaac was still a boy he nearly had his life ended by his faithful father. Nevertheless, he survived to father Jacob, a devious trickster of a kid who solidified his position in salvation history by lying and swindling his aging father.

Incidentally, Jacob was himself duped as well. He wound up sleeping with the wrong bride by mistake, and became the father of Judah.

And, because families are complicated, Judah accidentally slept with his own daughter-in-law Tamar, who pulled one over on him by dressing up as a harlot (more on them in a moment). When Judah discovered that his daughter-in-law got knocked up while a lady of the night he order her burned at the stake. He only relented when, of course, he discovered that he, himself, fathered the child in her, Perez.

And that’s just the first few generations.

Next follows a list of people we know nothing about until we get to Boaz.

Scripture tells us that Boaz was a good and honorable man and his conjugal connections with Ruth continue the family line. Notably, Ruth shows up at Boaz’s house late one night, prior to marriage, and uncovers his feet. 

If you know what the Bible means.

And this kind of behavior should not have been surprising to Boaz because his mother was Rahab, the harlot who had the sweetest little house on the edge of Jericho, who hid the agents of Joshua, and who was brought into the people Israel after the city of massacred.

Anyway, Ruth and her Bo-az (get it?) made life in Bethlehem, the little town of bread, and part of their story (at least scripturally) often shows up as a preferred text in wedding services. You know, the whole “where you go I will go, your people will be my people” bit.

I wonder how many couples who hear those words at the altar know the other parts of the story…

But back to the family – what seems to be important for Matthew’s recollection of the genealogy is that Ruth, a pagan foreigner, felt compelled to do whatever it took to carry on the family line, a line that led to David and eventually to Jesus.

Ruth gave birth to Obed, who was the father of Jesse, the father of David.

If you couldn’t tell, the first section of the genealogy focuses heavily on reproduction and the ways in which reproduction gets messy.

The next section centers around violence.

King Dave, after all the battles and all the victories, chanced upon a naked bathing woman during some afternoon peeping. He used the power at his disposal to arrange her husband’s murder, raped her, and became the father of Solomon, the one with all the wisdom.

The whole story of David is full to the brim with intrigue and murder.

A lot of murder.

In many ways, David was simply a very successful bandit who, along with the Holy Spirit, brought together a bunch of tribes and started a real kingdom.

However, Solomon’s son Rehoboam lost almost all of David’s gain through insatiable greed. He, according to the strange new world of the Bible, encouraged pagan cults and even sacred male prostitutes.

The next few names int he genealogical record aren’t much to speak of, though at least two of them had some idea about what it meant to be covenanted with the great IAM. 

Nevertheless, from Jehosophat through Joram and Ahaziah, its quite the sordid affair. Should you find some extra time on your hands, you can skim through the canon and learn about murdered sons, blood thirsty kings, assassins, and so on.

Perhaps the first Sunday after Christmas isn’t the best opportunity to take a peak behind the curtain of God’s Holy Word, but it’s all there. All the way up to, and through, the exile.

After the period of being strangers in a strange land, of wrestling between planting roots and getting plucked up, things only get marginally better for the holiest of families. But only because most of the names in Matthew’s genealogy aren’t mentioned anywhere else in scripture.

And finally, FINALLY, we make our way all the way down until we encounter the little town of Bethlehem with Joseph who Matthews describes as a just man (which must be saying something in comparison with his ancestors). And who does Joseph bring to the family village? His pregnant virgin fiancé Mary.

That’s Jesus’ family tree, in all its glory.

What should we make of it?

Well, not to put too fine a point on things, but Jesus obviously did not belong to the nice clean world of all the worst Hallmark Christmas movies, he did not belong to the reasonable, or honest, or sincere world of decency that we all too often claim for ourselves today.

Jesus belonged to a family of murderers, cheats, cowards, scoundrels, adulterers, and liars.

Jesus belonged to people like us, and he came for people like us.

No wonder God had to send his Son into the world. Jesus is the only hope we’ve got. Amen.

