Archives For Jason Micheli

Numbers 21, John 3

I realize we’re still getting to know one another, so it may come as a shock to some of you to learn that I tend to be contrary by nature.

Case in point:

Towards the end of my first semester at the University of Virginia, my freshman year, I was invited one Saturday night by my friend, Ben, to attend a Christmas party hosted by Campus Crusade for Christ. 

Back then, I was still new in my faith. I’d only become a Christian a year or so earlier. Like a lot of new converts, I thought I had all the answers, but also didn’t know what I didn’t know.  

As their former name implies, Campus Crusade was an aggressively evangelistic organization, and even that is putting it mildly. 

Of course, I didn’t know that when I accepted the invitation. 

An organization like Campus Crusade probably seemed so tame to Ben, having grown up in the mountains of Southwest Virginia, he hadn’t bothered to prepare me for this “party.” 

Now I shouldn’t have to tell you that the word “party,” to a college student, conjures particular images and elicits very specific expectations— none of which were matched by the gathering Ben took me to that Saturday night. 

In fact, in all my years of college and graduate school, this was the only party where a den mother asked me to take my shoes off at the front door. 

As we walked through the cold darkness of the night on a thin layer of snow, to a neighborhood just off campus, we came to a short driveway to a small ranch home. 

I could see through the big bay window in the living room a glimpse of the evening that lay ahead of me.

At first, I thought we must be at the wrong house. 

This must be a Mary Kay or Tupperware party. 

Maybe a bridge club going on. 

Ben assured me it was the right address. 

When Ben knocked on the door, this skinny guy with a soul patch under his lip and a guitar slung across his back answered the door. 

When Ben introduced me, the guy— the student pastor— shook my hand with disproportionate enthusiasm and said, “Jason, yeah, Jason- Acts 17.7.” 

And I replied, “What?”

This must have been his secret Christian greeting. 

And because I didn’t know what he was talking about, because I didn’t even know my name was in the Bible, and because I didn’t reciprocate with “Michael, yeah, archangel of the Lord, Daniel 12.1,”  he gave me a sad, pathetic sort of look and ushered me inside.

But first, his wife asked me to take off my shoes.

Everyone else must have drank the Kool-Aid before I arrived, because I didn’t fit in and couldn’t understand how people seemed to be enjoying themselves. 

Once we were inside, Ben abandoned me. 

He mingled around the house while I stood near the dining table in my threadbare socks eating chocolate covered pretzels and looking at my calculator watch between bites.

You can imagine how much my mood improved when Mike, the campus pastor, asked us all to circle up in the family room for a sing-along. 

I ended up sitting shoulder to shoulder on a sofa with two other people.

On my left was a girl who began every sentence with “The Lord just put it on my heart to ________”, and who looked at me like I was as crazy as I thought she was.

On my right, with his arm resting uncomfortably behind me, was a 50-something man who worked in the dining hall. 

He had a long, scraggly beard and was wearing a Star Trek sweatshirt. 

Earlier, over chocolate covered pretzels, he asked me if I thought the incarnation was a violation of the Prime Directive.

“I’m sorry. I don’t watch Star Trek,” I lied.

We sang songs whose words I vaguely knew and whose tunes seemed unseasonably fast-paced. 

Mike, the pastor, strummed his guitar and led us in a breathy, earnest voice while his wife accompanied him on a small plastic keyboard on her lap.

When the singing was over, Mike, assuming a serious tone of voice, asked us to open up our Bibles. 

I felt like the music had stopped and I was the one without a chair. 

Not only was I the only person who had failed to bring a Bible with them, I hadn’t a clue where a Bible reader could buy a carrying case for their Bible. 

“You didn’t bring a Bible with you?” Mike asked chagrined. 

“Uh, I’m a Methodist.” 

And, to my surprise, everyone nodded like this was a perfectly reasonable explanation. 

“Luke, chapter two,” Mike said. 

Everyone but me read along as Mike read aloud, “In the days of King Herod…”

After he finished the reading, Mike started in on his Campus Crusade for Christ mandated “talk.” 

“The promise of the Gospel,” he began, “is that God gives himself in Christ for the sin of the world— for your sins and my sins— but…” he said, “you have to do your part, too.”

“At Christmas God gives Christ to you, on the Cross Christ gives himself for you, but it’s not complete until you give yourself to Christ, too.”

And everyone around the room nodded their heads. 

“In order to get saved, you’ve got to get born again,” Mike said, closing his Bible. 

And for several long minutes, people around the room shared stories about the time they got saved— down to the date and the place and the crisis that occasioned it. 

“What about you?” Mike asked me, “I’m sorry I forgot your name…you—the one who didn’t bring a Bible.” 

“Me?” I asked and looked around, wishing I could be debating the Prime Directive. 

“Well, I got baptized…”

And he shook his head, “But when did you get born again?” 

“I started going to church against my will not that long ago,” I said. “And, I don’t know, I just suddenly realized one day that I trusted in Jesus.”

“I’m sorry, Jason, but that’s not good enough and, well, there’s eternal consequences to consider.” 

And that’s right about the point when the contrarian in me came out. 

“Excuse me?” I said, “Not good enough?”

He nodded in a patronizing way and explained, “In order to get saved, you’ve got to get born again. You’ve got to make a decision for Christ. You’ve got to invite Jesus into your heart to be your personal Lord and Savior.” 

Little did this soul-patched pastor know, he was stepping with a recent Virginia State forensic-and-debate champion. 

“Tell me, Mike,” I said. “You called it the promise of the Gospel.” 

And he nodded his head, thinking he had me. 

“But if there’s a condition, if there’s something I’ve got to do for it to be true for me, doesn’t that turn the promise into a demand?” 

Ben blushed as red as the pastor’s wife’s corduroy dress. 

“I mean— if you’re saved, because you give your heart to Jesus (and not saved until you do), doesn’t that mean you’re saving yourself, Mike? Not Jesus?”

The pastor’s wife was biting her lip, and where I had spent the first thirty minutes of the evening wondering how I could escape, she was now clearly wondering how she could get me out of her house. 

NO ONE SEEMED TO APPRECIATE THE BUDDING THEOLOGIAN IN THEIR MIDST!

No one except for the bearded fifty-year old with the Star Trek shirt who said, “Dude, that’s deep,” which didn’t exactly help my case. 

In fact, the girl sitting next to me had placed her large KJV Bible in the crack of the sofa cushions, erecting a barrier between us and making clear that she was not with me.

Still, I’ve always had thick skin, so I pressed into the point. 

“Think about it, Mike,” I said. “If salvation isn’t real until my decision activates it, then isn’t my faith just another work? Isn’t salvation something I’ve earned for myself then?”

“Jesus says it plainly,” Mike rebutted, stroking his soul-patch. “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.” 

“But isn’t it odd,” I said, starting to enjoy myself in a sado-masochistic sort of way, “to turn that verse into a requirement— something we must do, get born again— when the whole point of an image like being born is that it’s passive? I mean, I don’t know about you, Mike, but I didn’t contribute a single thing to my birth. In fact, my mom had to have a C-section my head was so big.”

“Sounds like you’ve still got a pretty big head,” Mike did not say to himself. 

As if on cue, Ben summoned a fake “hahahahaha” from somewhere in his belly and nervously suggested we sing another song. 

Mercifully, Mike swung his guitar around like Church Berry, said “Amen,” and started another song.

———————-

“I’ve seen the signs you do,” Nicodemus says to Jesus. “Tell me, who are you?”

And oddly, Jesus answers with that verse which tightens the sphincter of every good, liberal United Methodist: “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the Kingdom of God without being born again.” 

Apparently, Nicodemus knows what he doesn’t know. 

Nicodemus must suspect his faith is somehow inadequate and lacking; otherwise, Nicodemus— a Pharisee, a member of the Sanhedrin even— would not take the great risk of coming to Jesus under the cover of darkness. 

Sure, it’s only chapter three, but here in John’s Gospel, Jesus has just thrown his temple tantrum and already he’s made himself public enemy Number One. 

But Jesus, in typical Jesus fashion, doesn’t do anything at all to mitigate whatever spiritual crisis has led Nicodemus to Jesus. 

Jesus doesn’t bother to comfort Nicodemus or reassure Nicodemus or do anything to relieve whatever existential tension has brought Nicodemus to Jesus. 

Notice how Jesus tightens the screws. 

Jesus doesn’t do what United Methodist pastors are trained to do. 

Jesus doesn’t let Nicodemus off the hook with some blessed assurance like, “It’s okay. Don’t worry, Nicodemus, be happy. God loves you.” 

Jesus doesn’t offer Nicodemus a non-anxious presence and say, “Your faith is fine just as it is, Nicodemus. We’re all on a journey. There are many paths to my Father.” 

No, Jesus sticks his thumb in whatever ache Nicodemus is nursing and raises the stakes absolutely, “If you want to see the Kingdom of God, Nicodemus, you must be born again.”

Oh, and FYI, he’s not just talking to Nicodemus. 

Jesus dials it up to DEFCON ETERNAL for all of us, because that “you” in “You must be born again,” is plural. 

I know that the last thing you United Methodists want is to be considered among those kind of Christians, but, like it or not, we are swept up in that you. 

It’s, “You all must be born anothen if you want to see the Kingdom of God.” 

No exceptions. 

No loopholes for raking your neighbor’s yard or never missing a Sunday service. 

That you— it’s all of us. 

“You all must be born again.”

And Nicodemus, he’s a Pharisee. 

He’s super religious, so he responds— like we religious types always respond— with what he’s supposed to do. 

“How do I do that, Jesus…? 

And then Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You all must be born again.” 

Pay attention to the verbs Jesus uses on Nicodemus in verses three and five. 

The verbs are what makes this passage that’s normally bad news for Christians like us good news for everybody. 

Unless you all are born again, Jesus says, you will never see the Kingdom and you will never enter the Kingdom of God. 

Apart from our being born again, we can neither see nor can we enter God’s Kingdom.

That is—

When it comes to God and God’s Kingdom, on our own, we’re powerless. 

We are born— naturally— spiritually blind and spiritually paralyzed. 

When it comes to God’s Kingdom, we are born dead. 

Therefore—

Whatever Jesus means by you being born again, he’s not talking about something you do. 

The dead don’t make decisions.

———————-

I waited until we walked to the end of pastor Mike’s driveway before I said to Ben, “Well gosh, that was an awesome party.”

And Ben laughed, “I don’t see what difference it makes.”

“Difference? It makes all the difference in the world. People like him turn that verse about being born again into a threshold you must cross— you’ve got to do it a certain way, pray a particular prayer— otherwise you’re not a genuine, real-deal Christian.”

Ben didn’t say anything else until we’d walked back onto campus, crossing the footbridge over Emmett Street when Ben said:

“Still, even if it’s a passive image— like with your mom and the C-section— you can still point to a date when it happened, right? 

You can still name the time and the place when you were born. Shouldn’t you have to be able do that for when you were born again. Shouldn’t you be able to see when and where you got born again?”

Like I said, I had the trophies to prove it. I was a debate champ. 

So, I knew when I’d been bested. 

———————-

Let me make it plain—Being born again is not “making a decision for Jesus Christ.” The dead don’t make decisions. We are born anothen. Again. Or, the Greek can also be translated from above. It’s top down. You’ve got nothing to do it. 

You don’t come to Jesus to get born again— corspes can’t get up and go anymore— Jesus must come to us and deliver us. 

We get so hung up on what Jesus says to Nicodemus in the dark of night that we close our eyes to what John tries to show us. 

          Just think about how John begins his Gospel, not with a nativity story but with an intentional echo of the Book of Genesis, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. All things came into being through Him and not one thing came into being without Him.” 

     In other words, this Gospel of Jesus Christ, says John, is about the arrival of a New Creation. And next, right here, Jesus tells Nicodemus and you all, that in order to see the Kingdom of God you’re going to have to become a new creation, too. 

By water and the spirit. 

     Skip ahead. 

     To Good Friday, the sixth day of the week, the day of that first week in Genesis when God declares, “Behold, mankind made in our image.” 

     And what does John show you? 

     Jesus, beaten and flogged and spat upon, wearing a crown of thorns twisted into his scalp and arrayed with a purple robe, next to Pontius Pilate. 

     And what does Pilate say? 

     “Behold, the man.” 

     And later, on that sixth day, as Jesus dies on a cross, what does John show you? 

     Jesus giving up his spirit, commending his Holy Spirit. 

     And then, John shows you Jesus’ executioners, attempting to hasten his death they spear Jesus in his side, and what does John show you? 

     Water rushing out of Jesus’ wounded side. Water pouring out onto those executioners and betraying bystanders, pouring out— in other words— onto sinful humanity. 

     Water and the spirit, the sixth day. 

     And then Saturday, the seventh day of the week, the day of that first week in Genesis when God rests in the Garden from his creative work- what does John show you? 

    Jesus being laid to rest in a garden tomb. 

     Then Easter, the first day of the week. 

     And having been raised from the grave, John shows you a tear-stained Mary mistaking Jesus, as naked and unashamed as Adam before the Fall, for the what?

     For the gardener, what Adam was always intended to be. 

     Later that Easter day, John shows you the disciples hiding behind locked doors. 

This New Adam comes to them from the garden grave, and like a mighty, rushing wind, he breathes on them. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he says to them. 

     Water, Spirit, Wind blowing where the Spirit wills, the first day. 

     He breathes on them. 

     Just as God in the first garden takes the adamah, the soil of the earth, breathes into it the breath of life and brings forth Adam, brings forth life, this New Adam takes the grime of these disciples’ fear and failure, their sin and sorrow, and he breathes upon them the Holy Spirit, the breath of life. 

     They’re made new again. 

     They’re anothened

    And on that same first day, John shows you Jesus telling these disciples for the very first time, in his Gospel, that his Father in Heaven, is their Father, too. They’re now the Father’s children in their own right. 

     The Father’s Kingdom is theirs to enter and inherit.

What Jesus says to Nicodemus here in the night is true. 

The cosmically inclusive love God is exclusive through Jesus Christ. 

     You must be born again. 

And yes, we are incorporated in that “you.” 

It’s: 

You must be born again, Bill. 

You must be born again, Bob. 

Barbara, you must be born again. 

Every last one of you— you’ve got be born from above, the Gospel says. 

But what the Gospel shows, what the Gospel wants you to see, is that you have been. 

Already.

You’ve been delivered.  

Just as all of us were dead through Adam’s trespass, the Bible says, much more surely has the grace of God through Jesus Christ abounded for all, Paul says. The death he died he died to Sin, once for all, so you all can consider yourselves dead to Sin and alive to God, consider yourselves anothened. Being born again— it comes to you on God’s terms not your own. 

———————-

Back in college, a newly minted convert, I had a lot of answers, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know. 

Turns out, my friend was right that dark winter night. 

You should be able to name the day. 

So, if someone ever asks you if you’ve been born again, then- like Venkman tells Ray- next time, “You say YES.”  Say yes. 

And give them the particulars, the where, and the when. 

