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Grace is Not Karma

Jason Micheli —  January 22, 2019 — Leave a comment

You’d never know it from the prodigal way Jesus doles out salvation in last Sunday’s scripture, but Jesus is about the only person NOT drunk at this party in Cana.

 

And that’s another point I could’ve made in Sunday’s Sermon). Just as Jesus distinguishes the Gospel from the Law, so too Grace is not Karma.

 

As I said, the bridegroom and his family in the passage do not deserve what Christ has done for them, yet they get the credit for what Christ has done. As though, they had done it themselves. The party planner tastes the wine that had been water, John says, and he chalks it up to the bridegroom’s extravagance.

 

Grace is not Karma.

Karma says you get what you have coming to you. Grace says we all have it coming to us but we’ve received Christ’s righteousness instead.

Karma says that what you put in is what you get out. Karma says that as you give so shall you receive. Karma says that what goes around is what will come back around. Karma says that what God does for you is based on what you do for God.

 

Karma is how most people in our culture try to speak Christian.

 

It’s karma not grace that says this horrible nightmare in my life must be happening to me for a reason. It’s karma not grace that says God must be doing this to me- this diagnosis, this disease- because of that sin I did. It’s karma not grace that says if I just do my part (pray, serve the poor, go to church, give to the church) then God will do his part and bless me.

 

Karma is not Christianity.

 

When all is said and done, there’s really only been 2 religions in the history of the world.

 

On the one hand, there’s all the religions that tell you what you must do for God and for your neighbor (or else). That’s Karma. And on the other hand, there’s the Gospel of grace, the news of what God has done for you and your neighbor despite your failures to love him or them.

You can’t speak Christian with Karma because, the sign at Cana shows it, God doesn’t give you what you deserve. God gives you infinitely more than what you deserve. God gives you the credit Christ alone deserves.

 

As I mentioned to my Follow-Up Sunday School group, Grace is like that season of the Bachelor where the guy gives the rose to the girl at the beginning of the show, freeing them to be themselves and enjoy one another. Likewise, Grace frees us to love and serve our neighbor. Freed from any worry over what we deserve or do not deserve, we can server our neighbor as a fellow neighbor rather than treat them as chits on our religious resume.

The Bottomless Glass

Jason Micheli —  January 21, 2019 — 1 Comment

John 2.1-11

Were you all paying attention? 

Jesus responds to Mary’s alarm that the already drunk guests have run out wine by making more wine for them to drink. 

Listen to the story again:

Jesus doesn’t just top off their glasses. Each of those stone jars held atleast 25 gallons of water. That’s 150 gallons. 

I did the math: 

4 quarts to a gallon

1 quart equals roughly 6 glasses

Giving you a minimum grandtotal = 2160 glasses of wine-that-had-been-water.

I mean, unless Pat Vaughn is at your party that’s a prodigal amount of booze. 

And Jesus makes not 3 Buck Chuck, 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 far gone even to notice what he’s gone and done.As the master of feast says to the groom: “Everyone brings out the best wine first and then the cheap wine after the guests have gotten hammered, but you have saved the best wine for now when they’re sloppy drunk.” 

In other words, he’s saying: “It’s a waste.” 

Their taste buds are shot. They’ll probably just spill it all over themselves. And come morning— with the hangovers they’re going to have— you can be sure they won’t even remember drinking it. They won’t remember what you’ve done. 

For them. 

It’s wasted on them, the maitre’d says to the bridegroom. 

Your gracious act, it’s wasted on them.

There’s more going on here than just a miracle. 

————————

In fact, the word miracle isn’t even the proper word to use about today’s Gospel text. Jesus, in John’s Gospel, doesn’t do miracles. Jesus, in John’s Gospel, performs signs— only seven of them. Each of these seven signs serves to foreshadow what Jesus will do fully in what John calls Christ’s hour of glory. And in John’s Gospel, Jesus’ hour of glory is his humiliation when he’s hanging naked and accursed on the cross. 

This is why John decorates this first sign, the wedding at Cana, with so many on-the-nose allusions to the cross and resurrection: 

        • Jesus and the disciples arrive to the wedding party on the third day just like Mary Magdalene will arrive at the empty grave on the third day. 
        • When Marry worries: “They have no wine” Jesus responds “My hour has not yet come,” which basically means: It’s not time for me to die.
        • Jesus calls his Mother Woman, which sounds like he’s backtalking his Mom until you remember the only other time he’ll similarly address his Mother: Woman, behold your Son. 
        • Even the abundance of wine: Amos, Hosea, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and the Psalms- all of them prophesy that the arrival of God’s salvation will be occasioned by an abundance of the best wine.

All seven signs in John’s Gospel, then, point to the Gospel, to what God does in Christ through the cross, and this first sign— its intended for you to see how the Gospel Christ brings is distinct from the Law. Right before the wedding at Cana, John tells you— he telegraphs it: “The Law indeed was given through Moses, but Grace and Truth came through Jesus Christ.” And then immediately after this wedding at Cana, Jesus pitches his Temple tantrum, flipping off the moneychangers and hollering to all who can hear that his crucified body will be the New Temple. In other words, the truth that was thought to reside in the Temple has arrived in Christ, and the wedding which comes before his Temple tantrum shows how grace has come in Christ. 

And Grace is not the Law. 

That’s why John gives you this seemingly random detail about the six stone water jars. 

According to the Law, the water in the stone jars was used for washing away sin. The jars were made of stone not clay because clay is porous and the water would get dirty in clay jars and the whole purpose of these jars is to remove impurity. 

The water in the stone jars was for the washing away of sin and shame. 

But it didn’t work.

And you know it didn’t work because John tells you there were six stone jars, and six (being one less than seven) is the Jewish number for incompleteness and imperfection. So if the abundance of wine signifies our salvation, these six stone water jugs signify our sin. 

On top of that little detail, John tells you that the wine at the wedding feast has run out.

According to the Mishna, Jewish weddings in Jesus’ day lasted seven days. And under the Law, it was the obligation of the bridegroom and his family to provide a week-long feast for the wedding guests. 

This wedding is only on day three. They’ve got four more days to go. There’s no reason they should’ve run out of booze so soon. 

The bridegroom and his family simply failed to fulfill their duty under the Law, which is to say their shame is deserved. Which is to say, they do not deserve what this other Bridgegroom, Jesus Christ, does for them. So what John shows you with these six stone jars and this one family in shame is what the Apostle Paul tells you. The Law (commandment-keeping, rule-following, morality, the rituals of religion) is powerless to produce what it prescribes. It cannot make us righteous. 

“For God has done what the Law could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh.” 

What John shows you here is what the New Testament Book of Hebrews tells you: that all our religion and morality— the Law—  “can never make perfect those who practice them, and, as such, they only remind you of your sin.”

Just as Jesus announces in the second half of chapter two that he fulfills and replaces the Temple, here in the first half of chapter two he signals that he fulfills and replaces the Torah, the Law. He answers his Mother’s urging by telling the servants to take these six stone jars, symbols of the Law, and then he tells them to fill the jars with it. To fill them to overflowing. 

Do you see? It’s a sign not a miracle. 

It’s meant to help you see— see that Jesus fills and fulfills all the commands and demands of the Law by his own perfect faithfulness.

When they draw out the wine-that-had-been-water, it’s not any of that Yellow Tail swill. It’s vintage, already aged, all from the very best year. And there’s an abundance of it.  It’s a sign not a miracle. You’re meant to see— see that out of the Law is drawn the Gospel of Grace, the wine of salvation. 

Wine, which Jesus says in an Upper Room, is his blood shed out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 

Here at Cana, he transforms what we do to make ourselves righteous before God into a sign of what God does to make us righteous.

Christ’s sign shows what Paul says. 

The Law— all the thou shalts and thou shalt nots in and out of the Bible (and scripture says the Law is written not just on tablets of stone but on every human heart, believer and unbeliever alike, so the Law also includes all the shoulds and musts and oughts we hear in our society and in the back of our heads)— all of it is the Law. 

And all of it is powerless to produce in us what it commands. 

That’s what you’re supposed to see in this sign.

The Law can charge us to give thanks, but it cannot make us grateful. 

The Law can exhort us to offer hospitality to the Other, but it cannot make us more hospitable. 

The Law can command us to love the stranger who is our neighbor as ourself, but it cannot make us loving. 

    ———————-

Fifty-five years ago Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. preached from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Fifty-five days ago I took my son, Alexander, to the DMV in Lexington, Virginia to get his learner’s permit. 

We have a house in Lexington and the DMV there is small so I thought it’d be quicker than waiting all day at a DMV up here. 

Sure enough, we got there and our number was called in less than a minute. My wife Ali, who is an attorney mind you, had already made sure she sent us off with all the requisite documents per the DMV’s website. 

We stepped up to the counter when called and handed over the goods. AM talk radio was droning on in the office behind them. 

Sorting through the documents, the woman at the counter— without even looking up at us— announced: “There’s no birth certificate. He needs a birth certificate to get a learner’s permit. It’s the law.”

“He has a certificate of foreign birth,” I said, “the same as any kid born on a military base overseas. That certificate says he’s as American as you.” 

“I don’t think,” she said, still not looking at us, “I need birth certificate. It’s the law.”

“Not according to the DMV website,” I said. 

She looked up from her clipboard. She sighed like we were a colossal waste of her time. And with blank contempt on her face she said: “Well, if he wasn’t born here in America, then how’d he get into the country? Legally?”

“What?” I said. 

“I’m adopted,” Alexander replied, “from Guatemala.” 

I could tell from the epiphany that spread across his face that he was piecing together her insinuation. 

“Who are you?” she asked, looking at me.

“What?” I said again. “You’ve got my license and the application right in front of you. I’m his Father.”

“Uh, huh,” she said, sorting through the documents again like I was putting one over her. “I’m going to need to see your passport and birth certificate too.”

“You absolutely don’t need to see either of them. We’ve already given you more than your own website says you require.”

She sighed again: “Let me talk with my supervisor.” She walked to the other end of the counter, two stalls away, maybe ten feet. And I heard her say to her supervisor: “That’s the problem with letting them into the country. We’re so much busier now.” 

She came back to the counter and said to me: “We’re going to run this situation by our main office in Richmond. You’re free to wait here but it could take all day to hear back from them. It’s only right and proper,” she said, “that we make sure everything is according to the law.”

Now it was my turn to sigh. 

“You’ve been a complete waste of our time!”

Alexander didn’t get his permit, but turns out it didn’t take that long to get a response. Turns out when you’re a white guy with a large social media platform and you tweet at the DMV about a Civil Rights violation…turns out they call you back pretty quick.

Fifty-five years ago Martin Luther King preached about a dream, and fifty-five days ago my son tried to get his permit and failed not because of the contents on his clipboard but because of the color of his skin. 

I think we can measure the progress we’ve made on King’s dream by the fact that I’ve got more leeway to tell a story like that from the pulpit than does a preacher of color, Peter or Chenda for example. 

And sure, I have a different style. 

Maybe I told the story differently than the way they’d tell it. 

But, to be honest, if I had that DMV day everyday, or even once a year, I probably wouldn’t have been in the mood to begin this sermon with a silly Mr. Bean clip.

   ———————-

Jesus Christ died not to repair the repairable, correct the correctable, or improve the improveable. 

Jesus Christ died for a drunk world. 

That’s what this sign shows us: that if Jesus Christ makes the very best wine for drunk people to drink, then Jesus Christ in his hour of glory shed the wine of salvation, wasted the wine that is his blood, poured out himself— particularly so— for that prejudiced paperpusher at the DMV. 

That’s the promise we call Grace.  

And sure, it’s offensive. 

By defintion, grace only begins where and when you think it should end.

But grace isn’t just offensive. Grace is offensive. The message of Grace, the Bible says, is the power of God unto salvation. Grace alone has the power to produce in people what the Law commands of them. In other words, the way for that woman in the DMV to be made less prejudiced isn’t the Law. It isn’t by telling her that she ought to be less prejudiced. It isn’t by exhorting her that she should love her neighbor as herself. 

No— pay attention to the story: THE STONE JARS DON’T WORK.