Far As The Curse Is Found

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 sign 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.

All the angels were gathered around the heavenly throne for a conversation. Things were quite a mess down on earth (as usual). And the Creator was growing concerned about the state of Creation – endless wars, frivolous fighting, frightening famines.

“I’ve tried everything!” God complained. “I’ve shared with them some of the most beautiful words any of them could ever hope to hear. The Psalms! The Hymns! The Covenant! They love to hear about peace and goodwill and mercy, but they certainly don’t like to live it!”

God continued, “Then I sent them the prophets. They love Isaiah and the promise of release from their sufferings, freedom from their exile. But do they follow the precepts of the prophets about justice and righteousness rolling down like waters? Never!”

There was then widespread discussion of the sad state of affairs on earth. Many of the angels – Gabriel, Michael, and others had gone down there on many an occasion. They had seen for themselves the sources of God’s lament and they too shared God’s concern.

“I think,” God began, “The only thing left is for one of you, a member of the heavenly court, to go down to earth. Live with them, not just for a moment, but every day. Get to know them, become one of them, let them get to know you. Only then will heaven’s intent be truly communicated to them. Only then will they take notice of the great gap between the way they have been living and the way they were created. Only then will we be able to reveal to them who I created them to be.”

The angels all stood in awkward silence. They had been among the people of God before, delivering messages on behalf of the Lord. They weren’t about to volunteer for long-term duty in such a murderous, sinful, and difficult place.

The silence lasted for an eternity. Finally, God spoke quietly but with determination, “It was always going to be me. I will go.”

This is a parable of Incarnation.

The first Christmas was one that the people Israel had been hoping for. Again and again in the Old Testament we read of the deplorable state of world, the need for deliverance and redemption, only to return the miserable estate of humanity. The people, as Isaiah intones, walked in darkness. 

Stuck in exile.

No hope for tomorrow.

A loss of all that was good, and right, and holy.

And then, Christmas.

Those who walked in darkness have seen a great light. The oppressive rule of sin and death come to the beginning of their end in the baby born King of kings. The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay (as the old hymn goes) is the one in whom all things move and live and have their being. Authority rests on his shoulder – he is the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

He is God in the flesh.

Notice – the power of today, of Christmas Eve, is not found in the fact that the baby lying in the manger becomes the eternal judge of the living and the dead. What strikes us to our heart of hearts is this: the eternal Judge, very God of very God, the Alpha and the Omega, has become that little baby!

Christmas, ultimately, is about the utter absurdity of God’s humility. And when we come to grips with the great chasm across which God traversed to dwell among us, how God in the flesh’s story ultimately leads to us putting him on the cross, we realize, frighteningly, that God doesn’t really need us. God could do very well without us mucking up His creation all the time. 

And yet, God is moved by our need of him. 

God, bewilderingly, condescends to come and be with us, among us, and ultimately die for us.

God, confoundingly, takes our place and surrenders himself for us, binding himself to us forever and ever. 

God, bizarrely, chooses to take on flesh in the form of a baby to shine light in a world stuck in chaos and darkness. 

The arrival of God into the world incarnated in Christ fundamentally shakes reality to the core. For God has come for all – for those who celebrate this Christmas Eve with frivolity and joy, for those who are afraid of what tomorrow might bring, for those who have plenty to repent of, and for those in detail of having any need for repentance. 

Our existence is upended because a child has been born to us, and he is our salvation. Our salvation, regardless of whether we understand it or believe it, whether or not we are good or pious people. This child is born for us. 

We now live in the new day which God has made, a day ruled by the light of the world who shines in the darkness. 

Year ago, on one of my first Christmas Eves as a pastor, I stood outside the doors of the church welcoming in the last stragglers before the service began. I had already greeted more unfamiliar faces than I could count, made small talk with people I saw every week and with people I would never see again, and the final car pulled into the parking lot while the organist started playing the first hymn.

I had a choice to make in that moment; either, get the show on the road, walk in the church, and sing at the top of my lungs or, wait, let the service start without me, and greet the last person to arrive.