Tell them you were born again— you got saved— sometime between Good Friday and Resurrection morning, the year— 33 AD, on a hill outside of Jerusalem. 

You got born again not when you chose Jesus Christ (Have you been watching the Impeachment Trial? Our choices aren’t trustworthy enough to stake a sandwich on let alone eternity.) but because God chose you in Jesus Christ. 

In Jesus Christ, God chose you from before time for all time. 

And by the doing and dying and rising of Jesus Christ, like a Mother, God delivered you from slavery to Sin and Death into newness of life— eternal life. 

Look—

There’s alot of Bible Belt baggage that comes with this verse about being born again so if you haven’t been tracking with anything today, pay attention right here. 

Alot of Christians turn this passage of the Gospel into the Law. 

Into a demand you must fulfill, an expectation you must meet, into an ought that only accuses. 

In order to be born again, you’ve got to make a decision. You’ve got to invite him into your heart in this way. You’ve got to pray this prayer. You’ve got to clean up your act and you have got do these things. 

Alot of Christians turn this Gospel into the Law. 

But notice—

Jesus’ whole point to Nicodemus about the Kingdom of God and your admittance into it is that the bar COULD NOT BE LOWER. 

Jesus doesn’t say anything about any steps or conditions or techniques. 

There’s no earning or deserving. 

There’s not even any adverbs like sincerely or contritely or genuinely.

Jesus doesn’t say a word about anything you need to take on or give up. 

Your delivery is one-sided, God-sided. 

And the only thing more impossibly miraculous is the means by which you access it. All you have to do— no, all you can do— is simply trust that it is so. 

As Jesus says to Nicodemus, “God loved the world so much that he gave his One and Only Son so that every single individual who simply trusts into him would even now have eternal life.”

That’s good news. But that doesn’t loosen the scews Jesus tightened down on Nicodemus because in the end you’re left with the same choice Jesus leaves for Nicodemus. You can either believe OR not believe. There’s no other other way. 

“Separation is tragic because we thereby shut out some of our most challenging interlocutors.  When the IRD (in those rare moments when they talk theologically) tells me that I am soft on scripture, they are right.  Who among my progressive buddies is going to challenge my biblical interpretation?  (And who is the IRD going to have fun kicking around once I’m gone and they are hunkered down with their boringly homogeneous buddies in Good News and the WCA?)  

Go ahead. Get your church all cleaned up. Have everyone swear to your cherished ideology. What are you going to do about Jesus? Our Lord refuses to keep reaching out and bringing in the ‘wrong’ people making my church more complicated than I would like it to be. Just wait until the progressive UMC pastor discovers that she’s got folks in her congregation who are just as sexist, racist, and homophobic as the people who walked out? Cure them of their homophobia; next Sunday Jesus will demand that you work on their greed.

If I know anything about Jesus, he’ll show up at the inaugural Sunday of the doctrinally-sound, Bible-believing. WCA-approved congregation with the nicest same-sex couple and their two children. Then what?”

Friend of the podcast and mentor in mayhem, Bishop Will Willimon joins Jason and Teer to talk about the most recent divorce proposal in the UMC, the Protocol for Reconciliation through Grace— a proposal that manages both to sound like a creepy measure in a dystopian science fiction novel (“protocol”) and like a sad euphemism for a break-up.

To read more about the protocol: https://www.umnews.org/en/news/diverse-leaders-group-offers-separation-plan

Willimon’s piece, “Separation Sadness,” will be available soon at Ministry Matters.

 

I’m working on a journal article with Dr. Johanna Hartelius, cohost at Crackers and Grape Juice, on the apocalyptic rhetoric of Fleming Rutledge. Reading again Karl Barth’s Homiletics and reviewing Fleming’s sermons, it has struck me once again her insistence that the grammar of our preaching betrays our theology.

I remember one occasion from homiletics class when I was in seminary. This belligerently confident, hyper-evangelical classmate preached his sample sermon before the class. His sermon was frenetic. He clearly thought he was the superior preacher to all of us and, admittedly, his delivery was effective.

However, our professor, Dr Kay, looked restless and irritated through the entirety of the 20 minute sermon. Once the student finished Dr Kay breathed out his exasperation and declared to the preacher:

‘Do you realize not one of your sentences had God as their subject.’

The point seemed lost on the preacher. But it hit me hard.

The preacher from my introductory homiletics class is but an extreme example of a mistake I think preachers, myself included, commit all the time.

God is seldom the subject of our verbs.

Guess who is?
That’s right. We are.

We speak of seekers instead of the sought.

We speak of our purpose instead of God’s purposes.

We speak of our questions about God instead of God’s questioning of us.

Too often our preaching is the sermonic equivalent of bad contemporary Christian music: I long for you. I hunger for you. I want more of you.
Will Willimon, in his book on preaching and Karl Barth, comments on Barth’s belief that all preaching is a reenactment of the primal miracle ‘And God said…’ Yet frequently our preaching is a less urgent, pale imitation: ‘This is what I have to say about God today.’ We preach as though God is not the one speaking to us through the text and gradually, without such urgency of the Living Word, we imply that God never spoke.

I believe the problem with most sermons is not one of delivery, style, rhetoric or technique (though there’s plenty of room for improvement there too).

The problem is theological.

Probably this sounds obvious but I wouldn’t say it if weren’t true and a desperately needed reminder: it’s about God.

The deficiency in many sermons, my own included, is that they’re not about God. They’re about our needs, our questions or our issues. They’re anthropological not theological. We’re the subject of the sentences. We preach the parable of the prodigal son as an allegory from which we can take lessons of family relationships. We turn the story of the woman from Samaria into a moralism about inclusivity. We take the transfiguration and preach on the need to return to the valley and serve the world’s hurting. Of course, each of those passages can have those implications but fundamentally they’re passages about God. All too often it’s the revelation we leave out.

Dr. Kay’s comments to my cocky classmate have always stuck with me, but truthfully if you go back through my old sermons and diagram the sentences you’ll find that God is the object of my sentences not the subject.

The majority of homiletics resources focus on the mechanics of the sermon process, on technique, rhetoric and sermonic forms; meanwhile, discussions about preaching primarily focus on the appropriate role of media in sermons. Others speculate if the preaching task will remain a viable exercise in the future.

What’s absent from the standard, available fare is the kerygma. There’s little awareness of preaching as fundamentally an announcement, an event of the Living Word that provokes a crisis in the listener and demands a decision.

I’m enough of a closet Calvinist to take seriously the Second Helvetic Confession’s stipulation that “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God.” I believe- I depend on- that when the Word is faithfully preached and faithfully received it is the Living Word. This is one reason why debates about the authority of scripture are so very boring. The question is never just did God say that because we have a God who continues to speak today.

What’s more, if the Second Helvetic Confession is correct, then preaching which merely uses scripture as an illustration of an argument arrived at by others means risks malnourishing its listeners. Preachers can literally starve their listeners on a steady diet of propositions, points and helpful hints.

I listen to a lot of sermons. Sometimes I think it’s a best practice sort of exercise. Other times I think it’s masochistic. So few of the sermons I hear are animated by the conviction in the Living Word that emerges in the Helvetic Confession. They’re a message about Jesus. They’re lessons drawn from what Jesus said. They do not pulse with a God who says.

To be honest, this is the problem I have with much of the topical series preaching that’s common today. Sermon series like ‘Antidotes for the Out of Control Life,’ ‘Difficult Decision’ or ‘Fearless: Live Your Life without Fear’ can be effective and helpful to listeners, I know, but they’re also inherently anthropological.

And don’t think I’m wedded to the revised common lectionary because I’m not.

My wariness about topical sermon series is that it’s our questions or felt needs that drive the sermon. Indeed they’re imposed upon the scripture text from the start of the planning process. The topics of the series predetermine what the Word can and cannot say. They constrict God’s speech.

Once a year I preach just such a sermon series. It’s always carefully planned and promoted to attract young unchurched families. Every year, without question, these are my very worst sermons. I mean just awful.

I used to think they’re terrible because I’m no good at the quasi-Dr. Phil ‘how-to’ propositions such sermons require. That may be true but even more I think its because these sermons aren’t really about God. God is a device, an object or a means to my preconceived end. God’s not the subject, and I’ve found that if God’s not the one speaking then I literally have nothing to say.

Don’t be mistaken. I’m not saying that faithful proclamation needs to be accompanied by a Geneva collar and a mahogany pulpit the size of a C37. Preaching can be deductive or narrative, rationalistic or impressionistic, from a pulpit or the sanctuary floor, with or without PowerPoint slides. But it needs to have God as the subject.

Henry Emmerson Fosdick famously said that folks don’t come to church to hear about the Jebusites. Karl Barth famously said that folks come to church with anticipation, wondering ‘is it true?’

They were both right.

People do not come on a Sunday morning for the arcane or the minutiae. They do not hunger for facts. They do hunger for a Word from the Lord.
I can’t help but wonder sometimes if the popularity of topical preaching today has less to do with the utilitarian nature of our culture (though that has to be a large part of its appeal) and more to do with our Enlightenment-bound lack of confidence in the Living Word. Perhaps the lack of confidence that afflicts preaching isn’t a lack of confidence in our skill, ability or call but a lack of confidence that the God who became incarnate in human flesh can today inhabit our words.

As a result, what often suffers is our urgency. It was said of George Whitfield that he ‘preached as a drowning man to other drowning men.’ The waters must have receded because the problem today with much anthropological preaching is just this lack of urgency. Sermon topics such as ‘Antidotes for the Out of Control Life’ ask for listeners’ consideration not their decision. Its aim is for listeners to apply ‘principles’ to their lives; its aim is not to let the Word loose to provoke a crisis or event in the listeners’ lives.

The danger behind anthropological preaching is that as long as God is the object of my preaching and not the subject then I, as the preacher, set the pace. Not God. This is very different than God calling me today, speaking to me now, through the text in a way I could not have anticipated 18 months ago when I planned my sermon series.

It’s not only the sermon’s urgency that suffers. Anthropological preaching is very often boring too, boring not because of its mode of presentation or skill in delivery but boring because God is not allowed to say anything unexpected. The Word needs to service the predetermined topic; there’s no room for the Word to speak anything contrary, unexpected or counter-intuitive. The Word needs to fit into our prearranged categories. Practically speaking, this can be deadly for a listener’s sense of anticipation. It can bore them. Speaking theologically, it’s a problem because any God who takes up residence in a peasant Jew from Nazareth is a God who refuses categorization or easy deduction.

Wine into Water

Jason Micheli —  January 20, 2020 — Leave a comment

Isaiah 62.1-5 and John 2.1–11

“Now standing there were six stone water-jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons…”

Six stone jars. 

Let’s round to the middle, say twenty-five gallons. 

Unlike my boys’ homework, this is the sort of math I know how to do. 

If, or when the United Methodist implodes over the sexuality issue, I could get a gig in a restaurant kitchen. 

Back in Middle School, I was the Doogie Howser of Home Economics. 

My Italian grandma was a chef. 

I’m got knife skills. 

I’ve got all the mother sauces memorized. 

I’m a pretty good cook. 

So, that’s four quarts to a gallon. 

One quart equals roughly six glasses (cabernet glasses) giving you a minimum grand total of 2,160 glasses of wine-that-had-been-water. 

That’s a lot of wine. 

Even if you’re hanging out at a cigar bar with Rudy and Lev Parnas, that’s a prodigal amount of booze.  

And Jesus makes not Three Buck Chuck, Jesus transforms water into top shelf Pinot. 

Pretty impressive party trick, Jesus. 

But, not to be outdone, Jesus’ friends— you and I, the Church, especially the United Methodist Church— we’ve somehow managed to pull off the more difficult feat of transforming the Gold Medal wine of Grace into the tasteless, odorless, joyless, ordinary, everyday water of the Law. 

We’ve turned the Gospel into Iocane Powder! (poison)

Jesus kicks off the salvation of the world by turning water into wine, but we’ve pulled off the more impossible trick of turning his wine back into water. 

Jesus can turn water into wine, sure, but look at us. 

We’re like David Copperfield walking through the Great Wall of China. 

We’re able to turn Christ’s wine back into water.

And, Jesus just did it at Cana that one time— that’s it. 

We turn his wine into water, again and again and again and again…

I’m sorry. 

I apologize. 

I realize this is like a rookie’s mistake, beginner’s stuff. I know it’s bad rhetorical strategy to give away my main point right at the get go. Wine into water— what the hell was I thinking? 

I was on vacation. I haven’t preached since Christmas. I’m out of practice. 

So, forget all about that phrase “wine into water.” 

Think about anything other than “wine into water.”  

Pretend I never said anything about how we turn wine back into water. 

Whatever you do, don’t think at all about how we revert his wine into water.  

———————-

One hundred and fifty gallons for drunk people to drink— that’s a pretty impressive sleight of hand. Still though, it’s a queer way for Jesus to begin his redemptive work. 

In John’s Gospel, Jesus begins his ministry not by preaching or teaching, not by casting out demons or curing disease. 

Jesus doesn’t lift up a single, lowly poor person or speak one syllable of truth to power. 

Instead, in John’s Gospel, Jesus kicks off his redemptive work by being Mary’s plus one at a wedding party, a celebration where Jesus, in a pinch, proves he’s an even better bartender than Tom Cruise in the 1988 film Cocktail. 

It seems like a strange way for John to begin the story of our salvation. 

And then John interrupts the party play-by-play to report to you that, “Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory…”

And notice—

John doesn’t call the wine that had been water a miracle. 

John calls the wine that had been water a sign. 

Miracles are momentary intrusions by God into the natural order. 

Miracles are ends in themselves. 

But signs point beyond themselves. 

In Matthew, Mark, and Luke Jesus performs miracles. 

But in John’s Gospel, Jesus does signs— seven signs. 

Signs signify. 

We’re meant to see more here than a miracle. 

We’re meant to see more here than a marriage supper. 

And there’s so much here to see! 

———————-

Take the six stone jars— they’re a sign. 

This wedding at Cana, it isn’t the sort of wedding where your Aunt Becky buys credentials online for $69.99 in order to be able to officiate the I dos. 

This wedding at Cana is a worship service; therefore, you can’t just show up with your invite, black tie, and gift from Williams Sonoma. 

To come to this wedding is to come before God and, according to the Bible, God is not like Mr. Rogers. 

You’re not acceptable before God just the way you are. 

You have to be made acceptable. 

You have to be purified. 

You have to be justified. 

And so, as the guests would arrive for the nuptials, before they’d get handed their programs, they’d dip their hands into the stone jars to wash away their sin and render themselves ritually clean. 

The jars were made of stone, not clay, because clay is porous, and the water would get dirty in clay jars. 

The whole purpose of these jars is to remove impurity. 

     The water in the stone jars was to justify you, to make you blameless before a holy God. 

But, it didn’t work.

Not only are these stone jars standing empty and idle, John tells you there were six stone jars, and six (being one less than seven) is the Jewish number for incompleteness and imperfection. 

It’s a sign. 