The way for her to be changed (and the passive voice there is everything), the way for her to be transformed like so much useless water into topshelf wine, is to give her not the Law but to give her the Gospel of Grace and to give it to her over and over again, as long as it takes. 

The way for her to be changed is to give her the news that while she was yet a sinner, God in Jesus Christ became her neighbor and loved her as himself. 

Grace isn’t just offensive. Grace is offensive. It is, as the Bible says, God’s weapon in the world. 

And this is why, as your pastors, we may preach out of our stories differently from one another, but we will always proclaim the Gospel of Grace to you because the message of Grace is the power with which God has armed his Church. 

So as your pastor, I pledge that you will never leave here on a Sunday morning not having received the Gospel goods. I promise you’ll never go home not having heard the good news of Grace. 

But that’s not a guarrantee you’ll always leave here happy.

Or comfortable. 

We will always proclaim to you Christ’s punch-drunk love, but the bottomless glass of his Grace isn’t the whole story. 

The six hundred quarts of wine is not glad good news apart from you knowing about the six stone jars and the water that does not work. 

Grace is unintelligible apart from the Law. 

And what the Law does, Paul says— the Law accuses us. It exposes our sin. It reveals how far we fall short. 

So hearing the Law, even in the context of Grace, can make us uncomfortable and worse. 

It’s why Martin Luther said the Gospel is a promise that kills before it makes alive. 

You’ve got to swallow the bitter pill of the Law before you can taste the goodness that is the wine of grace. 

So I promise that you will always leave here having heard the Gospel of Grace, but you will not always leave here having been made happy or comfortable. And that’s okay. Because by your baptism, you’ve been given something better than comfort.

Notice in the story—

The bridegroom and his family who failed to do their duty under the Law, who deserve their shame. Not only do they not deserve what Christ has done for them. They get the credit for what Christ has done. As though, they had done it themselves. 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 is Christ’s credit alone.

You can hear about the unrightousness in our world. You can even hear abour your part in it, witting or unwitting. And you can do so unafraid and without anger. Because the Bridegroom who died for a drunk world— he has gifted you with his own righteousness. 

Are you paying attention? 

It’s what we say at every baptism. 

More importantly, it’s what was said at yours:

“Clothe her in Christ’s own righteousness, that dying and being raised with Christ she shares in his final victory.”

Nothing can threaten that so nothing should threaten you.

The credit of Christ’s permanent perfect record is yours by grace. 

You can be made uncomfortable some Sundays because what’s better even than comfort is the news that God has given you infinitely more than what you deserve. God gives you the credit that Christ our Bridegroom deserves. 

As John shows us here in this sign: “The master of the feast said to the groom- not to Jesus- you have saved the best wine for last.” 

Or, as we say over a different barrel of water: “Remember your baptism, and be grateful.”

   

    

The lectionary Gospel text this Sunday is John 2.1-11 where Jesus turns a whole lot of water into a whole lot of shockingly fine wine— apparently when you crash a wedding party with 12 bachelors in tow that’s a handy sort of skill to have up your sleeve. We call it “the miracle at Cana,” but that’s not how John himself would’ve put it. Jesus, in John’s Gospel, doesn’t do miracles. He does signs. And he does just seven of them— all of them, they’re pointers to his passion.

In response to his worried mother’s request (Do something, Jesus! They’ve run out of wine!) Jesus responds “Woman, what concern is that of mine? My hour has not yet come.”

What’s interesting in his response, I believe— and John Wesley backs me up, is that Jesus doesn’t come to us determined to do everything good thing we bring to him.

Jesus’ clear priority here at the outset of the Gospel is his mission, his “hour,” what he’ll tell Nicodemus in the next chapter: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

It’s not the stuff of a sermon, but one practical takeaway from this for us is this:

As Christ’s Church, neither are we called to do everything good thing that comes our way.

If Jesus had a passion for his passion and prioritized everything else to it, then Jesus’ followers have a primary passion for the promise given by his passion— what we call grace— and, over everything else, we prioritize inviting others into that promise of grace.

This is as shocking perhaps as Jesus seeming to backtalk his mom, for most churches are passionate about a good many things. Just read all our announcements in the church bulletin this weekend.

To a large extent, churches are killing themselves to keep on life support all the good things that have ever come their way, and the victim of all this work is the Gospel.

But, as friend of the podcast Jason Byassee quips in his new book:

“great organizations don’t do lots of different things about which they’re passionate; great organizations focus on one big thing and are relentless about pursuing it.”

For the Church, our ONE BIG THING is connecting new people to the promise of his grace— evangelism. Rather than one activity or committee among many or a line in a budget, evangelism is the lens through which we assess all our other ministries. Growing churches singularly and unapologetically elevate evangelism. It’s the mission that causes us to ask about all other good things “Is that our concern?”

Just as all of his “signs” in the Gospel of John are in service to his passion, every other ministry of the Church is in service to our mission to connect people to his grace. Thus, we ask ourselves “How are our mission and justice ministries engaging new people and helping them to connect to Christ?” and we ask “How is our children’s program connecting parents to grace and our youth program reaching new youth who not Christ?” Ditto, our worship.

As Jason Byassee says:

“Jesus never says to his disciples ‘Okay, let’s do a bible study on Isaiah.’ No, he sends them out two-by-two to proclaim him. Mature faith is marked by connecting people to Christ. Indeed it is a sin not to do this. Restaurants, coffee shops, universities, vacation spots— none of them sit back and just wait for people to come to them. They go after people. Surely, the gospel of grace is infinitely more valuable.”

Such singular focus requires relentless effort to keep it a priority, for as Sunday’s reading shows, there will never be a time when there are not other good things for us to do. Sometimes the most faithful ‘yes’ to the message of grace is to say ‘no’ to other good things.

Ever get confused about the Old Testament? Listen to professor, banjo player, and author of the new book Old Testament: Israel’s In Your Face God talk about his new guide through the Old Testament. Bonus for preachers: He’s got a kick-ass idea for a Christmas sermon based on Isaiah.

Order his book here.

If you’re getting this post by email, you can find the audio here.

But wait! This goodness isn’t easy nor is it cheap. Before you listen, help us out:

Go to iTunes, look up Crackers and Grape Juice and give us a rating— it helps others find out about the podcast.

Like our Facebook Page— how easy is that?

Go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com and click on “Support the Show.”

There you can sign up to be a monthly or one-time donor for PEANUTS.

 

Our guest for our 187th episode is Amy Julia Becker, fellow Princeton alum and author of the new book White Picket Fences. In it and in our conversation, Amy talks about how her experience of mothering a daughter with special needs has been an epiphany, helping her to discover the world of white privilege she enjoys but previously did not appreciate.

If you’re getting this post by email, you can find the audio here.

But wait! This goodness isn’t easy nor is it cheap. Before you listen, help us out:

Go to iTunes, look up Crackers and Grape Juice and give us a rating— it helps others find out about the podcast.

Like our Facebook Page— how easy is that?

Go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com and click on “Support the Show.”

There you can sign up to be a monthly or one-time donor for PEANUTS.

 

A Gift Exceeding Every Debt

Jason Micheli —  January 13, 2019 — 1 Comment

Here’s my sermon for Baptism of the Lord Sunday, which I never got to preach since snow shut us out. It’ll go in the locker for another time.

Luke 3.15-22

I realize this will come as something of a shock to many of you, but I can be an acquired taste for some people— like black coffee, dark beer, or the music of Coldplay. But, believe it or not, though I am an acquired taste, eventually (like hair on moles, like skin fungus, like the music of Coldplay) I grow on people. 

One such person with whom I went from skin fungus to simpatico is my friend CJ. Years ago CJ and her son came to a bluegrass Easter sunrise service where I was preaching. She loved the music, but she thought I came across as something I can’t say in the sanctuary. Nevertheless, this bottle of dark beer— this handsome, charming, witty, brilliant bottle of dark beer— convinced her to come back to church. And she did, and she kept coming back to church. And we became friends. 

Her initial assessment of me notwithstanding, CJ is a genius, a legit DoogieHowser type genius. She enrolled in Harvard as she was entering puberty. She’s got multiple degrees and juggles diverse careers. Her most recent— she does GoodWillHunting type stuff for the NSA, keeping us all safe with math I don’t understand. Last fall, at the end of the early service, she came up to me. With her arms crossed and wearing a wry smile, she said:

“You know, I used to be grateful for you. But now I’m not so sure.” 

“You didn’t like the sermon?” I asked, smiling back.

“Didn’t like the sermon?! I’m not sure I like any of your sermons NOW!”

“What do you mean?”

And then she told me what I had done to her. Or, as I prefer to think about it: what God and God’s Gospel had done to her.

“I had to reup my security clearances, same thing every few years. They sifted through all my bank statements and tax returns, interviewed all my old roommates, talked to my old boyfriends. It’s hairy harrowing stuff and all of it was FINE until I had to do the polygraph at the end. A polygraph— it should be a piece of cake, right?”

“Let me guess,” I guessed, “it wasn’t a piece of cake?”

“It was at first— until you messed it up.” Only, she didn’t say messed. She said something I can’t say here in the sanctuary. And then she punched me in the shoulder.

As I rubbed the bruise, she told me. 

“They started out asking me my name, address, job— piece of cake, just routine stuff. I rattled them off calmly, no problem.”

“But?”

“But then they asked me— get this— the guy asked me: “Do you consider yourself a good person?”

I could already fill in the blanks, but I played dumb: “What’s the problem?” 

“What’s the problem? What’s the problem?! The problem is that I said ‘yes’ and then they moved on to the other questions, yet even as I answered those questions I sat there with probes stuck to my temple and my chest and my fingers and I thought about you and your sermons and that question Do I consider myself a good person? and it hit me, like an epiphany, and I knew. I’d lied.” 

I didn’t say anything. It’s best to stay quiet when you’re creeping up on holiness.

“All my answers to all the other questions were off,” she said, “because I’d lied on that one question and I knew it. I failed the polygraph because of your preaching!? What do you have to say about that?!”

“Um…see you next Sunday?”

And she punched me in my other shoulder. 

———————-

The truth that revealed itself to my friend in the polygraph test is the same truth— the epiphany— disclosed to us in the baptism of Jesus by John in the Jordan River. 

In Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus dips his toes into the Jordan, John protests: 

“What are you doing Jesus?! I need to be baptized by you. I’m not even worthy to untie your sandals, Jesus (which was the job of a slave). I need to be baptized by you not you by me.”

All four Gospels tell us that Jesus was baptized alongside hypocrites and thieves and tax collectors colluding with the evil empire— a brood of vipers, John the Baptist calls them. You think Chenda’s a heavy preacher. John the Baptist wouldn’t last two Sundays here.

All four Gospels tell us about Jesus’ baptism.  In fact— pay attention now— the only two events mentioned across all four Gospels are the baptism of Jesus by John and the death of Jesus by a cross. That’s because they’re connected.

The baptism by fire predicted here by John the Baptist is the fire of God’s judgment— judgment that falls, once for all, upon Jesus in our place on the cross. The water John plunges Jesus down into here at his baptism is the water that pours out from Jesus’ wounded side, baptizing us into his death. Just as Christ’s ministry begins here standing along the Jordan amidst sinners counted as a sinner, Christ’s work ends— it is finished— hanging amongst sinners, thieves, treated as a sinner just like them. 

And just as they heavens tear open here at his baptism, on his cross the temple veil is ripped (it’s very same word in Mark’s Gospel), torn in two, tearing heaven open to you and to me and making you, who once was a slave to Sin and Death— making you a beloved child of God.  All four of the Gospels tell us about the baptism of Jesus and the passion of Jesus. 

The two stories, they’re connected. Therefore, the meaning of the Gospel lies in that connection.

———————

Luke leaves out what Matthew tell us about Jesus’ baptism: that John initially objects and raises questions. Baptize you? You’ve got it backwards, Jesus. How can I baptize you?

The connection between his baptism and his cross, the epiphany to be discovered in today’s text, lies in John’s question: “Jesus, how can I baptize you? Jesus, you don’t need the baptism with which I baptize.”

  “How can I baptize you?”

