Archives For Postings

“The Word of God is not rightly divided between Law and Gospel when there is a disposition to offer the comfort of the Gospel only to those who have been made contrite by the Law.”

Any reader already knows the truth of it.

Adverbs are the tell of every found-out liar. I whole-heartedly apologize for any offense I might have caused…

Adverbs are the trademark of every dime-per-word pulp fiction story. Sam Spade braced the suspect’s shoulders menacingly. 

Notice, no children’s book worth the encroachment into bedtime employs the little modifiers that most often end in -ly, not because Timmy can’t handle sounding-out ‘swiftly’ but because adverbs aren’t needed for a good and true story.

In case you were sleeping boorishly in high school English class, Stephen King helpfully explains:

Adverbs … are words that modify verbs, adjectives, or other adverbs. They’re the ones that usually end in -ly. Adverbs, like the passive voice, seem to have been created with the timid writer in mind.

With adverbs, the writer usually tells us he or she is afraid he/she isn’t expressing himself/herself clearly, that he or she is not getting the point or the picture across.

In On Writing Stephen King asserts that “Fear is at the root of most bad writing.” The fingerprints of the fearful writer are adverbs.

Thank Christ whoever crafted the wedding vows- Thomas Cranmer, I believe- had the cahones to avoid the adverbial.

Consider how the common, seemingly harmless little adverb transforms the marriage covenant from a clear and simple (if terrifying) promise into a Sisyphean endeavor I can never know if I’m upholding aright.

Will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health; and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?

vs.

Will you sincerely love her, whole-heartedly comfort her, genuinely honor and keep her, in sickness and in health; and, resolutely forsaking all others, be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?

The former is merely an enormous and outrageous promise.

The latter is psychological torture.

Implied by and requisite to the Gospel is that neither my will nor the rest of me is free.

Consequently, I am a stranger to myself.

Most especially am I in the dark as to the truth of my motivations.

Whereas Thomas Cranmer had a pair in Stephen King’s estimation, the authors of the United Methodist Church Book of Worship were not likewise endowed, for in our eucharistic liturgy what we give in the invitation to Christ’s table we take away with adverbs:

Christ our Lord invites to his table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin and seek to live in peace with one another.

King, in On Writing, says adverbs signal a timid writer because they betray the writer’s lack of trust in the telling of the story thus far. The timid writer must tell you X slammed the door menacingly because the timid writer doesn’t trust you can deduce the character’s menacing character from the preceding prose.

Similarly the authors of the UMC’s eucharistic liturgy betray a fear about a lack in the Gospel story that they seek to remedy with adverbs.

The Gospel’s all about grace but it can’t be cheap so we got to make sure they’re earnest about their repentance…

As the angel Gabriel all but says to Mary and the shepherds, fear is the opposite of the Gospel. So then, the adverb doesn’t just weaken the Gospel- and the sacrament of which it is a sign- it transforms it.

From Good News to Bad.

From an invitation to the Table of Christ who is the friend of sinners, full stop.

To an invitation to the Table of Christ who is dinner date of sinners who really, truly, sincerely, whole-heartedly, resolutely repent of their sins.

The invitation to the Table, remember, is the Risen Christ’s invite to his Table, a Christ who initially provokes death threats precisely because he ate and drank (too much) with recalcitrant unrepentant sinners and prodigals who had not yet come to themselves.

The invitation to the Table, remember, is an invitation to his Table, where we feast on the bread and the wine which are the visible words of his full and final, once-for-all, forgiveness of your sin.

Where does a treasonous adverb like earnestly belong in such an invitation or on such a Table?

An adverb like earnestly makes your welcome to Christ’s Table conditioned not on the completeness of his cross for you (which happened objectively outside of you) but conditioned upon the sincerity of your interiority.

Of course, the bitter Gospel rub is that, apart from the Gospel and its edible form, you’re in absolutely no position to assess your interior state.

If Christ does not welcome me to his Table of visible, edible Gospel forgiveness until I am certain of my subjective earnestness about repentance of sin and neighbor love then, quite simply, the Eucharist is not a means of Grace but a work of the Law, in which case I’m relieved most United Methodist Churches ignore Wesley’s admonition about constant communion. Church-goers don’t deserve to be burdened with adverbs like earnestly on the daily basis Wesley would admonish we take communion.

Let me make it plain.

Here’s why we need to stop serving adverbs at the Table:

  1. The wine and bread are visible, tangible, edible signs of a promise that lies outside of us. Adverbs drive us to look within, the very opposite trajectory of the salvation to which the Table points. The truth of the Table is not determined by your disposition; therefore, the invitation to the Table cannot be premised upon the earnestness of your disposition. The strength of our faith; in other words, lies not in the strength of our faith but in the object of our faith, Jesus Christ and him crucified for un-earnest us.
  1. The New Testament witness is that we are prisoners to the Power of Sin (Romans 3) such that the good we wish (like coming to the Table in earnestness) is the good we cannot will (Romans 7). In bondage to the Power Sin, we’re in no position whatsoever to assess our ‘earnestness’ for repentance. As sinners we deceive no one else more so than ourselves. To staple a subjective inventory to the invitation is to insist upon something we cannot do and will only do in sin apart from the grace offered in the visible Gospel of bread and wine. The bitter irony of our adverbial invitation is that the very thing provided by the sacrament (sincerity of repentance given by God) is made a precondition to come to the sacrament.
  1. The adverb switches the agency. Earnestly. Sincerely. Whole-heartedly. The adverbs shift the focus from what God in Christ has done for us, once-for-all, to what we must do now for God. Adverbs make a hollow mannequin, says Chad Bird, that we nail to the cross in Christ’s place. We imply through the adverbial invitation that it’s the sincerity of our contrition that merits our seat at the Table. Because sinners like us can never know if we’re sincere enough, earnest enough, whole-hearted enough but the promise of the Gospel, made tangible in wine and bread is that Christ is the only enough. Adverbs are spiritual quicksand. Christ’s word of unmerited, unconditional forgiveness is solid rock that creates earnest repentance.

“The adverb is not your friend,” warns Stephen King.

Indeed perhaps no where is the adverb more your enemy than when the adverb comes between you and the banquet of heaven, duping you into believing that repentance is your work at all.

This is what the street preachers and most other preachers get wrong.

Repentance is God’s work.

As Chad Bird notes, God repents us is the better way to understand it.

Repentance is not a work we perform (or a decision we make or a disposition we determine). Repentance is a gift Christ gives. As with the Ninevites, as with the crowds at Jesus’ baptism, repentance is made possible by God’s encounter with us. Repentance is being encountered by God (in his word in the case of Jonah, in Christ in the Gospel of Mark and, for us, through word and sacrament).

The repentance insisted upon in our invitation is the same fare served up by the street preachers, and the reason the street preachers rub us the wrong way is that it’s bad news.

It throws all the work back on us and our ability to repent- that’s what leads to judgementalism; it’s works righteousness.

If my repentance is something I can accomplish then I’m liable to be judgemental about others who couldn’t or chose not to.

The good news is that none of us can repent on our own, we’re all lost sheep in the process of being found and the fact that God repents us regardless how earnest we feel about the matter is proof- in the eucharist, tangible edible proof- that God’s complete forgiveness is always prior to our repentance. The latter the product of the former.

Jesus Christ eats and drinks with sinners. This is his Table 

You’re welcome. 

No adverbs necessary.


Tommie Marshall has gone from the daughter of friend to someone my wife and I count a dear friend in her own right. She’s funny and perceptive and has an obvious call from God bearing down on her though she likes to shake off my suggestions to the effect. All in due time. Should the United Methodist Church exist beyond the next season of This is Us, we’d be happy to steal her from the Baptist Church of her upbringing.

Tommie has launched a podcast all her own called Backsliding.

She interviewed me a month or so back about my book and suffering.

Here it is.

And check out her podcast.

I keep pinching myself.

I’ll be leading a session with the inestimable Fleming Rutledge this April in NYC at the Mockingbird Conference.

If you’re a Fleming fan, you should check it out. It’s April 26-28 at Calvary-St. George’s Episcopal Church in Gramercy Park. You can find out more here.

Speaking of Fleming, check out the 2017 Recap Episode from Crackers and Grape Juice. The conversation covers a range of topics including bad episode titles, District Superintendents, Bishops, blowing up the UMC, final interviews, controversial topics, Jason’s nerves, and the Beyoncé of Anglicanism.

C&GJ 2018

Jason Micheli —  January 9, 2018 — Leave a comment

I started Crackers and Grape Juice upon returning from medical leave, wanting to commit myself to doing a better job staying in touch with friends like Teer Hardy. We’ve since spawned two other podcasts (Strangely Warmed and Hermeneutics) and we’re nearing our 150th episode.

We’re in the midst of scheduling our guests for 2018.

We’re also planning a live podcast in Durham with Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon in March in partnership with our friends at Homebrewed Christianity.

Stay tuned.

If you’ve got suggestions for us, throw them my way. Here’s a taster of the interviews we’ve got coming your way in ’18:

James KA Smith – Awaiting the Kingdom

Charles Matthewes- White Evangelicalism has a Problem

Sarah Condon- Low Anthropology and Grace

Mark Galli of Christianity Today – Karl Barth for Evangelicals

Patton Dodd of The Atlantic – Struggling Communities and Supporting Churches

Jennifer Powell McNutt – People’s Book: The Bible According to the Reformation

Joseph Mitchell – Identity Politics

Kerry Boyd Anderson – Understanding the Middle East

David Zahl – Law and Grace

Chad Bird- Your God is Too Glorious

Tony Jones – Reverend Hunter

Angela Denker – Red State Christians: Meet the Voters Who Elected Trump

Mark Lilla – Once and Future Liberal

John Barclay – Paul and the Gift

Andy Crouch – The Tech Wise Family

Steven Paulson – Theology of the Cross

Cleophus Larue – Black Preaching

Tommie Marshall – Backsliding

Lori Erickson – Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God.

Chaim Saiman – The Spiritual But Not Religious Star Wars

Dyron Daughrity – Global Christianity

Rozella Haydée White – Theology for the People

returning friends Dr. Eric Hall, Tom Lynch, David Fitch, 

&

Fleming Rutledge

 

For the season of Epiphany, we’re preaching our way through Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. Certainly it’s Romans in utero. Possibly it’s the most revolutionary book of the New Testament. The text for this Sunday was Galatians 1.3-9, 2.21:

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ,who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you, let that one be accursed!

As we have said before, so now I repeat, if anyone proclaims to you a gospel contrary to what you received, let that one be accursed! I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.”

Shame on you-

All of you who’ve already kicked your Christmas trees to the curb like first wives and old lawn mowers, shame on you.

You all practically begin celebrating Christmas during Lent so the least you can do is keep the tree up until the season of Christmas is over.

Shame on you- Christmas is only now over.

Today, on the liturgical calendar, it’s the Feast of the Epiphany, the high holy day when the magi bring their gifts to the Christ child in his golden fleece diapers.

Epiphany always falls after the 12th Day of Christmas because it actually takes 12 days to sing all 5 verses of “We Three Kings.”

As a holiday, Epiphany is right up there with Ash Wednesday in terms of what it says about you and me. The name of the holiday says it all: Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday says that the grime outside on your forehead matches the grime inside in you, and the wages of sin is death; ergo, from dust you came and to dust you shall return. Have a nice day.

Ash Wednesday- the takeaway for the day is built into the name.

Likewise, “Epiphany.”

Epiphany reminds us that you and I require one, an epiphany.

The name says it all.

Epiphany says that our situation before God is such that we cannot come to God or discover God- much less, follow God or have faith in God on our own, by our own lights, or through any innate ability that we possess.

We need an epiphany to discover the true God.

Epiphany says:

No-

You cannot find the true God on the golf course.

It doesn’t matter if you’re spiritual but not religious because neither spirituality nor religion can convey the Incarnate God to you.

Generic meditation cannot mediate the meaning of Christ and him crucified to you.

The takeaway for the day is in the name.

Just as the magi needed God to manipulate a Star in order to meet Christ, we need an epiphany; that is, we require a revelation from outside of us.

Epiphany is the opposite of what Luke Skywalker tells Rey in the Last Jedi just before Luke dies (oops). Luke tells Rey that the ability to find the Force lies within her.

Epiphany calls BS on Luke.

Epiphany insists that the Gospel is not like the Force.

The Gospel, the news that Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to rescue us, is not innate inside of us. The Gospel, the Apostle Paul says, is the power of God breaking into our world from outside of us, beyond us, which brings me to my first point.

I know, I never preach 3-point sermons but, hey, new year, new you, right?

———————-

     My first point is this:

We cannot take the Gospel for granted because the Gospel does not come naturally to any of us.

It must be revealed.

Given as an epiphany by God.

As the Small Catechism puts it, when we profess in the creed that we believe in the Holy Spirit, we’re professing that “by our own reason or strength we cannot believe in Jesus Christ our Lord.”

