The Love That Is The Cross

Isaiah 11.1-10

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious. 

“I’m going to keep this short.”

That’s an incredible way to start a speech, or even a sermon.

And 99% of the time, it isn’t true. 

To start with such a declaration puts people at ease because they’ve been duped into thinking they only have to pay attention a little. For, brevity leads to clarity, doesn’t it?

“I’m going to keep this short,” is usually the prelude to a lot of pontificating that often leaves us no wiser than when we began.

It’s usually an indication that whatever follows wasn’t thought through, and is usually off the cuff.

Which, in a place like this, is a bad idea. Who knows what kind of random theological riff-raff might come forth from a short stump speech.

And, to be clear, I’m not railing against the strange promise of a short declaration just because Fred Sistler started his sermon that way last week.

I would never do something like that.

I’m a Christian!

Stump speeches. They are a regular occurrence in the political fabric of our reality. They trace back to the 19th century during which politicians would go about from town to town “stumping” – offering brief highlights on what they planned to do in office should they get elected, usually with key words and phrases that they repeated over and over and over again.

A stump speech is like having one sermon and using it week after week.

And, of course, the “stump” part of “stump speech” comes from the practice of standing on a tree stump to get high enough for better visibility and greater oration. 

Other stumpy items from the 19th century included tables, chairs, and even whiskey barrels.

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement, rather famously stood on his father’s gravestone in order to proclaim the gospel since he was no longer welcome to preach in churches.

I, myself, prefer preaching from a ladder.

But even here, right in the middle of the chancel area, slightly elevated, this is somewhat of an ecclesial stump where I, and plenty others, have stumped for Jesus.

We might call it our sanctified stump for salvation.

And stump speeches, though often short and repetitive, really can make all the difference in the world. Sometimes all it takes is one story, one word even, for the skies to open up, and all of God’s grace comes pouring down.

When the Good News actually sounds like good news, it changes everything.

Even us.

My former professor Stanley Hauerwas is known for his stump speeches. He has these recurring quotes and proclamations that he goes back to over and over again. I remember a classmate asking him why he said the same thing so many times, and he said, “Because they’re true.”

Some years ago, while lecturing in Scotland, using those same stumpy proclamations, Dr. Hauerwas was asked to preach at the cathedral of Edinburgh. Massive building with a huge pulpit, hardly a stump. The pulpit there is so large, in fact, that it has its own staircase that the preacher has to ascend in order to preach. And, when the appointed time arrived, Hauerwas marched up the stairs but right before he made it to the top, he heard a small door close behind him as well as a key turning in the lock. 

Hauerwas, bewildered by the turn of events, demanded to know what was happening, when someone on the other side of the pulpit door said, “It’s a tradition in this church, dating back to the days of the Reformation. We lock the preacher in the pulpit, and we keep the preacher there until they give us the Gospel.”

Stumping for Jesus.

And yet, a stump is no glorious thing.

A stump, after all, is only possible if a tree has been chopped down. Stumps are signs of death. 

By the time the prophet Isaiah rolls around, the Davidic kingdom is nothing but a stump. All the promise, all the hope, all the dreams had fizzled out. The holy city was sacked again and again, people were sent to live in exile. There was no bright hope for tomorrow.

And Isaiah says, “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots!”

How strange. It’s as if the prophet has lost his ever-loving mind. He looks out on failed promises, idolatry, ruin, and yet he sees something more.

Feeling stumped is, sadly, all too familiar for God’s people even today, particularly during Advent. We might rejoice in memories from years ago, but we know that things can never really be like they once were. We might sit comfortably in these pews, but there’s a better than good chance that we’re also feeling the anxiety that is all to common during this season. We might sing the songs, and purchase the presents, and drive around looking at lights, but that doesn’t automatically make this the most wonderful time of the year.

We know what it means to be stumped, to feel as if nothing good is left.

And what do we do when we’re stumped? To whom do we turn? What relief can we find?  

Netflix with the never ending assortment of holiday movies that follow the exact predictable formula over and over? Discounts at the ABC store? Scrolling through instagram seeing perfect people with their perfect lives?

Kurt Vonnegut once opined that no one should read beauty magazines because they will only make us feel ugly.

The same could be said of Instagram.

And yet, when Isaiah sees the stump, he sees hope! The roots are still pulling nutrients from the soil, a new shoot will sprout forth bringing life and life abundant. The new shoot from Jesse’s stump is the promise that God isn’t done with God’s people. 

That’s what happens when you worship the God of impossible possibility, even stumps can bring about something new.

And that something new is a person.

Listen – the Spirit will rest upon him and he will know the fear of the Lord. He will even delight in his fear! He will come with judgment and righteousness and he will make all things right.

Sounds pretty good. This new shoot will be the difference maker, a warrior. But what strange weapons! He shall slay the enemy with the Word, not with swords. He will destroy all opponents with the Spirit, not by slaying. He will wear a belt of righteousness for the battle, not Batman’s belt with gadgets and gizmos aplenty.

And with the victory comes even stranger results! The wolf will live with the lamb, the calf and the lion and the fatling together. The cow and bear shall graze. And a little child shall lead them.

Everything about this proclamation is unexpected. The line of David is nothing but a stump, forsaken and dead. And yet, from it the ruler of the cosmos will come. Animals that have no business being together shall live in peace. And a child shall lead them. 

It sounds so good and so perfect. And yet, 700 years after Isaiah’s announcement, John the Baptist arrives on the scene, preparing the way of the Lord, announcing a baptism for the repentance of sins. He calls the religious elite broods of vipers because they have lost sight of Isaiah’s vision.

John says, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees!” 

The stump of Jesse, the ax at the roots. John and Isaiah together see a reality that no one else does. They see the sign of the time. “On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples.”

What is the sign?

Have you ever wondered what became of the tree that was chopped down in order to make the stump? Have you ever seen the connection between Isaiah’s proclamation and John’s declaration?

The stump is only possible because a tree was brought down. And do you know what we did with the tree? We nailed Jesus to it.

The root of Jesse is the cross. It stands on a hill far away, the emblem of suffering and shame. And it is glorious. 

Some will say, this time of year, that we need to keep Christ is Christmas. Sure. That’s fine. But if we’re going to keep Christ in Christmas, we should also consider what it might mean to keep the Cross in Christmas. 

It’s Advent. This is the time of year when we hear the most difficult, demanding, bad news to ever be called good – The Cross. Every Advent we have our worlds’ rocked, tables turned, foundations shaken, demons put to rot, and dead dreams brought back to life. 

All things are possible in Advent because we worship the God of impossible possibly. The God who delights in upending all of our expectations of how the world is supposed to work.

Jesus really is the reason for the season, as is his cross. And lest we domesticate the Lord to mere flannel graphs and perfectly manicured manger scenes, Jesus was and is still so provocative that the powers and principalities are forever trying to shut him up. But nothing can stop Jesus. He’s going to say and do things that change everything.

Not even the cross can stop him.

In fact, the cross is our salvation. It’s a stump that brings forth new life. That’s why we can call it glorious.

Therefore, whenever someone stands in this place and stumps for Jesus, we are called to do exactly that – We point to Jesus Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, the shoot from the stump of Jesse, the one who makes a way where there is no way.

The promise of Advent is that no matter what stumps us in this life, God is going to get what God wants. Predator and prey will dwell together. Peace will reign. And a child will lead us. 

