Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
I’m a sucker for book recommendations. Whether it’s a passing comment in a conversation, or a deliberate “you should read this book,” I’m very quick to add titles to my Amazon shopping cart. Perhaps it’s because there are just so many books out there, that I’d rather read those recommended titles than choose something on my own. And, here at the end of the calendar year, there are all sorts of lists of “books of the year” that people are encouraged to purchase.
And my Amazon cart gets fuller and fuller.
Stephen Colbert, host of The Late Show, was recently asked in an interview to make a book recommendation. I think the interviewer assumed he would offer The Lord of the Rings because Colbert is an avid fan of Tolkien. But instead this is what Colbert said: “The Bible. But I’m not saying it for religious purposes. In a Western context, there is almost nothing from about the 4th century on that isn’t influenced by that book. Regardless of whether or not the book means anything to you, you should read it to know what all the other writers were talking about.”
In other words, the Bible is where (most) literature comes from.
That’s an interesting claim, and one that is well founded. For instance, the parable of the prodigal son has shown up time and time again in various coming-of-age narratives. The Messianic hero is another recurring theme in western literature. On and on the connections go.
Which means, sometimes we are reading “biblical stories” without realizing they are biblical stories.
And it’s not just literature that the Bible has impacted, our sense of time is fundamentally biblical.
Here’s how Karl Barth put it:
“The other day I came across a nearly 600-year-old parchment document, with seal affixed. It was the contract for the conveyance of a house, and it was written in the solemn language that was required in such matters even in those days. The date read as follows: ‘Given at Basle on the first Monday after Pope St Urban’s day in the 1371st year counting from the birth of God… Whether or not we know about it or think about it, Christmas reminds us of the secret of our age, our history, and our life. Christmas is where we come from; that is where everything ‘counts’ from.”
The world we inhabit, whether we know it or not (whether we believe it or not) is a product of the Gospel proclaimed every Sunday in the church. From the books we read, to the shows we enjoy, to the watches on our wrists, the One from whom all blessings flow continues to make blessings flow.
Therefore, the Bible is not just some collection of religious texts from long ago. Instead, in lives and breathes and gives meaning to the lives we live in ways seen and unseen. Similarly, Christmas is not just some religious holiday with various rituals that get us from one season to the next. Instead, Christmas makes intelligible the time we are given in our lives.
Or, as Barth put it, “Christmas is where we come from; that is where everything ‘counts’ from.”
Then God spoke all these words, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath of that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments. You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it. Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, male or female slave, ox, donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor. When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen, but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.”
It doesn’t happen often, but every once in a while I regret picking the text I picked for a Sunday morning. I will be in the middle of the week, staring at a blank work document on my computer, and I’ll wonder how God is going to show up and make something of my nothing.
Case in point, last Sunday we looked at and talked about Moses’ call from the burning bush. That would’ve been a great text for Vacation Bible School Sunday. It would’ve been fun and even easy to talk about how God shows up, and showed up, in unexpected ways and places. I could’ve pointed toward all these holy moments from the Food Truck Party and then wrapped it all up with a, “In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
But no. I decided that this was the Sunday to preach the Ten Commandments.
You shall not murder.
You shall not bear false witness.
You shall not take the Lord’s name in vain.
On and on.
So I spent the early part of my week wracking my brain, praying for the Lord to give me something to say.
And then, on Monday night, I was sitting on the floor of one of our classrooms upstairs, with all our wonderful children and youth, trying my hardest to convey the story of God providing the manna in the wilderness. But, before jumping into the Bible, I wanted to get their little minds working so I asked each and every kid, “What’s your favorite breakfast?”
And I received some good answers: Pancakes, French Toast, Lucky Charms.
But then one of the kids said, “My favorite is waffles, but I hate it when my Dad makes me eat scrambled eggs.”
Alright, I thought, no need to get worked up about it.
And then another kid shouted, “Donuts!” To which another yelled, a few decibels louder, “I want her answer because I love donuts more than she does!”
And then another kid, under his breath, said, “I would give my life for a donut right now.”
Bewildered by the dramatic events unfolding before me, I took a breath, and happened to glance at the wall above their little heads and there, for everyone to see, was a poster with the ten commandments.
And I realized in that moment, the kids had broken three of the ten!
The Ten Commandments.