The Gospel does not come naturally to any of us because the Gospel comes as Jesus Christ and him crucified, which the bible says is foolishness to unbelievers and a stumbling block to believers.

And so we cannot afford to take the Gospel for granted and just get on with the hands-on “stuff” of Church: the serving and the Kingdom-building.

This is why St. Paul saves his harshest criticism for the churches in Galatia.

In Corinth, church members were having sex with their mother-in-laws, showing up drunk to the Lord’s Table, and fighting over scraps of meat sacrificed to idols.

Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians is a wilder read than Fire and Fury, yet St. Paul lays it on thick for the Corinthians. He calls them saints and dear ones and he thanks God for them.

By contrast- in today’s text, Paul skips the traditional salutations entirely, gets right to reminding them of the Gospel in verse 4, and by the time you get to verse 7 he’s calling them perverts and cursing them and calling down God’s judgement upon them.

Why is Paul so PO’d?

The Galatians were Christians- the Galatians were Christians, it doesn’t hurt to remember- who assumed that they had advanced beyond needing to hear the Gospel of Christ crucified for our sins every week.

     Everyone knows that Jesus died for their sins, right? We don’t need to hear that Sunday after Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. Let’s hear about what we’re supposed to do.

They took that Gospel for granted, and they turned to another gospel, which is no gospel at all for it nullifies the Gospel.

This other gospel, said that it isn’t enough for Christians to trust that Christ’s faithfulness alone saves us.

God’s wiped our slate clean in Christ, this other gospel said, but God will one day judge us based on what we’ve done with that new slate.

This other gospel in Galatia, said that God had done his part, forgiving our sins in Christ, but now we have to do our part, faithfully following his commands to love our neighbor, care for the stranger, honor our family, and forgive those who trespass against us.

In other words, in taking the Gospel for granted, they’d reverted back to the Law.

As angry as Paul gets at the Galatians, he shouldn’t be surprised.

     Whereas the Gospel does not come naturally to us, the Law, which the bible says is inscribed upon every human heart, does come naturally to us.

The Law is like the Force. The Law does not require an epiphany. The Law is innate to us.

We’re hardwired for commands. We want someone to give us instructions and advice and marching orders (that’s why Joel Osteen is so popular). It’s natural for us to want to do and perform and work and earn our way up to God.

And so if we take the Gospel of God’s coming down to us in Christ for granted, it’s only natural that we’ll pervert the Gospel away from the proclamation of what God has done for us, once for all, into the exhortation of what we must do for God.

We can’t take the Gospel for granted, then, because it’s natural for us to turn the Gospel into the Law.

———————-

     Which brings me to my second point.

We can’t take the Gospel for granted because turning from what God has done to what we must do- it will prove our undoing.

Whoever wrote the first Christmas pageant hadn’t read their bible because the Old Testament does not consider the magi wise men. The magi were pagans and sorcerers. The magi are where we get the word magic. The magi were idolators.

Isaiah and Ezekiel both consider magi from Persia and Babylon as God’s enemies and they both prophesy God’s wrath upon them.

If you don’t know that about the magi then you can’t see what Matthew tries to show you with them.

The magi show us what St. Paul tells us about ourselves: that we who were once far off as enemies to God have been brought near to God not by our own doing but by God.

The magi follow their star charts and their reason westward to Israel, but their science and their reason only get them as far as Jerusalem where they seek out King Herod who promptly plots to kill them. In other words, relying only on their own wisdom and their own efforts leads them only to Death. Matthew wants you to see that relying on their own work and wisdom would’ve been their undoing.

The magi’s star charts do not lead them to Bethlehem.

The magi have to be told by a Word from the Lord, from the prophet Micah, to find Christ in Bethlehem.

Paul tells us what the magi show us.

This is why Paul is so amped up over the Galatians’ other gospel.

To think that the Gospel requires you to contribute anything to it means you don’t understand the Gospel and what it says about your condition.

God did his part; now we must do our part. No, the Gospel is that you’re not in a position to do anything.  The Gospel is that “Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age according to the will of our God and Father.” If we’re so sinful we require a substitute condemned in our stead, then we’re too sinful to contribute anything to our salvation or even cooperate with it.

Not only, according to the Gospel given by Christ to Paul, we’re captives too. We’re not just sinners. We’re prisoners to the evil age, what Paul calls elsewhere the Power of Sin.

God does his part; and we must do ours. No, that’s like telling a drowning man to kick harder. A drowning man doesn’t need to be taught how to swim. He needs a savior.  A rescuer don’t insist that captives cooperate with their deliverance.

     By definition, rescue is one-sided, one-way love.

That’s why Paul’s tone is so uncompromising.

     There is no middle ground at all between:

“Christ has done everything for you” (the Gospel)

&

“This is what you must do” (the other gospel)

There’s no reconciliation between those two.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians in 5 words is this: Christ plus anything is nothing.

     The easiest way to annul the Gospel is to add to it.

The easiest way to annul the Gospel is to add to the everything Christ has already done.

Just as the magi require God’s Word to save them from sure and certain Death, we require God’s Word made our sinful flesh to free us from certain condemnation.

That’s the point behind Paul’s PO’d passion. Because any other gospel, it’s worse than no gospel, it’s our condemnation. That’s why Paul invokes God’s curse in today’s text.

He’s referencing the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy 27.26 where God warns those who are his people by circumcision that if they are to abide by his Law then they must obey the Law perfectly.

When it comes to the Law, it’s all or nothing. And if you don’t obey it all, then you will be accursed.

Paul’s amped up because the stakes are so high.

This other gospel, this God does his part and we must do our part gospel- it will be their undoing because the demand of the Law that they have added to the Gospel is that it be fulfilled perfectly.

They’ve taken the great exchange, Christ’s righteousness for our sin, and they’ve exchanged it for the very burden of the Law from which Christ came to set us free.

No wonder the midwinter’s so bleak in Christina Rosetti’s Christmas carol.

Because as soon as you start wondering what gift you must give to Jesus, you’re on the path to your own condemnation because, then, it’s not just one gift you must give to Jesus it’s every gift.

It’s not just a few of God’s commands. It’s all of them.

But the promise of the Gospel is that every possible gift of obedience has already been given to the Father by the Son for you in your place.

So ignore the bleak Christmas carol. You don’t need to give Jesus any gift.

Certainly not your heart- there’s nothing in your heart but cholesterol, darkness, and sin.

And even if I don’t know you, I know it to be true about you. I know it because the Bible tells me so. Why would you give him your heart?

No, if you want to give him a gift then give him your sin, give him your regret, give him your racism, give him whatever keeps you up at night because, really, it already belongs to him.

———————-

     The magi were pagans. The magi worshipped not God but the heavens, which means the Star that God employs to beckon them and their gifts to Christ was their idol.

The Star was their false god. The Star was their golden calf.

Which means-

When the magi reach Bethlehem and- with the Star above them- bow down and kneel before Christ, they’re not just paying homage; they’re pledging a new allegiance.

In other words, they’ve changed.

They’ve been changed.

And it’s all been God’s doing. The change that has come to them has come upon them- they have received it passively.

And that brings me to my third point. Paul’s point running to the end of his angry letter.

We cannot take the Gospel for granted because the Gospel is like that Epiphany Star.

The Gospel, the news that Jesus Christ has rescued us from all our sins, is how God changes us.

The Gospel isn’t just an announcement of what God did.

The Gospel is what God does.

We cannot take the Gospel for granted and focus instead on giving to the church or serving the poor or reconciling injustice or resisting oppression or being a loving husband or a more patient parent.

We cannot take the Gospel for granted because the Gospel alone is how God changes you to be generous and compassionate and just and forgiving, more loving and patient.

That is, you cannot produce people who do the things that Jesus did by imploring people to do the things that Jesus did. Actually, according to St. Paul, because of the nature of sin, that will have the opposite effect.

Thus:

We’ll actually become less and less like Jesus the more we’re exhorted to become like Jesus.

People do not do the things that Jesus did by being exhorted to do the things that Jesus did.

People do the things that Jesus did only by hearing over and over what Jesus has done for them.

To put it in churchy terms:

Our sanctification

our growing in holiness

does not come by being told that we need become sanctified.

Our sanctification comes by hearing again and again and again, through word and water and wine and bread, that we are justified by Christ alone. Full stop.

We are able to live Christ-like only by hearing over and over and over that Christ’s death saves us.  Period.

The reason Paul insists that Christ plus anything else is nothing at all is because this Gospel alone can accomplish what the Law cannot: transformed and holy people.

The way God changes you into faithfulness is this Gospel, this news that Jesus Christ has fulfilled all faithfulness for you such that you are freed from the obligation to be faithful.

The way God changes you to do the things that Jesus did is this news that Jesus did it all for you so you don’t have to do any of it.

That’s what Christians talk about when we talk about freedom.

In Christ, God has set you free from the burden of perfect obedience.

In Christ, God has set you free from the demand to have faith as big as a mountain- you’re mustard seed is just fine now.

This Gospel- it’s as odd as a Star that zig zags across the horizon and then just lingers.

At best, it sounds counter-intuitive.

At worst, it sounds incomprehensible.

Where’s the brimstone? Brimstone makes sense. Brimstone is natural.

Conditions and consequences are the way we’ve arranged the world. It’s the way we all parent.

     There is nothing natural about a Gospel that says God makes people holy by promising them they’re free not to become holy.

     No wonder the Galatians traded it out for a different gospel, one that conformed to the Law already on their hearts.

Who wouldn’t be afraid to give people that sort of freedom? If we don’t set limits- lay down Law- then won’t people just do whatever they want?

Abound in sin?

Paul is adamant that we not blink from this Gospel, but there is nothing natural about this Gospel.

To believe this Gospel- it requires a giant leap of faith.

———————-

     Maybe this will help your unbelief:

Last month in Charlottesville at the African American Heritage Center, Ruby Sales, a lesser-known figure of the Civil Rights movement spoke to a capacity crowd.

Ruby Sales was a black teenage activist in the Deep South in the mid-1960’s. At the time, Sales wasn’t especially religious and she didn’t see the Civil Rights movement as a Christian one.

Then in March 1965 in Lowndes County, Alabama, Sales and some other activists were threatened outside a convenience store by a local shotgun-toting deputy.

When the deputy pulled the trigger, Jonathan Daniels, a VMI graduate and Episcopal seminary student, threw himself in front of Ruby Sales.

He died in her place, Ruby told the crowd last month in Charlottesville.

And then she said, listen to how she put it:

Jonathan walked away from the king’s table.

He could’ve had any position in society he wanted to, but forsaking all of it he came down among us in Selma where we were in bondage and he gave himself for me.

Ruby Sales is an Episcopal priest today.

Though many of her comments drew loud applause and approving nods during the event, one of her assertions drew a muted, even hostile, reaction.

When asked about the possibility of future white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville, Ruby Sales discouraged confrontation as the means to stop racism.

     The KKK used to chase us, and now we’re chasing them, she said.

And this is what unsettled the crowd, what struck them as unnatural, Ruby Sales said:

Justice should not be confused with revenge. Any call for justice that does not offer a pathway [to racists] for redemption is revenge not justice.

When asked how she could have such hope and compassion as to hold out for the possibility of redemption for white nationalists- how she could even insist upon their redemption, Ruby Sales said this, listen, this isn’t some other gospel:

Whatever hope I have and whatever compassion I have for ugly white nationalists’ redemption comes from hearing about my own undeserved redemption Sunday after Sunday.

The Apostle Paul says that Christ + Anything Else = Nothing At All.

But as you come to the Table to receive Christ in your mouth, Ruby Sales says to you that the inverse of Paul’s formula is also true.

Christ alone is sufficient.

Sufficient as to be everything.

 

To Christ! Cheers!

Jason Micheli —  January 5, 2018 — 1 Comment

I couldn’t have more respect and fondness for my colleague Rev. Drew Colby. He asks great questions, pushes back where he should, and cares deeply about his vocation and preaching office.

He’s also a good writer and savvy theologian. I wanted to share his Christmas sonnets here before 3 Kings Day hits.

Twelve sonnet-esque toasts to our Lord on the Feast of the Incarnation

Preface:

These poems are to be read like toasts, in good cheer. They’re all based on “types” of Christ in the manner of Christological typology–an ancient interpretive tool understanding Christ as the fulfillment of God’s activity throughout salvation history. Christ is the new Adam, the new Isaac, the new Moses, etc. Ideally, these could be read as a part of a feast. Perhaps a 12-course meal on January 5th, the 12th night of Christmas? Each course could start or end with one of these toasts. You’d be sure to have drunk the full breadth of Christmastide–good to the last drop. I’ve never tried that… Maybe next year.

 

1. To Christ the New Adam

 

To Christ the Lord a brand new Adam, he

The Breath of Life into our our dust re-breathed,

To him all laud and honor be assigned,

Humanity’s designer now designed.

Once Adam and his counterpart would walk

The garden every evening for a talk

Til temptation’s taste God’s grace betrayed.

