Archives For Advent

Was Jesus Wrong?

Jason Micheli —  December 3, 2018 — Leave a comment

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

Here it is:

Hi Jason,

Matthew 16:27-28. 

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

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

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

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

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

Best,

F———-

Hi F——-,

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

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

Here’s some grist for your mind mill—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#1 — 

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

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

But you may wonder next: 

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

Answer:

No.

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

Therefore— 

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

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

With the crucified Jesus. 

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

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

2–

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

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

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

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

Matthew 16–

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

3–

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

“Forgiveness alone cannot make right.”

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

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

 

Missing from the Manger

Jason Micheli —  November 28, 2018 — Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s all true, of course.

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

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

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

Again, it’s all true. 

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

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

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

They’re both insufficiently cosmic. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Enemy.

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

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

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

      Go back and look at the text. 

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

     That’s red-letter. 

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

     Which, includes us. 

  

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

     Call it what you will: 

The Devil 

Death, as Paul does in Romans  

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

Satan, as Luke says here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     You can count up the verses. 

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

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

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

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

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

   

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

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

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

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

     And the battlefield runs through every human heart. 

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

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

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

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

As Fleming Rutledge preaches:

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

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

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

    

     

     

     

 

Christians Come First

Jason Micheli —  November 27, 2018 — Leave a comment

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

Go to www.adventbeginsinthedark.com to subscribe.

Here’s the second offering:

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

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

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

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

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

And power. 

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

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

He is our righteousness. 

We know—

His judgment is not condemnation; purgation is not perdition. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By faith. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    

    

My podcast posse at Crackers and Grape Juice are launching a daily devotional for the season called Advent Begins in the Dark: Reflections to Ready Us for the Not Yet. We’ve invited guest contributors like Bishop Will Willimon, Sarah Condon and Joshua Retterer of Mockingbird, and Scott Jones of New Persuasive Words along with a host of others. You can find each day’s offering and subscribe to receive them by email at www.crackersandgrapejuice.com: here. You can also join our private Facebook group for more discussion.

Here’s the first reflection:

It took less than an hour for an Iowa jury to find a 28-year-old Iowa father guilty of murder after his 4-month-old son was found dead in a motorized swing last year.

Zachary Koehn was convicted of first-degree murder and child endangerment causing death. On Aug. 30, 2017, authorities arrived to the home of Koehn and 21-year-old Cheyanne Harris and discovered the lifeless body of their son, Sterling Koehn, in the swing. Autopsy results report that medical examiners found “maggots in various stages of development” in the boy’s “clothing and on his skin.” The diaper’s contents irritated the baby’s skin, causing it to rupture, after which E. coli bacteria set in. 

The prosecutor distilled the shock in his opening statement:

“He died of diaper rash.”

The baby, who weighed less than 5 lbs. at death, was left in the baby swing for over a week. He was not bathed or changed that entire time. The county sheriff told jurors he found maggots and larva when the medical examiner began to remove the layers of urine-soaked blankets and clothing from the child. 

Outside the Church, it’s nearly Thanksgiving. 

A time to give thanks.

For all our many blessings, we say.

Inside the Church, it’s nearly Christ the King Sunday and, with it, and the advent of Advent, the end of the liturgical year and the start of a new one. It’s a pivot point in the calendar when Christians are at their most counter-cultural.

The turning of the Christian year, Fleming Rutledge notes, takes us to “the bottom of the night.”

Advent, says Fleming, begins in the dark and ends on Christmas Day with the infant shepherd’s flock hearing about the monsters that were gathered at his manger.  I remember my homiletics professor at Princeton, James Kay, passing out to us in class a xeoroxed copy of that sermon. I thought then that Fleming was a man.  

Advent begins in the dark— every Advent the prophets of old and the last prophet, John the Baptist, force us to look unblinkingly at the darkness of the human predicament, which is to say the darkness of every human heart. Unlike the culture, gratitude is not why Christians gather this season. Instead it’s a season where Christians bravely insist on practicing something like ungratitude, taking a grim look at the world as we have made it and demanding that God in his “goodness” get his a@# back here— as promised— and make right the wrong we have wrought.  

The final book of the Christian Old Testament is the Book of Malachi, which ends by announcing that all the arrogant and all the evildoers will be burned up on Judgment Day. The Christian Bible turns, in other words, on the longing for a redeemer to rectify not only us in our sin but a creation captive to the Power of Sin. The turning of Christians’ year mimics the turning of our scripture. In Advent we do not— as popularly misunderstood— prepare ourselves for the rehearsal of Christ’s first coming; no, in Advent we rehearse the righteous rage of the prophets who anticipated Christ’s first coming in order to long for his promised coming again. Advent is when the Church takes a grim look at ourselves and the world we’ve made in our own image and we call due the IOU sworn by the second coming. The collect for the First Sunday of Advent prays thusly:

Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to rectify

Advent is when the Church acknowledges the lack in us, an emptiness which pours out into the darkness of our world.

