Wading for Jesus

Matthew 4.12-23

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him. Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. 

We have a new bishop in the Virginia Annual Conference, her name is Sue Haupert-Johnson. She was interviewed this week by the Conference office in order to introduce to the people called Methodist in this place. And, among all the interesting and theological bits from the interview, she was asked about our vision. 

Those without vision are doomed to perish, the scriptures say. So it was a worthy question. And this was her response: “Vision doesn’t come from the top, but rather from the people. However, the heart of the vision of the church always contains this question: How do we introduce people to Jesus?”

John the Baptist is arrested.

That’s how our scripture starts today. It’s an odd beginning, and one that is all too easy to breeze over without realizing the implications of such an introduction.

Why is John arrested? The last we heard of him in Matthew’s Gospel he was out in the wilderness, far removed from the movers and the shakers, proclaiming a baptism for the repentance of sins. That doesn’t sound like much rabble-rousing, let alone enough to warrant being thrown behind bars. But, of course, he did call the Pharisees and the Sadducees “a brood of vipers!” Even still, it’s not like he was committing a crime.

However, whenever the power that be are called into question, they’re going to do whatever it takes to stop those questions. 

John has a sense, a glimpse, of what the world could be. As the herald of the One to come, he stands squarely between the times and beckons the gaze of those with eyes to see that not all is at it seems. Something is on the way. And that something has a name: Jesus.

The drama begins.

John is arrested and how does Jesus react? He retreats to Galilee. That’s a bit odd when you take a step back from the strange new world of the Bible… I mean, we’re talking about the incarnate God! Perhaps we would prefer it if Jesus called the people to arms, if he stormed the gates of the prison to free his cousin, or any other number of reactive activities. 

But, instead, Jesus responds to John’s arrest by preaching.

Words are powerful things, more powerful than we often give them credit for. John’s words were so powerful that they put a target on his back. Jesus’ words wind up sending him to the cross. And today, our words are just as powerful, they can build up and they can destroy. 

Jesus’ mission and ministry in Galilee is for a purpose, one that Matthew begs us to see. Jesus preaches in order to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy.

“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.”

That text might sound familiar, and if it does it’s because we read those words every Christmas Eve – the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. The great light, now, happens to be the One who preaches in Galilee. 

And then the text moves to the call of the first disciples. 

Jesus is preaching, but he’s also searching. He’s looking for those who can help manifest and live according to the strange new world we call the kingdom of God. Notably, Jesus does not call his disciples from the powerful or the elite, he doesn’t create a big board of draft prospects for kingdom work, rather he calls those who are ordinary knowing that, with the power of the Spirit, they can do extraordinary things.

There are no crowds yet waiting to see what the hope of the world can do, the Pharisees and the scribes haven’t started their plot to get rid of him, because this is still the beginning. And one day, while walking by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and Andrew, casting a net into the lake. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets behind and followed him.

That’s it.

Luke’s Gospel adds some flavor and flourish to the story with some drama out on the water, but according to the Matthew the call of the first disciples was as quick as “Follow me.”

Much has been made about this moment in scripture and what it means for us today as followers of Jesus. 

In other words, this is the story of the first call and what we, in turn, are called to do.

Life, today, often feels a lot like U2’s song, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” We on the search for something. Some of us are looking for fulfillment, or purpose, or belonging. We look for it in people, jobs, vocations. 

I have a friend from seminary who embodied this searching perfectly. Every few months there was a new fad that dominated his existence. At first it was the desire to eat in a more local and healthy manner. He cultivated a backyard garden, read recipes book, even interned with a local farmer in between his classes. And, for a while, it took. Until it didn’t. At some point the garden was overrun by weeds, but by then he was on to the next thing: Barefoot running. He listened to some podcast about how our modern shoes are bad for our posture, and he became convinced that he needed to start running, every day, without shoes. So he did. He adopted a running calendar based on his class schedule and figured out the optimal times and places to run barefoot. And, for a while, it took. Until it didn’t. At some point the weather started to change and running sans shoes was starting to take a toll on his feet, but by then he was on to the next thing: Reading a book every three days. He encountered some article online about the devolution of our minds and the necessity to read as much as possible as quickly as possible. So he did. He set up timed alerts on his phone that told him when and what he was supposed to read. Every moment of the day was calculated down his average page per minute so that he could finish a book every three days. And, for awhile it took, until it didn’t.

I could go on. He certainly did.

He still hasn’t found what he was looking for.

And though curiosity is good, and frankly we could do well to have more of it in some ways, when it comes to the realm of the kingdom, we’ve got it backward. The Bible is not so much a long record of our search for God; rather, it is the amazing account of the extraordinary lengths to which God will go to search for us.

Perhaps that’s why the reference to Isaiah before the call of the disciples is so important: The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. In the darkness of our lives, when we least expect it, God shows up.

The disciples weren’t looking for a teacher to follow, or a barefoot running regimen to adopt, or a spiritual guru who could help bring fulfillment to their lives. If they were looking for anything, it was fish. And then Jesus shows up with the nerve to flip their vocation completely upside down. 

Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.

God in Christ shows up, and then gives us something to do. Though, how we respond to that call is as varied as the people who Jesus delights in calling. What comes to your mind when you hear the commission?

Evangelism can sound like a dirty word in United Methodist circles. It is often manipulative and preys on individual fears in order to get people in the pews. 

Some will take evangelism as our responsibility to save souls, or win people for Jesus, or knock on doors until we find someone who is willing to accept Jesus as their Lord and savior. Some will stand on street corners shouting about the end times, while others (a few blocks away) will hand out tracts with 3 simple steps to make sure you go to the right place when you die.

On and on.

Fishing for people. It’s the Lord’s metaphor, so we’ve got to work with it. Though, I’m always a bit fearful of the language since fishing is inherently a coercive endeavor. We try to trick fish into eating something fake in order to reel them in. 

Maybe that’s not the best metaphor for evangelism. Except for the fact that fishing requires us to go where the fish are. 

Therefore, perhaps we are called to wade for Jesus just as much as we are called to fish for Jesus. The earliest Christians weren’t converted to Christianity because they were looking for something, or because they were convinced or duped by the disciples. The earliest Christians were encountered by the living God and they couldn’t help but follow. 

Wading into the muck and mire of a stream to catch a fish is inherently a messy and frustrating endeavor. The same is true of wading into someone’s mess. But that’s exactly what God did and does for us.

Each of us here are here because, somehow, God showed up in our lives. And, more often than not, God shows up through someone else. 

There’s a big difference, a huge difference, between trying to convince someone of the Gospel, and living according to the Gospel. For, living according to the Gospel, puts us in relationships with people we would otherwise ignore and, because God has a sense of humor, it usually results in someone seeing how we live and then asking, “Why are you the way you are?”

And the answer, of course, is Jesus. 

Notably, the word evangelism just means, bearing the Good News. After Jesus called the first disciples he went through Galilee proclaiming the Good News and great crowds began to follow.

He didn’t try to coerce them, or frighten them, or even convince them. He just preached the Good News. 

Hear the Good News: You are loved by God. There is a place for you in God’s church. There is nothing in your life, no matter what you do or leave undone, that can ever separate you from God’s love. 

Introducing people to Jesus is at the heart of what it means to follow. How we introduce people to Jesus is actually quite easy. It’s the why we introduce people to Jesus that we often overlook. We, of course, do it because Jesus tells us to. But also because our lives have been changed by God and we want that for others. My life is fundamentally better because of the church’s willingness to relentlessly wade into the muck of my life reminding me of the Good News when everything else sounds like bad news. 