These friends of God were naked and afraid.

This Adam is our ancestor and kin,

But now true human life again begins.

Old Adam’s peace with God, as friend,

Is why this re-cast Adam does descend.

Old Adam’s story, our disgraceful fall.

New Adam’s life, and death, redeems us all.

 

2. To Christ the New Noah

 

To mind, as friendly beasts around Christ stood,

There springs a tale of water, beasts, and wood,

Of Noah called to build for God an ark

As storm clouds gathered, ominous and dark.

The Holy family in a stable hid

As Noah and his family also did.

God tried to wash all fallenness away

From death’s deep wake, to dawn a better day.

God chose to never try the flood again,

And here is where our dear Christ enters in.

For him, the wood: The manger, then the cross.

Baptismal waters wash away our dross.

His Spirit is the dove on Calv’ry perched

The Christ-constructed arc is now the church.

 

3. To Christ the New Isaac

 

To Christ the Lord, a brand new Isaac, he

A shoot from Jesse’s Abrahamic tree.

Old Abe was promised kids at ninety-one,

Young Isaac was his Sarah’s firstborn son.

And he was their beloved pride and joy,

But God asked Abe to sacrifice his boy.

In faithfulness and fear Abe acquiesced

I still can’t see how this was heaven-blessed.

Then God stopped Abe and proved in Isaac’s life

That this is not God’s kind of sacrifice.

The faithful need not sacrifice another

We need not separate a child and mother.

Instead the sacrifice New Isaac gives

Is off’ring his own life so all may live.

 

4. To Christ the New Joseph

 

Imagine Christ the youngest of 12 brothers

His swaddling cloth a coat of many colors.

Eleven brothers did, as Judas will,

Sell Joseph out, a perfect plan, until,

Cast out he finds himself in Pharoah’s court.

The nascent Christ is Joseph, of a sort.

A dreamer, to be sure, but fully wise,

By his own tribal kin likewise despised.

The technicolor curtain to be torn,

To conquer o’er the grave is Christ now born.

Seek solace from this famine-fallowed land.

New Joseph sits enthroned at God’s right hand.

From siblings’ malintented cross of wood.

Came resurrection, God’s intended good.

 

5. To Christ the New Moses

 

To Christ the Lord, a brand new Moses, he

Has come to finally set all people free

To break the chains, the bars, the whip, the rod,

To bring for all earth’s Pharoahs signs that God

Has heard the cries of slaves to greed and might.

He recapitulates Passover night.

In Moses’ basket, Mary lays I AM

Who gives himself to be our Paschal Lamb.

And as in desert wilderness they saw

The gifts of water, manna, and the law

So Christ brings streams of mercy, bread of peace,

And to those held in bondage, sweet release.

As Moses brought commandments from above,

Christ’s new commandment, as his name, is Love.

 

6. To Christ the New David

 

To Christ the Lord, a new King David, he

Has come to rule the world with equity.

From Bethlehem, the Lord’s Davidic home,

Behold he comes to mount his manger throne.

Though Samuel warned a king was a mistake,

As all they do is take and take and take,

The people Israel insisted still

To be like other nations was their will.

Heart-broken over this unfaithful bride,

Their God in perfect patience did provide.

And though King David reigns the Hall of Fame,

This day three Kings bow down at Jesus’ name.

While most kings only take and take some more,

This Christ, new-born, is gracious evermore.

 

7. To Christ the New Ruth

 

To Christ, a recast Ruth, the nearlywed,

We raise a toast as they lay down their head.

Our Christ, like Ruth (Naomi’s foreign friend)

Committed to a promise, without end.

As Ruth was loyal in the midst of grief,

So Christ shows faithfulness, beyond belief.

They both attest, “Where e’er you go, I’ll be,

And, “We will one forever-fam’ly be.”

From boundless fruitful freedom, now enfleshed,

The firstborn of the harvest to be threshed.

To gather in the sheaves of broken dreams,

Our broken, banished-barley souls to glean,

In Christ, a Ruth, to us God self-entrusts

That none can put asunder God and us.

 

8. To Christ the New Jonah

 

To Naughty Nineveh God sent him out.

“You must repent or else,” he was to shout.

But Jonah ran from God and said “No way!”

Aboard a ship he slipped into the spray.

While playing possum, fleeing from the Lord,

His fellow sailors tossed him overboard.

Like Nineveh, our world is sick with sin

But Christ will walk where Jonah fell right in.

Once, Jonah prayed for 3 days in a fish

Then hurled ashore, he granted God’s own wish.

Where Jonah feared, our Christ was thrice as brave:

And for our sake was swallowed by the grave.

To Christ the Lord, a brand new Jonah, see?

Plunged into death he rose to victory.

 

9. To Christ the New Way (Based on writings of the prophet Isaiah)

To Christ the Lord, the Newly-Lighted Way

Isaiah’s glimpse foretold is here today.

In desert exile from the garden, we

Have prayed in shadow bent on feeble knee.

Arise and shine because the Light has come.

The lion and the lamb at last are one.

So walk in light and shout the great Amen.

Our Zion king instructs from Bethlehem.

The good and level road is ready now.

Convert your weapons, dare to share the plow.

Come ruler, president, and governor

And meet your lowly subjects’ comforter.

Trade evil for the Good, do not delay.

For this is Christ’s inauguration day.

 

10. To Mary Bearer of God

 

If Eve is mother to our wanton shame

Then Mary is a mother free from blame

So ponder with me now this “mother mild”

At once both meek and mighty, like her child.

A pregnant teenaged girl true wisdom had

Contemplative but fierce and shocked but glad

Tis she who births our Savior full of grace,

In labor’s pain rebirths the human race.

Her babe is firstborn of creation, true,

Which means, in theory, she’s our mother too.

The Theotokos is her name in Greek

The bearer of the one the wisest seek.

She bears God into life, and so, may we

Be bearers of the Light we long to see.

 

11. To Christ our Sin

 

Let us who know our sin now raise a glass,

To Christ the scapegoat flanked by ox and ass,

Our asses for to save, he takes on skin,

The guiltless bears our guilt, becomes our sin.

By faith, through tears, he downs a poisoned chalice,

His body filled with all our lust and malice.

Who Peter once denied, becomes denial.

The righteous judge endures the time of trial.

Who Judas once betrayed becomes betrayal

Consumes the murderous rage by Cain enabled.

The depths of all our evil, sin, and death,

Is crucified in flesh by holiness.

And can it be? Let all our tongues employ!

The wrath of God has sin in Christ destroyed.

 

12. To Christ the Word Made Flesh (John 1)

 

To Christ the Word made flesh now let us sing

As we behold the poe’try of this thing

This Word was with and was what Wonder wrought

This wondrous Word without which we were naught

Mere mortals mystified by elf on shelf,

This Light now lit is light that lights itself!

The True Light that enlightens everyone

As if there is no shadow, only sun

Unbowed, unbent, unbound by time and space,

From faithful fullness giv’n as grace on grace

He deigns to dine despite those that deny

This life that lives so all of death may die.

So in the name of Light and Word again,

I wish you Merry Christmas, friends. Amen.

Scott Jones has gone from a name I knew on a box when I worked in the mailroom at Princeton to, in just a year, a good and trusted friend. While his preaching style- a conversational style I envy and cannot emulate- is different than mine, his homiletic is one I share.

He preached this past Sunday at Feasterville Community Reformed Church where his podcast partner, Bill Borror, is the pastor. You can check out Bill’s Resident Exiles page here.

Check out his sermon. It’s worth the listen this season.

 

Yours truly ranked #12 on the Christian Century Magazine’s 17 Most-Read Blog Posts of 2017.

You can check out the ones that beat me here. Here’s the post itself, a homily on the Transfiguration:

The Transfiguration is this Sunday, a scene that many preachers (color me guilty) get wrong, but Peter (no matter how many times we make him the patsy in the story) gets right.

Here’s a transfigured Transfiguration sermon.

Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three tabernacles, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.

If you’ve ever sat through more than a handful of sermons, or endured even a couple of mine, then chances are you already know how the preaching from this point on the mountaintop is supposed to go.

I’m supposed to point the finger at Peter and chalk this episode up as yet another example of obtuse, dunder-tongued Peter getting Jesus bassakwards. I’m expected to chide Peter for wanting to preserve this spiritual, mountaintop experience.

From there, preaching on the Transfiguration is permitted to go in one of two ways.

I’m allowed to pivot from Peter’s foolish gesture to the (supposedly sophisticated) observation that discipleship isn’t about adoring glory or mountaintop experiences; no, it’s about going back down the mountain, into the grit and the grind of everyday life, where we can feed the hungry and cloth the naked and do everything else upper middle class Christians aren’t embarrassed to affirm.

Or, rather than pivot to the poor, I can keep the sermon focused on Peter. I can encourage you to identify with Peter, the disciple whose mouth is always quicker than his mind and whose ambition never measures up to his courage. I could preach Peter to you and comfort you that Peter’s just like you: a foolish, imperfect follower who fails at his faith as often as he gets it right. And, yet, Jesus loves him (and you) and builds his church on him.

That’s how you preach this text: go back down the mountaintop, back into ‘real life.’ Or, look at Peter—he’s just like you.

Given the way sermons on the Transfiguration always go, you’d think these are the only two options allowed.

Except, as cliched as those interpretations are, they’re not without their problems.

For one: I just spent the last year fighting stage-serious cancer, during which time I wasn’t able to go much of anywhere or do much of anything much less venture out into the world’s hurt, roll up my sleeves, and serve the poor. I wasn’t strong enough to do that kind of thing anymore.

So discipleship can’t merely be a matter of going back down the mountain because such a definition excludes a great many disciples, including me.

For another, if this is nothing more than another example of how obtuse Peter is, how Peter always manages to get it wrong, then when Peter professes, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us make three tabernacles, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah,” why doesn’t Jesus correct him? Why doesn’t Jesus rebuff Peter and say: ‘No, it is good for us to go back down the mountain to serve the least, the lost, and the lonely?’

Why doesn’t Jesus scold Peter? “Peter, it’s not about spiritual experiences, the Son of Man came to serve.”

If Peter’s offer is such a grave temptation, then why doesn’t Jesus exhort him like he does elsewhere and say: ‘Get behind me, Satan?’

If Peter is so wrong, then why doesn’t Jesus respond by rebuking Peter?

In fact, here on the mountaintop, it’s the only instance in any of the Gospels where Jesus doesn’t respond at all to something someone has said to him. This is the only instance where Jesus doesn’t respond.

I wonder: what if Jesus doesn’t respond because, more or less, Peter’s right?

Ludwig Feuerbach, an awesomely bearded 19th century critic of religion, accused Christians that all our theology is really only anthropology. Rather than talking about God, as we claim, we’re in fact only speaking about ourselves in a loud voice.

There’s perhaps no better proof of Feuerbach’s accusation than our propensity to make Peter the point of this scripture. To make this theophany, anthropology. To transfigure this story into something ordinary.

Just think, what would Peter make of the fact that so many preachers like me make Peter the subject of our preaching? Which is but a way making ourselves the focus of this story.

Don’t forget that this is the same Peter who insisted that he was not worthy to die in the same manner as Christ and so asked to be crucified upside down.

More than any of us, Peter would know that he should not be the subject of our sermons. Peter would know that he’s not the one we should be looking at in this scene.

I wonder: does Jesus not respond because what Peter gets right, even if he doesn’t know exactly what he’s saying, is that gazing upon Christ, who is charged with the uncreated light of God, is good?

Not only is it good, all the sermons to the contrary to the contrary, it is the essence of discipleship.

Indeed in this image of the transfigured Christ Peter sees the life of all lives flash before his eyes. In one instant of transfigured clarity, Peter sees the humanity of Jesus suffused with the eternal glory of God, and in that instant Peter glimpses the mystery of our faith: that God became human so that humanity might become like God.

This is where the good news is to be found.

Not in Peter being as dumb or scared as you and me.

Not in a message like ‘serve the poor’ that you would still agree to even if you knew not Christ.

No, the good news is found in the same glory that transfigured the face of Moses and dwelt in the Temple and rested upon the ark and overshadowed Mary pervading even Jesus’ humanity and also, one day, ours.

God became like us, that’s what Peter sees; so that, we might become like God, that’s what Peter eventually learns.

The light that radiates from Jesus’ flesh is the same light that said ‘Let there be…’ It’s the same light that the world awaits with groaning and labor pains and sighs too deep for words. It’s the light that will one day make all of creation a burning bush, afire with God’s glory but not consumed by it.

Peter’s right. It is right and good, always and everywhere, to worship and adore God became man, and, in seeing him, to see ourselves taken up into that same glory.

It is right and good, always and everywhere, to anticipate our flesh being remade into God’s image so that we may be united with God.

It is good, for just as Christ’s humanity is transfigured by glory without ceasing to be human so too will our humanity be called into union with God, to be deified, without our ceasing to be creatures.