It’s a good question. Maybe, it’s the most important question. You see— John resists baptizing Jesus because John’s baptism was a work of repentance. For sin. And Jesus is without sin. He’s perfect as his Father in heaven is perfect. He’s the only one of us who doesn’t need John the Baptist’s baptism, yet he insists upon it. By objecting to baptizing Jesus, John distinguishes for us between Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River and our baptisms into Jesus Christ. 

Again, this is important so pay attention: 

Christ’s baptism by John is NOT Christian baptism. 

If you miss this distinction, you’ll miss how these two stories, baptism and cross, are connected and if you miss this connection, you’ll miss the central claim of the Gospel promise. 

Christ’s baptism by John is NOT the Christian baptism performed by God in his Church. John’s baptism was a work we do— a work of repentance by which those who were condemned by the Law hoped to merit God’s mercy. John’s baptism was a human act (repentance) intended to provoke a divine response (forgiveness).

     The water was an outward visible sign of your inward admission of guilt. 

     But the water did not wash away your guilt. 

    John’s baptism signified repentance for your unrighteousness. 

     But it could not make you righteous. 

That’s why Jesus insists on submitting to John’s baptism— not because of any repenting Jesus needed to do but because of what John’s baptism could not do. John’s baptism could not make the unrighteous righteous before God. 

By being plunged down into John’s baptism, Jesus condescends—Jesus goes down into the very depths of our unrighteousness. As Martin Luther said:

At Christmas, Christ becomes our flesh but at his baptism he becomes our sin.

The lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world does so by becoming a goat when he goes down into our unrighteousness and then carries it in him to Golgotha. As the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthians: “He who knew no sin becomes sin so that you and I could become the very righteousness of God.”

That’s the connection between the two texts, baptism and cross. And it’s why they’re the only two texts all four Gospels give you. Christ doesn’t just die for the ungodly with sinners beside him. He dies with the ungodly in him, with every sin all over him. He puts them on him in his baptism into unrighteousness; so that, by a different baptism— the baptism of his death and resurrection— we may be made what the former baptism could never make us.  

Righteous.

As the Paul writes to the Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us.” 

At Christmas, he takes on our flesh. 

Here at the Jordan River, he takes on the curse; so that, the curse hanging over us is carried in him unto the cross.  And there, by the baptism of his once-for-all death for sin, he completes the joyful carol we sang at his nativity. He makes his blessing known as far as the curse is found— the gift of his own righteousness, his own permanent perfect record. 

As Paul writes to the Colossians: “You who once were estranged from and hostile to God Christ has reconciled to God in his body through his death, so as to present you to God as holy, blameless, and irreproachable.”

   ——————-

 “All your CrossFit sessions really work,” I said to CJ, rubbing the burgeoning bruise in my other shoulder.  

“Sorry I keep hitting you” she said.

“It’s okay,” I said, “they don’t warn you in seminary but working with church people is a contact sport most days.”

“It just goes to show,” she said, getting serious, “how secular, how post-Christian, unChristian, anti-Christian is our culture that a question like “Do you consider yourself a good person?” isn’t considered in any way a problematic way of putting the question.”

And I couldn’t help but smile at the number this dark bottle of beer, yours truly, had done on her with God’s Gospel help. 

“Look, I get it,” she said, “Most people— cognitive dissonance and all— probably do think they’re basically good people, but Christians at least— at the VERY LEAST— should understand that as soon as you’re considering yourself a good person you’re no longer speaking Christian.”

She didn’t say so and probably she wouldn’t put it like this, but the confusion is a confusion between these two baptisms, Jesus’ by John in the Jordan and ours by God into Jesus. 

     John’s baptism was a work we do— we’re the active agents in John’s baptism. 

    John’s baptism was a work we do in order to solicit God’s pardon. 

     Our baptism is a work God does. 

     Our baptism is not a work that solicits God’s pardon. 

     Our baptism incoporates us into the work God has already done to pardon us. 

     Once. 

     For all. 

     For everything you’ve done and everything you’ve left undone.  

     Our baptism is not an act of repentance.

Our baptism incorporates us into Christ’s act of redemption by which God declares you (though a sinner you are and a sinner you remain) his beloved son…his beloved daughter… to whom heaven will always be open not because you’re good but because he is gracious. 

It’s John’s kind of baptism— the work that we do— that misleads us into thinking that we’re basically good people because, according to the rules of John’s Old Age— and that’s what scripture calls it, the Old Age (even though most of us insist on living there still)— you and I have to be good. 

Perfect even.  As perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect— perfection, according to the rules of the Old Age under the Law, is actually the expectation. Yet the Law came with Moses, the Gospel promises, but Grace has come with Jesus Christ and in Christ the perfect righteousness required of us has been fulfilled by his own faithfulness for us.

In other words, our baptism into Christ—the work of God and his grace— frees us to admit that we’re worse than good. Those of us who are baptized into Christ— we should be the freest to admit our brokeness, to be vulnerable about our sinfulness, to be authentically imperfect. 

Baptized Christians should be the least defensive people.

I mean— I don’t know what newspaper you read, but the world could certainly use Christians who are quicker to confess their own sins rather than castigate others for theirs.

John’s baptism leaves you in your sin. 

And left in your sin, you’ll either refuse to admit the truth about yourself or you’ll be anxious about whether or not God will forgive you. But your baptism is not John’s baptism. By your baptism you are not in your sin— though a sinner you are— because, by your baptism, you are in Christ.  That’s the distinction between Jesus’ baptism and your own baptism. In his baptism, Jesus enters into our sin and unrighteousness. In your baptism, you enter into Christ. 

In Christ, you’re crucified with him, Paul says. Your sin and your old self— it’s left behind, Paul says. Buried with him in his death, Paul says. Your rap sheet is now as empty as his tomb.  And instead of your rap sheet, you’ve been handed his perfect record. Permanently. 

No take-backs. No do-overs. No need ever to earn or deserve it. 

That’s the promise we call the Gospel. 

Notice—

The Gospel of Grace is not God loves you just as you are and accepts you just as you are.

No, that’s liberal sentimentality.

The Gospel of Grace is that God the Father loves Jesus Christ the Son.

And God loves and accepts you— just as you are— not because of who you are but because of where you are.

In Christ. 

By your baptism, you are in him.

He is your new you. 

That’s the promise we call the Gospel. 

And if you add anything to it at all, a single footnote or condition (especially a qualifier like “I’m basically a good person”) you’ve smashed the Gospel to smithereens. 

Grace can only begin where you (and all your pretensions) end. 

Put it this way— 

Gratitude is not something we muster up on our own by our own initiative. I’m going to be more grateful today— go ahead and try it; it won’t work— the Bible tells me so (Romans 7). It just turns gratitude into another Law.

Gratitude is not something we muster up on our own. 

Gratitude is the spontaneous response elicited in us by a message that comes from outside of us, by something surprising and undeserved that has been done by another for us. 

Christianly speaking, what has been done for us in Jesus Christ has no content apart from the why: what it is about us such that it had to be done for us. In other words, Christianly speaking, people who insist that they’re good, people who refuse to live into the freedom that their baptisms gives them, the freedom to be honest about their own sin or the societal sins they’re complicit in, such people can never be grateful. 

And without gratitude you cannot be a gracious, grace-giving person. 

Gratitude can only begin where you end. 

Of course, I’m not saying anything here we don’t already say with bread and wine. This Table of Thanksgiving— that’s what the word Eucharist means— is also at the same time a table for traitors. To deny or ignore the latter is to foreclose the former from you.

Don’t take my word for it. 

Check out the first two questions and answers from the Heidelberg Catechism. 

Question 1: What is your only comfort in life and in death?

Answer:

That I am not my own but I belong by baptism—body and soul, in life and in death— to my faithful savior and substitute Jesus Christ.

Question 2:

What must I know to live and die in this comfort?

Answer :

1. The greatness of my sin.

2. How I’ve been forgiven and set free from all of them.

3. The gratitude that comes from such a redemption.

———————-

I followed up with CJ later, over black coffee. 

“Do I consider myself a good person?” she dwelled on the polygraph question like it was a missing button on her blouse. 

“The trouble is— it’s a lie detector test, right? You can only give Yes or No responses. How am I supposed to respond when the answer is ‘No, but…’?”

“No, but?” I asked.

“Yeah, no, but: ‘No, I’m not a good person, but at once and the same time, I’m something better than good. I’m righteous.’”

“If you really want to mess with him,” I said, “you could just say that ‘I’ve been baptized.’”

 

 

And the Truth that Sets Us Free.

Near the end of 2018, Teer Hardy and I sat down for a conversation with Jonathan Walton about his new book that releases this week, 12 Lies that Hold America Captive. Jonathan is a director with InterVarsity in NYC. Christianity Today named him one of the 33 Under 33. In addition, Jonathan has published 3 volumes of poetry.

Despite him being leery of a podcast named ‘Crackers’ it turned out to be a good conversation. Check it out.

 

While We Were Yet Naughty

Jason Micheli —  December 26, 2018 — 1 Comment

Christmas EveGalatians 4.47

The Etta James at the end of the sermon got cut off from the audio, but we got the rest…

Due to the #metoo movement, this year everyone has been up in arms about the Christmas standard “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” I get it. 

Though, I’m not so sure— as Christians, that that is the song that should bother us. As Christians. We listen to a lot of music in my house. Even though I can’t carry a tune, strum a chord or eyeball a flat from a sharp, that doesn’t stop me from being a music fan. And by fan, obviously, I mean a snobby, elitist, smarty-pants. 

I love music; in fact, during college I DJ’d for a radio station. When you have a voice like mine— a voice so manly it practically comes with chest hair— disc jockeying was a natural part-time job to which I was the only applicant. I’m such a music lover that when the radio station went belly-up a few months after I started DJ-ing (coincidence), I took the trouble to make sure all of the station’s albums found a good home. 

     In my apartment. 

Every last album.

     ‘Every’ except Journey and Kenny Loggins. I really don’t get the Journey thing, people, but maybe— maybe on a night celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, maybe Kenny Loggins is exactly who we should be talking about?!

I love music. Some of my most vivid memories are aural. My wife Ali and I first kissed to U2’s ‘With or Without You.’

     You have be on the hopeless downward slope of 40 to know how much that’s a cliche.

Our first song on our first night in our first ever apartment was Ryan (not Bryan) Adam’s ‘Firecracker,’ and the first time I realized I had just preached an entire worship service with my fly down the band was playing the praise song ‘Forever Reign.’

     I love music. I use ticket stubs for bookmarks. I’ve got concert posters on every wall of our house, and I’ve got more songs in iCloud than the Washington Redskins have holes in their starting lineup.

     We love music in my house. 

     We love Christmas carols too.

     We’ve got 311 of them, but none of them are the obvious, bourgeoisie carols that play on repeat at Starbucks starting on Epiphany of the previous year. 

     My boys and I— our favorite Christmas song is Bob Dylan’s emphysemic rendition of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town.’ 

     Favorite because it drives Ali crazy— nails-on-chalkboard-kind-of-crazy.

     Seriously, nothing fills Ali’s eyes with hints of marital regret like Bob Dylan wheezing his way like an asthmatic kitty through that particular Santa song. 

     Now, I know what some of you might be thinking— compared to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” what’s the matter with “Santa Claus is Coming to Town?” 

     I mean— what’s not to like about a whiskey-cheeked home invader with Chucky-like elves creepily casing your joint all through Advent?

     If nothing else, Santa at least gives us one night a year when no one in the NRA is standing their ground. That just may be the true miracle of Christmas. 

And sure, Santa uses an alchemy of myths to condition our children into being good, little consumers but— don’t mishear me— I love Santa.

I do— in fact, I think wonder, imagination and fantasy are a great and normal part of a healthy childhood, and I even think wonder, imagination and fantasy are necessary ingredients for faith.

     So I’ve always loved Santa Claus.

     Until…

     Until one day— this was a couple of years ago. 

     We had our Christmas Carol Playlist on shuffle and Bob Dylan’s lung cancer cover of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ came on the stereo. 

     And when Dylan came around to the chorus a second time, my son Gabriel said— to himself as much as to me:

‘I’ve been naughty some this year. God might not send Santa to bring me presents this Christmas.’

