Good Times, Bad Times

Psalm 29

Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory of his name; worship the Lord in holy splendor. The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the Lord, over mighty waters. The voice of the Lord is powerful; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness; the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!” The Lord sits enthroned over the flood; the Lord sits enthroned as king forever. May the Lord give strength to his people! May the Lord bless his people with peace! 

I just want to own, here at the very beginning of the sermon, that this is not going to be one that leaves any of us feeling very satisfied. Perhaps when I preached on the politics of the church you left feeling charged up about the state of the world and the church’s role within it. Or maybe you walked away from the message last week feeling emboldened about reaching out to those of differing religious opinions.

But today it will be different.

This is one of those times when, no matter how hard we might try, there is no “good” answer to our question. The lack of anything we might call “good” is due, in large part, to our insatiable desire for every puzzle piece to fit perfectly into the puzzles of our lives, but that’s not really how things work.

To the query of why bad things happen to good people there exists no simple formula or convenient explanation. It cannot be brushed away as a rational truism, nor can it be ignored as if it doesn’t really matter.

What we bring to the Lord today, the pondering we feel in our hearts and minds, is at the heart of one of Christianity’s greatest struggles.

Therefore, there is a better than good chance that we shall all leave today with more questions than answers.

And that’s okay.

After all, who can know the mind of God?

Australia is on fire. A simple search on Google, or surfing through the cable news channels will show us satellite images in which you can actually see the fires raging from space. Smoke from the coastal areas have traveled so far that people on the western coast of South America are able to smell it in the air. Dozens of people have died and countless homes have been lost. And it could go on for another month.

Just a few days ago Puerto Rico was rocked by a horrific earthquake. In the aftermath of the devastation, 2,000 people have been displaced and millions still don’t have electricity with fears of water and food shortages only getting worse. 

One of these events is happening on the other side of the globe and the other is not too far from here, all things considered.

And what do they share with one another? 

Total indiscriminate devastation. Dead bodies. Children left without parents and parents left without children. People were unprepared and no one knows when life will go back to normal, or even if it ever will.

The other thing they share? Pastors and Christians trying to make sense of how God could allow, or will, such horrible things to happen.

A pastor of a large church in Arizona is currently blaming the fiery flames of Australia on their laxity around homosexuality. He claims that if the nation would allow people like him to come in and preach, if they systematically murdered people who displayed homosexual tendencies, then they would be able to stop God’s judgment from coming down upon them and the fires would stop.

A group of angry Christians are blaming the earthquake in Puerto Rico on the island’s inability to be grateful for the support of the United States during other recent times of need. They claim that if the residents of Puerto Rico expressed their gratitude to the Lord for what has been done to help then God will stop sending elements of devastating destruction their way.

I could go on and on. Countless examples in the last few days have come up to explain exactly why such terrible things are happening. The two I mentioned are some of the worst, but there have been plenty others – those who claim God is trying to remind us of God’s power, or that is God testing us to see if we’ll remain faithful.

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And here’s the kicker about these, and plenty of other, tragic occurrences in there world – the best thing Christians can do (other than offering signs of help and support) is to just be quiet. The unyielding desire to discern some greater meaning, or meaninglessness, behind it all, is cruel and presumptuous. Any time we, and by we I mean Christians, offer pious platitudes or trite words of comfort it only results in our soothing our own guilty consciences and making God into a terrible monster. 

It is rather astounding when we consider how often Christians, in particular, are so quick to explain a catastrophe in ways that result in God seeming like one who delights in torturing his little creatures, like a kid hovering over an ant hill with a magnifying glass.

And yet the desire to use words in a time when words cease to have meaning, totally makes sense. Think about it – How can Christians, people like us look upon devastation and destruction so vast and indiscriminate and continue to believe in the workings of God behind the very fabric of nature? What kind of God sanctions an earthquake, or a flood, or a fire? Why does God strike with such terror upon certain people and not others?

These questions are asked, by us and others, as if Christians have never had to answer them over the last 2,000 years, as if no disciples has had to sort through the rubble after a house collapsed, or wrestled with a final diagnosis, or buried a child in the dirt.

There are moments, plenty of them near and far, when we probably ought not to speak at all.

But, of course, we must speak.

We must speak for the God we claim to worship is the very One who speaks creation into existence, whose divine Word is the beginning and the end, who declares that even now a new thing is happening. 

It is therefore in our speaking that we learn first what not to say. 

Claiming that God is up there (as if God is up somewhere) pulling the strings resulting in the randomness of nature’s horrid violence while also believing we can account, somehow, for every instance of suffering is simply impossible and unfaithful. It forces people like us to justify some pretty unjustifiable things.

There is no good reason a child is diagnosed with incurable cancer.

There is no good reason that a family is forced to seek refuge in another country.

There is no good reason that a hurricane devastates entire communities of people.

Equally problematic are the attempts at explaining suffering as a particular response to our own sinfulness. As if God is keeping some sort of ledger and whenever we, his creatures, get enough tallies in the sin department God has to punish us for our failure to be obedient.

These foolish and yet all too popular beliefs barely deserve our time and focus, but suffice it to say, God promised never to do such a thing to God’s people after the flood, and time and time again in the New Testament we are told that Jesus has already died for all of our sins, past, present, and future.

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To make any assertion that the suffering of people in this life is specifically willed by God is a simply a denial of the Good News made manifest in Christ Jesus.

And here’s where it gets even more unsatisfying – The teachings of the church, revealed in the work and words of Jesus, boldly declare that suffering and death, in themselves, have no meaning or purpose. This is a difficult pill for us to swallow because we want to apply meaning to anything and everything.

