This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent [A] (Isaiah 7.10-16, Psalm 80.1-7, 17-19, Romans 1.1-7, Matthew 1.18-25). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Christmas gifts, The Alabama Shakes, ghosts, signs, weariness, keeping the cross in Christmas, the bread of tears, salvation, epistolary preaching, grace, belonging, Sam Wells, prophecy, and The Mother of God. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: The Obstinance of God
Psalm 118.1-2, 19-29
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever! Let Israel say, “His steadfast love endures forever.” Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. Save us, we beseech you, O Lord! O Lord, we beseech you, give us success! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. We bless you from the house of the Lord. The Lord is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar. You are my God, and I will give thanks to you; you are my God, I will extol you. O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.
Every pastor has a favorite Palm Sunday story.
Like the year when the palm branches were delivered way too early and dried out so much that when the gathered congregation shook them over their heads in worship, palm branch particles went flying in every direction resulting in sneezing and coughing fits among the people of God.
Or the time when the pastor thought it would be a great idea to dress up like a donkey and preach the sermon from the perspective of the animal that carried Jesus into Jerusalem, to which the pastor received perhaps the greatest Sunday morning comment of all time: “You know, you’re not the first donkey we’ve had in that pulpit.”
Only they used a different word for donkey.
Or the time when the children of the church processed in waving their palm branches and lifting up their hosannas only to begin smacking one another in the face with their aforementioned palms until a nearby parent had to jump in to break up the melee and mutter, a little too loudly, “Lord, save me from these kids!”
And I think the reason preachers like me like to tell a cute or funny little story about Palm Sunday is because the actual story of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem is rather confounding.
Put another way: Palm Sunday is perhaps the strangest Sunday of the year.
For, it begins in celebration and ends in catastrophe. It starts with “Hosanna” but it finishes with “Crucify.” It begins with life and it ends with death.
At they are approaching Jerusalem Jesus sends two of his disciples to procure a colt for his entry into the holy city. He rides in a cartoonish way, with his feet nearly dragging on the ground on either side of the animal, and the people of Jerusalem comes out in droves to see the would-be Messiah. They are overcome with reverence, so much so that they begin to take their own clothing, and spread it on on the road only to be trampled upon by the colt. They make a royal carpet as they worship the King of kings.
They take leafy branches from the fields and they wave them to and fro and they shout, “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Hosanna. I’ve always loved that word. It’s such a churchy word. It makes me think of my own childhood and parading around the sanctuary. It makes me things of the musical masterpiece Jesus Christ Superstar and the crowds singing, “Hey sanna Hosanna, sanna sanna Hey, sanna ho sanna hey sanna.”
Hosanna is a wonderful word. And, every Palm Sunday, we reach into the vault of churchy words, we dust off this old familiar declaration, and we proudly put it on display. We shout it in our hymns, we put the word on the lips of our children, we hear it read in the scriptures. And then, at the conclusion of worship, we wrap it up and place it back into the church vault with our other special words only to come back one year from now.
We are familiar with this word. It conjures memories and songs. Churches everywhere will join us in our shouts of Hosanna today.
But do we know what it means?
It is a declaratory pleading. It is an emphatic demand.
Save us. Now!
That’s a word you don’t hear much in churches like ours. We’re Methodists. We sing and we eat and we sing some more. We try to love each other. Really, we do.
Love, peace, grace, mercy, forgiveness. Those are our words.
How many got saved on Sunday? We don’t talk like that.
We might make fun of those other types of church that talk in such a way.
I remember someone once asking me if I was saved, and I said something like, I suppose so, and he said he’d been saved no less than 9 times.
Hosanna! Save us!
Well, perhaps we should go look in the Bible for this word, where else does it appear besides Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city that will kill him?
There’s a woman, suffering from a hemorrhage for 7 years. She’s among the crowd one day and she says to herself, “If I but touch the hem of his garment I will be saved.”
Well, in our Bible’s it says, “made well.”
But it’s the same word for saved. The same word the crowds cry out as Jesus’ enters Jerusalem.
And she suffers from more than just her bleeding. She’s isolated, outcast, thrown away by the likes of her family and her friends. She is a nobody with no hope in the world. Until the hope of the world walks past one day and she reaches out. She’s got nothing until she gets saved.
There’s a blind beggar sitting by the roadside. Like the woman he is unseen by all because of his inability to see. Forgotten and abandoned. And when the Lord walks by he shouts out, “Son of David have mercy on me.” The disciples are quick to shut him up. The Lord has more important things to do than to waste his time on you.
But the Lord comes anyway and says, “What do you want me to do?”
I want to see.
And Jesus says, “You faith has saved you.”
He has nothing to show for anything. He’s desperate. And in a moments notice, he is in the parade of the faith. Dancing and shouting for joy.
There’s a rich man, well to do, Mr. Z they call him behind his back. While his fellows get poorer and poorer he gets wealthier and wealthier. He’s a tax collector. One day he climbs a tree to see Jesus. And the Lord calls him down and says, “Got any plans for lunch?”
They go to Zacchaeus’ house and the crowds are incensed. How dare the Lord go to eat with that sinner! What do they talk about over lunch? We don’t know. We only know that as they leave the house the tax collector is changed. He says, “I will give back everything that I have taken with interest.”