The promise of Advent is that Jesus is the shoot, the branch that grows into a cruciform tree bearing the fruit that is salvation because Jesus is always stumping on our behalf, even when it costs him his life. 

The promise of Advent is that new life always starts in the dark, whether in the womb or the tomb, whether underground or the lost being found; new life starts in the dark.

Therefore, the next time you encounter a stump, take a good look at it, because you may be looking at your salvation. Amen. 

A Sermon I Didn’t Preach (or: Hopes & Fears)

What makes a sermon, a sermon?

I’ve long held that the mere writing of a sermon, words on a page, don’t actually make it much of anything. A sermon is only a sermon when it is proclaimed among and for God’s people within the context of worship. The prayers, music, and even presence of individuals make the sermon what it is because the Holy Spirit delights in making the words proclaimed from the pulpit God’s words for us.

And so, I have a sermon that is not really a sermon. I prayed over these words and put them together for the first Sunday of Advent, but became sick prior to Sunday morning and never actually preached them. Oddly enough, I am grateful that I didn’t preach this sermon because Isaiah’s insistence on God’s people beating swords into ploughshares, and my take on what that might mean today, was sure to upset quite a few in the pews. And yet, if we believe the church lives according to God’s future in the present, then perhaps every Sunday is an opportunity to proclaim the radical audacity of our hope in the God “who shall come to judge between the nations.”

Anyway, here’s the text and “sermon”…

Isaiah 2.1-5

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord form Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

We begin at the end.

7 centuries before the Advent of Christ, before the little town of Bethlehem hosted the heavenly host, before the little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head, the prophet Isaiah saw a word.

What an interesting turn of phrase.

The prophet doesn’t see a vision, he doesn’t hear a word, he sees the word.

In the days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains and all people will stream to it. A king will come and teach the ways of the Lord, the instruction will command the attention of the masses.

And what does this king teach?

An eye for an eye!

Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!

Life’s hard, get a helmet!

No.

The king will teach the way of peace. He will come to judge the living and the dead. And, in judgment, the people will beat their swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruning hooks. Their weapons of war will become instruments of agriculture.

Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

Even if you’ve never read from the prophet Isaiah, you’ve probably heard these words before. Or, perhaps better put, you’ve seen them, or some version of them.

We’re familiar with these words because they have captivated the imaginations of the faithful for generations, just think of the famous images during protests against the Vietnam war and all the people who placed flowers inside the barrels of guns. 

And, interestingly, this prophetic proclamation from Isaiah is engraved in large letters on the wall directly across the street from the United Nations. There they rest, day after day, mocking our feeble attempts to make peace while we continue to lift up our swords against one another.

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Isaiah sees the word about the days to come. He does not know when, or even how, these things will come to fruition, but the prophet catches a glimpse behind the curtain of the cosmos and he seeds the end.

It’s a bit odd that we begin at the end. Today, after all, is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new year and we start with the conclusion. But, then again, it’s only right for us to do so because we are Easter people, we’re stuck squarely between the already but the not yet. 

There’s a through line in the Gospels, frankly the whole of the strange new world of the Bible, about time. We sees these words about the past, the present, and the future, and it’s not altogether clear which ones are which. And yet, if there is a persistent proclamation, it is that we belong not to this age, but to the age to come. That’s why Paul can write in his letter to the church in Rome, do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.

We are a people out of time. We live in the future because we know that the tomb is empty.

But the future we live in its not a future that we bring to fruition.

There’s a temptation, every time Advent rolls around, for us to feel like it’s our responsibility to make the world come out right; that its up to us to make the word Isaiah sees real. 

To use language from Stanley Hauerwas, we play at waiting this time of year. Advent, after all, is all about patience isn’t it. And yet, for us, it isn’t. We can’t help but make ourselves the main character of the story. We rejoice in this language of getting back to God, of climbing back up the mountain, of making the world a better place.

But, when was the last time we left church jazzed up to turn our swords into ploughshares, or transform our guns into garden shovels?

Did you know that there are more guns in this country than human beings?

The word Isaiah sees is not predicated on us finally getting everything good enough that we can be good enough for God. In fact, its quite the opposite. The end is made possible only as we come to grips with our badness and how badly we need someone to do for us, and to us, that which we cannot do on our own.

Isaiah sees swords turned into ploughshares, a people willing to relinquish their forms of control for forms of sustenance, a people of peace. The strange new world of the Bible is filled with impossible possibilities just like that. The Lord will bring the hills low, and raise the valleys up. The Lord will make the last first, and the first last. The Lord turns a sign of death (the cross), into the sign of life (salvation).

The end is not yet. We Easter people are oddly stuck living in the time of Advent. We exist in the time in between, the time being as Auden put it. We make it through this mortal life waiting and hoping for things not yet seen.

That’s why we sing of the hopes and fears of all the years. We know not all is as it should be, but we also know that the future is coming, and his name is Jesus. 

“Building a better future for our children.” I saw that on a sign recently. And I hear those kind of words all the time. Here at church. The PTA. On the news. And, it’s a worthy sentiment. What can we do now to ensure a better and brighter future for the coming generations?

The only problem is, we are not creating the future, and certainly not a better one.

We know what we should and shouldn’t do, and for some reason we refuse to change.

It’s been almost ten years since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. 20 children between the ages of 6 and 7, plus 6 adults were murdered. I remember being glued to the television and feeling this raw hopelessness in my heart. And yet, I also remember thinking, “This is so bad, we’re definitely going to make sure these types of things will never happen again.”

But we didn’t.

In just the last two weeks we’re seen horrific shootings in Charlottesville and Colorado Springs. Awful. And we just keep going forward as if nothing happened. We’ve become numb to the violence that we are. 

And, sadly, I had to go back and edit this sermon because in between writing it, and preaching it this morning, there was another mass shooting at a Walmart in Chesapeake.

These reports keep coming out, year after year, about how we have a problem with guns in this country. There are too many and the access is too easy. But we do nothing.

We were at the pediatrician’s office a few weeks back, patiently waiting. Talking about living into the Advent season, waiting and waiting and waiting. And what is there to do when you’re waiting in a doctor’s office? You start reading all the random posters on the wall.

Here’s the proper amount of medicine for a 6 year old. Here’s an example of a healthy diet for a ten year old. On and on.

But then I saw a word, a poster on the wall that chilled me to my core:

“Firearms are now the number one cause of death for children in the United States.”

We are not making a better future. 

But, thankfully, the future is coming to us. From God.

God is creating our future and that future is our only hope. If it were left up to us, we would continue on paths that lead to destruction. But it is not God’s will that anyone should perish. 

Isaiah sees a word that is staggering. Weapons turned into tools for food. People gathering at the mountain. And judgment.

We don’t do well with that word. It sits heavy on our hearts.

But the day of judgment that Isaiah sees is ultimately a day of hope, not of despair. It is a day of restoration, not doom. It is a day of judgment when sin will be no more. 

That’s why we pray to God for help.

We need help that is outside of us. We need something done to us. We need this because we’ve had plenty of opportunities to change ourselves, to make things better, and the world keeps going down the toilet.

No wonder God had to send God’s son into the world. We need all the help we can get.