That’s the plot of scripture. That’s the mystery of our faith.

Not only is Peter right, all the other sermons on this passage go in the wrong direction. It’s not about going back down the mountain. Rather the entire Christian life is a sort of ascent, venturing further and further up the mountain, to worship and adore the transfigured Christ and, in so doing, to be transfigured ourselves.

If we’re not transformed, what’s the point of going back down the mountain? We’d be down there, no different than anyone else, which leaves the world no different than its always been.

You can almost ask Jesus. Peter’s right.

What Peter gets wrong isn’t that it’s good to be there adoring the transfigured Christ. What Peter gets wrong is thinking he needs to build threetabernacles.

Elijah and Moses maybe could’ve used them, but not Jesus. Jesus’ flesh, his humanity, is the tabernacle.

A Sheep Without Verbs

Jason Micheli —  December 28, 2017 — Leave a comment

Among all the disciplines for which seminary prepared me well, preaching funerals was not one of them. Like distinguishing law from gospel, balancing the gathered’s desire for eulogy with my charge to preach Gospel is an elusive art. Of course, it may not matter at all as no preached word communicates as effectively as putting the dead into the dirt, but if it matters then I offer this as help to whomever might be helped by it.

Maybe even the Shepherd will use the preached word to find.

Text:Psalm 23 – Funeral Homily for Warren Smith 

My first funeral sermon 16 years ago flopped.

“It didn’t sound like you knew him at all” a worshipper told me on the way out of the funeral home chapel.

“Uh, I didn’t know him at all” I replied.

I didn’t know then- they don’t warn you in seminary- that most lay people consider it the mark of a good funeral sermon when the preacher sounds like he knows the deceased.

When it comes to funerals, lay people don’t usually judge whether I’ve proclaimed the Gospel or done a good job unpacking the scripture text or pointing to the promise of Cross and Resurrection.

For funerals, it’s a good sermon only if the gathered can shake my hand at the door and say “It sounded like you really knew her” or “You really captured him.”

    Whenever one of the flock is lost, most people don’t care whether or not I speak of the Shepherd or proclaim that the Shepherd is Good.

Whenever one of the flock is lost, most people want to want to hear about the one lost sheep not the singular Shepherd.

They want to be assured that I know the person whom they’ve lost.

They don’t think they need to be reassured that the lost member of the flock is known by the Shepherd.

So, consider yourselves assured.

After 13 years here, I know Warren- not as well as you, but I know him.

I know, because he told me, that both of us grew up in Ohio and, by the grace of God, both of us got out of Ohio.

I also know- maybe for that reason- I was Warren’s favorite pastor, and I know Warren well enough to know that he knew I’m sufficiently vain that knowing I was his favorite was sufficient to make him one of my favorite parishioners.

I know Warren loved woodworking and genealogy and Huntley Meadows Park but not like he loved Becky and Brady and Matthew.

I know Warren would anticipate a joke and start to guffaw at the mere mention of Dennis Perry’s name in one of my sermons.

I know Warren loved carving and drawing and antique tools but nearly like he loved Megan and Kylie and Adam and Carina and Quinn.

I also know that after having sung in the church choir for so many years worth of Sundays, Warren had certainly heard this song from Israel’s hymnal as much as me.

And I don’t know but I suspect that, like me, Warren had heard these lines about “thy rod and thy staff” recited or prayed or sung so many times in worship he no longer heard the oddity of Psalm 23 or the offensiveness of it.

     “The Lord is my Shepherd…”

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

A lamb even.

I don’t know if Warren was one of those grandparents who got addicted to playing Farmville on Facebook; nevertheless, Warren spent enough Sundays here at church to know that lambs are lame.

Sheep are stubborn, and I’m sure his wife Becky would attest that stubborn doesn’t describe Warren at all.

     Sheep wander.

Sheep get lost.

Sheep fall into valleys.

Sheep are dependent totally on their shepherd.

Sheep need to be led and guided and protected by their shepherd.

Warren wasn’t like that at all. Warren was a director (at the VA). Warren wasn’t a lamb in need of direction. Warren loved Native American history. Warren would know. There aren’t any stories, epics, or legends called Dances with Lambs.

No, sheep are stupid.

By themselves, sheep are lunch for wolves.

     To hear that God is your Shepherd is to be told that you are a sheep.

 And to hear that you are no better than a sheep is offensive for us who rate our worth by our resumes.

Not only are sheep weak and stubborn and easily led astray, they’re completely useless.

Sheep aren’t like other animals.

Sheep aren’t like asses. Sheep don’t do any work by which they merit their worth. Sheep don’t bear a burden like mules do. Sheep don’t pull a plow like oxen do. Sheep don’t lead a wagon like horses do.

Even goats do work by which they earn their value. Even goats graze down briars and thickets to earn their worth.

     The only real work- if you can call it work- a sheep performs is listening to the Shepherd’s voice.

If you measure animals’ worth by the work they perform, sheep are useless and, thus, worthless. Unlike other animals, the value of a lamb is intrinsic to the lamb. In its lamb-ness.

It’s worth isn’t in the work it does; it’s worth is in who it is as the creature made it to be. It’s worth is its wool and its meat.

So Psalm 23 is an odd, offensive song to hear on a day given over to commending Warren to God. Aren’t we commending him to God based on the good, worthwhile work Warren performed in the time given to him? Aren’t we commending him for the many ways he was not like a sheep but a goat?

Or an ox?

Besides being a father and a husband and a grandfather and a neighbor, Warren served in the Air Force and worked for nearly 40 years at the VA and then volunteered his work at Huntley Meadows Park. Isn’t that what we commend today?

Warren wasn’t a sheep at all, was he? Warren worked with his hands in his shop. Warren worked with his voice in the choir.

Warren wasn’t like a lamb at all; Warren earned his worth through his work- his love toiled on behalf of his neighbor and his God. Isn’t that what we commend about him today?

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus spins a yarn about a single lost sheep who wanders off from the flock of 99. We forget how the parable of the lost sheep is Jesus’ way of responding to the disciples’ attempts at elbowing each other out of the way in importance. The parable is his answer to their question “Who is the greatest in the house of the Lord?” 

Notice-

Jesus doesn’t answer their question about their worth in the Kingdom with an exhortation about the work they must do. Jesus doesn’t tell them the greatest in the Kingdom are those who sell all their possessions and give the money to the poor. Jesus doesn’t tell them the greatest in the Kingdom are those who do the things that Jesus did, those who love their enemies and turn the other cheek and clothe the naked.

No, Jesus answers with an image of a sheep who actively accomplishes absolutely nothing. The sheep in Jesus’ story is nothing but the passive recipient of the Shepherd’s finding.

The parable is an odd way to answer a question about greatness because you don’t need to be a ranch hand to know that a lost sheep is a dead sheep just as surely as a lost coin is a dead asset.

     How impressive can the House of the Lord be, after all, if the only ticket you need for greatness in it- much less for admission- is your lostness?

Not only is the parable an odd way to answer a question about worth, the parable is just as offensive as the psalm because the “Parable of the Lost Sheep” (that’s what the header in my Bible calls it) isn’t really about the sheep who gets lost at all.

The only verb the sheep gets in the parable is getting lost.

All the other verbs belong to the Shepherd.

The sheep doesn’t search out the flock.

The sheep doesn’t scramble out of a thicket and wander back to the fold.

The sheep doesn’t even bah-bah-bah until its voice is heard by the Shepherd.

And once it’s found, the sheep doesn’t even so much as repent of its getting lost.

We think the story’s supposed to be about the sheep, lost from its flock, but it’s about the Shepherd. It’s not about the work the sheep does to get itself to a findable place. It’s about the Shepherd’s work of finding.

It’s about the Good Shepherd’s gracious and saving determination to rescue his sheep from death.

The only verb the sheep gets in the parable is getting lost, which is to say, the only “work” the sheep does in the parable is to know that, apart from the gracious folly of the Shepherd to find him, death has the last word.

The Shepherd though gets all the good verbs in the story, including the last ones where the Shepherd puts the lost sheep on his shoulders and carries it back to his house and calls together his friends and his family and his neighbors and, like a fatted-calf-killing Prodigal Father, says: “Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost sheep.” 

As if- it’s our sins and not our goodness, our wretchedness and not our worthwhile work, that most commend us to the grace of God.

———————-

     Sheep are strange.

They can’t carry a Christ into town to shouts of Hosanna. They can’t bear a Samaritan’s friend to safety.

The only “work” sheep do is to trust the Shepherd’s voice.

And as God’s frightened flock- that’s our only work to do today too.

Here in the valley of the shadow of Death, I invite you to trust the voice of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, who promises that by his substitution for us God forgets our sins in the darkness of our graves.

Trust the Shepherd’s voice when he tells you that his cousin John was right: he is the Lamb who bears all our sins away such that in the House of the Lord God remembers our iniquities no more.

Trust the Shepherd when he promises to you by his cross and his empty grave that in the power of the resurrection he finds us lost to death and he puts us on his shoulders and he carries us back to his friends with rejoicing.

Trust the Shepherd when he spins these yarns where there’s not a single note of our earning or our merit, not a hint of rewarding the rewardable or saving the salvageable.

Trust the Shepherd- for if its not about our worthiness, there’s absolutely no need to worry about our place in the house of the Lord.

All that is lost will be found because of his gracious folly to raise the dead to new life.

 

 

There’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story.

For example, about 10 years ago, the Sunday before Christmas, we staged a Christmas pageant at a little church I once served.

During dress rehearsal that morning, stomach flu had started to sweep through the heavenly host. When it came time for the angelic chorus to deliver their lines in unison: “Glory to God in the highest” you could hear Katie, a first- grade angel, vomiting her breakfast into the trash can over by the grand piano.

The sound of Katie’s wretching was loud enough so that when the other angels should’ve been proclaiming “and on earth peace to all the people” they were instead gagging and covering their noses.

(This sermon’s off to a promising start, isn’t it?)

Meanwhile, apparently bored by the angels’ news of a Messiah, two of the shepherds- both third-grade boys and both sons of wise men- started brawling on the altar floor next to the manger.

Their free-for-all prompted one of the wise men to leave his entourage and stride angrily up the sanctuary aisle, smack his shepherd son behind the ear and threaten: “Boy, Santa won’t be bringing Nascar tickets this year if you can’t hold it together.”

It was a little church.

(#blesstheirheart)

Truth be told, it had neither the numbers nor the talent to mount a production of the Christmas story; nonetheless, a brusque, take-charge mother, who was a new member in the congregation, had approached me about staging a pageant.

And because I was a rookie pastor and didn’t know any better- and honestly, because I was terrified of this woman- I said yes.

bestchristmaspageant

The set constructed in the church sanctuary was made to look like the small town where we lived. So the Bethlehem skyline was dotted with Burger King, the local VFW, the municipal building, the funeral home and, instead of an inn, the Super 8 Motel. At every stop in Bethlehem someone sat behind a cardboard door. Joseph would knock and the person behind the door would declare: ‘Sorry, ain’t no room here.”

The old man behind the door of the cardboard VFW was named Fred. He was the oldest member of the congregation. He sat on a stool behind the set, wearing his VFW beret and chewing on an unlit cigarillo.

Fred was almost completely deaf and not a little senile so when Mary and Joseph came to him, they didn’t bother knocking on the door.

They just opened it up and asked the surprised-looking old man if he had any room for them to which he would respond by looking around at his surroundings  as though he were wondering how he’d gotten there.

For some reason, the magi were responsible for their own costumes.

Thus, one wise man wore a white lab coat and carried a telescope. Another wise man was dressed like the WWF wrestler the Iron Sheik, and the third wise man wore a maroon Virginia Tech bathrobe and for some inexplicable reason had aluminum foil wrapped around his head.

King Herod was played by the head usher, Jimmy.

At 6’6 and wearing a crown and a white-collared purple robe and carrying a gold cane, Herod looked more like Kramer as an uptown gigilo than he did a biblical character.

hqdefault

When it came time for the performance, I took a seat on the bench in the back of the sanctuary where the ushers normally sat and, gazing at the cast and the production design from afar, I briefly wondered to myself why I hadn’t gone to law school.

I sat down and King Herod handed me a program.

On the cover was the title: ‘The Story of the First Christmas.’ On the inside was a list of cast members’ names and their roles.

As the pageant began with a song lip-synced by the angels, the other usher for the day sat next to me. His name was Mike. He was an imposing, retired cop with salt-and-pepper hair and dark eyes.

Truth be told, he never liked me all that much.

Mike sat down, fixed his reading glasses at the end of his nose, opened his program and began mumbling names under his breath: Mary played by…Elizabeth played by…Magi #1 played by…

His voice was barely above a whisper but it was thick with contempt. I knew right then what he was getting at or, rather, I knew what had gotten under his skin.

There were no teenage girls in the congregation to be cast. So Mary was played by a grown woman- a grown woman who was married to a man more than twice her age.