“Salvation” Jesus says, “has come to this house.”
It’s no wonder the crowds grew and grew and grew. It’s no wonder the strange new world of the Bible talks of people leaves their plows in the field and their bread in the oven when the Messiah shows up.
Because the Messiah is the one who saves.
And there’s no such things as being a little bit saved, or partially saved. It means a total and complete salvation.
So when they wave their palm branches, when they place their cloaks on the road, they scream for salvation from the only one who can bring it.
Hosanna! Save us Jesus!
Save us, from what?
Jerusalem is occupied, the Roman garrison enters the holy city on the other side. Pontius Pilate comes riding in on a war course while Jesus enters on a donkey. The people of God, therefore, are living as strangers in a strange land in the very land God had promised. Their way of life is fracturing, their faith is under scrutiny, they have no bright hope for tomorrow.
And here comes the Messiah! The one who makes everything right! He’s saved others and now he’s going to save us. He’s going to give us our city back. He’s going to bring back our way of life. He’s the new king!
The crowds grow and grow, and the shouts of Hosanna echo through the city streets, until they see the cross.
It is strange and not so strange to know that those same people who shouted Hosanna at the beginning of the week were shouting crucify by the end.
It’s all too easy for us to cast Jesus into role of our own choosing.
It’s all too easy for us to put words, our words, into Jesus’ mouth.
We would still like to see him parade around into the madness of our circumstances to champion our hopes and dreams, to disrupt and frustrate the plans of our enemies.
But Jesus doesn’t come to bring us more of the same.
Jesus comes to save us.
He doesn’t enter the holy city to establish yet another political machine that result in one group lording it over everyone else.
He doesn’t pass out swords and shields to storm the temple walls.
He doesn’t even offer programs of personal morality that will make the world a better place.
One of the craziest parts of Palm Sunday is that, according to the strange new world of the Bible, Jesus doesn’t say anything.
He merely rides into the city that will kill him.
But it’s Palm Sunday. We don’t want to have to think about Friday yet. We like the images and the sounds of our children waving palm branches high in the air. But there is no jumping from today to Easter Sunday.
Put another way, we do well to remember there is no resurrection without crucifixion.
It’s in our hymns and in our creeds and even in our prayers, but we try to stay away from the crucifixion as much as possible. And for good reason – it is the sign of our total and utmost depravity. But it’s also the heart of God.
God, the creator of the cosmos, lays aside almightiness to come and dwell among us in the muck and mire of life, to be one of us.
God becomes vulnerable for us.
And how do we return the favor?
Why? Because we want salvation on our own terms. We want to take matters into our own hands. We want to save ourselves.
We don’t want to be saved in our sins, we’d rather lord it over other sinners who are worse than us. The only problem with that is, according to the kingdom of God, none of us is righteous, no, not one.
You see, we crucified Jesus not because he was God, but because he was God and then failed to come up to our standards in doing so. It’s not that we weren’t looking for the Messiah; it’s just that he wasn’t the one we were looking for.
We’re fine with being saved only so long as it fits neatly into our expectations of what it means to be saved.
The crowds wave their branches and they shout their hosannas. Save us Jesus, save us! And, by the end of the week, that’s exactly what he does, whether we deserve it or not, whether we like it or not.
O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.
Even on the cross.
Jesus saves. Amen.
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Lent is such a strange time in the life of the church.
Yes, during Advent we re-await the baby born King in Bethlehem, which is bizarre in its own right. The author of the cosmos condescends to dwell among us through the least likely of people in the least likely of places.
But Lent? During Lent we hear about sin and shame – the need to lament and repent. We sing songs about death and crucifixion, we gaze inwardly at our wanton disregard for the good, the true, and the beautiful.
But Lent, contrary to how we might convey it or even embody it, isn’t really about sin and it definitely isn’t about punishment. It is a time set a part to behold God, so that we might see ourselves and all in things in light of God’s devotion to us.
In other words, Lent is a strange time of good news because in confronting the truth we are able to do away with falsehoods and trivialities. Looking at the cross, and our complicity in it, gives us the space to admit that nothing is as it should be.
Just here in our local community we’ve seen, over the last week, an entire apartment complex being forced to vacate into a market where there are no available rentals, a student fired a gun inside a middle school bathroom, and a campsite for homeless people caught fire.
Each of these incidents, sadly, can be attributed to our own sinfulness and selfishness. When we care more about our wealth, our freedom, and our clean streets, than the wellbeing of others, we only further prove that we have behaved badly.
And it’s not even just the headlines that we can read in the paper. Lent, oddly, forces us to come to grips with the fact that even Beauty is not as it should be.
Beauty cannot save the world, at least not in the ways we want it to be saved.
Our cultural achievements, our aesthetic sophistications, our programs of spectacular morality cannot deliver us from the evil at work without or within us.
It’s notable how often the strange new world of the Bible and the tradition of the church warns us about the dangers of beauty; beauty tricks us into believing that all is well when, in fact, all is hell.
Beauty is fleeting and finite, and no matter how hard we try and how much effort we put into things, they cannot save the world.