God is in the business of making all things new; yesterday, today, and forever. And the church, as Christ’s body in the world, is not some social club or gathering that provides a distraction from all that is wrong in the world. Instead, the church exists to call a thing what it is. Or, in other words, the church exists to tell the truth. 

Advent starts in the dark. It always has and it always will. The texts, the hymns, the prayers, they all beckon our attention to the way things are knowing that that not all is as it should be. It is the season of honesty about who we are, but more importantly whose we are.

We are not making a better future but, as the church, we live according to God’s future in the present. We live, oddly enough, by grace. We practice trust and honesty and forgiveness in the midst of a time in which those things sound like fairytales. 

The church is God’s weird and wild story for a time and place that is desperate for a new narrative, albeit one that runs completely counter to everything else in the world. 

One day God is going to get what God wants. Swords will be beat into plowshares, guns will be melted into garden shovels. Peace will reign. O church, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

The Church Of Tomorrow

Hebrews 11.29-12.2

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. 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 flowing, and evens chairs 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 that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. 

Few, if any, of us plan to come to church in order to be astonished. Sure, we might be moved to tears or clapping by a song, there might be a line in a prayer that lingers in our hearts, we might ooh and ahh over the wayward comment of a kid during the children’s message. We might even say “amen” out loud in the midst of a sermon.

Miracles do happen after all.

But astonishment?

No thank you.

We don’t have time for astonishment in our manicured machinations on Sunday morning. We like our church, just like we like our God, within our control. We appreciate boundaries and expectations and predicability.

And yet, we come to church today, we gather before the throne of God, we open up and the good book, and what do we find?

“By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.”

How dare the writer of Hebrews! We’ve got the young, and the restless, present in worship. This isn’t the place for such vulgarities!

Other translations soften the blow by calling Rahab a harlot, which is what my grandmother would call her. Whereas other translations up the ante by calling her a, well, I can’t even bring myself to say that word. 

But there it is. Clear as day in the strange new world of the Bible: Rahab the prostitute and her faith.

Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, they’re all good and fine, we can handle their stories and we can even understand their faith.

But Rahab?

Do you know her story?

Listen: Joshua has guided the people Israel to the edge of the Promised Land. He sends two spies into occupied territory to assess the situation. They approach Jericho, big city, and they wind up, of all places, at Rahab’s in the red light district.

I wonder why they went there…

Anyway, the king receives word that foreign spies have infiltrated his domain, and he dispatches some rough and tough foot soldiers to weed them out. They knock on Rahab’s door, she knows everyone after all, and she lies right to their faces.

“Sure,” she says, “I saw some fellas like you’re describing, but they paid their tabs and left.”

Meanwhile, our little hardworking harlot has actually hidden the spies within the thatch of her roof. She returns to them and says, “I’ve heard of your God and I would appreciate a little mercy begin flung my way when the walls come down.”

She hangs a scarlet thread from her window as a reminder to the spies and their people and, sure enough, when Joshua and the army of God enter Jericho, the red threaded house in the red light district is the only one spared in the entire city.

So, to be clear, Rahab is a prostitute, a lair, and a traitor to her own people.

And the writer of Hebrews includes her in the faith hall of fame!

It’s downright astonishing!

But maybe it isn’t. At least, not really. Because if you spend even the slightest among of time in the strange new world of the Bible you quickly discover that Rahab’s story isn’t unique. Noah gets naked, Abraham abandons, Moses murders, David deceives, Peter perjures, on and on and on.

Apparently, faith is the recognition, oddly enough, that no matter what we’ve done or left undone in the past, God can still use us now and in the future. 

The writer of Hebrews is calling to our attention the astonishing fact that if someone like Rahab can be used for the purposes of the Kingdom, just imagine what God can do with someone like you, or even like me.

But then everything shifts. We read of these heroes from the faith, some of whom don’t really seem like heroes in the first place, we read about the abject terror and suffering that the faithful experienced in their response to God, we read of extremely serious and staggering details of the cost of discipleship and and then they all vanish into the great cloud of witness. 

We are addressed. Across the great centuries of the church, the writer address us. You and me. 

Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

Their stories come to fruition in us. We are the fruit of the seeds planted long ago. 

Look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who mounted the hard wood of the cross on our behalf, and who now rules at the right hand of God.

In short: you and me, we’re not alone.

We are bound to those from the past, those in the present, and those in the future in ways we can scarcely imagine. We are caught up in the triumph of the Trinity and are no longer defined by our sins and our shortcomings, but only by the grace and peace made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ. 

All these verses in Hebrews, the faith hall of fame, they ring out for everyone to hear: our faith is not in us.

What rotten luck it would be if our faith was in us.

Have you watched the news recently? Paul is right, none of us is righteous, no, not one. 

We are not the pioneers and perfecters of the faith. Jesus is.

And what wondrous Good News it is to hear of Jesus as our pioneer and perfecter. Particularly at a time when we spend most of our time thinking about, talking about, going backward.

Jesus is ahead of us, beckoning us into a new and astonishing reality. 

What we might call, the church of tomorrow.

Christianity, contrary to how we might understand it, isn’t actually a religion. Religions are systems of beliefs and rituals that get the divine to do something for us. Whereas Christianity is the story of the God who does the unimaginable for us without us having to do anything in return.

The Lord is not waiting with arms crossed until we get our acts together. Instead, God condescends to our miserable estate and gathers us together and says, “follow me.”

To be the church in the world today is a strange endeavor. If we find ourselves concerned only with matters of life after death, or if we are consumed only by thoughts of holy figures and sacred rituals, we are not the church. We may be and do those things, but to be the church means being part of an alternative way of being in the world right now. 

Put simply: we’re different.

We’re different in terms of space because we are geared in an outward matter. We are different in terms of story because we understand who we are not as something we earn or achieve, but instead a gift received. And we are different in terms of time because we believe God’s future is already overlapping with the present.

We are people who have received new pasts, in which our faults and failures no longer define who we are, and we have receive new future in which impossible possibilities rain down for nothing. 

We are different. We are like Rahab: with the tiniest pinch of faith, we step into a future, God’s future, and everything is changed.

It’s too easy, at times, to lose sight of how weird it is to be part of the church. For many years we have endeavored to appear as appealing as possible to those outside. Whereas the real test of whether or not the church is the church is if we are sufficiently unacceptable to the world. 

We are not yet another club or social gathering that provides a needed distraction from all that is wrong in the world.

We are the body of Christ for the world – we model God’s future in the present.

We live, oddly enough, by grace. We practice trust and honesty and forgiveness in the midst of a time in which those things sound like fairytales.

The church is God’s parable for the world.

We are the wild and weird story for a time and place that is desperate for a new narrative, albeit one that leaves people scratching their heads.

The kingdom of God is like a woman walking down the hallway at the hospital in the middle of the night, having just received word that her husband needs emergency surgery in order to survive. And as she walks, all alone, and the terror of the moment starts to sink in, she steps into the waiting room with nothing but fear, until she realizes the room is full to brim with the people from church who have come out in the middle of the night, simply to make sure she knows she’s not alone. 

The kingdom of God is like a parent in the midst of Vacation Bible School who approaches a certain bald and bearded pastor, incredulous that the church would be willing not only to watch her children for a week, but that we would also love them, feed them, and teach them about Jesus for free.

