This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Drew Colby about the readings for the 4th Sunday of Advent [C] (Micah 5.2-5a, Psalm 80.1-7, Hebrews 10.5-10, Luke 1.39-55). Drew is the lead pastor of Grace UMC in Manassas, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including The Trumpet Child, grace and love, time signatures, John Coltrane, Jingle All The Way, the importance of place, outside words, HOAs and Christmas decorations, sanctified sacrifices, the mother of God, virgin righteousness, and the radical nature of the incarnation. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: A Love Supreme
John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
John the Baptist is one wild guy. He shows up in the gospel story with some questionable attire (camel fur) and dietary habits (locusts), he proclaims a new baptism alongside the repentance of sins, and his first recorded words in the Bible are, “You brood of vipers!”
Advent is the season during which the church makes a serious and concerted effort to faithfully proclaim the oddity of the biblical witness. In churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary, John the Baptist (or as I like to call him: J the B) gets two Sundays to shine and he is not an easy figure to handle.
While we might want to rest our eyes on the glistening lights of the Christmas tree, or lift our voices with a cheerful carol, J the B shows up with a finger in our faces about who we are and who we pretend to be.
Advent, like J the B, is peculiar. It’s out of phase with our surrounding culture and witness. Advent beckons us to look straight into the darkness, into our sin, whereas the rest of the world spends this time of year pretending as if everything is exactly as it should be.
And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. For those of us still suffering under the weight of the pandemic and all of its uncertainty, for those of us worried about what tomorrow will bring, for those of us who will see an empty chair for the first time during our Christmas dinner this year, the joy of the season might be exactly what we need. Perhaps we should delight in driving around to look at the Christmas lights, and cranking up the radio to 11 every time “Rocking Around The Christmas Tree” comes on, and purchasing all sorts of presents for all sorts of people.
And yet, to skip over Advent is to deny the strange and wondrous delight of Christmas.
That is: without coming to grips with the darkness we are in and the darkness we make, we have no need for the light that shines in the darkness.
J the B stands on the precipice of the times. He has one foot squarely placed in the ways things have always been, and one foot in the incarnate reality of time made possible in and through Jesus Christ. And it’s from that bewildering vantage point that J the B declares the Lord is going to prepare his own way – every hill shall be made low and every valley will be lifted up.
Therefore, Advent is the time in which we prepare ourselves for God’s great leveling work – the already and not yet of the coming of the Lord. It means opening ourselves to the ways God works in the world, it means laying aside the works of darkness that we might put on the armor of light, it means rejoicing in the great Good News that God’s power is changing you and me in ways seen and unseen.
J the B shines in the gospel story not because he is the light but because he points to the light. He draws our attention toward the darkness so that we can begin to see the beauty of the light who is Lamb of God who comes to take away the sins of the world, including ours. He reminds us that this season has a reason and that reason’s name is Jesus.
O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.
A friend of mine sent me a post this week in which a pastor in Oregon put together a list of ten reasons to join a church – It is concise, full of salty language, and really gets to the heart of what it means to be the church in the world today. I haven’t been able to get his list out of my head precisely because so much of what we do as a church is done simply because it’s what we do. That is, we do the work of church without often thinking about why we do that work.
Which is all just another way of saying: “Why would we ever bother to invite someone to church if we, ourselves, don’t really know why we go in the first place?”
So, while caught up in this theological and ecclesiological framework, I decided to put together my own list of ten reasons to consider joining a church. (Feel free to use the list as you see fit)
- The church is a place of profound vulnerability in which rejoicing with those who rejoice and weeping with those who weep isn’t a slogan – it is a practice.
- The church is the proclamation that the powers and principalities of this world do not have the final word about who we are and whose we are.
- The church is a new time through which our lives are structured around the movements of the Spirit rather than the exhausting rat race of life.
- The church is an opportunity to have our finances and our gifts shifted to support people whom we might otherwise ignore even though they are our neighbors (literally and figuratively).
- The church is gathering in which all of our unique identities/gifts/graces can be used for the betterment of creation rather than its destruction.
- The church is the last vestige of a place where we willfully gather together with people who don’t think like us, look like us, vote like us, earn like us, etc. and is therefore a remarkable opportunity for real community.
- The church is a gift of a new past in which our mistakes are healed through what we call forgiveness.
- The church is a gift of a new future in which the fear of death is destroyed through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
- The church is a gift of a new present, a way of life, made possible by Easter in which our practices/habits/liturgies shape us into an alternative society.
- The church is a never-ending source of Good News for a world that is drowning in bad news.
O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence — as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil — to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him. You meet those who gladly do right, those who remember you in your ways. But you were angry, and we sinned. Because you hid yourself we transgressed. We have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity. Yet, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand. Do not be exceedingly angry, O Lord, and do not remember iniquity forever. Now consider, we are all your people.
In most churches there are two types of people:
There are those who, seeing the purple paraments and the tree and the wreath and hearing the scriptures about sin, judgment, and wrath think to themselves, “Thank God! It’s finally Advent again!”
And there are those who, seeing and hearing the same things think to themselves, “What is happening? Where’s the Christmas spirit? I thought this was supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year…”
Advent, for better or worse, is a habit. And it takes a whole lot of courage and consideration to get used to this season.