On Tuesday there was a benefit concert that featured the music of Ed Sheehan, Camila Cabello, and other artists that raised over 21 million dollars for Ukrainian refugees. It was a two-hour live streamed collection of performances during which the myriad array of musicians pleaded for an end to the war in Ukraine waged by Russia.
21 million dollars is no small feat.
But you know what happened in Ukraine? Nothing.
The bombs kept falling. Cities continued to crumble. And families fled out of fear for their lives.
In Jesus’ prelude to his Passion, on the eve of Palm Sunday, he arrives in Bethany and goes to the home of Lazarus. Mary and Martha decide to throw a little dinner party for the Lord and while their kicking back over appetizers, Mary bends down to the floor with a pound of Chanel No.5, pours it out on Jesus feet, and then she wipes them with her hair.
Judas, of course, jumps up from his seat and puts her in her place, “Woman, what’s wrong with you? That perfume is worth $50,000, why didn’t you see it and give the proceeds to the poor?”
Jesus, ever calm, responds to his soon-to-be-betrayer, “Leave her alone. She bought it for my burial. There will always be poor people, but I won’t be here forever.”
Its Lent which means, hopefully, we’re all in a space to admit that we agree with Judas. We know we’re not supposed to identify with him, he is after all the one who gives up his Lord, but he has a point. It’s such a waste to pour out the perfume on Jesus feet when it could’ve been used to make the world a better place.
And Jesus’ words are downright offensive, “You will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”
C’mon Jesus! Don’t you know being a Christian is about transforming the world? What a waste! Think about what we could’ve done with all that cash!
It’s embarrassing to hear the Lord speak in such a way.
And perhaps embarrassing isn’t the right word. It’s threatening to hear Jesus talk in such a way. His proclamation here to Judas threatens to upend everything we think we know.
Our world is built on the assumption that whatever ails us can be fixed by us. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It is good and right for us to dig deep into our wallets and purses to help those in need. We do have an obligation to love our neighbors and our enemies as ourselves. We need to believe in a better world. We need hope.
But we aren’t the hope of the world. If we were then we would not longer need newspapers to tell us what’s wrong in the world because there wouldn’t be anything wrong in the world.
Remember: some of the most horrific events in human history were done in the name of progress.
Transcendent hope, real hope for things not yet seen, can’t come from us, it has to be done to us. And that kind of hope has a name: Jesus.
The extravagant gift of the perfume poured out by Mary reveals to us that, unlike Judas, she knows that Jesus in the only hope in the world that we’ve got. She, therefore, can do something wild and reckless because she’s recognizes the wonder of the cosmos sitting at her table. She knows that true gifts, like the perfume and the incarnate One, cannot be controlled.
And, though we can’t help ourselves but agree with Judas, we also know (in some way, shape, or form) that Mary is right. We all encounter extravagant gifts that can disappear just as soon as they arrive.
A choir works for hours and hours only to stand up, sing for 4 minutes, and then it’s gone never to be heard again, at least not in that way.
A teacher does the same thing with every lesson just as a preacher does with every sermon.
Flowers are given in honor, love, memory, and respect only to die and wither shortly thereafter.
People like you and me put our money into offering plates week after week.
Even Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, only for Lazarus to die again in the future.
Well, love is a strange thing. As is hope. But without them, we are nothing.
Judas rebukes Mary for her waste because she could’ve help the poor. And yet, Judas lacks the vision to see that Mary is helping the poor. She pours out the extravagant perfume on the poorest of all: God in the flesh who condescends to dwell among us. She gives value and worth to the very people that Judas is advocating for.
But Judas has his mind stuck on earthly things – he believes that the only real and important changes can come out of his own goodness and charity.
Mary, however, has her mind on the divine, she perceives, somehow, that the One sitting at the table is the only One who can ever really make something of our nothing.
Does this mean that we are no bear responsibility for the last, least, lost, little, and dead? On the contrary, this dinner party disagreement is a profound declaration about the role of the church in the world. The world is an absolute mess and yet the church is a constant witness to the value and the worth of those the world throws away like trash.
Lazarus was dead, wrapped up in a tomb. And Jesus brings him back.
The 5,000 have nothing to show for their faithfulness except the hunger in their bellies and Jesus feeds them.
The 12 disciples abandon, deny, and betray Jesus and he still breaks bread with them and returns to them on Easter.
Wherever the world sees failure and brokenness, Jesus sees value and beauty.
And beauty is a fickle thing. It is often fleeting and wasted. And it will not save the world. But it might make the world a little more bearable.
Only the world that cannot save itself will be saved by God. And only the beauty that cannot save the world is worth saving at all.
Do you see? In God’s weird and wondrous way, Jesus himself is the nard purchased at a great price, to lavish upon the dying world. As Christ’s body in the world we are called to be symbols of broken beauty for a world that cannot and will not save itself.
We have hope because we know Jesus Christ and him crucified. Hope measures the distance between the now and the not yet. Hope is only intelligible amidst hopelessness. Were it up to us alone the world would never ever change. But it’s not up to us – Jesus is the hope of the world.
The anointing of Jesus’ feet is a reminder that, by the end of the week, those feet will be nailed to the cross. Jesus comes into a world that does not request him, nor even want him, because when push comes to shove we’d rather take matters into our own hands.
