This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the Second Sunday After Christmas [C] (Jeremiah 31.7-14, Psalm 147.12-20, Ephesians 1.3-14, John 1.1-18). Teer is one of the pastors at Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including Christmas presents, strangers in a strange land, experiential faith, scattering and gathering, strange celebration, new words, Frozone and Frozen, the mystery of salvation, Indiana Jones, universalism, and the incarnation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: All The Good Verbs!
When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.
Robert Farrar Capon was a master of making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar. He made his career as a priest, and then as a theologian, and then as a chef, and then as a little bit of all of them combined. His writing on the Gospels is refreshingly funny and yet profoundly serious and I find myself drawn back to his books again and again.
Perhaps my favorite work of Capon’s is his 1990 book The Man Who Met God In A Bar. It’s basically a modern retelling of the biblical Gospel story of Jesus, but instead of it taking place in and around Galilee circa 30-33 AD, it’s told as if Jesus was actually a short-order cook named Jerry in Cleveland circa the 1990s who finds Marvin (Peter) not in the middle of a fishing venture, but instead in an airport bar during a layover. The story is told from Marvin’s perspective as he gets caught up in something much larger than himself ripe with miracles, teachings, and even death and resurrection.
Capon delights in taking these familiar stories and flipping them slightly on their head so that we, the reader, can reproach the Gospel stories with a fresh and delightful appreciation. For instance, partway through the novel, Marvin gathers with Jerry and a whole crowd of people within the confines of a city park and Jerry goes on and on telling stories until he realizes the crowds look a little famished. Jerry remarks that it would be nice if they had some pizza and wine for everyone to enjoy. But, of course, that would cost a fortune. So Jerry calls over a little girl walking by the park with a pizza in her arms and decides to whistle up some miraculous food multiplication and begins to feed everyone in the park from that one pizza, with anchovies (Get it? Loaves and fishes!).
And then Capon brings the story home:
“Up to then Jerry just thought that people might take his miracles as a substitute for the message; after that though, the “might” disappeared in favor of “would.” He was finally convinced that any miracle he did would be practically guaranteed to give people the wrong impression… After the one with the pizza, especially since he did it on a day when he’d talked for three hours about the mess the old order was in – they got really serious about trying to put him in some position where he could do his miracles on a grand scale. The talk about him becoming mayor and president wasn’t just hot air; if he hadn’t gotten away from that crowd, sure as hell somebody would have organized something… All he kept saying, though, was how that wouldn’t solve anything. Even if people got food miraculously, he told them, they would still die eventually. The food they really need to be filled with was something that would make a real break with the old order – something that would actually bring in the New Order if they ate it. In fact, he said, unless they were filled with him, they would just stay dead forever. If they fed on him, though, he would raise them from death for good.”
Sometimes, retelling an old story in a new way allows us to see and receive something we would otherwise miss. In fact, that’s basically what we do every Sunday in church. We pray and we sing and we listen to the words that proclaim the Gospel, we feast on the bread and the cup that are offered to us without cost, and we are reminded that Jesus came not to bring us more of the same, but to make all things new. Thanks be to God.
And, because I often feel like music does a better job at conveying theological claims than mere words alone, here are sometimes to help us think about making the familiar strange, and the strange familiar:
Courtney Barnett is a singer-songwriter from Australia who excels at making music out of the mundane. Her new single “Rae Street” is an almost stream of conscious reflection of the lives of the people who pass by her window in the early morning. The charm really hits when she’s able to jump between making a profound declaration about the need for society to change, and yet, the most she can muster is changing her sheets. The song is anthemic for anyone who struggles to make sense of it all and for anyone who hopes for something more, whatever that might be.
Orla Gartland is a quickly rising indie darling from Dublin. Her new single “You’re Not Special, Babe” is a reflection on growing up in a time of chaos and is a reminder that we all go through the same kinds of things: good times, bad times, strange times. The title, and the chorus of the song, can come off as a little mean-spirited but in interviews she claims it’s meant to be a comforting message! To me, that sounds rather Pauline – “None is righteous, no, not one.” Thanks be to God then that we worship the Lord who comes to make something of our nothing.
“Reach Out” is one of the first releases from Sufjan Steven’s collaboration with Angelo De Augustine. The song is based on the 1987 German film Wings of Desire in which angels listen to the thoughts of people in Berlin. One of the angels is so moved by the experience that it chooses to become mortal in order to feel and live as a human. The song conveys the themes of mortality and wonder from the angelic/human perspective with catchy harmonies, finger picking guitar, and eventually a subtle glockenspiel which make a brain melting thought experiment rather approachable.