Because outside of the Christian community, Advent is just an excuse to speed up toward Christmas – the decorations have been on sale since before Halloween, Black Friday begins before Friday, and just about every online retailer is constantly bombarding all of us with reminder to purchase our presents now before its too late!
Advent, in the church at least, teaches us to delay Christmas in order to rejoice in it fully when it finally arrives.
Advent habituates us into seeing how the message of Christmas vanishes if we are not willing to walk toward the shame and pain that is all around us.
Advent reminds us that we need the light of the world because we’re stuck in the darkness.
Which is why Advent always begins in the dark…
Isaiah, appropriately, depicts the stark nature of this liturgical season with a perceived absence of God.
God, can’t you just come down here and start shaking things up! We could do for some trembling mountains and boiling rivers! We remember the mighty deeds with which you delivered us from the snares of death. And yet, for years and years no one has heard or seen or experienced anything divine except for you, and work in and through those who know what it means to wait. But you were angry with us and our miserable estate. You looked down upon our sinfulness, our wanton disregard for the last, least, lost, little, and dead. We’re unclean. All of our supposedly good deeds are like a filthy rag. Yet, O Lord, you are the Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter. We are the work of your hand. So don’t be exceedingly angry with us Lord, and do not remember our sins forever. We belong to you.
The language in our appointed scripture passage is not for the faint of heart, and it is certainly not what most of us are used to this time of year. We’d prefer to hear about hope, and love, and joy or maybe reflect on the theological value of The Grinch, It’s A Wonderful Life, and Home Alone.
And, to be fair, even though it’s not what we would necessarily prefer, the words of Isaiah are already echoed in our living in the world…
Tables were set this week for Thanksgiving with empty seats either because people could not travel in light of the Coronavirus, or because they are part of the quarter of million people who have died in this country because of the pandemic. Our holidays have the potential to both bring out our gratitude and our anger. We can be thankful for what we have while, at the same time, be filled with rage because of how the world continues to spin while we suffer.
In spite of travel restrictions and warnings about gatherings with too many people, airports across the country swelled as they always do during this time of year which has led many epidemiologists to intone – “It’s fine to have a big family gathering right now so long as your prepared to bury someone by Christmas…”
And it’s not just the pandemic that brings all these things into focus. More people suffer from depression at this time of year, more people end their own lives at this time of year, more couples get divorced at this time of year, more car accidents happen at this time of year, I could go on and on and on.
So here, in the midst of a world drowning in bad news, it’s not hard to imagine raising our clenched fist to the sky and shouting, “God! Where the hell are you?”
That is an Advent question.
It is perhaps the Advent question.
This isn’t the easiest stuff to contemplate and mull over at this time of year. I rejoice in setting up the lights on my house, and tuning the radio to the old familiar Christmas hits, and quoting along with all my favorite holiday movies. And yet, to so engage in this festive atmosphere can be a denial of the reality of this life.
Advent, fortunately or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, requires us to look straight into the heart of darkness. Particularly when we are afraid that we might see ourselves in the darkness.
Isaiah reminds us today that even the best of us are distorted and unclean – all that we do can be compared to a filthy old rag. We, all of us, chose to do things we know we shouldn’t and we avoid doing things we know we should. Whether it’s leaving a nasty comment on social media, or dropping a scathing critique of a family member, to avoiding the apology and reconciliation we know, deep in our bones, that we need to do.
To confess the condition of our condition requires a constitution made possible only by the community called church in which we are reminded who we are over and over again.
We are, of course, beloved children of God, crafted in the image of the divine, fearfully and wonderfully made. And, at the same time, we, all of us, are sinners desperately in need of grace.
That is why we begin the church year with Advent, a season that begins in darkness. We, unlike the crowded ways of life, know the truth of ourselves, that there is nothing good in us, that we all fade away like leaves.
Therefore, the authentically hopeful Advent spirit is not looking away from the darkness, it is not filling our lives with fluff in order to deny the truth.
It is, instead, praying for Holy Spirit to give us the courage and the conviction to look straight into the muck and mire of this life.
For, in the end, that’s exactly where God chose, and still chooses, to show up for us.
Jesus Christ, for whom our hearts long for and are prepared for, is the One who identifies not with the people who’ve got it all figured out, and have the perfect decorations on the house, and have all the presents already wrapped under the tree.
Jesus comes for the last, least, lost, little, and dead. Who, if we’re honest, also includes all the people who seem like they have it all together on the surface. But under our masks, we are all the same – sinners in need of grace.
Jesus, thanks be to God, comes to take on our shame and pain by being born into this world, he shows up in the midst of our darkness, and gives himself up to die the brutal and dehumanizing death of a slave.
There’s a reason Jesus spent his earthly ministry among the marginalized, because they were those who had been crying out for rectification.
There’s a reason we nailed Jesus to the tree after all his healing and teaching – no one wants to be told they’re a sinner.
So we killed God, or at least we thought we did. Despite our best efforts, the grave could not contain the Lord, and he rose on the third day in order to save us from ourselves. He taught the disciples about the way, the truth, and the life, and then ascended to the right hand of the Father.