Or, put another way, when Jesus arrives with proclamations of grace and mercy and forgiveness, with announcements about a new age called the kingdom of God, we nail him to the cross.
Things are not as they should be.
No matter how hard we try there will always be more to do. But here’s the Good News: the one thing that needs to be done is already finished in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord. Though we are unworthy, Christ makes us worthy. Though we have sinned, Christ offers pardon. Though we feel empty, Christ proclaims that we are enough.
We are freed from the burden of being God. We, like Mary, can do wild and reckless things because Christ is the hope of the world, not us.
There is nothing beautiful about the cross. It is a sign of torture and death. And yet, for God, it is our salvation. Beauty will not save the world, but God does. Amen.
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’” Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.
It is a long standing tradition in the church to begin the forty days of Lent with Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. We, in a sense, mirror the journey Jesus faced with our own attempts at wrestling with temptation while abstaining from certain items, behaviors, and practices.
It’s not the easiest section of the church calendar.
The hymns are all a little too on the nose, the sermons call to question all of our wandering hearts, and even the scriptures reject our desire to look at anything but the cross.
We, then, can do lots of things as a church during this particular liturgical season, but at some point or another we will all raise the question we’ve had since the very beginning of the church: “Who, exactly, is this Jesus?”
It was just a few weeks ago that we were worshipping the baby born King in the manger, with little angels and shepherds wandering around the sanctuary. It’s easy to worship that Jesus because in infancy there isn’t much for us to come to grips with. We can confess the wonder of the incarnation, but we’re not entirely sure what that has to do with you or me.
But then, here in Lent, it’s like the Spirit wants to smack us over the head with the truth of the Truth incarnate.
And we start with Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness.
This vignette in the strange new world of the Bible tells us exactly who this Jesus is, and who he will be.
Oddly enough, it offers us a glimpse behind the curtain of the cosmos – it helps us see that the story of Christ will end just as it begins.
Jesus is baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan and then he is led by the spirit into the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.
“Hey JC!” The devil begins, “If you are who you say you are, I’m gonna need to see some ID. No pockets in your robe? That’s fine. I’ll take your word for it, if you really are the Word. But, let me tell you, you look awful. I’m sure you’re hungry. Not a lot to eat out here in the wilderness. Why don’t you rustle up some bread from these stones. Who knows? That little parlor trick could come in handy down the road… what could be more holy than having mercy on the hungry and filling their bellies?”
And Jesus says, “It is written, we cannot and shall not live by bread alone.”
“So you know your scriptures!” The Devil says, “I’m impressed! And, frankly, I’m with you Son of Man. You can’t just give hungry people food for nothing. They’ll become dependent. No handouts in the Kingdom of God! But how about this? Would you like a little taste of power? And I mean, real power. Political power. Here’s the deal – I’ll give you the keys to the kingdoms here on earth, all of them. The only thing you have to do, and it’s really nothing when you think about it, I just need you to bow down and worship me.”
And Jesus says, “It is written, we shall only worship one God.”
“Okay, okay,” the Devil continues, “Don’t be such a buzzkill. So you won’t show compassion to the needy, even yourself, and you won’t go ahead and make the world a better place through political machinations. That’s fine with me. For what it’s worth, I can play the scripture game too, you know. So I’ll give you one more chance. Why don’t you leap from the top of the temple, give the people a sign of God’s power and might, for, doesn’t it say in the Psalms, ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’ Just think about the kind of faith people will finally have if you show them one big miracle!”
And Jesus says, “It is written, you shall not put the Lord you God to the test.”
And then the devil leaves only to return at an opportune time.
That’s rather an ominous ending to a passage of scripture. But, no spoilers. Let stick with what we’ve got for now.
As I said at the beginning, we often use this story to give a little encouragement in resisting our own temptations. This is the time for someone like me to make a big pitch to people like you about whatever bad habit you need to drop. The time has come to shape up or ship out.
And, clearly, we’ve got plenty to work on. There are far too many people who fall asleep hungry at night, far too many children to have no bright hope for tomorrow, far too many communities that are falling prey to the devastating powers of loneliness.
But, if that’s all this story is supposed to do, if it merely exists as a weapon to wield against sleepy and dozing congregations about being better, then Jesus certainly could’ve been a little clear about what we should or shouldn’t be going.
Put another way: If Jesus’ temptations are really about our temptations, then it would’ve been better for him to have more lines in this passage than the devil.
Scripture is always primarily about God and only secondarily about us.
But we are vain and selfish little creatures and we assume everything is always about us, and only ever about us.
Jesus’ temptations are exactly that – Jesus’ temptations.
This isn’t a story about how we deal with our own temptations. It’s actually a story about how Jesus deals with the world – how Jesus deals with us.
Notice: the things the devil offers to the Lord, they’re all objectively good things – bread, political power, miracles.
And yet, Jesus refused them. And he even used scripture to defend his refusals!
Perhaps if the devil offered Jesus an unending buffet at the golden corral, or the nuclear codes, or David Copperfield’s assortment of illusions, we could sympathize with Jesus’ dismissals. But the devil offered Jesus possibilities for transformation and Jesus said, “No, thank you.”