She’d married him only after splitting up his previous marriage.

Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, was played a woman who was new to the church, a woman who often wore sunglasses to worship or heavy make-

up or who sometimes didn’t bother at all and just wore the bruises given to her by a boyfriend none of us had ever met.

Of the three magi, one of them had scandalized the church by ruining his father’s business.

Another was separated from his wife, but not legally so, and was living with another woman.

The man playing the role of Zechariah owned a construction company and had been accused of fraud by another member of the congregation.

The innkeeper at the Super 8 Motel…he was a lifelong alcoholic, alienated from his grown children and several ex-wives.

Reluctantly shepherding the elementary-aged shepherds was a high school junior. He’d gotten busted earlier that fall for drug possession. His mother was dressed as an angel that day, helping to direct the heavenly host. Her husband, her boy’s father, had walked out on them a year earlier.

Mike read the cast members’ names under his breath. Then he rolled up his program and he poked me with it and, just when the angel Gabriel was delivering his news to Mary, Mike whispered into my ear:

    Who picked the cast for this? Who chose them?

     Then he shook his head in disgust and accused me:

     Do you really think this is appropriate?

genealogy-of-Jesus-2-Copy

There’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story- I mean, the Christmas stories aren’t all the same.

For example, St. Mark is the oldest of the Gospels but all Mark says about Christmas is that the coming of Jesus is the beginning of one Kingdom and the end of another.

St John, on the other hand, begins his Christmas story with cryptic philosophy: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.’

St Luke weaves the most popular nativity story. His is the story you probably know, telling us about the days of Caesar Augustus, about a tax and a census.

Luke’s the one who tells us about angels heard on high and shepherds watching their flocks by night.

But Matthew, by contrast, begins his Christmas story, not with angels or emperors, with an ad from www.ancestory.com:

“An account of the genesis of Jesus the Messiah…Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar…”

Matthew gives us sixteen verses of ‘so and so was the father of so and so’ before we ever even hear the angel Gabriel spill the news about the Messiah’s birth. I wanted to read it all tonight but my wife said that would be sermon suicide. Matthew tells the Christmas story not with emperors or angels or shepherds. Matthew doesn’t bother mentioning how the baby’s wrapped in scraps of cloth and laid in feed trough.

Instead what Matthew gives us is a family tree, 42 generations’ worth of boring, snore-fest begats. Begats that go back all the way to the first promise God ever made to bless the world.

It’s as if Matthew wants to say:

Everything about Christmas

Every promise this Christ child offers you

Every word of good news that comes spoken to us in Emmanuel- all of it can be found in his family tree just as easily as you can find it in his stable.

The funny thing about Jesus’ family tree- there are no branches with the cast of characters you’d choose for a Christmas story. Jesus’ family tree is filled with the sorts of people you’d expect to see on TMZ not in a nativity.

If God were to take human flesh you’d expect him to take the flesh of a much different family.

For instance-

There’s Abraham, who tried to cut his son Isaac’s throat. Issac survived to be the father of Jacob, an unscrupulous but entertaining character who won his position in Jesus’ family line by lying and cheating his blind, old father.

Jacob got cheated himself when he ‘got to know’ the wrong girl by mistake and became the father of Judah. Judah made the same mistake with his own daughter-in-law, Tamar.

Tamar had cheated him by disguising herself as a prostitute.

(I mean: Hebress with a heart of gold)

I’m telling you: these aren’t the sort of people you’d invite for Christmas.

There’s a man named Boaz in Jesus’ family tree. Boaz was seduced by a foreigner named Ruth. He woke up in the middle of night and found Ruth climbing in to bed with him. Not that Boaz ought to have been shocked. His mother, Matthew tells us, was Rahab, a ‘working girl’ who betrayed her people.

Boaz’s son was the grandfather of David.

David was a power-hungry peeping-tom, who spied on Bathsheba bathing on a rooftop one evening. David arranged for her husband, Uriah, to be murdered. David and Bathsheba went to become the parents of Solomon, the next name in the family tree of Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Of course, the family tree ultimately winds its way to Joseph.

Joseph, who, Matthew makes no bones to hide, wasn’t the father of Jesus at all. He was just the fiance of the boy’s mother- Mary, the teenage girl with a child on the way and no ring on her finger.

There’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story.

Matthew doesn’t tell us about shepherds filled with good news. Matthew doesn’t bother with imperial politics or mangers filled with straw or inns with no vacancy. Instead Matthew tells us the Christmas story by first telling us about the messy and the embarrassing and the sordid and the complicated and the disappointing and the unfaithful parts of Jesus’ family.

     And then, having said all that, Matthew tells us this baby is Emmanuel, God- with-us, God-for-us, as one of us, in the flesh.

knots.001

Do you really think this is appropriate? Mike asked me and then gestured with the rolled up program of names.

As if to say…when it comes to Christmas shouldn’t we at least try to find some people who are a bit more pious, people whose families are a bit less complicated, people whose lives are less messy?

The narrator for the Christmas pageant that year was a woman whose name, ironically, was Mary.

She was old and incredibly tiny, no bigger than the children that morning wearing gold pipe cleaner halos around their heads. Emphysema was killing Mary a breath at a time. She had to be helped up to the pulpit once the performance began. I’d spent a lot of hours in Mary’s kitchen over the time I was her pastor, sipping bad Folger’s coffee and listening to her tell me about her family.

About the dozen miscarriages she’d had in her life and about how the pain of all those losses was outweighed only by the joy of the child she’d grafted into her family tree. About the husband who died suddenly, before the dreams they’d had together could be checked-off the list. About her daughter’s broken marriage. And about her two grandsons who, in the complicated way of families, were now living with her.

Mary was the narrator for the Christmas story that year.

As the children finished their lip-synced opening song, and as the shepherds and angels and wise men took their places, and as Billy climbed into his make- shift throne, looking more like a Harvey Keitel pimp than a King Herod- Mary struggled up to the pulpit.

Her oxygen tank sat next to her in a wheeled cart. Her fierce eyes were just barely visible above the microphone but from my seat there in the back I was sure she was staring right at her family.

With her blood-thinner-bruised hands she spread out her script and in a soft, raspy voice she began to tell the story, beginning not with Luke or with John but with Matthew, the Gospel of Matthew.

I wouldn’t have chosen Matthew for a Christmas pageant, but there’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story.

The cadence of Mary’s delivery was dictated by the mask she had to put over her face every few seconds to fill her lungs with air:

“All this took place…(breath)…to fulfill what had been spoken by the prophet…(breath)…they shall name him Emmanuel…(breath)…which means…(breath)…God with us.”

Do you really think this is appropriate? Mike asked me through gritted teeth.

     And sitting in the back, I looked at Mary behind the pulpit and I looked at all the other fragile, compromised people from our church family who were dressed in their costumes and waiting to deliver their part of the Gospel.

     ‘Appropriate?’ I whispered back.

‘No. No, I think it’s perfect.‘

And Mike glared at me, red-faced.

‘There’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story’ I said with a smile.

20121204_knots-in-jesus-family-tree_banner_img

I never stepped foot inside a church until a Christmas Eve service when I was teenager.

Growing up my father was a severe alcoholic. He was in and out of our lives. My parent’s marriage was down and up and down and then it was over.

     And, honestly, every year I just about wreck my own family’s Christmas because I can’t get over- can’t forgive- that baggage.

What I mean to say is-

I know how its easy to suspect that this holiday isn’t really for you.

I know how easy it is to worry you don’t belong, to think that at Christmas you have to dress up and come to a church service and pretend for an hour that  you’re someone else, pretend your family is different than it really is behind closed doors.

I know how easy it is to believe that at Christmas- especially in this place- you have to hide the fact that you’re not good enough, that you don’t have enough faith, that you have too many secrets, that you have too much doubt, that if God knew who you really were, what you had done and what you have left undone, then he wouldn’t be born for you.

I know how easy it is to think that the Christmas story is not your story.

But then, there’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story.

This family tree Matthew gives us- you might think it an odd way to tell the Christmas story.

     I mean there’s no two ways about it- Jesus’ family is messed up.

     But then again, so is mine and, probably, so is yours.

And God- I want you to know it so badly: that’s the gift given tonight in Emmanuel.

And it’s a gift Matthew doesn’t think needs to be wrapped in angels’ songs

or mangers filled with straw. The gift given tonight is that God comes to you and to me just as we are. Not as we wish we could be. Not as we used to be. Not as others think we should be. Not as our parents or our spouses or our children or our neighbors or our bosses think we should be.

No.

There’s more than 1 way to tell the Christmas story and what Matthew has to tell you is that:

Tonight Emmanuel

God-with-us

Comes to us

Just as you are.

We call it grace.

Take if from me, that’s the only gift that can change you.

 

Elf on the Shelf and Krampus and crass consumerism are easy targets come Christmastime, but too often even overtly Christian fare misses being Gospel this season.

Take the ubiquitous Charlie Brown Christmas. It’s not an exaggeration to say the soundtrack is the best attribute of it. Recall how Charlie Brown confesses he doesn’t know what Christmas is all about. And then Linus tells Luke’s story of Christ’s birth in the little town of Bethlehem. Cue Christians around the world cheering in response as Linus approaches Charlie and says, “That is the what Christmas is all about Charlie Brown.”

Most of us- we do Linus every year in church. We say Jesus is the reason for the season and we retell the nativity story of his birth.

Rehearsing the Christmas isn’t Gospel. What happened isn’t the same as why it matters.

As Paul Koch says, Linus’ story isn’t what Christmas is all about because it lacks the “For You” of the Gospel.

No Linus,

Christmas is about human sin and condemnation. Christmas is about the weakness of the flesh. Christmas is about a God who out of his divine mercy and goodness sent his only begotten Son as a substitute for you. For your failures and doubts and fears. For your selfishness and pride, our Lord was born in the little town of Bethlehem.

Christmas isn’t about just telling the story. It is about proclaiming the Good News.

It is about telling Charlie Brown that though his friends are a bunch of jerks and he feels alone and filled with shame and guilt he is not outside the love of God.

It is to tell him that in Christ alone there is forgiveness, life, and salvation. In fact, because of that incarnation, because of the birth of Christ, Linus can now say to Charlie Brown, “You are loved. You are forgiven. You are a child of God.

And you, yes you, are the reason for the season!”

On my podcast, Crackers and Grape Juice, we recently discussed this viral tweet from Reformed pastor and author Tim Keller:

Keller gets right what Linus and the rest of us get wrong.

Here’s the podcast. If you’re getting this by email and can’t see the audio embed, then go to www.crackersandgrapejuice.com to find it and all the other episodes.

Don’t forget: Give us a rating and review!!!

Help us reach more people: Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here. Help support the show! This ain’t free or easy but it’s cheap to pitch in. Click here to become a patron of the podcasts.

 

 

Save a fanciful excursus on the magi that disappeared forever when my son sucked on the thumb drive, this narrative on the annunciation remains my least popular most hated sermon ever.

I like it very much.

With haste, she packed her belongings into a duffel.

She folded her jeans and some blouses and wondered how long she’d fit into them. She zipped her bag shut and sadly glanced at the wedding dress hanging in her closet. Seeing it, she knew it would be too small on her wedding day, should that day ever come.

‘Favored one,’ that’s what he’d called her. Favored one. But now, hurrying before anyone else in the house awoke, it seemed more burden than blessing.

     ‘Favored one.’ 

She hadn’t known what to make of such a greeting when she first heard it.

    ‘Favored one.’ 

Hannah had received that same greeting. Hannah, who hadn’t let the gray in her hair or the crow’s feet around her eyes stop her from praying ceaselessly for God to fill her barren womb with a child. Eli, the haggard priest, had called Hannah ‘favored one’ just before he spilled the news of her answered prayer.

But packing the last of her things and clicking off the bedroom lights she recalled that even for Hannah a blessing from God wasn’t so simple. Even for Hannah the blessing was also a summons.

Hannah had prayed holes in the rug for a child but as soon as Hannah weaned her son, God called her to give her boy to Eli, the priest. Hannah’s boy was to be consecrated.

Tiptoeing through the dark hallway, she wondered how Hannah had explained that to her husband. She wondered what it had been like for Hannah, who lost out on all the memories a mother counts on: his first words, learning to walk, the first day of school, homecoming and his wedding day.

Everything Hannah had wanted when she’d wanted a child sacrificed for the purpose God had for her boy.

Hannah- she’d been called ‘favored one’ too.

rp_lightstock_1081_small_user_2741517-2-300x199.jpg

Leaving her house in the cold moonlight, she thought that God’s favor was also a kind of humiliation, that God’s call was also a call to suffer.

‘Let it be with me according to your word,’ she’d told him when she could think of nothing else to say. But if she prayed now for God to let this cup pass from her, would he?

‘Let it be with me according to your word,’ she’d said.

Standing out under the streetlight and looking back at the house where she’d grown up, she realized it wasn’t that simple.

Things would never be simple again.