For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.
Christians see the world differently than everyone else.
Or, at least, we’re supposed to.
Think of any random subject or occurrence and there’s a better than good chance that Christians, as a group, feel differently about it than those outside the church.
Money? It comes from God first so it actually doesn’t really belong to us.
Parenting? The community of faith makes a covenant to raise the baptized to the same degree that parents do.
Sex? Physical intimacy is one of God’s good gifts, but it’s only really intelligible within the covenant made manifest in marriage.
I could go on.
And because Christians see and live in the world differently than others, it will forever make us strange.
The problem comes when we’re so consumed with appearing like everyone else that it’s no longer possible to differentiate between those inside and those outside the church.
Decades ago, when most of the people now leading the church were baptized into it, it was done so under the shadow of what we call Christendom.
Christendom was (notice the tense) a time in which Christians thought they knew how to identify what it meant to be Christian. Mostly, those differences were defined by the church saying what one could, or couldn’t do. But those differences were no different from what the county or the community thought was best anyway.
It was a time when it was assumed that people just went to church on Sunday mornings, that to be a good person was synonymous with being Christians, and that so long as you said the right prayers, and gave the right amount of money to church, and made sure you did more good things than bad that everything would work out in the end.
That time, Christendom, is long gone and it ain’t coming back.
Karl Barth puts it this way: “Nothing has ever happened to change the fact that Christians — even in the middle of their supposedly and perhaps even very consciously Christian environment — will always be strange and threatened creatures. No matter how much they may know themselves to be in solidarity with the world and behave as such, the way of Christians can never be the way of the world — least of all the way of a presumably Christianized world.”
And Barth is right – to be Christian, is to be different. Christians are those who worship a God who became one of us, a God who rather than beating the world into moralistic submission, suffered and died on a cross, a God who believes in us even when we don’t, or can’t, believe in God.
In Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, right before making the great theological turn in chapter 12, he lets linger a rather confounding word: God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.
It’s as if he’s saying, “Look, to be Christian implies a willingness to see the strangest news of all: God knit us in such a way that we might be disobedient knowing full and well that he would offer us mercy in the end.”
The implications of this one sentence are tremendous. For, it means that Christians, as a group, see one another and the world differently. Rather than seeing the whole of humanity in a binary (outsiders or insiders, good or bad) we actually see the whole of humanity as disobedient. That, given are freedom of will, we often choose to do things we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing things we know we should.
The real kicker comes with the latter half of the sentence: And God is merciful to all! Even in all our sin, even with all our mistakes, even with the selfishness and self-righteousness, God in Christ still marches to the top of Golgotha for us anyway!
That’s strange – it also happens to be the Gospel.
Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.
I’m grateful that Jesus, shortly before ascending to the right hand of the Father, opened the minds of the disciples to understand the scriptures.
I’m still waiting for that miracle to fall into my lap.
Unlike those first disciples, I regularly encounter scriptural passages that leave me feeling more confused than edified on the other side.
I might put up a good front in Sunday School, or in Bible Studies, or even in Worship, but scripture, to me, often feels like a rather bizarre enigma.
There’s a reason Karl Barth referred to scripture as the “strange new world of the Bible,” for it is strange and new.
Which is all to say, I am deeply suspicious of anyone who claims the Bible is “clear” on anything.
And yet, the more time I’ve spent with the Word, the more I preached and prepared to preach, the more grateful I’ve become for the bizarre nature of the Holy Scriptures. Nothing in life is very clear, and to know that the Bible we come to week after week is as confounding as our lives can be is a great and comforting thing. It means that it can speak something new and good and true into the midst of our messed up and broken lives.
I’ve been spending a lot of time reading while we’ve been sequestered away from one another, and I came across this quote from Robert Farrar Capon earlier in the week that hits home the topsy-turvy nature of the Word:
“One of the peculiarities of biblical miracles is the way in which they stand the cause-and-effect sequence on its head. We normally expect that, when someone heals us, the order of events will be first the treatment, then the restoration of wholeness and finally, when we are quite sure we’re out of trouble, the celebration of the happy issue out of our afflictions. But the scriptural order is very often the reverse: the first step is a command to celebrate – to act as if we already had something we obviously don’t; the second step is the discovery that suddenly we’ve got it; and the third step – the actual treatment that achieves the remedy – never actually appears in the process at all.” (Robert Farrar Capon, Party Spirit)
For many of us, preachers included, we tend to bring our own expectations to the scriptures assuming we have an idea about “what it all means.” When, more often than not, the Bible doesn’t give a flip about what we think we know.
Suffering? Try rejoicing and see what happens.