But here’s the real kicker, the truly wild part of this story: by the end of the Gospel Jesus will, in fact, do all of the things that the devil suggests.
Instead of turning some rocks into a nice loaf of sourdough, Jesus will feed the 5,000 with nothing more than a few slices of day old bread a handful of fresh fish.
Instead of getting caught up in all the political procedures to Make Jerusalem Great Again, Jesus reigns from the arms of the cross and eventually ascends to the right hand of the father as King of kings and Lord of lords.
Instead of pulling off a primetime Law Vegas magic special, Jesus dies, and refuses to stay dead.
For a long, long, time we’ve understood Jesus and the Devil to be figures on opposite ends of the spectrum – one good and the other bad. It even slips into out culture whenever you see a figure with an angel whispering in one ear and a red figure with a bifurcated tail whispering in the other.
And yet, at least according to this moment in scripture, the difference between the devil and Jesus isn’t the temptations themselves, but in the methods upon which those acts of power come to fruition.
And, though it might pain us to admit, the devil has some pretty decent suggestions for the Messiah – Why starve yourself Lord, when you can easily set a meal here in the wilderness? Why let these fools destroy themselves when I can give you control over everything and everyone? Why let the world continue in fear and doubt when you can prove your worth right now?
The devil, frighteningly, sounds a lot like, well, us. The devil’s ideas are some that we regularly discuss and champion.
What our community needs is another food pantry! What we need to do is make sure that we have Christians running for political offices! If only God would show us a miracle, then everyone would finally get in line and the world will finally be a better place.
But Jesus, for as much as Jesus is like us, Jesus is completely unlike us. For, in his non-answer answers he declares to the devil, and therefore to all of us, that power as we understand it doesn’t actually transform much of anything.
We can create a feeding program, but sooner or later we will introduce requirements for those who receive the food.
We can get Christians elected into the government, but at some point they will be more concerned with maintaining their power than pointing to the one from whom all things move and have their being.
We can witness miracle after miracle after miracle, but we will never be quite satisfied with what we receive.
We’ve convinced ourselves, since that fateful day with a certain fruit in a certain tree, that it’s up to us to make things come out right in the end. That, by amassing power, we can make the world a better place.
In the early days of the church, we got so cozy with the powers and the principalities that individuals were forced to be baptized in order to becomes citizens in the empire.
In the Middle Ages, the church required more and more of the resources of God’s people in order to get their loved ones out of purgatory all while cathedrals got bigger, as did the waistlines of the clergy.
And even today, our lust for power (political, theological, economic), has led to violence, familiar strife, and ecclesial schisms.
We believe, more than anything else, that if we just had a little more control, if we just won one more debate, if we could just get everyone else to be like us, that it would finally turn out for the best.
But it never does.
If we could’ve fixed the world with our goodness, we would’ve done it by now.
Or, conversely, some of the most horrific moments of history were done in the name of progress.
The devil wants to give Jesus a short cut straight to the ends that Jesus will, inevitably, bring about in his own life, death, and resurrection.
The devil wants Jesus to do what we want Jesus to do.
Or, perhaps better put: The devil wants Jesus to do what WE want to do.
But here’s the Good News, the really Good News, Jesus rejects the temptations of the devil, and our own, and instead does for us what we would not, and could not, do for ourselves.
Even at the very end, with his arms stretched out not he cross, we still tempt the Lord just as the devil did: “If you really are who you say you are, save yourself!”
And, at the end, Jesus doesn’t bother with quotes from the scriptures, nor does he provide us with a plan on how to make the world a better place, he simply dies.
Instead of saving himself, Jesus saves us. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Chandler Ragland about the readings for the First Sunday of Lent [C] (Deuteronomy 26.1-11, Psalm 91.1-2, 9-16, Romans 10.8b-13, Luke 4.1-13). Chandler is the pastor of Black Mountain UMC in Black Mountain, NC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Lenten observances, first fruits, Karl Barth on time, doom and gloom, institutional identities, rocking climbing, angelology, imaging salvation, preaching anxieties, Twitter, and temptation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Words About The Word
But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
Jesus shows up by the lake of Gennesaret and crowds begin to gather to hear whatever it is he has to say. He starts teaching, if that’s what we want to call it – he tells stories, some of them make the folk scratch their heads, some of them make the people mad.
Talk of the first being last and the last being first always sounds like good news to those on the bottom rungs of life, but it sounds like unmitigated bad news to those with everything to lose.
Anyway, Jesus amasses such a crowd that, while standing by the seashore, the Lord decides to amplify his proclamations.
Down the way he stops a few boats and men who had been out all night fishing. They are busy cleaning their nets and Jesus decides to hop into one of their boats and says, “Hey, let’s get out on the water.”
And without giving it much thought, a nobody named Simon Peter pushes the boats out, and starts oaring the Lord back toward the crowds.
“Thanks Pete,” Jesus says, “This’ll do fine. Keep it steady will ya?”
And then Jesus teaches some more. Perhaps talk of fig trees and mustard seeds, maybe some more of that “all things being made new,” perhaps he ended with a particularly probing parable.
And then Jesus looks back to his conscripted fisherman and says, “Pete, since we’re out here already, what do you think about going deeper and let’s see if we can’t find ourselves some breakfast?”