Advent is when we remind ourselves— or try to convince ourselves— that God gives a crap about it all.

It’s already Advent, Fleming argues, noting how the assigned readings for the Church this time of year already take a turn to the apocalyptic. Just last Sunday Jesus was giving a widow a “bless her heart” for giving a mite out of her lack. In this Sunday’s Gospel lection, Jesus is warning about the coming of the end: 

“For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.”

This must take place, Jesus says as though he too had read that story about little Sterling left to rot and then to die in his swing. 

Forget all the lies told by the Left Behind types and the hucksters on Trinity Broadcasting.

Advent is the season when Christians celebrate that the specter of the end is good news. The God who promises that in Christ there is now nor never any condemnation will not sit idle forever and let us condemn his creation. His cousin was right from the very beginning. The Lamb who took away our sins in his body on a tree will one day return to take away forever the Pharoah called Sin and rectify all the damage done by his reign.

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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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

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. 

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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.

 

      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.)

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.

 

 

 

In Episode 65, our latest installment of Fridays with Fleming, I talk with Fleming Rutledge about the message of Advent and preaching the word of Truth in a post-truth culture.

Just a reminder:

The Cracker & Grape Juice team will be part of Home-brewed Christianity’s Theology Beer Camp this January in L.A..

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Want to join us?
All you need to do is head over to theologybeercamp.com, click the button to buy tickets, and use the discount code below to receive $100 off:
BLITZEN4JESUS
But this discount will only be good through Christmas!

Be on the lookout for future episodes with Colby Martin and Mandy Smith.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

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Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our new website: www.crackersandgrapejuice.com

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the permanent link to the episode.

You ARE Worthy of Salvation

Jason Micheli —  December 21, 2016 — 1 Comment

When it comes to Christ’s cradle and cross, we typically use words like ‘goodness’ and ‘worthiness’ in a very specific way.  In a very particular direction. Jesus is the (only) one who is good. Jesus alone is worthy of God’s love and vindicating resurrection, making Jesus the only one who is worthy of our worship.

We- it need not be added but frequently is- are manifestly NOT good. We are sinners. We’re worthy only of God’s wrath, deserving the punishment we God mete(s) out on Jesus.

As the popular CCM song puts it:

Thank you for the cross Lord

Thank you for the price You paid

Bearing all my sin and shame…

Thank you for the nail pierced hands

Washed me in Your cleansing flow

Now all I know Your forgiveness and embrace

Worthy is the Lamb…

We are not good.

Like Wayne and Garth before Alice Cooper, we’re not worthy.

This is the same acknowledgement most Catholics admit after they receive the host in the Mass:

O Lord, I am not worthy

That Thou should’st come to me,

But speak the words of comfort,

My spirit healed shall be.

We do not deserve the gift of salvation God offers to us in Christ. That’s the very definition of grace, right?

Maybe.

Maybe not (exactly).

In §1 of On the Incarnation, Athanasius begins hinting at a theme that will recur throughout the essay. Of the many names by which Athanasius will refer to God, the first one he employs in §1 is ‘Artificer.’

ar·tif·i·cer

ärˈtifəsər/

noun- archaic

  1. a skilled craftsman, artist or inventor.
  2. God

The image of God as Artist and humanity as God’s art governs Athanasius’ understanding of the whence and whither of the incarnation. Having been made ‘very good’ by this Artist, who made us for no other motivation but as an expression of his Goodness, humanity fell into disrepair. The Artist’s original intent has been sullied. His art has been defaced.

The effect of sin and death upon the Artist’s art is not unlike the grime that obscures the frescoes on Medieval church walls.

Notice-

The problem for Athanasius isn’t guilt, which must be punished. It’s corruption, which requires restoration. 

So it’s not so much that you are a loathsome bastard who deserves the punishment Jesus, the only worthy one, bears for you, a la most CCM praise songs.

Instead, for Athanasius, it’s more like you’re the Artificer’s exquisite art whose original beauty has been defaced and needs to be restored.

The art motif is not incidental in On the Incarnation for it provides Athanasius with the means to illustrate the logical consistency of the faith and its scriptural arc. In his treatment, what was once made by the Word and declared by the Word to be ‘very good’ remains good- if marred- because of the surpassing Goodness of the Artist.

Not only do we remain the Artist’s good creation, the Goodness of the Artist would be called into question if he allowed his art to languish without repair. No matter our appearance or condition, we remain precious art simply because of the Artist who made us.

Our provenance makes us worthy of reclamation. 

And if the Artist abandoned his matchless art, left it to waste away, then we would rightly judge the Artist no longer worthy of his title.