For some reason we’ve made it out in our minds that everything happens for a reason. And perhaps that’s true, to some degree, but that’s not the same thing as believing that God specifically makes everything happen the way that it does. Some things are beyond meaning.

And, though it might pain us to admit it, this is some of the best news of all – for it frees us from the fear of living unworthy lives. It breaks us from the captivity of the never ending navel gazing that dominates our existence. It means death really isn’t the end. And that’s the best news of all.

Knowing this, knowing the cross and the empty tomb await Jesus in every part of his life, gives us a profound glimpse at how much of a rebel God really is. Rather than contentedly pulling the string behind every little instance, God grants freedom with reckless abandon to a bunch of creature that don’t quite know what to do with it.

Here is the crux of our dilemma – We have such an innate desire to explain all things, to find meaning behind all things, to have an answer to every single little problem that we fail to see that this hubris is what vexes us the most. 

There are some things that simply have no explanation, and certainly not ones that provide us comfort. We are not comforted in whatever we receive because we believe that we are the masters of the universe when, in fact, the opposite is true – we are all at the whim of the universe, of the random and unexplainable events that have the power to tear us down to the floor. 

But we are Christians, we have the challenge and the gift to see the world and all of its realities as if seeing two things at once. We look out at all the brokenness and the terror that defy explanation, and then we also see the overwhelming beauty of a world that allows for people even like us to live in it. To see it this way, two things at once, is to both mourn and rejoice in the same moments. 

It is like holding the wonder of creation which also recognizing that we cannot live without death.

And death really is the key to all of this, to all of our questions and all of our fears, for Jesus subverts death and makes a way through death to new life.

This is not to deny the devastating power of death in this life, or to gloss over the suffering of individuals and communities across the globe. There are definitely things we could be doing right now that would greatly help those who are most in need. But as Christians we also bear witness to the cross, to a sign of death, which for us is also a sign of triumph. 

God does not give in to the natural powers of this world, but instead shatters those very powers and forever vanquishes the empire of death’s dominion.

Or, to put it another way, Easter changes everything.

Easter, after all, is a sign of God’s rebellion against the cruelty of the world. Easter liberates us from fearing the thing we fear most. Easter boldly proclaims that not even death can have the final word – the final word belongs to God.

I said at the beginning of all of this that perhaps the best thing for Christians to do in the wake of suffering is to stay silent. And now, having gone through and said all that I’ve said, I wonder if I should’ve heeded my own advice. For no matter what we say, it never quite hits the mark we’re hoping for.

Think about it this way: Imagine in your minds someone you know, perhaps a friend or a coworker or even someone in your family and they’ve just gone through a terrible ordeal. Maybe a car accident has left someone dead, or their house burned to the ground, whatever. And then, as you go to this person for the first time on this side of the tragedy, your first inclination is to comfort them, or yourself, with talk of meaning. So you say something like, “Well, God must’ve wanted another little angel in heaven” or “God is trying to remind you to be grateful for the things you do have” or “Everything happens for a reason.”

Those words accomplish nothing.

Well, that’s not true. They do accomplish something: they make things worse.

If we believe it would be cruel and unfaithful to say such things in the moment when another person’s sorrow is the most real, then we ought never to say them at all.

God does not delight in our deaths, nor does God rejoice in our sorrow. God is not the secret architect of evil, and God does not rain down suffering as a test for his creation.

Instead, God is the conqueror of death, God weeps with us when we weep, and God will never ever abandon us.

Which ultimately leads us, here at the end, to thoughts about how we might faithfully respond to the unexplainable devastation that takes place in this world. Platitudes and trite aphorisms have to go; silence is preferable. 

But if we cannot remain silent, then we would do well to follow the example of Jesus and rage against the injustice of this world, to lift up our clenched fists to the sky, and then get down in the ditch with those who need us the most. Amen. 

Mission Impossible

Ephesians 1.3-14

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. 

In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit.

I have always been a “front row” kind of person. I wish it was because I am so dedicated to the things that I learn, but most of it is because I know that if I sit in the back, I’ll get distracted and stop paying attention. So when I was in college, I sat in the front row of all my Religious Studies classes, dutifully taking notes, and tucking it all away for the future.

In one such class titled “Hindu Traditions,” I was sitting in the front row listening to my practicing Hindu professor talk about how important his faith was to himself and to his family. And he was in the middle of a lecture when the girl sitting directly behind me raised her hand. When she coughed for our professors attention I turned over my shoulder and saw that she was proudly and prominently wearing a “Campus Crusade for Christ” teeshirt, and kept stretching her hand higher and higher as if that would get our professor’s attention. Reluctantly, he stopped lecturing and motioned for her to speak.

She said, “Dr. Mittal – If you know you’re going to hell for being a Hindu, why wouldn’t you believe in Jesus to save yourself?”

The room was silent.

Dr. Mittal, having been calm and collected all semester, began to clench his fists together and his nostrils flared before he blurted out, “How dare you speak to me that way! I am so tired of you foolish young Christians trying to tell me what to believe in. Get out of my class right now!”

The disciple Thomas, every worried about what Jesus was really saying, once questioned his Lord about the truth of where they were all going. Jesus’ response? “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, the truth, and life, rather, he is all of these things. And he is not merely a way, but THE way. Jesus is the unique and visible manifestation of God.