“No offense, Lord,” Peter replies, “But I’ve been out all night fishing. You see, fishing is what I do. And there ain’t no fish to be caught. However, you seem to be on a roll today, so why not?”
15 minutes minutes pass and they catch more fish than they can safely bring aboard their aquatic vessel and they call out to the other fishermen to come help.
Pretty soon they have so many fish that the boats start sinking into the lake from which their plunder came.
Peter, with his arms burning from pulling in net after net, falls to the bottom of the boat and he says, “Get away from me Lord! I am not worthy of this!”
Jesus calmly replies, “No one is. But that’s the whole point. And you needn’t be afraid my friend, from now on you’ll be catching people.”
And Peter, along with his brother and their fishing partners, leave everything at the shore and they follow Jesus.
I love this story.
Every time I enter the strange new world of the Bible to this little tale by the sea I am bombarded by Peter’s reaction to Jesus. He falls before the Lord with a feeling of complete unworthiness. He, somehow, understands that God is near in the person of Jesus in a way that is more tangible and palpable than he can comprehend. And it is in the presence of God that Peter feels his sin.
Does Jesus call Peter a sinner? Does Jesus list all of Peter’s faults and failures? No.
Instead, the experience of God’s wonderful presence leads Peter to a recognition of his unworthiness. And then, lo and behold, Jesus wants to have a sinner such a Peter in his service!
“C’mon Pete! It’s time to start catching people!”
It’s hard to know exactly when it happens, but somewhere along the line Jesus catches us. That’s what Jesus does, in the end. It’s not just the telling of tales, and the proclamations of parables, and the making of miracles. Jesus delights in gathering us, all of us, into the great net that, in the church, we call salvation.
And Jesus is very good at what he does.
Life, as we often perceive it, is little more than going through the motions and doing one thing after another. But Jesus doesn’t come to bring us more of the same. That’s the great witness and proclamation of the church – Jesus comes that we might have life and life abundant. Jesus shakes up the monotony of our daily existence, sets us free from the chains of sin and death, and invites us to the Supper of the Lamb that has no end.
Jesus’ divine fishing charter, his conscription of Peter, is not merely about gathering in whoever he can whenever he can – it’s about bringing us to a place we could never arrive on our own.
Hear the Good News, the very best news: The tall and the small, the good and the bad… Jesus’ net is wide enough for all of us.
Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
When I was in college there was one semester during which I sat in the front row of my class on “Hindu Traditions” every day. My professor was a practicing Hindu and regularly lectured from the front, pacing back and forth as we covered history, beliefs, sacred texts, and more. Dr. Mittal was remarkably passionate about the subject he had this incredible gift of making us excited class after class.
During our final class of the semester, shortly before our Final Exam, Dr. Mittal asked if there were any lingering questions. A few hands raised, most of them with queries about the exam itself. But there was one young woman, prominently displaying her “Campus Crusade For Christ” sweatshirt who asked a question that I will never forget. She said, “Dr. Mittal, if you know that you’re going to hell for being a Hindu, why wouldn’t you become a Christian to save yourself?”
The room was silent.
Dr. Mittal, having been cool as a cucumber throughout the semester, clenched his fists together and I saw his nostrils flare. “How dare you speak to me that way!” he shouted, “I am so tired of you young foolish Christians trying to tell me what to believe in. Get out of my class right now!”
The disciple Thomas, the doubter (but that’s later), ever concerned about what Jesus is really saying and really meaning, questions the Lord about the truth. And Jesus replies, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Jesus does not know the way, or the truth, or the life; rather, he is all of those things. And he is not merely a way, but the way. Jesus is the unique and visible manifestation of God on earth.
Since the earliest days of the church this has been our proclamation: If you want to know what God is like, look no further than Jesus Christ – in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. And some of Jesus’ final words have been our rallying cry – Go therefore and baptize the nations in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Hence our propensity for evangelism.
It wasn’t long after the time of the Acts of the Apostles that the community of God came to understand that outside of the church, there is no salvation. That is, in order to experience the forgiving pardon of God you have to be taught the ways of the church, you have to engage in acts of piety and mercy, you have to be baptized in order to find out who you really are. And even after baptism, a life of faith means a living of the faith – presence in worship, daily prayers, tithing.
I remember feeling so uncomfortable that day in class all those years ago because of what my fellow student said to our professor. In the moment I thought she merely wanted to frustrate him, or draw out some sort of reaction, which she certainly did. But over the years I’ve come to realize that maybe she said what she said because of her faith – I think she was genuinely concerned about his salvation, and wanted to know why he would insist on going down a path that would ultimately separate him from God forever.
After all, no one can come to the Father except through Jesus Christ. Amen
And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.
Karl Barth, the dialectic theologian of the 20th century, was often vague regarding his understanding of the totality of salvation. In his lectures and in his writing there are plenty of examples when he almost affirms a universalist understanding of God’s redemptive work. That is: If God is the God of scripture, then God means all when God says all.
But Barth never outright claimed it as his theological understanding.
Once, after a series of lectures here in the US a young theologian bravely raised his hand to ask a question. “Professor Barth, I would like to know once and for all: are you or are you not a universalist?”