The kingdom of God is like the man who shuffled down the center aisle last week, and approached the aforementioned pastor, with tears streaming down his face and his hands outstretched for the gifts of God. The same man who, when the pastor approached him after worship to make sure he was okay, declared, “Tears of joy. They were tears of joy!” 

I don’t know if you knew what you were getting into when you walked into the church. Whether you’ve been here for decades or this is your first Sunday. The truth is, none of us really knows what’s in store once we hear the call of God.

The Gospels make it wonderfully clear that the disciples had not the foggiest idea of what was going to happen next. With a simple, “follow me” Jesus invites ordinary, if not awful, people to come out and be part of an adventure, a journey, that astonishes at every turn.

You and me, we’re not alone. We are all surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses, people like Rahab, who brought us to where we are right now. And because we are caught up in their story, because it is being perfected in us, we can do wild and wonderful things, we can cast away the works of darkness, we can be the place where loneliness is eradicated, we can befriend the friendless and love the loveless, we can do all these things because the grace of Jesus Christ really is the difference that makes all the difference. 

Welcome to the church of tomorrow – it’s astonishing. Amen. 

The Future Present

Luke 9.28-36

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. 

He was a fisherman, and not even a very good one, when the Lord showed up and made him into a fisher of people.

And Pete, he’s seen some things, witnessed moments he can’t explain. First it was the teacher calling him to follow. That’s all it took. He and his coworkers, his fellow fishermen, left it all behind on the shore, including nets full of recently caught fish.

Then it was the episode with his mother-in-law. She was busy trying to meet the needs of the Teacher and his new disciples when he touched her and made her well.

And there was the time when the crowds grew so large, and stuck around so long, that they need to eat something and the Teacher turned scarcity into abundance, and everyone left with their bellies full.

And the stories! Mustard seeds and prodigal sons and wayward vineyard workers. That’s what Pete liked best, the stories.

It’s no wonder then, having seen all he’s seen and heard all he heard, that when the Teacher asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Pete was the first to shout, “The Messiah!”

But it’s also why, having confessed the truth of the incarnation, when the Teacher told him and the others that he was going to die, Pete was the first to rebuke him for saying what he said.

“JC, I don’t think you get it. The Messiah can’t die! You’re here to restore all the promises to Israel, which is something you can’t do from the grave.”

And do you know what the Teacher said to Pete? “Get behind me Satan, for your head is stuck on human things, and I’m here for heavenly things.”

And now, 8 days later, they’re walking up a mountain to pray. They arrive at the top, bending in humble adoration, lifting up their prayers to the Holy One, when the Teacher’s appearance changes drastically. His face isn’t the same and his clothes are whiter than the brightest light anyone of them can handle. 

Suddenly, two other figures appear, its Moses and Elijah and they’re talking with the Teacher. They are glorious and they talk about his coming departure in Jerusalem, his exodus for the rest of us. 

Moses and Elijah are making movements as if they’re going to leave and Pete shouts out, “Lord, it is good and right for us to be here! Let’s make dwelling places here on the mountain so that we might never leave.”

As the words leave his mouth, a cloud overshadows them completely, and the disciples are full of terror. But from the cloud comes a voice, a voice unlike any other, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

Suddenly they are alone again, and the Teacher says, “Say nothing to anyone about what you have seen and heard.”

The Transfiguration.

Today is a major turning point in the church year. The transfigured Jesus turns his blazing and radiant face toward a violent fate in Jerusalem at the hands of roaring crowds. This week, the church turns away from the light of Epiphany and toward the shadows of Lent.

Not all churches mark this occasion, but to ignore the Transfiguration is to miss out on the future made manifest in the present. It is a moment of transcendence that lifts the veil of all the good, true, and beautiful in the world.

The Transfiguration is part of what makes the strange new world of the Bible so new and so strange.

And it is indeed a strange story, so strange that as I referenced it with and among individuals from our church this week, more than a few confessed that they were unfamiliar with this moment in the Gospel. 

Which makes sense! This story, even among the strangeness of the Bible, is quite bizarre. Jesus has just rebuked his chief disciple for missing the mark, yet again, they go up on top of a mountain during which Jesus is flanked by two of the most important figures from Israel’s history, only to have it all stop just as soon as it started.

And, notably, this is the only instance in any of the Gospels when Jesus doesn’t respond at all to something that someone has said to him. 

He completely ignores Pete’s request for a motel franchise on top of the mountain.

There are so many things at stake in this triumph of transfiguration, but most of all it is a preview of the Gospel. It is the future present.

And we can’t really wrap our heads around it! Because, we confess, we don’t know what to make of moments that we can’t explain.

Our default mechanism for living in the world today is living in and by the natural and explainable rather than, and at the expense of, the supernatural.

The challenge of our being is that we are stuck living in an unthought way – we are addicted to certainty in a world that is inherently unstable and uncertain.

Our comprehension of events is such that we are convinced we no longer need a religious or mystical explanation for things that happen, or don’t happen. And yet, we are equally obsessed with self-justification, which is inherently a mystical adventure.

Put simply: We’re all on a journey for meaning in the world and more often than not we derive our sense of meaning out of what we can accomplish. Which, if we’re honest with ourselves, never amounts to much. But we keep trying and trying and trying anyway. We add new habits or we drop bad ones. We set out to create some permanence in a world that works only through impermanence. We try and try and try and find ourselves disappointed whether we work harder or not.

We, in some way, shape, or form, are looking for transcendence, but we can’t find it.

Which is odd when you consider how often, in church of all places, we try to take the strangeness of the gospel and turn it into something practical. We take the impossible possibility of God’s grace and we transform it into a list of three things to do to become a better version of yourself. We take the mount of Transfiguration and turn it into some form of moralism about what we should, or shouldn’t, be doing in the world today.

But the Transfiguration isn’t about what we are supposed to do – it’s about being in the presence of God.

Christian art is an endlessly fascinating phenomenon. And the Transfiguration has, for centuries, commanded the imagination of artists. 

Here is the Transfiguration as portrayed by the Renaissance painter Raphael. It was the last painting he created before his death, and it was conceived as an altar piece for a cathedral in France. 

The top of the painting depicts the scene we encounter in scripture and notably, the bottom half conveys the next part of the story when Jesus and the disciples descend from the mountain to heal a young boy. 

Notice how the light of Christ’s Transfiguration is juxtaposed with the darkness of the lower scene.

And here is a modern and abstract depiction of the Transfiguration by an artist named Jaison Cianelli. Like Raphael’s, the painting conveys a hyper focused change that is wrought with lasting consequences.

And finally, this is a modern icon created by a Ukrainian artist named Ivanka Demchuk. The cowering disciples in the bottom portion stand in for all of us, who when encountered by the One who encounter us, can’t help but tremble in fear. 

The Transfiguration is one of those moments in the Bible that we can never fully wrap our heads around. It’s one that we need art and music and other aspects of expression to help us come to grips with this bewildering proclamation. 

It is beyond our ability to explain and certainly beyond our ability to comprehend because it transcends all modes of our being.

Without the supernatural, without transcendence, without mystery, the church becomes nothing more than a country club, or the next best self-improvement clinic, or a sub par social services agency. 

And to be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong with seeking out fellowship, or trying to better one’s self, or providing needs to the last, least, lost, little, and dead. But if that’s all we have, if that’s all the church is, then we have no business calling ourselves the church.