You shall not you shall not you shall not.
Why do we hang them up in our churches and in our houses? Why do we ask children to memorize them in Sunday school? Why does God hand them down to Moses on Mount Sinai?
Remember: Moses makes good on the call from the burning bush and leads God’s people out of slavery and captivity in Egypt to a new and strange land. They wander physically and spiritually complaining about how good they had it back in Egypt when God delivers the aforementioned manna in the wilderness.
They continue to wander under the witness of Moses until the Lord’s offers the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai.
And, for us today, we can certainly flip to Exodus 20 in our Bibles, or we can just look up to a cross-stitched rendering in someone’s living room or Sunday school class to know what they are.
But there’s a difference between what the Ten Commandments say, and their purpose.
Because, if you read the New Testament, Jesus and Paul decisively declare that they are not rules to regulate our behavior. They are not a weapon to wield over and against those who do not follow them. They are not a code of conduct.
The primary function of the Law is to do to us what I just did by telling the story of the kids in the classroom: to accuse us.
The Law reveals the truth of who we really are. Between the big L and little l laws, between thou shall not and it would be better if you did this or that, the law reminds us that, all things considered, none of us are how we ought to be.
And yet all of us are in the business of self-deception. We’re so good at rationalizing our wandering eyes, justifying our wandering hearts, and explaining away our wanton disregard for others.
One of the more confounding parts of our behavior is our ability to know exactly what we should and shouldn’t do, from keeping up with the laundry to not looking at our phones while we drive, and we fail to do it.
We don’t need someone like me to stand up in a place like this to tell us a whole bunch of stuff we already know: you need to work on your racism, sexism, ageism, stop using so much styrofoam, go vegan, gluten free, eat locally, think globally, take precautions on your dates, live simply, practice diversity, give more, complain less, stop drinking so much.
We can have a preacher yell those things at us week after week, and we can put up the Ten Commandments all over the place, but we will still fail.
Listen: there’s another mountaintop moment in the Bible with a set of decrees. Instead of Moses this time, Jesus looks out at the gathered crowds and he says, “You have heard it said you shall not murder, but I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; you have heard it said you shall not commit adultery, but I say to you, even if you think about it, you’ve already guilty; unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, of the rule followers, then you will never enter Heaven.”
And then, at the end of ratcheting up the Ten Commandments, Jesus mic drops the final line: You must be perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect.
Apparently, in the Kingdom of God there are no trophies for participation, no A’s for effort.
Therefore, if Moses’ and Jesus’ decrees are nothing more than lists of what we must and mustn’t do, then we’re all up the creek without a paddle. We’re a bunch of losers with no hope in the world.
Thanks be to God then, that the hope of the world comes to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
You see, the primary purpose of the Law isn’t so much about what we’re supposed todo.
The primary purpose of the Law is what the Law does to us.
The Law is not a collection of principles on how to live an upright life.
The Law is the means by which God brings us down to our knees.
The Law, from Sinai to the instagramifcation of all things, holds up a mirror to our truest selves so that we are downright forced to come to grips with who we really are, and what we’ve done, and what we’re left undone.
In short, the function of the Law is to get to see ourselves with enough honesty and clarity that we ask ourselves, “How could God love me?”
Because when we are able to ask that question, we are close to the Good News.
God speak to us in two words, Law & Gospel, and we tend to confuse the two all the time.
And without knowing which is which, we tend to emphasize one at the expense of the other.
Be perfect. Never stop forgiving. Love your enemies. Stop your jealousy. Give away your possessions. On an on.
A church of the Law alone creates and cultivates a bunch of self-righteous people who are angry, miserable, and are never invited to the fun stuff.
It results in a cacophony of almost-Christians who are, in the end, nothing but a bunch of hypocrites. Have you ever noticed how the most judgmental people are usually the ones with the most problems?
And yet, without the word of the Law, the Gospel becomes an empty promise. It’s all good and well to come to a place like this and hear about how God loves us. I hope and pray that if you do hear anything in church, it is those words.
But what makes those words so staggering isn’t that God loves, but that God loves us.
When push comes to shove, each and every one of us, the tall and the small, we all avoid doing things we know we should do, and we all do things we know we shouldn’t.
Which is why, when Jesus riffs on the need to forgive 70 x 7 times, it’s to point us toward the witness of the God who continues to forgive us.