And with this sign John’s showing you that this whole system of making ourselves acceptable before God by dint of our own good deeds and religious doings— it didn’t work. 

There’s so much here to see. 

Giving in to his mother’s grumblings, Jesus tells the caterers at Cana, “Fill the stone jars with water.” 

Do you see? 

Jesus is taking this system of making ourselves blameless and acceptable before God and transferring it to Himself. 

Jesus is taking these means by which we’re able to meet God and He’s making Himself in charge of it. 

It’s a sign. 

John wants you to see here at the get-go of his Gospel what you’ll hear later in his Gospel— that the only way you can meet God is by the gracious doing of Jesus Christ for you. 

He is “the way, the truth, and the life.”

He is your justification. 

And it’s on the house. 

By His Grace.

And for those who are not perfect and without blemish, that’s good news. 

There’s so much good news to see here. 

Notice the amount of water, one hundred and fifty gallons. 

It’s a sign.  

The Jewish Talmud specifies how much water is necessary for the ritual of purification. 

According to the Talmud, one cup of water— that’s eight fluid ounces— is enough water to purify and justify one hundred men. 

This is 19,200 ounces of water. 

My boys are better than me at that sort of math, but that’s enough water to justify almost two million people, which is more people than a first century Jew like John could imagine. 

You all have ears enough to see here, don’t you?

This is John showing you that Jesus Christ is able— able by dint not of your own doing, but by nothing but His own merit— to bring the whole world to his Father. 

It’s a sign, and John wants you to see what you’ll hear Jesus say to the woman at the well, “I am Living Water. 

Everyone who drinks of me will be thirsty again, for the water that I give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to Eternal Life.” 

     . 

There’s so much good stuff to see here. 

Like the wine— 

Jesus takes the water that was necessary because of sin, and He transforms it into two thousand glasses of the finest vintage vino. 

It’s a sign. 

According to the prophets Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, and Isaiah, the arrival of God’s cosmic work of salvation will be occasioned by an abundance of the best wine. 

John wants you to see that the incarnation of Jesus Christ into our world is God making good on God’s promise to the prophet Isaiah today. 

When Israel languished in exile, convicted of their sin and convinced God had abandoned them for breaking their vow to him, God chooses a marriage supper, a wedding party, as the image for how God would redeem his sinful people and reconcile all of Creation. 

John wants you to see that with the arrival of God-in-the-flesh in our world the not yet of God’s redemptive work is here and now.

It’s a sign. 

With all these wine glasses, John wants you to see that the future promised to Isaiah is present tense in Jesus Christ; therefore, water is only the beginning of what he’s about to transform. 

Do you see? 

It’s a sign of what He promises later in the Gospel, “I have come so that you may have life and have it abundantly.”  

There’s so much good news to see here. 

Take the timing. 

John tells you that Jesus and the disciples arrive to this wedding party at Cana on the third day. The third day since when, exactly? 

It’s an unhelpful, extraneous detail unless what John wants you to see is a hint of when Mary Magdalene will arrive at the empty tomb on the third day, the first morning of a New Creation. 

Speaking of a New Creation, this third day in Cana is actually the seventh day thus far in John’s Gospel. 

John, who begins his Gospel with a deliberate echo of the Genesis Creation story, numbers the days in his Gospel just like Genesis, too. 

If you turn to John 1.19, you’ll see John says on the “first day.” 

And then in verse 29, John tells you “on the next day,” and then in verse 35, John says, “on the next day.” 

So, that’s three days, and then in chapter 1, verse 43, John again says “on the next day.” 

That’s four days, and then when you turn to chapter two and the wedding at Cana, John tells you “three days later.” 

On the seventh day. 

This marriage supper at Cana where Jesus arrives as a guest but ends up acting as the host (“Do whatever he says,” Mary orders the caterers), it happens on the seventh day. 

Translation, this is no ordinary wedding party at all. 

It’s a sign. 

It points beyond itself. 

You’re supposed to see here at the beginning of Christ’s work a glimpse of the end of Christ’s work, the consummation of all things. 

This marriage supper where Jesus ends up acting as the host— it’s a sign of salvation. 

At the very end of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation, the occasion for John to announce the arrival of a new heaven and new earth, the occasion for John to announce that Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more— is a wedding party. 

John calls the end of all things, Salvation and New Creation, the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. 

The date of the wedding matters, because it’s a sign. 

John wants you to see a glimpse of your destiny. 

And when you realize this wedding party at Cana is meant to point to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, New Creation, Heaven, Eternal Life, the whole kit and kaboodle of everything God ever spoke into existence— only when you see that this wedding is a sign of that marriage supper can you begin to laugh at the outrageousness of God’s indiscriminating grace. 

Jesus makes the best wine for drunk people to drink. 

He pours bottomless glasses of top shelf wine for people too drunk to appreciate drinking it. 

He takes the water from the stone jars and transforms it into gold medal wine for people too drunk to know what He’s done.

     As the master of the feast says to the groom, “Everyone brings out the best wine first and then the cheap wine last, but you have saved the best wine for now when they’re drunk.” 

     Even more crazy, the bridegroom and his family, who failed to purchase enough wine for the celebration, they end up getting the credit for what Christ has done.

     The party planner tastes the wine that had been water, John says, and he chalks it up to the bridegroom’s extravagance. 

They get the credit that Christ alone merits. 

As though, they had done it themselves. 

It’s a sign. 

Surely, you can see its meaning?

———————-

Earlier this week one of you emailed me an article you found online. I clicked the link and quickly praised God it had nothing to do with the LGBTQ issue in the UMC (at least, not obviously so). In fact, it was an obituary in the Des Moines Register. 

I realize it might sound odd to mention death in the context of a wedding story except (a) every married couple will appreciate the irony, and (b) even Jesus interrupts this wedding with talk of crucifixion. “Woman, what concern is that to me? My hour has not yet come.”

The obituary was for a Nebraskan named, Ken Fuson. 

And it’s one of those obituaries that’s more than just an obituary. 

It’s a, well, it’s a sign. 

Ken Fuson’s sons wrote:

“Ken Fuson was born June 23, 1956 and died Jan. 3, 2020 in at Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, of liver cirrhosis, and is stunned to learn that the world is somehow able to go on without him.

Ken attended the University of Missouri-Columbia’s famous School of Journalism, which is a clever way of saying, “almost graduated, but didn’t.” Facing a choice between covering a story for the Columbia Daily Tribune or taking his final exams, Ken went for the story. He never claimed to be smart, just committed.

In 1996, Ken took the principled stand of leaving the Des Moines Register, because The Sun in Baltimore offered him more money. Three years later, having blown most of that money at Pimlico Race Track, he returned to the Register, where he remained until 2008. In his newspaper work, Ken never won a Pulitzer Prize, but he’s dead now, so get off his back.

There are those who would suggest that becoming a free-lance writer in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression was not a wise choice, but Ken was never one to be guided by wisdom. He wrote the book, “Heading for Home” with Kent Stock, about the 1991 Norway baseball team that won the state championship in its final season. Good copies are still available.

Ken was diagnosed with liver disease at the beginning of 2019, which is pretty ironic given how he never drank, never a drop of beer, whiskey, or wine. Eat your fruits and vegetables, kids.

Ken had many character flaws – if he still owes you money, he’s sorry, sincerely – but he liked to think that he had a good sense of humor and a deep compassion for others. He prided himself on letting other drivers cut in line. He would give you the shirt off his back, even with the ever-present food stain. Thank goodness nobody asked. It wouldn’t have been pretty. He also was a master Jumbles solver.

For most of his life, Ken suffered from a compulsive gambling addiction that nearly destroyed him. But his church friends, and the loving people at Gamblers Anonymous, never gave up on him. Ken last placed a bet on Sept. 5, 2009. He died clean. He hopes that anyone who needs help will seek it, which is hard, and accept it, which is even harder. 

Miracles abound.

Ken’s pastor says God can work miracles for you and through you. Skepticism may be cool, and for too many years Ken embraced it, but Jesus Christ transformed his life. Faith was the one thing he never regretted. Jesus Christ transformed everything for him. 

For many years Ken was a member of the First United Methodist Church in Indianola and sang in the choir, which was a neat trick considering he couldn’t read a note of music. The choir members will never know how much they helped him. He then joined the Lutheran Church of Hope. If you want to know what God’s transformative love feels like, just walk in those doors. 

Seriously, go right now. We’ll wait. Ken’s not going anywhere.

Yes, this obituary is probably too long. Ken always wrote too long.

So we’ll close by saying, God is good. See you in heaven. Ken promises to let you cut in line.”

“Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory…”

There’s so much top shelf vintage stuff at this marriage supper in Cana for us to serve.

How about: 

You are justified, not by anything you do, but by the gracious doing of Jesus Christ. 

That’s here at this marriage supper. 

So is:

Not only are you blameless before God and acceptable to God— no matter what you’ve done or left undone— by grace through faith you are credited with what Jesus Christ alone has done, as though his singular faithfulness is your very own. 

That’s in here, too, at this marriage supper for you to see and for us to serve.  

Ditto Christ’s promise to give you life, abundant life, because water is the least of what Jesus Christ can transform and is transforming and will transform at the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. 

That’s here at this marriage supper for us to serve the guests of the Bridegroom. 

And that BridegroomNot only is he happy to lavish high dollar wine on drunk people to drink, in the crazy good fun of His Grace, He’s happy to let us all cut in line at Heaven’s Gate. 

Miracles abound. God is good. Jesus Christ, who is not dead, can transform anything. 

And, it’s all available to anyone at the rock bottom price of absolutely “free.” 

OUR SHELVES ARE STOCKED!

WE’VE GOT SO MUCH GOOD VINTAGE FIVE STAR STUFF TO SERVE THE BRIDEGROOM’S GUESTS! GLASS AFTER GLASS AFTER GLASS AFTER GLASS AFTER GLASS…

And yet— 

These days, in the United Methodist Church, we’re more interested in arguing over who deserves an invitation to the party. 

It’s an impressive feat, turning “wine back into water.” 

“There was no good for the Episcopal Church that came from the schism over the LGBTQ issue. None at all.”

That’s almost as good as her line about the Enneagram being astrology for Episcopalians.

Back on the podcast at last, the peerless Fleming Rutledge joins me to talk about the 20th Anniversary Edition of her book, Help My Unbelief. In addition to her book, Fleming reflects on the conservative/progressive divide in the Church, the LGBTQ debate in the UMC, the Christianity Today editorial advocating for the removal of President Trump, praying for social justice issues and preaching that incorporates current events. Oh, she also prays at the end.

Fleming’s my favorite and she should be yours too.

Don’t forget— go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com to support the pod, get some swag, subscribe to get the next episode automatically.

 


“When you dumb things down for your hearers, you only end up with dumb people.”

For the second installment of our new podcast series, You Are Not Accepted: Engaging Holiness with Stanley Hauerwas, Dr. Johanna, Teer, and I talked with Stan the Man about his essay “Without Apology. Stan shares with us why sermons should be arguments and why listeners should be respected enough to give them the Gospel rather than something allegedly “relevant.”

Before you listen, go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com where you can become a patron of the pod, get your very own Stan the Man t-shirt, or order a copy of our new book, Crazy Talk.

This Sunday’s sermon was delivered by my minion, David King. His texts were Exodus 14 and Matthew 3. For someone not even graduated from college yet, he’s a damn good preacher.

 

PRAYER: 

“Lord Jesus, rip open the heavens and come to us, reach down, reach in, disrupt, touch, embrace, speak to us. Do not leave us, O Lord, to our own devices. Abandon us not to our own voices. Speak to us, miraculously appear to us, and then give us the grace to listen. And now, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hears be acceptable in your sight, our Lord, our rock, our strength, and our redeemer. Amen.” — Will Willimon

I must say, I do not know how to preach this text.  Not that I really know how to preach at all — I am just a kid — but these texts have proven quite difficult to wrestle with, not least because of the time in which we live.  The past week has left me shocked, scared, sad, exhausted, depleted, angry, and a variety of other emotions that are not particularly conducive to preaching.  One might assume that the potential for war would make sermons easier to write.  I can assure you it does not.  The task of truthfully declaring the peace incarnate in Christ is made all the more difficult by war.  In fact, a theological analysis of war would probably conclude that this is precisely war’s purpose: to make the Gospel mute.  Understanding how baptism could bear on the prospect of war has made for tough muddling.  

You see, the fact that this country has been at war almost every single day that I have been alive means that peace — and, moreover, justice — are concepts that are difficult to entertain.  Such entertainment has been precluded by the ubiquity of war in our collective, modern lives.  In the U.S., this is true also because war does not happen here. We are blissfully untouched by the corporeal vicissitudes of militaristic violence.  The flip side of this bliss is the ignorance of the ways in which war directs and pervades every aspect of ours lives, especially those of us who live in the DC area.  We are ignorant especially of war’s tangible effects.  We see a rising defence budget, while others only see a bomb dropping towards their village.  Aeschylus was quite right to note that truth is the first casualty of war.  War and its bedfellow Fear inoculate us to the violence they require, turning children into statistics and families into cold calculations.

I should say, though, that the prospect of war is not new to me: my generation has never known the United States without war.  That I have never known this country without war is in itself a testament to the power war has to perpetuate itself.  War makes a weapon of fear, and fear makes a weapon of the mundane, meaning that the everyday occurrences constituting our normal lives must never be taken for granted.  It is a time of crippling, systematic anxiety, what Kierkegaard would have called “fear and trembling.”  

The same fear and anxiety is what strikes at the heart of the Israelites in the Exodus scripture.  This people has not known peace or justice for centuries; they have been slaves in Egypt for 400 years.  The everyday activities of their lives are marked by violence, death, suffering; all at the hands of their captors.  So when Moses comes along, we all read the text and assume the Israelites are ready to go, ready to get out of Egypt and go to the land promised to Abraham.  

“Stand still,” the inspirational plaque painted in our minds reads.  “Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord.  The lord shall fight for you, and you shall have peace.”  

But wait, look again.  Did you notice?  Israel didn’t want to go.  To say they are scared does not do justice to the situation of Israel.  They are paralysed by a fear that causes them to want to return.  The status quo of slavery to the Egyptians at least offered them the possibility of a life.  Slavery, they say, is better than death.  And further, certain early church interpreters of this Exodus text understood Egypt to represent Death itself.  What they did in identifying Egypt with death was to illustrate the sheer bind that faced the people attempting to escape.  Death stands on both sides of them, one in the form of war, the other in the form of drowning.  Israel sees death approaching, hears the march of war, and thinks, “this has got to be the end.”  

Go back – its right there in the text.  In verse 12, the Israelites yell at Moses, the drumbeat of the Egyptian army getting louder and louder by the minute.  “Let us alone, that we may serve the Egyptians. It is better to serve them than to die in the wilderness.”  They are, on all accounts, surrounded.  War and death, personified in the Egyptian army, approach from the one side, and the Red Sea surrounds them on the other.  They are sure to lose the battle, and they cannot survive the swim.  The fear that Rameses held over them as slaves sets in once again, and the Israelites are afraid to leave.  The fear strikes at the very core of their being.  