Unsure of the future? Throw a party; God is with you.
Anxiety bringing you down? Celebrate that God has already done for you that which you could never do for yourself.
That’s pretty weird stuff. But so is life. And so is God.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and the family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 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, praying God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
It doesn’t get a whole lot better than this. No matter how old or jaded we may be, regardless of whether we deserve coal in our stockings or not, Christmas Eve never fails to work its magic.
Maybe its the music, or the candlelight, or the knowledge of what awaits us when we awake – there’s just something different about Christmas that makes all the difference.
And here we are! Some of you were raised in this church and wouldn’t dream of being anywhere else. Others made plans weeks ago and are here for the first time. Some of you are here with questions, and others are just waiting to get home to finish everything on your to-do lists. Some of you made a last minute decision to come and are still wondering if you made the right choice. Others were dragged here against your will.
There are those among us for whom there are more Christmases ahead than behind, and of course there are those for whom there are only a few Christmases left.
Whoever you are, and whatever feelings, and thoughts, and questions you’ve brought tonight, it is my hope and prayer that you encounter the light of the world who shines in the darkness, Jesus Christ our Lord.
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 people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”
If we hear the story of Jesus’ remarkable arrival in the world we often do so without noticing the explosion and unexpected nature of the whole thing. And scripture is partly to blame. The whole birth in the manger comes in less than a verse and the story just keeps going.
The details, of course, are important – Luke roots us in a time and a place, Luke sets up the main and important characters, but when it comes to the moment for which all of us are here tonight, it comes down to this: “While they were in Bethlehem, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
It’s quite a strange story when we take a step back from it all, if we can. For, this story, the travelings of a young soon to be married couple at the requirement of empire, a baby born in some of the worst conditions imaginable, dirty shepherds receiving the best news the world has ever known, is weird.
Whether Luke intended it this way, the story compels us to enter a strange new world. Every time we take up the Bible we encounter a world that is at first our own, and then is it strange and new beyond our conceptions, only then, sometimes without our knowledge, becomes the world we truly in habit.
We open it and find ourselves among the likes of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We stand on the banks of the sea with Moses as the waters are driven apart. We are invited into the poetic pondering of David and the wisdom of Solomon. And then here, on Christmas Eve, we enter this strange new world to hear about good news of great joy for all people born as Jesus Christ.
But this strange new world is, in fact, our world. And Jesus has come to save it.
A statement like that requires knowledge about what, exactly, Jesus saves us from. We were just singing about it a moment ago: No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground, he comes to make his blessings flow, far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found, far as, far as, the curse is found.
And what is the curse? Well, it is a lot of things. We can call it sin, or death, or self-righteousness. But perhaps this year, the curse Jesus has come to destroy is the idea that it’s all up to us.
Because the truth is actually the opposite: God helps those who can’t help themselves. That’s part of the Good News of Christmas – God in Christ comes to do for us that which we couldn’t do for ourselves!
I heard a story last week about a woman and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. Back in the 90’s she was a strung out drug addict going through heavy withdrawals while her newborn baby was asleep in the next room. She was at the rock bottom of her life, fearing every day that she wouldn’t be able to get the kick she needed, fearing every day that her child would be taken away, and fearing every day that maybe her child needed to be taken away, from her.
It was 2am and she was lying in the fetal position on the floor trying to will herself into a reckoning. In her hand she kept folding and unfolding a piece of paper with a phone number on it. It was the number for a Christian counselor that her mother had sent in the mail 4 years before, back when they were still talking.
The woman did not know what to do, nor where to turn, and she was so desperate that she picked up the phone and dialed the number.
A man answered the phone, and the woman said, “I got this number from my mother, do you think maybe you could talk to me?” She heard him shuffling around in his room and he said, “Yes, what’s going on?”
She hadn’t told anyone what was going on, not even herself and she said, “I’m not feeling so good and I’m scared…” And without realizing it she just kept going and told the man that she had a drug problem, and that she was worried about her son, and she didn’t know what else to do.
And the man listened. He didn’t judge, he didn’t offer advice, he just stayed with her on the phone.
The call began around 2am and the man stayed with her on the phone until the sun came up. At some point the woman said, “Thank you for staying with me and I really appreciate your listening, but aren’t you supposed to tell me some Bible verse I should read?”
He laughed and brushed it aside and she said again, “No I need you to know how grateful I am. How long have you been a Christian counselor?”
And he said, “I’ve been trying to avoid this, I need you not to hang up. That number you called, the one your mom gave you… wrong number.”