There will always be plenty of other institutions that can bring us better friends, or help us get from where we are to where we want to be, or make substantive changes in the world. But they don’t have the one thing that we do: Jesus Christ and him crucified.

The wonderful and weird witness of the Transfiguration is that the only thing we’re told to do is listen to Jesus. From this point forward, Jesus is going to do what Jesus is going to do. He will still stir up the crowds with stories of treasure in a field, and proclamations about the signs of the times, but when push comes to shove Jesus will mount the hard wood of the cross regardless of all our goodness or lack thereof.

We can point to all these bewildering details on top of the mountain, but it’s important that we don’t miss out on the timelessness of the scene. The Transfiguration, a moment indelibly in the past, shows us a glimpse of the future.

Tell no one what you have seen or heard until the Son of Man is raised from the dead. 

This moment is made indelible only by the ending that the disciples can scarcely imagine, even though Jesus just hit them up over the head with it.

They are sworn to silence because they are not yet ready for the transcending truth. They have not made it from their reality to God’s reality. They witness something remarkable and inexplicable, but it is not yet the resurrection, the great transfiguration of all things.

Today we, like the disciples, are called to live according to the wondrous nature of the Transfiguration – we can stumble around like fools grasping out in fear for comfort – and then we will hear the words, the only words we need to hear: “This is my Son, the chosen; listen to him.”

But, and it’s a big but, if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t want to listen to Jesus. We’d rather listen to ourselves. 

We’d rather listen to ourselves because we are downright addicted to control. Or, at least to thinking we’re in control.

Do you know how God responds to those who think they’re in control?

Laughter.

It is humbling to be laughed at by anyone, but when God’s laughs at us it’s another thing entirely. But perhaps we need to hear that laughter, particularly when we wake and sleep believing that it’s up to us to make the world turn out right.

The world has already turned out right. We know the future in the present. The tomb is empty!

We don’t have to be the hope of the world because Jesus already is. The only thing we have to do is live accordingly.

And that’s why Lent beckons us. It’s why Christians, for centuries have marked and observe the season that starts on Ash Wednesday because it reminds us of our inconvenient truth – we can’t make it out of this life alive. But, like the Lord in the tomb, God refuses to leave us that way.

We are a people desperate to be in control of our lives and we’re living in a world in which we are not in control. Moreover, we can scarcely imagine what it would look like to live in the light of Jesus’ transfiguration. It leaves us quaking and bewildered like those three disciples.

But if we do not reflect the glory of the One transfigured, then the world has no light to see that all is not darkness. Amen. 

In Anticipation – Maundy Thursday Homily

1 Corinthians 11.23-26

For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 

This is a good amount of people for Maundy Thursday. It is a weeknight after all. But it isn’t as many people as we had for Palm Sunday and, Lord willing, it is smaller than the number of people we will have for Easter. 

That’s okay. There wasn’t a big crowd at the first Maundy Thursday either. 

And yet you are here. 

Why are you here?

We are a people forever stuck in the past.

And we can hardly be blamed. 

We only know what we know. And we can’t know what we don’t know.

So our minds, whether we like it or not, are often rooted in days long gone.

Take tonight for instance, some of you can and probably do remember former Maundy Thursdays. And even if you haven’t been to a service like this before, you can know doubt think of a time you’ve received communion. And if you’ve never had communion before, you can certainly think of a time that you’ve shared a meal with someone else.

And because we tend to spend as much time in our minds as we do, we read what is happening in our present through the lens of the past.

It happens in the political realm, and the familial realm, and the theological realm. 

When I was a kid my home church had lots of volunteer opportunities. 

There were the big ones, you could sign up to read scripture from the lectern during a service, or you could carry in the flame as an acolyte, and every summer you could travel near and far for mission trips.

And there were, of course, the little ones as well. Your family could sign up to be greeters for a particular Sunday, shaking hands with everyone on their way in, or you could join together with some of the older members and fold bulletins every Friday morning, and every Wednesday night you could help serve food for the weekly community dinner.

In my young life, I did all of those things at one point or another, but there was one particular volunteer opportunity that my whole family took care of for a long time: we prepared the communion elements.

This meant that every first Saturday of the month we would drive over to the church and retreat to the sacristy behind the altar. There we would pre-poke the bead with this medieval-like dagger to make it easier for the pastors to tear it apart on Sunday morning, and then we would set  out hundreds of tiny little plastic shot glasses within the altar rail using a little squirt bottle to fill every single one.

It would take forever.

And forever really felt like forever when I was ten years old.

On Sunday mornings, every one would arrive at the church none-the-wiser about the work we had put in to prepare everything. Even my family, knowing how long the grape juice had been sitting out in that old sanctuary, we would line up like everyone else and we would patiently kneel at the altar until a piece of bread was placed in our hands, and then we were instructed to drink from one of the little cups, and then we would go back to our pew so the next group could go.

And if preparing communion felt like forever, doing communion was even worse. It was assumed that the sermons on the first Sunday of the month would be half as long so that the congregation would have the time to all come to the altar to receive our stale bread and tepid grape juice. 

And this went on for years.

Until one day after worship, I mustered up the courage to approach our aging senior pastor and confront him about our way of the Lord’s Supper. I had been to other churches and seen other variations on how to consume communion. The Catholics would all drink from one cup, and the Presbyterians would pass around these giants trays of circular discs and tiny cups. I’m not sure what propelled me forward that day – perhaps the bread had been extra hard, or my sisters and I had consumed a few too many of the little grape juice shots after worship, but I walked up to the pastor and said, “Why do we do communion this way?”

His response: “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.”

We call today Maundy Thursday. This quaint names come from Jesus’ words at his last supper in John’s gospel: A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you. In Latin, new commandment is mandatum novum. Maundy is simply the Middle English version of the word mandatum.

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So, we are mandated by God to do what we are doing.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly like being mandated to do anything. Christianity has long-suffered under the oppressive rule of expectations and assumptions. You must do this, you must do that.

All of the musts don’t muster up to a very lively faith.

Instead we trudge into the sanctuary to sing the hymns and offer the prayers because we think we must do it.

We stand and proclaim with bored affectations the words of the Apostles’ Creed because we think we must do it.

We drag ourselves up to the altar to receive the body and the blood because we’ve made it out into our minds that we are mandated to do so.

What are we hungry for? 

Are we even hungry at all?

There is always a lot that happens in the eucharist, a lot happens here tonight. In John’s Gospel Jesus spends his final evening breaking bread and drinking wine with his friends, but he ends with getting on the floor and washing all of their feet. 

There have been countless traditions throughout the history of the church that are all tied up with what we are doing right now. By the time Paul writes to the church in Corinth he conveys it as “For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

And so we remember. We remember how Jesus’ self-giving life included feeding the poor as well as dining with the rich. We remember that Jesus broke bread with the religious elite and the social outcasts. We remember that most of Jesus’ ministry took place around tables with those who both loved him and were confused by him. 

And because we spend so much time remembering, we often look at this thing of communion backwards. We focus all of our attention on Jesus’ final night and we get caught up in the “we’ve always done it this way.” 

Do you know what it says on our altar? I have it covered so you can’t just take a peek. Any guesses?

“This Do In Remembrance Of Me.”

It fits doesn’t it? We place the bread and the cup on the table, we read the words that Jesus shared with his disciples that final evening, and we do what we are doing in remembrance of all that Christ did.