I chose the latter.

The choir frantically flocked around wondering what to do while I shewed them down the center aisle and I went back outside in the dark and cold night. Out of the car came a little old man who shuffled with the help of cane and with a decisively Ebeneezer Scrooge scowl on his face. By the time he made it to the door the organist had started the hymn over again wondering where I was. So I politely, and quickly, offered him my hand, opened the door, and welcomed him to church. But before I had a chance to run down the aisle he grabbed me by the stole and said, “Sonny, I only come to church once a year so I better hear some Good News tonight.”

It seems that, no matter how hard we try, the world just keeps drowning in bad news. 

Global pandemic.

Economic uncertainty.

Restrictions on numbers of people gathering together.

We are not unlike the people who, to use Isaiah’s word, “walked in darkness.”

All of us, the tall and the small, the good and the bad, we are in need of some Good News.

So hear the Good News: God in Christ, born to us this day, has brought us salvation. God is our helper, liberator, and redeemer. God rescues us and delivers us. We live because God is with us.

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

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

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. Merry Christmas. Amen.

The World Turned Upside Down

Luke 2.1-14

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and 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, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Merry Christmas!

The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Jesus Christ tonight!

There’s just something about Christmas isn’t there?

No matter how old or jaded we may be, regardless of whether or not we deserve coal in our stockings, Christmas never fails to work some magic.

Maybe its the music, or the candles, or the knowledge of what tomorrow might bring – Christmas is the difference that makes the difference.

And here we are! 

Albeit, not in the way we wanted and not in the way we would’ve imagined. We’re tuning in for Christmas worship this year unlike any other. Some of you were perhaps raised in this church and wouldn’t dream of doing anything else but sit behind your computer or phone or iPad tonight to hear what God has to say. While some of you were just scrolling through social media and decided to stop. Some of you, no doubt, are being forced to watch this against your will! Perhaps God will have something special in store for you tonight!

Whoever you are and whatever feelings, thoughts, and questions you have tonight, it is my hope and prayer that you encounter the incarnate Lord who makes his blessing flow far as the curse is found.

“Do not be afraid” the angel says, “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.”

Odd. 

That’s what Christmas really is.

It’s strange.

Now, it might not feel strange, with all of our sanitized nativity scenes set up throughout our homes, and our lights hanging from the gutters for the last few weeks, and Nat King Cole’s voice crooning through our bluetooth speakers.

But Christmas is, for lack of a better word, different.

And we bring to this oddest of nights all sorts of thoughts and expectations. We assume that Christmas is the time that sets everything right. You know, Christmas is the time to come home, to return to those types of memories when all was warm and bright, when everything that’s come upside down in our lives is set, at least for a few days in December, right side up.

And this year, it feels like everything is wrong. 

A global pandemic.

Economic devastation.

Gathering restrictions on how many people we can actually be with.

And so, we believe, that Christmas stands as this beacon where, in spite of whatever confusion might be happening in world, tonight things are set right.

Yet, according to the strange new world of the Bible, Christmas was the time when everything was turned upside down.

Consider – It wasn’t about a perfect mother who had the right pregnancy reveal on Instagram and subsequent photos of the color-coordinated nursery and the cutest invitations to her catered baby shower. It was about Mary, an unwed mother-to-be, pregnant in an upside down and impossible way, forced by governing authorities to relocate to a city where there was no room for her, her finance, and the Logos momentarily waiting in her womb.

Consider – The message of the incarnation, the birth of the baby born King doesn’t come through the official state sanctioned media outlet, there’s no announcement in the Jerusalem Times, there’s not even a carefully crafted and endlessly retweeted tweet. It was delivered in a song sung by angels.

Consider – The Good News came not to the learned and the powerful, not to the president or the president elect, not to the movers and the shakers. It was shared first with a bunch of dirty shepherds working the night shift.

Consider – The Word made flesh wasn’t surrounded by the best medical team with a crew of doctors ready to jump in at a moment’s notice. He was placed in a feeding trough.