She didn’t hang up, but thanked him and they continued to talk until the conversation came to a close. In the hours that followed the woman experienced what she calls a peace she didn’t know existed, that there is love out in the world, and that some of it was unconditional, and that some of it was for her.
After that everything changed. Not right away, but slowly, her life transformed.
She ended her story by saying, “I now know, that in the deepest and darkest moment of despair, it only takes a pinhole of light, and all of grace can come in.”
God’s grace is unconditional – we of course despise God’s grace because of this. We can even resist God’s grace because we want to believe that we have contributed something to it. We want to believe that grace is something earned or deserved. But that woman learned the truth that night on the phone, grace comes regardless of our earnings, yearnings, or deservings. And all it takes is the tiniest little spark that can transform a life forever.
Our world is constantly telling us to do more, to be better, and to get it all together. And even in the church, we fall prey to this temptation all the time by telling people about all the stuff we need to do. But all of that is self-defeating because the more we’re told about what we’re supposed to do the more guilty we feel for all we’re not doing.
On Christmas Eve its different. Its different because the strange new world of God’s desire has become our world. The whole story is about how we can’t do all that we need to do and that’s okay.
We were dead in our sins, but God who is rich in mercy, has sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to deliver us from the dominion of darkness. For some of us that darkness is the darkness of writhing on the floor without a hope in the world. For others the darkness is the loss of someone we loved. For others the darkness is fear over not knowing what the future holds.
For each of us there is a darkness that Christ has come to destroy.
Hear the Good News: In the end, it’s not up to us. We are never really prepared to do that which we probably should. But Jesus shows up anyway. He shows up in a chance phone call, and in the bread and cup, he even shows up in Christmas presents.
Each of us, whether we like to admit it or not, we come into Christmas damaged and bent and broken and sinful. We have contempt for ourselves and for one another. And God shows up as a baby with a triumphant declaration that things are changing.
The birth of Christ marks the beginning of a strange new world, one in which we are not defined by our sins or our short-comings, but instead by the grace of God that knows no bounds.
So hear the Good News once again, news addressed right to us: “To you is born this day a Savior!” To you! Regardless of who you are, whether or not you understand it, whether or not you are good or bad. The news is meant for you. For you the Christmas story has happened.
To you is born this day a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. Grace upon grace upon grace! Amen.
All worshippers of images are put to shame, those who make their boast in worthless idols; all gods down down before the Lord.
Every once in a while Christians get hooked on what we might call “going back to the Bible” This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; who wouldn’t want the people of their church to start reaching out to the last, least, lost, and little?
And yet, not all biblical ideas are equal.
For instance, there is a a fad currently going around to begin having a biblical diet. Those who adhere to it follow Genesis 1.29 in which humans are told they are allowed to eat herbs and their seeds as well as fruits, nuts, grains, and legumes.
Others try to incorporate biblical ideas into their life by not wearing clothing with more than one fabric, or by making sure that women do not wear make-up, or any other number of biblical rules/laws.
Perhaps one of the strangest biblical ideas as of recent that has come back into vogue is Noah’s Ark.
On July 7th, 2016 Ark Encounter was opened to the public. It is a biblically themed adventure park in Northern Kentucky and is centered around a large representation of Noah’s Ark based on the proportions as outlined in the book of Genesis. For just under $50 you can enter the ark and see it from the inside (for another $25 you can enter the museum that describes and displays “biblical history”).
The Ark was in the news recently for reasons that can only be described as ironic.
After experiencing slightly above average rain fall, a barrier next to the park’s access road failed in response to a small mudslide, and now the park is suing its insurance company for the repairs.
Apparently, the replica of Noah’s Ark can’t handle a little rain.
The psalmist warns that those who worship and boast in idols shall be put to shame. We finite and fallible creatures can’t seem to shake our desire to create things in our own image, and most of the time for a profit. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with wanting to explore “the most authentic full-size replica of Noah’s Ark in the world.” However, we can certainly call into question whether the creation of such a theme park was done to turn a profit, or to educate those who call themselves Christians about God’s willingness to never again destroy the world as was done so long ago.
Going back to the Bible is a good thing. For whenever we open our Bibles we are invited into a strange new world in which we discover more about who we are and whose we are. We can stand with Noah looking out over the flood waters waiting for the dove to return. We can imagine the warmth of the flame from the burning bush with Moses hearing his call from God. We can picture the cross standing empty to the sky knowing that the tomb is empty.
It’s all right there in the Bible – we don’t have to go to a theme park to find it.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
I’ve been in ministry for roughly 5 years and I’ve finally figured it out. After all the sermons and all the meetings, after all the prayers and preparation, I know how to fix all the church’s problems.
It’s time to do a new thing.