Jesus tells us to love our enemies not because it makes everything better, though it might, Jesus commands us to love our enemies because Jesus, himself, loves his enemies: us.
Which means, in the end, we need Law & Gospel. We need both because the first word pushes us to the second.
The Good News is not a bait and switch offer, it is not an invitation with strings attached, it is not a gift with an expectation of reciprocation.
If we leave church with more burdens than when we arrived, then grace cannot be amazing.
God knows you and me better than we know ourselves. God knows our inner thoughts and our knee-jerk reactions and our internet search histories, and God is still for us.
How odd of God to love a bunch of people who do not deserve it at all.
Being pushed from the Law to the Gospel is a truly wild and wonderful thing to do. And it is often nothing more than accepting, trusting, the incomprehensible Good News that despite all the reasons we shouldn’t be, we are indeed loved and forgiven. We are already home.
That’s the life of grace – there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. If Jesus refused to condemn us because our goodness was actually rotten, he certainly isn’t going to flunk us because our life doesn’t measure up to the Law.
The real truth, the scandal of the faith, is that we can fail, miserably, and still live the life of grace.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from God’s grace and love. Not our faults, not our vices, not us being brats all the time about things that don’t even really matter. Not even our doubts.
As the old hymn goes, my sin oh the bliss of this glorious thought, my sin not in part but the whole is nailed to the cross and I bear it no more praise the Lord, praise the Lord, o my soul.
One of our vacation Bible School participants, after a week of digesting the Word, approach me on our final night and said:
“So God loves me when I’m good but God still loves me when I’m bad just like Jesus loved all the people he fed with the loaves and the fishes? And God forgives me even if I do something I shouldn’t just like Jesus forgave Peter?”
“Yep. That’s the Gospel.”
“Well I don’t know what that words means, but it feels amazing.” Amen.
If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
The Bible repeats itself.
There are literal phrases that show up word for word in different sections, relevant themes pop up over and over again, and there are call backs (and call forwards) all over the place.
For instance: If you were to read the assigned texts for this Sunday from the Revised Common Lectionary you would encounter the radical departure of the prophet Elijah into the fiery whirlwind (2 Kings 2), the psalmist’s meditation on the holiness of God (Psalm 77), Paul’s proclamation about the freedom of the Christian (Galatians 5), and Jesus’ challenging call to let the dead bury the dead (Luke 9). On the surface they might seem like completely unrelated texts and yet they all hammer home the call to follow the unknowable God.
The repetition of the Bible is also mirrored in the repetitive nature of our worship. We mark the year with the same liturgical seasons returning to the same themes over and over again. We do so not because the liturgical calendar keeps spinning like a broken record, but because we need to hear and receive these scriptures over and over again.
In life there is this beautiful desire to return to the familiar from a different angle. It’s why so many of us enjoy “cover songs”; the beauty of the original is brought to us through different voices and instrumentation that heightens what we already know.
In the life of the church this takes place every week when a preacher stands up to preach. The texts have remained the same for centuries, but every Sunday a preacher tries to offer a new “cover song” to the gathered people called church.
A few years ago David Zahl preached in Charlottesville, VA and offered a proclamation about Jesus’ beatitudes. However, rather than offering the predictable “this is what Jesus said and this is what Jesus meant,” David rewrote the beatitudes for the church today. I encourage you to read through his “cover” of the text, and I hope you discover something familiar and something new at the same time:
Blessed are those whose lives don’t add up,
For they will be released from score-keeping.
Blessed are the humbled and the humiliated,
For they have been relieved of the burden for self-righteousness,
Which is the great enemy of love.
Blessed are the brokenhearted,
For cracks are where the light gets in.
Blessed are those for whom death is not a metaphor,
For they have been returned to reality,
Which is the dwelling place of God.
Blessed are those who cannot abide another funeral,
For they have loved deeply.
Blessed are those who can’t seem to move on from loss,
For they will not look to themselves for consolation.
Blessed are the left behind, the overlooked,
And those for whom life feels like an ordeal,
For Jesus surrounded himself with people like these.
Blessed are those whose fears and anxieties exceed the reach of their coping mechanisms,
For only those in need of help will be helped.
Blessed are those who years for the world to be put to rights,
For that yearning is a form of hope.