Elizabeth lived in the country outside Jerusalem, several days journey from Nazareth. She’d stop in villages along the way to draw water from their wells.

She knew what others must have thought: a young girl, a single woman, resting at a well all by herself raised eyebrows. It was in those moments with men and women staring at her, making assumptions and passing judgments, she wondered if the angel knew what sort of family her baby would be grafted onto.

Names like Rahab and Ruth leapt out, a prostitute and a foreigner. Not the sort of family you’d expect to be chosen.

She wondered what that said about God.

And what her boy would one day make of it.

At night she camped out in the fields along the road where the only noise came from the shepherds and their flocks.

She got sick for the first time out there in the fields.

It was then she began to wonder about the stranger she would bring into the world. Who will this be? she thought. Here is something that is most profoundly me, my flesh and my blood, the sheer stuff of me, depending on me and vulnerable to me. And yet not me, strange to me, impenetrable to me.

She’d asked him there in the room how it would happen. She hadn’t gotten much in the way of explanation.

“The power of the most high will overshadow you’ is how he’d answered.

‘Overshadow’ was the word he’d used. She was sure of it.

She still didn’t know how that worked exactly. She hadn’t felt anything. But she knew that word, ‘overshadow.’ 

It’s what God did with the ark of the covenant when David brought the ark to Jerusalem with dancing and jubilation and not a little bit of fear. The power of the most high overshadowed the ark.

And before that when God delivered Israel from bondage and led them to freedom through the wilderness, in the tabernacle, the presence and power of God overshadowed.

Now, the most high had overshadowed her, and, if the angel could be believed, God was about to deliver on an even bigger scale.

Sleep came hard those nights on the road.

She’d look up at the sky and rub her nauseous stomach. It made her dizzy trying to comprehend it:
, as though her womb was now an ark; how the hands and feet she’d soon feel pushing and kicking inside her were actually the promises of God.

Made flesh.

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517

As soon as she saw Elizabeth in the distance she knew it was true. All of it.

Seeing Elizabeth, it hit her how they were immeasurably different.

Elizabeth’s child will be seen by all as a blessing from God. Elizabeth will be praised, the stigma of her barrenness finally lifted.

But for Mary, as soon as she started to show, it would be different.

A young girl, engaged, suddenly pregnant, with no ring on her finger, no father in sight and her fiance none the wiser? That invited more than just a stigma. She could be stoned to death.

She could see from the end of the road the beautiful contradiction that was Elizabeth: the gray wiry hair, the wrinkled face and stooped back, and the 6 month pregnant belly.

To be sure, Elizabeth was a miracle but it was not unheard of. Sarah, Hannah…Mary had grown up hearing stories of women like Elizabeth.

Mary knew: hers was different.

An unexpected, miraculous birth wasn’t the same thing as a virgin birth. With Mary, it was as if the angel’s message- God’s words- alone had flicked a light in the darkness of her womb.

Life from nothing- that was the difference.

Not from Joseph or anyone else.

From nothing God created life.

Inside her.

From nothing.

The same way, she thought, God created the heavens and the earth: from nothing.

The same way God created the sun and the sea and the stars.

The same way God created Adam and Eve.

From nothing.

As though what she carried within her was creation itself.

The start of a new beginning.

To everything.

For everyone.

A Genesis and an ultimate reversal all in one.

As she walked up Elizabeth’s driveway, she considered the costs that might lie ahead, and with her hand on her stomach she whispered to herself: “The Lord has done great things for me.”lightstock_55124_small_user_2741517


In this episode Dr. Johanna, Teer, and Jason discuss the word “gospel.” Should we use an uppercase G or a lowercase g when talking about the G/gospel? What is the G/gospel proclaiming?
Give us a rating and review!!!

Help us reach more people: Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Help support the show!

This ain’t free or easy but it’s cheap to pitch in. Click here to become a patron of the podcasts.

Where is the promised peace? Should we preach political sermons on Christmas Eve? Why does the victory feel so fragile? When was the last time we trembled in church?
Our special guest and my former mentor, Dr. Ruben Rosario Rodriguez, returns to the podcast (this time to Strangely Warmed) to talk about the lectionary’s assigned readings for Christmas Eve.
Give us a rating and review!!!

Help us reach more people: Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Help support the show!

This ain’t free or easy but it’s cheap to pitch in. Click here to become a patron of the podcasts.

A Waste of Wood

Jason Micheli —  December 18, 2017 — 1 Comment

It’s just a few bricks shy of brimstone- my 3rd Sunday of Advent sermon on Isaiah 61.

I spent one Advent a few years ago in Guatemala with a mission team from Aldersgate, 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 named Jason, a girl a year or two older named Veronica and their baby 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.

Above the bed hung a calendar. It was flipped to December. The top half had a picture of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. At the bottom of the picture, in Christmas gold-leaf, was a scripture verse in Spanish:

“The Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

I stepped into the doorway and saw them there, 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.

        ———————-

     Somehow it never really gut punched me until I found myself 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.

Somehow only there in Jason’s ramshackle home did it finally strike 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.

What I realized that Advent, what I realized at Jasonʼs house- is that 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 (I think).

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. Iʼd even take being one of the magi, unbelieving strangers from Iraq, who bring to the promised child gifts they probably couldnʼt afford.

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 blind; I can see just fine. I’m not lowly; I don’t need to be lifted up (thank you very much, Mary).

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 will scatter the proud and bring down the powerful and send the rich empty away…”

I hate to put a crimp in your Christmas cheer, but in 22308 that’s you and me.

Just listen again to today’s text:

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

According to Isaiah, arrival of the Lord’s favor coincides with the day of the Lord’s vengeance. Today’s text actually begins in chapter 59 where the prophet Isaiah says:

It displeased the Lord that there was no justice among the people. The Lord was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so the Lord [will] put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrap himself in fury as in a mantle. And according to their deeds, so will he repay; wrath”

I mean you have to give Herod credit. He wasnʼt stupid. He knew bad news when he heard it. Herod knew that joy coming to Maryʼs world meant an attack upon his world. Herod knew that the prophet Isaiah 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 the oppressed and the lowly and the refugee.

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- Christmas was bad news not good news.

And they were smart enough to know it. Christmas, Herod knew, didn’t signal jolliness or joy. It signaled judgement.

Far be it from me to be cynical (thatʼs a joke), but I wonder if thatʼs why we spike the eggnog and drape Christmas with so much cheap sentimentality.

I wonder if in our heart of hearts we know that if we braced ourselves and told the story of Christ’s coming straight up as the Gospels tell it, then, like King Herod, we might have a reason to fear.

I wonder if deep down, underneath all our Christmas kitsch and phony nostalgia and self-medicating day drinking, we’re afraid.

    I wonder if we’re afraid that if Christ’s coming wasn’t primarily for people like us, then…

when he comes again…

he’ll be against people like us.

If he didn’t come for us at the first Advent, then when he comes again at the second Advent will he be against us, bringing not joy but judgement?

———————

    Now, I know I’m going to have to repeat this so pay attention:

Advent is not about getting ready for Christmas.

Advent is about getting ready for Christ’s coming again.

Advent is not about getting ready for Christmas. Advent is about getting ready for Christ’s coming again.

That’s why the paraments are purple instead white, as they will be on Christmas. Advent is not about getting ready for Christmas. Advent is about getting ready for Christ’s coming again. That’s why the Medieval Church spent the Sundays of Advent on the themes of Heaven, Hell, Death, and Judgement.

Advent is not about his coming long ago in a Galilee far, far away.  Advent is about his coming again.

To you and me.

That’s why during Advent the Capital-C Church forces you to listen to Isaiah tell you all your best deeds are no better than fifty rags  Forces you to listen even to Jesus predict how his coming again will coincide with the end of the world as we know it. That’s why the ancient Advent hymns and the music of Handel and Bach and Mozart dwell so much on the Dies Irae, the Day of Wrath.

What are we? Masochists?

Listen to Isaiah again:

     The coming of Christ and the end of the world as we know it should not leave us, like REM, and feeling fine.

The coming of Christ and the end of the world as we know it- it means God’s favor…for some.

But it means judgement for others: the Lord’s vengeance and wrath.

What are we doing putting the purple paraments up?

Are we insane? Are we really that stupid?

Or are we collectively kidding ourselves that when Isaiah speaks of the poor and the downtrodden and the captive and the oppressed we are somehow included too?

He doesn’t mean poor in spirit. He doesn’t mean spiritually impoverished. He doesn’t mean captive to anxiety or oppressed by low self-esteem.

He means poor. He means captive. He means oppressed.

He doesn’t mean people like us.

———————-

For his rookie sermon in Nazareth, Jesus chooses today’s text from Isaiah. Standing up in his hometown church, Jesus quotes the prophet, saying:

“‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

And then Jesus slams shut his Bible and declares: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Did you notice what he did there?

Jesus says:

“‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives ….to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

And then Jesus says: “Check. I’ve fulfilled this one.”

Did you catch it?

Jesus cut it.

Jesus cut out Isaiah’s other line.

Jesus doesn’t say:

“‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me…to let the oppressed go free…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor… and the day of vengeance of our God.”

     Jesus takes out Isaiah’s prophesy about God’s vengeance. He cuts it.

Why? Was the prophet Isaiah incorrect?

Does Jesus edit out Isaiah because Isaiah was wrong about who God is or how sinful we are?

When Jesus declares “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing…” does Jesus mean “You’ve heard it said that God is a God of love and wrath, favor and vengeance, but I say to you, nonsense, God is just as nice as Oprah swears by?”

No, when Jesus takes out Isaiah’s words about God’s vengeance and then says that he’s the fulfillment of those words, Jesus is saying that he is the promised one who brings God’s favor to us by bearing God’s vengeance against us.

     Isaiah’s line about God’s vengeance- he cuts it out because it’s in him.

It’s in his body, where he’ll carry it to a cross.

The prophet Isaiah was right. The salvation brought by the Messiah goes through wrath not around it. The salvation brought by the Messiah does not avoid God’s wrath; the Messiah saves us by assuming God’s wrath. Christ doesn’t cancel out God’s wrath; he bears it on our behalf.

You see, it’s not just that Christ’s faithfulness is reckoned to you as your own; it’s that your sin- all of it, your every sin- is reckoned to him as his own.

His righteousness is imputed to you, and your every sin is ex-puted to him.  In his faithfulness he has fulfilled all righteousness. And in his suffering he he has fulfilled all judgement.

     His Mother Mary wasn’t wrong:

The coming of Christ does mean God’s judgement on the unjust.

The coming of Christ does mean the comeuppance for the rich and the proud and the powerful but that comeuppance comes on the cross.

As the the Apostle Paul says in Colossians, God in Christ disarmed the powerful and the rich, ruling authorities by making a public spectacle of them and triumphing over them by the cross.

His Mother Mary wasn’t wrong because neither was his cousin John the Baptist wrong:

Mother Mary’s son is the Father’s Lamb who bears the sins of the world.

And if he bore the sins of unjust us, then when he died our sins died with him.

Once. For all.

Once for all our sins: past, present, future.

There is no sin you have committed and, more importantly, there is no sin you have yet to commit that is not already covered by the blood of the lamb

His righteousness has been gifted to you.

It’s yours and it’s free by faith.

And your sin, it belongs to him now.

Such that to worry about your sins, to hold onto the sins done to you- Martin Luther says it’s like stealing from Jesus Christ.

They don’t belong to you anymore. They’re his possessions.

Luther also says the cross frees us not to pretend.

The cross frees us to name things for what they really are.

So let’s call it for what it is-

You’re not the poor. You’re not the oppressed. You’re not the captive on whom God’s favor rests.  Yes, you’re proud and, yes, you’re powerful and, yes, you do participate in and you perpetuate injustice.

Yes, you do.

And, yes, you deserve to be punished for your sins. You have been. You have been punished for your sins.

     You were punished when God drowned you in your baptism into his death and resurrection so that his favor might be yours too.

The cross frees us to call things as they are so let’s just name it: if Christ had been born not into the 1st but the 21st century then, chances are, we’d be the bad guys in the story not the good guys. Not the ones on whom God’s favor rests.

But, the Lord’s favor rests upon people like us NOT by us doing good works for those on whom his favor rests.

The Lord’s favor rests upon people like us only by trusting that while we were yet enemies Christ the Judge was judged in our place.

Only a conscience free from the fear of judgement is truly free to make the poor and the oppressed the object of compassion instead of the object of your anxiety. We are justified not by our place in this story but by faith in what Christ does at the end of this story at a place called Calvary.

———————-

    And so, we can put up purple paraments on the altar. We can read about axes and winnowing forks and we can freely admit our good deeds are filthy rags. We can sing joyfully about the Day of Wrath because we know the Day of Wrath is already not not yet.

     Jesus didn’t eliminate Isaiah’s Day of Vengeance; he experienced it.

On a Friday afternoon on a hill a few miles outside of town.