O Lord, I am You would not [be] worthy

That If Thou should’st [not] come to me

The Mona Lisa, for example, remains a great painting even if today it retains a fraction of the original sheen DaVinci gave to it. Likewise, you’d never suggest that the Mona Lisa is undeserving of painstaking restoration. It’s too rare and precious a work of art. The Mona Lisa, in other words, is worthy of restoration. Indeed you’d likely argue that the art community was not worthy of the Mona Lisa if it turned its back on her and refused to restore her to her intended beauty.

Athanasius uses this image of God as the ultimate Artificer to turn our categories like ‘good’ and ‘worthy’ on their heads and, by doing so, Athanasius seeks to show how what God does in Christ isn’t a counter-intuitive surprise but is logically consistent with God’s very first creative impulse.

As he puts it: “For it will appear not inconsonant for the Father to have wrought its salvation in him by whose means he made it.”

crackers-and-grape-juice-beer-camp-editionWe never tire of working for you at Crackers & Grape Juice, and before you complain about the audio quality in #60 just remember we do this for you gratis in our spare time.

We’ve got two episodes that dropped early this week.

For Episode #60, the C&GJ posse got together to argue about Advent and my assertion that we’d be better off focusing on the second coming not during Advent but as part of the Ascension.

For Episode #61, Morgan spoke with Ana Yelsi Sanchez and Alicia Crosby about their experience as women of color at the Standing Rock protest.

Just a reminder:

The Cracker & Grape Juice team will be part of Home-brewed Christianity’s Theology Beer Camp this January in L.A..

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Want to join us?
All you need to do is head over to theologybeercamp.com, click the button to buy tickets, and use the discount code below to receive $100 off:
BLITZEN4JESUS
But this discount will only be good through Christmas!

Be on the lookout for future episodes with Father James Martin and Mandy Smith.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

We’re breaking the 1K individual downloaders per episode mark. 

Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

It’s not hard and it makes all the difference. 

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.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our new website: www.crackersandgrapejuice.com

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the permanent link to the episode.

img26064At-One-Ment

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, someone who could even out smoke, out drink and punch out Karl Barth:

the Chalcedonian formula necessitates that we affirm that the incarnate Logos is the elect unifier of all things that 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 the reason 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.

img26064

When we say that Jesus comes in order to suffer for our Sin- that he’s born to die- we suggest that suggest that Jesus might not have come.

The incarnation then is ‘accidental’ in the way the philosophers used the term; that is, God taking flesh is occasioned by Sin and not something more determinative and essential.

The incarnation then is something less than an eternal, unchanging decision of God’s.

But that goes against the grain of what scripture tells us in Colossians: that the Son is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation through whom all things we’re made. Or as John testifies, in the beginning, before creation had a beginning, was the Word.

Before God had determined to create us, before God had ‘decided’ to save us from Sin, scripture tells us that God had decided eternally to be God for and with us.

To be God the Son, the God who would take flesh.

Jesus’ arrival can’t be limited to his role in saving creation from Sin because God’s decision to become incarnate precedes creation itself.

Put the other way around, as Nicolas Malebranche argued, if the incarnation is not a metaphysical necessity apart from the Fall then there is no purpose for God’s act of creation itself.

The way we so often speak of creche and cross mis-orders God’s intentions, implying that Christ is made for us rather than we for him.

As the 13th century theologian, Duns Scotus, put it:

“The Incarnation of the Son of God is the very reason for the whole Creation.

Otherwise this supreme action of God would have been something merely accidental or ‘occasional.’

Again, if the Fall were the cause of the predestination of Christ, it would follow that God’s greatest work was only occasional, for the glory of all will not be so intense as that of Christ, and it seems unreasonable to think that God would have foregone such a work because of Adam’s good deed, if he had not sinned.’

To think the incarnation is something less than an eternal, unchanging decision of God’s raises not just scriptural problems, but logical ones too.

If the incarnation is not an eternal decision of God’s, if the incarnation is not something God was always going to do irrespective of a Fall, then that means at some point in time the immutable God changed his mind about us, towards us.

Those who insist that Jesus was born in order to die attempt to safeguard an interpretation of one doctrine (substitutionary atonement) at the expense of an even more fundamental divine attribute:

God’s immutability.

God’s unchanging nature.

And this isn’t simply an abstract philosophical problem, for if God changed his mind at some point in the past about humanity, then what’s to stop God from changing his mind again in the future?

What’s to stop God from looking at you and your life and deciding that the Cross is no longer sufficient to cover your sins?

It’s true that Jesus saves us. It’s true that his death and resurrection reconcile God’s creation. It’s true that through him our sins are both exposed and forgiven once and for all, but that’s not why he comes.

That’s not why he comes because the even deeper mystery is that he would’ve come anyway.

Because he was always going to come.

15317970_10211005366952360_5805070194313765446_n    For this weekend’s sermon, I decided to preach an ‘old’ sermon to coincide with the launch of my new book. This was actually the last sermon I preached before cancer whisked me away from the pulpit for a year. Some of this makes its way into the first chapter of the book.