I am who I am because God waded into my life. 

Following the Lord will bring us places and to people we would never have picked on our own. Living according to the Gospel will make us appear strange to those who have not heard it. Strange enough that they might wonder what happened to us. 

And, of course, it’s not what happened to us, but who: Jesus.

The Beautiful Mess

John 1.29-42

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.” And John testified, “I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus. When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, “What are you looking for?” They said to him, “Rabbi” (which translated means Teacher), “where are you staying?” He said to them, “Come and see.” They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, “We have found the Messiah” (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (which is translated Peter).

Here, toward the beginning of the calendar year, I’ve been doing some thinking. We’re in the midst of a sermon series titled “New Year, New You” and I’ve come to realize some essential truths.

Things are not as they ought to be.

We can listen to the talking heads wax poetic about how politically divided we are, and how we just need to reach across the aisle and all that. But I think it’s far more insidious.

We are so obsessed with our financial gains and economic prosperity that we’ve allowed capitalism to become our dominant religion. We worship money and the accumulation of it. And the evils of capitalism, of which there are many, are as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism.

Did you know that, as a nation, we spend more money on national defense every year than on all of our programs of social uplift combined? Surely, that is a sign of our imminent spiritual doom.

We perpetuate a culture in which 1 out of every 3 black men can expect to go to prison at some point in their lives. The price that we must pay for the continued oppression of black bodies in this country is the price of our own destruction.

There is so much injustice in this country – racial injustice, economic injustice, gender injustice. And they cannot be solved without a radical redistribution of political and economic power.

Something’s gotta change.

Now, let us pause for a moment. How did all of that make you feel? Do you agree with what I said? Do you disagree? There’s a better than good chance that saying what I said left most, if not all, of us feeling uncomfortable.

And yet, nearly everything I just said is not original to me. I stole those bits of proclamation from another preacher, one by the name of Martin Luther King Jr. And it was because he was willing to say things that made people uncomfortable that he was murdered. 

It’s been almost 55 years since Dr. King’s assassination. Tomorrow, businesses and schools and all sorts of institutions will close to observe a holiday given in his name, and yet I wonder what it is we remember about Dr. King. Perhaps our minds move to his “I Have A Dream Speech,” or maybe we remember his calm demeanor in the midst of such a perilous time.

However, a year before Dr. King was killed he was widely regarded as one of the most hated men in the country. 63% of respondents in a poll right before his death admitted to being vocally opposed to his words and works. 

It’s hard to remember this, let alone acknowledge it, because everyone today loves Dr. King. We celebrate his transformative work in documentaries and school projects. But we love him now because it’s so much easier to celebrate someone when they’re no longer challenging and upsetting the status quo.

In other words, it’s easier to love a hero when they’re dead.

John says, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

For both Johns, the gospel writer and the Baptist, the image of the Lamb of God is central to their understanding of Jesus. We might talk about and think about Jesus as our teacher or our example or some other identifier, but for the Johns, Jesus is the Lamb of God.

And not just a lamb, but the Lamb – the Passover Lamb.

The church today is very comfortable as a safe and sanitary space where the realities of life, and by that I mean things like suffering, are kept at bay. We are good to mention the plight of Ukrainians in our congregational prayers, we will ask for volunteers to help with Family Promise, and all sorts of things. But when it comes to church, we like things neat and clean and ordinary.

We’re not comfortable with death or illness or questioning the status quo.

However, the church, weirdly, is called to be different. The church takes our over-manicured lives and says, “You’re a mess! You don’t want anyone to know it, and you don’t even want to admit it yourself, but things are falling apart!”

Behold the (Passover) Lab who takes away the sin of the world.

The church is a far cry from where we started. When God first gave specifics on how to worship to the people Israel it was messy: Build a temple, and take animals likes doves and bulls and slaughter them there. Take their blood and pour it over all sides of the altar.

Why? Because there is no transformation without sacrifice. 

Moreover, before God’s people made it to the banks of the Red Sea, waiting on a miracle, they had already experienced their miraculous deliverance from Egypt with Passover.

Take a lamb for each family, God says, a perfect and unblemished lamb, and bleed it out completely before you hang it to roast, make sure that none of its bones are broken. The lamb shall be divided in proportion to the people who eat of it. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and you shall eat it hurriedly. 

I’m getting you out of Egypt, says the Lord. Take the blood from the lamb and mark it on your doorposts so that I will know to passover as I bring my vengeance upon the people of Egypt.

It’s not for the faint of heart!

And, though we avoid it today at all costs, we still rely on blood for our worship. We no longer slaughter animals every week, but only because Jesus became the final sacrifice, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

Jesus was without sin and was innocent of the charges lobbed against him, just like the Passover lamb is supposed to be perfect and without blemish.

Jesus was beaten to the point of death and stabbed in the side shortly before his death, just like the Passover lamb is supposed to be bled before being hung to roast. 

Jesus was hung up high and though beaten his bones were not broken, just like the lamb’s bones were to remain intact.

I know this is a lot, it’s gruesome and frightening and messy. 

But that’s what church is all about. It stands in stark contrast with so much of what we want our lives to look like. We want people to think we are perfect even though we are far from it. We want everything to be nice and orderly even when life is tearing at the seams. 

Church, in different ways, is God’s way of looking at the mess of our lives and saying, “I know you deserve this not at all, and yet I’m going to save you anyway. ”

Some of John’s disciples are there when he makes his radical proclamation. They understand, somehow, that the new Passover Lamb is right there in front of them. So they leave John behind to follow Jesus. 

They sacrifice whatever their lives might’ve been to follow the Lamb.

The life and ministry of Jesus who they follow is neither neat nor clean. Notably, Jesus is forever spending time with messy people and their messed up lives. His ministry is among and for the last, least, lost, little, and dead.

Even today, we worship the God who willingly chooses to enter into the muck and mire and mess of our lives, which means things are liable to get messy along the way of our own discipleship. 

And yet, that is Good News!

It is Good News because God comes to us in the brokenness of our health and the shipwreck of our family lives and the worst of our mistakes.

Or, as the liturgy puts it, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love toward us.

Do you see? God saves us in our messes, not from them.

When John says, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world,” he means it. He, somehow, knows the future in his present, he knows what will happen to the incarnate God when the holy encounters the unholy. 

Notice, the Lamb of God has not taken away the sins of some – of only the good or the cooperative or those with perfect Sunday attendance in church. 

The Lamb takes away the sin of the world, all of them. 

That’s why we can sing, “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!”

And yet, the very next verse says, “And, Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight, the clouds be rolled back as a scroll; the trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend, even so, it is well with my soul.”

What is the Lord descending to do? The Lord comes to judge the living and the dead.

Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We are redeemed by the Lamb already. And yet there’s a bit more to it as well. Even now Jesus is taking our sin away. Like Dr. King, the Lord speaks words of comfort to the afflicted, and affliction to the comfortable.

It’s a both/and. We are set free from the foolishness of our past while at the same time we are called to live new lives here and now based on that redemption.

Jesus is the exodus for the rest of us, he delivers us from our captivity to sin and death into a strange new world we call the Kingdom of God. 

And in its messy in the Kingdom.

I started the sermon with stolen quotes from Dr. King, a man committed to seeing and bringing about a different world. His commitment cost him his life. And I think he knew that it would. For, the night before he was killed, he delivered one of his most moving speeches. Notably, Dr. King was in Memphis in support of a new union for sanitation workers.

That final night he stood before a packed auditorium and ended with these words:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life – longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything, I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

The next day he was dead.