And when he comes again we can greet him, naked and unafraid, because we know that whatever sin he finds in us has already been born by his body.

Otherwise, his cross is just a waste of wood.

     ———————-

     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.

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

Jasonʼs 17 year old mother was there. She presented me with a little tapestry sheʼd sewn and she said into my ear: ʻI thank Jesus Christ for you.ʻ

And then she wished me a Merry Christmas and then she embraced me.

Given who I am and where I am in the story, to anyone else her hugging me    mightʼve looked like Mother Mary embracing King Herod.

     Isaiah’s not wrong- Jesus Christ came for people like her.

But Jesus Christ died for the ungodly like me.

That’s how Mary’s son makes his mother right.

 

Just in time for the special election in Alabama where accused child-predator Roy Moore is not only on the ballot but is the darling of evangelical Christians, we spoke with David French, a conservative activist-lawyer-turned-opinion-writer for the National Review.

In particular, we talked with David about his recent article arguing that Evangelicals’ support of Roy Moore (and Donald Trump) betrays what the Old Testament prophets would describe as a lack of faith.

We also chat with David about his volunteering for the Iraq War, the racist threats he received for his criticism of the Alt-Right, and the superiority of Battlestar Galactic vs. Game of Thrones.

Give us a rating and review!!!

Help us reach more people: Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Help support the show!

This ain’t free or easy but it’s cheap to pitch in. Click here to become a patron of the podcasts.

 

      Second Sunday of Advent – Isaiah 40.1-11

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’m a fan of all music except Jesus-is-my-Boyfriend Christian Music or that Baby-Making Smooth Jazz that Dennis likes to play in his office, which makes the sofa bed in there all the creepier.

I love music; in fact, during college I DJ’d for a radio station. When you have a voice like mine- a voice so sexy, erudite and virile 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 Hall ‘N’ Oates. I really don’t get the Journey thing, people.

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

Cliche, I know.

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 Ronald Moore has credible accusers.

We love music in my house.

 

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.

There’s no ‘Let It Snow’ by Dean Martin or Rod Stewart, no drek like Neil Diamond singing ‘Jingle Bell Rock and no aesthetic-corroding ‘Christmas’ by Michael Bubble. Save the Amy Grant for the Dentist’s Office.

No, any savior worthy of our worship should be anticipated and celebrated with the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Nick Lowe, and Wynton Marsalis.

The 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 tightens Ali’s sphincter and fills her 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: what’s a pastor doing condoning- advocating even- a song about Santa Claus?

Shouldn’t a pastor be putting Christ back in X’mas? Shouldn’t a pastor be on the front lines with Roy Moore, rebuffing the enemy’s advances in the War on Christmas?

Maybe.

But I’ve got no beef with Santa Claus.

I mean- what’s not to like about a whiskey-cheeked home invader with Chucky-like elves on shelves 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 capitalists, to want, want, want, to believe that it’s the gift not the thought that matters, but I don’t have a problem with Santa.

I don’t think its pagan or idolatrous. Nope, 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 never had a problem with Santa Claus.

Until-

Until one day 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, 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,’ his voice trailed off, ‘we’re good.’

And just like that….that Ted Kennedy-complected fat man with the diminutive sweatshop slaves and the sleeping-with-the-enemy spouse was dead to me.

———————-

     “…so you better be good…”

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

They’re just one example of how we muddle the Gospel with conditions.

Take Krampus, for instance, a 17th century Austrian tradition 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 Goat-Demon 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, St. Nick travels not by sleigh but by boat accompanied not by elves or reindeer but by 6-8 black men.

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 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” (David Sedaris).

But Santa and his former slaves seem to have worked it out fine.

In any case, 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 beat the child with sticks, and if a child has been especially naughty, Santa’s formerly-enslaved pals throw the kid into a sack and carry him away from his home forever.

     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.

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 and as creepy as that doll from Annabelle, sit perched in your home from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, judging your child’s behavior before returning to the North Pole to narc on them to St. Nick.

So not only are gifts conditioned upon your child’s merit, you also get to encourage your child to bond with a magical elf friend for nearly a month so that then, long before they go through their first nasty break-up or divorce, your child can experience betrayal when their elf friend absconds northwards to rat them out to Santa.

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

———————-

     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 rest of the year.

The conditions we attach to Christmas with characters like Krampus 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 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 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.

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, pornography, drug addition, war, or health insurance companies.

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 a Gospel that is Law.

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 do know- getting us to believe that God’s gift of 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.”

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 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 his only begotten Son…’

And you can ask Tim Tebow, the word ‘world’ in John’s Gospel has no positive connotations at all; therefore, it emphasizes the unconditional nature of the gift.

God so loved the world- the sinful, wicked, messed up, broken, violent, naughty world- that he didn’t check anything twice or even keep a list, he so loved- so loves- us, undeserving us, that he gave all of himself to us in Jesus Christ in order to list our names in the book of life.

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 your penalties have been paid.

The IOU on your debt has been folded over and someone with enough riches to cover it for you has signed his name- that’s what the prophet Isaiah means when he refers to our receiving double for all our sins.

The invoice has been folded over, doubled, and signed by a surrogate.

     Krampus is not Christmas 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 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, the forgiveness of all your sins and Christ’s own complete righteousness, is true whether you ever open it or not.

You see, 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.

———————-

     Obviously the gift changes lives. The gift changed my life- and not in a good way. I’d have preferred to go to law school.

Yes, this gift can change lives but the power of this gift to change lives is not the promise we proclaim- because what God has done in Jesus Christ for you is true for you whether or not it changes your life.

For goodness sake, the truth of God’s salvation is not tied to your subjectivity.

The promise we proclaim is not what God’s gift can do in your life. The promise we proclaim is what God has done to forgive and redeem and save your life.

And this is important to remember- pay attention now- because most people today think Christianity is a message about people getting better, that the Christian faith is intended to improve your life, 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 and Soul Cycle can make you a better you.

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 improve your life, no doubt, but your therapist cannot redeem you from Sin and Death.

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 here to hear that we’ve been rescued from our badness.

The prophet Isaiah paints a pretty grim picture of who we are and our situation before God. According to Isaiah, we don’t need a life coach; we need a savior.

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

That’s why the language Isaiah uses in chapter 40 is not exhortation: Do Better! Be better! The language Isaiah uses is the language of exodus: You’ve been delivered!

     Christ does not come to show us the highway to a holy God.

     Christ comes to be the highway: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

He is our goodness.

He is our faithfulness and virtue.

He is our exodus.

And we are led in the path of holiness not by following in his steps but in him, by being incorporated into him in our baptism.

The Gospel according to Isaiah is that our salvation is not found within us.

No matter what your life looks like, whether you resemble Christ or Krampus, how good or bad you are is beside the point because you are on that holy highway to God because Christ is the highway and by faith through your baptism you are in him.

And because you’ve been baptized into him who is the highway-

You can never wander

You can never go astray.

You can never be lost.

———————-

     So this Christmas-

Whenever “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” comes on 91.9, here’s my advice:  Turn it off.

And when your children ask why you did so, use it as a teachable moment to inform them that that particular song was written by Legion, Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, the Devil himself and you don’t want to play that song on the radio because maybe then the Devil will hear it and come for them.

Just a piece of advice.

And if you put your kids on Santa’s lap this season, then here’s another, out of the box, suggestion:

Stand your ground.

Stick a shiv to Santa’s bourbon belly and force him to tell your kids that the gossip’s got him all wrong.

He’s not watching every move they make and he’s not making a list because Santa already knows they’re 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 tell that 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 tattling rat was going to snitch on them to Santa, and so- like Christ crushing the head of the serpent- you interceded for them (Paul Koch).

And you killed the elf instead.

Tell them you killed the elf.

Tell them you killed that accusing elf because you love them.

And the gift of Christmas is theirs regardless of their goodness.

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

 

     

It was the Council of Chalcedon in the mid-5th century that hammered out the Christology (‘speech about Christ’) that became orthodox for Christians everywhere. According to the Chalcedon formula, the best way to refer to Jesus Christ is as ‘the God-Man.’

Makes him sound like a super-hero, I know, which is unfortunate since that’s the last thing the Church Fathers were after. Their formula was just the best way to insure that latter day Jesus-followers like us didn’t forget that Jesus the Son is true God and true Man, without division or confusion between his two natures.

He is fully both God and Man.

And, in a latent sense, he has always been both.

Eternally.

In other words, the Son who is the 2nd Person of the Trinity was always going to be the eternal Son who became incarnate and thus the son of somebody like Mary.

According to Maximus the Confessor– indisputably one of the greatest minds in the history of the faith:

The Chalcedonian formula necessitates we affirm that the incarnate Logos is the elect unifier of all things which are separated.

Whether- and this is key- by nature or by sin.

We all know Sin separated us from God.

That’s an every Sunday, altar call kind of presumption- so much so, in fact, that we neglect to remember or notice that less nefarious but even more fundamental fact separates us from the infinite.

Our finitude.

Our createdness.

Our materiality.

That the son of Mary is the eternal-eventually-to-become-incarnate Son of the God we call Trinity shows, says Maximus, that the Logos is the One through whom all things physical and spiritual, infinite and finite, earthly and heavenly, created and uncreated would be united and made one.

Union, says Maximus, was God’s first and most fundamental aim.

At-onement of a different sort.

Jesus isn’t made simply to forgive or die for our sins. Because if Christ is the God-Man, then everything goes in the other direction.

Jesus isn’t made for us; we were made for him. By him.

We are the ones with whom, through him, God wants to share God’s life.

It’s not that Jesus is the gift God gives us at Christmas; it’s that at Christmas we finally discover that we’re the gift God has given to himself.

We’re the extravagance the superabundant love of Father, Son and Spirit gratuitously seek to share with one another.

Jesus is the reason for the season, but one of the reasons for Jesus is that before the stars were hung in place, before Adam sinned or Israel’s love failed God’s deepest desire is, was and always will be friendship.

With us.

(Of course Robert Jenson, by way of Barth, argued that the preexistence of the Son in the Trinity implies the Incarnate Son’s cross- that Jesus was born to die, that all was made alive knowing that it would have to be made alive again through his death and resurrection-but that’s a question for another day.)

We’re making our way through words that start with -G- and in this installment we talk about Gnosticism, the prevailing religion in the Western world.

In this episode Dr. Johanna, Teer, and Jason discuss one of the earliest and most abiding heresies in Christianity.

Give us a rating and review!!!

Help us reach more people: Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Help support the show!

This ain’t free or easy but it’s cheap to pitch in. Click here to become a patron of the podcasts.

Rags for Riches

Jason Micheli —  December 4, 2017 — 1 Comment

     First Sunday in Advent – Isaiah 64.1-6

Due to heavily sourced and corroborated claims of misconduct, the role of Santa Claus this Christmas will be played by Christopher Plummer.

Just kidding. But after Garrison Keillor would anyone be surprised for Kris Kringle to be next?

Of course not. I mean, we already know he got handsy with somebody’s Mom underneath the mistletoe. And Mr. Claus doesn’t allow Mrs. Claus to leave their North Pole home. That’s not a happy marriage. That’s Ike’s and Tina’s marriage.

Father Christmas hasn’t yet been named alongside Al Franken, but who wouldn’t want the stress of this season to disappear as fast as Matt Lauer disappeared this week from Good Morning America?

Who wouldn’t want Christmas, and all its attendant heartburn and headaches, to go on hiatus like House of Cards?

Here it is only the first Sunday of Advent and yesterday after my wife handed me a list of everything we needed to do, to buy, to plan, to clean, to attend, to send, and to cook just to get ready for Christmas, I woke up in the corner, on the floor, sucking on my thumb.

Don’t lie- Who wouldn’t want Santa and his season and all of its stress to go the way of Charlie Rose?

Maybe it’s because I’m a pastor. This time every year my inbox, my mailbox, and my social media get flooded with churchy headlines and hashtags.

From the Heifer Project to the Advent Conspiracy to #makeadventgreatagain, from Simple Christmas to the War on Christmas, this time every year my already overflowing holiday To Do List gets bombarded with exhortations about how I should be celebrating the season.

As a Christian.

Usually the exhortations all boil down to one:

My Christian “obligation” to opt out of the commercialization and consumerism and materialism of the culture’s Christmas.

But to be honest, lately, I’ve grown wary of the Christmas “tradition” of bemoaning the commercialization of Christmas in our culture.

Too often, we begin Advent not with Isaiah’s laments or John the Baptist’s words of judgement but our own words of lament and judgement, criticizing others for being so materialistic about Christmas.

And, of course, like all cliches, there’s truth to the complaint about consumerism. Like all traditions, there’s a reason we’ve made it a tradition to lament and judge what commercialization has done to Christmas.

———————-

     Consider- the average person last year spent $1,000 at Christmas.

And maybe some of the complaining we’re doing at Christmastime is actually self-loathing because apparently over 15% of all the money we spend at Christmas we spend on ourselves.

We don’t trust our wives to get us the gift we really want so we buy it for ourselves.