     In addition to the Isaiah lection for 2nd Advent, my text was 2 Corinthians 5.17-21

‘God was in Jesus reconciling the world to himself…’

     So I’ve got this mole, right here on my shoulder.

It’s not gross or anything. It’s just large and discolored and has a few hairs growing out of it. ‘Suspicious’ my former pre-med Mrs calls it, right before she points at it and quotes that line from Uncle Buck about finding a rat to gnaw it off.

My wife, Ali, had been after me for months to go to the doctor and get it checked out. But, because I’m an idiot, instead of going to the doctor I consulted WebMD, a website- I’m now convinced- that was designed by ISIS to frighten Western infidels. If you haven’t checked out WebMD already, don’t. (Right after Breitbart) it’s the most terrifying internet you’ll ever browse.

I consulted it for a suspicious mole, and 12 hours later I logged off in black despair, convinced that I suffer from IBS and TB, convinced that my kids have ADHD and maybe scolios too and that I might as well pre-order those little blue pills because ‘that’ is likely right around the corner for me as well.

To be honest, even though I spend 2-3 hours every day admiring myself in the mirror, I didn’t even notice the mole was there. I didn’t realize it was there until the summer when I took my shirt off at the pool and Ali threw up a little bit in her mouth.

Now as all you Waynewood Pool members already know, me taking my shirt off at the pool is normally an Event (with a capital E).  A moment that provokes jealousy among men, aspiration among boys and awakens 50 shades of Darwinian hunger in women.

Like Bernini unveiling his David, normally me taking my shirt off at the pool is a siren call, overpowering all reason and volition and luring the primal attention of every female to be dashed against this rock.

But I digress.

The point is when I took my shirt off at the pool that summer and saw Ali wipe the vomit from the corner of her mouth it got my attention.

Ali got after me to go to the doctor. My youngest, Gabriel, who tried to biopsy my mole for his new microscope, got after me. My mom, who is a nurse, got after me. And the voice in my head confirmed what WebMD and all the rest had told me.

But my personal philosophy has always been that if you wait long enough the worst will always happen so for months and months I didn’t do anything about it.

Then one behind-closed-doors-kind-of-night Ali whispered across the pillow that she was never going to touch me again until I scheduled an appointment.

I called the doctor the next morning.

Of course, because I have health insurance, I can’t just call the dermatologist to schedule an appointment. No, that would make us socialists.

No, first I had to blow a morning and a co-pay at the general practitioner in order to get a referral to the skin doctor.

The nurse at the general practitioner’s office weighed me and, with a toll booth worker’s affect- took my blood pressure. Even though I told her I was just there for my mole, she insisted on typing my age into her tablet and asking me the questions that my age automatically generated.

First question: Have you experienced depression or thoughts of suicide in the past month?

Her second question was ‘Have you noticed an increase in memory loss recently?’ ‘Not that I recall’ I said.

Stone-faced, she moved on to her third question, asking for the date of my last prostrate exam. ‘Uh, never’ I stammered and, not sensing my sudden anxiety, she asked me when I’d had my last colonoscopy.

‘Wait,’ I said, ‘I’m not old enough to need those things done, am I?’

‘Just about’ she replied.

‘In that case can we go back to the depression question?’

Ten days, a copay and 3 double-billing mistakes later I went to the dermatologist, clutching my referral like a winning lotto ticket.

When I last went to the dermatologist in 1994 as a puberty-stricken middle schooler, the dermatologist’s office was one step above the guy who showed up at gym class and told you to turn your head and cough.

Now, it’s like something from the Capital in the Hunger Games.

I walked into the steel and glass, Steve Jobs-like office where a receptionist with impossibly purple hair and a dress made of feathered, bedazzled boas handed me paperwork on a clipboard and told me to have a seat.

‘All I Need for Christmas’ was playing overheard on the stereo while a flatscreen on the adjacent wall advertised the dermatologists’ many services to do away with age, imperfection and just garden variety ugliness.

A slide advertising the office’s newest service, eyebrow implants, slid horizontally across the plasma screen.

Judging from the model’s face on the screen, eyebrow implants are a procedure designed to give septuagenerian realtors Alex Trebeck mustaches above their eyes.

The next slide was a photo of the office itself along with its staff, centered above a cursive catchphrase. Their mission statement.

“Feel as perfect on the outside as you do on the inside.”

And as I started to fill out the paperwork, I wondered what sort of psychotic person came up with a slogan like that.

I mean- if the goal is to appear on the outside how I normally feel about myself on the inside, then I’m already as ugly as I need to be.

Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ started to play as a door opened and a nurse, who looked a little like the supermodel Elizabeth Hurley, called for Mr. Michelle.

Liz led me through a maze of hallways to a room so antiseptically bright I half-expected to be greeted by the Giver.

Inside the exam room, Liz handed me a hospital gown and instructed me to take off all my clothes and promised that the doctor would be in in a few minutes.

All my clothes?’ I begged for clarification.

‘Yep, even your underpants’ she said.