Blessed are the cursed out and cancelled, especially for reasons of their own making,
For they will be quick to listen and slow to judge.
Blessed are the brothers and sisters who refuse to condemn their siblings for not making better choices,
Because there but for the grace of God go they (and may yet still go).
Blessed are the forgivers,
For at the end of the day, as Saint Dolly Parton tells us, what else is there?
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Sarah Locke about the readings for Pentecost Sunday [C] (Acts 2.1-21, Psalm 104.24-34, 35b, Romans 8.14-17, John 14.8-17, (25-27)). Sarah is the pastor of Hickory UMC in Chesapeake, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Twitter pastors, flames in worship, pneumatological inebriation, meaning, Whiskey Creek, baptism, Eugene Peterson, repetition, anchovy pizza, advocacy, and true community. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Relentless
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
“If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?”
That’s how James Lipton ended every interview on Inside The Actor’s Studio. Famous actors would sit before a large audience, answering all sorts of questions about the art and craft of movie-making, and then, at the end, each of them would mull over that last lingering query and have to say something.
George Clooney: “Welcome, c’mon in. Rosemary’s singing, Nat Cole’s on the keys, Buddy Rich is behind the kit, and they’re playing Always.”
Halle Berry: “Your Dad will be so excited to see you.”
Robert Redford: “You’re too early.”
Robin Williams: “Hahahahahahahahahaha.”
And James Lipton, himself, once answered the question this way: “James, you were wrong. I do exist. But you may come in anyway.”
It’s a great equalizer, that question. Most of us spend most of our time doing everything we can to not think about the end. And then, these superstars get real for a moment, and they open up in a way that runs counter to their entire profession.
Well, a few years back, some friends and I started recording conversations with theologians and pastors and regular ‘ol Christians for the podcast called Crackers and Grape Juice. And, because nothing original ever happens in the church, we decided to end the episodes with Lipton’s ten questions from Inside The Actor’s Studio. Some of the other questions include, “What’s your favorite sound?” And “What profession would you not like to attempt?” And “What’s your favorite curse word?”
I love that last one. There’s nothing quite like listening to a somewhat famous Christian shift around back and forth deciding whether to tell the truth, or pick a word like “shucks!”
And, like with Lipton, we end with the infamous, “What would you like to hear God say at the Pearly Gates?”
Most, of course, answer with “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
It’s nice knowing Christians can quote the Bible, but that answer is so boring.
We’ve had only a handful of really striking answers to that question, but perhaps the best of all came from Bishop Will Willimon. Will and I went to church together when I lived in Durham, he was one of my professors when I was in seminary, I’ve got a bunch of his books on the shelves in my office.
Prior to having him on the pod, he had become quite vocal in his denouncements of modern politics in general and the Trump Administration in particular. He wrote op-eds, he rebuked the former President from the pulpit, on and on.
And then when we asked him the question, this is how he answered: “Welcome Will, it’s about time. We’re so happy to have you here. But before you get too settled, the Trump family is over here and they would like to have a word…”
In theological speak: that is a rather robust understanding of the Eschaton.
In church speak: we do well to remember that Heaven is populated entirely and only by forgiven sinners.
In normal speak: If grace really is as amazing as we sing it is, then we are going to be surprised by some of the people we discover in Heaven.
Imagine, if you can, a sermon that doesn’t start with some sort of punchy anecdote, though I do enjoy the one I just shared. Imagine you come to church, you sit down in these pews, and someone gets up here and says: “Blessed are those of you who are poor, who are hungry, who are unemployed, who are going through marital separation, who are afraid of what tomorrow will bring, who are failing in parenting, and who are going through any ordeals.”
You might wonder if the pastor lost his or her marbles.
How could any of those people be blessed?
If a pastor started a sermon in such a radical way, there’s no telling if anyone would still be listening by the end.
But here’s the rub: In the kingdom of the world, the kingdom we think pulls all the strings, if you are poor you are treated like a curse. If your marriage is falling apart, then you are cut off from your friends. If you’re failing in your parenting, then your children go off the rails and the birthday party invitations stop coming in. If you’re going through any type of ordeal, you’re largely left to your own devices.
There’s nothing blessed about going through an ordeal.
At least, not according to the world.
But sermons, and all of worship for that matter, they are not about the kingdom of the World. If they are about anything, they are about Jesus and his kingdom.