‘What? What are you talking about?’ I asked, looking up at him.

‘He watches all the time,’ he said, ‘to see if we’re naughty or if we’re good. He only brings presents if we’re good.’

‘Wait, what’s that got to do with God?’

‘Well, Christmas is Jesus being born and Jesus is God and Santa brings presents at Christmas so God’s the one who sends Santa if  we’re good.’

IF.

     ———————-

     “…so you better be good…”

I know it sounds like I’m just being silly, but I’m not. 

I’m not. 

For goodnesssake, Santa songs are just one example of the strings we attach to God’s gift of grace. 

Our cultural myths and holiday songs are just one example of how we muddle the Gospel with conditions. 

     Take Krampus, for instance, a 17th century Austrian myth wherein a half-goat/half-demon called Krampus would accompany Santa Claus on his jolly sleigh ride in order to scare and terrorize the bad children. 

     Gifts if you’ve been good. 

     A terrifying demonic goat creature if you’ve been naughty. 

     Seriously, somewhere along the way some Christians in Austria thought Krampus up and thought to themselves: “Jah, that jives with the Gospel.” 

     In Holland, according to a Dutch myth, St. Nick travels not by sleigh but by boat, accompanied not by elves or reindeer but by 6-8 black men— I’m not making this up.

     Until the 1950’s, these 6-8 black men were referred to as “Santa’s slaves” but now they’re just considered good friends. 

     I’m no expert, but I think history has proved that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet hours beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility.

Nonetheless, in Holland, Santa and his former slaves seem to have worked it out fine. 

     In any case, it gets worse— Santa travels with an entourage of slaves-turned-buddies because if a Dutch child has been bad, then on Christmas Santa’s 6-8 black men… don’t spare the rod…and if a child has been especially naughty, Santa’s formerly-enslaved pals throw the kid into a sack and abscond away with him. 

     Gifts if you’ve been good. 

     Assault and battery and kidnapping if you’ve been bad. 

     That sounds amazingly like grace. 

     It’s easy for us to poke fun at creepy, antiquated, anti-Christ traditions like Krampus, but, then again, since 2005 parents have purchased millions of elves for their shelves. Don’t worry, I’m not going to shame you by asking you to raise your hands if you’ve bought one (Pat Vaughn). 

     According to the accompanying children’s book, The Elf on the Shelf, by Carole Aebersold, these nanny-cam scout elves, looking as thin as heroin addicts, sit perched in your home from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, watching and judging and keeping score of your child’s behavior before returning to the North Pole to narc on them to St. Nick. 

     It’s like St. John says in the Gospel: For God so loved the world he sent a little Judas to sit on your shelf…

———————-

     You better watch out, Krampus, 6-8 black men, Elf on the Shelf- it would all be innocent and funny if this wasn’t how we spoke Christian the other 364 days of the year. 

     The conditions we attach to Christmas with characters like Krampus and songs like “Santa Claus is Coming” are the same strings we tie onto the Gospel all the time:

God in Jesus Christ has given his life for you, but first you must believe. 

The balance sheet of everything you’ve wrought wrong in your life has been reckoned right— not by anything you’ve done, by God’s grace— but you must serve the poor, pray, go to church, give to the church. 

  Just talk to anyone who’s been asked for a pre-nup, the word ‘but’ changes a promise into a threat.

God forgives all your sins but first you must have faith. 

     That’s not a promise. 

     That’s a threat: If you don’t have faith, God will not forgive your sins.

     How we speak at Christmas in naughty vs. nice, if/then conditionality— it’s how we (mis)speak Christian all the time, turning promise into threat. 

No wonder people don’t like coming to church. 

We offer them an unconditional promise with one hand, and then we take it away with the other hand.

If you repent…then God will love you. 

If you believe…then God will have mercy on you. 

If you do good, if you become good…then God will save you. 

     And if you don’t? 

     Krampus. 

———————-

     “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” was written for the Eddie Cantor Radio Show in 1934 by John Frederick Coots. 

     You might already know this but John Frederick Coots is a pseudonym, a pen-name, for Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness. 

     I’m only half-joking.

     In his fable The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis has the devil catechize his minion, Wormwood, by teaching him that the best way to undermine Christianity in the world is not through direct and obvious attacks, like injustice, drug addiction, war, health insurance companies, Daniel Snyder, or Verizon wireless.

     No, the best way to undermine Christianity, the Devil says, is by simply confusing the Church’s core message about who Christ is and what Christ has done, once for all; so that, the Devil’s work is done without Christians ever even noticing it— until the Church is left with a Christ-less Christianity and an unconditional promise called Gospel that is all conditions and obligations. 

      If you went to an Elf on the Shelf book-signing, I don’t know if author Carole Aebersold would smell like sulfur. I don’t know if John Frederick Coots really was the Devil in disguise. 

     But I’m not joking—

I do know— getting us to believe that God’s grace is conditional that is the Devil’s kind of work. 

     Just read the Gospel of Matthew where the Devil tempts Jesus in the wilderness. 

“If you’ll fall down and worship me,” Satan says, “then I’ll give you the kingdom.”  

     Boom. 

     We think we’re speaking Christian at Christmas but, really, we sound like the Devil in the Desert. 

     It’s Satan who speaks in If/Then conditionality.

     It’s the Gospel of Jesus Christ that declares unconditionally that ‘while we were yet sinners, God died for us.’

     It’s Satan who speaks in If/Then conditions.

     It’s the Gospel that declares unconditionally that ‘God so loved the world that he gave— tonight and on a Friday afternoon—- his only begotten Son…’

     This can be your Christmas gift to me:

When you speak about the gift given to us at Christmas, do not sound like Satan. 

There’s no ifs. There’s no buts. There’s no strings attached. 

     There’s just the unconditional promise that- 

Yes, you’ve been naughty. 

No, you’ve not been nice. 

No matter, all the naughty marks on your list have been wiped clean.

     “You better watch out?” 

No—because the Gospel is that the Lamb was slain so that goats like us might be counted as sheep among God’s faithful flock. 

     The gift of God given to you tonight and completed on Golgotha, the gift of God given to you in Jesus Christ is not conditional upon your goodness— upon the goodness of your faith or your belief or your character or your contributions to the Kingdom.

     By its definition, a gift is determined by the character of the giver not the receiver. Otherwise it’s a transaction; it’s not a gift. 

     The gift God gives at Christmas is not conditional upon your righteousness. 

     Nor is the gift God gives at Christmas conditional upon your response to it. 

     By its definition, a gift elicits a response but it does not require one. 

     In other words, what’s inside this gift God gives in Jesus Christ, the complete forgiveness of all your sins— as far as the curse is found— the gift of Christ’s own permanent perfect record reckoned to you as your own— like every other gift underneath your tree tonight, this gift is true. 

For you.  

Whether you ever open it or not. 

     The gift given has nothing to do with how good you are and, no matter what Satan sings in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” the gift does not require that you become good. 

———————-

        For goodness sake, this is important to remember— pay attention now— because most people today think Christianity is a message about people getting better. 

Most people think that the Christian faith is intended to improve your life and that the Church is here to help you become good. 

     Thus, it’s only natural that for many people Christianity would become but one option among many. 

     You don’t need the Church to become a better you. 

Joel Osteen can make you a better you. 

Soul Cycle can make you a better you. 

Your New Year’s resolutions can make you…no, they won’t. 

     You don’t need the Church to live your best life now, but you do need the Church- you need it’s promise of the Gospel— to be saved. 

     Your therapist can repair your life, but your therapist cannot redeem you.

     Only faith, the faith proclaimed by the Church, can do that.

     The Church is not about learning how to become good (though you might become good in the process).

     We’re not here because we need to learn how to be good; we’re here, as Paul’s Letter to the Galatians puts it, to hear that we’ve been rescued from our inability to be good: 

“When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, under the commandments, in order to redeem those who were under the commandments…”

And speaking of Galatians— just as an aside, I chose this passage tonight because I know there’s a lot of you grown-ups out there who basically think of our Christmas story (with the wise men and the angels and the virgin birth) as just another myth, like Krampus. 

I know there’s plenty of you who think the nativity story is just another myth added to the Jesus story later. 

But tonight’s passage from Galatians shows you that you can tell the Christmas story without the magi or the shepherds or the inn with no room. 

Indeed Christians were telling the story that way from the very beginning. 

Tonight’s passage from Galatians is dated by historians to less than a decade after Jesus’ crucifixion, making it almost 100 years older than Luke’s Christmas story— riddle that. 

Combine that with the fact that Jesus of Nazareth was only one of tens of thousands crucified by Rome, all of whose names are unknown to us, and the Jewish people to which Jesus belonged did not have as a part of their religion a belief in life after death. 

Take all those facts together and I am convinced that had God not raised him from the dead we never would have heard of the Christ child born tonight.

This isn’t a children’s pageant. 

We’re not messing around. It’s not a myth. 

Christmas is not Krampus. 

We’re not here tonight because it’s an uplifting, sentimental story.

We’re here because it’s true.

The Apostle Paul was encountered by Mary’s crucified Son risen from the dead, and according to the message given to the Apostle Paul by the Risen Christ, what you and I need- isn’t a life coach. 

We don’t need a teacher or an example, an idea or an inspiration.

We need a savior. 

     Even if it’s what you came here looking for tonight, you don’t need life lessons or advice or to be told to get your act together because the message of St. Paul, and all of the Bible for that matter, is that we cannot get our act together. 

Not one of us— there is no distinction, scripture says. 

None of us can get our act together— not one.

     That’s why the Apostle Paul and the angel Gabriel describe Christmas as a one-sided, God-sided offensive invasion of our present evil age. God comes to us when we would never come to him, first in a creche and then on a cross. 

The cultural myths get it backwards:

God comes to help those who cannot help themselves.

The Christmas Gospel according to St. Paul is that our salvation is not found within us. 

That’s why the Bible’s language is not exhortation: Do Better! Be better! 

     The language the Bible uses is the language of exodus: You’ve been rescued! 

     Christ is not born to Mary to show us the way to a holy God. 

     Christ comes to be the way to God. 

As St. Paul says: 

“God made him to be sin who knew no sin so that you and I might have the righteousness of God.” 

He’s taken our naughty list onto himself, once for all. 

And his permanent perfect record has been reckoned to you as your own. 

And all this is yours by grace. 

Gift. 

And it’s not a cheap gift. 

It’s not even an expensive gift. 

It’s free. 

It’s free. 

     No matter what your life looks like, whether you think deserve coal or a Krampus,  how good or bad you, what you’ve done with your life or what you’ve left undone with those in your life. 

His goodness is yours. 

By grace. 

     ———————-

     

So it’s too late this year, but next Christmas— just a piece of advice—

     If you put your kids on Santa’s lap next season: 

     Stand your ground. 

     Convince old St. Nick to fess up and tell your kids that the gossip’s got him all wrong. He’s not like Sting, watching every move they make, and he’s not making a list because Santa already knows those kids are sinners like him. 

     And he’s bringing them presents no matter what because Christmas is about the niceness of God while we were yet naughty.

     And next year tell that little Judas on your shelf to pack it in early. 

     When the kids wake up some morning looking for their magical narc friend, you tell your kids that you knew how much they misbehaved and that you knew the little whistle-blowing rat was going to snitch on them to Santa, and so— like Christ crushing the head of the serpent— you interceded for them. 

     And you tell them you found that elf a job as acting secretary at one of the many vacancies in the Trump administration. Tell them you sent that elf packing for DC because you love them and the gift of Christmas is theirs regardless of their goodness. 

The gift of Christmas it’s yours regardless of your goodness. 

It’s yours. 

Gratis.

And next year—

Whenever “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” comes on 91.9…

     You could use it as a teachable moment to inform them that that particular song was written by Legion, Lucifer, the Enemy and you don’t want to play that song on the radio because maybe then the Prince of Darkness will hear it and come for them. 

Or you could just play them a different song, one not obviously about magi or mistletoe, but one that is absolutely about Christmas because it’s about no-matter-what, while-you-were-yet-naughty, blindsiding, one-way love that we call grace.