The Lamb of God brings a kingdom the world doesn’t want – the blood of the Lamb makes a difference and that difference means we are now different. 

God does not accept the current realities of the world. God is still contending against the powers and the principalities. God will get us to the Promised Land. 

It’s like God is saying to us today: “Come and see what I can do – come and see what we can do together. It’s going to be messy, but change always is.” Amen. 

The Adventure Begins

Matthew 3.13-17

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Tell us what you remember about your baptism.

So spoke the instructor in my Spiritual Formation class in seminary more than a decade ago. We were huddled in a basement classroom, devoid of any natural light, squirming in our plastic chairs, wondering who would be the first to share.

“I remember,” one of them began, “being afraid.”

He described the fear of Y2K and what horrors it could bring. And so, on the last Sunday of the calendar year, he marched up to the font at the end of church and asked to be baptized because, as he put it, “I wanted to make sure I would go to heaven if the world ended when we hit the year 2000.”

“I remember,” another classmate began, “feeling pressured into by my friends.”

She described the teenybopper convictions of her closest friends who told her she had to be baptized. She didn’t even go to church. But then, one Sunday, she was picked up in a minivan by one of her friend’s parents, and a bunch of strangers surrounded her at the font and water was dumped all over her head. When she got home, soaking wet, her parents demanded to know what happened, and all she could say was, “Jesus happened, I think.”

“I remember,” someone else intoned, “the storm.”

She described her reluctance to attend church her entire life until, well into middle age, a particular tragedy drew her in the direction of mystery that happened to be her local church. She started reading the Bible, participated in worship, joined a small group, and felt like God was calling her to be a Christian. So they scheduled her baptism, and in the middle of the service an unexpected thunderstorm rolled through the town. All was well until they began praying over the water and lightning struck nearby with the thunderclap shaking the sanctuary. In the silence that followed she, apparently, shouted, “The devil ain’t got me no more.”

And then I raised my hand and said, “I remember nothing. I was 19 days old.”

We can only ever begin again, Barth once said. Christians, those who follow Jesus, are ever in a state of starting over. We have a liturgical calendar that folds in on itself every year, we return to the same scriptures and the same songs and the same prayers not out of tireless commitment to the old, but because they make us new.

We can only ever begin, again.

Today is Baptism of the Lord Sunday, when churches across the world read about Jesus’ baptism by his cousin John in the Jordan. 

It’s a bit odd, when you take a step back and think about it, that John is the one who baptizes Jesus. It’s odd for a variety of reasons. Notably, John shows up in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism for the repentance of sins. He looks out on God’s people who have completely lost their way and he beckons them back, again, to the truth of the Lord who delivered them from captivity into the Promised Land. Like all the prophets before him, John speaks with clarity and authority and power about repentance.

And yet, what does Jesus have to repent? Why does Jesus need to be baptized by John?

Repentance is such a churchy word. Where else can you hear that word thrown around with such reckless abandon?

What is it? Repentance is not feeling bad about what we’ve done, or thinking differently than we once did. Repentance means nothing more than turning around, or returning. The church, in our unending concern with encouraging people to think for themselves and make all the right choices, often confuses God’s kingdom with the benefits of the kingdom. 

We talk about turning our lives around so that we can finally find our purpose. We talk about repentance so that we will finally start behaving and make the world a better place. We talk about making changes or resolutions in order to finally become the people God wants us to be.

And those things are fine, they have their place. But they are not the Gospel. They are just the bonus, the 2-for1 deal which is handed over by the One who hands himself over on our behalf. 

The Gospel is the Good News of Jesus. Repentance is just the word that describes our activity whenever we encounter it.

John, out in the wilderness, is not offering a better way to live. The kingdom does not come about because we actually start doing the things we’re supposed to do. Rather, the kingdom of God is already present in the person of Jesus, and we are not worthy of it. That’s why we repent, we return. We wander off in all sorts of directions, but then in the waters of our baptism we return to the truth of who we are: Sinners in the hands of a loving God. 

Wandering is at the heart of who we are. There’s this gnawing lack of something inside all of us. It’s why we flock to the self-help section in bookstores, hoping we will finally discover who we really are. 

And, again, if self-help books worked, there wouldn’t be any of them anymore.

Find yourself! Says the slogan for clothing companies, vacation destinations, and retirement portfolios. 

Do you want to find yourself? You don’t need to go climb a mountain, literal or figuration. You don’t need to sign-up with a spiritual guru or enroll in a CrossFit class. 

All you need is some water.

Look in it and you’ll see who you are. 

It used to be the case that, when a set of parents brought their child forward for baptism, they only had one name – their family name. And then, someone like me would say, “What name is given this child?” The answer would be the first public declaration of a person’s identity. Our first names, which in certain places are still called Christian names.

Names are gifts. We don’t get to choose them or pick them. They’re given to us.

And then, with the waters of baptism, we receive yet another new name. A larger and more important name: Christian.

Whenever I baptize someone, whether they’re a shiny new baby, or covered in wrinkles with gray hair, I always say the same thing: I baptize you in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit – you are a precious Lamb of Jesus Christ.

I say that last part not because I was taught to say it, but because that’s what one of my grandmother’s has called me my entire life. 

I’m still growing into it.

It takes time for all of us to live into our names, that Christian name in particular. It’s something we return to every so often because sometimes we forget who we are.

It’s easy, all too easy, to forget our identity. The world will strive to tell us who we are, and what we should care about it, and what we should think. We’re told by the world, and others, that our lives are journeys of self-discovery whereas, in baptism, God finds us.

Our lives are the adventure of being lost and being found over and over again. 

Martin Luther, the great reformer of the church, was often prone to depression and anxiety. And he said that in those most awful moments, those dark nights of the soul, it was a great comfort to take a drop of water, place it on his forehead, and say, “I am baptized.”

Why?

Because we belong to God and that can never ever be taken away.

Or, as Paul puts it, I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

We return to that promise because sometimes we forget.

In the end, becoming and being a Christian is something done to us and for us before it is anything done by us.

In other words: faith requires others. Just like baptism. Someone has to hold us, pray over the water, tell us about Jesus and the promise of what he has done, is doing, and will do. Someone has to model that faith, a whole life of faith. Otherwise, we would have no idea what we are baptized into.

To know who Jesus is and what he means has got to come to us through others as a gift – a gift like grace.

Before the church was called church is was called EKKLESIA, which just means gathering. Church, then, is people who are together. People who hold fast to one another as we hold fast to the promise of the Gospel. 

And that’s why the church gives us this day, this same Sunday every single year, that we might remember who and whose we are.

I don’t remember my baptism. There was no peer pressure, or fear, or even reluctance. I had no choice in the matter. But the choice made on my behalf has made all the difference in the world. 

And that’s true for all of us, whether we marched to the font on our own or someone carried us to it. From the moment of our baptisms, it becomes impossible to explain our lives without reference to the water, the promise, the story, and the others who made it possible.

Baptism is where the adventure we call faith begins. 

Jesus’ baptism by John unleashes him into the world. The heavens are opened and he sets out on the adventure of preaching, healing, teaching, feeding, dying, and living again that makes possible the rectification of all things, even us. This is where his journey begins, as do our own, in the waters of baptism.

God Is God And We Are Not

Psalm 8

O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human being that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas. O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

Christmas Pageant stories are a dime a dozen.

I, myself, stood in a different pulpit helping narrate a particular pageant when one of the shepherds turned his staff upside down and ignited it like a lightsaber. Were it not for a daring dive from the aforementioned pulpit, the shepherd would’ve beheaded a wiseman, an angel, and at least three sheep.