Don’t get me wrong here: I am not blaming the Israelites for wanting to survive, no matter the cost.  Their situation is the very opposite of envious.  It seems that the only option is surrender.  

But they are the people of God, and if there is any lesson to be drawn from that, it is that God will make his way happen, whether they like it or not.  That’s why Moses’ directions is to tell them to stand still.  Don’t do anything, Moses says, or you’ll muck up God’s work.  

And then, well, you know the story.  Moses raises his staff, and God does the rest.  Egypt is no more, and Israel is saved.  They are baptised in the Red Sea.  

Fast forward a while and we find John, a rather extraordinary person dropped in the middle of the height of the Roman Empire to call Israel to repentance.  He comes from the desert, from an undesirable place, calling out from the wilderness.  He calls Israel out of Rome.  John’s call to repentance mirrors Moses’ command to the Israelites: “stand still, and see the salvation of the Lord.”  “Repent ye,” John says, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  Come, be baptised, John urges.  

Until Jesus comes along.

Then John stops.  “I can’t baptise you,” he says.  “I’m not even worthy to touch your sandals.  In fact, you should baptise me.”  John’s right.  For all intents and purposes, John is right.  The man before him is not a sinner; Jesus has no need to be baptised.  There is nothing, John thinks, that he can do for Jesus.  Putting aside John’s good-willed intention to tell God what God ought to be doing, John is right to wonder why Jesus comes to be baptised.  The judge comes among the judged to be baptised; the one who is without sin approaches John with the worst of criminals.  And John is right to be confused.  Here is the man he has been waiting to see his whole life, the Messiah of the world, and he wants to be baptised? For what? 

“Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfil all righteousness,” Jesus says.  

Did you get that? Baptism, His baptism, is necessary “to fulfil all righteousness.”  He didn’t say, “Baptism is necessary for my personal repentance.” He didn’t say, “we need baptism to get to heaven.”  He didn’t say, “baptism is about your choice to have a relationship with God.” No! Jesus is emphatic: “my baptism,” he says, “is necessary to fulfil all righteousness.”  

Baptism, Jesus says, is about me.  Baptism is about who I am.  

Just like when God saves Israel through the Red Sea, the baptism isn’t about them.  The baptism of Israel is about God.  Baptism reveals to us not who we are, but who God is.  Israel rejects God, and yet God parts the waters and drags them through to the other side.  God refuses to let them return to slavery.  The exodus story parallels what God does for us in the baptism of our Lord. Christ is baptised such that we may all be baptised — Christ’s baptism brings us through, kicking and screaming, from the clutches of death and slavery.  In Christ’s baptism, the law is fulfilled.  Whereas before, Jesus came in the form of a cloud that separated the Israelites from the Egyptians, in his baptism he is fully revealed to us as the Son in whom the Father is well pleased.  

The God who is baptised in the Jordan by John is the one who seeks us out first and speaks to us first, in fact, speaks us into existence. We cannot conjure up this God; we could not think him up. If we could, we wouldn’t need to be told who he is.  But the whole purpose of John’s baptism of Jesus is for us, for Israel, to find out who this sinless man really is.  And as if it isn’t enough of a slap in our rational faces, this God who would humble himself to receive a sinner’s baptism is the God who saves us despite our rejection of him. The baptism of Christ is the moment in which the character of God is revealed, the character of the God who brought the Israelites through the Red Sea despite themselves.  

So yes, I understand that the title of this sermon may be somewhat controversial, but it is true.  Salvation is by baptism alone… Salvation is by His baptism alone.  The baptism we have, the practice by which God enfolds us in Christ’s story, is the means by which we understand who God is.  That we baptise babies is no joke: they are the precise markers of someone who cannot confess, who cannot conceive of their own sin, who is ignorant of everything except itself.  Infant baptism shows us that our God, the God whose name is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is the centrepiece of baptism.  Baptism is the moment in which God tears open the world, breaks in and declares the Son ‘good.’  

If baptism is really about revelation, if it is really about God showing us who God is, then the baptism of Christ cannot be abstracted from the cross on which he will hang later in the story.  That is, Christ’s baptism and Christ’s crucifixion are two moments of the same revelation.  Which means that to be baptised is to be baptised into death, into Christ’s death.  The tearing open of the Red Sea is a foreshadowing of the tearing open of the heavens in Christ’s baptism, which in turn is the same salvation indicated by the tearing of the temple veil on Good Friday.  

When we are baptised, we are baptised into the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.  We are baptised into our own deaths, and reborn in his life.  The life of Christ is embodied in the people, the body that believes that war has been abolished, that death has been defeated, and that a new ruler has been enthroned. Notice: we are not a people who believe we have to work to abolish war.  Our baptism, the act in which we find out just what kind of God we worship, tells us already that war has been defeated.  It has been defeated because Christ has been baptised, because God broke into the world and did not let death win.  

Matthew tells us that the dove of peace, the Holy Spirit, alights on Jesus when he emerges from the waters.  That this happens indicates to us that every prophecy has been fulfilled in the one who humbled himself and took our form.  And it tells us that war is no more.  War lost its stranglehold of fear when Jesus emerged from the waters of the Jordan.  The world has been baptised.  And that means that our hope is not in vain.  

I offer to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. AMEN.  

Dr. Johanna Hartelius, host of Hemeneutics, is hosting a new podcast series for Crackers and Grape Juice called “You Are Not Accepted: Engaging Hauerwas on Holiness.” Every other Wednesday Johanna, Jason Micheli, and Teer Hardy will discuss a writing by the theologian Stanley Hauerwas and oftentimes with Stanley Hauerwas. For our first episode, we talked with Stanley about his essay in Minding the Web entitled “Preaching in the Ruins.”

 

    Matthew 2.1-12

     When I first sat down on the plane, I did what anyone would do. 

     I began thumbing through the pages of SkyMall.  

     A Kenny G Muzak cover of Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” played over the speakers as the throng of travelers stepped on board and stowed their carry-on above them. 

     Across the aisle, a boy who looked to be in the third or fourth grade was wailing loud enough to make the veins in his neck pop out. His mother had her arm around him and was saying “shush,” but the boy was inconsolable. 

     Behind me, a woman argued with her husband: “All I know is that if your mother treats me like she did last Thanksgiving this year, I won’t keep my mouth shut.”

     On my right, a teenage girl was smacking her gum and blowing bubbles. On her lap she had opened a copy of Seventeen magazine. She was reading an article about teens and plastic surgery and how to know when too much plastic surgery is too much. Sitting on my left, a middle-aged man in an expensive-looking suit was barking orders into his iPhone. He had a Wall Street Journal, as well as a Financial Times folded underneath his arm and a leather tote overflowing with papers on his lap. 

     He spoke with a Northeastern accent— Boston maybe— and he smelled so strongly of cologne that I couldn’t help but wonder if his musk had real bits of panther in it. 

     He kept barking instructions into his phone until the stewardess came over and shot him a stern look and told him we were getting ready for takeoff.     

And there I was, the happy, holiday traveler, stuck in the middle of Bernie Madoff and Miley Cyrus. 

 

     I was flying home from a speaking gig I had in Tyler, Texas, and I had an early morning flight. The sky was still dark enough that when we were in the air, you could see the stars. 

     Once we were in the air, the girl to my right had moved on to read an article about eyeshadow. 

     Seriously, eyeshadow.

And the woman behind me— though it sounded like she was actually in my ear canal— was giving a blow-by-blow recount of the last holiday she’d had to spend with her husband’s mother. 

     Having had many of these same conversations with my own wife, I didn’t bother to turn around. Even without looking, I knew her husband was looking sheepish and emasculated, and probably gritting his teeth in a ‘serenity now’ kind-of-way. 

     “Where you headed?” the businessman on my left asked. 

     And I thought to myself: “Well, it says Atlanta on my ticket, but it feels like I’m already half-way to Hell.”

     “I’m headed home, D.C.,” I said. 

     He chuckled and said, “Good luck.” 

     Now, I don’t like to talk to people on airplanes. 

     It’s not that I’m unfriendly or shy. It’s just that I learned early on in my ministry that there are certain situations in which revealing to a stranger that I’m a pastor can provoke interminable, unwanted conversations. 

    

     Ironically, though, I’ve learned that one of the best ways to avoid conversation with strangers on planes is by taking my Bible out of my bag and simply opening it up on the tray table in front of me. 

     You don’t even have to read it, necessarily. You can just leave it open like a force field of personal space. 

     Religious people will think you’re doing your devotions and will respect your privacy, while non-religious people won’t say anything for the fear that you’re Baptist and might evangelize them. 

     And, if you really want to make sure no one bothers you, just open it up to the Book of Revelation along with the current issue of Guns and Ammo. 

     

Stops them every time. 

     That morning I thumbed through SkyMall and I had my Bible out and opened, not to Revelation, but to Matthew— not only to stymy potential conversation with the businessman to my left, but also, because Advent was ahead and I thought I’d jot down some sermon notes while I had the chance. 

     Meanwhile, the businessman sitting next to me pulled out his laptop and opened it up. He had at least a dozen windows opened in his browser, the homepages for all sorts of stores: Williams Sonoma, REI, Pottery Barn, Kate Spade. You name it.He pored over them like he was reading an ancient map. 

     He had Excel open on his computer, and he was building a Christmas shopping spreadsheet. He was typing in the name of the item, the cost, the person who would receive the gift, and then he inserted a hyperlink to the company’s website. Every now and then he would click the “Sum” button on the screen, giving him a grand total cost for his 2019 Christmas. 

           I went back to thumbing through the Christmas issue of SkyMall, where I saw that I could get a replica Kylo Ren lightsaber for only $800.00. 

     I was just thinking to myself who in their right mind would pay that much money for a fake lightsaber— especially for the bad guy’s lightsaber— when the guy sitting next to me said, “Hey, can I see that a minute? My nephew would love that.” 

     I watched while he typed all the information into his spreadsheet. His nephew’s name was Brian. He handed SkyMall back to me and with his tiny travel-sized mouse he clicked “Save.” 

     After he finished, he let out a deep, exhausted sigh. And he said, “It’s the same every year. This can’t be what it’s all about. Can it?”

     I looked over at him. “You talking to me?” I said as the fingers of my right hand deftly felt over my bible for the Book of Revelation.      

           “Yeah”, he said. 

     “Are you religious,” he asked, and nodded at the Bible on my tray. 

     “Yeah, I guess so,” I said. 

     “That’s good,” he said in an absent sort of voice. “I’m not. I mean, I’ve searched before for….” 

     I let his voice trail off. 

     A few moments passed and he asked what I was reading, in the Bible. 

     “It’s the story of the magi,” I said. He just blinked at me like a deer in headlights. 

     “The what?”

     “The wise men,” I said. 

     

He said, “Right, I know what you’re talking about. I’ve seen them in those displays in people’s yards. They have the turbans and the camels, right? They’re the ones who follow the star to the manger?”

     “Not exactly,” I said. “They go to Jerusalem first, not the manger in Bethlehem. It’s close but they’re off by about nine miles.” 

     “Sounds like they must’ve let their wives drive,” he laughed. 

     I thought that might be the end of it. I was just about to turn to Revelation or pull out Guns and Ammo, or pretend I was asleep. 

     But then he asked me, “Why do they go to Jerusalem first?”

     “Well, they were looking for a King. The magi were just like us, educated, rich and sophisticated. They came from a powerful nation,” I said.

     “They went to Jerusalem first, because they just assumed any ‘King’ worth their worship would be found at the center of money and might.” 

     He smiled at me and said, “In other words, they thought they could celebrate Christmas by traveling, giving a few gifts, and then getting back to their normal lives.” 

      And, I smiled and said, “Something like that.”

 

      

     Outside the window the stars were starting to fade against the oncoming sunrise.  The woman behind me was giving her husband the silent treatment. And, the girl next to me had fallen asleep reading 50 Shades of Grey, with a half-blown bubble of gum spread across her bottom lip. The man next to me sat up and turned towards me. 

     “Can I read it?” he asked. 

     “Well, you’ll have to ask her when she wakes up,” I said, “but I don’t think that’s the kind of book you borrow from someone.” 

     

“No, not that book,” he said. 

     And, he held out his hand for my Bible. So, I handed it to him. I pointed out the first part of Chapter Two. “It’s this part,” I said. 

He must’ve read it several times, searched over the words as though they contained the universe. 

     When he was done, he turned a few pages further into Matthew’s Gospel and then he turned a few pages back. 

     Then he held the Bible out to me, and he put his index finger down at the page.

     

“What’s this?” he asked me. 

     He was pointing to the poem indented in Matthew’s Gospel text: 

And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people.

     “That’s from Micah,” I said, “from the Old Testament.” 

     “Can you show me?” he asked. 

     And, I flipped back into the Old Testament until I found Micah, the peasant prophet, and handed it back to him. 

     “It’s short,” I warned, “only a few pages long.” 

     I watched him read it, gazing over the constellation of words. 

     I saw him furrow his brows intensely at times and wondered what he might be reading.

    When he finished reading, he just sat holding it for a while. Then, he handed it back to me.  

“It’s about Jesus, right?” he asked. 

I must’ve looked confused, because he pointed at the Bible and added, “The Old Testament passage. What’s his name? Michael was making an…uh…a prediction about Jesus?” 

“Sort of,” I said,

“Prediction makes it sound like a guess or, at best, a bet— like Micah’s not sure of what’s to come. It’s a prophecy. It’s a promise about what’s to come. And Matthew wants you to see that the coming of Christ is God making good on what Micah promised was to come.” 

“In other words,” he said, “it’s saying Jesus is the reason for the season.” 

“Well, actually, no.” I said, “Jesus is not the reason for the season.” 

“What do you mean Jesus is not the reason for the season?” 

He threw up his hands like we bartering in a market and I’d insulted him with my offer. 

“I hear Christians saying “Jesus is the reason for the season” all the time. My neighbor has a sign in his front yard next to a wicker reindeer that says, “Jesus is the reason for the season.”” 

“Well, it shouldn’t be news to you that Christians have screwed the pooch on a good many things over the years.”

He chuckled. 

“Your neighbor’s wrong,” I said, “Jesus isn’t the reason for the season.” 

“You’re pretty argumentative, aren’t you?” he said.

“No,” I said, “I just happen to be right.” 

“When I first saw you with your Bible, I thought maybe you were a priest or a preacher, but there’s no way church folks could put up with someone as lippy as you.” 

“Probably not.” I smiled, “that’s why I’m an architect; nevertheless, I’m right. Jesus isn’t the reason for the season.” 

He just looked at me like I was full of it. 

“Look,” I said, unbuckling my seat belt, so I could turn and face him, “You are the reason for the season. Saying “Jesus is the reason for the season” is like saying, “My cousin is the reason for April Fool’s Day.” It’s so obvious and redundant it doesn’t convey anything. No, the “reason for the season”— the reason for Christ’s coming— is you.” 

“I’ve never heard it put that way before,” he said, starting to chew on it. 