At last my love has come along

My lonely days are over and life is like a song, oh yeah

At last the skies above are blue…

     

     

As Advent turns to Christmas, Fleming and Jason talk about Christmas coming in a burst, the light shining most bright in the world’s darkness, and the need for white Christians to listen to the experience of black Christians. The audio is a little wonky in the beginning on her end…bear with it. It’s worth it.

Merry Christmas!

To close out the Advent season, Teer and Jason talk with Dr. Matt Milliner, professor of Art History at Wheaton College, about the Mother of God, finding the subversive IN the tradition, and how God debilitates himself to show us how he loves us. No matter what. Merry Christmas from the gang at Crackers and Grape Juice.

I’m so glad that our friend, listener, and patron Joshua Retterer pleaded with Matt to come on the podcast. Matt’s passion and enthusiasm for Christian art and faith are off the charts, making this easily one of my favorite conversations we’ve had on the podcast. I

I know the holiday season is a time you’re hit up for all sorts of causes, but if you’re in the mood and appreciate this podcast then help us out.

Go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com and click the ‘Support the Show’ tab.

Merry Christmas!

Not Empty Away Forever

Jason Micheli —  December 17, 2018 — Leave a comment

Third Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 35.1-10

     I spent one Advent a few years ago in Guatemala with a mission team from my previous congregation, in a poor community near the mountains called Chicutama. 

     I was working at my last home for the week, building my last wood-stove for my final family before making the journey home for Christmas. 

     Weʼd just begun working. The husband and wife of the house were busy mixing mortar. 

     And even though here in Northern Virginia at their age theyʼd be snap-chatting and visiting colleges, in their part of the world they were married and busy surviving and making sure their three children did too. 

     While they mixed the mortar, I stepped into the doorway of their mud-block home, looking for their three little children, thinking Iʼd play with them or get them to smile or giggle or run away in pretend fear. 

     It was a one-room home, paid for by a relative who worked illegally here in the states. Tacked on the far wall was a cracked, laminated poster of multiplication tables. 

     In the righthand corner was a long branch from a pine tree, propped up in a pink plastic beach bucket and decorated with pieces of colored foil and plastic. 

     Thick smoke from a fire wafted into the room through the tin roof. Scavenged and saved bits of trash were stacked neatly on the dusty floor. 

     The bed was a mattress laid on top of cinder blocks just to the left of the door. The three children- a three year old boy named Jason, a girl a year or two older named Veronica and their sister- were sitting on the bed. 

     Jason didnʼt have any shoes and his feet were black with dirt and they looked cold. He had a rash on his cheeks and mites in his hair and his eyes were red and his nose was running black snot from the smoke. 

     They were sitting on the bed and Veronica was feeding them breakfast with a toy dollʼs spoon. She was feeding them Tortrix, lime-flavored corn chips like Fritos, and soda in a baby bottle.

     Because that was the only thing they had to eat. 

     Because junk food is cheap. 

     And clean water is not and thatʼs all they could afford. 

I know it’s lame. 

In my pride, I was determined to take a picture of them— determined to take a picture of high and mighty do-gooding me with them. Because what says I’m better at putting Christ back into Christmas than you than a Facebook profile picture of you with some poor Save the Children children? 

I was virtue-signaling before our President made it trendy.

I’d been blind to it. I hadn’t seen it, hadn’t noticed the calendar that hung in their cinder block wall above the bed— not until I turned my back to the children and pulled out my iPhone and stretched out my arm to take a selfie of the four of us. 

I’d been blind, but then I saw. 

Staring back at me from the glass screen of my shiny new phone. 

The calendar on the wall— it was flipped to December. The top half had a picture of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. The straw in his manger looked gilded, and in his tiny right hand he held a cross no bigger than a baton. 

At the bottom of the picture, in Christmas gold-leaf, was a scripture verse from the prophet Isaiah:

“Be strong; do not fear! Here is your God.  He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”

      I looked at their reflection on the screen of my iPhone, the two little girls and the boy with my name, looking dirty and sick and shoeless, eating the only food they had while their mother and father worked with the kind of speed that comes from being sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor. 

      I looked at them there with the baby Jesus hanging above them on the wall along with the prophet Isaiah’s words in gilded italics as though to say to someone like me that Jesus Christ had come for them.  And them only. 

      ———————-

     Staring at Jasonʼs dirty bare feet and bloodshot eyes and black runny nose whilst I wondered what altruistic-Instagram picture I’d post of myself when I retuned home, it finally scattered all the ways I’d always imagined this season and its story. 

Looking at those three little children with Isaiah’s promise above their heads, it struck me: when I read the Christmas story, itʼs not fair for me to read myself into the place of Mary or Joseph or the shepherds or even the wise men. 

I donʼt know what itʼs like to live under the heel of an empire. I donʼt know what itʼs like to have my life jerked around by the rich and the powerful. If I have a place in this story— let’s be honest— my place is in Rome with Caesar Augustus.  Or maybe in the gated communities of Jerusalem, rubbing elbows with King Herod, Caesarʼs lackey.  I mean, Iʼd rather count myself among Mary and Josephʼs family. Or at least among their friends (if they had any), waiting outside the manger with a balloon for the baby and a cigar for the father. Iʼd even settle for being one of the shepherds, whose dirty work disqualified them from religious life, but to whom the heavens nonetheless break open with angels and good news. 

    But what I realized that Advent years ago is thatʼs not my place in the story. 

     My place in the story is as a member of the empire. 

     Iʼm well-off. Iʼm not as sophisticated as Caesar Augustus, but Iʼm the beneficiary of an expensive Ivy League education. 

     I donʼt live in a castle but I do live in a home that plenty would call a palace. 

     Iʼm not a king or an emperor but I have more control over my life than probably even King Herod did back in the day. In other words, I’m not the poor who hungers for good news. I’m not. I’m not the captive who cries for liberty. I’m not the oppressed who yearns for exodus. I’m not lowly; I don’t need to be lifted up (thank you very much, but no thank you).

     That Advent in Guatemala- 

     That’s when the truth stung me:  Iʼm not sure I like my place in the Christmas story. 

————————

     According to the prophet Isaiah- 

     Not only is the promised Messiah not for someone like me, the Messiah is promised by God exactly in order to be against someone like me. 

     As the Messiah’s mother sings: 

      “He has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their seats; and has exalted the humble and meek. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.”

     I hate to put a crimp in your Christmas cheer, but that’s most of us. Just by virtue of living in the Empire Called America, that’s you and me. 

We’re rich. 

     Just listen again to today’s text: 

The coming of Christ isn’t jolly, glad tidings for everyone. 

        Today’s text actually begins in chapter 34 where the prophet Isaiah says: 

“The Lord is enraged…he has doomed the greedy and faithless nations. The Lord has a sword to be sated with blood…and a coming day of vengeance.”

Have yourself a merry little Christmas.

    I mean you have to give King Herod credit. 

     Herod was not stupid. He knew bad news when he heard it. 

         Herod knew enough of his Bible to know the prophet Isaiah had promised that when God takes flesh in the Messiah, God would take sides: 

With those on margins.  

With the people working the night shift.

And with those working out in the fields.

With those stuck in detention centers (and those who die in them.)

    For Herod, for the white-collared and the well-off and the people at the top of the ladder, for the movers and shakers of the empire— the coming of Christ was bad news not good news. 

     And they were smart enough to know it. 

John the Baptist riffs on Isaiah’s image of the Highway that the coming God will clear for God’s put-upon People.  He riffs on it right before he condemns the likes of us as a brood of vipers and warns us, in our affluent indifference, to flee from the fire of Christ’s coming wrath. 

Maybe we should think twice before moralizing about putting Christ back into Christmas. Maybe we should be careful what we wish for.

Here is your God. 

He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. 

     Show of hands— how many of you put that on your Christmas cards this year?

Every year, just like King Herod, we try to do away with Jesus— not by the sword but with sentimentality. 

    I wonder if it’s because we don’t know how the Christmas story can be good news for people like us.  

If it’s good news of great joy for people like Isaiah and Mary, John the Baptist and shepherds, then how is it good news for rich people like us? 

————————

Remember—

The word our Lord gives to the angel to announce is that the invasion of Christ into the world is good news of great joy not for some people. 

Not good news of great joy for the poor alone. 

Not good news of great joy for the oppressed exclusively. 

Not good news of great joy just for the humble or the hungry. 

The word God gives Gabriel to deliver is that the arrival of Christ among us is good news of great joy for all the people. 

Pas. 

All the people.

So, if Isaiah is right and Mary is right and John the Baptist is right, then how is the angel Gabriel right too? 

How is Christmas good news for rich, proud, powerful people like most of us?

  ————————

A few years ago the New York Times did a story about a black pastor named William James in East Harlem. The pastor, the article noted, was famous in his community for his work on behalf of the destitute and the downtrodden. The author of the article writes:

“The streets of the neighborhood are lined with storefront churches, as many as five on a block, and some of the ministers said it was difficult to get across the Christmas message of hope, joy, and celebration to those who have so little. But Reverend James disagrees. ‘The Christmas message,’ he said, ‘the good news to the poor, is that ‘you’re not going to be poor anymore.’ ‘That message is a lot easier,’ the pastor said, ‘than trying to get across the Christmas message to the rich that they’re not going to be selfish anymore.’

Notice what the pastor didn’t say to the Times reporter. 

He didn’t say the Christmas message to the rich is “You shouldn’t be selfish anymore.” He didn’t say: “Empty your pockets, or else. Make yourself low lest you who are first be lost forever.” He didn’t even say: “Sinner, repent of your selfishness.” 

He just said: “You’re not going to be selfish anymore.”

You’re not going to be like that anymore. 

As though, it’s not up to us what will be done to us. 

As though, you are at best a bystander to what will be done upon you. 

For you.

What is promised by God through the prophet Isaiah, what prompts the God-bearer Mary to sing— it’s not simply a rearranging of the old order of things, with the poor and the rich changing stations in the old creation. 

The Gospel is bigger and more radical than shuffling up tax brackets. 

What the prophets promise and what Mary extols is God’s work of a New Creation begun in a New Adam born to another Eve. That’s why the angel Gabriel is the one to announce the news. Gabriel is the one who showed the First Adam and Eve the exit from Eden and stood guard by the entrance. Now, at the opening of a new testament, he announces the news of a new creation through a New Adam.

What the prophets promise and Mary praises is not condemnation for some (the rich and the powerful) and consolation for others (the poor and the powerless). 

It’s not condemnation for some but consolation for others; it’s the transformation of all. 

Just as God did at the Tower of Babel, the scattering of the proud and the powerful from their high places— the emptying of the rich— it is for their blessing. It is the work of God’s grace.

That’s what the prophet Isaiah is getting at in our passage from chapter 35 today. 

Just as the desert will one day no longer be dry, just as the wilderness shall blossom and thirsty ground will become springs of water, so too the proud will become humble and the mighty will lie down with lambs and the rich will be made selfish no more. 

The coming of God’s justice in Jesus Christ who is our Judge is not for the sake of revenge. It’s for the sake of the righteousness of God.  

 ————————

The prophet Isaiah’s poetry is unparalleled in scripture, maybe in all of literature. 

Luke and Matthew have written us luminous nativity stories with which we love to costume our kids, yet neither the Christmas stories nor the prophets’ poetry are self-interpreting. 

The meaning of Isaiah’s prophecies, the meaning of Luke’s nativity— it’s not self-evident in the poetry and stories themselves. 

The creche by itself does not communicate the meaning of the Christmas manger. 

And without the meaning of it, we’re just like the ladies in the hoop skirts at Mt. Vernon. 

We’re just dressing up and rehearsing an old, old story once a year. 

That’s why, historically, every Advent the church listens not only to the prophets and to Mary and John but to the Apostle Paul as well. 

In other words, we need the Apostle Paul to tell us what the poetry and story mean. 

And when Paul gathers up these images from the prophets, from Mary and John the Baptist— Paul announces that in the coming of Jesus Christ the righteousness of God has been revealed. 

I am not ashamed of the good news of great joy, for in it the righteousness of God is invading, Paul says. 