But that is not the end of the story. In fact, it is the beginning of the end. For as much as we are Easter people, we are also Advent people. The church lives in Advent and we are stuck in it. We are a people between, and out of, time. We worship the once and future King Jesus Christ. We live in the light of his resurrection while anticipating his return to transfigure the cosmos into a new heaven and a new earth.
We, to put it bluntly, are a people who know what it means to wait.
We are ripe with bad news in the world right now. Between the never-ending political in-fighting and civil unrest and an extremely communicable virus, there’s plenty of horrible things happening. And it always seems to coincide with this season we call Advent. But we also have the benefit of knowing the story behind the story. When we pick up the paper, or flip through the news, or doom-scroll on Twitter, we can rightly observe, “No wonder God had to send his Son into the world.”
Because Jesus is the only hope we’ve got.
Our hope won’t come from the world. It will never come from the next political candidate, or the next policy initiative, or the next fiscal plan, or the next diet, or the next pharmaceutical breakthrough. If our hope could come from the world it would’ve happened a long long time ago. We don’t have the power on our own to fix what is in us, despite what every commercial tries to sell us.
No peloton, no diet, no queer eye makeover can transform us into our dream-selves.
No job, no paycheck, no material possession can fill the hole we feel in the depths of our souls.
No gift under the tree, no light on the house, no curated Christmas carol playlist can cover up the truth about who we really are.
The comfort we so need and seek must come from somewhere else – in a burst of power breaking upon us from beyond us altogether.
The joy of Advent then comes from a different place. It comes from the Lord who chose to do the inexplicable for a people undeserving. It comes from the Son who chose to live by forgiveness rather than vengeance. It comes from the Spirit who chooses to move in and through us even though we’re nothing but a bunch of filthy rags.
God will come again, God’s justice will prevail over all that is wrong in this life, God will fully destroy evil and pain forever and ever.
Advent, this blessed and confounding season in the church, is all about looking straight into the darkness, its about seeking solidarity with those whose lives are nothing but darkness, all while living in the unshakable hope of those who expect the dawn to break in from on high.
To follow Jesus it to recognize that we are a people stuck in Advent, and the only way out is through the Lord who delights in making a way where there is no way. Amen.
The Lord will reign forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations. Praise the Lord!
I had an existential crisis yesterday.
I was sitting in a local Auto Parts Shop waiting for my car’s inspection and emissions to be completed having procrastinated for far too long. When I entered I took a seat close to the door, filled up a too-small styrofoam cup with horrible coffee, and pulled out a book to read. But before I could even find my recently dog-eared page, I noticed the man sitting next to me. He was wearing boots, jeans, a black flannel shirt, a knit cap, he had a beat up paperback sitting on his lap, and he was fast asleep. It was then that I took stock of my own clothing and situation, for I too was wearing boots, jeans, a black flannel shirt, a knit cap, and I was about to open my paperback book.
And I kind of freaked out.
What made me freak out wasn’t the odds of running into my twin (who was probably 30 years older than me) but was the fact that I felt like I received a brief glimpse into my future. And it left me feeling, well, uncomfortable.
Instead of opening my book and actually reading, I spent the rest of my purgatorial time asking questions in my head like: Is this what I doomed to do the rest of my days? Is life just a repetitive joke until it ends? Is their any meaning to all of this?
By the time my name was called I was sufficiently in the midst of a mental crisis when the snoring man’s cell phone rang. He promptly woke from his slumber, brought the phone to his ear, and after listening for a moment he said, “Yeah, just farting around waiting for my car to be ready.”
Which made me think of a haunting quote from Kurt Vonnegut Jr.: “I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.”
In Stanley Hauerwas’ sermon “Facing Nothingness – Facing God” from his collection Without Apology he seeks dispel the sentiment of Vonneguts’ quote by in fact naming what we are here on Earth to do, namely “wait for a new heaven and a new earth.”
The sermon explores the many ways in which we wrestle with our finitude and mortality by trying to seek out our own immortality by making a difference such that “we will not be forgotten by those who benefit from our trying to make a difference.” And yet, we very rarely actually make much of a difference. The world continues to spin in spite of our best intentions, we revert back to the same old sins that leave the lost lost and the found found, and we neglect to realize that even if we are remembered for our good deeds the people who knew those good deeds will also one day be forgotten.
This is a recipe for anxiety.
But what does this mean, particularly, for Christians? What about those who gather week after week in the hope that our lives are not pointless?
The prophet Isaiah was once called by God to comfort God’s people and to speak tenderly with Jerusalem. But when Isaiah presses the Lord about what to actually speak it sounds anything but tender – “All people are grass that withers away when the breath of the Lord blows upon it.”
Or, in other words, we are not the center of the universe.
For a people constantly told to “make your own destiny” and “leave your mark” it can be a difficult endeavor to confront the reality that we are reminded of every Ash Wednesday: We are dust and to dust we shall return. The life of a Christian is defined by the recognition that we are fragile, fleeting, and finite things. And, even more importantly, we can’t do much of anything about it! This is our lot in life.
But we are an Advent people and we have learned (or are learning) what it means to wait. Christianity isn’t about being given a set of tools or resources to make sure we are remembered long after we’re dead. Instead Christianity is about seeing how the time we’ve been given is a gift because it is God’s time for us.