From the beginning of the church, this statement, this claim, has been axiomatic for Christianity. If you desire to know God, to find salvation, and to experience grace, you can only find it through Jesus Christ – hence the strong and persistent push for evangelism over the last 2,000 years. Which makes sense considering the fact that one of the last things Jesus ever said to his disciples was, “Go into the world baptizing all people in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

The tradition of the church is one that staunchly affirms that salvation can only come through Jesus Christ.

Or, to put it another way, outside the church, there is no salvation. To experience the forgiving pardon of the Lord, to be taught the ways of the faith, to engage in acts of kindness and mercy, is entirely dependent of the existence and proclamation of the church. 

I can remember feeling so uncomfortable in the front row as my professor attempted to clam his demeanor. In the moment I thought she just wanted to frustrate him, or draw out the exact type of reaction that took place. But what if she was being genuine? What if she really was concerned about his salvation?

After all, no one can come to the Father except through Jesus Christ. Amen.

With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

Prayer

There are anecdotes about famous people that are just so good that sometimes it doesn’t matter whether they are true or not. Think of George Washington and the cherry tree. Did he really chop down the cherry tree as a child? Does that matter more than the lesson of telling the truth?

There are a lot of stories about Karl Barth, the dialectical theological of the 20th century who greatly upended, in the best ways, my theological understanding, many of which probably aren’t true. Like the time a student pridefully declared he had read everything Barth wrote to which Barth replied, “Son, not even I have read everything I’ve written.”

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So, whether its true or not, people used to push Barth about his universalist tendencies – the idea that, in the end, God saves all regardless. In his work he dances around the claim that all have been, and will be, saved through Christ’s work, death, and resurrection, but Barth never outright claims whether or not he believes it.

And, the story goes that a young student pushed and pushed Barth to respond to the claim of his universalism, to which Barth replied, “Let me put it this way: I will not be disappointed if heaven is crowded.”

The question of universalism is remarkably relevant considering the great range of thought regarding faith and discipleship. This year alone has seen publications in the arena of theology both in support of universalism and against it. With the world becoming more diverse with every passing day, with different understanding of Christianity cropping up all over the world, the church is left with a question: “How big is the all of Christ died for all?”

We might think of the passage read today, and in particular Christ gathering up all things in him both in heaven and on earth. 

We might think of the fact that humankind was created in the image of God – every single individual having been molded from God’s divinity and given life through the Spirit regardless of later religious affiliations.

We might even think of the myriad examples from Christ’s ministry where he came for the last, least, lost, little, and dead. How he regularly shared meals with the sinners, the vagrants, and the marginalized. How Jesus cared not one bit about their own morality or motivations, but simply declared, “I have come to set you free.”

If we believe that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus then God’s mercy and love and grace truly knows no bounds. God’s power is therefore so magnificent and unconditional that it extends not only to all of us gathered here, but to the entirety of creation!

The work of Christ then becomes the lens through which we see the beginning and end of all things, the One whose arms were still outstretched even on the cross, and how all are caught up in the cosmic victory over sin and death.

When Barth responded to the young man with his quip about a crowded heaven, he did so by avoiding the real question but still addressing the kind of hope made manifest in Christ – a hope that all Christians should have. Christ died for us while we were yet sinners. All of us.

With all wisdom and insight Jesus has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. Amen. 

In Jesus we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished on us.

Prayer

During my final year of seminary I served as one of the on-call chaplains at Duke University hospital. We were required to stay at the hospital for 24 hour periods attending to the numerous pages, calls, and deaths that would inevitably occur during our shifts. 

One night, after sitting with yet another family reeling in the wake of a loved one’s death, after holding hands with a woman who was just handed her final diagnosis, after pacing outside a room working up the courage to say the right words in a prayer, I found myself in the chapel. 

It was a tiny room, barely labeled, off one of the main hallways. It contained numerous religious pamphlets, an assortments of hymns and sacred texts, and toward the back there was a makeshift altar with a lined notebook that anyone could write a prayer in. Whenever I had a free moment during my shift, I would head to that space, flip through the notebook, and lift up the prayers that I found. 

But I mostly went to the chapel to get away from the rest of the hospital.

Every once in a while I would enter the chapel, expecting to find it empty as it often was, but instead I would find a Muslim doctor praying on the ground in the corner. We would always politely nod to one another but then continue on in our respective religious duties. But that night, the night where I felt completely overwhelmed and exhausted, everything changed.

I was standing up at the altar, praying over the notebook, while he prayed in the corner. We both were speaking at a tone barely above a whisper so as to not disturb the other, when all the sudden he stopped, stood up, and walked to my side. 

I felt him wrap his arm around my shoulder and he said, “Lets do it together this time.”

Without discussing the details, without making a plan, without debating our theological differences, we both began to pray, arm in arm, for the people we were serving.

I don’t know how long we prayed, I don’t even remember what we said, but when it was all over we hugged and then we went our separate ways.

Without a doubt, the existence of, and interaction with, other religious groups is perhaps the most significant challenge and opportunity for the church today. Moreover, with the rise of so-called the New Atheists and the Nones (those with no religious affiliation), we have entered to a confounding mosaic in which we are challenged to address those who do not believe and those who do believe and those who believe differently than us.

So, what happens to people of other faiths when they die? How can we relate to people of different religious persuasions? I’m not sure.

We can pick up the Bible and finds all sorts of answers – answers that include all or close out some or leave us with something in between. One of the great paradoxes of the church is that we affirm how there is no salvation outside the church and that through Christ all have been saved. 

Only God knows what will happen in the end, but until we meet our end, perhaps it is best for us to live by some of Jesus’ most challenging words: Love one another. Not love other Christians or love the people in the pews, but love one another. 