“Sure, you have,” I said. “You just weren’t paying attention. It’s in the Creed, “for us and for our salvation He came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man.” It’s in the carols too,” I said. “For unto us a Child is born, for unto us a Son is given…” Salvation is a gift for you, not a bargain with you.” 

“I just figured that “Jesus is the reason for the season” was a way of saying people should remember to give God his due while they’re busy giving everyone else gifts. You know, that Christmas isn’t our birthday, so we shouldn’t leave Jesus off our gift list.”

“Well, that may be what the cliché means, but it’s still not the Gospel. It’s not even in the same area code as the Gospel. It’s a million zipcodes away from the Gospel,” I said. 

“You’re pretty opinionated too, aren’t you?” he said.

“Maybe so, but— Look, there’s nothing peculiarly Christian about thinking we ought to give God our praise or charity. Every religion thinks their god is the reason for their holy days. Big deal. But the really bad idea— the suggestion that has not a scrap or grisel of the good news in it— is the hare-brained notion that Christmas is about you needing to give God anything.”

“What about the Christmas carol?” he said. “I’ve got the James Taylor cover of it. How does it go? “Yet, what I can I give Him, give my heart?””

I nodded. 

“It’s a pretty tune, but it’s tone deaf theology. Why in the world would you give Jesus your heart? The only thing in your heart is sin and cholesterol.”

He laughed. 

“Even the promise from the prophet Micah,” I said. 

“People love the line about doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly, but the prophecy ends two chapters later with Micah throwing his hands up in the air and bemoaning that there’s not a single righteous person among the lot of us, and that if there’s going to be any hope— even for the religious— then God will have to come down and find a way to cast away all our sins for us.”

“The Gospel begins where you end. Christmas isn’t about you needing to give God anything. Christmas is about you not having anything at all whatsoever to give God, so God comes down in the flesh to give you Christ and everything that belongs to him. Christmas is about receiving, not giving.”

“I don’t know about all this Jesus stuff,” he said. “I feel pretty lost most of the time.”

“The magi got themselves lost too,” I said, “God was still determined to find them.” 

      We started our descent. The stars had leeched and disappeared in the sky. The sun was coming up through the windows. I’d closed my eyes. 

     “I thought that story was supposed to have shepherds and angels in it,” he said. 

“That’s Luke’s Gospel,” I said. “Matthew says everything he wants to say about Christmas with the wise men.” 

“But the wise men give Jesus gifts. If Christmas is about receiving, then why do the wise men give Jesus gifts?” he said.

“The gifts they give him— frankincense, gold, and myrrh— they’re gifts for a King, but they’re also gifts for a burial. They’re meant to be gifts that foreshadow the gifts Christ gives you.” 

He just looked at me blankly. 

“Jesus lives the life of perfect faithfulness that God requires of us all. He lives that life for us, and for that faithful life, God has made him King and seated him at the right hand of the Father— that’s the gold. 

“Jesus dies to Sin in our stead— that’s the myrrh. 

“And, Jesus is our Great High Priest who has made a perfect, once-for-all sacrifice so that we can come before God holy and blameless— that’s the frankincense. 

“Through his faithfulness lived for you and his death to sin offered instead of you, God gives you Christ’s righteousness— Christ’s permanent perfect record— as your very own. 

“Nothing you do for God or give to God could ever improve upon the gift God gives you in Christ at the rock bottom price of free,” I said.

“And what do I got to do to get this gift?” he said.

“Nothing,” I said. 

“Nothing?! What’s the catch?” he said.

“No catch. The Gospel works like a wedding vow. 

He’s already said, “I do,” to you. 

Everything that belongs to Him is yours forever and everything that once belonged to you (your sin) became His forever. 

There’s nothing for you to do but trust that it’s so and live your life with Him. 

And there’s nothing you can do to undo that gift, either. 

You can prove to be a less than faithful bride, but you’re still his bride and, as his bride, everything that’s His is yours. 

You can blow $800.00 on a Kylo Ren lightsaber or waste hours reading 50 Shades of Grey; nevertheless, whenever God looks upon you, the Father will always see Mary’s Son,” I said.

“But I’ve got to believe in it first, right?” he said.

“Only in the sense that there’s nothing for you to do but believe it. It’s his faithfulness that justifies you before God not your faith in him,” I said.

     And, just like that, we’d landed and were waiting for the seats in front of us to empty. 

“Maybe you wouldn’t make a completely terrible preacher,” he said, “Except…”

“Except what?” I asked.  

     “Aren’t ministers all dull and creepy?”

     I laughed and said… “pretty much.” 

“I bet we’d all be less stressed out at Christmas,” he said, “and less judgmental about how much or how little we’re supposed to spend on gifts if we all believed that we’re the reason for all the celebrating,” he said and then clipped his teeth like he was biting off the rest his sentence. 

“It all feels too convenient, too good to be true.”

“I’m not making it up,” I said. 

“It’s right there in the nativity story. The celebrating starts in heaven. Don’t you see, you’re the gift God gives to himself at Christmas.”

He smiled and said, “Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas.”

And then we went our separate ways.

Top Episodes of 2019

Jason Micheli —  December 28, 2019 — Leave a comment

Crackers and Grape Juice will celebrate it’s fourth birthday this spring, cranking out a new episode every Friday. As we close out 2019, here are the most popular episodes from the past year.

Barbara Brown Taylor — Holy Envy

David Bentley Hart — That All Shall Be Saved

Phillip Cary — The Meaning of Protestant Theology 

Steve Harper — Holy Love

Emma Green — Because Beth Moore is Their Pastor

Mark Galli recently set off a Twitter war and a media feeding frenzy for his editorial in Christianity Today, of which Galli is editor-in-chief, arguing for the removal of President Donald Trump. While Trump labled CT a “far-left” magazine, it is in fact the National Review of conservative Protestants. Galli is also the author of a number of books. His most recent, Karl Barth for Evangelicals, is the topic of our conversation.

 

You can find Mark’s editorial here

Paradise for the Insane

Jason Micheli —  December 24, 2019 — Leave a comment


Christmas Eve — Isaiah 9, John 1

The first time I ever went to church was on a night like tonight; it was a cold and crowded Christmas Eve. My mother made me go. When she said through my bedroom door, “Get dressed in something nice, we’re going to church,” somewherea needle scratched clear off a record. 

At that point in my life, the closest I’d ever come to church was with Kevin McAllister and Old Man Marley in Home Alone.

We’d never gone to church before. We sat far up in the balcony in some of the last seats left. From the discreet removal of the balcony, I learned “Silent Night” had more than one verse, and I discovered that the wise men, whom someone called magi, were conspicuously missing from the gospel lesson the woman wearing an “ugly Chrismas sweater” read to us.

I was a teenager. 

And, I didn’t want to go. 

Why would anyone want to ruin Christmas by going to church? I didn’t want to get dressed up. I didn’t want to sing songs that others knew better than me. I didn’t want to listen to a middle-aged gasbag preach at me and try to make it all go down easier by telling lame jokes and making tame pop culture allusions.

Now, I’m the middle-aged gasbag some of you are forced to endure and— fair warning— lame jokes are the only sorts of jokes the geezers will let me get away with  on Christmas Eve, so don’t get your hopes up.

But, God got to me. 

And I’m up here, now because years ago someone forced me to sit out there on a night like tonight, even though I felt so woefully out of place as to feel “unwelcome.” 

My point is that I know firsthand how Christmas Eve is a night when all sorts of people gather from different places in life and do so for a variety of reasons. Whoever you are, from wherever you have come, and whatever the reasons that brought you here, “welcome.” 

You might be an every Sunday regular listening for bits of sermons you’ve already heard. Welcome.

You might be parents of amped up kids with sugar in their veins and Santa on their minds; meanwhile, you’re sitting there wondering if you’re out of Scotch tape or AA batteries, and if the CVS and the ABC will still be open by the time the service is done. Welcome.

You might be a fingers-crossed skeptic, thinking you’re the only one here tonight with more questions than clarity. You’re wrong and you’re still welcome. 

You might be depressed and feel no joy in you tonight. And that’s okay because tonight the joy isn’t about you, it’s about something that has happened outside of you. So, welcome.

Maybe you yelled at your wife on the way over here tonight. Welcome. 

Maybe you’re like Alan Rickman in Love Actually and have a present hidden in your pocket that your wife thinks is for her. If so, A) Joni Mitchell never makes a good gift and B) Welcome. 

Maybe you’re secretly relieved your sister won’t be coming this year. Welcome. 

Maybe you’re giddy with spite that your ex-husband won’t see the kids this holiday. Welcome. 

Maybe you’re terrified you can’t make it through another Christmas on the wagon. Welcome. 

Maybe you can’t believe to see your Trump-loving neighbor here tonight. Welcome. 

Maybe you can’t believe your Trump-hating neighbor is here tonight. Welcome. 

Maybe all the images of the baby Jesus this season just make you think of Baby Yoda and, after five weeks and seven episodes of the Mandalorian, you just want to strangle that little green Benjamin Button. 

Welcome to you too.

Tonight, all of you are as welcomed as the next person because, contrary to what you may have heard, Christianity is not a club of good, pious, religious, moral people making their way up to God. 

Christianity is about God coming down— God coming down in Jesus Christ— to people like us. 

People whose goodness is inconstant. 

People whose piety is imperfect. 

People whose morality is convenient and whose faith is unreliable.

All of us— 

We’re all guests tonight of the God who has come down to us in the flesh. 

To dwell with us. 

We’ve all been welcomed as God’s guests— just as we are.

———————-

Here, I’ve got a Christmas story for you. 

Ellen Baxter is the founder of Broadway Housing Communities in New York. 

In the 1970’s as a pyschology student at Bowdoin College, Baxter set out to discover a more humane way to treat the mentally ill. 

As an undergraduate, she’d faked her way onto a pyschiatrict ward with a bogus diagnosis of dangerous depression, so that she could observe how the patients were treated. 

She left convinced that American culture’s obsession with improving and fixing and changing ourselves had infected the mental health system, too. “We’re stuck on recovery,” I heard her tell NPR, “but when you fail to deal with people as they are, when you’re dead set determined to fix them and change them, you end up changing them for the worse, because you erode their humanity.”  

Ellen Baxter’s research through old medical journals and pyschology articles led her to a modest village in Belgium named Geel (pronounced, “Heil”)

According to those dusty journals, Geel had the highest success rate of recovery for the mentally ill.

At the center of Geel is a church dedicated to St. Dymphna, who was martyed in Geel in the 7th century. 

St. Dymphna is the patron saint of the mentally ill, which is why, beginning in the 8th century, Geel became a pilgrimage destination for the mentally ill. 

Five centuries later, starting in the 13th century, the residents of Geel began boarding those pilgrims into their homes. 

Geel became a place where everyday people (farmers, bartenders, blacksmiths) welcomed insane strangers into their homes no questions asked, just as they were, no matter the risks, welcomed them “like they would a beloved aunt or uncle.” 

By the 19th century, this practice of hospitality earned Geel the nickname, “Paradise for the Insane.” 

And by the turn of the 20th century, this Christian practice became a public system where doctors place patients into the homes of hosts, who have no idea what diagnosis their guests bring with them. 

By 1930, over a quarter of all the residents of Geel were mentally ill— about 10,000 people. 

According to Ellen Baxter, the average length of stay for a guest with a host family— and notice, they call them “guests,” not patients— is 28.5 years; meanwhile, a third of all the guests stay with the same host family for almost fifty years. 

They take these broken, crazy guests into their homes, and they live with them and they die with them. 

Ellen Baxter won a grant fellowship to spend a year studying in Geel. 

She describes going from house to house in Geel, interviewing host families, asking the same questions and always getting the same answers. 

“Do you find it to be a burden? 

No.”

“Do you find it tiring?

No.” 

“Do you find it painful?

It’s just life, a bus driver told her.” 

“Over and over again, I heard the same responses from the host families I would visit. Host families would shrug their shoulders and reply that “crazy” is just part of normal life. It made me wonder,” Ellen Baxter says, “if I had stumbled upon a race of angels.” 

But, Ellen Baxter says she still didn’t understand why the villagers of Geel were so successful at rehabilitating guests— more successful than modern medicine and these are peope with serious mental illnesses— until she met the “buttons guy.” 

The buttons guy was a middle-aged man, a boarder, who, every single day, would twist all the buttons off his shirt, nervously twirl them off slowly every single day. And every single night, his host mother would sew all the buttons back onto the buttons guy’s shirt. 

Every day he twists them off. 

And every night she sews them back on. 

“What a waste of time,” Ellen said when she first heard the host mom describe what she did in order to live with the buttons guy, “You should sew the buttons back on with fishing line so that way he can’t twist them off.”

And the host mom reacted with offense, 

“No! No, that’s the worst thing you could do. This man needs to twist the buttons off. It helps him— to twist the buttons off every day.”

“You don’t understand,” the host mom explained to Ellen Baxter, “In order to accept mentally ill people into your home, you first have to accept what they’re doing. You have to accept their oddness and their idiosyncracies. You’ve got to let them take their buttons off. Being with them is the first step in being able to do anything for them.”

And that’s when Ellen Baxter stumbled upon what she calls “the solution of no solution.” 

Once she knew what to look for in Geel, she saw it practiced from house to house. 

What freed guests for healing and rehabilitation was the way their hosts refuse to treat them as people with problems to be fixed. 

Instead, they just welcomed them into their homes to share life with them. The hosts’ acceptance of their guests without any expectation of changing them is, in itself, the elixir with the power to change them. 

Ellen Baxter calls what she found in the homes of Geel “the strange healing power of not trying to fix the problem.” 

In the Church, we call it grace. 

And it’s why we call this story that gives us Christ Gospel. 

It’s good news! 

———————-

John doesn’t give you the Christmas story the way Matthew or Luke tell it. John doesn’t mention Caesar or a census or a star over the city of the shepherd king. There’s no manger, no donkey, neither a Joseph nor an angel.  John gives you his Christmas story by telling you that the Word which spoke the stars into the sky “became flesh and dwelled with us.” 

The Law— God’s expectations for who you should be and what you should do and how you should change and fix yourself— came through Moses, John announces as excitedly as the angel Gabriel in those other Christmas stories. 

But, the strange healing power of not trying to fix the problem has come through Jesus Christ. 

The Word became flesh and lived with us, John writes. 

And the word John uses there for “Word” (logos), is the same word the Old Testament uses for the tabernacle, the make-shift tent the Israelites pitched as they wandered in the wilderness. 

As God’s people journeyed for forty years, from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land, God journeyed with them in the tabernacle. 

The word in Hebrew is dabar. 

It’s the same word the Bible uses to describe the ten words of God, the Commandments, sealed inside the ark. It’s the word the Bible uses when Moses hides himself in the cleft of a rock in order to catch a glimpse of God’s glory. And it’s the word the Old Testament uses for the holy of holies in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem— the place Jesus will call his Father’s House. The holy of holies was where God lived. 

The dabar was where God met man. 