For some reason Liz Hurley using the word ‘underpants’ on me made me feel like a 5 year old boy whose mother makes him follow her into the ladies’ room.

She closed the door gently behind her as I unfolded the baby blue gown.

Now, I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals, but up to that point I’d never been a patient before and most of the patients I had seen were underneath sheets and blankets.

Now that I held my own hospital gown in hand, I discovered that the correct way to wear it is not as self-evident as you might think.

Are you supposed to wear it open in the back, like a cowboy’s chaps? Or should you wear it open in the front, like a bathrobe? Or maybe, I pondered, you should take your particular ailment as a guide?

Since my mole- the cause for my visit- was on the front of my body, I reasoned, I decided upon the latter ‘style.’

So there I sat, like The Dude in The Big Lebowski except I didn’t have a White Russian in hand.

And, I was naked.

If I was unsure about the correct way to wear the gown, I got my answer when the doctor knocked, entered, and immediately snorted and said ‘Oh my.’

‘I wasn’t sure…’ I started to explain, but he waved me off and said ‘It’s okay, not a problem. You won’t have it on for long anyway.’ Words that proved to be more auspicious than temporal.

‘Are you cold?’ he asked, looking at me. ‘We can turn up the heat.’

‘No, I’m fine.’

The doctor sat down on a round stool in front of a black computer and I proceeded to give him my professional diagnosis based on my degree from WebMD.

He listened and rolled his eyes only once when I told him my suspicions of also having MS and when I finished said ‘Let’s have a look.’

So I showed him my mole, which- I’ll point out- was very easy to do since I was sporting the gown like a smoking jacket.

He looked at it for a few moments, looked at it through a magnifying glass for a few moments more and then, just as Rod Stewart started to sing ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ the doctor said ‘I don’t think there’s anything to worry about. The hairs growing out of it make it look worse than it is.’

Relieved, I started to get up to get ready to go, but the doctor said: ‘Not so fast. While you’re here, we should probably do a full body scan.’

‘We?’ I wondered to myself as he left and returned a moment later with Liz Hurley, who- I noticed- struggled to suppress a giggle when she saw me in the gown.

With Liz gawking on, he proceeded to peel back my gown like it was cellophane on a pound of ground beef, which is probably a good analogy because there’s nothing quite like being naked, perched on top of butcher paper, clutching your bait and tackle to make you feel like a piece of meat- that grayish, 50% off, sell-by-today-kind-of-meat.

The date-rapey Christmas song ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ started to play, which seemed appropriate since they then both started to bend me in impossible positions as though I was a yoga instructor or Anthony Wiener on the phone.

Bending and contorting me, they both picked over my every freckle and blemish like we were a family of lice-ridden Mandrills.

‘Anything suspicious down there?’ he asked ominously.

‘I hope to God not’ I said, but apparently invoking the deity did not provide sufficient medical certainty for him because he took his examination south, which was when he decided- for some reason- to ask me what I did for a living.

Normally when strangers ask me my profession, I lie and tell them I’m an architect. It helps avoid the awkward and endless conversations that the word ‘clergy’ can conjure.

But with no clothes on and even less dignity, there seemed to be little reason to pretend.

‘I’m a minister’ I said.

‘Really? What tradition? You’re obviously not a rabbi’ he said with a wink.

‘I’m a Methodist minister’ I said.

‘My grandmother was a Methodist’ he muttered.

Maybe it was because this was about the last position I wanted someone associating their grandma with me or maybe it was because the whole situation was so impossibly awkward, but once I started talking I found I couldn’t stop.

You’d be amazed how interesting you can make denominational distinctions sound when you’re as in the buff as Wilfred Brimley in Cocoon and being pawed over like a 4-H cow.

John (Cougar) Mellencamp’s ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa’ came on as the doctor finished and said in a measured tone: ‘You do have some moles on your back that concern me.’

Then he ordered me to sit back down and lean forward as far as I could, which I did, clutching the last corner of my gown against my loins.

The doctor took a black sharpie and drew circles on my back, which struck me in the moment as not very scientific; meanwhile, Liz Hurley grabbed a digital camera off the supply counter.

Under normal circumstances, the combination of supermodel, a nurse’s outfit and a digital camera would pique my interest, but somehow I knew what was next.

She told me to lean forward again so she could snap some close-ups of my back, which she did with slow, shaming deliberation. Then, I can only assume to degrade me further, she actually showed me the close-ups of my back.

Now it was my turn to throw up a little in my mouth.

‘That’s what I look like from behind? It’s like a flesh-colored Rorschach test. I should call my wife and tell her I love her’ I said to no one in particular.

She laughed and said: ‘The images are magnified so don’t worry. Trust me, everyone appears kind of ugly and gross when you get up that close for a look.’

‘And that’s not even the ugliest part about me’ I said.

She frowned. ‘Do you think there’s something we missed?’