Karl Barth put it this way: “When I really give anyone my time, I thereby give them the last and most personal thing that I have to give at all, namely myself… The difference at once to be noticed between our having time for others and God’s having time for us is twofold, that if God gives us time, He who deals with us is He who alone has genuine, real time to give, and that He gives us this time not just partially, not with all sorts of reservations and qualifications, such as are habitual with us when giving to others, but entirely.” Church Dogmatics I.2
The regular gathering and shaping of Christians through the liturgy forms us into people who know how to wait in the time God has given us. Whenever we hear the Word read in worship or we gather at the table of communion or we pray over the waters of baptism we do so by facing God in the person of “Jesus Christ who gives us the confidence that time is not a tale told to us by an idiot, but rather time names God’s desire that we participate in God’s very life. We are not abandoned. The heavens do declare the glory of God.” (Hauerwas, Without Apology, 54).
As Advent people we are also Easter people – We know how the story begins and how it ends – We know the Alpha and the Omega.
It is far too easy these days to give in to the existential fears that so regularly plague us. No matter how old we are we all look back and wonder what the sum of our lives mean. Life can, at times, feel meaningless. But for Christians, our lives have meaning precisely because God has come to dwell among us in Jesus Christ. Our meaning comes in receiving the One who comes to us precisely to remind us who we are. We have been given good work to do because all we have to do it wait – the rest is up to God.
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Oh the times they are a-changin’
Words immortalized by the great Bob Dylan, conveying a sentiment we all know all too well. Time, by definition, is always in a state of flux. And no matter who we are, and no matter what we’ve experienced, we seem to agree that we all want more of it. Time that is.
It can be said that those of us here today live under the oppressive tyranny of time. It hovers over us in every moment, reminding us how much more we still have to do as a nearly silent clicking in our minds forces us to realize that we are running out of time. Today the demands on our time are overwhelming – homes have to accommodate for multiple work schedules, children have to balance manifold school responsibilities, extra-curricular activities are scheduled with no end in sight, doctors appointments are made months in advance with the hope we’ll actually be able to be seen on time, on and on and on.
In our family we tried to make it work with a physical and central calendar upon which we could keep in all together, but it quickly lost its ability to keep us in line and in time. Now, we rely heavily on a digital calendar on our phones that syncs up automatically so we know who is doing what when.
And then we add the Advent season on top of all of that. Advent, for many of us, is the break-neck race between Thanksgiving and Christmas in which we have to (re)decorate the house, find all the perfect presents (and find time to wrap them), get the kids to the Christmas concert practice, actually go to the Christmas concert, coordinate schedules with in-laws about who is coming and when, and then make it to the Advent services on Sunday morning all while making it appear that we are not overwhelmed by everything else in our lives.
And then we can even add how our rapid fire sense of communication has really ramped up over the last decade such that we can communicate with anyone, at anytime, instantaneously. It has left us feeling like we should be, or have to be, connected with one another 24-7 and we measure our successes based on the number of likes on a photo or the number of retweets on a quippy line we thought up while zoning out on Tryptophan at the Thanksgiving table.
This was made very apparent to me this last week when I checked in on a particular church member to ask how they were doing and they responded by saying, “Well, as you know, we’ve been really overwhelmed since returning from vacation.” To which I kindly remarked, “Oh, where did you go?” And instead of just telling me where they went, they said, “Didn’t you see the pictures we posted on Facebook?”
Oh the times they are a-changin’.
And it is here, while completely overwhelmed by our lack of time, that Paul shows up to say, “You know what time it is.”
I’m not sure that I do. For, I too fall prey to the nagging sensation that life is just ticking by and I’m always behind. I grow frustrated behind the red lights of traffic lamenting the things I won’t be able to get done at home. I sigh as my son drags his feet while making his way, late, to bed. And I tap my toes behind families and individuals at the grocery store as they fumble around in the wallets to pay for their items so that the rest of us can do the same.
I don’t know about you, but I find myself resenting time and the lack of it.
And Paul thinks we know what time it is?
Of course, for Paul, the time he speaks of is not the tyrannical ruler so many of us experience today. Time, for Paul, is not the fear of getting everything done between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Time, for Paul, is nothing less that the transformation of the world in the person of Jesus Christ.
Did you notice the qualifier he puts into the sentence? You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep!
If we’re honest with ourselves, we’re not sure we like the tone Paul has for us. I mean, who does he think he is telling us to wake up? Doesn’t he know how hard we try, how much effort we put to this crazy thing called life? You would think that he’d maybe have a little more respect for us than to tell us to wake up.
But, we do need to wake up. All of us.
And not just to wake up out of the craziness the world has told us to experience this time of year, though we should wake up from that, but to wake up from the lie we’ve fed ourselves about who we are and what we are doing with our lives.
Paul, here, hits us over the head, as is often the case, with the fact that the coming of Christ into the world, his crucifixion by the powers and principalities, his Resurrection from the dead, and his returning in the future, have overturned ALL previous perspectives placed on human life in the world.