But somewhere along the way we got our tenses confused.

Communion is not a backwards looking proposition. Yes, it is good and right for us to imagine ourselves in that space with those people on the night in which he gave himself up for us. But to do so as fully and totally as we do denies the fundamental truth that Jesus is here with us tonight in this space and with these people!

Of course communion is about remembrance, but it is equally, if not more, about anticipation. For as often as we eat this bread and drink this cup we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. 

There was a woman who used to sneak into the church during the first hymn and would often retreat before the final hymn concluded. I would see her from my preaching vantage point but it was as if she planned everything so as to not have to interact with too many people when she came. After a while I noticed that she would only come to church on the first Sunday of the month and when we held our Maundy Thursday service. 

Luck had it one day that I was able to catch up with her outside the main doors when she was briskly walking to her car and I asked if everything was okay.

She told me that she was Baptist and that her church almost never celebrated communion. But she knew she needed strength for the journey, so she came every month to commune with us. 

I expressed my admiration of her faithfulness and she said that a pastor once told her that communion is where the past, present, and the future get all confused with each other. The pastor apparently meant it as a bad thing, but she fell in love with the idea.

She told me that she loved her church and would never leave it, but that she always needed to feel the confusion of time with us.

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Maundy Thursday services often end in a confusing way. Tonight, as we conclude, we will join with Christians across the globe in the striking of our altar. We will remove elements of color and vitality making the turn toward the cross. 

We will do so because our sense of time is purposely confused. Jesus has already shared the meal with the friends. Jesus has already mounted the hard wood of the cross. Jesus has already broken free from the tomb.

But tonight we both place ourselves in the time of Jesus and we witness to the fact that Jesus is still with us. We will gather at the table not just because that’s what Jesus did, but because it is what Jesus is still doing. And, we will engage in all of this in anticipation of when we will gather at Christ’s heavenly banquet with all who have come before, and all who will arrive long after we’re gone. 

This is the place where time gets confused. 

And that’s a good thing. Amen. 

Stuck In The Middle With You

Luke 3.1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

“Repent of your sins and your debauchery!” 

“Repent, for the end is near!”

The words echoed across the campus. 

He stood on a makeshift soapbox clothed in a suit and tie and was yelling through a megaphone. And yet, it seemed as with every increase in decibels, less and less people paid him any attention. His “crowds” were college students after all, and the last things any of us wanted to hear about at the time were our sins and whatever it meant to repent of them.

Day after day he would stand from his perch in the exact same place spouting off the same words of fear, and challenge, and torment. And I never once saw anyone stop to talk to him.

But we talked about him all the time – whether we were in the dining hall, hanging out in the library, or even in our classes, the “prophet” (as we called him) was a regular topic of conversation: Who was he? Where did he come from? What did he really believe? 

And, like most college students, we spent way more time wondering about the prophet than we did about our classes.

Our best guess was that he was from one of the local baptist and/or evangelical churches, that he might’ve even been the pastor, and that he foolishly believed that by yelling at college students some of them would show up at his church on Sunday mornings.

The weeks and the months went by, and he remained steadfast in his mission. In fact, he became such a permanent marker in the landscape that on the few rare occasions that he wasn’t in his usual spot I actually got worried something had happened to him. But then the next day, he’d be back.

This went on like clockwork until Advent. I went to church on Sunday morning like I always did, hanging out in the back as the one and only token college student, and someone from the church went up to read the words from the gospel according to St. Luke: “The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.”

And I stopped listening to everything else. Because, for the first time, I saw the prophet on campus in a different light. Instead of assuming he was off his rocker or, at the very least, deeply flawed in his sense of evangelism, I began to see connections between the prophet, and John the Baptist.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

And then, the following week, I found myself walking over to him on campus while everyone was walking the other direction, and I didn’t even know what I was going to say.

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The season of Advent is all about being in the in-between; in between things the way they are and the way they ought to be. We often experience it as this time set apart that is dedicated to preparations – At home we are cleaning, and decorating, and cooking. We find the perfect Christmas tree and then stress out when all of the old lights fail to work. We pull out the box of ornaments and struggle to keep back the tears as we hold up the popsicle stick reindeer that someone made years ago.

And in the midst of our busyness and preparations, in walks the crazy prophet John the Baptist proclaiming a very different kind of preparation.

It’s important to remember that John was a PK, a preacher’s kid. He knew what he was supposed to believe, what he was supposed to say, how he was supposed to dress in front of the religious crowds – His Daddy had been preaching it his whole life. And yet, John saw a very different vision of what it meant to be faithful. 

The people believed that all of the power was held in Jerusalem – John found it in the wilderness.

The people believed that God was on their side no matter what – John knew that everyone needed to repent.

The people believed in presenting the best version of yourself in front of others – John wore camel’s hair and ate wild locusts.

A new word came to John in the wilderness – the time had come to prepare for a new way, one in which every mountain would be dropped low and every valley would be lifted up.

He was bold and crazy with his words and actions: Take a good and hard look at yourselves! Repent of your transgressions if you want to be ready to receive the one who is coming!

Repentance is not something we think about during this time we call Advent. People outside the church are spending this time stringing up lines of popcorn in their living room trees, they are humming along to Bing Crosby while waiting in elevators, and they are sipping on eggnog at night.

But here, in the church, we are listening to a very different kind of tune – the challenging words of a radical prophet who calls those with ears to hear toward a ministry of repentance.

Repentance – its’ one of those words we either avoid or we throw around without really knowing what it means. Repentance, metanoia, literally means to change one’s mind, to turn around, to be reoriented.

And, as John says, it is in the metanoia that all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

The people who scream out about the kingdom of God from the street corners of life make us very uncomfortable. We see the cardboard signs, or we see the oblong megaphone, and we start asking ourselves all sorts of questions.

They make us uncomfortable because they are pointing at a reality that we often talk about in church, but they do so in a way that confronts us and interrupts us, whereas we usually show up here already knowing what to expect.

John the Baptist makes us uncomfortable. He joins the story of expectancy at the beginning of the gospel and knows something about living in the in between. He, more than most, understands the need to truly consider the condition of our souls, of our world. He witnesses to the difficult work of looking at our wrongdoings, our regrets, the damage we’ve cause, what we’ve said and done, and what we’ve left unsaid and undone.

John’s words and ministry upset the status quo of our complacency. The kingdom earthquake is shaking all the old expectations of what we should say and what we should do. The fault lines of change are running through the middle of history and God is announcing a new order that carries with it a whole new way of seeing the world. 

John calls out to the crowds and to us through the sands of time: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

These are rather uncomfortable words for us to consider during the season in which we most yearn to be comforted.

I walked across the quad with a focus that I should’ve reserved for my classes, and when we were close enough to see each other’s eyes the campus prophet froze in the middle of his oration. I realized, in that moment, that I was perhaps the first person to ever approach him in the middle of his pontificating and so we both stood there in silence while starring at each other.

I finally blurted out in a way that must’ve sounded as crazy as his message: “Why are you doing this?”

He slowly lowered the megaphone and calmly replied, “We’re stuck with each other in this crazy world, and I’m just trying to save everyone.”

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Our repentance, our metanoia, our turning around will likely involve us taking a hard look at our own lives and the structures/systems/people of the world in new and different ways. Repentance compels us to evaluate how we are living and whether or not we are helping to build the kingdom. 