‘No, no, you were thorough all right’ I said, ‘I was just thinking of something else- my soul.’

‘I guess that’s your speciality, huh Father?’ Liz laughed.

The doctor laughed too.

They thought I was joking. They both thought I was joking.

James Taylor was finishing his rendition of ‘Lo, How a Rose Ere Blooming,’ that line that goes ‘…true man, yet very God, from sin and death he saves, and lightens every load’- he was singing that line as I sat on the butcher paper and watched as Liz loaded the snapshots of me onto the black computer.

Watching each unflattering image first pixilate then load on to the screen in front of me, I thought again of that cursive catchphrase in the lobby and what rubbish it was: “Feel as perfect on the outside as you do on the inside.”

Because if you could get close up- all over- to me, not just looked at my skin but lived in my skin, lived my life- and not just in my shoes but in my flesh- then you could come up with a lot more ugly, indicting pictures of me than a hairy mole.

Because the cold, incarnate truth is, I’m even more pockmarked and blemished on the inside than I will ever appear on the outside.

On the inside-

I’m impatient and petty. I’m judgmental and a liar. I’m angry and insecure and fearful and unforgiving and…and I’m just a normal guy.

The cold, incarnate truth is- if you stripped me all the way down, not just of my clothes but of my pretense and prevarications, stripped off the costumes I wear and the roles I play right down to my soul, then you’d see how unsightly I really am.

I mean, the prophets Isaiah and John the Baptist wouldn’t tell us to make straight the pathways for the Lord if we weren’t all twisted up, tangled and knotted on our insides.

And really, that was what was so unbearable about baring it all in that exam room. It reminded me how seldom I allow myself to be made vulnerable.

What being exposed exposed was just how much I try to cover up my true self. What being revealed revealed was how often I hide behind masks and manipulations, how often I fail to be authentic because I’m afraid of failure, how seldom I’m fully, genuinely me with others because I’m convinced there’s a whole lot of me I don’t think is worth sharing.

So I pretend.

I act like everything’s alright when it’s not. I pretend me and mine are happy when maybe we’re not. I act like I’ve got my _______ together even when my _______’s falling apart all around me. I project strength when I feel weak, and I wear other people’s projections of me like masks.

I don’t keep it real. I pretend. I play-act. I hide.

And so do you.

And since we’re baring it all, we might as well go full monty: the truth is we feel the need to hide and pretend and put on a good face more at Christmas than any other time of the year.

Which is odd.

Because when it comes to Christmas, we don’t just believe that God takes flesh. We don’t just believe that God puts on skin. We don’t just believe that God puts on a body. We don’t just believe that God puts on Jesus’ body.

No, we believe that, at Christmas, God assumes- puts on, takes on- our humanity.

All of it. Every bit. Of every one of us.

The pathway God chooses to get close to us is our humanity- all of it, every bit of it. 

Every bit of every one of us. 

On the stereo Aretha Franklin belted out ‘Hail, hail the Word made flesh, the Babe, the Son of Mary’ from the second verse of ‘What Child as This.’

As Aretha sang and Liz finished up with my snapshots, the doctor gave me a patently false promise about not feeling a thing just before he started to dig out my first mole with the finesse of a mobbed-up Italian barber from North Jersey.

Hearing Aretha overheard and seeing my snapshots on the computer screen and thinking of my shame that morning and every unsightly truth it brought to mind, I thought of St. Gregory.

Gregory of Nazainzus.

The 4th century Church Father who taught that what it means to say ‘God was in Christ,’ as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians, is to say that all of our humanity is in the God who was in Christ.

All our humanity. Every bit of every one of us.

It has to be.

     Otherwise, as Gregory put it, ‘that which is not assumed is not healed.’

Those parts of humanity not taken on by God in Christ are not healed.

Those embarrassing parts, those imperfect parts, those shameful and fearful and broken parts of us- if it’s true that Christ comes to save all then all those parts of us are in him; otherwise, they’re not healed.

Every bit of every one of us is in Him, Gregory says.

So there’s no need to hide. There’s no to pretend. There’s no need for shame or masks. We can give every embarrassing bit of our selves over to him because it’s already in him.

We’re not perfect on the outside and we don’t need to pretend that we are on the inside because every part of us is in him already.

Says Gregory.

————————-

With the gentleness of a cycloptic, differently-abled butcher, the doctor removed the rest of my blemishes and finished up by saying ‘You should come back in a year so we can do this again.’

‘I can’t wait’ I said as I started unfolding my street clothes.

Dressed, with my back looking like Clint Eastwood’s in Pale Rider, I found my way back to the lobby.

Someone, I’m not sure who, was on the stereo singing “Cast out our sins and enter in, Be born to us today.”

O’ Little Town of Bethlehem.

The plasma screen on the lobby wall was back to flashing their mission statement: “Feel as perfect on the outside as you do on the inside.” Accompanied by phony photos of people who pretended to feel both.