He has this great line that we often gloss over far too quickly: For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers. For many of us, that moment of becoming believers came with a catch – if we believe this, then God will do this. Or if we lay aside our sins, then God will give us eternal life as our everlasting reward. Or if we promise to love God with our whole hearts, souls, minds, and strengths, then God will love us back.
But there is no such thing as “if” in the kingdom of God.
A few days ago I was speaking with an acquaintance about his experience of church. Years ago he had felt the call of God on his life to plant a new church and did so using the tools of the trade that were passed onto him – basically that people need to understand how bad they’ve been in order to change and to get God to love them.
And for awhile, it worked. This church planter was able to find people near the rock-bottom of their lives and convince them to turn around so that God could finally make something of their nothing. Years passed and the church plateaued with those early converts beginning to revert back to lifestyles of their prior selves.
Until one day when the church planter gathered down by the local river with a few new disciples. He was baptizing them one by one in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And then the town drunk showed up.
It was a small enough town that everyone knew he was the town drunk, and there in front of God and a whole bunch of witnesses, the drunk walked knee-deep into the river and asked the pastor to baptize him.
The pastor said, “Bill, are you ready to give up the bottle and give your life to Jesus?”
He thought for a moment, and with whiskey on his breath he said, “I don’t think I can Pastor.”
And then the pastor turned him away.
In the days that followed, the pastor received congratulatory affirmations from his congregation. His email inbox filled up with messages about how much his people respected him for standing up for holiness. People waited in line on Sunday morning to express their gratitude for the example he was setting in the community.
Meanwhile the pastor felt ashamed.
He denied the means of grace to a man who was seeking it on the basis of a moral absolute. He refused the gift of God to a man unless he was willing to prove how committed he was to the cause. He believed that only the man’s improvement would warrant the baptism made possible in the person of Jesus Christ.
And the pastor felt ashamed because he couldn’t get a line out of his head, a line from the lips of Jesus, “I’ve come to call not the righteous, but sinners.”
In many ways the world tells us over and over again that we have to do something to earn something. But grace is different. In fact, it could not be more different. God shows up and says, I’m giving this to precisely because you haven’t and you’re never going to deserve it!
It was that realization that led the church planter to leave the church and start over – he had grown weary with making people feel weary for not being enough. The moralisms and calls to perfection were resulting in even greater examples of self-righteousness, all while people like the town drunk were being turned away from the grace of God!
We know what time it is – time for us to wake up! It’s not going to be easy, but we all have to kick the addiction we’ve grown far too comfortable with – and not necessarily the addictions we might be thinking about. We’ve got to do whatever it takes to flush all of our religion and morality pills down the toilet, we’ve got to pour out our bottles of self-righteousness and judgment. Why? Because God’s grace is bigger than our finger-wagging and is never contingent on our ability to do much of anything. In fact, it is exactly our inability to do much of anything that makes grace necessary in the first place!
Salvation is nearer to us now than when we first became believers. It is on this side of discovering God’s unending love and grace for us, in spite of our deservings and earnings, that we can start to live differently. Our desires to be better, even though they might ultimately fail, only ever come as a response to what God has done and never as a prerequisite.
That’s why Paul can call upon us to live honorably, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. He can do so not because doing so warrants God’s love, but because God’s love is such that we can’t be what we once were.
All the while remembering that even if we are quarreling or jealous or drunk or licentious, it will never remove what God has already made possible, for us, in Jesus.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of a new year in the life of Christians. Our time has been changed. And it might seem strange to start on such a strange note, but it might be the note we need the most. That we need it is indicated by the ways in which we are struggling to keep our necks above water under the tyranny of time, or the temptations to compare ourselves and our worth based on our perceived notions of other people and their worth.
Instead, Paul points us to something different. We’ve trapped ourselves in a nightmare of our own making, and its time to wake up, to force ourselves to destroy the systems and expectations that drive us away from one another instead of toward each other. The time has come, as he puts it, to put on the Lord Jesus, to remember our baptisms, and ultimately to remember who we are and whose we are.
There is no hope in us. If it were all up to us, we all would fail. Thanks be to God then that our hope doesn’t have to be put in us. Our hope is in Jesus Christ. Amen.
Ruth 3.1-5, 4.13-17
Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, “My daughter, I need to seek some security for you, so that it may be well with you. Now here is our kinsman Boaz, with whose young women you have been working. See, he is winnowing barley tonight at the threshing floor. Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking. When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” She said to her, “All that you tell me I will do.” So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. When they came together, the Lord made her conceive, and she bore a son. Then the women said to Naomi, “Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; and may his name be renowned in Israel! He shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.” Then Naomi took the child and laid him in her bosom, and became his nurse. The women of the neighborhood gave him a name, saying, “A son has been born to Naomi.” They named him Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David.
In those days there was no real leader, and everyone did whatever they wanted.
Everything about the setting of today’s biblical text is terrible. There was political chaos as Philistine enemies were pressing in on the flanks of Israel, the “national leadership” was worse than a bad joke, there was a frighteningly wide famine, and the last judge who sat to rule before the time of Ruth was Jephthah the Gileadite, who stirred up a civil war that killed 40,000 Israelities, including his own daughter.
The people had no hope.
In these days, we fight and bicker about who is really in charge, and most people do whatever they want.