There was another pageant when a kid dressed as a donkey decided to take a nap on the chancel steps in the middle of the drama, and remained there until after the applause died down at the end and everyone heard him say, “Mom?”

There’s a wonder and a beauty to the way children lead us in worship. Whether it’s the theological daring answers during a Children’s message, to the way they give themselves over completely to the movement of the Spirit, to the various pageant pronouncements, the glory of the Lord is revealed.

There’s a story that passes around this time of year every year about a certain pageant and the child who played the innkeeper. For weeks and weeks all the children practiced their positions and their lines, they were ready. But when Christmas Eve arrived, and the little Mary, Joseph, and plastic Jesus arrived at the cardboard cut out entrance to the inn, they knocked on the door and the innkeeper froze. Little Mary kept repeating her line, “Please let us in. We’re cold and we really need a place to stay!” Getting louder with each repetition. Until, finally, the innkeeper looked out into the congregation and said to the pageant coordinator, “I know I’m supposed to say, ‘No,’ but can I let them in anyway?”

Kids get it.

The Psalmist declares, “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.”

There’s a better than good chance that every one of us here has a story in which a child or a kid or a youth pointed us to a greater reality about the kingdom, than we could come to on our own. For instance, I was with my family in Alexandria this last week, celebrating the holidays, and we decided to go visit my grandmother’s grave on the anniversary of her death. She died last year at this time. 

And as we were dressing the kids and getting them into our various cars, my nephew asked, “Where are we going?” And I said, “We’re going to see Omi.” And he gave me this puzzled look and said, “But Omi’s with Jesus now.”

Kids get it.

But then the psalmist drops this on our dozing heads: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human being that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”

What a brutal question!

That God considers us, at all, is beyond our deserving. That God listens to our prayers is downright ridiculous. We tend to look at all we’ve done and said with such pride and glory, but compared to the works of God we are a bunch of ants. 

The God who called the universe into being out of nothing, who brought forth order out of chaos, who breathed life into creation, is probably not very impressed with the Lego set I built a few days ago, or the meal I cooked for my family, or even this sermon I crafted.

All things considered, there’s nothing terribly special about humanity. We’re a bunch of creatures who often make a mockery of the creation that God has given to us. 

Sure, we can point to some of our achievements, save for the fact that some of the worst things we’ve ever done as a species were done in the name of progress. 

What makes us unique isn’t what we can, or can’t, do, but the fact that God becomes one of us. God did not become a penguin, God became a human, a particular human in the person of Jesus Christ. And, notably, God did not just show up as a fully formed adult human being – God shows up as a baby!

That’s the message of the incarnation. And it is so bewildering that people like us decorate trees, and exchange gifts, and light candles year after year to celebrate God’s unwavering commitment to us. 

But the only reason we, that is Gentiles, even know about this enough to celebrate it is because of what we call Epiphany, the feast that marks the visit of the Magi and the expansion of the kingdom to those outside the people Israel. 

According to Matthew’s Gospel, after Jesus’ birth wise men/magi from the East come to Jerusalem looking for the king of the Jews because they observed a rising star and came to pay their respect. There’s a frightening plot by King Herod to put to an end any threat to his power, but the magi make haste to Bethlehem where they discover the star leading them to the location of the baby Jesus. 

When they encounter the baby born king they do something strange. It would be one thing to bring gifts to a king, stranger still to give those gifts to a baby born to a poor Jewish woman and her soon-to-be husband. But scripture says that when the magi saw Jesus, they knelt down and worshipped him and were overwhelmed with joy.

Epiphany is the celebration of that moment. We mark it on the liturgical calendar because it both points to the wild character of the incarnation, God in the flesh as a baby, but also to the way in which the glory of Jesus’ birth stretches beyond the confines of Israel.

Jesus will certainly grow to enact miracles and make various proclamations about the ever widening nature of the kingdom, but this is the radical beginning of that expansion. 

Jesus comes for a lot of reasons – to save us, to show us how the kingdom works, to reveal the nature of God. But one of the things we often overlook is that Jesus helps us to become fully human.

That’s a strange claim to make. You might expect to hear that Jesus helps us to become better Christians, or fuller Christians. And yet, if Herbert McCabe is right, we can only be fully human as we are incorporated into the fullness of humanity named Jesus Christ. Jesus, McCabe argues, “was the first true human for whom to live was simply to love – for this is what human beings are for.”

The kingdom of God, therefore, isn’t just for certain sets of people in particular places. The kingdom of God is for everyone. When we say that Jesus is fully human and fully divine, we mean that he is the fullness of humanity and the fullness of God. If we want to know what it means to be human, we need not look further than Jesus Christ, for his life was love. 

Maybe that’s why the magi fell to their knees and worship. Not because they intellectually understood the proclamation of the incarnation, of because they rationally deduced the momentous moment in front of them, but because they encountered love in the flesh, true and full humanity in a baby.

The presence of the magi in the manger means that the love that is God is for people even like us. And whenever we encounter that total radical love, whether it’s here in church, or at school, or at work, or around the dinner table, we can’t help but worship. It is nothing short of amazing that God, author of the cosmos, loves us and is as close to us as a baby being rocked in our arms or the bread and cup at the table.

An important theological claim is that God is God and we are not. It keeps things squarely where they are supposed to be. What are human beings that God is mindful of us, and all that.

But then, in the incarnation, everything takes on a strange and wondrous dimension. Because even though God is God and we are not, God willingly choose to become us, that we might discover who we are and whose we are.

Which, in the end, is why the psalmist can sing: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Amen.

Water Is Thicker Than Blood

This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Alan Combs about the readings for Baptism of the Lord Sunday [A] (Isaiah 42.1-9, Psalm 29, Acts 10.34-43, Matthew 3.13-17). Alan is the lead pastor of First UMC in Salem, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Pulp Fiction, adult mission trips, tiredness, the NT in the OT, expectations, flames of fire, the voice of the Lord, Dogma, passivity, Jayber Crow, baptism, Karl Barth, and good questions. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Water Is Thicker Than Blood

Welcome To Humanity

1 Corinthians 12.12-14

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.

1 Thessalonians 5.11

Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing. 

Dear Finley,

I have a confession to make. I have a long standing habit of writing homiletical epistles on the occasion of one’s baptism – it’s a way of cutting across time such that, one day, you can look back and find out why you were baptized. You will have no memory of this but, your life will be decisively different because of it.

And yet, before God and family, I must confess that the idea is not original to me. I stole it from one of your other uncles: Jason

He knows that the proclamation of the Word is essential to the sacrament that is your baptism, because, as Barth put it, “Preachers dare to talk about God.”

Otherwise, there’s a temptation to make your baptism all about you. When, in fact, it’s actually all about the One in whose life and death you are being baptized. 

Your uncle taught that to me.

I wonder what your life will be like, having two of the smartest pastors ever called by God as some of your uncles. Perhaps it will be a gift and a curse, for you are doomed to hear the same things over and over again.

At the very least, you’re likely to hear a lot about Karl Barth, Stanley Hauerwas, and Jesus.

And yet, repetition is all anyone can ever hope for.

I pray you never tire of hearing, “I love you.”

Similarly, I hope you rejoice in being told to remember your baptism and be thankful. Of course, you won’t remember any of this, but the ripples of it will impact every part of your life.

Finley, today you become a human. I know that is a strange thing to say. You might expect to hear that today you become a Christian

And yet, if Herbert McCabe is right, we can only be fully human as we are incorporated into the fullness of humanity named Jesus Christ. Jesus, McCabe argues, “was the first true human for whom to live was simply to love – for this is what human beings are for.”