And, as I left, I said a little ‘Thanks be to God’ to myself because that that is not our Gospel.

 

img_2451The Home-Brewed Christianity #LectioCast was kind enough to invite me as a guest for the next two weeks to talk about my new book, Cancer is Funny, and discuss the Advent lectionary readings.

Hosted by Dr. JR Daniel Kirk, #LectioCast aims to get preachers’ jumpstarted on their prepcrastination by honing in on issues and themes in the scripture passages assigned for the upcoming Sunday and to do so in a way that is sharp, practical, and seasoned with a bit of snark.

Daniel accuses me of skirting wrath in the lectionary readings for Advent 2, but I think it’s just a good honest dose of Barth.

You can listen to the podcast here. If you’re getting this by email, click over the blog to listen.

And here’s a sermon I preached for A Sermon Every Sunday on these very readings:

 

A Sermon for Every Sunday

Jason Micheli —  November 28, 2016 — 1 Comment

adcfd2d05c188b8c49c4a8f5f709e357Jim Somerville, the pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, founded A Sermon for Every Sunday a couple of years ago with David Powers, President of Belltower Pictures (check out Shooting the Prodigal) as a way to help churches that didn’t have, or couldn’t afford, a regular preacher.  They recorded sermons in high-definition video that could be projected during worship. Now they are being used by small churches, house churches, Bible studies, small groups, Sunday school classes, and for individual viewing on laptops, tablets, and smartphones all over the country.

Their preachers include the likes of Brian McLaren, Will Willimon, Amy Butler, and Lauren Winner.

Jim invited me to participate recently and below is my sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent.

Not only am I thrilled to be counted among the other preachers on this roster, I was grateful to make the acquaintance of Jim and David, the former is a homiletics nerd like myself and the latter is the kind of lay person who makes you happy to be a preacher in the first place.

I encourage you to check out A Sermon for Every Sunday‘s website. On most Sunday’s they’ll deliver you a better sermon than I will!

Advent for Average Sinners

Isaiah 11.1-10 

Matthew 3.1-12

Maybe its my Contrary Personality Disorder, but am I the only one at Advent who hears a fire and brimstone indictment like ‘…you brood of vipers…even now the ax is lying near to cut you down and throw you into the fire…’ am I the only one who hears that and thinks ‘eh, that’s a bit much?’

I mean, I don’t know much about you but does God look at this face that any woman could love and just see a sinner? Chaff to burn up in God’s unquenchable fire?

Does God look at you with a broom in one hand and a match in the other, ready to strike at the first sign of your sin?

I mean- am I even allowed to ask the question:

Is God’s ego really so fragile?

True, I’ve been a sinner since I hit puberty and received my first SI Swimsuit Edition in the mail, but does my sin really make me no better than a fruitless tree to be tossed into the fire?

Is this crazy guy in the camel hair coat correct?

Does my sin so inflame God that God would just as soon sweep me into the rubbish fire? Does yours?

And I don’t know if my sinfulness extends all the way back to the womb like David indicts himself in Psalm 51- seems awfully grim to me- but I do know my guilt extends at least as far back as yesterday to that guy I cut off in traffic.

Even if I am everything he swore at me (at the traffic light) and even if my mother is everything he shouted at me (at the next light) and even if I deserve to do to myself everything he suggested I do to myself (at the light after that), to say that I deserve to be cut down by God’s holy hatchet and thrown into fire sounds a bit heavy handed, more than a little over the top.

Is God really so quick to anger and abounding in steadfast wrath?

With the Feast of the Incarnation only a few weeks away, shouldn’t we all agree that God is at least as nice as Jesus?

Shouldn’t we concur that the God whose Second Coming we anticipate at Advent is the same as the God who came to us in Christ?

—————

Since John the Baptist isn’t the kind of preacher who puts his listeners to sleep, you probably noticed how Christmas begins in the dark.

With the season of Advent, a season when we hunker down and confess that the world is full of darkness and depravity because the world is filled with people like you and me.

And that it’s into such a world as this that the Son of God came and to such a world will he come again.

And so, during Advent we Christians sing not about how Santa Claus is coming to town but about how Judgment is coming.

Before we light candles on Christmas Eve, in Advent we grope through the dark.

We brace ourselves and read prophets like Isaiah who, just before this pastoral image in chapter 11 of wolves making nice with sheep, promises that the destruction of sinners has already been decreed, that God’s hatchet- guess where John gets his imagery- is raised ready to lop off all the unfaithful.

And every Advent the first character to step onto the stage is John the Baptist, whose lunch box full of locusts is meant to evoke the prophet Elijah, which his happy news only to those who don’t know their bibles, for the Old Testament ends with the prophet Malachi foreboding: “Behold I will send you Elijah before the great and terrible Day of the Lord arrives.”

The Medieval Church, taking their cue from Malachi, spent the Sundays of Advent on the themes of Death, Judgment, Heaven, and- the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Eternal Hell.