The free gift given in Christ Jesus to all is for the sake of God’s righteousness for all, Paul says. Even for the ungodly.

Justification— the righteousness of God— that’s what’s missing when we reduce the Gospel to a cliche like “God is love” or to a cliff note like “Christianity is about forgiveness.” 

God is love and Christianity is about forgiveness, but love and forgiveness are too weak of words for what God does. 

For St. Paul, and for Isaiah for that matter, the righteousness of God is absolutely central to their message, but it’s easy for us to miss the radicality of it. 

I’ve told you all this before but Pat Vaughn swears you weren’t paying attention. 

So, listen up: in Hebrew and in Greek, righteousness and justice and judgment and justification and rectification are all the same word. 

Dikaiosoune.

It’s all the same word, and it functions as a verb.

God’s judgment is God’s justice, and God’s justice is God’s righteousness and God’s righteousness is God’s justification— it’s all God’s rectification; it’s all God’s work of right-making. 

So when we profess in the Apostles’ Creed about Christ coming again “…to judge the quick and the dead…” we’re saying that he will come again to rectify not only the wrong in us but the wrong we have wrought in the world. 

And when Paul declares: I am not ashamed of the good news of great joy for in it the righteousness of God is revealed, he’s saying I am not ashamed of the Gospel for in it the right-making work of God is revealed. 

And when Paul preaches that we are justified by the free gift of the blood of Christ through faith alone, he’s saying that Almighty God is able to do mighty acts to make right in and through the one who trusts in the cross of Christ alone. 

You see— the Gospel is about more than love and forgiveness. 

God has forgiven all your sins, yes. 

God loves you just as you are, double true. 

But the God who comes among us as we are, who loves you as you are— he loves you too much to leave you as you are.  He loves you too much to leave you forgiven and forgiven alone. Thanks be to God that God loves me as I am, but, God, I don’t want to remain as I am— my wife certainly doesn’t want God to leave me as I am.

I don’t want to be selfish anymore! 

The righteousness of God— that’s the meaning behind the manger. 

The God who already declared you righteous at your baptism is yet at work to make you what he has by grace called you. 

God has been and God is and God will make right all that is wrong in his creation until all things are made new and one day even ungodly people like you and me are remade in the image of the New Adam, Jesus Christ. 

That’s what that pastor in Harlem was getting at— the hope of the rich is not the rich person’s capacity to humble himself and make himself unselfish. 

His only hope— our only hope— is that the God who justifies us will also one day rectify us. Make us right.  And not only us…the wilderness and the dry land, the streams and the desert.  All of creation. 

For people like us, our hope— our only hope— is not that we will make ourselves humble and unselfish because someone exhorted us: Be more like Mary! 

Our hope is that the God who invaded our world by an incarnation is a God who is advancing even now, determined not to let me have my own way forever. 

God is at work— in the church. 

God is at work, opening our blind affluent eyes to the need around us. 

God is at work, unstopping our deaf ears to the cries of the oppressed. 

God is at work, loosening the paralyzing grip greed has upon…me at least.

 ————————

That Advent in Guatemala, after our weekʼs work was complete, the women of the village cooked a meal for us and thanked us. 

     These are women who, in their lifetimes, have been victimized by dictators and armed thugs. These are refugees whose people over generations have been displaced and pushed into mountains as their land was stolen by the rich. These are poor women whose husbands and sons either have been killed by civil war or are living as economic exiles here in the states or are being held in detention centers. 

     And there I was. Neither poor nor oppressed, already filled with good things. 

         Jasonʼs 17 year old mother was there. Out of her poverty, she gave me with a little tapestry sheʼd sewn. Then she embraced me and she said into my ear: “Merry Christmas.” 

I opened the tapestry and looked at it.

She’d stitched the words to Mary’s song on it, including that last line about the rich being sent empty away. The tapestry shook in my hands. My knees suddenly felt feeble. 

Like I’d just been swept off my throne. 

For our latest episdoe, Teer and I talked with Dr. Jeff Mallinson about his recent book Sexy: The Quest for Erotic Virtue in Perplexing Times. In addition to digging up John Wesley’s odd and unhelpful views on being the master of your own domain, Jeff explores how grace is not only good news it’s sexy too. In a culture that can’t really talk about sex in any meaningful way, I think this conversation is one of our more important ones.

Jeff is professor of theology and philosophy at Concordia University-Irvine and is the host of the Virtue in the Wasteland broadcast.

Before you check it out, go over to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com and click on the support tab to become a patron of the program.

 

Part 2 of my conversation with fan favorite, Reverend Fleming Rutledge, to talk about her latest book, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ. To dig more into her book and themes, go to www.adventbeginsinthedark.com to subscribe to C&GJ’s daily Advent devotional.

In this installment, Fleming shares a wonderful anecdote of how hearing MLK’s Dream sermon in real time converted her out of the racism of her growing up years. Plus, she says she needs to have me at her right hand all the time!

Jesus is Not St. Nick

Jason Micheli —  December 6, 2018 — Leave a comment

Since today marks St. Nicholas Day, I thought I’d share these words about that dreadful satanic song written in Santa’s “honor:”

The words of that dreadful Christmas song sum up perfectly the only kind of messianic behavior the human race, in it’s self-destructive folly, is prepared to accept: ‘He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice; he’s going to find out whose naughty and nice’ – and so on into the dark night of all the tests this naughty world can never pass.

For my money, what Jesus senses clearly and for the first time in the coin in the fishe’s mouth is that He is not, thank God, Santa Claus.

He will come to the worlds sins with no list to check, no test to grade, no debts to collect, no scores to settle.

He will wipe away the handwriting that was against us and nail it to His cross. (Col. 2:14) He will save, not some minuscule coterie of good little boys and girls with religious money in their piggy banks, but all the stone-broke, deadbeat, overextended children of this world whom He, as the son of man- the Holy Child of God, the ultimate Big Kid, if you please – will set free in the liberation of His death.

And when He senses that… well, it is simply to laugh.

He racks a “gone fishing” sign over the sweatshop of religion, and for all the debts of all sinners who ever lived.

He provides exact change for free.

How nice it would be if the church could only remember to keep itself in on the joke.

– Robert F. Capon

Have we ripped off the legs of the stool to beat each other with Tradition or Experience? Meanwhile, scripture lays neglected on the floor.

Stuck in the crappy part of the alphabet and scraping the bottom of the barrel, we talked about “Quadrilateral.” For you non-nerds, it’s what Methodists use to refer to Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience.

Hey, unlike grace this podcast ain’t cheap nor is it free. Help us out! You can become a patron for less than I what I require to buy shampoo.

Go to the patreon page and join on our community of donors here.

 

Was Jesus Wrong?

Jason Micheli —  December 3, 2018 — Leave a comment

Having kicked off our Advent Begins in the Dark daily devotional series over at www.crackersandgrapejuice.com, I’ve received a number of questions from readers, listeners, and congregants. I thought this question especially good and my attempt at an answer perhaps useful for others to read as well.

Here it is:

Hi Jason,

Matthew 16:27-28. 

I have looked at a lot of commentary on these verses, but none of it rings true to me.  These verses sound to me like Jesus was saying that the second coming was imminent — so imminent, in fact, that some of those standing there would be alive to see it.

The commentaries I have seen invoke the transfiguration or the resurrection or the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem in that day, instead of the second coming, but these don’t make sense to me.

Verse 27 says Jesus would come with angels and God’s glory and would pass judgment on people according what they have done, and then 28 says that some standing there would be alive to see it.

Is there a way to interpret this passage so that Jesus doesn’t get it wrong? Obviously, the way I’m looking at it, the Son of God was pretty far off on his timing.  No second coming still.

Any thoughts would be appreciated.  At your convenience.  No rush.  And we can do this by e-mail.  I don’t need to take up your time in the office.  Thanks.

Best,

F———-

Hi F——-,

Thanks for your thoughtful questions! To return a compliment you gave me, it’s clear you think deeply about scripture. I can’t promise any satisfactory answers, but I can assure you that I’d rather reply to a query like this one than negotiate the merits of real vs. artificial candles for Christmas Eve. 

If I’m going to irritate everyone with my insistence that Advent is the season of the second coming, then it follows that I should be prepared to give an account of passages like the one you’ve cited in Matthew 16. As it happens, I don’t know that I’ve ever preached on this text befoer and it comes up in the lectionary’s 3-year cycle only once and then over Labor Day weekend. 

Here’s some grist for your mind mill—

Matthew uses the word hekasto in vs. 27, meaning “every.” What’s imagined here by Jesus is the judgment of every human being, which by itself is a unique little word in that Matthew is the Gospel most focused on the particularlity of the Church as the New Israel and judgment typically pointed at the world for its treatment of Christ’s little ones, the Church. 

Matthew begins vs. 27 with the word mellei. The NRSV begins the sentence with “For the Son of Man…” Translations are forever guilty of making the evangelists (and Jesus) sound more literate than they were, smoothing out the sentences and, inadvertently, wrinkling their meaning in the process. Here, the word mellei means “just about.” So: “Just about…the Son of Man will come…” It’s both proximate and urgent without in any way being clear or defined. 

Still, you can infer from the diversity of interpretations in the tradition that the Church has been uncomfortable with the same gristle stuck in your craw; that is, the notion that his lack of return could imply that Jesus was wrong. 

Augustine, for example, argued that Matthew 16 finds its fulfillment in the next chapter at the Transfiguration. Luther connected it to the Resurrection, specifically to the Risen Christ’s commission to the Church to baptize the nations into his death and resurrection. Calvin saw this passage of the coming as having come at Pentecost with the alighting of the Spirit. Some, as you indicate, see in it the Fall of Jerusalem— which, later, connects to the Transfiguration— and others see it in terms only of a second coming that hasn’t yet come. 

It seems to me that there are no less than three questions behind your question:

1) Should we be concerned that Jesus may have been wrong about the timing of his return?

2) Was Jesus wrong in this instance in Matthew 16?

3) What do we make of what he says in Matthew 16 about judgment coming to us based on our behavior?

#1 — 

It’s called the “criterion of embarrassment” and I’ve written about it in other places. Basically, it holds that one of the reasons you can trust the witness of the NT is that contains too many otherwise embarrassing details were it made up wholecloth in order to persuade you its hero’s side. Rather than worrying about Jesus being wrong, I think this could be an instance where we’re encouraged that the scriptures are ‘right’ in the witness they give us. That is, the fact that Matthew was willing to commit to papyrus a statement of Jesus already proveably wrong by the time of publication indicates not Jesus’ unreliability about timing so much as Matthew’s reliability when it comes to his testimony. 

Another way of thinking about your dis-ease with Jesus getting it wrong: Luther called it a “theology of glory” against which he cast his “theology of the cross.” Reading Genesis 1-3, Luther saw in Adam our desire always to go looking for a better god with different words than the God who has spoken to us (in his Son). We’re hard-wired, which is to say we’re Sin-compelled, to look for a god who conforms to our (glorious) conceptions; whereas, the God of the Bible generally and Christ particularly loves to “hide himself among his opposites.” While I don’t think Jesus is wrong here in Matthew 16, I think it’s okay for him to be wrong. A God with broken timetables isn’t really any different than a God broken, like stale bread, upon a cross.

But you may wonder next: 

Mustn’t Jesus’ teachings be reliable and true?!

Answer:

No.

Remember, all of the Gospels are written from the vantage of Easter’s surprise. 

Therefore— 

What makes Jesus’ sayings and teachings authoritative is not that Jesus taught and said them. 

What makes Jesus’ sayings and teachings authoritative for us is what God did with him. 

With the crucified Jesus. 

God raising the otherwise accursed Jesus from the dead not only vindicates Jesus’ faithfulness, it’s the only thing that makes Jesus’ teachings and sayings of any bother. Our faith, in other words, is grounded not upon what Jesus said or did but upon what God did with Jesus, which then makes what Jesus said and did worth our attention— truth be told, prior to Holy Week nothing much that Jesus said or taught was novel or earth-shattering. 