Our lives are made up of various loves. Your father, for instance, loves tractors and chainsaws. Your mother loves ceramics and plants. One set of your grandparents sit around their phones everyday waiting to see you smile on FaceTime. The other set was so excited about your arrival into the world that they bought a house in Harrisonburg, just to be close to you.

And you have a whole set of aunts, uncles, and cousins who are obsessed with you.

On and on and on.

And the claim made in your baptism is that God loves you.

You will come to find that God’s love is both wonderful and awful. It’s why we sing of the hopes and fears of all the years being met in the person of Jesus Christ. It is wonderful and awful to be loved by God because God really know us, and loves us anyway.

To be human is to love, and to be loved in return.

Another thing you will hear over and over again throughout your life, is something your uncle and I get to declare every time people gather at the Lord’s table: “Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that proves God’s love toward us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.”

The baptism into which you are baptized sets you on a course of being surrounded and caught up in the adventure called church, in which you will be forgiven over and over again. 

Hence the first scripture passage your parents chose for this occasion: For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

The water of your baptism incorporates you into something seen and unseen. It connects you with others across time and space. Or, as Stanley Hauerwas is oft to quip: Whatever Christianity is, it is at least the discovery of friends you did not know you had.

This is true not only for the church, but for you in particular. Without Jesus your parents never would’ve met. The smattering of family and friends we call family who gather for your baptism would not be possible without Jesus. 

I hope and pray you discover that nothing is more precious in the world than the gift of a friend. Friendship takes time and requires forgiveness. Forgiveness and patience are deeply connected. But God has given us all the time we need to become friends with one another. And, of course, learning how to become friends with others also teaches us what it means to be friends with God.

In short, we have all the time in the world to learn how to forgive and, perhaps more importantly, how to be forgiven.

Thankfully, Jesus, the one in whose baptism you share today, is in the forgiveness business. 

Which leads to the second text your parents chose for the occasion of your baptism.

“Therefore, encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”

Another thing your uncle taught me is that, whenever you encounter a therefore in scripture, you need to know what the therefore is there for. 

If you look just two verses before you will encounter these all too important words: God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him… Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.

In other words, the forgiveness that makes friendship possible is only possible because of Jesus Christ and him crucified. 

We are called to build one another up not because it makes the world a better place, though it certainly might. We are called to encourage one another because God has already made the world a better place in Jesus. We are called to forgive one another because God is the great forgiver.

In your baptism your sins are forgiven. Not just the ones committed before your baptism, which up to this point mostly amount to waking your parents up in the middle of the night over and over again, but also all of the sins yet to come. 

Again, Christ died for us while we were yet sinners.

The timing of your baptism is important – not only because it allowed for most of your family to be present, but also because it is Christmastide, the wonderful time between Christmas and Epiphany. A strange and wondrous witness to the infancy of the Lord, and the expansive extent of the kingdom of God.

The timing of your baptism also points to the fact that you are a baby. It is important that we baptize you as an infant. For, at this very moment, there is absolutely nothing you can do to earn, accept, or even believe in the forgiveness that your baptism imparts. In baptizing you we, the church, declare that you already have it. 

We are baptizing you into a different life, a human life, a life of love and friendship that will set you at odds with the world. 

It will set you at odds with the world because the world will tell you there is always more to be done, whereas your baptism says, “It is finished.” The world will tell you to be careful with your love, whereas your baptism points to the fact that God is reckless with God’s love. 

Right here and right now you are beloved. Not because you have done anything or deserve anything, but because the Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world, even yours.

So welcome to the strange new world that is your life. You might never have been but you are because the family called church wouldn’t have been complete without you. Beautiful and terrible things will happen to you, but you needn’t be afraid. God is with you. Nothing can ever take that away. Amen. 

The Reason For The Season

Isaiah 9.2-7

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. 

I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a good Christmas sermon. I certainly haven’t preached one. No commentary, no anecdote, no perfectly delivered joke can ever come close to the outrageously wonderful news of the Christmas story. 

The story is better than any sermon and yet, I wonder what you were thinking as the scriptures were read and the notes from the songs were lifted up… 

Perhaps some of you have heard the Christmas story so many times before that it flew right over your hears. Maybe some of you think it a mere fairy tale, far removed from the realities of life. Perhaps some of you were transported to Christmases past and remembered hearing the story from other people in other ways. Maybe some of you drifted off to the dream-like space where the boundaries of reality become fuzzy.

And then BOOM! Christmas! The angel of the Lord appears and shakes us up. The angel shows up in the Gospel, just as much as the angel of the Lord is present with us right now, downright shouting the Good News for all to hear: “For to you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”

Notice, the angel does not say, “For us is born.”

The angel says, “For you.”

That’s so strange. Which is really saying something because the strange new world of the Bible was plenty strange before this angel showed up with glad tiding to tell.

You see, the Christmas story is not meant for certain people in particular places. This news is for you. You! Regardless of who you are, whether or not you understand it, or even believe it, whether you are on the nice list or the naughty list this year. There are no qualifications for who should receive this news because this news, the Good News, is for you!

And what, exactly is the Good News?

God took on flesh to liberate us from sin and death.

In other words, the Good News is Jesus.

Jesus is the reason for the season. All of the other trimmings and trappings and traditions serve only to point to the One who arrives for you.

And yet, we could just as well say that the reason for the season is the joy of giving.

Indeed, it is true that Jesus says it is better to give than to receive. It is true that our brains release more endorphins when we do something for someone else, than if someone does something for us. 

But Christmas, at least according to the strange new world of the Bible, isn’t about what we’re supposed to do for others. It’s about what God does for us. For you.

Many of us love Christmas because we believe, whether or not it’s true, that Christmas brings out the best in us. Christmas has the power to reform even the Scroogiest among us. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has probably done more to form our notions about this night than Luke’s story of the manger. Luke gives all the agency to God, reminds us through shepherd and song that Christmas is about God’s gift to us, whereas Dickens tell us about how we can give to others.

But that betrays the necessity of the incarnation. God does not take on flesh to help us see that we have the power to save and fix ourselves. God takes on flesh to save us. Full stop.

The Gospels go to great lengths, through various stories, to demonstrate how we can’t help ourselves, how utterly dependent we are on the God who comes to us. 

The great joy of Christmas is that we do nothing to make it happen – Christmas happens to us. Even the biblical characters that we read and were singing about, they are all so wildly passive in the story. They are recipients of God’s grace made manifest in the manger.

This is often the way God loves us. Not with a drill-master attitude of begging us to see our potential if we would only work harder. But with strange gifts that we did not know we needed, gifts that transform us into people we don’t necessarily want to be. 

Christmas is about the great gift given to us, to you. And that gift has a name: Jesus.

The angel address us personally, individually, with the gift of the one born. But, at the same time, the angel’s proclamation ties all of us together. For in receiving the gift, in receiving the news, no one is first and no one is last. 

The Christian life is one great communion, the great fellowship that transcends all things.

Christmas created and creates a new community called church. At any given time and place we have no idea what it will look like, except we know it will be filled with people whom we would not have chosen if we were not friends with Jesus.

Put another way, through the gift of Jesus Christ, God has also given us each other.

Look around. You might not know it, or even believe it, but these are the people God has chosen for you to be with this Christmas. Men and women. Old and young. Conservative and liberal. Gay and straight. Courageous and cowardly. Stupid and smart. Hideous and handsome. Saints and sinners. 

All sorts of people who are only here because of Jesus.