It’s true- we spend a lot at Christmas. Very often money we don’t have.

In 2004, the average American’s credit card debt was $5,000. Now, it’s $16,000. Retail stores make 50% of their annual revenue during the Christmas season, which I can’t begrudge since this church brings in nearly 50% of its budget during the Christmas season. We spend a lot at Christmas. But we give a lot at Christmas.

And we worry and we fight a lot at Christmas too. Everyone knows the Christmas season every year sees a spike in suicides and depression and domestic abuse. We not only make resolutions coming out of Christmas, we make appointments with AA and therapists and divorce lawyers too.

So the reason complaining about consumerism at Christmas has become a Christmas tradition is because there’s some serious, repentance-worthy truth to it.

     The problem though in critiquing how our culture has co-opted Christmas is that it’s too simple a story.

That is, the critique itself is much older than our culture. Even before Amazon and Black Friday, people were shopping and putting their kids on Santa’s lap to beg for stuff.

Don’t forget- the holiday classic Miracle on 34th Street, it’s a Christmas movie about a shopping mall. The original version of that movie was filmed way back in 1947. No matter how much we kvetch at Christmas; it’s not a new phenomenon.

Turns out, Bing Crosby was wrong; the Christmases we think we used to know never actually existed.

Advertisers were using images of St. Nick to sell stuff at least as far back as 1830, and Christians were complaining about it then too, probably as they purchased whatever products Santa was hawking.

In 1850, Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, wrote a story called “Christmas” wherein the main character gripes:

“Christmas is coming in a fortnight, and I have got to think up presents for everybody! Dear me, it’s so tedious and wasteful!”

To which, her Aunt responds: “…when I was a girl presents did not fly about as they do now.”

     Christmas was more spiritual and less materialistic when I was a girl.

According to Ronald Hutton in his book, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, the commercialization of Christmas isn’t our culture’s fault it’s the fault of Victorian culture.

However, he notes, this is an ambivalent history because prior to the Victorian era Christmas was celebrated exclusively by the rich.

In other words, the Victorian commercialization of Christmas we abhor was actually an attempt to make Christmas available to the poor and the not rich.

In the vein of everything new is old, Hutton cites diary entries as far back as 1600 describing Christians’ habits of spending and gift-giving, but also their complaints about the rising costs of Christmas meals, Christmas entertainment, and Christmas gifts.

Bemoaning what we’ve done to the Christmas tradition is a Christmas tradition at least 400 years old, leading me to wonder if the magi spent their trip back from Bethlehem complaining about the cost of the myrrh.

We’ve been spending too much at Christmas and feeling guilty about it and judging others for it for a long, long time.

So, if you want to continue that tradition by, say, participating in the Wise Men Gifts Program (where your kid only gets 3 presents) go for it. I mean, I would’ve hated my mom if I’d only gotten 3 presents as a kid, and it’s a good thing I didn’t grow up a Christian because I probably would’ve hated Jesus for it too.

But go for it, maybe your kids are better than me.

Or, buy an animal in honor of a loved one through our Alternative Gift Giving Program. But word to the wise- learn from Dennis’ mistake- if you buy an Alternative Gift for your wife, don’t make it a cow.

Or, you could join up with the Canadian Mennonites who started the Buy Nothing Christmas Campaign back in 1968.

A noble goal to be sure, but, you know as well as I do, those Canucker Mennonites are probably zero-fun killjoys to be around at Christmas.

Knowing that the commercialization of Christmas, our participation in it, and our complaints about it after the fact go back older than America, gives me two cautions about trying to simplify and get back to the “spirit” of Christmas.

First-

I worry that, in trying to avoid the excess and extravagance of the season and in exhorting others to go and do likewise, Christians at Christmas sound more like Judas than Jesus.

“We could’ve sold that expensive perfume and given the money to the poor!” Judas complains about Mary anointing Jesus.

“I’m worth it,” Jesus pretty much says.

“You won’t always have me [or the people in your lives]. There will be plenty of opportunity to give to the poor.” 

I worry that Christians at Christmas sound more like Judas than Jesus.

In a culture where most Americans associate Christianity with judgmentalism and self-righteousness, sounding more like Judas than Jesus, I would argue, is more problematic than our credit card bill.

     And obviously we do spend too much.

     But ‘Why do we?’ is the better question.

And that gets to my second caution-

I worry that the imperatives to spend less and get more spiritual make it sound too easy. I worry, in other words, that they rely upon a more optimistic view of our human moral capacity than scripture like today’s gives us.

Or modern psychology for that matter.

The UVA psychologist Timothy Wilson, in his book Strangers to Ourselves, notes that most of us make free, rational decisions only 13% of the time. Our wills, scripture tells us and psychology confirms, are not free but bound.

Here’s what I mean-

Take this statistic: 93%.

93% – that’s the percentage of Americans who believe that Christmas has become too commercial and consumer-driven.

     Not only is lamenting the commercialism of Christmas not new neither is it prophetic.

No one disagrees.

Everyone agrees we spend too much money on too much junk at Christmas.

But we do it anyway.

Forget Isaiah and the lectionary, Romans 7 is what we should be reading during Advent:

15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

What Paul is wrestling with in Romans 7 is the mystery of our sinfulness such that expectation and exhortation always elicit the opposite of their intent.

Thou shalt provokes I shalt not.

Me exhorting you, then, or the Church exhorting the culture, to spend less and get more “spiritual” at Christmas will not only not work it will prove counter-productive because, as Paul Zahl paraphrases Paul here:

“Ceaseless censure produces recidivism.”

Thus, it’s not surprising we’ve been bemoaning the commercialization of Christmas for going on 5 centuries to no avail.

For the Apostle Paul, the Law of which he speaks in Romans 7 is shorthand for an accusing standard of performance.

In the Bible, the Law is all those thou shalt and shalt nots. Be perfect as God is perfect, Jesus says. That’s the Law.

And the Law, Paul says, is inscribed upon every human heart (Romans 2.15).

So even if you don’t believe in God or follow Jesus or read the Bible, the capital-L Law manifests itself in all the little-l laws in your life, all the shoulds and musts and oughts you hear constantly in the back of your mind, all those expectations and demands and obligations you feel bearing down on you from our culture.

     And Christmastime comes with Law all its own.

At Christmastime, there’s the Law of Pinterest that tells you you must have new adorable matching clothes for your kids for the Christmas Letter photo or you’re a failure as a woman.

Speaking of which, there’s the Law of the Christmas Letter, which is a hard copy version of the Law of Social Media, which says you must crop out all your unhappiness and imperfection

There’s the Law of Manhood, which tells you should earn enough money to buy your family the gifts they want.

There’s the Law of Motherhood that tells you you must wrap all the presents perfectly, valued at at least what your sister-in-law will spend on her kids, you must make homemade holiday cookies like you think your mother used to do, and you must find time to spend “quality” time with your kids or you’re no better than Ms. Hannigan in Annie.

And there’s the Law we lay down, the Church, telling people they should have a holy, meaningful, spiritual experience at Christmas whilst doing all of the above and tables-caping a Normal Rockwell dinner, not forgetting the less fortunate and always remembering that Jesus is the reason for the season.

Piece of cake, right?

The Law always accuses.

That’s its God-given purpose, says the Apostle Paul, to accuse us, to point out our shortcomings and reveal where we fail to be loving and kind and generous, where we fail to be good neighbors and parents and spouses and disciples.

The Law always accuses, and, when it comes to this time of year, our culture lays down a whole lot of law.

When it comes to Christmas, the Church and the culture does what AA tells people not to do: they should all over people.

That’s why Christmas is such a powder keg of stress and guilt.

We’re being hit from all angles by the Law:

By what we should do

Who our family should be

How we ought to celebrate.

Which is to say we’re being accused from all angles:

For who we are not

How we fall short

What our family and our faith and our Christmas isn’t.

That’s why we can all agree we shouldn’t spend so much at Christmas but we do anyway, we’re bound to the Law, St. Paul says.

And it’s the nature of the Law to produce the opposite of its intent; so that, what we do not want to do (overspend) is exactly what we do.

And that’s why our spending coincides with such sadness, we’re prisoners to the Law. We’ve been accused and have fallen short.

Me telling you, then, how you should spend during Advent, what you ought to do to anticipate Christmas, you might applaud or nod your heads but, truthfully, it would just burden you with more Law.

The Apostle Paul said the purpose of the Law is to shut all our mouths up in the knowledge that not one of us is righteous, so that, we can receive on the gift of God in Jesus Christ.

The gift of God in Jesus Christ.

Which is what exactly?

I mean- we’ve memorized the gifts that the magi give to Jesus.

Quick, what are they?

I thought so.

     We’ve memorized the gifts the magi give to Jesus.

But could you answer just as quickly and specifically if I asked you to name the gift God gives to us in Jesus?

I didn’t think so.

We like to say that Jesus is the reason for the season, but I’m not convinced we know the reason for Jesus.

And maybe-

     Maybe the problem is that we spend so much time talking about what God takes from us in Jesus Christ we can’t name what God gives to us in Jesus Christ.

     And it’s not knowing what God gives to us in Christ that makes us vulnerable to such stress and self-righteousness every Christmas season.

We spend all our time talking about what God takes from us in Christ- our sin.

But listen again to the prophet Isaiah:

Our sin isn’t even the whole problem because even our righteous deeds, says Isaiah, even our good works, even the best possible version of your obituary is no better than a filthy rag.

And the word Isaiah uses- in the Hebrew, you’re not going to like this, it means “menstrual cloth.”

In other words, even your best deeds leave you unclean before God.

They do not make you holy or righteous nor do they merit you an ounce of God’s mercy.

We spend all our time talking about what God takes from us, but our sin is only part of the problem. And God taking it, taking our sin, is only half of the Gospel. What God takes from us in Christ isn’t the whole Gospel.

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

Christ became our sin, says the Bible, so that we might become his righteousness. His righteousness is reckoned to us, says the Bible, given to us, as our own righteousness.

You see, it’s the original Christmas gift exchange. Our rags for his riches.

God takes our filthy rags and puts them on Christ and God takes Christ’s righteousness and God clothes us in it.

That’s the short, specific answer: righteousness.

The magi give frankincense, gold, and myrrh to Jesus.

     God gives to us, in Jesus, Christ’s own righteousness.

It’s yours for free for ever. By faith.

No amount of shopping will improve upon that gift.

And no amount of wasteful selfish spending can take that gift away from you once it’s yours by faith.

Sure, we’re all sin-sick and selfish, and our spending shows it.

     Obviously, we do not give to the poor like we should. 

But in Jesus Christ God became poor not so that we would remember the poor.

No, in Jesus Christ God became poor so that we might have all the riches of his righteousness.

As Christ says in one of the Advent Gospel readings, we already have everything we need to meet Christ unafraid when he comes again at the Second Advent. We’ve already been given the gift of his righteousness.

Once you understand this gift God gives to us in Jesus Christ-

It frees you, the Bible says. It frees you from the burden of expectations.

Until you understand the gift God gives us in Christ, you’ll always approach Christmas from the perspective of the Law.

You’ll worry there’s a more “spiritual” way that you should celebrate the season, as a Christian. You’ll think there’s a certain kind of gift you ought to give, as a Christian. You’ll stress that there’s a spending limit you must not exceed, as a Christian.

     Hear the good news:

You have no Christian “obligations” at Christmas.

You have no Christian obligations at Christmas because the gift God has already given you by faith is Christ’s perfect righteousness.

The Gospel is that, no matter what your credit card bill or charitable contribution statement says, you are righteous.

     You are as righteous as Jesus Christ because through your baptism, by faith, you have been clothed in his own righteousness.

The gift God has given to you- it frees you from asking “What should I spend at Christmas?”

This gift of Christ’s own righteousness- it frees you to ask “What do I want to spend at Christmas, now that I’m free to spend as much or as little as I want?”

You see-

Despite all the Heifer projects and holiday hashtags, the Gospel frees you to be materialistic.

In the way God is materialistic.  Materialism is how God spent the first Christmas.

The incarnation isn’t spiritual. The incarnation, God taking material flesh and living a life like ours amidst all the material stuff of everyday life, is the most materialistic thing of all.

Christians get the gift-giving tradition honest.

If Jesus is God- with-us then giving material gifts of love that highlight our withness, our connection to someone we love, really is the most theologically cogent way of marking Christ’s birth.

It’s not that spending money you don’t have makes you unrighteous. God’s already given Christ’s righteousness to you. That can’t be undone.It’s not that overspending at Christmas is unrighteous; it’s just unwise. So, don’t buy junk for the sake of buying junk.

But if you got the money, then maybe the most Christian thing to do this Christmas is to buy someone you love the perfect present.

Because God got materialistic on the first Christmas in order to give you the gift of Christ’s perfect righteousness.

Maybe materialism- in the freedom of the Gospel and not under the burden of the Law- is exactly what Christians need to put Christ back in Christmas.