But not just anyone could meet God there at the curtain into the dabar. 

We’re too broken by sin, the Bible says, even to come close let alone be welcomed in the place where God lives. 

Only the high priest of Israel on behalf of all his people could venture near the dabar and even the high priest first needed to be made acceptable. Even the high priest had broken too many of God’s expectations, God’s Law. The high priest first needed to fix his own sin problem through ritual purification. Only then did the high priest dare come near God’s home. 

Mary’s womb is the holy of holies and in her baby, the dabar became flesh and lived with us, John tells us in his Christmas story. 

And notice, there’s no high priest in this Christmas story. 

Nothing’s been required to render you acceptable first. 

———————-

Ellen Baxter describes a guest she met in Geel named Des. 

Des suffered terrors every night that bloodthirsty lions were about to pounce through the walls to eat him. 

“It wouldn’t work to tell him the lions aren’t really there. It wouldn’t work to try to convince him that he should change and be not afraid,” his host, Toni explained. 

Instead, every night, Toni and her husband would rush outside banging pots and pans and roaring like lions themselves to scare the lions away. 

“And that would work every time,” Toni explained, “He could rest. And then, eventually, one day Des wasn’t afraid of the lions anymore, and then one day the lions weren’t there anymore. But, this is important, making him unafraid of the lions, curing him of his terrors, was not our goal. Our goal was simply to welcome Des into our home, just as he was, and to share our life with him.” 

Maybe you don’t twist the buttons off your shirt day after day. 

And you might not think bloodthirsty lions are about to leap out of the walls to eat you. 

But we all suffer delusions. And we all hear voices in our heads. 

Some of you may be crazy enough to think that you’re basically a good person and, therefore, you don’t need Mary’s boy to live for you the life of perfect faithfulness that God requires of you. 

Some of us could be so insane we actually think the sins we’ve sinned are somehow too great for Jesus Christ to have forgotten them forever in his grave. 

And, some of you just might be deluded enough to think that you’re bad, that your resentments and jealousies, your broken relationships and bitter strings of regret, somehow put you beyond God’s mercy— now that’s just plain crazy. 

Some of you actually may think that, because you tweet the right opinion or post the right position on Facebook, you’re righteous; meanwhile, some of you really think that you’re the only person here tonight who doesn’t have it all together.  

You might think you’re the only person here whose family is a disaster or whose marriage is a trainwreck.  

Or, you’re the only person here who doesn’t believe most of what I’ve preached and, therefore, it doesn’t apply to you, too. 

We all suffer delusions.

And we all hear voices in our heads. 

Voices telling us we’re unlovely or unloveable. Voices that tell us we’re inadequate or unforgiveable. 

Voices that never tire of pointing out all the ways we fall short of a standard that exists only in our heads. 

Voices that never quite go away and quit their whispering that the Gospel news is too good to be true. 

If I have one Christmas wish tonight for people like you— people like us— it’s for you to see what John wants you to see: 

that in Jesus Christ, in the humanity of God, 

God has welcomed you into his home— this is paradise for the insane.

In what the Church calls the incarnation, God has taken you into himself not as a patient (to be changed) but as a guest (to be welcomed). 

God has welcomed you into the home that is Christ’s body and wrapped you in the gift of Christ’s own perfect righteousness, to live and die with you, without any expectation or need for you first to be fixed. 

In Jesus Christ, God dwells with us, sewing our buttons back on and banging away our imaginary lions until all is calm and bright and we can rest. 

John, in his Christmas story tonight, calls that grace, and even an unbeliever like Ellen Baxter can testify to its strange healing power. 

Merry Christmas and welcome home.

For our Children’s Christmas Eve service, I scripted a series of reflections that some of the children and I delivered together, taking the verses of the carol “The Friendly Beasts” as a guide. I don’t think it sucks.

1. Jesus Our Brother, Kind and Good

Pat singing: “Jesus our brother, kind and good, was humbly born in a stable rude…”

Luke Houghton:

Hold up, “brother?” My last name isn’t Christ. Unless my mom has neglected to mention a very big piece of information, I don’t have any brothers. And if the baby Jesus is my brother, then why didn’t I get any golden fleece diapers too? How come I got stuck with the Costco brand?

Ella Houghton:

No, it’s not like that— Jesus is everybody’s brother; you, me, the guy in the back with the ugly Christmas sweater, the uncle your mom hopes doesn’t come for Christmas dinner this year, the lunch lady with her hair net. 

All of us, Jesus is our brother. 

Jason:

It’s what the Bible means by calling Mary’s baby the “Second Adam.” 

He’s the start of something new.. It’s why Matthew starts his nativity story not with the angel Gabriel, but with the very same word that starts the whole Bible. 

“Genesis.” 

“In the beginning…”

So Jesus is our brother because Jesus is the Second Adam. 

Christmas is like God’s “do-over.” 

Luke Houghton:

Do-over? What was the matter with the Old Adam?

Ella Houghton:

What was the matter with the Old Adam? Really? It’s like Indiana Jones says in Raiders of the Lost Ark, “Any of you guys ever go to Sunday School?” The problem with the Old Adam was, you know, the s-word. 

Luke Houghton:

The s-word? You mean the word my dad says during Redskins games?

Ella Houghton:

What? No. Sin. The s-word. 

Luke Houghton:

Oh right, sin— that’s the stuff we do to get on God’s naughty list, right?

Ella Houghton:

No, God’s way better than Santa. God doesn’t have a naughty list. No, sin— pay attention now— is not taking God at his word. Sin is not trusting God’s words. 

Luke Houghton:

I don’t get it. 

Jason:

Remember, God tells Adam not to eat a particular kind of fruit from a particular sort of tree, because it would make him die— must’ve not been organic or something. 

Anyways, before you can say, “Do these fig leaves make me look fat,” a snake comes slithering along and Adam must’ve understood parseltongue, because the snake says to the Old Adam, “Did God really say that fruit would make you die? It’s as good as any fruit at Whole Foods. It won’t make you die.” 

Just like that, faster than God hung the stars in the sky or Anthony Rendon signed with the Angels, Adam no longer trusted God’s words. 

Adam ate the fruit and died.. 

And God had told him the truth. 

Later, Adam’s children, the People of Israel, they didn’t take God at his word either. Before you know it, the s-word, not trusting God’s promises, led to violence and greed and injustice. 

Luke Houghton:

So what’s the New Adam do?

Jason:

The New Adam does what the Old Adam didn’t do. Jesus lives his whole life trusting every word God gives him. 

Thus, tonight, for all of us, to be the brothers and sisters of the baby Jesus, it’s about taking God at his word. 

It’s about trusting God’s word when God, through his angel, tells you tonight, “I am bringing you good news of great joy. This day, in the City of David, a savior is born for you.” 

2. The Donkey, Shaggy and Brown 

“I, ” said the donkey, shaggy and brown,

“I carried his mother up hill and down;

I carried his mother to Bethlehem town.”

Jason—

Did you know there’s a talking donkey in the Bible, in the Old Testament?

Joshua Vaughn—  

So what? My mom says there’s one in the pulpit here most Sundays. 

Jason— 

I guess Christmas isn’t the only day miracles happen. 

If the donkey that carried Mary to Bethlehem could talk, I bet it would’ve had some four-letter words for Caesar Augustus. 

Just think, the trail from Nazareth to Bethlehem is seventy miles long. And that’s without any WAWAs, EZ Pass lanes, or podcasts. 

The journey likely took Mary and Joseph a week, and all because some stooge sitting behind his desk in the capital of the free world decided to take a census. Caesar wanted to count the Jews in order to figure out how much he should charge them for the privilege of Caesar’s army occupying them like prisoners. 

Mary and Joseph have to pack their bags and head to Bethelehem because of politics. 

Joshua Vaughn—   

Gosh, I’m glad we don’t live in a time when the census gets used as a political weapon. I guess when you have a salad named after you, you think you can get away with anything. 

Jason— 

No, actually, Caesar isn’t his name. Caesar is his title. Caesar is just the Latin word for the Greek word “Christ” and the Hebrew word “Messiah.” 

They all mean “King.” 

The Christmas story, the Gospels want you to see, is a collision of kingdoms.

Joshua Vaughn—  

 

Wasn’t it a donkey that carried Jesus into Jerusalem to a cross just like it was a donkey that carried him in Mary to Bethlehem? 

Jason— 

Yes, and I bet that donkey had some awful things to say— the kinds of things you can only say on Twitter. After all, that donkey was a witness to the terrible ways they treated Mary’s boy before finally nailing him to a tree. 

Do you know the difference between animals like donkeys and all the rest of us?

Joshua Vaughn—   

Um, we can distinguish between a water bowl and a toilet?

Jason— 

No. Well, maybe, yeah, but— we’re the only animals who can choose to doubt or to trust words. Animals like dogs and donkeys can recognize words— but they can’t trust words. 

We’re the only creatures who can take the incarnate God at his word when he says from his cross, “I forgive you, you don’t know what you’re doing. But, you will be with me, in paradise.” 

3. The Cow, White and Red

I, ” said the cow, all white and red

“I gave him my manger for his bed;

I gave him my hay to pillow his head.”

“I, ” said the cow, all white and red.

Coleman Todd— 

When it comes to Christmas, most of us think the important word for the season is “for.”

Christmas is a time we feel drawn to doing things for others. We buy  presents for our loved ones. We worry over cooking up the perfect meal for our family. We think this is the season when we should do something kind for those who are less fortunate than ourselves.

Cows aren’t the smartest beasts in God’s creation, but…

Jason— 

What do you mean cows aren’t smart? They might misspell chicken, but that’s still pretty good for not having opposable thumbs.

Coleman Todd— 

I don’t get it. 

Jason— 

Duh, it was a Chik Fil A joke. 

Coleman Todd—  

Not your best material. 

Jason—

They can’t all be pearls, but when half the room is here against their will we gotta try to make them smile, right?

Coleman Todd—  

If you’re just trying to shamelessly appeal to the audience, you should make a reference to Baby Yoda. 

Jason— 

I’d never stoop so low. 

[Show Slide of Baby Yoda]

I still say cows are dumb; on the udder hand, the cow at the manger knows what we forget. “For” may be the word with which we celebrate Christmas, but “for” isn’t the way God celebrates Christmas. 

Coleman Todd— 

Remember, the angel says to Joseph, “‘Behold, the virgin shall bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us.’”

Jason—

Before Christmas is the start to God doing something for us, it’s God coming to be with us. 

Coleman Todd— 

So with is a tiny little word but it gets to the heart of Christmas?

Jason— 

And “with” is the word that gets at the heart of that other word “Gospel,” because the Gospel is the promise that God is not far off from you somewhere in heaven. 

You don’t have to change. 

You don’t have to straighten up or stop your sinning. 

The Gospel is the promise that God comes down to you— not just in a dirty manger but in the muck and mire of your everyday life. 

The Gospel is the promise that the Holy God is with you in the difficult places of your life. 

The baby in the manger is not the way we come to God. 

The baby in the manger is the way God comes to us. 

Coleman Todd— 

People often ask themselves “Where is God?” in the midst of their problems. 

Jason— 

If you’ve ever wondered where God is for you when your life has turned upside down, then remember that the promise of Christmas, the promise of the Gospel is that Heaven has been turned upside down, too, and that God comes down to you. 

Whomever you are, the only work you need to do tonight is to take Jesus at his word. 

When the God born tonight comes back from the dead, he promises his friends— friends who DO NOT deserve such a promise— “Always, until the end of the aeon, I am with you.”

In fact, he’s as close to you tonight as this table. 

Mary and Joseph rested the incarnate God in the hay the cow was to eat. Likewise, 

Christ is here in creatures of bread and wine. 

For you. 

With you.

4. The Sheep with Curly Horn

I, ” said the sheep with curly horn,

“I gave him my wool for his blanket warm;

He wore my coat on Christmas morn.”

“I, ” said the sheep with curly horn.

Alexander Micheli—

I thought the next verse was about a pig. 

Jason—

No. 

Alexander Micheli— 

No, I’m sure of it. I learned the song in preschool. It’s “I, said, the pig with curly tail.” It’s a pig. 

Jason— 

No, there were definitely no pigs at the nativity. 

Alexander Micheli—

Are you sure?

Jason— 

As sure as I am that the wise men didn’t bring the King of the Jews Persia’s finest oysters and bacon. If we can identify with anyone in the manger scene, it’s probably not the wise men or the shepherds. 

It’s the sheep. 

Jesus says that he’s the Good Shepherd. Think about it, he’s the one to whom his mother grew up praying “The Lord is my Shepherd.” 

To profess that the Lord is your Shepherd is to confess that you are a sheep.

Alexander Micheli—

But, sheep are lame. 

Jason— 

That’s the point. Sheep are stubborn. Sheep wander. Sheep get lost. Sheep fall into problems entirely of their own making. Sheep are dependent totally on their shepherd.

Alexander Micheli— 

Being a sheep is worse than finding out you’re a Sagitarius. 

Jason— 

Exactly. It’s offensive even. Sheep aren’t like other animals. Sheep aren’t like donkeys. The only real work— if you can call it work— a sheep performs is listening to the Shepherd’s voice.

Gabriel Micheli—

I have a hard time just listening to my teachers. 

Jason—

Don’t we all, but Jesus is better than your teacher. 

Alexander Micheli—

I’m not sure you’re allowed to say that.

Jason— 

Sure I am. Look, the baby Jesus— when he grows up—  tells a story about a single lost sheep who wanders off from the flock of ninety-nine. 

The story is Jesus’ way of responding to a question about who is most awesome in God’s eyes, the do-gooding every Sunday types or your garden variety skeptics, cynics, and sinners. 

Jesus doesn’t answer their question by telling them the greatest in the Kingdom are those who give to the poor or never leaves a nasty comment on Facebook.

No, Jesus answers with an image of a sheep who is nothing but the recipient of the Shepherd’s finding. 

We think the story’s supposed to be about the sheep, lost from its flock, but it’s about the Shepherd’s determined work of finding.

Gabriel Micheli—

Speaking of getting lost, what’s this got to do with Christmas?

Jason— 

Christmas is a time when it’s easy to wonder whether you’re really a part of the flock. 

It’s easy to doubt God. 

It’s even easier to doubt you’re worth him finding you. 

St. Paul calls the incarnation an invasion; that is, Christmas is the beginning of a rescue mission. And the promise of the Gospel is that you don’t need to do anything to make yourself findable. 

5. The Dove from the Rafters High 

I, ” said the dove from the rafters high,

“I cooed him to sleep so that he would not cry;

We cooed him to sleep, my mate and i.”

“I, ” said the dove from the rafters high.

Ahkeemah Lee—

Jesus is called a Prince, right?

Jason— 

Yep, the Prince of Peace, Isaiah says. Why?

Ahkeemah Lee—

Well, I was just wondering. If Jesus is a prince, then does that mean Jesus knows what it sounds like when doves cry? Because I’ve been listening to the song on Spotify, and I have no idea. 

Jason— 

Just don’t start asking questions about Little Red Corvette, too. 