Now, before we get to the solution, we need to talk a little bit about the problem that needs fixing. Churches everywhere, not just here at Cokesbury, are suffering under what I will call the paralysis of analysis. We spend far too much time looking at what we’ve done, evaluating past strengths and weaknesses, such that we don’t spend enough time looking forward. We don’t even ask if God is doing a new thing. Instead we assume that God did all the things God was going to do, and if it worked in the good ol’ days then it should certainly work now.
Here’s an example: Communion
Two weeks ago, on the first Sunday of the month, we had communion like we usually do. I stood here at the front of the sanctuary, and I prayed for God’s anointing on the bread and the cup. We all prayed together, we stood together, and we began feasting together.
One by one you came forward with outstretched hands recognizing the incredible gift that you were receiving. I took the bread, placed it in your hands, you dipped it in the cup, partook of the meal, and returned to your pews.
It was a holy thing.
However, there was a young family with us in worship two weeks ago, a family who has never ever been to church. They sat patiently during the service, though I’m sure that a lot of what we did must’ve sounded and felt strange. But nevertheless, when the time for communion arrived, they stood up like everyone else, walked to the front, and prepared to celebrate the joy of the Lord’s Supper.
I reverently handed a piece of bread to the mother, who bowed penitently before dipping the bread in the cup. I then knelt down close to the floor to hand a piece of bread to her son, but the longer I held it in front of him the longer he stared at it. I motioned for him to take it, which he eventually did, but before dipping it in the cup he frantically looked between his mother’s eyes and the brim of the chalice back and forth, back and forth.
When finally I said, with every bit of pastoral bravado, “My son, this is Jesus’ gift for you.” To which he said, “Yeah, but you said this is his blood, and I don’t know how I feel about drinking it.”
And he promptly swallowed the un-dipped piece of bread, and jogged back to his pew.
We have been doing what we do for so long that many of us neglect to think, at all, about what we are doing.
We, in many ways, are exactly like the Israelites during the time of the prophet Jeremiah. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt – a covenant they broke.
God had to do a new thing, not because there was anything inherently wrong with the first covenants, but there was something wrong with the participants within the covenant. Their faithfulness, their days of living as the people of God, had become so repetitive, that the Law God offered them was nothing more than a clanging cymbal, instead of the lifeforce it was meant to be.
Many of them followed the Law, they ate the right food at the right times in the right places, they abstained from foreign worship, and they wore clothes without mixing fibers, but it was done simply because that’s what they were supposed to do.
They were going through the motions.
They, to use God’s analogy, were like a spouse who no longer remembered what drew him or her to the marriage in the first place. They were waking up every morning to make breakfast, rushing to get the kids out the door, and maybe even stopping to give their beloved a kiss on the cheek, but without love, without intention, without grace.
For the people of God during the time of Jeremiah, it was all about the external and rarely about the internal. It was assumed that if you did all the right things, life would work out accordingly. Day to day experience was rationalized through objective realities – children exist to help the family, the community exists to maintain order, the worship of God exists to move life along.
There was no “why?”
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
God looked out on the people, a people for whom the law was written on stones and parchment, a people who did what they were told without it providing life, and decided the time had come for a new thing.
The days of laws written on stone came to an end. There would be no need to write them down for all to see and few to follow.
Instead of attempting to adhere to a code of do’s and don’ts, instead of the Law being the thing they worshiped, instead of the marriage dissolving into routine rather than romance, God writes the law on their hearts, on our hearts.
No longer would the people need to shout at one another until they were blue in the face, “Know the Lord!” No longer would the marriage partner scream at the spouse, “Do your duty!” No longer would the people walk around as if God wasn’t there with them all the while.
This was the beginning of a new day, one in which all people would no longer know about God, with the right words and right theology. Instead they would know God, with all the intimacy needed, in which the “why” would become more important than the “what,” in which a new covenant was established.
So now to the solution… The time has come to embrace the weird.
If you take a step back from all of this, from the pageantry and the pedagogy, from the liturgy and the lighting, being the church is a pretty weird thing. We take time out of our schedules every week to sit in a strangely decorated room, to listen to somebody wearing a dress talk about texts that are far older than even the country we’re in, and then we do the even weirder practice of pouring water on people’s heads and eating a poor Jewish man’s body and drinking his blood.
We are pretty weird.
But, because Christianity has become so enveloped by the world, we often see and experience what we do as being normative. We make assumptions about ourselves and others based on the fact that this is “what we do.”
But if we only focus on “what we do” instead of “why we do it” then we neglect to encounter the weirdness of who we are.