Christmas isn’t when everything was right – but it’s certainly when God started really turning things upside down. It’s when God shows up in the strangest and most vulnerable of ways to reconstitute the fabric of reality not to make it the way things used to be, but to set the cosmos on a course to how things can be.

And maybe, just maybe, that’s why you find yourself watching and listening tonight. Because your world might not be all that it could be. But, be warned. It is risky coming before the babe at Bethlehem, for God delights in grabbing the rug right under our feet, and when the Lord pulls, no one knows where we’ll wind up.

O come let us adore him, we sing. We come to the manger scene expecting to meet what we have already thought before we arrive. We come expecting, and perhaps hoping, for the fulfillment of our desires, the confirmation of all our prejudices and preconceived notions. 

In some way, we want to know that Jesus is on our side, whatever that might mean.

But we are wrong.

Dead wrong.

For Jesus is like us but he is also totally unlike us. Jesus is the Lord made flesh.

Which makes our Christmases even stranger. We often present tonight as something spiritual or mystical. Or, on the other hand, we criticize others for making this time of year too materialistic. 

But Christmas really is a reminder that Christianity is inherently materialistic. God becomes material in Jesus. 

God becomes us.

Is God in Christ, then, the perfect, magnanimous, and serene figure often displayed in stained glass windows? Is he holier than thou, looking down upon us in our misery every chance he gets? Is he perennially shaking his head with regard to the disappointing efforts of human progressivism?

Or, is Jesus as Jesus is revealed in the strange new world of the Bible?

For the baby we worship tonight grows not to be very respectable at all – he breaks the sabbath, consorts with crooks and criminals, and he even insists on a public demonstration of protest by flipping over the tables in the temple.

He eats dinner with sinners. He shares wine with the last, least, lost, little, and on one memorable occasion, the recently dead.

He dies as a criminal. He becomes sin for us sinners, weak for us weaklings, lost for us losers.

And the angel says this is Good News.

What makes the Good News of Christ so good is the fact that everybody, even the worst stinker in the world, is somebody for whom Christ was born and for whom Christ died.

Contrary to how we’ve made it out in church, God isn’t born into the world to see if we are good little girls and boys, instead he comes to disturb the conventions by which we pretend to be good.

God isn’t born into the world to see if we are sorry for all of our sins, instead he already knows our repentance isn’t worth the hot air we put into it because we’ all jump back in the sinning business just as soon as we apologize for it.

God isn’t born into the world to come and count up all of our mistakes, instead he lives, he dies, and he lives again all while throwing out the ledger against us forever.

In short, Christmas turns the world upside down forever because God in Christ comes only to forgive.

For free.

For nothing.

On no basis on our part.

Because we are far too gone, and up the creek without a paddle, to do much of anything for ourselves in the first place.

Christ is our only hope. 

He, himself, is the Good News.

And in him the dawn of redeeming grace has arrived, the world turned upside down. Amen.

Unsettled

2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16

Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.” But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.

It was the perfect Christmas Eve service.

The weather was just cold enough with the faintest hints of snows falling from the sky without it worrying people away from driving to the local church. 

The little cherubic children had practiced “Away In A Manger” for months and were ready to sing before the gathered people with little pipe cleaner halos hanging above their heads.

The pastor had prepared the perfect pulpit proclamation with enough humor and theological gravitas to get the ChrEasters (Christmas and Easter only people) back in church the following Sunday.

And the highlight of highlights was the so-called Living Nativity scene outside on the front lawn with the holy family, magi, angels, shepherds, sheep, goats, and one particularly cheerful looking donkey.

Like I said, it was perfect.

At the end of the service, while groups made their way up to the altar to take their traditional family color coordinated Christmas Eve pictures for Instagram, as the pastor shook hands and made small talk with all the unfamiliar faces, while the organist went through a carefully crafted holiday medley, as the poinsettias were passed out to later adorn dining room tables, while children scarfed down the sweets that were promised for good behavior during the service, as the ushers counted the largest offering ever received on a Christmas Eve… Joe and Maria, a man and young pregnant woman, stood outside the church shivering in the cold. 