When you narrow the definition of the Gospel back its original parameters (Christ died for our sins and was raised for our justification), it’s not as troubling that maybe the human Jesus got his schedule wrong. I’m okay with Jesus being wrong, in other words, because it’s God raising him from the dead alone that makes him— from the hinsight of the empty tomb— right. 

2–

Having not preached— and, thus, not having thought deeply about— this text I was planning to leave you with only the above response. But, re-reading the latter half of Matthew’s Gospel, I’m not so sure that St. Augustine’s interpretation should so easly dis-satisfy us. 

Full disclosure— I believe the apostolic message of Paul, which chronologically precedes the four Gospels should determine our reading of those Gospels. Another way of putting it, Paul in his letters says what Jesus did in the Gospels, making Jesus the first Christian so to speak. So Jesus’ statements of judgment here in Matthew 16 should be read in light of Paul’s Gospel announcement that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus our Lord. 

Augustine was someone who most definitely did read the Gospels in light of the Gospel proclaimed by the Apostle Paul. And while I’m not bothered by the notion of Jesus being “wrong” I don’t think that’s the case in this text. 

I think Augustine was— is— right. And I think it’s in keeping with the Gospels theme of the Day of Judgment moving from John the Baptist’s message of “not yet but very soon” to Jesus’ announcement that it’s “already arrived and still to come.”

Matthew 16–

The very next verse, after Matthew has Jesus talking about the Son of Man coming in glory, Matthew tells us Jesus took Peter and James up a high mountain where he was transfigured before them, in glory. Peter and James (“there are some standing here…”) see Jesus with Elijah and Moses. But Peter and James are commanded not to heed them but to listen to Jesus. Moses and Elijah respectively represent the Law and the Prophets. The Law was the means by which God’s People achieved holiness and the Prophets called the People back to the Law. At Sinai, the people promised “all this we will do and more” inviting God’s judgment if they failed to follow. The prophets predicted God’s judgment because they had failed. Thus, the Transfiguration depicts visually what John says at the beginning of his Gospel that “the Law came with Moses but grace and truth have come with Jesus Christ.” In other words, the incarnation itself is the arrival of a kind of judgment; the grace given through Christ is a not so tacit acknowledgement that we could accrue no righteouness on our own through the means given by way of Moses or Elijah. So judgment has already come to the disciples before they’ve tasted death because they’re in the presence of the Judge who has come to be judged in their place. 

3–

The NT’s understanding is that the crucifixion itself is the primary Last Judgment upon Sin and sinners— the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. The cross is the place where sheep and goats are gathered at his right and left, some mourning for him and others jeering at him, neither group— not even his mother that side of Easter— comprehending who he was and is (“when did we see you naked…?”). So I think the first step is to submit Matthew 16 to Matthew 26-7– the Gospels should be read like movies, the end determines how we interpret the stuff at the beginning and end. We can’t just go about picking passages at random to answer the questions we impose upon a text that maybe isn’t trying to answer those queries. And, as we say at baptism, the cross is where we’re repaid the wages of sin. In him, we die to Sin with him; such that, now, for those of us in Christ, clothed with his own righteousness, any notion of a Last Judgment looks more like the Father’s prodigal feast where— still well within the family— may end up being an asshole elder brother, so offended by grace to our kin that we stay outside nursing our grudge. Or, as Robert Capon said, “Hell is the lonliest bar in the universe,” which is a fun way to say that any judgment for the justified is premised on how we relate to the Judge. To quote the Pharisee and the Publican—Do we give thanks that we are in fact exactly like other people and yet we’re loved? If not, then, as Malachi says in an Advent reading, God’s judgment will not be condemnation but it will be purgation, for God is a refining fire. 

Apocalypse Chow

Jason Micheli —  December 3, 2018 — Leave a comment

I recently Jim Baker (yes, that Jim Baker) hawking flood buckets filled with freeze-dried food so that lucky purchases could be prepped for the great and terrible tribulations that will ocassion the End Times. 

Perhaps when we celebrate this season of the second coming with a theme like Advent Begins in the Dark it’s helpful to remember a basic theological maxim:

God is at least as nice as Jesus.

Of course the converse is just as true:

The Son is as confounding as the Father.

Nonetheless, with hucksters and charlatans forming assumptions about what the Bible forsees for the fulfillment of salvation, it’s important for Christians to recall that the God whose Second Coming we anticipate at Advent is the same God who came to us in Christ at the first Advent. 

John the Baptist, who makes his appearance on stage every Advent to announce the turning of the ages, from old to new, isn’t the kind of preacher who puts his listeners to sleep. He makes it unmistakeable that Advent begins in the dark. 

     It’s true that in the season of Advent we hunker down and confess that the world is full of darkness and depravity (because the world is filled with people like you and me). It’s into such a world as this that the Son of God came and to such a world will he come again. And so, during Advent we Christians sing not about how Santa Claus is coming to town but about how Judgment is coming. Before we light candles on Christmas Eve, in Advent we grope through the dark. 

     We brace ourselves and read prophets like Isaiah who yearn for God to come down—now— and who gives the preacher John his frightening imagery of God’s hatchet raised and ready to lop off all the unfaithful. John’s lunch box full of locusts is meant to evoke the prophet Elijah, which his happy news only to those who don’t know their bibles, for the Old Testament ends with the prophet Malachi foreboding: “Behold I will send you Elijah before the great and terrible Day of the Lord arrives.” 

     The Medieval Church, Fleming Rutledge notes, took their cues from Malachi and spent the Sundays of Advent on the themes of Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Eternal Hell. 

     No wonder we’ve always been in a rush to get to Christmas. 

     Advent, says Fleming, is a season that forbids denial. 

     Denial that we are sinners.  

     Just read through the Advent hymns the Church with a capital C has given us through the centuries, hymns like the Dies Irae- which means, the Day of Wrath. 

     Or take another scripture that’s a standby for the Advent season, where again it’s the prophet Isaiah who declares that we’re such rotten sinners that ‘…all our good deeds, to God, are like filthy rags.’ 

     It’s a frightening indictment. Especially when you recall that the Pharisees and Sadducees, whom John the Baptist is threatening like the first TV preacher in history at the beginning of the Gospels, hoofed it some 20 miles from Jerusalem to the Judean wilderness to be baptized with his baptism of repentance. 

    To call them, as John does, a brood of vipers with hearts of stone seems unChristian. Certainly, it seems out of step with how we prefer to celebrate this season. I know I’ve not sent anyone a Christmas card that says: “All your best deeds this year— they’re no better than menstrual rags.” 

FYI: That’s how Isaiah puts it in the Hebrew.

And as a preacher, I’m reluctant to hit listeners over the head with John’s winnowing-fork or, like him, holler through a bullhorn, all sticky with honey, that unless you repent and start blooming some righteously good fruit, God’s gonna clear his threshing-floor and burn up chaff like you with unquenchable fire.

     No wonder we anesthetize ourselves with presents and pumpkin spice lattes.

With hucksters on TV making God seem awful rather than awe-filling, it helps to remember at Advent that sin isn’t something you do that offends God. Sins are not errors that erode God’s grace. They’re not crimes that aggrieve God and arouse his anger against you. They’re not debits from your account that accumulate and must be reconciled before God can forgive you. 

     Advent is a season that forbids denial so let’s get this straight and clear.

     Sin is about where your love lies. 

Advent can begin in the darkness, unafraid.

Because sin has nothing to do with where God’s love lies. 

     God’s love, whether you’re a reprobate like King David, a traitor like Judas, a jackass like me, or a comfortably numb suburbanite- God’s love doesn’t change. 

     Because God doesn’t change. 

     There’s nothing you can do to make God love you more and there’s nothing you can do to make God love you less. The Father’s heart is no different when the prodigal returns than on the day he left his Father. 

     God’s heart is no different whether you’re persuaded by John the Baptist’s street preaching or not.

     So before you heed John the Baptist this Advent season, before you repent of your sin, do not think you need to repent in order for God to love you. 

    Do not think your sin has anything to do with where God’s love lies. 

     God’s love for you is unconditional— unchanging— because God is unchanging. 

     Don’t think an Advent repentance keeps the winnowing fork at bay. 

     Don’t think Advent penance in any way persuades God’s pathos in your favor. 

     Don’t think that by confessing your sin this Advent you’ve somehow compelled God to change his mind about you. 

     No. 

     When God forgives our sins, he is not changing his mind about us. 

He is changing our minds about him. 

     God does not change.

God’s mind is never anything but loving because God just is Love. 

     Who the hell are you to think your mediocre, run of the mill sins could change God? 

     You could dive into the Jordan River and eat a feast’s worth of locusts, but it wouldn’t change God’s love. 

     You see, we grope in the dark during Advent not to change God’s love but to change our love. To stoke not God’s affection for you but your affection. 

     Because that, says St. Thomas Aquinas, for most of us, is what our sins are. They’re affections. They’re not evil. They’re things we choose because we think they’re good for us: our booze and pills and toys, our forgive-but-not-forget grudges, our heart is in the right place gossip. Our politics.

     Most of our sins— they’re not evil. They’re affections, flirtations, that if we’re not careful can become lovers when we’re, by baptism, betrothed to only One. 

     And so we grope in the dark during Advent hoping to grab ahold of and kill our lovers. 

     Advent is a season that forbids denial because only by confronting our sins can we to die to them. 

     And die to them we must because Jesus said there’s no way to God except through him, and Jesus shows us there’s no way to God except through suffering and death. There is no other way to God. 

     Jesus died to make it possible for us to die (to our sins) and rise again. And that isn’t easy because there’s no way to avoid the cross. 

     Even boring, mediocre sinners like us. We have to crucify and die to our affections and our addictions, to our ideologies, and our ordinary resentments. 

     Like Jesus, we have to suffer and die not so God can love us but so that we can love God and one another like Jesus. 

“Forgiveness alone cannot make right.”

I sat down with fan favorite, Reverend Fleming Rutledge, to talk about her latest book, Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ.

To dig more into her book and themes, go to www.adventbeginsinthedark.com to subscribe to C&GJ’s daily Advent devotional.

 

Missing from the Manger

Jason Micheli —  November 28, 2018 — Leave a comment

A nativity is up already in the narthex, strewn with artful straw and friendly beasts, shepherds and the maker of the world, measuring in inches and ounces, laying in a manger. 

It’s a testament to St. Luke’s skill that we know his story and its characters so well— the dumbfounded, dung-covered shepherds, the angels bearing their gospel tidings, the census levied by Caesar and the journey undertaken by Joseph and his self-possessed new wife. Perhaps it reveals St. Matthew’s dearth of narrative skill that we confuse his nativty with Luke’s own story, setting the magi at the manger weeks too early— the star the follow ocassions his birth. 

And we fix a place for the monster, King Herod, nowhere near the manger at all. 

Nor do set any of his innocent-slaughtering stormtroopers anywhere on the stage. 

In some circles, the Christmas story is read on no other plane but the sentimental, from which we derive partial— possibly empty— principles. 

See, we say, God knows what it’s like to be one of us, naked and vulnerable in world.

Look, God loves us so much as to come down and become one of us. 

It’s all true, of course.

It’s just not complete nor is it sufficient to the tale the entire New Testament— not just the nativity stories— want you to see. 

In other circles, the costuming of the Christmas story is peeled back to reveal the “real,” socio-political, anti-imperial story going on behind the story. To paraphrase Feuerbach: the theological wrapping paper of the Christmas story becomes but a way for us to speak our politics in a God-sized voice. 

Not only does the holy family become an asylum-seeking refugee family in Egypt, we note, their son becomes a New Moses who will deliver his people from a New Pharaoh, bringing down the proud and the powerful from their thrones. 

Again, it’s all true. 

It’s just not real enough, in terms of the New Testament’s witness, to be the real story behind the story.

What’s missing from our mangers isn’t Herod or his shock troops, a proper chronology or Caesar sitting off on a throne in the distance. 

Both our modernist sentimentalized distillations of the nativity story and our (regressive) progressive political interpretations of the Christmas tale are too flat. 

They’re both insufficiently cosmic. 

Neither are three-dimensional enough to do justice to the why of Christ’s coming as the New Testament understands it. 

What’s missing from our manger scenes is the Enemy. 