Jesus is the Good News, Jesus is our only hope, Jesus is the reason for the season.

There’s this thing that we do every Christmas Eve, in addition to the drama and the lines and the songs, we end worship same way every year: with the lighting of candles and the singing of Silent Night. It’s a tradition. Some of my earliest memories are of standing up on the seat of a pew on Christmas Eve, holding up my little candle, and watching wax fall onto the floor. 

But last year, as we rounded out our worship, I came forward with my tiny little candle, and brought it up to the Christ Candle. From that one candle the light spreads throughout the church. And I’ve done this countless times. But last year something happened to me. I brought the light down to the first person sitting in the first pew, I don’t even remember who it was, but I remember their eyes. I remember seeing the light of the candle flickering in their eyes, and I remember them crying. And right then, and it hit me hard in the chest, a sensation I can’t quite describe with words, I was overwhelmed by the conviction that it’s true. All of it. The light of God’s love outshines the darkness.

In the candlelight spreading across the sanctuary, I saw and felt the Good News of Jesus Christ.

God in Christ, born to us, has brought us salvation. God is our helper, liberator, and redeemer. God rescues and delivers us. We live because God is with us.

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

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

To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 

Merry Christmas.

Good News!

Luke 2.8-14

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

It was my first Christmas Eve service as a pastor. I was standing by the main doors welcoming the last stragglers in for worship. And just as the organist began to play the opening hymn, during which I was supposed to walk down the center aisle looking like I knew what I was doing, one final car pulled into the parking lot.

So I had a choice – either get the show on the road and parade down the aisle or stay by the door and greet the one last, and perhaps lost, sheep.

I chose the sheep.

I could feel the organist’s eye like daggers cutting through me as the song went on without a pastor, but I waited.

And I waited.

Out of the car stepped an old little man who shuffled across the lot with the help of a walker and a decisively Ebenezer Scrooge scowl across his face. By the time he made it to the door the organist had started the hymn over again, much to the surprise of the congregation. So I very quickly, but politely, offered him hand and started to make a break for the sanctuary but the man grabbed me by the robe, pulled me down and said, “Listen son – I only come to church once a year so the Good News better be good.”

That man’s quick quip has stayed with me over the years because, I think, we all feel that way. We want, in fact we need, Good News. We need good news because it feels like all we ever encounter is bad news. We can’t turn on our TVs, or turn to our phones, without being bombarded by all that is wrong with the world.

But then we come to a place like this at a time like this. 

Chances are most of us, if not all of us, know the story we’re about to hear through scripture, drama, and song.

We know how the holy family traveled to Bethlehem with a pregnant Mary riding on the back of a donkey. We know how they were turned away by a greedy innkeeper. We know how Jesus was born in a stable, laid in a manger, surrounded by farm animals, admired by shepherds, and sung to by angels.

Never mind the fact that half of these details aren’t actually in the strange new world of the Bible! But we’re ready to remember it that way!

Indeed, it is a tradition to remember the story with these details. We sing the songs, we read the scriptures, we get out the pipe cleaner halos, and the plastic baby Jesus.

Tradition is one of those words that we either love or hate. Some of us rejoice in traditions, the habits and practices passed on to us. Others of us find those things to be constrictive, or even oppressive.

And yet, traditions serve to root us in the world. Traditions teach us who we are and, more importantly, whose we are.

The tradition of Christmas, of gathering with others for the worship of God, locates us in a community constituted by hope, peace, joy, and love.

Which is why we need things like child-led dramas, Christmas pageants, because they brings great godly things down to earth. Often, in church, the things we talk about seem so far away, removed, and distant. Even preachers fall prey to the stained glass language that flies over the heads of our dozing congregations.

And then Christmas! This is the Good News! It is a story that is down to earth because God comes down to us. It has all the hallmarks of real life: birth, death, marriage, relatives, taxes, babies, work.

It was into this world that God arrived as one of us. And, oddly and wonderfully, the great joy of Christmas is that we do nothing to make it happen – Christmas happens to us. Notice, during our pageant, how wildly passive all the biblical characters are. They, like us, are recipients of God’s grace made manifest in the manger.

The story itself, as I noted before, is so warm and familiar that the shock of it all has dimmed. And yet, Christmas is absolutely astonishing!

God, the author of the cosmos, chose a young woman from a forgotten village to birth God’s very self in a sleepy little town in a tucked away corner of the empire. The first to know of God’s birth were shepherds, those relegated to the margins of society and ignored by most. 

Jesus, fully God and fully human, grew into an adult who had a brief public ministry that was spent among the riff-raff and the elite, announced God’s forgiveness of sin for a world undeserving, and in whose death and resurrection, we are made holy.

And it doesn’t matter who are you or what you’ve done. This all happens for you.

The world will tell us again and again and again that we are not worthy, that there is always more to do. Christmas tells us the opposite. God makes us worthy. There is nothing we have to do, except open our hands to the gift that is Jesus Christ. 

That is how the Good News works, it’s good news.

Christmas is the end of the beginning and its the story we are about to receive through pageant and song, but before I hand it over, I want to share one final thought:

There’s this thing that we do every Christmas Eve, in addition to the drama and the lines and the songs, we end worship same way every year: with the lighting of candles and the singing of Silent Night. It’s a tradition. Some of my earliest memories are of standing up on the seat of a pew on Christmas Eve, holding up my little candle, and watching wax fall onto the floor. 

But last year, as we rounded out the pageant, I came forward with my tiny little candle, and brought it up to the Christ Candle. From that one candle the light spreads throughout the church. And I’ve done this countless times. But last year something happened to me. I brought the light down to the first person sitting in the first pew, I don’t even remember who it was, but I remember their eyes. I remember seeing the light of the candle flickering in their eyes, and it hit me hard in the chest, a sensation I can’t quite describe with words, I was overwhelmed by the conviction that it’s true. All of it. The light of God’s love outshines the darkness.

In the candlelight spreading across the sanctuary, in the little children in their costumes, I saw and felt that the Good News really is good.

God in Christ, born to us, has brought us salvation. God is our helper, liberator, and redeemer. God rescues and delivers us. We live because God is with us.

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

God in Christ, born to us, has brought salvation to all, without reservation or execution, simply because that is who God is.

To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 

Merry Christmas.

The Mother of God

Isaiah 7.10-16

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? 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. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and can choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.

Gender-inclusive language. 

That’s a strange way to start a sermon. 

The practice of using gender-inclusive language for the divine has been around for awhile but it really came into vogue shortly before I arrived in seminary. It’s a willingness to confront the masculine pronouns often attributed to God: God as he. 

The reason being that God is not a he, unless we’re talking about Jesus. 

Of course, scripture and grammar lends itself to this. We pray to God as Father and all of that. But there are actually plenty of moments in the Old Testament when God is given feminine attributes, and even Jesus uses feminine attributes for God in the New Testament, we just rarely talk about them.

Again, what’s at stake here is the fact that God is not like us. God is, to use an expression of Barth’s, totally other. Therefore, to use human attributes, particularly gendered attributes for God, makes God like us.

And so there began a push while I was in school to stop referring to God as he. True story: we would have one point taken away per gendered reference to God in our papers, which taught us how to adapt quickly. 

Perhaps you have noticed, but maybe not, when I preach I try my best to not masculinize God. In other words, I try to avoiding pronoun-ing God. And sometimes it makes for a strange sentence. But it’s important. God is not a man. God is God.

Of course there are some, who in order to offer a corrective to the masculinity of God rendered in church, will feminize God and refer to God as she, or mother. Which, I think, can be helpful. God is both paternal and maternal. But it still puts God in our own terms, rather than letting God speak to us about who God is.