Barth crossed his arms and scratched his tousled hair, and then a sly smile stretched across his face before he replied, “That is a great question. Let me answer it this way: I will not be disappointed if heaven is crowded.”
The question of inter-religious connections, or how different faiths relate to one another has been around since the beginning. There are examples of it within the Bible again and again as the people Israel and the people called church discerned what it meant to interact with those outside the faith.
For Christians it is also a question of who is included in the scope of salvation, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible.
We might think of the oft-quoted John 3.16 – For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son. Or we might reflect on the great number of instances throughout scripture in which individuals outside the realm of Israel (such as Rahab from Jericho, Nebuchadnezzar from Babylon, or the centurion who proclaimed Jesus’ divinity at the moment of the cross) all of whom played integral roles in the story of God’s interaction with God’s people.
We might think of the proclamation that all of humankind was created in the image of God.
We might think of the many stories from Christ’s own ministry when he did not come for the religious elites, those who did all the things they were supposed to do, but instead came for the last, least, lost, little, and even the dead.
We might think about how heaven, whatever it is, is filled only and entirely with forgiven sinners because even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died.
If we believe than nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, no anything else in all creation, then God mercy truly knows no bounds.
God’s love is therefore so magnificent and unconditional that it extends not only to all of us, but to all of creation. Jesus himself says, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”
At the right time Christ died for the ungodly, God proves God love for us that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Which is all just another way of saying: I, too, won’t be disappointed if heaven is crowded. Amen.
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
On June 17th, 2015, a young white man named Dylann Roof walked into a Bible study at Mother Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, SC. For an hour the group sat together discussing scripture and praying. And then, at the end of their time, the young man stood up, pulled out a gun, and he started shooting.
Nine members of the church were killed.
The next day, I was sitting in my church office in Staunton, VA and I called the pastor of the local AME church and asked him what we could do.
He said, “The only thing we can do: pray.”
So we hastily put together a community prayer vigil at his church, Allen Chapel AME, for that evening and we asked people to spread the word.
A few hours later the chapel was filled to the brim and people were spilling out onto the sidewalk. Dr. Scott walked up to the pulpit and the room became eerily quiet. And he said, “I can’t do this by myself, I need all the other clergy in the room to come stand with me.”
So I got up, and a few others did as well. But it wasn’t enough for Dr. Scott, because when he saw the local Rabbi and the local Imam, he beckoned them forward as well.
There we stood, representatives from various Christian denominations, in addition to the community mosque and synagogue, and we did the only thing we knew to do. We prayed. And we prayed and we prayed.
And we wept.
And then we prayed some more.
How do we relate to people of other faiths? That’s a question I’ve heard a lot in the time I’ve been a pastor in the UMC. Without a doubt, the existence of and interactions with other religions is, perhaps, among the most significant challenges and opportunities for the church today.
Similarly, with the rise of the so called nones (those with no religious affiliation), the people called church are tasked with thinking about what it means to interact with those who do not believe, and those who do believe, and those who believe differently than we do.
So how should we relate? It’s complicated. We can take various verses from the Bible, for what’s it’s worth, all of the scriptures today come from the same gospel and they each paint a very different picture.
We can certainly spend time affirming the connectedness between the Abrahamic faiths, the fact that we share certain scriptures, but our beliefs are not the same, nor are our practices.
And yet, at the end of the day, Jesus does tell us how to behave: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. I hope it has been true for you as it has been for me, that I have experienced the love of God through a great number of people, many of whom have nothing whatsoever to do with the church.
What has been revealed for us through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection is that God desires us to be in relationship with others – weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice.
This means that we are called to be vulnerable with the very people we disagree with, those who believe differently than we do, just as much as we are called to be vulnerable with the people in our church. We are called to live lives of love just as God has loved us and loves us.
What we believe shapes how we behave. And if we believe that God in Christ really reveals the fullness of love, then we need not look further than that love to see how we are to be.
Therefore, in the great and somewhat adapted words of John Wesley, though we may not think alike, though our differences of opinion and religious understanding may vary considerably, though we may not agree even on what it means to believe, may we not love alike?
Without all doubt we may.
And perhaps we must. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Second Sunday After Christmas [C] (Jeremiah 31.7-14, Psalm 147.12-20, Ephesians 1.3-14, John 1.1-18). Teer is one of the pastors at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Christmas presents, strangers in a strange land, experiential faith, scattering and gathering, strange celebration, new words, Frozone and Frozen, the mystery of salvation, Indiana Jones, universalism, and the incarnation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: All The Good Verbs!
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.
There’s a better than good chance that all of us here have heard the story before. We all know that the holy family was turned away by a greedy innkeeper, that Jesus was born in a stable, laid in a manger, surrounded by farm animals, admired by shepherds, and sung to by angles.
Never mind the fact that half of these details aren’t even in the Bible; we’re still ready to remember it that way. Just a few hours ago the children of this church even acted the whole thing out with pipe cleaner halos, cotton ball covered sheep, and plastic shepherd staffs.
You have to be careful giving a long stick to a 5 year old, you never know when they’ll flip it around and turn it into a light saber and cut you in half.