And— this may be a helpful word in our current cultural moment— the Enemy is not Herod or Caesar or any of their stormtroopers or supporters. 

As Fleming Rutledge notes again and again in her writing, the New Testament is unanimous on this point: 

“When Christ comes in to our world, he enters occupied territory.”

When the Father’s Son enters the Far Country of Sin and Death, he comes to a realm under the reign of an Enemy. 

The Enemy.

It’s a Christmas story, it’s just not a nativity story. There’s a story later in Luke’s Gospel, chapter 13, where a daughter of Abraham has been bound by Satan for 18 long years, and we expect to discover that what’s really going on here is that Christ has healed her of an inexplicable paralysis. 

        Even if demons and devils, spirits and Satan, are just myths to you, even if you don’t think they’re real, that doesn’t change the fact that Jesus did. 

     “This woman is a daughter of Abraham whom Satan [with a capital S no less] has bound for 18 long years.” 

      Go back and look at the text. 

     That’s not the Pharisees attributing Satan to her paralysis. That’s not the Chief Priests saying she’s been bound by Satan. That’s not the disciples or Luke implying it.

     That’s red-letter. 

     That’s Jesus saying that whatever has ailed this woman is because Satan has bound her in his captivity, and you don’t need me to point out that Jesus wouldn’t have bothered to say that if it wasn’t also true, in less obvious ways, about all the rest of his listeners. 

     Which, includes us. 

  

     When you leave the Enemy missing from the manger, you leave off too much of the Gospel too. 

     Call it what you will: 

The Devil 

Death, as Paul does in Romans  

The Principalities and Powers or the Ruler of the Spirit of the Air, as Ephesians does

Satan, as Luke says here

Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, or the Adversary, as Jesus does elsewhere

     Call it what you will, the sheer array of names proves the point: the Devil— not the Herods and Caesars of any age— is the narrative glue that holds the New Testament together. 

     The language of Satan so thoroughly saturates the New Testament you can’t speak proper Christian without believing in him. 

     Even the ancient Christmas carols most commonly describe the incarnation as the invasion by God of Satan’s territory while the most common nativity image in art is that of the Christ child wielding a cross in his hand— like its a weapon.

     Whether you believe Satan is real is beside the point because Jesus did and the New Testament does. 

     To pull off the Christmas costumes and insist that something else is going on behind the story is to ignore how Jesus, fundamentally, understood himself and his mission. It’s to ignore how his first followers- and, interestingly, his first critics- understood him. 

     The Apostle John spells it out for us, spells out the reason for Jesus’ coming not in terms of our sin but in terms of Satan. John says: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the Devil’s work.” 

     And when Peter explains who Jesus is to a curious Roman named Cornelius in Acts 10, Peter says: “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power…to save all who were under the power of the Devil.” 

     When his disciples ask him how to pray, Jesus teaches them to pray “…Deliver us from the Evil One…” 

     You can count up the verses. 

     More so than he was a teacher or a wonder worker. More so than a prophet, a preacher, or a revolutionary, Jesus was an exorcist. 

     And he understood his ministry as being not just for us but against the One whom he called the Adversary. 

    This is why our reductions of the Christmas story are true-ish but ultimately incomplete. Put baldly: if there’s no Devil, there’s no Gospel. 

     According to the New Testament, our salvation is not a 2-person drama. 

It’s not a 2-character cast of God (in Christ) and us. 

   

     According to scripture, there is a third agency at work in this story— and in our world—  against whom God-in-Christ contends.

     We’re not only sinners before God. We’re captives to Another. 

     We’re unwitting accomplices and slaves and victims of Another. 

     And even now, says scripture, the New Creation being brought into reality by Christ is constantly at war with, always contending against, the Old Creation ruled by Satan. 

     And the battlefield runs through every human heart. 

     Obviously, I realize that likely sounds superstitious to many of you. If so, I’d encourage you to ask someone suffering an addiction if they think the Bible’s language for Sin-with-a- capital-S is fantastical. They’ll tell you what it’s like to be captive to some other Power, who is not God. What addicts experience is the same agency splayed out all over our news every day—

the suffering and poverty and violence, the oppression, the hate, and the exploitation.

When the Enemy is missing from our mental mangers, what winds up missing from the Christian on our lips is mercy. 

The problem with the partial political renderings of the Gospel story— the ones that make Herod or Caesar or empire the villains against whom Christ has come to contend— is that they fail to account for the New Testament’s witness that even a Herod or a Caesar is held in the grip of Sin and Death. Or rather, as people who know the Power of Sin and Death is not fake news, Christians are able to see themselves— there but for the grace of God— in Herod or Caesar’s shoes. 

As Fleming Rutledge preaches:

“Evil is loose in the world and can take anyone, anywhere, at any time— but the proud and the self-righteous are especially vulnerable…Providence is ceaselessly working to defeat the Enemy…But here is the point: we are all just as susceptible to the Enemy as anyone else…The Enemy, you see, is too strong for us.”

In a culture bent on drawing lines between us vs. them, where progressives and conservatives alike are determined to define the other as the enemy, the Bible’s belief in the Enemy should muster mercy from us as we set out our mangers. This season of the second coming should remind us, in other words, of what the Apostle Paul tells us of his first coming: “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood…” All of us live in occupied territory. The Pharoah called Sin and Death— Satan— can harden even the best heart. Not one of us is ‘evil’ or ‘good,’ ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent,’ ‘awful’ or saintly.’ 

Because we live in a contested realm, Fleming says, all of us are always hovering on the brink of both. 

    

     

     

     

 

Christians Come First

Jason Micheli —  November 27, 2018 — Leave a comment

Crackers and Grape Juice will be doing a daily devotional all through Advent and Christmas.

Go to www.adventbeginsinthedark.com to subscribe.

Here’s the second offering:

Every year I try to remind Christians that at Advent we do not mimic those believers between the testaments who waited for the Lord’s first coming. We wait— wearied by this world we’ve made in our own image, we long— for his second Advent. In this season we locate ourselves not at the top of the Apostles’ Creed (I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary…) but towards the botton of our beliefs (…who will come again to judge the quick and the dead…). During Advent, Christians anticipate not his incarnation but his imminent return. 

“Until Christ comes back in final victory…” we pray during eucharist. Advent is the time when we anticipate his coming again with more than bread and wine; we look for his second Advent with the Word, with hymns, and with sober self-awareness that we’re a part of what’s wrong with the world. Every year I try to remind Christians what we’re actually doing during Advent, and every year I get accused that I’m a collared Eeyore deadset on ruining Christmas. 

The bracing tone of Advent’s liturgy is so unmistakeable that our missing it must be willful. The popular Advent hymn Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus, for example, sings frankly about our fears and sins while the other favorite, Come, O Come, Emmanuel, is a lamentation, speaking of mouring and lonely exile— and lonely exile is exactly how it feels to be a Christian in America watching border officers shoot tear gas and rubber bullets into children and mothers seeking, like Jesus’ own family, asylum. Meanwhile, the assigned lectionary readings for the first Sunday of Advent are not about the nativity at all; in fact, the Gospel lection is from Palm Sunday and it’s scary as crap:

“There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

When Christ returns at the second Advent, he will not come as he come to us at the first Advent. He will not come ignito in the flesh. He will not come in great humility. He will come with great glory. 

And power. 

Ricky Bobby isn’t the only one of us who prefers the baby Jesus in his golden fleece diapers. To face the prospect of Christ’s coming again is to reckon with the truth about ourselves. We are not blameless, as Thessalonians— another assigned Advent reading— leads us to conclude. There is no health in us, as the Book of Common Prayer confesses; such that, for the Lord to return and execute justice, as Jeremiah prophesies at Advent, is a frightening prospect. Measured against the Lord’s impending justice, we have no hope in our own righteousness. 

Our only hope, as Jeremiah tells us at Advent, is that the Lord, Jesus Christ himself, is our righteousness. This “season of hope” has no content, therefore, apart from the honest acknowledgement of the hopelessness abounding in the world all around us and the conviction of our faith that, though none are righteous— not one— when he returns he will return already bearing in his risen body our every sin. He has absorbed the ultimate and final penalty for our every trespass. His coming again in judgement is not a coming for condemnation, for to those who’ve been clothed with him by baptism, he is our righteousness. 

He is our righteousness. 

We know—

His judgment is not condemnation; purgation is not perdition. 

When Christians avoid the apocalyptic tenor of the Advent season and rush to the bright lights and to the manger and— let’s be honest— to sentimentiality, we forsake one of the key ways in which we imitate the incarnate Lord for the sake of the world. 

In another assigned Advent text, the prophet Isaiah indicts his own religious community before casting judgment on the wider world for its sex-inflicted calamity: 

“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth…” 

A frightening, frequently misunderstood word, “wrath” in the Bible but names means God’s fierce, relentlessly determined opposition to the enslaving Power of Sin, which Christ has already defeated but whose reign— mysteriously so—has not yet ended. By calling his people’s best good deeds worse than bad, the prophet Isaiah places himself and his community before God’s wrath before the wider world. Isaiah, in other words, puts himself at the front of the line leading to God’s judgment seat.

The Apostle Paul— the same Paul who earlier assured us that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus— tells the Romans near the end of his letter that “We shall all stand before the judgment seat of God.” Paul doubles down on it in verse 12 of Romans 14: “…each of us will be held accountable before God’s tribunal…” In fact, Paul repeats it almost word-for-word to the Corinthians: “We must all appear before the judgment seat of God.”

That reckoning, says the prophet Malachi in yet another assigned Advent reading, will be a refining— a refining fire, where our sinful self- even if we’re justified- will come under God’s final judgement and the the Old Adam still in us will be burnt away. The corrupt and petty parts of our nature will be purged and destroyed. The greedy and the bigoted and the begrudging parts of our nature will be purged and destroyed. The vengeful and the violent parts of our selves will be purged and destroyed. The unforgiving and the unfaithful parts of us, the insincere and the self-righteous and the cynical- all of it from all of us will be judged and purged and forsaken forever by the God whose wrath against Sin and its symptons is a refining fire. 

But, the good news of the Gospel never ceases to be good news for us. 

There is no condemnation for those who are simulataneously sinners and saints-in-Christ; therefore, purgation is not damnation. 

Yet, as Paul testifies, this can only be known by hearing. 

By faith. 

Everyone in this culture of ours is sick with judging— judging and indicting, posturing and pouring contempt and pointing the finger at someone else.

At Advent, Christians mimic the prophet Isaiah, and we confess the chains we’ve chosen to a Pharoah called Sin and we put ourselves first under God’s judgment.

Because we’re the only ones who know— by faith— the Judge is not to be feared. As is said of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, our God is not safe but he is good. Christians at Advent long for Christ to come back in final victory, vanquishing Sin once for all— even, the sin in us. Because we know the Judge who was judged in our place in the first Advent is not to be feared in the second Advent, Christians can, like Isaiah, bear the judgment of God on behalf of a sinful world. As Peter writes in (yet another Advent epistle): “Judgment begins with the household of God.” 

Christians speak all the time about imitating Christ, about being his hands and feet, and doing the things Jesus did. Most of the time we’re talking about serving the poor, forgiving another, or speaking truth to power.

But if the most decisive thing Jesus did was become a curse for us, taking on the burden of judgement for the guilty, then the primary way Christians imitate Christ is by bearing judgment on behalf of the guilty.

The primary way Christians imitate God-for-us is by bearing judgement for others. When everything else is given over to nostalgia and sentiementality, this is our discipline this season of the second coming. 

In a world sin-sick with judging and judging and judging, indicting and scapegoating and recriminating and casting blame— at Advent, Christians bear the good news that the one who came in humility and incognito will come again in great glory and with great power. 

And we who are baptized and believing, we who are saved and sanctified— we who should be last under God’s judgment thrust ourselves to the front of the line and, like Jesus Christ, say “Me first.” Rather than judge we put ourselves before the Judgement Seat. Rather than condemning and critiquing, we confess. 

We bear judgment rather than cast it because know— by faith— that we will come before the refining fire of God’s Judgment Seat at the second advent hearing the same words which began the first advent: “Do not be afraid.”