And yet, there is a more radical notion about the identity of God that we often overlook or downright ignore. 

You know what’s more radical than talking about God as our mother? The fact that God has one. 

700 years before the Advent of Christ, the people of God were in a time of war and fear. The city of Jerusalem was besieged during the reign of Ahaz and there seemed to be no hope on the horizon. And in the midst of this terror, the Lord asks Ahaz if he would like a sign of God’s power. And, inexplicably, Ahaz refuses! Which leave the prophet Isaiah to lament, “Is it not enough to weary everyone else, now you’ve moved to wearying God?”

And the Lord offers this sign whether Ahaz wants it or not: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”

Notably, Isaiah does not say that “a” young woman will bear a child named Immanuel. Isaiah says “the” young woman will do so. “The” is the definite article indicating that not just anyone will give birth to this Promised One, but someone in particular would do it. We, of course, did not know who the “the” would be until Mary was singled out to be the Mother of God, the mother of Jesus. Not just any young Jewish girl would do. The one to carry and birth Jesus is Mary.

It’s difficult, I fear, for us to imagine the bewildered reception of Isaiah’s proclamation. We are so storied by the story of Christmas, moved by its majesty, that we can scarcely fathom the oddity of the prophet’s promise.

The city is under siege, hope is lost, and the Lord says, “A baby is coming.”

A baby? What about a ruthless warrior, or a fearsome king, or a charismatic leader? Surely that’s what God people needed! And yet, God says the sign is the woman who will bear a child named Immanuel.

That God chooses the woman as the sign, that God enacts God’s purposes through this young woman is so confounding. 

  What we dare to proclaim about God is that God willingly gets involved in the flesh and blood and bone of human life. The God we worship is en-wombed in Mary.

There’s a reason we don’t talk much about Mary. There are a lot of reasons actually. Most of them stem from our patriarchal renderings of existence. Some of them stem from the fact that we are Protestant and don’t want to be associated with the Mary-worship that happens in the Catholic Church. And yet, to ignore Mary, is to ignore the radical notion of the Incarnation. 

The ignorance of Mary results in a form of Christendom in which men continue to feel as if they are superior to women.

Patriarchy is real, the unjust rule of men over women exists and its wrong. And not just because of our modern sensibilities of equality, it’s wrong because of the fact that God is born of Mary!

Listen – Mary, as we say in certain theological circles, is the THEOTOKOS, the God-bearer. And, so named, she safeguards the fleshiness of God. Without her the God we worship remains aloof, but with her, the God we worship becomes one of us.

There is something almost outrageously particular about the fact that God’s fleshy presence in the world is localized in the womb of an unmarried teenage girl from Nazareth. Which is made all the more wild when we realize that Isaiah told God’s people this would happen 700 years before it did.

We tend to lob all these titles and distinctions upon God. God is almighty, omnipotent, omniscient, or whatever big seminary word we want to use. And all of that is fine. God is the author of the cosmos after all. But to claim God as enfleshed, that God has a birth and a death, is at the heart of the scandal that makes our faith, faith.

Even Martin Luther, who so famously broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, (which was simply called church until Luther started something different), Luther was wary of the church’s veneration of Mary and how close it was coming to idolatry. But even Luther was quick to note, “Mary breastfed God, rocked God to sleep, prepared broth and soup for God.”

Have you ever thought about the Gospel that way before?

If we take the strange new world of the Bible seriously, then Mary also changed God’s diapers, taught God songs to sing, taught God the stories of the faith, even the promise of the coming Messiah who was rocking in her arms the entire time.

Similarly, Charles Wesley praised Mary as one, “Who gave all things to be, what a wonder to see, God born of this creature, and nursed on her knee.”

Mary, an ordinary young woman from Nazareth, keeps the incarnation scandalous. 

Artist: Scott Erickson

Not to jump too solidly into the New Testament, but, Mary’s “Let it be” opens the way for a new eruption of grace into the world. We might call “Let it be” the Gospel according to Paul McCartney, but its actually the Gospel according to Mary!

Mary writes the best (can we say that?) song in the Gospels, a song we refer to as the Magnificat. It demonstrates her profound knowledge and love of the scriptures, and is perhaps the must frequently sung song throughout all of church history. 

Mary is present and is also the instigator of Jesus’ first miracle at the wedding in Cana of Galilee (water to wine). And she and others are present at the cross when the disciples flee.

Moreover, Mary is in the upper room at Pentecost, the only woman present who is named, and she receives the same Spirit that sets the church in motion.

But wait, there’s more: Throughout the early history of the church up through the Middle Ages, there were more paintings done of Mary than of Jesus!

The young woman with child of Isaiah’s proclamation is Mary, the flesh and blood Mother of God. Mary is not an idea, she is not a myth. She is a real person, as real as you and me. She is a real person who made decisions upon which our faith depends. 

We often fail to embody the embodied nature of our faith because, at some point, we assume that whatever our faith is it is at least a set of ideas or slogans. Ideas that help us make sense of the world, or slogans to help us behave better and therefore fix the world. 

But the witness of the faith cannot be summarized on a bumper sticker or in a tweet. It cannot be expressed through ideas or slogans.

It cannot because our faith, oddly enough, hinges on a young Jewish woman named Mary.

Here we are, at the end of Advent, preparing to dress up the kids next week for a pageant, and perhaps we do well to remember that Mary was not only real, she was also unlikely. That God chooses her, from a forgotten town with no bright hope for tomorrow, is wild beyond imagining. 

That God chooses any of us for God’s purposes is outrageous.

We would never have chosen to do it this way.

But, then again, we are not God. Thank God we are not God.

Because of the proclamation of Mary’s womb, God has given us more than we deserve, God has given us reason to be patient because the cosmos hinges not upon what we do, but upon what has been done for us. 

Therefore, here on the last Sunday of Advent, we are given the hope that we can learn to wait. Not unlike the Israelites waited for God to keep God’s promise. Not unlike Mary waited nine months with her belly swelling. Not unlike the disciples waited three days after the crucifixion. 

Waiting is part of the discipline of learning what it means to be creatures of time.

Time is a gift and a burden. That we have time at all is nothing short of God’s grace. But our time is limited. We must be born and we must die – Advent refuses to let us pretend otherwise. And yet, at the same time, Advent stories us. That is, Advent teaches us who we are and whose we are. 

Stories, of course, come in all shapes and sizes. Some are short and some are long. Some are funny and some are not. Some are defined by all sorts of words, and others can be summarized with “Let it be.” 

We, all of us, are storied creatures.

And, strangely, the great Good News of Advent is that our time has been storied by Jesus Christ, born of Mary. Mary makes possible our stories because she bears God into the world. God takes on flesh and dwells among us which gives us the grace to be, and become, fully human. 

It’s rather extraordinary, when we can take a step back from it all, that we know the name of the Lord’s mother! And yet, even more extraordinary is the fact that God chose to come and make time for us, redeeming out time, and making possible the salvation that disrupts time forever. 

Our time is so redeemed because Mary’s son is Immanuel, God with us.

No matter what.

Whether we are on the naughty list or the nice list, God is with us.

Whether we have gobs of presents under the tree, or if we haven’t had the time to get a tree at all, God is with us.

Whether we have more Christmases ahead of us, or only a few left, God is with us. 

Behold! The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. Thanks be to God. 

Water In The Desert

Isaiah 35.1-10

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. 

It’s a thing that takes place, more often than I would like. Someone wanders into my office and before long they say, “Why did this happen?”