Most things about today feel terrible. There is political chaos as we wrestle with the “meaning” behind the midterms and wonder about what will happen to our country. The “national leadership” continues to bicker about everything on a two week cycle so we regularly forget what we’re talking about. And this week marked the 307th mass shooting in our country this year.
For the sake of context: today is the 314th day.
And it’s against that same kind of frightening and turbulent domestic scale, that we get the story of Ruth, Naomi, and Boaz.
It’s an old old story that speaks profound truths even into our stories today.
The famine that broke out over the land was so terrible that Naomi and her husband and two sons were forced to flee from Bethlehem – which is rather ironic considering Bethlehem means “town of bread.”
They travel to Moab and Naomi’s husband promptly dies. The widow now only has her two sons who fortunately find Moabite wives. Their names were Orpah and Ruth. But then both of the sons die.
No ruler, no food, no husband, and now no sons.
Three widows are left with no income, no rights, and no hope for the future.
So Naomi decides to return home to Bethlehem, and sends her daughters-in-law back to their respective families.
Orpah cries and leaves. But not Ruth. Ruth clings to her mother-in-law Naomi. Where you go I will go, your people will be my people, your God my God. Where you die, I will die.
And thus they return to the town of bread.
Ruth is a stranger in a strange land, and Naomi might as well be. The last time she was home she had a husband, two sons, and hope. Not she returns with nothing but a foreign daughter-in-law.
Ruth volunteers to go out and glean in the fields and she meets the other member of the trio: Boaz. Boaz is impressed when he learns the story of this strange woman who risked it all for someone she had no reason to.
And that’s where we pick up: Naomi tries her hand at matchmaking and gets Ruth all prepared for a midnight rendezvous on the threshing room floor. Some PG-13 action transpires (or R depending on one’s imagination), and then God decides to show up in the story to give Ruth and Boaz a son, Obed who eventually fathers Jesse, who fathers David.
This wonderful and small little book toward the beginning of the Old Testament challenges many of our assumptions about what’s really important. While we might’ve stayed up late into the evening on Tuesday waiting for election results, while we might tune in to our favorite station every night for the important notes from the day, while we might flick through our Twitter feed with ferocity… the really important events of history happen in the most regular of places.
The whole of the book, from beginning to end, dwells on the small and not-evidently earthshaking interactions between three extraordinarily ordinary people.
And that’s probably why we love the story – its why couples ask me to preach on the story of Ruth at their weddings and it’s why most of us know more about Ruth than Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Micah, and Zephaniah combined.
In other places we read about matriarchs and patriarchs, we catch glimpses drastic and divine miracles, we learn about the prophets and the kings, and people with special missions from the Lord to do miraculous things.
But then we get Ruth, and Naomi, and Boaz – people just like us.
If Ruth is a story about any one thing, it’s a story of hope. And not just hope that falls down from the sky like manna from heaven, but a hope that is born out of persistent generosity and care. In the characters and in the conversations we come as close as we can to the manifestation of what we in the church call grace.
While worn down by the times in which they found themselves Ruth and Naomi clung to each other when they had nothing else. They were from different places, with different cultures, and different expectations. But in one another they found something that was worth staying with, no matter what.
And, of course, upon first glance, it is easy to make the story all about Ruth’s faithfulness. She certainly takes an incalculable and completely unnecessary risk by sticking with Naomi. She left her home, and everything she knew, to accompany her to the small town of bread where she was certainly viewed with nothing by suspicion.
But the story isn’t just about Ruth. It’s also about the strange and mysterious ways in which God acts through the ordinary to make the extraordinary possible.
And yet (!) Ruth has no reason to demonstrate the immense possibility of God’s faithfulness because she was outside the covenant! She was a Moabite, a foreigner to be viewed with nothing but disdain, and she is the one who shines throughout the story as a marker to glorify of the Lord.
The story of Ruth teaches those who read it the quality of relationships that enable life with others to be decent, secure, and even happy. The three central characters are all genuinely concerned about the needs and welfare of the other in selfless ways. It therefore bombards our sensibilities and expectation about who deserves our time, who deserves our respect, and who deserves God’s love.
Just like the Israelites during the time of Ruth, most of us are worn down by the events of our days on a local, national, and even international scale. We are currently witnesses to cataclysmic events like the war in Yemen, the drastic and frightening effects of climate change, and the never-ending political unrest that all seem to offer only the most uncertain hope of a better and safer future for anyone.
And that is precisely why the story of Ruth is perfect for us today: in a time such as this, acts of generosity and connection open up the future that God intends for us. From continuing to break bread with the people who voted differently than us, to reaching out to the people in our community without food to eat, to being mindful of people in our midst who go day after day without hope.
When the bonds between ourselves and whomever we might consider the other are brought together we, like Ruth, begin to see the kingdom of God at work.
Because, ultimately, this story is what the kingdom of God looks like. Not necessarily a “Kumbaya” and lassie faire attitude to the powers and principalities around us, but at least a willingness to look at someone in the eye and say, “I don’t understand you, I don’t agree with you, but I want to be for you, and I want our relationship to be built on love rather than hate.”