In a world and in a time where all we want it grace, we forget that we need the grace because we are sinners. Whether we actively make the wrong choice (or make no choice and therefore sin by omission) or we tacitly participate in the powers and principalities around us which profit off of the marginalized, we are all sinners in need of God’s grace.

And Advent is the wonderfully strange time in which we pause, we reflect, and then we prepare to follow the One born in the manger, hung in a tree, freed from the grace, and the One for whom we are waiting.

Repent! Turn! The prophet from the wilderness of Judea and from my college campus is screaming for those with ears to hear. 

But what does our turning accomplish? Can we hear that challenging word and respond with a repentance and walk in the light to the end of our days?

The end of all our preparing and all of our repentance for Jesus Christ inevitably leads to strange and frightening realizations:

We cannot save ourselves.

We cannot save anyone else. 

And we can never really prepare the way for Jesus. It is only God in Christ who can actually make the way ready for the arrival. 

Jesus’ entering into the world is not contingent on our worthiness or our repentance. Though that certainly doesn’t mean we shouldn’t repent. It is just a recognition that what we celebrate at Christmas, what we yearn for in the future, is not something that we can accomplish.

It is the power of God for salvation; we only get to witness it.

We are stuck with each other in the middle of time between Advent and the rectification of all things, we are in the middle of the way.

We are sinners, stuck in our sin, and even if we are strong enough to turn and repent, we eventually turn back to our own way again.

And yet we are called to metanoia, John and the campus prophet plead with us to do so. Not because it earns us anything, not because it is the prerequisite for Christmas, but simply because it is a behavior that is normative in the world inaugurated in Jesus Christ.

Repentance is simply something we do in the journey we call discipleship.

Ultimately, John is the least likely person to call us to turn. He is like the campus prophet screaming into the ether day after day. John is the type of person most of us ignore today.

A prophet in the wilderness of life, an unlikely person in an unlikely place.

We never really know from where the Word of the Lord will come, but it always does.

It might even come from a place we would never expect – like a worship service, like the middle of a college campus, or even a manger. Amen. 

So It Is To Be

Devotional:

Revelation 1.7

Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.

Weekly Devotional Image

The church was damp, dark, and devoid of anyone else. I was lost in Chichicastenango, Guatemala and had wandered inside a church hoping that someone from my group would eventually find me. Unlike any church I had been in previously, the ground felt alive under my feet as it gave way to my weight. The walls were covered with black soot from centuries of fires lit by those who sought to destroy the faith. And the once beautiful paintings and decorations had completely disappeared from view. 

The small of melted wax filled my nostrils as I began to creep closer and closer toward what I imagined was the altar. It was the least church-like church I had ever seen. Without the help of lighting, I stumbled over rickety wooden seats until I finally found myself standing by the far wall. There, poised right in front of me, was a magnificent and immaculate sculpture of Jesus. 

In complete contrast with the rest of the space, this Jesus contained not a single blemish and almost shined in the darkness – Jesus stood elegantly with his robes draped over his shoulders and in one of his outstretched hands he held a crown of thorns.

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In that moment I was confronted, perhaps for the first time, about the reality of what it means to believe that Jesus Christ is King. I was surrounded by decay and disregard and yet Christ stood before me in glory. It was right then that I saw the true paradox of the crucifixion: the King was hung on a cross to die, a nearly abandoned church had no semblance of life, and Jesus is still in charge. 

I used to foolishly believe that I was carrying God with me when I went to different places and encountered different people, but that day I learned that God is the one looking for me, waiting to confront me even in places like a dark and empty church. 

Look! Jesus is coming with the clouds and every eye will see him, even those who betrayed him, abandoned him, pierced him, and crucified him. And in response the entirety of creation will wail.

So it is to be. 

As we round out the Christian year, and prepare to start over again with the season of Advent, this final word about the one who is, and was, and is to come sounds frightening and maybe even a little convicting. But Jesus, the King of kings, died on a cross for you and me. He stands abandoned in a cross devoid of light with a crown of thorns in his hand. He calls and searches for us through the Holy Spirit on this side of the resurrection.

How else could we possibly respond except by wailing? 

A New, Old Way To Pray

What happens when a group of researchers discover a forgotten prayer tool from the middle-ages? Is it still relevant in the hustle and bustle of the world today? What does the past have to teach us about the future?

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I was fortunate a few weeks ago to record a conversation with 2/3 of the authors (Patton Dodd and Jana Riess) of The Prayer Wheel, a book dedicated to the discovery of the spiritual practice and thoughts about how to implement it today. Our conversation covered a range of other topics including medieval spirituality, the prophet Jeremiah, reverse engineering ancient practices, cherry picking prayers, and embracing imagination and creativity in community. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: A New, Old Way To Pray

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Also – The Crackers & Grape Juice team is excited to announce our first book! I Like Big Buts: Reflections on Romans (you can find the ebook and paperback on Amazon).

The Future Present

Romans 8.22-27

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

All of creation groans.

            How can we put those words into images?

On Monday 60 Palestinians were shot and killed and another 2,700 others were injured during protests at the border with Israel. Some of those killed were individuals from aid agencies who were providing medical care to the protestors. Some of those killed and injured were children.

On Friday morning a 17 year old walked into a high school in Texas and shot and killed nine students and one teacher.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves groan inwardly, while we wait for redemption.

Perhaps the best we can muster in a world like ours, in a time like ours, is a groan, a sigh, and dim hope. We live, as many have noted, in a time of perpetual amnesia – because we know so much about the world, and we know how broken it still is, we are bombarded with story after story to such a degree that we can barely remember what happened a year ago, a month ago, or even a week ago. Our televisions and newspapers and timelines are filled with such tragic stories and we just move from one to the next.

If we find ourselves moaning and groaning, sighing and crying, then we are on the right track. We hope for a better tomorrow, for a world that does not look like this one. We yearn for what has been promised in faith, but do not yet see.

            All of creation groans.

Paul is right to name and claim our salvation – but we are saved in the hope of redemption. We live in the light of God’s good promise, however, we do not live in the fulfillment of that promise.

We are still waiting.

Like pilgrims in the midst of a great journey, or a woman anticipating her baby’s due date, we are not yet at the goal.

And Paul tells us that while we wait, we do so with patience.

The great missionary of the 1st century loves to do this type of thing, which is to say Paul liked navigating the confusing contours of now and not yet. Paul danced between the present time and the time when all things would be conquered by God.

Most of us are not like Paul. Rather than enduring the days at hand with patience, we want to see change here and now. We are not the backseat Christians who willingly accept the status quo. No, when we see and feel the groans of the world we want it to stop. Now.

There are plenty of Christians in the world who rest on opposite sides of this spectrum. Some sit back and wait, without a care or concern for how things currently are, because one day (whenever that might be) God will fix everything. And for as much as that is true, they are like those who see a building on fire and instead of reaching for a bucket of water they say, “It must be God’s will.”

And then on the far other side there are those who are in denial of present sufferings and are utterly convinced that if they only prayed harder God would make them healthy and wealthy. They might receive a horrible diagnosis, or lose their employment, but they believe that God is waiting for them to pray the right prayer before God drops the perfect cure of the more lucrative career.