Their clothes were mismatched from an assortment of thrift stores, their bellies rumbled at a volume that could only rival the braying donkey, and they prayed that someone, anyone, would be able to help.

So they waited, listening to the laughter and frivolity that was taking place on the other side of the sanctuary doors.

And finally, while families fell out of the church, the couple spoke softly and humbly as asking if anyone had a place they could stay for the night, and every single person, pastor included, walked right passed them as if they didn’t exist.

Merry Christmas indeed.

King David was feeling high and mighty, all settled in his house. He sent for the prophet Nathan and said, “Don’t you think it’s about time we built a temple for the Lord who has delivered us from the hands of our enemies? I mean, we’ve got all this power and wealth and what good is it if we don’t show it off? I mean, for God!”

And the prophet intoned, “Sure, the Lord is with you.”

But that very same night, while the prophet was asleep in his bed, the word of the Lord came to Nathan and said, “Are you out of your mind? Go tell that David these words: I don’t need a house to live in, I don’t need a box for you to hide me away. I am the Lord God. I’m a mover and a shaker. I’ve got things to do, and you can’t domesticate this Spirit. Remember – It was me, The I AM, who took you from your father’s fields, I was with you when you took down the mighty Goliath, I was with you when you danced before the ark, and I will be with until the end. I’ve got plans for my people. So don’t waste your time with a temple, greater things are in store for the people Israel.”

An apt and succinct summary for this passage from 2 Samuel might be: My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.

In the strange new world of the Bible we come across a king and a prophet who are contradicted by the Word of the Lord – with all of their comfort and complacency they were so sure that they had it all figured out only to have it turned upside down.

Today, we’ve got plenty of examples in which, both in the religious and political realms, there are those who have no doubt what God’s purposes and plans are only to have them 180’d.

There’s a church in San Francisco that was having a problem. On Sunday mornings, while families and individuals walked through the main doors, they were treated to the smells and the sights and the sounds of the homeless who had slept in the alcove the night before. Sure, the ushers had shoo’d most of them away before the service but their presence was still palpable. 

Week after week the pastor and the leadership of the church fielded complaints about the problem and people wanted to know what the church could do to help.

So, like any good church, they formed a committee and started a fundraiser. In a few short weeks they amassed $20,000 and decided to put it to good use.

Did they use the money to start a feeding ministry?

Did they use the funds to subsidize some low-income housing for those in need?

Did they use the finances to start job training programs?

Nope.

They used that 20 grand to install a motion sensor sprinkler system with the solitary purpose of spraying water every sixty seconds throughout the night to prevent anyone from trying to gather in the alcoves. 

The Word from the Lord today in 2 Samuel serves as a warning against any overly assured reading of the will of God and reminds us, pertinently, that God is God and we are not.

But this also comes as a great challenge. 

For, we are so sure, most of the time, of what God is up to (particularly during Advent). Most of us have heard the story of Mary and Joseph making their way to Bethlehem so many times, or we’ve seen enough plastic nativity scenes, or we’ve heard the crooning Christmas carols over and over again, such that we cannot see or hear how bewildering the story really is.

Our Advents and Christmases are far too domesticated for the Lord who refuses to be kept in a box.

Consider – God scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, God brings down the mighty form their thrones, God lifts up the lowly, God fills the hungry with good things, God sends the rich away empty.

We worship a God who acts before we do and, more often than not, catches us by surprise.

David lived a life of surprises: He was anointed by the prophet Samuel after taking care of the sheep one afternoon, he confoundingly took down the mighty Goliath, he hid away from the wrath of Saul in a cave, he became king over Israel. Sure he was handsome and crafty, but the only reason David got to be the David we know is because God was with him. And yet, near the end of his days, he thought it only right to build a dwelling place for the Lord who had delivered him, and his people, time and time again. 

But God does not rest on God’s laurels.

God is in the business of finding dwelling places not for God’s self but for God’s people. God is always ahead of us, from making the covenant with Abraham to waiting in Galilee for the disciples on the other side of the resurrection, God is moving and acting and shaking things up in ways that will surprise us.