Why do Russian forces continue to attack civilians in Ukraine, killing innocents daily?

Why did my cells mutate into a cancer that is trying to kill me?

Why would my husband hurt me so much?

Those are worthy Advent questions.

Why? 

We’ve got the lights and the cocoa, some of us already have presents wrapped under the tree and are putting together the menu for when the relatives arrive. We’ve got all this other stuff going on and yet we know that not all is as it ought to be.

Even if you feel like you’ve got it all figured out, spend one minute watching the nightly news and you are likely to be bombarded with stories and images of all that is wrong with this world. 

Why is this world so broken? What can we, the church, say about all the sorrow, the waste, the vengefulness that populates the evening news and keeps us awake at night?

John the Baptist had the same questions. Sure, he prepared the way out in the wilderness, he called for the baptism for the repentance of sins, he talked about the One to follow. But his talk was incendiary, downright revolutionary, according to the powers and the principalities, and it got him locked up.

And from prison John starts to wonder about his cousin Jesus. “He sure seems like the Messiah. He walks like the Messiah, he talks like the Messiah. And yet, where is all the grand and Messianic stuff to inaugurate this time? Why isn’t Jesus more like me?”

So John sends word by way of his disciples, “Hey cuz, are you the real deal? Or are we to wait for another?”

And Jesus, in typical Jesus fashion, responds in his own weird way. He says to his own disciples, “Tell my cousin what you have seen and heard: the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the poor have good news.”

Jesus, notably, quotes the prophet Isaiah, the very text we read this morning. A text from 700 years before Jesus arrived on the scene and John got locked up.

Jesus is saying to John, by way of his disciples, that he is, indeed, the One to come and the time has already arrived. “The kingdom is breaking in, J the B, you’ve set your sights too low. You want to defeat the empire called Rome. Well, I’ve come to vanquish the empire of sin and death. It’s already begun because I am here. I am the kingdom in the flesh.”

This proclamation, this promise, of the blind seeing, the lame walking, the deaf hearing, it’s a recurring theme in scripture. Isaiah has a glimpse of it. Jesus preaches on it in his first sermon. The disciples witness it. 

It’s the ministry of divine inversion. It’s no different than Isaiah talking about streams in the desert and the hills being brought low. The work of the Lord makes a way where there is no way.

And yet, Jesus’ answer to his cousin, his pointing to the work made manifest in the flesh, is somewhat incomplete. The rugged Advent faith compels us to admit that something is amiss. Yes, Jesus did heal a few blind people, but only a few. Yes, he did feed the hungry and cure the sick. But how many?

The signs of the in-breaking kingdom, the work of the Lord then and now, is left undone.

That’s the strange tension of Advent – of living between the already but not yet, of being stuck in the time being.

The kingdom of God is mysterious. 

Mysteries are fundamentally unsatisfying. We are not content to rest under the shadow of the unexplained. So we bring our expectations and questions to Jesus over and over again, not unlike John did from behind bars, and Jesus, more often than not, gives us mystery.

Preachers like me are always looking for stories, these moments of impact where the Gospel hits us in the heart. And sometimes the stories arrive from unexpected places.

Rob Delaney is an actor and comedian, known for bit parts in various films and a short-lived British series titled Catastrophe. He’s made a career out of making people laugh. And this week Delaney has been making the day-time and late-night tv circuit promoting his new memoir titled A Heart That Works. The title comes from a song lyric: A heart that hurts, is a heart that works.

That’s a strange title for a memoir from a comedian.

The book tells of Delaney’s experience of profound loss and pain. His third son, named Henry, around the time of this 1st birthday got sick. Very sick. It took a long time to figure out what was going on, and they eventually discovered that Henry had a brain tumor. He had extremely invasive surgery and chemotherapy that left him disabled. After a year and a half of time in and out of the hospital, the tumor returned and he died.

When asked about why Delaney chose to write the memoir, again and again he has responded, “I wanted to return to humanity, and I didn’t know how other than to write about it.”

And so, day after day, Delaney has sat down for interview after interview, being forced to relive something that no one should ever have to experience. 

And this week, while sitting down for a conversation on CBS, Delaney interrupted the program and looked across the table to Gayle King and said, “Gayle, you came up to me this morning before we came out here in front of the cameras and you hugged me, and asked me genuine questions, and you cried. You offered me a beautiful and human response. And I want you to know it’s the best thing that’s happened to me in days.”

Gayle King, unflappable Gayle King, stared back at him with this bewildered look and said, “How can that be the best thing?”

And Delaney said, “You had a genuine response. I don’t want people to ask these perfunctory questions, and say ‘Oh, your grief,’ and then move on as if nothing happened. I want people to cry. My boy is dead. I won’t hold him again. I hold him in my heart and I think about him all the time. But you had a response like that and that was like water to me in the desert. It was beautiful.”

“It was like water in the desert.” The prophet Isaiah speaking through a comedian, on CBS. 

And what makes that interaction even all the more extraordinary, is that Delaney is an atheist. Except, later in the week, this time while on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Delaney was pushed by the host to reflect on what his grief has done to him and he said, “It’s a big problem for me that, as an atheist, my faith organ has been growing in the years after my son’s death.”

Water in the desert. 

We tend to treat grief like a plague. We stay away from it. We close our doors to it. And if we have it, we do whatever we can to get rid of it. But you know, grief is actually good. 

Grief is just unexpressed love. Grief is how love perseveres.

It’s Advent. It’s that time of year when we pull our the greenery and we sing the songs and we light the candles. Today, the pink candle is lit. It’s Gaudete Sunday, rejoice, the Sunday for joy, pink is the liturgical color for joy. It’s a bit odd, I think, that we keep lighting this pink candle year after year.

Because, how can we be joyful in a time like this?

How can someone like Rob Delaney be joyful?

Grief is like a hole that cannot be filled no matter how hard we try. No number of presents can make up for the pain that we too often encounter in this life. And yet we are bold to light that candle.

We light it not as a denial of the harsh realities of life, but because joy is something that is done to us.

Joy is what happens when we dare to trust the Lord to do for us that which we cannot do on our own.

Joy is what happens when we are able to look at what we have, and had, and know that all of it, the good and the bad, came as a gift. Something rather than nothing.

Joy is what happens whenever we encounter water in the midst of the deserts of our grief.

When we weep with others, or even rejoice with others, does it fix everything? Does it set everything right? 

What good is a cup of water in the desert? It doesn’t get rid of the desert!

And yet, the mystery of God’s activity in the world is that even the tiniest signs of faithfulness and love and mercy and hope are the pointers to the glory that will come when the Lord comes to make all things new. 

The hope of Advent, of all time really, is possible precisely because what we have now is not all there is. We have these lights, and prayers, and songs because the point us to the greater reality that beats upon our lives ever day: God loves us, and this is not the end. 

I don’t know if this was the sermon you expected to hear this morning. I can assure you, this is not the sermon I thought I would be preaching at the beginning of the week. And yet, we worship the God of the unexpected. The God who provides water in the desert. The God who lifts the valleys up and brings the mountains low. The God who takes on flesh to dwell among us. The God who mounts the hard wood of the cross for us. The God who breaks forth from the empty tomb and returns to us. 

The proclamation of the gospel is that God comes to us in the brokenness of our health, in the shipwreck of our family lives, in the loss of all possible peace of mind, even in the thick of our sins. God, oddly, saves us in our disasters, not from them. 

Isaiah says the redeemed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

That is God’s promise to us. And until it comes to fruition, the least and the best we can do, is be water in the desert for others. Amen.