But us other Christians, those who find ourselves in the middle, we know that it is no comfort to deny present suffering, nor is it comforting to focus all of our energy on the hope that God will fix everything in a jiffy. We know that reflections on the future must be, at times, postponed. It is not the future that commands our attention but the present.

And here in lies the crux of it all, we focus our focus on the present, not as a denial of the future, but precisely because we know that we don’t know what the future holds.

We know, whether we like to admit it or not, that all things in this world will perish; we’ve all seen it happen too many times, but the cross of Jesus Christ stands in the midst of this lonely and broken world and it is the sign of our hope. Easter boldly proclaims that at the end of our possibilities God creates a new beginning – Pentecost shows us how we take the first steps.

Today of course is Pentecost, fifty days after Easter. The disciples spent forty days with the risen Jesus, learning about the kingdom of God, before Jesus ascended to the right hand of God. But then they had ten days of waiting.

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Imagine if you can, though we certainly can’t, what it must’ve been like to not only encounter the risen Jesus, but to lose him again, and to wait. What were those conversations like in the ten-day waiting period? What plans were made in case nothing happened? Were they patient in their hope?

Acts tells us that on the day of Pentecost, fifty days after Passover, all the disciples were in one place and suddenly from heaven there came a sound like a rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire place where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages as the Spirit gave them ability.

They immediately went forth from that place proclaiming the good news to all with ears to hear, and on that day the Lord added 3,000 to the growing faith, and they all devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

Many of us, if not most of us, would like to see the Spirit manifest like those first disciples did on the day of Pentecost. We want signs of power and majesty, we want this sanctuary windswept and on fire for the Lord. But, like the readers of Romans, we may not receive the signs we so desperately desire.

Hope that is seen is a limited kind of hope, for if we can see what we want, it is certain to be limited to what we are now able to behold. Do you think those disciples were yearning for the Spirit to give them the strength to speak in other languages? Do you think they prayed night after night for the Spirit to fall upon them like a blazing fire? Do you think this is what they hoped for?

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They had no idea what they were in for! There’s no way they could’ve possibly imagined what would happen ten days after Jesus ascended into heaven. There’s no way they could’ve known the Spirit would arrive in such a dramatic way. There’s no way they could have predicted that the rest of their lives would be spent in an illegal community based on the worship of a crucified God.

Something greater was in store for all of the first disciples, greater things were yet to come – and the same holds true for us.

Paul is completely convinced, though he was not there on the day of Pentecost and did not receive the Spirit in the same way, that the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not really know how to pray as we should and the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

There is something majestically powerful in being reminded that even when we cannot find the right words, the Spirit is with us in our sighs. Because how in the world could we possibly pray, in the right way, for those living in Israel and Palestine? What kind of words could we offer to parents who discovered that their children were murdered by a gunman in their school?

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            There are no words except for the deep groaning of the cosmos that can come close to what needs to be said in prayer.

And yet, we have hope. Not a blind foolish hope, but a deeply rooted hope in the one of came to live, die, and rise again. We have a hope, like the early disciples, that what we see and hear and experience now is not the end. And, at the same time, the Spirit is with us to give us the strength to not only yearn for a better world, but also actually do something about it.

That’s the thing about hope – it is meaningless unless it prompts us toward transformation. Hope that remains in the heart and mind alone is nothing more than a clanging cymbal. But our hope, a hope for a world that we cannot yet even imagine, is like a fire – it warms the soul and lights our path.

When the Holy Spirit was first poured out on all the disciples it was like a fire and it spread in wild and unpredictable ways. Those first followers of Jesus, though persecuted and often killed for their faith, are responsible for us having heard the Word at all. They were so on fire in their hope that they went beyond what they could see and hope for, knowing that with patience, the world would begin to change.

In 1969, Mister Roger’s Neighborhood had only been a national show for year. And on one fairly typical episode Mr. Rogers entered the screen as usual, but instead of putting on his infamous sweater, he mentioned something about how hot it was outside and decided to soak his feet in a tiny swimming pool. While resting and relaxing, a black policeman name Officer Clemmons walked by and Mr. Rogers invited him to share the small pool. Officer Clemmons quickly accepted, rolled up his pants, and placed his very brown feet in the same water as Mr. Roger’s very white feet.

Today, in 2018, this might seem insignificant, but in 1969 it was everything. In the late sixties public pools became the battleground of segregation to such a degree that it was illegal in some places for black bodies and white bodies to be in the water at the same time, if at all. There are horrible images of the summers in the 60s in which white pool managers would pour acid into pools when people protested by swimming with other races.

But for one episode of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood, the country was shown a glimpse of the future, a future of hope, one that few people could possibly imagine at the time.

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John Wesley, the pioneer of renewal that led to the birth of our church, once said that if you light yourself on fire, people will travel miles to watch you burn. Our hopefulness, our yearning for a new day and a new way, should be like a fire that people can’t help but watch.

Mr. Rogers had a fire that was as simple and yet profound as soaking his feet in a swimming pool, but it was exactly his hopefulness that resulted in people tuning in each and every week for decades.

We talk a lot about how we, as Christians, are citizens of a different kingdom – but sometimes we don’t take the next step to imagine what the kingdom looks like. God’s kingdom is one ruled by hope. A hope for things not yet seen, a hope for a time we cannot even imagine, a world in which the fire of Pentecost is present in everyone we encounter.

The Holy Spirit with its bravado and bombastic arrival is always pointing from death to new life, it is always praying with us and through us even when we do not know what to say, and it is always redeeming us for a new day and a new way. Amen.

Devotional – Galatians 1.13

Devotional:

Galatians 1.13

You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Jerusalem. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.
Weekly Devotional Image

“Would you ever prevent someone from receiving communion?” The probing question was asked during a clergy-training event I attended a few years ago. The discussion leader pushed the question back to each of our tables for debate before offering his answer. At my table an older woman made it clear to all of us that children should not be able to receive communion because “they can’t understand it.” A middle-aged man declared that he would not give communion to anyone living in sin, particularly if they were gay. And a younger man shyly offered that he didn’t think it was his responsibility to allow, or prevent, anyone from coming to God’s table.

Each of the tables debated who should be able to receive communion, and the longer we discussed… the louder the room became. Theological and scriptural references were flung back and forth regarding the power clergy hold over God’s table; stories were shared about the merits of refusing to serve communion and the power of offering it to everyone; relational bridges were broken and walls were erected.

The leader let us duke it out amongst ourselves for some time before patiently raising his hand for silence. After waiting for a moment for our attention to move from our argumentative vantage points he said, “Remember this: Even Peter perjured and Paul murdered. God’s love knows no bounds.”

Do we get so caught up with Paul’s letters and his travels that we forget how horrible he was before he encountered Christ on the road? Do we respect his theology so much that it blinds us to the vital narrative of his life?

In his letter to the church in Galatia, Paul specifically addresses his sordid past in order to demonstrate the power of God’s revelation. Only in the transformative and redemptive power of God’s divine love could a man like Paul be moved from murdering Christians to baptizing Christians.

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All of us are broken by the powers of sin and selfishness; no one is free from the temptations to take the easy path and neglect to follow the road that Jesus prepared for us. Therefore, it is vital for all of us to remember that church is meant to a hospital for sinners. No matter who we are, and no matter what we’ve done, there will always be a space for us at God’s table. The challenge is to remember that beautiful and graceful truth when we encounter people we deem less than worthy.