Ruth’s story shouldn’t work out the way it does. The amount of tragedy should’ve derailed the widows completely from any possibility of a new day dawning. But from beginning to end, everyone is brought further and further forward because of compassion.
God works in our world in and through the Ruths, and the Naomis, and even the Boazes, in the most extraordinarily ordinary circumstances. You don’t have to go climb to the top of the highest mountain to hear the Holy Spirit’s Word for your life, you don’t have to retreat into the solitude of a monastery to experience the profound wonder of God’s grace, you don’t have to give away everything you own to recognize how much Jesus gave up for you.
In Ruth’s story, in her time of terrible losses, and frightening trouble, and oppositional tyranny, and destructive pain, she found ways to grab hold of others and possibilities through the ordinary moments of the Spirit.
And those moments, though small and sometimes missable, are huge because they shake the very foundations of what we foolishly believe is good, and powerful, and true in this life.
Long before there was doctrine, and theology, and creeds, and liturgical traditions, there were normal people who discovered profound richness in the most extraordinarily ordinary circumstances.
The church, this church, is another place, just like Ruth’s family, where we have opportunities to learn what it means to live with people we did not choose! It is through our continued and fervent presence with those with whom we are stuck that we catch a glimpse of the fidelity of our God who is stuck with all of us.
Strangely, Ruth’s story ends not with Ruth cradling her new baby boy, but with her mother-in-law Naomi bringing him to her bosom. The whole town surrounds them in this moment and they see redemption in the strangest form: a child. Everything about their lives has been redeemed by God in this infant named Obed, without whom there would be no king David.
And, this final scene makes us think of another woman cradling a baby in Bethlehem some thirty generations later. Again, the world is in desperate need of hope. Again, a woman travels without knowing what her future will hold. And again, she holds redemption in her arms. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Kameron Wilds about the readings for All Saints Sunday [B] (Isaiah 25.6-9, Psalm 24, Revelation 21.1-6a, John 11.32-44). Kameron is an ordained elder for the United Methodist Church in the Virginia Conference and currently serves at Smith Memorial UMC in Collinsville, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including All Saints habits, the problem with stained glass language, really long communion tables, being mindful of the malleability of time, removing disgrace, holiness and hand sanitizer, open doors, funeral texts, and the universality of death. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Mercy > Merit
Lord you have been our dwelling place in all generations. Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. You turn us back to dust, and say, “Turn back, you mortals.” For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, or like a watch in the night. You sweep them away; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. For we are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance. For all our days pass away under your wrath; our years come to an end like a sigh. The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. Who considers the power of your anger? Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you. So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.
For the month of September we’re going to keep things simple – though, when in the church is anything simple? When in our lives is anything simple? Well, we’re going to try and bring some simplicity in the midst of all our complexities each Sunday till the end of the month.
The whole series is focused on the materially simple life that Jesus led, taught, and exemplified. And, each week, we’re going to have a challenges that accompany our worship.
The bible spends a lot of time addressing a great number of topics, but time, money, possessions, prayer, and food are the topics that Jesus talked about the most. And, when Jesus addressed these issues for the people of his days, he came at all of them with an air of simplicity that is often lost in the church today.
I walked into the oil change waiting room and discovered a great mosaic of people who littered the chairs and walls with their waiting bodies. There, in that tiny dimly lit room, was a microcosm of Woodbridge in which just about every person and culture and community was represented. And in the midst of this great variety of differences, there was one thing that bound all of us together: impatience.
From the time it took to walk through the door to the only open seat, I took in the surroundings like a detective looking for clues…
There was the mom fiddling with her cellphone while using her other hand to gently rock her infant back and forth in a stroller while her toddler was laughing manically in the corner as he ripped pages out of magazines one at a time.
There was a youngish businessman who looked like he was going to wear straight through the bottom of his $900 shoes as he paced back and forth muttering profanities under his breath.
There was the teenager who, I kid you not, was using a cellphone in each hand while his eyes were dashing back and forth as he no doubt kept his friends updated through every form of social media about the buzzkill of waiting for his car to be ready.
And there was me, the inconspicuous pastor who sat down and promptly opened up my laptop to start working on this very sermon. I got all of one line written when a much older gentleman caned his way into the room and decisively frowned as he saw not a single open chair.
Friends, I have to admit that my first reaction was to sink a little lower in my chair and tell myself not to make eye contact, because if I made eye contact I knew I would offer my spot, and the hoped for hour of good work would be lost, and he would probably try to have a conversation with me.
But with every passing second, and every ignored glance, the man just kept standing there as if the only thing holding him up was the tennis balled walker that shook ever so slightly under his hands.
So, of course, I begrudgingly packed up the computer, and motioned for the man to take my seat.
And he beamed.
If I were to ask you to describe your life, not here in front of everyone but say we were having lunch, what would you say? Where does your mind travel first?
Do you think your life is simple, or does it feel complicated?
Time is something all of us think about and mull over more than just about anything else. I could go on and on with stories of people feeling overwhelmed by the concerns and constrains of time. We are fascinated by the fictitious accounts of time travel because they drive deep into the heart of our fears regarding time. We listen to songs about how time keeps on slipping slipping slipping.