The time has come to make the church weird again. To embrace all that separates us from the expectations of the world. In no other place, in no other gathering, do we willfully consider how far we have fallen from what we could be. In no other arena of our lives do we say, and believe, that there is something inherently powerful about gathering even just to sit in silence for a few moments. In no other community can we find the power and the bravery to tear down injustice and overthrow corruption and evil.
The time has come for us to re-evaluate our “whats” and begin to shore up our “whys.” Instead of going through the motions of our faith, instead of taking the church for granted, we have to ask ourselves “Why are we doing all of this?” “What does this have to do with the kingdom of God?” “How does the church make tangible the new covenant of God?”
If we can’t answer those questions, then we need to dive deep into the “why.”
Better yet, we should, at the very least, start with our “why.”
Why are we here? Are we here because we don’t have certainty about anything else and we’re looking for answers? Are we here because we’ve always gone to church and we don’t know how to live any other way? Are we here hoping to get something out of church?
Or, are we here because we know God is getting something out of us? Are we here not for ourselves, or our families, but for the Almighty Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? Are we here because God found us when we were lost and showed us a better way?
The people during the time of Jeremiah were lost. They were lost in themselves, lost in their exile, even lost in the Law. They were a people of “what.”
God saw their suffering, God saw their heartless practices, God saw their injustices, and ultimately saw it fit to do a new thing. The new covenant was inscribed on the hearts of God’s people, such that they would remember the “why.”
Perhaps God’s Spirit is moving again in such a way that the new covenant will break our hearts of stone and we might know that God is ours, and we are God’s. Maybe the time has come for us to question every little thing we do as a church so that we break free from our bondage to doing what we’ve always done such that we can ask why we do what we do and start over with God’s new covenant.
Perhaps the time has come to make the church weird again. Amen.
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.”
And that’s how it all began. The Lord said to Abram, “Go.” In the entirety of the Old Testament, there are few passages as important and theologically profound as God’s calling of Abram to go to a strange new place. We can talk about Jacob wrestling with the emissary from God by the banks of the Jabbok river, we can talk about Joseph saving the Egyptian people from certain starvation, we can even talk about Moses’ trials and tribulations with the Hebrew people in the wilderness, but this moment with Abram, this call, sets in motion the great narrative of God with God’s people.
The sheer magnitude of such a call cannot be overlooked. During the time of Abram’s life, almost everything was dependent on staying in one’s country and with one’s family. Most people spent their entire lives, from birth to death, within a handful of miles and rarely explored anything outside the normal and comfortable dwelling of “home.” And yet God had the audacity, the boldness, and the faithfulness to call Abram to do the unthinkable: go to a strange new place and leave it all behind.
This, in a sense, is akin to the call of all Christians. We might not be asked to leave our home country, we might not be asked to leave our families, but we are certainly compelled to enter into strange relationships and moments around us. It is easy to stay within a certain bubble throughout our lives and never stretch too far into the unknown. We can develop rhythms and habits that actively prevent us from encountering anything out of the ordinary. But God is extraordinary.
Lent is a time for us to reflect and repent. We reflect on the many ways God’s has so graced us, and we repent for the many ways we have failed to positively respond to that grace. Lent is a time for us to all recognize the Abram within us, and wonder where God is calling us to go. What place are we avoiding because it makes us uncomfortable? What relationship have we let fall apart because it just felt like too much work? What frustrating behavior in a friend or a spouse or a child have we let percolate for far too long?
In some way, shape, or form God is calling each and every one of us to “go.” God calls us to “go” because our God is a God on the move. God cannot be relegated to a sanctuary on Sunday mornings at 11am, God is not absent until we pray for God’s presence, God is not sitting on a throne up in heaven watching us through a telescope. God moves, and so should we.
Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain.
I like having a plan. Whether Lindsey and I are preparing to travel with Elijah, or the church is hosting an event, or even just putting together the order of worship for Sunday mornings, I like having a plan. This need for structure and planning probably began during my time in scouting (“Be Prepared”) and it has continued to manifest itself throughout my life over and over again.
When I felt God calling me to a life of ministry as a teenager, I started planning with my home church pastors about where to go to school and how to follow the guidelines of the United Methodist Church to be ordained one day.
When I experienced God calling me to spend the rest of my life with Lindsey, I started planning the perfect way to propose to her while we were dating.
When I received the call to serve St. John’s UMC, I started planning all the ways I could help move and nurture the church even before I set foot on the property.
I like knowing where the road of life is leading me. Yet, for most of the people in scripture, the way forward is more like walking into a dense cloud covering the mountain.