In my own life, God has used a great number of people from outside the church to help teach me about what it means to follow Jesus. But at the same time, what we do in this place, what we do as a church, has saved me time and time again.

What has been revealed for us through Jesus, is that God desires us to be in relationship with others. This implies a willingness to be vulnerable with people different from us, people whose beliefs contradict our own, people with no beliefs at all, and the people who are sitting right next to us in church. 

We are called to love one another.

Though we may not think alike, though our differences of opinion and religious understanding may vary considerably, though we may not agree on the scope of salvation, may we not love alike?

Without all doubt we may. Amen. 

Christmas With Karl Barth

In the latter part of his theological career, Karl Barth would preach for the inmates in the prison of Basel, Switzerland. When the public found out that he was doing so people reacted in a variety of ways – some were amazed that a man of such academic stature would humble himself to do such a thing, while others took it as a sign of his tremendous faith. And a few would joke that the only way to hear Karl Barth preach would be to break the law and go to jail.

In 1954 Barth delivered the Christmas sermon to the inmates. I’ve made a habit of reading the sermon every Christmas Eve almost like a devotional and every year I find more and more in it that just astounds me. This great man whose theology disrupted my life (in the best ways), went down to a prison on Christmas and proclaimed the Good News of Christ’s birth into the world to a group of men who felt no hope in the world at all. 

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Below you can find some of the three most powerful paragraphs from the sermon, and as you read them I encourage you to do so while considering the context and the preacher from whom and for whom these words were preached:

“What does the word Savior convey? The Savior is he who brings us salvation, granting us all things needed and salutary. He is the helper, the liberator, the redeemer as no man, but God alone, can be and really is; he stands by us, he rescues us, he delivers us from the deadly plague. Now we live because he, the Savior, is with us.

“The Savior is also he who has wrought salvation free of charge, without our deserving and without our assistance, and without our paying the bill. All we are asked to do is to stretch out our hands, to receive the gift, and to be thankful.

“The Savior is he who brings salvation to all, without reservation or exception, simply because we all need him and because he is the Son of God who is the Father of us all. When he was made man, he became the brother of us all. To you this day is born a Savior, says the angel of the Lord.”

Merry Christmas

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The Cross In The Manger

Romans 8.1-2

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. 

There are quite a few passage in scripture that just really sing. I mean, I can be in the midst of something with my attention focused elsewhere, and words from the Bible will begin humming in my head and they just get stuck there. 

Over the last few days I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the words from the Holy Scriptures, and in particular some of Jesus final words: Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.

I’ve been thinking about those words because I believe Jesus to be true – we need forgiveness because we have no idea what we’re doing.

Here’s just a sampling of a few cultural moments that took place since last we met:

A United Methodist Church in California set up their customary and traditional manger scene on their front lawn though they did so with a little twist. Instead of Mary and Jospeh huddling together over the baby Jesus like proud beaming parents, the three figures have been sequestered and separated into their own respective cages lined with barbed wire. The church has publicly affirmed that they did so to call into question the family separation practices that are currently taking place on our southern border since, according to the Bible, Jesus and his family had to flea Bethlehem shortly after his birth as refugees.

One church in one part of the country chose to make a statement with their display and it, of course, made its way into the national discourse with a great number of threats being made against the pastor and the church for daring to make a political statement with baby Jesus.

And while the talking heads on the news, online, and in churches argued and bickered over a church display, a group of doctors showed up with free flu shots to administer them to children being held in detention and were turned away. 

And while they were packing up their free flue shots, meant for some of the most vulnerable people of all, angry groups of people all across the state of Virginia were meeting in their respective localities begging their elected representatives to classify their counties as 2nd Amendment Sanctuaries out of fear that the VA state government is going to come take away their firearms.

And to make matters all the more prescient, in each of those three situations, people on every side – those for the cages and against the cages, those for the flu shots and against the flu shots, those for 2nd amendment sanctuaries and those against them articulated that they did what they did because they felt it was the faithful thing to do.

Lord, forgive us, for we have no idea what we’re doing.

There is a dissonance in our faith that is difficult to get around. Which makes these things the perfect thing to talk about during Advent. Advent, after all, is the most dissonant time of year for Christians as we vacillate between the Good News of Jesus Christ and the religious sentimentality that is never sharper during the year than it is right now.

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I was talking to a friend of mine last week and he told me about how when he was a child, he and his kid brother were playing near the family Christmas tree when his little brother noticed a particular ornament that portrayed a manger scene. In it Mary and Joseph were cradling baby Jesus while all the respective animals waited patiently in the corners. And as his little brother took in the scene he raised and eyebrow and shouted out, “Mom! Why isn’t there a cross in the manger?” Their mother then came into the room and tried to make some sort of sense out of the question but before she could get anywhere the little brother said, “Oh, never mind. I forgot that everyone still liked him when he was a baby.”

That’s a dark and difficult word from a child in the midst of a scene that always feels so precious. It’s like the dissonance of a church display, rejected flu shots, or fights about gun rights. Its leaves us feeling a little bewildered about what it all means.

But here, in Advent, we are compelled to look at the dark. Which, of course, is not what we often expect to hear so close to Christmas, and we might even find it offensive. But the gospel is offensive, it strikes a particularly poignant nerve, and once it gets stuck in our hearts and minds it refuses to let go. That’s what Advent is all about – its about taking a peak behind the curtain of God’s acts in the world, its about trying to muffle our ears from all of the incessant happiness in the Christmas songs on the radio, its about recognizing that there is a cross in the manger.