The kingdom of God.
And yet, we are so embedded in the world’s way of existence, that we live in constant kingdom confusion.
We can only act within a world, or a kingdom, we can see. What we do in church, through our singing and our praying and our listening and our responding, it’s all about painting a picture.
I know that, at times, church can feel like a program for betterness. That, all things considered, we’re a bunch of good people getting good-er all the time. A sermon can end with a call to social action, or the announcements can pull at our hearts strings in terms of being better paragons of virtue in the community.
But the truth is a harder pill to swallow. We are not a collection of nice people getting nicer, we’re actually a bunch of bad people who gather with other bad people so that we can cope with our inability to be good.
Therefore the church, properly considered, exists to open our eyes, that we might see, glimpses of truth, Thou hast for me.
The church is not the world and the world is not the church. The world will always tell us that the most important things are first, best, found, big, and alive. But the church stands as a stark contrast with the reminder that Jesus comes for the last, least, lost, little, and dead. Which, whether we like it or not, eventually includes each and everyone of us.
Jesus can say, in his sermon on the mount, blessed are the poor, and those who mourn, and those who thirst not because he is describing a program for what makes the world a better place. Instead, Jesus uses such striking language to push our vision to the limits so that we might see something so new, so different from everything else have ever seen, and begin to realize that we cannot rely on our older images of what is and what is not.
Put another way: The strange new world of the Bible doesn’t tell us what we’re supposed to do. Instead, it paints a picture of who God is.
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
John the Revelator sees what we, more often than not, cannot.
The great multitude in the Eschaton, from every nation, tribe, people, and language. They sing and the worship together forever and ever. But, oddly, John does not know who they are. And the elder has to answer his question, and ours: they are those who have gone through the great ordeal.
John catches a glimpse of what Jesus’ promises. In the last days, it is by Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection that we shall rejoice at the Supper of the Lamb. No amount of suffering can stop God from getting what God wants. Each and every one of us will experience ordeals in this life because we live on this side of the end. But, in the same way, there is no amount of good works or repentance that can earn us anything in the resurrection of the dead. In the kingdom of heaven it is by the blood of the Lamb that the sins of the world are taken away.
Contrary to the often-used joke about St. Peter’s manning the gates to Heaven, there is no bouncer checking the IDs of our goodness before we are swept up into the party. Actually, there might be a bouncer. But if there is a bouncer, his name is Jesus, and he has torn town all the barriers that would ever prevent us from getting in.
Here’s the promise, the promise of God and the promise of scripture and the promise of faith – we will hunger no more, we will thirst no more, the sun will not strike us nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb will be our shepherd.
This is our comfort and our hope. And there is good reason for us to hear this promise today. It is good for us today because some of us are hungry right now. We hunger for literal food and we hunger for righteousness. Some of us are thirsty for clean water to drink just as others thirst for the waters of baptism that remind us who we are and whose we are.
On and on John speaks of his vision into our lives realities here and now.
But what does the vision mean? We can’t help ourselves from such a question, earthly creatures that we are. I long for the days when images and visions are enough on their own without us having to probe for every little meaning. But, perhaps today, we can at least answer the question with this:
John’s vision reminds us that not all is as it should be right now.
There’s a sentiment we sometimes share with one another, particularly when we don’t know what else to say: “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
And, though its true, we often offer it as a denial of the truth of the world. There are plenty of things to frighten us. We know the depths of pain and the banality of evil. We sit in a sanctuary that is decorated with a cross!
We, therefore, tell the truth of what is happening among the powers and principalities in the world not as denial of their presence, but as a reminder that though they exist, they don’t get the final word.
God gets the first, and the last word. And that word is Jesus.
All of the multitudes gathered in John’s vision are there only because of the last word. We now see what John’s sees because it gives us the strength to live in a world such as ours.
Consider: The robes are made clean by the blood of the Lamb. We can’t make ourselves clean. We all do things we know we shouldn’t, and we all avoid doing things we know we should do.
As the old prayer book put it, we are miserableoffenders.
We can absolutely try to make the world less of a mess for ourselves and others, we can even come with ideas on how to make it more bearable. But any programs for progress or better strategies for better behavior will fail to do what we really need. It those things worked, we would’ve fixed all the worlds problems by now and no one would ever go through an ordeal.