Abraham was told to go to a strange new land and he did not have the advantage of Googling it before he arrived. Noah was told to build an ark and fill it will animals without really knowing what life would be like on the other side of the flood. Moses’ mother placed him in a basket and let him float down the Nile River without knowing what would happen to her precious baby boy. And Moses went up on the mountain to encounter the Lord while a cloud covered everything he could see.
When I read these stories in scripture, they make me anxious. I think they make me anxious because in the characters I encounter a faithfulness that I rarely experience in my own life. Again and again, God’s chosen people are ready and willing to walk into the cloud of the unknown, while I insist on patiently preparing for any and every contingency.
Part of the strange and beautiful mystery of following Jesus Christ is that we do not know where He is leading us. We might have an idea based on stories from scripture and the experiences of the disciples, but the road that leads to life eternal is one that is often covered with a thick and dense cloud.
Or to put it another way, a biblical way: Do not worry about what tomorrow will bring. Rejoice in cloud of the unknown and the comfort of the living God who surrounds you with hope and grace and peace. Celebrate the mystery of not know what is about to come, but that God is with you in the midst of it. Enjoy the strange and beautiful thing we call life; a life that is strange and beautiful precisely because it is not under our control.
When I was in seminary, Dr. Stephen B. Chapman told a remarkable story about a survey that had been done in past. All of the faculty and doctoral candidates at Duke Divinity School were once asked to name the top 3 books or articles that had shaped their call to ministry or academia. Though many were quick to respond with something like “The Bible” or “1 Corinthians” the survey challenged people to think more specifically about works outside of the bible that had shaped their lives.
Some of the greatest works from Christian History were all named such as Calvin’s Institutes, Aquinas’ Summa Theologica, Wesley’s Sermons, and Augustine’s Confessions. Others were quick to name works from more contemporary writers like Schweitzer, Bonhoeffer, Merton, Yoder, Hauerwas, and Nouwen. The survey demonstrated that there were an abundance of texts from a variety of traditions that had shaped the minds of those called to serve the church. However, even with all the variations of answers and all the different denominations that were represented, there was one article that was mentioned more than any other: Karl Barth’s “The Strange New World Within The Bible.”
Barth’s article can be found in chapter 2 of his seminal work The Word of God and The Word of Man originally written in 1928. When I read the article for the first time I underlined so many sentences that it was difficult to read it a second time. The margins are now covered with thoughts, exclamation points, and asterisks. It is nothing short of transformative.
In it, Barth attempts to answers the following questions: What is there within the Bible? What sort of house is it to which the Bible is the door? And What sort of country is spread before our eyes when we throw the Bible open?
Like most of Barth’s writing, it cannot be explained but only proclaimed. The best way to experience it is by reading the thing itself. Therefore, I have attached a PDF of the chapter to end of this post for anyone to read.
But after rereading the article again this week, and looking through all my old notes and markings, I decided to write my own version of the chapter relying on Barth’s original to guide my thoughts…
The Strange New World Within The Bible
We are to attempt to find an answer to the questions, What is there within the Bible? What sort of house is it to which the Bible is the door? What sort of country is spread before our eyes when we throw the Bible open?
We are with Adam and Eve in the Garden. We hear the Lord warn them about the tree of knowledge of Good and Evil. We hear the slithering serpent calling them (and us) to rebel against the One who loves us. And Adam and Eve reach for that forbidden fruit inevitably driving them away from the Lord and into the unknown. We can feel that there is something of ourselves in these two standing at the edge of Eden looking back to what they once were and unsure of what would come in the days ahead.
We are with Noah kissing the ground after the Flood. We see the rainbow cast across the sky and we feel the colors reflecting off the pools of water around Noah’s feet. We hear the promise from the Lord to never abandon creation again. We believe that Noah is the new beginning, another chance for humanity to get things right. But then we see him tilling the ground, preparing the vines, and eventually getting drunk from the wine. In him we see the failures of the past reaching forward into the present and we know that there is something behind all of this.
We are with Abraham in a strange land. We hear a call from the Lord, which commands him to go to a land that has been prepared. We hear a promise to Abraham: “I will make of you a great nation and your descendants will be more numerous than the stars.” And we see that Abraham believed the promise! We feel the Spirit moving through the space as the story moves ever forward.
We are with Moses on a rocky hillside. We feel the warmth of a bush burning but not being consumed. We hear the voice of the Lord speak to the wandering shepherd: “Tell them I AM sent you.” We experience the calling that will forever define an entire nation of people, a delivery from slavery to Egypt, and freedom in the Promised Land. We hear these strange words and promises and we know that they are unlike anything else we have ever read. We know that it is a story, but it is a story about us.