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

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

Denial that we are sinners.

Okay.

But, since Advent is a season for honesty-

What about just average sinners? What about mediocre sinners?

Like you? Like me?

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

I don’t know if I’m allowed to say it, but our Advent hymns are so filled with the world’s depravity, there’s no room in them for us run of the mill, grump at your kids, cheat on your taxes, fall asleep watching Game of Thrones types of sinners.

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

     It’s over the top.

It’s a bit much even for these Pharisees and Sadducees in Matthew 3.

I mean, the average American Christian is willing to drive through no more than 3 traffic lights to go to church on a Sunday morning.

Yet these Pharisees and Sadducees hoofed it some 20 miles from Jerusalem to the Judean wilderness to check out John and be baptized with his baptism of repentance.

To call us, much less them, a brood of vipers with hearts of stone seems like overkill.

You all come to church during Advent to anticipate the cute baby Jesus in his golden fleece diapers and maybe you come to confess how you don’t pray as much as you should or how you feel badly about blocking your neighbor on Facebook or how you secretly voted for Trump or Hillary and what do we the Church do?

Bam.

We hit you over the head with a winnowing-fork. 

And we holler through our bullhorns, all sticky with honey, that unless you repent and start blooming some righteously good fruit, God’s gonna clear his threshing-floor and burn up chaff like you with unquenchable fire.

     What? 

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

     You listen to John’s brimstoney bullhorn long enough, Advent after Advent, and you can start to hear some crazy things.

For example, it can start to sound like your sins anger God.

—————

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

So let’s be honest: when it comes to you and me, a lot of this Advent language- it misses the mark.

As an almost English major, I gotta say a lot of this Advent language is bad language.

It’s to use the language badly because it misses the mark about you and me and just what kind of sinners we are.

Advent, says Fleming Rutledge, is a season that forbids denial. So here, of all seasons, we shouldn’t lie or exaggerate about ourselves, most especially to God from whom, about us, no secret is hid.

So, let’s be honest. Most of us are ordinary, mediocre sinners. Boring even.

I mean, I’m a United Methodist, and I can tell you the average United Methodist church would be way more interesting if we sinned like, say, King David, but I for one don’t have the energy for that.

We are not great sinners.

I mean- you’re listening to a sermon on a computer screen. You’re not a great sinner.

We’re not rebelling day and night against God.  Church people have made passive aggressive behavior an art form, sure, but seldom do they rise to the level of brood of vipers.

We certainly haven’t been sinful since our birth. I dare you to come up with even one truly evil thing you’ve done.

No matter what the baptists will tell you, you’re not totally depraved. When God made humanity he called it ‘very good’ and then God considered you and me good enough to put on our skin himself. So, no, you’re not totally depraved.

Most of us, we’re not great sinners. We’re not murderers or predators or oppressors. Advent is a season that forbids denial so forget the Baptizer’s brimstone and bullhorn for a moment and let’s be truthful.

Your sins do not offend God.

There, I said it.

Your sins do not offend God.

No doubt you commit ordinary, mediocre sins against a great many people in your lives, probably against the people you love most. And probably your sins leave most of those people PO’d at you. But your sins- they don’t anger God.

John’s brimstone bullhorn and winnowing fork make it sound like you’re a Game of Thrones-level sinner, but let’s be honest: most of you are basic cable, Modern Family kinds of sinners.

You may hate your ex or grumble about your pain in the butt neighbor, but those sins don’t mean God takes it as though you hate God.

No, your sin just means you’re lazy and shallow and stingy and careless in how you love God and love your neighbor.

You’re not worthless, burn-worthy chaff to God- that’s insanity. No, you just block your mother’s calls. You won’t forgive that thing your spouse did. You don’t give near the value of your beach rental to the poor. You’re only vaguely aware of the refugee crisis.

Those are the kinds of sinners you are. We are.

But brood of vipers? Don’t flatter yourself. I don’t know you, but I know enough church people to bet on it: you’re not that much of a sinner.

No matter what you hear in the hymns and liturgy, your sins do not- your sins can not- provoke God’s wrath.

I know it’s Advent, but we don’t need to exaggerate how sinful we are just to prove how gracious God is. Seriously, don’t take yourself too seriously.

As it turns out, not taking yourself too seriously as a sinner is the best way to understand what sin, for most of us, really, is.

—————

Sin isn’t something you do that offends God.

Sins are not errors that erode God’s grace.

They’re not crimes that aggrieve God and arouse his anger against you.

They’re not debits from your account that accumulate and must be reconciled before God can forgive you.

Don’t take yourself so seriously.

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

Sin is about where your love lies.

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

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

Because God doesn’t change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

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

God does not change; God’s mind is never anything but loving because God just is Love.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You listen to John’s brimstone bullhorn long enough and the honey sticks in your ears. You can start to hear the wrong message.

Jesus didn’t die for us instead of us.

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

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

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