I don’t know if you know this but, a life of faith is a strange one. Only Christians are willing to wake up on Sunday morning to sit in a room surrounded by people with whom they have nothing in common expect Jesus. Only Christians find comfort in walking down the aisle in a sanctuary to receive a piece of flesh and then dip it in blood. Only Christians can stand and sing songs about never ceasing streams of mercy and know that they are the ones who need mercy.

But perhaps we are at our strangest when we confess the dissonance of two Biblical truths: All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God AND there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

In other words, all of us are sinners AND Jesus saves us anyway.

That we confess “Jesus saves us anyway” is why we can call the Good News good. God does for us what we could not do for ourselves. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

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But it’s not perfect and it comes with a cost. That’s why during Advent we are reminded week after week that its not really Christmas if all we’re thinking about is a nice little baby. That baby will grow up, raise hell against the powers and principalities, and all the violence of the world will expend itself upon his broken, bloody, and naked body. 

Yes the light shines in the darkness, but that doesn’t mean the darkness disappears.

As I said before, even in the manger there is the shadow of the cross.

The cross is a wicked sign of our salvation. It stands as a frightening beacon about the cost of our dismissed condemnation. The cross screams a dissonant message about the beauty of sacrifice. 

And the cross comes with judgment.

Judgment is not a word we like to come across in any moment of our lives, and definitely not at church. It is such a distasteful word that we seldom hear about it unless it is blanketed around something like, “judge not lest ye be judged.”

But we’re all going to be judged. That’s an ever present reminder in scripture that, try as we might, it cannot be ignored.

In the last day of the Lord, just as the new heaven and the new earth are preparing to reign supreme, King Herod and Pontius Pilate are going to be judged. The crowds who shouted, “Crucify!” are going to be judged. President Trump will be judged. The House Intelligence Committee will be judged.” The pastor who put Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in cages will be judged. The border agents who turned away the doctors with flu vaccines will be judged. The pro-gun rights activists will be judged. America is going to be judged.

And, whether we like it or not, you and I are going to be judged as well. The innermost secrets of our hearts, all of the things we’ve done and the things we’ve left undone will be laid bare before the altar of God. 

We have good reason to fear judgment and to leave it’s being mentioned out of church gatherings. 

Because each of us, in ways big and small, know we lived in such a way that deserves judgment. I tried to cover at least a few controversial subjects in our current cultural climate so that we could fidget enough in our pews about whose side we are on depending on the issue. And however we feel about those things, however we might act regarding them, will be judged by the Lord who is the beginning and the end.

But something has already happened. It started in the manger and it ended up on the cross. The world has been turned upside down and no act on our part will ever flip it back around. The Judge has come but not as we might’ve expected. You see, the judge we all fear was born in that manger and died on that cross. The judge rules from the bench with holes in his hands and a crown of thorns on his head.

And when we begin to see how strange it all is, we realize that the judgment has already happened and it happened in Jesus. The judged Judge came to be judged in our place, he took away our deserved condemnation and he nailed it to the cross instead.

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This is the Good News of the Christian faith – but it is also a dissonant one. We are sinners and we have been freed from sin. There has been an invasion of the divine from on high and we can no longer be what we once were. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ has changed everything. 

There is no longer any room for self-deception, for excuses, or denials, or ignorance. We are not imperfect people who need improvement, we are rebels who must give way to the change that Christ is already making in our hearts, minds, and souls.

There two remarkably powerful verses from Paul in the middle of his letter to Rome, they compel us to ask ourselves, “Are we ready to change? Are we ready to start treating each other with dignity, love, and respect? Are we ready to let Christ rule our lives?”

And the truth is, we’re not ready to change. We’d rather hold on to the old resentments and prejudices. We’re content to keep the other at bay and surround ourselves with people who already hold the same opinions that we do.

And you know what. That’s okay. It’s okay because God is going to change us anyway. God will take our weapons, weapons of personal and communal destruction and God will obliterate them forever. God will keep beckoning us to his table even though we don’t deserve it and we might come into contact with our enemies around it. God will keep pouring out grace upon grace because God will never ever give up on us.

Ultimately, here’s the rub of our faith, this is where the dissonance is most profound: Even if we believe that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, we are still going to be bound together with those who think there still is condemnation. Condemnation for those who use the manger the wrong way, or want to pass out flu shots, or have gun rallies. 

And in God’s strange and infinite wisdom, we who believe there is no condemnation are forever stuck at the party called salvation with people who think other people shouldn’t be at the party. 

It’s strange. It’s like finding a cross in the manger. It’s like feasting with enemies. 

It’s the Gospel. Amen. 

Wake Up!

Romans 13.11-14

Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. 

Oh the times they are a-changin’ 

Words immortalized by the great Bob Dylan, conveying a sentiment we all know all too well. Time, by definition, is always in a state of flux. And no matter who we are, and no matter what we’ve experienced, we seem to agree that we all want more of it. Time that is.

It can be said that those of us here today live under the oppressive tyranny of time. It hovers over us in every moment, reminding us how much more we still have to do as a nearly silent clicking in our minds forces us to realize that we are running out of time. Today the demands on our time are overwhelming – homes have to accommodate for multiple work schedules, children have to balance manifold school responsibilities, extra-curricular activities are scheduled with no end in sight, doctors appointments are made months in advance with the hope we’ll actually be able to be seen on time, on and on and on. 

In our family we tried to make it work with a physical and central calendar upon which we could keep in all together, but it quickly lost its ability to keep us in line and in time. Now, we rely heavily on a digital calendar on our phones that syncs up automatically so we know who is doing what when. 