I can tell you, though, what sound this dove at the manger is meant to make you recall— what words actually. 

Just after the Christmas story— turn the page— Jesus is all grown up and he shows up at the Jordan river to be baptized.  

And as Jesus comes up out of the water, the Bible says the sky opens up and the same Holy Spirit that overshadowed Mary’s womb comes down like a dove and God the Father’s voice declares, “This is my Beloved in whom I am well-pleased.”

Jesus’ baptism is not the first time in scripture that God says to someone, “You are my Beloved.” 

But, it is the first time in scripture that someone actually believes it and lives his life believing it and never forgets it even when he’s forsaken by his friends. 

Ahkeemah Lee— 

Yeah, sure, but Jesus is different than the rest of us.”

Jason— 

No. Jesus was like us in every way. 

Except one way.

Jesus never forgot who God said he was. He never doubted God’s words about him and taking God at his word set Jesus free to live as though the whole world was a new and different creation. 

Ahkeemah Lee— 

Well, it’s easy to believe you’re beloved and pleasing to God when you’re good ALL THE TIME. 

Jason— 

I think sometimes the problem we have with believing we’re beloved and pleasing to God is that we have bad ideas of what God considers good. 

Like, right after God says to Jesus, “You’re my beloved in whom I’m well-pleased,” guess what Jesus does? 

He starts going to dinner parties with people who drink too much and tell dirty jokes. 

He heals people that doctors won’t touch. 

He makes friends with cheats and losers, and he makes bad guys the heroes of his stories. 

For God, what it means to be “good” is to be a friend of sinners. 

Ahkeemah Lee— 

That’s a strange definition of good. I think my parents would have a hard time believing it if I told them. 

Jason—

Of course, they’d have a hard time believing it. We do. 

That’s why we’re here tonight, and why someone like me is here every week to give you the goods and remind you what God says about you. 

In a way, Christmas Eve is how all of Christianity works. 

It’s how we become holy and faithful. 

It’s not like we hear the promise of the Gospel once and then move on from it to figure out how to make changes in our life. 

It’s hearing the promise, receiving Christ over and over again, that changes us. Being a Christian, it’s like…

Ahkeemah Lee—

Listening to a bird singing the same song, over and over. 

6. The Gift They Gave Emmanuel 

Thus every beast by some good spell

In the stable dark was glad to tell

Of the gift he gave Emmanuel,

The gift he gave Emmanuel.

Jaanaiya Lee—

Okay, so we know the sheep gave Jesus his coat and the cow gave him his manger, but what about the gift God gives us in Jesus Christ? What is it exactly?

     Jason— 

We’ve all memorized the gifts the wise men give to Jesus (frankincense, gold, and myrrh), but can we name the gift God gives to us in Jesus? 

We like to say that Jesus is the reason for the season, but do we really know the reason for Jesus?

    Maybe the problem is that we spend too much time talking about what God takes from us in Jesus Christ (our sin) we can’t name what God gives to us in Jesus Christ. And God taking it, taking our sin, is only half of the Gospel. 

What God takes from us in Christ isn’t the whole Gospel. 

The Gospel is incomplete if it doesn’t also include what God gives to us: Christ’s own righteousness. 

Jaanaiya Lee—

Hold up. Up until now, I was going to give you a solid C+ for tonight, but now you’re threatening to wreck everything at the end with some stained glass language. Righteousness?

Jason— 

Righteousness. 

It’s the Bible’s word for…well, think of it this way. 

“Righteousness” is your permanent perfect record. 

Christ became what we are, says the Bible, so that his permanent perfect record might become ours. 

     His righteousness is reckoned to us, says the Bible, as our own righteousness. 

As a gift. 

Jaanaiya Lee— 

     It’s like a Christmas gift exchange.

Jason— 

    Exactly, and it’s yours for free, forever. 

But the only way to receive it— the way Christ gives you this gift— is in his promise. 

That’s why we’re here tonight, and that’s why it’s important that we take him at his word, because he gives himself and everything that belongs to him, including his righteousness, in his promise. 

Tonight, what you receive here is something you can receive nowhere else. What you get at church tonight is a gift  you can get no place else. 

Jesus Christ, himself. 

The Gospel works like a wedding vow. 

The Gospel is a promise by which the Bridegroom gives himself and everything that belongs to Him to his beloved. 

Like the song says, we live in a dark world. 

It isn’t easy. 

Most of us do the best we can to believe, to do good, to follow Jesus. 

All may not always be calm and bright. 

But, take God at his word and rest in the good news that you’ve been given Christ’s own permament perfect record. 

For tonight, it’s not just that when we look at Christ in the manger we see Emmanuel, God is with us. 

It’s that because of Christ, whenever God looks upon us, he sees Jesus. 

Merry Christmas!

[End with Slide of Manger Scene including Baby Yoda]

     

Fr. Robert Hart is the Rector of Saint Benedict’s Anglican Catholic Church in Chapel Hill, NC, a contributing editor of Touchstone, A Journal of Mere Christianity, and frequent contributor to The Continuum blog. He’s an incredible music fan, and Robert graciously agreed to share an original Christmas composition as a part of the podcast.

The brother of Addison Hart and David Bentley Hart, Robert Hart is a good follow on social media. In this conversation, Robert talks with us about the Christian vocation to be with the poor, how the pro-choice language of “personhood” is the language of slavery, and the priesthood.

Be sure to go to our website: www.crackersandgrapejuice.com.

Become a patron (we’ll send you swag), buy a Stanley Hauerwas “Jesus is Lord and Everything Else is Bullshit” t-shirt, or leave us a comment.

 

Matthew 1.18-25

     Many Christmases ago, after singing “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “Silent Night” service after service after service and after having a distracted parent spill hot wax on my hand, service after service after service, on Christmas morning Ali and I took our boys into New York City to see the tree in Rockefeller Center,to gaze into the windows on 34th Street, and to run after the boys as they ran wide-eyed through FAO Schwarz. 

     We were nearly into the city, at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, on the Jersey side, when outside my window I spotted a large billboard depicting the manger and the magi making their way by the star over Bethlehem. 

     Only on this billboard were the words “Myth “and “Reason,” spelled out in all caps: “You KNOW it’s a MYTH. This season celebrate REASON.”

          My son, Gabriel, saw it, or saw me staring at it. He pointed at it through the window and asked me what it said. “It says atheists are irritating, unimaginative killjoys,” I said. Gabriel nodded his head and said, “That’s what I thought.”

 

     I later learned (thanks to Google and NPR) the billboard was paid by the American Atheists Association, whose president, David Silverman said, “Many people do not actually believe in God but go through the motions of religious practice,” Silverman said in an interview, “Plus, every year, atheists get blamed for having a war on Christmas, even if we don’t do anything so this year, we decided to show Christians what a war on Christmas looks like.”

Paul Myers at Science Blog applauded the American Atheists Association “bold billboard,” saying “… he hoped it would “sting Christians and stir up a little resentment among them by reminding Christians that not everyone can follow the same path to God as them. Not everyone can come to a belief in something like the Christmas story. Belief doesn’t come easy for some people.” 

Leave it to a dues-paying atheist to believe it’s somehow news that it’s difficult for folks to believe the Christmas story. 

Only someone who never goes to church would suppose that card-carrying members of the Christian faith don’t still struggle with that faith. 

I’ve been preaching Advents and Christmases for almost twenty years now, and every year more than a few pew sitters ask me about the truth of the virgin birth. 

     Sometimes, it’s a life-long question for a doubting pilgrim. 

Sometimes, it’s a point of argument for a hardened skeptic. 

Sometimes, it’s an intellectual hurdle for a student just home from college armed with just enough philosophy to inoculate them against the real thing.

     Sometimes, it’s a question from someone at a holiday cocktail party, someone I’ve never met, someone who finds out, despite my subterfuge, that I’m not an architect after all, that I’m a pastor, and then is determined to be a pain-in-my-you-know-what to ask me (like I’m as dumb as a potted plant or a member of congress), “Do you really believe in the virgin birth?”

    

 

“Do Christians really expect right-thinking people to believe in something as preposterous as Jesus being born of a virgin?” David Silverman asked a reporter. 

It seemed not to occur to the president of the American Atheists Association that the angel’s news would have been every bit as unbelievable and preposterous for Mary. 

And Joseph. 

In Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph is the first person to learn that Isaiah’s 800 year old promise would finally come to pass in a much less tidy and much more complicated way than Isaiah ever let on. 

Joseph is the first person to hear the news. He’s the first person to realize that his fiancé would never be able to prove how it happened exactly. 

He’s the first person to know that it had nothing whatsoever to do with him. 

And he’s the first person to struggle with believing that abstinence only works 99.99999% of the time.

 

Matthew reports in his nativity narrative that upon hearing the news of Mary’s pregnancy, “Joseph resolved to dismiss Mary quietly…” Matthew leaves it to us to imagine just how long it took Joseph to come to that decision.

But, it’s not like Joseph’s happy about it.

The word in the next verse, where Matthew writes, “But just when Joseph had considered to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.”   The word “consider” in the Greek comes from the root word thymos. 

It can mean “to ponder” as in “to consider” or it can mean “to become angry.” It’s the same word Matthew uses in the next chapter to describe King Herod’s rage as Herod orders the slaughter of innocents.

Joseph’s initial response to the annunciation is anger. 

Why is he angry?

Because prior to the angel appearing to him, Joseph only had Mary’s testimony. 

Joseph only had Mary’s word, and Joseph did not believe her. Joseph did not believe in the virgin birth. Joseph did not believe the word was made flesh in Mary. 

Therefore, Joseph knew what the word required Joseph to do with Mary. 

 

Matthew says that Joseph was a “righteous man.”

In Hebrew the term is tsadiq. 

And it’s not just an adjective for someone. 

By calling Joseph a righteous man, Matthew’s not simply saying that Joseph was a good man or a moral man or even a God-fearing man.

Tsadiq in Matthew’s day was a formal label. An official title. Tsadiq was a term that applied to those rare people who studied and learned and practiced the Torah scrupulously, applying it to every nook and cranny of life. 

When Matthew tells you that Joseph was a tsadiq, he’s telling you that Joseph knew what the Law required he do with Mary. 

Dismissing her quietly was no more an option for a righteous man under the Law than healing on the sabbath. 

You see, in Mary and Joseph’s day, betrothal was a binding, legal contract. 

Only the wedding ceremony itself remained.

Mary and Joseph weren’t simply engaged.

For all intents and purposes, they were husband and wife.

For that reason, according to the Law, unfaithfulness during the engagement period was considered adultery. According to the Mishna— which is Jewish commentary on the Law— infidelity during betrothal was thought to be a graver sin than infidelity during marriage.

 

According to the Book of Deuteronomy, Joseph must take Mary to the door of her father’s house and accuse her publicly of adultery. If Mary doesn’t deny the charge, then the priests and elders of Nazareth will stone her to death.

That’s what the Law commands.

Of course, if Mary does protest, if she denies that she’s sinned, if she’s foolish enough to tell people something as ridiculous as her child being conceived by the Holy Spirit, then Joseph, as a tsadiq, certainly knows what course of action the Torah requires.

According to the Book of Numbers, Joseph is commanded to take Mary before a priest, who will compel Mary to stand before the Lord. The priest will pour holy water into a clay jar. Then the priest will sweep up the dirt from the synagogue floor and pour it into the jar of water. Then the priest will write and read out the accusation against her. 

Finally, the priest will take the accusation and the ink in which it was written and mix them into the water and command Mary to drink it.

The bitter waters.

If it makes her sick, she’s guilty, and she’ll be stoned to death.

If somehow it does not make her ill, then she’s innocent.

Her life will be spared though, in Mary’s case, her life still will be ruined, because she’s pregnant and Joseph’s not the father. 

She will be considered an outcast on par with lepers and tax collectors and shepherds. 

And as a tsadiq, someone who lives the Law inside and out, Joseph certainly knows her sin will become his sin. 

He’ll be an outcast too, righteous no more. 

That’s why Joseph’s angry— whether he shows Mary grace or he hammers her with the Law, either way he’ll suffer. He’ll either lose his wife or he’ll lose his life. 

But it’s a choice— notice— determined by his disbelief. 

 

     The Church has never quite known what to make of Joseph, treating him like an extra in a story starring his wife and her child. 

It’s Mary whose song we hear at Advent. It’s Luke’s Gospel, not Matthew’s, that’s the most popular this time of year. 

It’s the annunciation to Mary that artists have always chosen to paint. 

Prior to the angel of God appearing to him, Joseph distrusts her.

  Joseph is a red-letter righteous man, but before God’s messenger brings him the news, Joseph doubts the Christmas Gospel. 

That is, it takes a revelation of God— a revelation from God— for Joseph to have faith in the news of Mary’s pregnancy ex nihilo. This is why we shouldn’t get too hung up over that clause in the creed about the virgin birth. 

Every little mustard seed of faith is a virgin birth. 

God creates Jesus ex nihilo, but God also creates your trust in Jesus ex nihilo. 

Joseph is the model for how God works faith in us. Joseph’s asleep. Joseph’s completely passive. 

And from nothing, God implants faith in Joseph’s heart through his ear; such that, when Joseph wakes up he does the very opposite of what he had previously determined to do. 

Only then can Joseph profess, “I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.”

 

The Small Catechism (a catechism for children) explains the work of God the Holy Spirit this way: 

“I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel.”

Faith, the Bible says again and again, is a gift. 

It’s not an attribute innate to you. 

It’s not an accomplishment won by you. 

It’s not an answer you arrive at through investigation. 

It’s a gift— extra nos— that comes from outside of you.

 

Faith comes by hearing a promise, the Bible says. 

The Gospel is the promise by which Christ plants faith in you. 

Promises like this is my body broken for you, this day in the city of David a savior is born for you, apromise like the one we sing in the carol, “Child for us sinners, poor and in the manger.” 

The promise called Gospel is the device by which Christ delivers faith into the empty womb of your heart. 

This is what David Silverman at the American Atheists Association gets so wrong. Unbelief in the Gospel is our natural predisposition. 

Apart from the gracious work of the Living God upon us, all of us believers in the Gospel teeter on the verge of unbelief. 

It’s not that Christian faith is easy. 

It’s that it’s harder than even atheists imagine. 

To believe that the baby in the ark of Mary’s womb is the Maker of Heaven and Earth, to believe that Jesus has wrapped himself in our flesh and through his body and blood has done everything necessary to save you and make you holy, to believe that he will come again, bearing your every sin in his body, to make you his own beloved— that sort of faith is no easier for us than it was for Joseph. 

That sort of faith— it takes an act of God. 

It’s not that Christians are on a path up to God that others with their reason and doubts cannot abide. 

There is no path to God for any of us— that’s the point of this season. 

God, Zechariah reminded us this morning and the Christmas carols remind us year after year, must come down to us. 

And that’s why, contrary to the American Atheists Association’s stated desire, all of us, preachers, you and me, cannot be silent. 