Who could’ve imagined that the second born heel-grabbing twin would be the one through whom God’s blessing would be bestowed?

Who would’ve imagined that a harlot who lived on the edge of Jericho would be part of salvation’s genealogy?

Who could’ve imagined that a little shepherd boy would one day be king?

In all times and in all places, we do well to dwell upon where, today, God is moving ahead of us and acting in ways that we cannot even imagine.

What assumptions do we have about what is perfect and pleasing in God’s sight?

In what ways are we still trying to domesticate the wildness of God’s Spirit?

How receptive are we to the God who blows where He chooses and not necessarily where we choose?

Remember – God delights in the surprise!

Over and over again in scripture, and in life, God chooses the unexpected to bring about the Kingdom. God plucks people out of complacency and says, in different ways, shapes, and forms, “I’ve got a job for you!” God stirs up our understandings of the world, flips them upside down, and calls it Good News.

This is the final Sunday of Advent, our time between time. This season has a way of setting the stage for the already but not yet all while getting under our skin. Advent compels us, forces us, to slow down, wait, and notice what we so often miss. 

God is God and we are not.

God works and moves in the world in ways that we would not, were it up to us.

And here, on the final Sunday of Advent, with thoughts of David and Nathan, with thoughts of Mary and Joseph, we cannot help ourselves but relish in the strange and wondrous and confounding Good News of Christmas.

For, the Messiah is born in the last place left in the little town of bread, to a virgin named Mary who has no standing in the world. 

He grows up in the hick town of Nazareth, and leaves only to spend the rest of his days among the last, least, lost little, and dead.

And, (most surprisingly) he becomes obedient, even to the point of death – death on a cross.

That’s the God we worship.

God is not some perfect and clean and respectful and tame deity that we often domesticate throughout the church.

Our God is on the move, upsetting expectations, calling upon people we would usually ignore, and making a way where there is no way.

God reminds Nathan, and therefore David, that God is perfectly comfortable remaining in the tent. Why? Because tents are made to be moved. We, on the other hand, we rejoice in building temples and monuments and buildings to proclaim stability and importance. We do this, in large part, because we are afraid.

We are afraid of being forgotten. We are afraid of death. We are afraid that we won’t have anything to show for the lives we’ve been given

And how does God respond to our attempts of permanence?

God laughs.

God laughs at our feeble attempts at immortality by kicking up the winds of change and declaring that all things are being made new. 

God laughs at our struggles for perfect moral existence and proclaims forgives for sins. 

God laughs at our certainty and shows up in the most surprising of ways, as a baby, to change the world. Amen. 

Start Acting Like A Child!

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the First Sunday After Christmas [B] (Isaiah 61.10-62.3, Psalm 148, Galatians 4.4-7, Luke 2.22-40). Teer serves at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Gift-giving, church complaints, Christmastide, loud voices, cowbell, praying for the land, the Gospel in 4 verses, public displays of piety, intergenerational ministry, outrageous grace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Start Acting Like A Child!

Christmas Is Who We Are

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Jason Micheli and Teer Hardy about the readings for Christmas Eve [B] (Isaiah 9.2-7, Psalm 96, Titus 2.11-14, Luke 2.1-20). Jason serves at Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA and Teer serves at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including simple themes, pandemic worship, sitting on the fence with Isaiah, Jesus’ titles, quoting Karl Barth, the great leveling, Sean Connery and SNL, detailed details, and true peace. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Christmas Is Who We Are

Give God The Verbs

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Ben DeHart about the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent [B] (2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16, Luke 1.46b-55, Romans 16.25-27, Luke 1.26-38). Ben is the Associate Rector at Calvary-St. George’s Church in NYC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including phenomenal music, the uncontrollable God, riffing on the Magnificat, Kingdom ethics, the Prayer of Humble Access, obedience, impossible possibility, Israel’s calling, Hell, and Fleming Rutledge. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Give God The Verbs