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And then we add the Advent season on top of all of that. Advent, for many of us, is the break-neck race between Thanksgiving and Christmas in which we have to (re)decorate the house, find all the perfect presents (and find time to wrap them), get the kids to the Christmas concert practice, actually go to the Christmas concert, coordinate schedules with in-laws about who is coming and when, and then make it to the Advent services on Sunday morning all while making it appear that we are not overwhelmed by everything else in our lives.

And then we can even add how our rapid fire sense of communication has really ramped up over the last decade such that we can communicate with anyone, at anytime, instantaneously. It has left us feeling like we should be, or have to be, connected with one another 24-7 and we measure our successes based on the number of likes on a photo or the number of retweets on a quippy line we thought up while zoning out on Tryptophan at the Thanksgiving table.

This was made very apparent to me this last week when I checked in on a particular church member to ask how they were doing and they responded by saying, “Well, as you know, we’ve been really overwhelmed since returning from vacation.” To which I kindly remarked, “Oh, where did you go?” And instead of just telling me where they went, they said, “Didn’t you see the pictures we posted on Facebook?”

Oh the times they are a-changin’.

And it is here, while completely overwhelmed by our lack of time, that Paul shows up to say, “You know what time it is.”

Do we?

I’m not sure that I do. For, I too fall prey to the nagging sensation that life is just ticking by and I’m always behind. I grow frustrated behind the red lights of traffic lamenting the things I won’t be able to get done at home. I sigh as my son drags his feet while making his way, late, to bed. And I tap my toes behind families and individuals at the grocery store as they fumble around in the wallets to pay for their items so that the rest of us can do the same.

I don’t know about you, but I find myself resenting time and the lack of it.

And Paul thinks we know what time it is?

Of course, for Paul, the time he speaks of is not the tyrannical ruler so many of us experience today. Time, for Paul, is not the fear of getting everything done between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Time, for Paul, is nothing less that the transformation of the world in the person of Jesus Christ. 

Did you notice the qualifier he puts into the sentence? You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep! 

If we’re honest with ourselves, we’re not sure we like the tone Paul has for us. I mean, who does he think he is telling us to wake up? Doesn’t he know how hard we try, how much effort we put to this crazy thing called life? You would think that he’d maybe have a little more respect for us than to tell us to wake up.

But, we do need to wake up. All of us. 

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

And not just to wake up out of the craziness the world has told us to experience this time of year, though we should wake up from that, but to wake up from the lie we’ve fed ourselves about who we are and what we are doing with our lives. 

Paul, here, hits us over the head, as is often the case, with the fact that the coming of Christ into the world, his crucifixion by the powers and principalities, his Resurrection from the dead, and his returning in the future, have overturned ALL previous perspectives placed on human life in the world.

He has this great line that we often gloss over far too quickly: For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers. For many of us, that moment of becoming believers came with a catch – if we believe this, then God will do this. Or if we lay aside our sins, then God will give us eternal life as our everlasting reward. Or if we promise to love God with our whole hearts, souls, minds, and strengths, then God will love us back.

But there is no such thing as “if” in the kingdom of God.

A few days ago I was speaking with an acquaintance about his experience of church. Years ago he had felt the call of God on his life to plant a new church and did so using the tools of the trade that were passed onto him – basically that people need to understand how bad they’ve been in order to change and to get God to love them.

And for awhile, it worked. This church planter was able to find people near the rock-bottom of their lives and convince them to turn around so that God could finally make something of their nothing. Years passed and the church plateaued with those early converts beginning to revert back to lifestyles of their prior selves.

Until one day when the church planter gathered down by the local river with a few new disciples. He was baptizing them one by one in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And then the town drunk showed up.

It was a small enough town that everyone knew he was the town drunk, and there in front of God and a whole bunch of witnesses, the drunk walked knee-deep into the river and asked the pastor to baptize him.

The pastor said, “Bill, are you ready to give up the bottle and give your life to Jesus?”

He thought for a moment, and with whiskey on his breath he said, “I don’t think I can Pastor.”

And then the pastor turned him away. 

In the days that followed, the pastor received congratulatory affirmations from his congregation. His email inbox filled up with messages about how much his people respected him for standing up for holiness. People waited in line on Sunday morning to express their gratitude for the example he was setting in the community. 

Meanwhile the pastor felt ashamed. 

He denied the means of grace to a man who was seeking it on the basis of a moral absolute. He refused the gift of God to a man unless he was willing to prove how committed he was to the cause. He believed that only the man’s improvement would warrant the baptism made possible in the person of Jesus Christ.

And the pastor felt ashamed because he couldn’t get a line out of his head, a line from the lips of Jesus, “I’ve come to call not the righteous, but sinners.”

In many ways the world tells us over and over again that we have to do something to earn something. But grace is different. In fact, it could not be more different. God shows up and says, I’m giving this to precisely because you haven’t and you’re never going to deserve it!

It was that realization that led the church planter to leave the church and start over – he had grown weary with making people feel weary for not being enough. The moralisms and calls to perfection were resulting in even greater examples of self-righteousness, all while people like the town drunk were being turned away from the grace of God!

We know what time it is – time for us to wake up! It’s not going to be easy, but we all have to kick the addiction we’ve grown far too comfortable with – and not necessarily the addictions we might be thinking about. We’ve got to do whatever it takes to flush all of our religion and morality pills down the toilet, we’ve got to pour out our bottles of self-righteousness and judgment. Why? Because God’s grace is bigger than our finger-wagging and is never contingent on our ability to do much of anything. In fact, it is exactly our inability to do much of anything that makes grace necessary in the first place!

Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first became believers. It is on this side of discovering God’s unending love and grace for us, in spite of our deservings and earnings, that we can start to live differently. Our desires to be better, even though they might ultimately fail, only ever come as a response to what God has done and never as a prerequisite. 

That’s why Paul can call upon us to live honorably, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. He can do so not because doing so warrants God’s love, but because God’s love is such that we can’t be what we once were.

All the while remembering that even if we are quarreling or jealous or drunk or licentious, it will never remove what God has already made possible, for us, in Jesus.

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new year in the life of Christians. Our time has been changed. And it might seem strange to start on such a strange note, but it might be the note we need the most. That we need it is indicated by the ways in which we are struggling to keep our necks above water under the tyranny of time, or the temptations to compare ourselves and our worth based on our perceived notions of other people and their worth. 

Instead, Paul points us to something different. We’ve trapped ourselves in a nightmare of our own making, and its time to wake up, to force ourselves to destroy the systems and expectations that drive us away from one another instead of toward each other. The time has come, as he puts it, to put on the Lord Jesus, to remember our baptisms, and ultimately to remember who we are and whose we are. 

There is no hope in us. If it were all up to us, we all would fail. Thanks be to God then that our hope doesn’t have to be put in us. Our hope is in Jesus Christ. Amen. 

The End

Devotional:

Isaiah 65.17

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. 

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On Sunday countless Christians across the globe will hear words from the lips of Jesus as recorded in Luke 21. The particular passage is often hailed as a mini-apocalypse in the midst of the Gospel, and is present in the Synoptics (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). The imagery and language has been examined again and again over the centuries and have caused many to interpret contemporary signs as signs of “the end.”

“Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.”

“There will be earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues.”

“There will be dreadful rainfall and great signs from heaven.”

Every new war and every climate related disaster get viewed through this lens of Christianity and we are left wondering if what we’re seeing right now is the end. 

Part of that theological process often includes reflections about who is in and who is out if this in fact the end. We create measurements of morality, or degrees of faithfulness, that would grant someone passage into the great beyond. Or, to use the language of Isaiah, the new heavens and the new earth.

For a regrettably long period of time, the church has used this language as a tool to convince or persuade others to give their lives to Christ in order to be saved from the coming wrath. 

Robert Farrar Capon, however, offers a great alternative to those Christians who would desire to “scare people into faith” using the apocalyptic language of Jesus:

Immediately after the tribulation of those days, he says, the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light and the stars will fall from heaven and the powers of the heaven will be unsettled.”

This is the hour of grace, the moment before the general resurrection when a whole dead world lies still – when all the successes that could never save it and all the failures it could never undo have gone down into the silence of Jesus’ death.

“And then the sign of the Son of man will appear in heaven and all the tribes of the earth will mourn.”

This is the hour of judgment, the moment of the resurrection when the whole world receives its new life out of death. And it is also the moment of hell, when all those who find they can no longer return to their old lives of estrangement foolishly mourn their loss of nothing and refuse to accept the only reality there is.

“And they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory; and he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”

This, at last, is the end: the triumph of the acceptance that is heaven and the catastrophe of the rejection that is hell. And the only difference between the two is faith. No evil deeds are judged, because the whole world was dead to the law by the body of Christ (Romans 7.4). And no good deeds are required, for Christ is the end of the law so that everyone who believes may be justified (Romans 10.4). Judgment falls only on those who refuse to believe there is no judgment – who choose to stand before a Judge who no longer has any record and take their stand on a life that no longer exists.

And heaven? Heaven is the gift everyone always had by the death of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. All it ever took to enjoy it was trust. (Robert Farrar Capon, The Parables of Judgment).

May it be so.

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Dying To Live

Luke 10.25-28

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and you neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

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Dear Logan,

When you look back on this day, when you think about what was done to you and for you in spite of you, I hope you know who to blame.

For, the obvious choice would be me. After all, I’m the one who baptized you into the death and life of Christ in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit. I’m the one who got to wear the fancy pastoral garb and read from the Bible and preach a sermon. I held you in my arms knowing full and well what I was doing.

But don’t blame me for your new life.

You have to blame your parents for that one. They asked me to do this. They, whether they knew it or not, asked me to preside over this occasion and transformation in your life which will fundamentally set you on a course that is remarkably contrary to the rest of the world. They have invoked the power of the Spirit through their request in ways they can’t even imagine.

But the truth is, you can’t really blame your parents for all of this either.

If anyone is to blame, it’s Jesus.

However, I’m getting ahead of myself. On the occasion of your baptism I have written you this letter which I am offering as a sermon. I’m doing this because you won’t remember any of this. You won’t remember the room or the water or the people or even the preacher. You’re simply too young. Which makes baptism all the more strange – it is the most determinative thing that will happen to you, and it will happen largely in spite of you.

You don’t get a choice.

Hence the letter. My hope is that one day, years from now, when you start to piece together how much we messed up your life with this baptism, your parents can pull out this letter and give you an idea as to why we did this bewildering thing for, and to, you.

A few months ago, right around the time your parents and I started talking about all of this, I asked if they had a particular scripture passage that they wanted me to preach on for this holy moment. 

Their answer was as follows: “We trust you – you pick something.”

Logan, I’m here to tell you that your parents, whom I love and adore, made a big mistake. By the time you read this you’ll probably know that your parents make lots of mistakes, but this one was a big one. 