Because the Word that took flesh in Mary’s womb, comes down to us in the manger of ordinary words and, apart from the auditory assault of God in his promise called the Gospel, we’d all be atheists. 

      

    

     I didn’t see it until we were leaving the city, on our way home. On the other side of the Lincoln Tunnel was another billboard, another nativity image, put there by some evangelical group. 

     This one said: “It’s true.”

     Gabriel saw that one, too, and said, “Look, it’s the same picture.”

     And I said, “No, that one’s different.” 

     “What’s the difference between them?” he asked. 

     “A miracle,” I said. 

      

When it comes to that miracle—

Maybe you’re still clutching an IOU from God. Maybe it feels like porch pirates stole it right underneath your nose, because the gift for you still hasn’t arrived. Maybe Christmas is a time when you think everyone else here has it all together and you’re the only one with more questions than clarity. 

So remember, Joseph is the model. 

And neither Joseph’s faith nor his doubt changes anything from God’s side. 

Joseph’s belief in the incarnation does not activate anything in God that wasn’t already true just as Joseph’s disbelief did not negate what God was already up to in the world for him. 

The Holy Spirit had already overshadowed Mary, whether Joseph believed it or not. God had already taken flesh in Mary’s womb. 

Even if Joseph doubted it, God had already determined to become Jesus and in Christ’s body and blood to die for Joseph’s sins and be raised up from the dead for his justification. 

It’s all already true. 

The only thing Joseph’s faith in it changes is Joseph— his life.

By believing in it, Joseph gets to share his life up close with Christ. 

May God wind his way to your heart through your ear. 

Hear the good news. 

The great good news of the Gospel is that God has already decided to do something about our lives— whether we let him into our lives or not— whether we do anything about it or not, whether we believe it or not. 

He has sent his Son to live for us the faithful life we cannot live, to die for us the sacrifice we cannot offer, and toraise us up with him forever. 

That’s good news!

Believing it is what makes all the difference in our lives. 


Over at www.crackersandgrapejuice.com, we’re doing an Advent Devotional Series. Check it out!

Here’s the latest offering:

“I am not interested in what I believe. I am not even sure what I believe. I am much more interested in what the church believes.”
Stanley Hauerwas, Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir

Stanley Hauerwas often insists on pointing out that the reason doctrine— that is, speaking Christian— is critical to Christians in a way that distinguishes Christianity from other religions is, simply, because Christians believe God is a person. Mary’s Maker is contained in her womb. The incarnation is a mystery not in the sense that it is unknowable; it’s a mystery that has been revealed. It’s important, therefore, for Christians to work with our words and make this mystery intelligible for to get Jesus wrong is to get God wrong. More importantly, we work with the Church’s words, because if Jesus is not who the Church has confessed him to be then, as St. Paul points out in 1 Corinthians, we are of all people most to be pitied, for not only are we still in our sins, we have committed (idolatry) the gravest of them.

With that in mind, as we round our way into the Fourth Sunday of Advent, preparing to hear Isaiah’s promise whispered into Joseph’s ear, I thought it would behoove us both to rest and wrestle with exactly what Christians claim is contained in Jesus’ other name, Emmanuel: God-with-us.

1. The Father who dispatches Gabriel is God.

2. The Son in Mary’s womb is God.

3. The Holy Spirit who alighted on the prophet Isaiah is God.

4. The Father who empties himself of power and might is not the Son.

5. The Son is not the Holy Spirit but is the fruit of the Spirit overshadowing Mary.

6. The Holy Spirit who rests on the Son in the Jordan is not the Father but is sent by the Father.

7. There is only one God.

Your head hurt yet?

Christmas, in other words, is the wonderful discovery that we couldn’t possibly have made up the God whose name is Trinity.

It’s in Advent when we look with the prophets to the abolition of war and the return of the Prince of Peace. So what better time to talk again with Dr. Amy Laura Hall of Duke University?

I’m thrilled to have made friends with Amy Laura Hall. Not only is she back on the podcast to talk about Stanley Hauerwas’ influence on her work and theology, she’ll be our special guest in June at our annual live podcast at Annual Conference in Roanoke, Va.

If you’re getting this by email, you can find the podcast here: https://www.spreaker.com/user/crackersandgrapejuice/episode-238-amy-laura-hall

Amy Laura Hall was named a Henry Luce III Fellow in Theology for 2004-2005 and has received funding from the Lilly Foundation, the Josiah Trent Memorial Foundation, the American Theological Library Association, the Child in Religion and Ethics Project, the Pew Foundation and the Project on Lived Theology.

At Duke University, Professor Hall has served on the steering committee of the Genome Ethics, Law, and Policy Center and as a faculty member for the FOCUS program of the Institute on Genome Sciences and Policy. She has served on the Duke Medical Center’s Institutional Review Board and as an ethics consultant to the V.A. Center in Durham. She served as a faculty adviser with the Duke Center for Civic Engagement (under Leela Prasad), on the Academic Council, and as a faculty advisor for the NCCU-Duke Program in African, African American & Diaspora Studies. She currently teaches with and serves on the faculty advisory board for Graduate Liberal Studies and serves as a core faculty member of the Focus Program in Global Health.

Professor Hall was the 2017 Scholar in Residence at Foundry United Methodist Church in Washington D.C., served on the Bioethics Task Force of the United Methodist Church, and has spoken to academic and ecclesial groups across the U.S. and Europe. An ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, Hall is a member of the Rio Texas Annual Conference. She has served both urban and suburban parishes. Her service with the community includes an initiative called Labor Sabbath, an effort with the AFL-CIO of North Carolina to encourage congregations of faith to talk about the usefulness of labor unions, and, from August 2013 to June 2017, a monthly column for the Durham Herald-Sun. Professor Hall organized a conference against torture in 2011, entitled “Toward a Moral Consensus Against Torture,” and a “Conference Against the Use of Drones in Warfare” October 20-21, 2017. In collaboration with the North Carolina Council of Churches and the United Methodist Church, she organized a workshop with legal scholar Richard Rothstein held October, 2018.

Amy Laura Hall is the author of four books: Kierkegaard and the Treachery of Love, Conceiving Parenthood: The Protestant Spirit of Biotechnological Reproduction, Writing Home with Love: Politics for Neighbors and Naysayers, and Laughing at the Devil: Seeing the World with Julian of Norwich. She has written numerous scholarly articles in theological and biomedical ethics. Recent articles include “The Single Individual in Ordinary Time: Theological Engagements in Sociobiology,” which was a keynote lecture given with Kara Slade at the Society for the Study of Christian Ethics in 2012, and “Torture and American Television,” which appeared in the April 2013 issue of Muslim World, a volume that Hall guest-edited with Daniel Arnold. Her essay “Love in Everything: A Brief Primer to Julian of Norwich” appeared in volume 32 of The Princeton Seminary Bulletin. Word and World published her essay on heroism in the Winter 2016 edition, and her essay “His Eye Is on the Sparrow: Collectivism and Human Significance” appeared in a volume entitled Why People Matter with Baker Publishing. Her forthcoming essays include a new piece on Kierkegaard and love for The T&T Clark Companion to the Theology of Kierkegaard, to be published by Bloomsbury T&T Clark.

Laughing at the Devil was the focus of her 2018 Simpson Lecture at Simpson College in Iowa and has been chosen for the 2019 Virginia Festival of the Book. She continues work on a longer research project on masculinity and gender anxiety in mainstream, white evangelicalism.

Don’t forget to go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com to become a patron of the podcast!

 

The podcast posse at Crackers and Grape Juice has a new book out. To all of you who kvetch that we need to pay our producer, Tommie Marshell, this is your chance to support the show. Plus, it’s actually pretty good. We got a professional editor to edit it this time. Don’t take our word for it. This is what author, Sarah Condon, has to say about it:

“The Church has done more damage to the power of the parables than any other category of scripture. We have moralized them and purposed them for our own agendas. We have hoisted them onto children and told them to “be good.” We have called ourselves Good Samaritans and Eldest Brothers like a Biblically uneducated clown parade. They were never intended for any of that nonsense. The Parables are intended to be void of morality and only consumed with the agenda of Jesus, who came only to save us. Buy this book. Jason, Teer, and the other yahoos will remind you just how bizarre, compelling, and truly unfair the parables really are. Thank God.”

You can order the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Crazy-Talk-Stories-Jesus-Told/dp/167083171X/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=Crazy+Talk&qid=1576588932&sr=8-1


Thomas Lecaque teaches Religious History at Grand View University in Iowa. He recently authored an article in the Washington Post that caught our attention, entitled “The Apocalyptic Myth that Explains Evangelical Support for Trump.”

You can find the article here: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/11/26/apocalyptic-myth-that-helps-explain-evangelical-support-trump/

I had a blast talking with him, and I hope you enjoy listening along with us.

Don’t forget— go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com.

Get your Stanely Hauerwas “Jesus is Lord and Everything Else is Bullshit” t-shirt. Click on support the show and become a patron of the podcast for peanuts. Like our Facebook Page and share something. Find us in iTunes and leave us a rating and review.

I often joke that the Church, the UMC in particular, would be healthier if church people, pastors especially, actually read Paul’s Letters. We’re not speaking Christian when we draw lines according to some righteousness equation, for Paul tells us unequivocally in Romans that NO ONE IS RIGHTEOUS.  

We’ve muddled the Gospel into G-law-spel when we presume to have achieved a righteousness of our own through our “holy-living” (ie, the happy accident of having been born straight) or right-believing (ie, “all means all”).

Speaking of divides—

Last winter at the UMC’s Special Sex Conference (I mean, General Conference) in the aftermath of the decisive vote I watched from up above in the press box, as a rainbow-clad group of pastors and lay delegates gathered through the scrum to the center of the conference floor. They fell on their knees and wept. Only an arm’s distance away from them, another group of pastors and lay people sang and danced and clapped their hands in celebration. If you want to talk about what’s incompatible with Christianity, it’s that image I saw from high up top in the press box.

But even prior to the vote, it had become unmistakable to me and my podcast posse how at a global gathering like General Conference, where real-time translations were happening across scores of languages, the problem for which the UMC was— and still remains— at an impasse is that United Methodists, no matter their geographic origin, largely speak in two different and divergent languages. 

Or rather, the problem in the United Methodist Church’s fight about sexuality, which in my darker humors makes me dubious about any Way Forward that doesn’t resemble Marriage Story, is that we’re not ultimately fighting about sexuality. The problem in the United Methodist Church is that sexuality is the issue over which we’re discovering the irreconciliable fact that the United Methodist Church is a Church of two different religions which, if we’re honest, don’t really recognize one another as kindred creeds. 

What’s incompatible in United Methodism isn’t gay Christians. We’re a liberal denomination that’s been in decline since it’s inception in the ‘60’s. We’d kill for a horde of gay Christians to overrun our congregations. 

What’s incompatible in United Methodism isn’t gay Christians; it’s the two religions presently practiced within it. 

It was clear at General Conference:

One side spoke in terms of fidelity to Biblical tradition and another in terms of imitating Jesus’ examplar hospitality and embrace of the outcast. Not only did neither side attempt to persuade the other side— lip service aside— neither side really recognized the other side as professing and practicing their own faith. 

Friend of the podcast, David French, recently made this very point by way of Pete Buttigeg for the Dispatch:

“If Pete Buttigieg, an Episcopalian, receives the Democratic nomination for president, it’s a virtual certainty that the only churchgoing candidate—and the only candidate who speaks fluently and easily about the role of faith in his life and in his politics—will lose the churchgoing Christian vote (and lose the white Evangelical vote by a staggering margin) to a thrice-married man who bragged about grabbing women by the genitals, appeared in Playboy videos, and paid hush money to cover up an affair with a porn star.

There will be easy answers for this divide. Progressive Christians will blame partisan hypocrisy (Evangelicals object to Mayor Pete’s gay marriage but overlook Trump’s serial sexual sins? What?) Conservative Christians will simply point to Buttigieg’s position on abortion and religious liberty—and to Trump’s judges. Often the explanation is as basic as stating the truism that Republicans vote for Republicans and Democrats vote for Democrats, regardless of underlying theology.

While Mayor Pete talks about faith—he doesn’t truly connect with millions of American Christians.

When Buttigieg speaks, Evangelicals don’t hear “one of us” and then choose to reject one of their own to support Donald Trump. 

Instead, they see a man of a related, but different, faith, where the differences are so profound that we often don’t speak the same spiritual language.”

In an interview with Rolling Stone, French notes, Mayor Pete explained how he understands salvation, “My faith teaches me that salvation has to do with how I make myself useful to those who have been excluded, marginalized, and cast aside and oppressed in society.”

Says French,

“Buttigieg isn’t a theologian, but he’s a smart and effective communicator of his beliefs, but when Evangelicals read his words, they’ll hear that internal “record scratch” that makes them say, “Wait. What did he say?”

What becomes quite evident at a global gathering of the United Methodist Church, which may not be so obvious in a local congregation, particularly on the coasts, is that the UMC is the ecclessial home to both mainline liberals and conservative evangelicals. Functionally, the latter have more in common with nondenominational evangelicals and Roman Catholics than they do with theological liberals in their own denomination. 

French goes on:

“In fact, Evangelical Protestants now connect far more with Catholics than they do Mainline Protestants like Mayor Pete. In some crucial ways (such as the high view of scripture), Evangelicals connect more with Orthodox and Conservative Jews than they do with Mainline Protestants. 

The more Mayor Pete speaks, the more he highlights those differences and the more he distances himself culturally and theologically from the Christians in Trump’s base.

For example, the Evangelical mind is incredulous at the notion that any scriptural command—even a command as harsh as imposing stoning as a punishment for sexual sin—was “always wrong,” and the Evangelical mind is incredulous at the notion of salvation so inexplicably tied to human compassion.

That does not mean that Evangelicals are in favor of stoning and against compassion. The Christian church is not bound by Levitical law, and Christ himself stopped the stoning of a woman caught in adultery. Moreover, Christians are called to engage in acts of sacrificial love for their fellow man, but we don’t ever find scriptural commands to be “wrong,” nor do we find “salvation” in compassion.

It’s not that Mainline Christians view the Bible as just another book, it’s that they view it to greater or lesser degrees—to be incompatible with the notion of a God who personifies love.

In the Mainline formulation, Christ is less an instrument of salvation and more a vehicle for inspiration. The Mainline vision of salvation is alien to the Evangelical mind. 

Most Evangelical Protestants understand salvation not through works of compassion but rather through faith alone, by the grace of God alone, working through the atoning sacrifice of Christ alone.”

Presently, there are a handful of plans to reconcile the our differences in the United Methodist Church and a great deal of hope being invested in them. I’ve long thought it’s naive to think the UMC would navigate this debate more nimbly than the denominations which went before us over the brink, but David French throws cold water even on my optimism, reminding us that, even if we can resolve the LGBTQ issue, a more fundamental divide remains:

“If mainstream media figures believe that Mayor Pete speaks the same Christian language as Trump’s Evangelical base, they need to think again. He’s a sincere proponent of a faith that is very different from theirs.”