A few years ago, when I was serving a different church, we had one of our wisemen decide to take a nap on the chancel steps halfway through the service and he didn’t wake up until the end and he was surrounded by a bunch of people holding up candles and singing a song.
I promise there was nothing silent about that night.
Or, like this afternoon, when one of our angels came up to the chancel area, she adored the baby Jesus so much, that she decided to pick him up and rock him back and forth while the wisemen were busy following the star across the sanctuary.
Her precious parents motioned for her to put the baby Jesus back in the hay but she, I kid you not, smiled at them like an angel, and kept on rocking.
It warms our hearts to return to this story, it’s part of the trimmings and the trappings of this season. We can recall in our minds Christmases past when we’ve encountered this story in a variety of ways. And yet, if you spend even a short amount of time in the strange new world of other Bible, you can’t help but notice that all of the sentimentality is missing.
Which, of course, runs completely counter to how we want this to go. We want the cute little baby cooing up at his parents, we want him glowing preternaturally as if he’s the one keeping everyone else warm, we even want the wisemen making silly noises and faces at the baby born king.
In short, we want sentimentality.
Why? Sentimentality rises when we are in denial of reality. It is our way of coping with an unbelievable world. It’s why Hallmark and Lifetime make a killing this time of year with their never-ending and confounding Christmas stories that all follow the exact same pattern.
We can turn them on, and disappear for 90 minutes, while everything else is crumbling around us.
But Christmas, the real Christmas, begins in the dark. It is not a denial of how bad things are, it is a proclamation that though things are bad, God has arrived to do something about it!
“What child is this?” That might be the best beginning to any hymn we’ve got in the hymnal, because that question is our question. All we do as a church, particularly on Christmas Eve, is our attempt at answering the question. And we get lots of answer.
The child is the dawn of redeeming grace, the child is light from light eternal, the child is the Savior, the child is Lord at thy birth.
Translation: the child is God!
But if Kurt Vonnegut is right, and people come to church not to hear preachments but to day-dream about God, then the question still lingers: Who is this God we worship?
In church circles there are these two major competing images for the Lord.
Among some, God is like a mother-in-law who shows up for Christmas dinner with nothing but judgments and expectations: I thought you were going to actually do something with your life! Why aren’t we using the family china?
God then becomes the arbiter of bad news for bad people. We cower in fear of the One whose expectations we will never meet. We hide in shame from the One born for us. We struggle under the weight of guilt that we are never enough.
But there’s another image of God among church types.
God is like an uncle who shows up for Christmas dinner with a sausage under one arm and a bottle of wine under the other. And when he sees us moping around he slams his fist on the table, sending the roast beast flying, and shouts, “Why all the long faces?! Have you not heard the Good News! Grace has appeared, bringing salvation to all! Let’s celebrate!”
Christmas, despite its various trimmings and trappings, is a party, it is a celebration, it is the foretaste of the Supper of the Lamb to which we are invited without earning it or deserving it.
It is the divine laughter that goes on ad infinitum.
And this party hosted by One who turns water into wine, who drags in people off the street, who slaughters the fatted calf for the wayward child, this party isn’t in preparation -it’s not off in some distant place during some different time.
It’s here! Right now! It’s in our kitchens and in our living rooms, it’s in the aisles and the grocery store and out on the ball field.
Christmas is who we are.
It is from Christmas that our lives are ordered and re-ordered. Christmas makes intelligible all of the illegible wanderings of our days and of our nights.
Christmas is the proclamation of the great Good News that God is here! We are redeemed. No matter what we’ve done or left undone, it is no match for the Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world.
If Christmas says anything, it says that God comes to us!
Years ago, during one of my first Christmas Eve services as a pastor, I stood outside the doors to the sanctuary welcoming the last stragglers before the service started. And the final car pulled into the lot just as the organist started playing the first hymn.
I had a choice – either get the show on the road, or let the service start without me in order to greet the one lost sheep.
I chose the sheep.
I could feel the organist’s eyes growing wider and wider as the pastor did not walk down the center aisle, but I waited.
And I waited.
Out of the car stepped an old little man who shuffled along with the help of cane and 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. So I politely, and quickly, offered him my hand, opened the door, and started to make a break for the front, but he grabbed me by the robe, pulled me down, and said, “Listen son – I only come to church once a year so the Good News better be good.”
It seems like, no matter how hard we try, the world just keep drowning in bad news. Just turn on the news at night, or doom scroll through Twitter for five minutes, and it seems like we have no hope at all.
Thanks be to God, then, that the hope of the world is born for us.
So hear the Good News: God in Christ, born to us, has brought us salvation. God is our helper, liberator, and redeemer. God rescues us and delivers us. We live because God lives with us.
God in Christ, born to us, 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 is Christ, born to us, has brought salvation to all, without reservation or exception, simply because that is who God is.
Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. Merry Christmas.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 3rd Sunday of Advent [C] (Zephaniah 3.14-20, Isaiah 12.2-6, Philippians 4.4-7, Luke 3.7-18). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including interesting introductions, Tom Waits, grace, The Muppets Christmas Carol, singing with singers, advent questions, problematic language, bad timing, the wells of salvation, the longest night of the year, Christmas trees, and the order of operations. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Come On Up To The House