What we really need is a Savior – we need someone to save us. And that’s exactly what God does for us in Christ Jesus.
Salvation is a gift offered by the only one who can give it: God in Christ. When we know that this gift is given, that it cannot be taken away, it starts to change everything else. Living in the light of grace compels us to be graceful toward ourselves and others.
John helps us to see that, in the end, when all is said and done, when the forces that sometimes cause us to suffer and weep and mourn are vanquished, the once crucified Lamb shall reign at the center of the throne. Every tear will be wiped away not because we have made it so, but because we worship God who reigns above and below.
After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.
Fleming Rutledge, patron saint of the Crackers & Grape Juice podcast, has often waxed lyrical about the need for preachers to proclaim the Word rather than explain the Word. Explanation often leads to exhortation; the Bible says this so we have to do that. But the Good News is an announcement that God has come into the world and we now live in the light of that in-breaking.
In other words, the gospel is a story – it is the story of God’s people Israel which culminates in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The gospel is not a program, or a set of beliefs, or a collection of rules, or an explanation of how to wind up in the right place when you die.
The gospel is a story, in fact it is the story.
And preachers do well to tell the story, rather than explain it.
Therefore, here just a few days before Palm Sunday and Holy Week, here is one preacher’s attempt to tell the story of Jesus’ last days before the cross and resurrection…
It was early in the morning when Jesus sent two of his disciples to a village to find a suitable farm animal: a donkey. The time had come to enter the holy city of Jerusalem for Passover, a time when the city’s population would balloon up to 200,000 for the celebration. On a Sunday morning, the crowds gathered with palm branch and shouts of “Hosanna!” they placed their cloaks on the road as a sign of their devotion to the arriving king, and Jesus entered Jerusalem.
At the same time, on the other side of the city, Pontius Pilate (the Roman Governor of Judea) entered with at least 1,000 soldiers demonstrating the power of the empire.
One arrived on a donkey, the other arrived on a battle horse.
With the city coming into focus, Jesus began to cry. He looked over the temple and the people of God and he wept.
And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.
On Monday Jesus made his way to the Temple with countless other Jews. With the triumphant and parodic entry the day before, all eyes were on this so-called Messiah. As his feet walked over holy ground, Jesus encountered the moneylenders and changers who set up shop in the temple courtyard. They were profiting off those who traveled great distances to make their ritual sacrifices and boosted their prices in anticipation of economic gain.
Jesus, who spent the better part of three years berating the elite for taking advantage of the last, least, lost, little, and dead, became incensed when he saw the poor being ripped off in the name of God. He therefore walked straight over to the tables, lifted them off the ground, and went into a full blown temple tantrum. He declared for all to hear: “This is my Father’s house and you’ve made it into a den of robbers!”
The elite and the powerful now had their eyes set on Jesus. It was one thing to have a crowd with palm branches welcoming a poor rabbi into the city, but it was another thing entirely when he disrupted the status quo particularly when it came to the economic practices of the Temple. The leaders started looking for a way to discredit him, or remove him completely.
And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.
On Tuesday, Jesus once again entered the Temple and he began to teach. If people were excited to see him enter the city, they were now even more eager for a chance to hear and see the One who had been making waves in Galilee, the One who flipped the tables the day before.
While he was teaching the Pharisees and the religious leaders began interrupting and demanded to know from whom Jesus received such authority.
And Jesus, who used parables to teach his disciples and followers, responded to their accusations with head scratching stories about mustard seeds and prodigal sons and kingly banquets. Over and over he used examples to show how those in the places of authority had lost sight of their responsibility and he labeled them hypocrites, snakes, and broods of vines.
They tried to trap him in his words, but he continued to point to the in-breaking kingdom of God.
And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.
On Wednesday Jesus left the arena of the Temple and continued his teaching on the Mount of Olives. Some of his disciples made comments about the glory of the Temple and Jesus responded with talk of destruction. He revealed images of God’s cosmic plan for the world made manifest in himself, and he called for his disciples to stay vigilant.
He continued to speak his parabolic utterances and even offered a sermon describing the great inversion of all things.
His presence and proclamations continued to threaten those in power and they grew afraid.
And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.