They could’ve picked any number of appropriate scriptures. We could’ve spent your baptismal service hearing about God’s love in Christ that cannot be separated from us no matter what. We could’ve read about Jesus’ own baptism by his cousin John in the Jordan river. We could’ve even used this time to listen to Jesus’ words about how he, as the Good Shepherd, will always go after the one lost sheep.

But instead, they trusted me.

So I picked what is both, perhaps, the most obvious and most misunderstood passage in the entirety of the Bible.

Jesus is in the middle of doing his Jesus thing. You know, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, telling stories about the kingdom of God, when all of the sudden a lawyer shows up.

One day, Logan, you’ll discover that whenever a lawyer shows up, whether its in scripture or in life, something bad is about to happen.

Anyway, this lawyer shows up and mic-drops the question to end all questions: “Hey Lord, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

In other words, “Forget all this preaching and story-telling you’ve been doing, I don’t need to see another miracle or eat another meal. All I want to know is what do I have to do to go to heaven?”

The lawyer’s question, Logan, is all of our questions. In a simple sentence the lawyer has laid out what we often lay awake at night thinking about. In the end, all of this Jesus stuff is nice and fine, but what we really want is to know the requirements – we want to know what will be on the final exam – what do we have to do.

Which means, for us, whatever Jesus says next should be of paramount importance. We can let other parts of the Bible even slip away so long as we hold on to whatever comes out of Jesus’ mouth.

And yet, Jesus, doesn’t answer the question. At least, not in the way that we would’ve hoped for. Instead, he answers the question with a question: “What is written in the law, what do you read there?”

The lawyer, being the good lawyer he is, knows the answer to the question, and so he replies perfectly: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your minds; and your neighbor as yourself.”

That’s it Logan, right there. The whole of the gospel, Jesus says in another place, hangs on these two commandments.

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It follows therefore, that in your baptism, we, all of us who gathered to mark the occasion expect this kind of behavior out of you. That no matter what you grow up to be like, why kind of sports you enjoy (though if you like anyone other than NC State, Syracuse, or the Yankees your family might disown you), or what kind of career you pursue, none of it really matters so long as you love God and you love your neighbor.

This is the kind of life you are baptized into, a life of love for the One who created you, and for the ones among whom you were created. 

What does this love look like? Some might say that to love God you need to go to church every Sunday, spend time everyday reading you Bible, give 10% of your income to the church. Other might say that to love your neighbor as yourself means to actually know who your neighbors are, regularly invite them over for meals, and never call the cops if they’re playing their music too loud late in the evening.

Whole books and careers have been made by trying to address what it means to love God and neighbor in such a way that it leads to eternal life.

But Logan, I am here to tell you something that few, if any, in the church would actually admit: you don’t have to do any of it. 

At least, you don’t have to do any of it to inherit eternal life.

Notice: When the lawyer gives Jesus his answer about loving God and neighbor Jesus doesn’t not respond by saying: “Good job, do this and you will have eternal life.”

Instead, Jesus says, “Do this and you will live.”

You see Logan, one of the truths of the faith into which you are baptized is that our salvation isn’t up to us. Jesus has, prior to your baptism, already nailed all of your sins, past-present-future, to the cross. And there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s nothing you can do in this life, for good or ill, to make God love you any more or any less. 

Eternal life is not contingent upon you or anyone else.

It’s up to Jesus.

Therefore to mark the occasion of your baptism by telling you to do this or to do that, to love this or love that, is to deny the hope of the gospel. Because our hope isn’t in us. 

Now, Logan, to be clear, I don’t want you to read this letter as a teenager and believe that you get to do whatever the flip you want without repercussions, because that’s not the way the world works. In fact, I hope you do love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and that you do love your neighbor as yourself because it will lead to life. A full life at that. 

Through that love you will come to experience the vast array of what this crazy world has to offer. 

But at the same time, I don’t want you to think for one moment that your loving God and others is a requirement for eternal life, because if it was then none of us would make the cut. Not your parents or your grandparents, not your aunts, uncles, and cousins, not even me. 

The proclamation we made and will continue to make in your baptism is that God did and does for us what we couldn’t and wouldn’t do for ourselves.

We baptize you into the death of Christ so that you can rise with Christ not because you deserve it, and not because you’ve earned it, but simply because Christ commands it. In your baptism, you have been freed from the expectations of the world to do this, that, and the other because Christ has already written the end of your story. 

You will certainly live, and have life itself, through love. 

But you will have eternal life through Christ’s love. 

In the church we call this grace – a gift offered freely to us that can never be taken away. And it takes a lifetime to come to grips with it precisely because it is so counter to everything else we think we know and believe.

The world tells us to do all we can but the Gospel tells us we’ve already received what we need.

The world tells us that winners finish first, but the Gospel tells us that Jesus came for the last.

The world tells us that we have to live, but the Gospel tells us the only thing we have to do is die.

Contrary to what you will probably hear through the rest of your life, Jesus did come come to teach the teachable, reward the rewardable, or reform the reformable. Jesus came to raise the dead.

And your baptism, the waters blessed by the Spirit, is our way of dying you with Christ in order that you might live a resurrected life here and now.

Logan, what happens to you today will fundamentally reshape everything about your life. For, instead of being told to do more and more and more, God has spoken some of the most important words any of us can hear in your baptism: “You are enough.”

So welcome Logan, welcome to the complicated and confounding life now defined by your baptism in which in spite of your worst, and even best, intentions, God loves you and there’s nothing you can do about it. Amen.