We are with Joshua at the edge of the new land. We remember the painful journey and the years of struggle that led to this moment. We experience fear and excitement with the other sojourners, as they are about to cross the threshold into God’s promise. We hear about Rahab and what she was willing to do for God’s people and it gives the people confidence to actually be God’s people.
We are with Samuel asleep on the floor. Again we hear a call three times “Samuel, Samuel!” We see the young man run to the priest Eli to share his experience and we begin to connect this call with others. We know that Samuel has heard the Lord and that he must obey. We know the journey will not be easy, but it will be good.
We read all of this, but what do we experience? We are aware of some greater power beneath the word, a faint tremor of something we cannot know or fully comprehend. What is it about this story that makes our hearts beat with such tempo? What is opening up to us through the words on the page?
We are with David when he puts the rock into the sling and takes down the mighty Goliath.
We are with Solomon when he prays for the Lord to give him the gift of wisdom.
We are there when Isaiah feel the coal being placed on his lips.
We are with Elijah when he hears the Lord not through the wind, not the storm, nor the fire, but through the still small voice.
Then come the incomprehensible days when everything changed; that strange and bewildering moment in a manger in Bethlehem when the Word became flesh. When a man and a woman fled to save their child’s life. When that baby grew to be a man who was like no other man. His words we cause for pause and alarm and delight and fear. With unending power and resonating grace he calls out: Follow me. And they do.
Through him the blind begin to see. The lame begin to walk. The hungry are fed. The powerful are brought low. The poor are made rich. The deaf hear. The blind see.
And then we are there when the sky turns black. We hear his final words and we feel a faint echo from those first words so long ago. But that echo continues for three days until it reaches a triumphant crescendo in an empty tomb, in resurrection.
We are there with the disciples in the upper room. We watch the Holy Spirit fill their mouths with the words to proclaim. We go with them across the sea and over the dry land. We watch them use water and word to bring new disciples into the faith. We smell the bread being broken and we can taste the wine being shared at the table. We can feel the parchment of letters sent to church far away in our fingers.
And then it ends and The Bible is finished.
What is it about scripture that makes it different from everything else we read? What is so important about the connections from Adam to Jesus? What are we to make of the prophets and the apostles? What do we do with statements like “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” and “Forgive them Father, for they do not know what they are doing”?
These are difficult and dangerous questions. It might be better for us to stay clear of the burning bush and the coal for our lips and the call to the cross. Perhaps we would do well to not ask because in our asking is the implication that The Bible has an answer to every question. Yet it does provide something just as the Lord provided for Abraham.
It is not merely a history or a genealogy.
It is neither a myth nor a fable.
What is there within The Bible? The answer is a strange, new world, the world of God.
We want The Bible to be for us. We want to mine it for all its precious metals. We want it to answer our questions. We want to become masters of the text.
But The Bible is itself and it drives us out beyond ourselves to invite us into to something totally other. We are invited regardless of our worth and our value, regardless of our sin and failures, to discover that which we can only barely comprehend: a strange new world.
Reading The Bible pushes us further through the story that has no end. In it we find the people and places and things that boggle our thoughts. We read decrees that shatter our understanding of the real. We experience moments of profound joy and profound sorrow. We find ourselves in the story when we did not know we had a story.
And it causes us to ask even more questions: Why did they travel to this place? Why did they pray this way? Why did they speak such words and live such lives? And The Bible, for all its glory, rejects answers to our Why.
The Bible is not meant to be mastered; instead we are called to become shaped by the Word. And this is so happen in a way we cannot understand. For the heroes of the book are seldom examples to us on how to live our daily lives. What do David and Amos and Peter have to teach us except to show us what it means to follow God?
The Bible is not about the doings of humanity, but the doings of God. Through the Bible we are offered the incredible and hopeful grain of a seed (as small as a mustard seed), a new beginning, out of which all things can be made new. This is the new world within the Bible. We cannot learn or imitate this type of new life, we can only let it live, grow, and ripen within us.
The Bible does not provide us with simple tools on how to live like a disciples, or what to do in a particular situation. It does not tell us how to speak to God, but how God speaks to us. Not what we need to do to find the Almighty, but how he has found they way to us through Jesus Christ. Not the way we are supposed to be in relationship with the divine, but the covenant that God has made with God’s creation.
The strange new world within the bible challenges us to move beyond the questions that so dominate our thoughts. Questions like “What is within the Bible?” and “Who is God?” Because when we enter the strange new world within the Bible, when we discover ourselves in the kingdom of God, we no longer have questions to ask. There we see, we hear, and we know. And the answer is given: God is God!