Even in our hymns! Time is now fleeting the moments are passing…
We all experience time differently – those of us chasing our kids around feel very different about time than the empty nesters next door, and very different than the teenagers just hoping to breeze through high school.
Time is a harsh mistress.
And even though we all experience it differently, our general attitude toward it is largely the same: we don’t have enough of it.
Last week, I stood here before all of you at the beginning of our worship service, and I made a joke about how even though I was on vacation for a week at the beach, I spent most of it chasing my son from the dunes to the ocean over and over again. I told you that it was exhausting. And I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that off the cuff comment in worship. Because I went on vacation! And then came back to all of this, only to complain about my vacation!
The fact that we live in a world in which some of us believe we need vacation from vacation should be enough to give us pause about our struggles with time.
And so of course, we wrestle with the day to day, we complain about not having enough time, we lament all the things we have been unable to complete, we stress about future endeavors, and our time becomes incredibly complex.
I stood just off to the side leaning against the wall as the older gentleman eased into my former seat. I motioned to grab a book out of my bag but before I had a chance to open it up the man said, “Don’t you just love getting your oil changed?” Thinking he was maybe addressing the room, I waited for anyone to respond until it was clear he was speaking to me. And then, as I thought about the question, I wondered, “Who in the world likes getting their oil changed?!?!” So I just muttered some sort of inaudible affirmation and the man said, “When else do you get such a great opportunity to make a stranger into a friend?”
And then he did.
For an hour and a half, that honestly only felt like fifteen minutes, we started the bonds of friendship. I learned about his life and wife, his favorite television program (his words), and I even discovered that he has a pretty consistent record of ruining meatloaf.
And the more we talked, the more I found myself relaxing, the more I forgot why I was standing around in a room full of strangers, and when the service writer called out my name, I thought about ignoring it just so I could stick around a little longer.
When I went to shake his hand and say goodbye the last thing he said to me was, “Thanks for sharing your time with me.”
Our time has been changed in Jesus Christ because Jesus is God’s time for us. While we continue to stumble around in a world in which we feel like we never have enough time, God triumphantly declares, “I have time for you!” That, in its deepest and simplest way, its what the incarnation is. God made God’s self available to us in the person of Christ that we might truly know what the gift of time really is.
Because here, on this side of Easter, we live in a new created time. God is free for us, and God is with us and among us, God has become us. And that Good News is all the stranger when we encounter the words read for us this morning. According to the psalmist… God is anything but us! For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past, you sweep them away. We fly away but you are God forever.
The psalmist creates for us a vision of the divine as the unmovable and unshakable presence of eternity in which all of us are like the sands of time swept away almost without notice. Reading this psalm, at face value, makes us dread the passage of time even more! But it is the light of Christ, in the glorious news of God’s incarnation, we discover the passion of the Good News that God gave us time in Jesus.
To have time for someone else might not seem like much. Most of us here encounter a great number of people every day or every week, we exchange news and maintain conversations without having to give it much thought. But in reality, having time for someone else is to make manifest all the blessings one person can show another.
When we give anyone our time, we give them the last and most personal thing we have to give at all, namely ourselves.
Time, with its finite and fleeting nature, is the one thing all of us have, though none of us know how much of it we have. That’s what makes it so confounding. We imagine it to be so much of a precious commodity that we worry ourselves into oblivion about wasting any of it.
But time, at least Godly time – biblical time, is much more simple than that.
So teach us, O Lord, to count our days that we may gain a wise heart – When we spend as much time as we do worrying about time, we neglect to do the good and important work of being appreciative for the time we have been given. Or, to put it another way, we spend so much time worrying about time, that we aren’t grateful for time at all.
As I said at the beginning of the sermon, each Sunday this month we will encounter the simple qualities of complex realities, but we will also have challenges that accompany our worship. This week, each of us will be challenged to reimagine our calendars (and these instructions will be handed out after the service). We are asking that every night, until next Sunday, you take the time to write down in a journal at least one thing that happened to you during that day for which you are grateful. That might sound overly simplistic, but that’s kind of the point.
With the myriad of ways we are fast-forwarding through the frantic and frantic pace of life, far too many of us are not taking the time to be mindful of our time.
So you can keep it as simple as writing down one thing that happened for which you are grateful. Time set apart to reflect on your time.
Or you can take it a step farther and write about how much time you spent on things that give you life, and things that don’t.
Or you can take it even one step farther and write about ways in which you will try to spend more more time the following day on connecting with God, and with other people.
When we take the time, to be grateful for our time, that’s when the time around us begins to change. Because instead of resenting our lack of time we begin to appreciate what time we do have. Instead of belittling others for taking up our time, we begin to see them as timely people who have given their time to us. And instead of continuing to meander and miss the beauty of the time we have been given, we begin to see that God is the one who gave it to us. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Chenda Innis Lee about the readings for the 11th Sunday After Pentecost (2 Samuel 11.26-12.13a, Psalm 51.1-12, Ephesians 4.1-16, John 6.24-35). Chenda is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and she serves as one of the pastors at Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including crumbs at the table, putting God in God’s place, the underrated prophet, losing agency, sharing passwords, reconciliation, Paul’s lack of gentleness, equipping the saints, being lost, and breaking pedestals. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Pedestals Are Meant To Be Broken