On Thursday Jesus continued his preaching and teaching until he retreated away with the twelve for their observance of Passover. While sitting at the table they remembered God’s mighty acts for the people Israel as they were delivered from slavery to sin and death into the Promised Land. But before the supper was finished, Jesus did something rather radical. He took a loaf of bread, gave thanks to God, broke it, and gave it to his friends while saying, “This is my body, I’m giving it for you.” Later, he took the cup, gave thanks to God, and gave it to his friends while saying, “This is my blood, and I’m pouring it out for you and the world.”
He knew one of his disciples at the table would shortly betray him to the authorities, and he offered him his body and blood anyway.
Later in the evening they went to the garden of Gethsemane, and Jesus urged his disciples to stay awake while he prayed. He knelt on the ground and ended his prayer by saying, “Lord, with you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want. Let your will be done.”
At the conclusion of the prayer, Judas arrived with soldiers. They grabbed and arrested Jesus while the disciples fled into the distance.
And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.
On Friday Jesus was brought to the Roman leader Pontius Pilate. The religious authorities demanded Jesus’ execution by crucifixion, but Pilate could find no fault with Jesus. Pilate then gave the gathered crowds a choice: they could free a rabble rouser named Barabbas or the messianic Jesus of Nazareth.
They chose Barabbas.
Soldiers whipped and beat Jesus nearly to the point of death and then, to mock him, they placed a robe on his shoulder and a crown of thorns on his head. They forced Jesus to carry a cross, his own instrument of death, up to a place called The Skull.
The crowds berated him from either side of the road, “If you really are the Messiah, save yourself!” “Where are all your disciples now!” “Some King of the Jews you are!”
When he made it to the top of Golgotha, the soldiers nailed his hands and feet to the cross and they hung him high to die. With some of his final breaths Jesus offered a prayer that has haunted the world ever since, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”
With two thieves on either side hanging from their own cross, while some of his disciples watched from a distance, Jesus died.
And there was evening and there was morning, the final week.
And then, three days later, God gave him back to us. But that’s another story for another day.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent [C] (Isaiah 43.16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3.4b-14, John 12.1-8). Alan is the lead pastor of First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including record breakers, timelessness, keeping Easter in Lent, Makoto Fujimura, laughing in church, terrible testimonies, tremendous transformation, clarity (or the lack thereof), authorial soliloquies, and John Daker. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Narding Out
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Chandler Ragland about the readings for the Second Sunday of Lent [C] (Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3.17-4.1, Luke 13.31-35). Chandler is the pastor of Black Mountain UMC in Black Mountain, NC. Our conversation covers a range of topics including strange new worlds, Encanto, covenants, righteousness, living in church, narrative preaching, memorizing scripture, waiting on the Lord, the Apostles’ Creed, Mississippi, and the status quo. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Less Is More
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment. Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me. You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart. Purge my with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice. Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit. Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you. Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
In the strange new world of the Bible the greatest triumph, the pinnacle of all moments, is Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Easter. But Easter is not the “happy ending” of a fairytale. It’s not, “despite all the effort of the powers and the principalities, everyone lives happily ever after.”
There’s no resurrection without crucifixion.
But that’s also why there are far more people in church on Easter than on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Easter, for all of its wonder and all of its joy, is only the beginning of a new reality in which the entry point is, in fact, suffering.
Contrary to the cliche aphorisms of the so-called property gospel – if you pray hard enough, God will make you healthy and wealth – struggle is deeply embedded in the faith. It’s why Jesus warns about the cost of discipleship, constantly. It’s why Paul writes about suffering, constantly.
Struggles are present in the life of faith because, when push comes to shove, we usually look out for ourselves at the expense of our neighbors. Paul puts it this way: None of us is righteous. No, not one.
We simply can’t keep the promises we make, let alone the promises that God commanded us to keep. It doesn’t take much of a glance on social media or on the news to see, example after examples, of our wanton disregard for ourselves and even for ourselves.
The old prayer book refers to us, even the do gooders who come to an Ash Wednesday service, as miserable offenders.
And yet (!), God remains steadfast with us in the midst of our inability to be good.
That’s one of the most profound miracles of the strange new world of the Bible, and it is a miracle. That ragtag group of would be followers we call the apostles, who betray, abandon, and deny Jesus, they fail miserably and it is to them that the risen Jesus returns in the resurrection.
They were transfigured by the Transfigured One, and their journey of faith began in failure.
And so it is with us, even today. It is through our brokenness, our shattered souls, that God picks up the pieces to make something new – something even more beautiful than who were were prior to the recognition of our brokenness.
There is an ancient Japanese art form that will be shaping our Lenten observance this year at the church – Kintsugi. The story goes that, centuries ago, a disagreement broke out among an emperor and one of his servants which led to a tea pot being smashed into pieces. The emperor threatened to punish the servant but an artisan intervened and promised to make something of the nothing.
A gold binding agent was used by the artist to restore the broken vessel, and in so doing the artist brought to a new newness.
On the front of your bulletins you can see an example of this art form that was made with a broken cross – the gold ribbon brings the cross back together and it becomes more than it was prior to its cracks and fissures.
Like the Kintsugi master, Jesus renders us into a new newness. Jesus comes not to fix us, but to admire us in our potential and to help us recognize beauty even in, and precisely because of, our brokenness.
In church speak we call it redemption.
Psalm 51 had marked the season of Lent for as long as Christians have observed this particular season. It is a penitential psalm – a psalm that expresses sorrow for sin.
And yet, the psalm does not begin with a confession of sin – it begins with a request for forgiveness: “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions.”
That might not seem like much of a distinction, but it implies that the psalmist knows they have something worth confessing and that if the psalmist is to be helped at all then the sins must be taken away completely but someone else.
It means the psalmist really knows the condition of their, and our, condition. We all do things we know we shouldn’t do, and we all avoid doing things we know we should do.
Some us are are pretty good at pushing that all aside and rationalizing the things we do or leave undone. But at some point or another the guilt begins to trickle in and we lay awake at night unable to do much of anything under the knowledge of who we really are.
But the psalmist sees it all quite differently.
Somehow, the psalmist knows that forgiveness has come even before the sin occurred.
The psalmist knows that God is the God of mercy.
For us, people entering the season of Lent, we are compelled to proclaim the truth that we are justified not after we confess our sins, but right smack dab in the middle of them. At the right time Christ died for the ungodly, God proves God’s love toward us that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, which includes everyone since Jesus has taken all upon himself in and on the cross.
The challenge then, for us, isn’t about whether or not God will forgive us.
The challenge is whether or not we can confess the condition of our condition.
That’s why Ash Wednesday is so important and so difficult. It is a time set apart to begin turning back to God who first turned toward us. It is a remarkable opportunity to reflect on what we’re doing with our lives right now and how those lives resonate with the One who makes something beautiful out of something broken.
Therefore, Ash Wednesday inaugurates the season of honesty:
We are dust and to dust we shall return.
We are broken and are in need of the divine potter to do for us that which we cannot do for ourselves.
Judgment comes first to the household of God, so wrote Peter in an epistle to the early church. We, then, don’t exist to show how wrong the world is in all its trespassed, but instead we exist to confess that we know the truth of who we are all while knowing what the Truth incarnate was, and is, willing to do for us.
We can’t fix ourselves. In any other place and in an other institution and around any other people that is unmitigated bad news. But here, in the church, it’s nothing but Good News. It’s good news because nobody, not the devil, not the world, not even ourselves can take us away from the Love that refuses to let us go.
Even the worst stinker in the world is someone for whom Christ died.
Even the most broken piece of pottery can be made into something new by the divine potter.
I wonder, this Lent, what kind of church we would become if we simply allowed broken people to gather, and did not try to fix them, but simply to love them and behold them, contemplating the shapes that broken pieces can inspire?
I wonder, this Lent, what might happen if we truly confessed who we are all while knowing whose we are?
I wonder, this Lent, what kind of new newness we might discover through the One who comes to make all things new?
You and me, we’re all dust, and to dust we shall return. But dust is not the end. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Andrew Ware about the readings for the 5th Sunday After Epiphany [C] (Jeremiah 17.5-10, Psalm 1, 1 Corinthians 15.12-20, Luke 6.17-26). Andrew is the pastor of Beech Grove UMC in Suffolk, VA and he is the host of the Active Faith podcast. Our conversation covers a range of topics including active self-care, rooted trust, burnout, vital nutrition, vague preaching, contentedness, scripturally shaped imaginations, ecclesial axioms, blessed (re)assurance, and compliments. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Woe and Woah