Archives For Advent

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.

img_2451
No, the title isn’t an appeal to my ego. The 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 credits me with a “fascinating” interpretation of the Matthew 24 lection. “Fascinating” is most likely NT scholar speak for “incorrect” but I think it’ll preach all the same.

You can listen to the podcast here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517

When God calls Abram out of obscurity in order to unfurl his plan of redemption, to gather a People who will undo what Adam did, God’s first admonishes Abram to ‘not be afraid.’ 

For God’s People, not fearing comes before following.

Or, not being afraid is the first step in being faithful.

When God begins to unravel the New Creation, what we call this time of year ‘incarnation,’ God commands Joseph, by way of a dream, not to be afraid. In Luke’s telling of the same story, God, by way of the angel Gabriel, tells Mary and later the shepherds not to fear. Matthew doesn’t mention it but I’m willing to wager that Gariel also orders the magi, once they learn of Herod’s rage, not to be afraid. You don’t have to be a student of 1st century politics or a fan of Game Rape of Thrones to realize Mary and Joseph and all the others had ample reason to fear.

And it’s little noticed but the first word of God’s New Creation, after Jesus has defeated Sin and Death, is ‘Do not be afraid.’ Not incidentally, the next word is ‘Peace.’

As in, ‘shalom.’

As in, right-making, whole-making restoration.

As in, the opposite of fear.

Just take it from Master YodaUnknown

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

Unless you’ve been trapped under something heavy in 2015 or spent the whole year waiting in line for The Force Awakens, I require no citation or corroboration to suggest we, as a country, are already through 3/4 of the way through Master Yoda’s koan. Donald Trump has done more than guest judge Wrestle Mania III. He is us. Or, we’ve become him. Of late, we’re a fearful, angry and even hateful bunch.

As if to indict us, those of us who consider ourselves not just Americans or Westerners but Christians, the repeated refrain of scripture’s primary narrative arc admonishes us:

Do not be afraid.

The headlines of the day, as they always have, supply the fill-in for the blank. Do not be afraid of___________.

Fear no less than inhospitality, miserliness, or vengeance is a contrary posture to Christian discipleship.

Perhaps then the best Christmas gift we can offer this season is not simply to believe that in the manger the light of God is born but to believe, as John does, ‘the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.’ 

In other words: Do not fear.

Saying all this better than me and nearly as good as John’s Gospel is Marilynne Robinson in this essay from her new book. In it, she argues 1) “…contemporary America is full of fear”; 2) “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind” because “Christ is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in him history will finally be resolved.”

Robinson, author of Gilead, is one of my favorite novelists and as an unembarrassed, articulate Christian she is rare today among writers. You should read her, but you must read this.

The Visitation

Jason Micheli —  December 22, 2015 — Leave a comment

“In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country…” 

Luke 1.39

     Her hands kept shaking even after he departed from her.

     She gasped and only then realized she’d been holding her breath, waiting to see if he’d reappear as suddenly as he’d intruded upon her life. His words had lodged in her mind just as something new was supposedly lodged inside her. He must’ve seen how terrified she was. ‘Don’t be afraid,’ he’d said to her.

In those moments after he departed, she just stood there, looking around her bedroom. The posters on the wall, the books on the shelf, the homework on the desk, the dirty laundry on the floor in the corner- in the aftermath of an angel’s glow, it all seemed very ordinary.

It was an unlikely place for a ‘visitation.’ There wasn’t anything there in her bedroom to confuse it for a holy place. It was just ordinary.

Looking around her room, she caught a glance of her reflection in the mirror. And so was she: ordinary, not anyone that anyone else should ever remember or notice, not someone you’d pick out like a single star in all the sky.

Yet, that’s just what he’d told her.

She’d been chosen. Somehow, in the days ahead of her or already right now, God would come to exist in her belly.

The thought made her shake again.

She looked out her window, up at the multitude of stars in the night sky.

‘Do not be afraid,’ he’d told her.

Those same words, she knew, had been spoken long ago to Abraham.

Do not be afraid, Abraham had been told in the moments before God pointed to the stars in the sky and dared Abraham to count them, dared Abraham to imagine and believe that for as many stars as there were in the sky so his descendants would be.

She liked the thought, as unbelievable as it sounded, that through her and her baby the whole world would be blessed.

Still, she knew enough scripture to know that the angel’s words, ‘Do not be afraid,’ were auspicious words. She knew the child promised by God to Abraham and Sarah was the same child whose sacrifice God later required.

She knew the story- it was the sort of story you can’t forget even if you’d like to- how God one day told Abraham that the promised son would have to suffer and be sacrificed on top of a mountain. How the son obeyed and followed his father’s will all the way up the mount, carrying wood. How they built an offering place up there. How the son was spared only when it was clear how far the father would go.

She used to wonder how God could ask anyone to give up something so precious.

But now, looking out at the stars and rubbing her belly, she wondered about Sarah, Abraham’s wife, the boy’s mother, and what Sarah would have done if God had asked her to follow her boy to his death.

The wondering made her shake again. ‘Don’t be afraid’ she whispered to herself.

 

As the late night turned to early morning she resolved to leave home.

A part of her wanted to see for herself the truth of the angel’s words growing inside Elizabeth.

A still bigger part of her knew the angel’s news would make her a stranger now in her own home, perhaps a stranger forever.

Nazareth was a small town; in a town that size there’s no room to hide.

And she didn’t want to be at home when her body started to change, when the neighbors started whispering questions about legitimacy.

And she didn’t want to remain at home and face her fiance, not yet. The angel could say nothing is impossible but she knew, chances were, everyone would suspect the worst about her before they’d believe the truth.

IMG_0885

With haste, she packed her belongings into a duffel.

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

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

     ‘Favored one.’ 

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

    ‘Favored one.’ 

Hannah had received that same greeting. Hannah, who hadn’t let the gray in her hair or the crow’s feet around her eyes stop her from praying ceaselessly for God to fill her barren womb with a child.

Eli, the haggard priest, had called Hannah ‘favored one’ just before he spilled the news of her answered prayer.

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

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

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

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

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

rp_lightstock_1081_small_user_2741517-2-300x199.jpg

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

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

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

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

Things would never be simple again.

 

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

She knew what others must have thought: a young girl, a single woman, resting at a well all by herself raised eyebrows.

It was in those moments with men and women staring at her, making assumptions and passing judgments, she wondered if the angel knew what sort of family her baby would be grafted onto.

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

She wondered what that said God.

And what her boy would one day make of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sleep came hard those nights on the road.

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

Made flesh.

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary knew: hers was different.

An unexpected, miraculous birth wasn’t the same thing as a virgin birth.

With Mary, it was as if the angel’s message- God’s words- alone had flicked a light in the darkness of her womb.

Life from nothing- that was the difference.

Not from Joseph or anyone else.

From nothing God created life.

Inside her.

From nothing.

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

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

The same way God created Adam and Eve.

From nothing.

As though what she carried within her was creation itself.

The start of a new beginning.

To everything.

For everyone.

A Genesis and an ultimate reversal all in one.

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

Stuck with Jesus

Jason Micheli —  December 7, 2015 — 1 Comment

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517     This weekend I had the privilege of returning to my first appointment in Virginia, St. John’s UMC, for their 125th Anniversary.  My text was Paul’s letter to the Colossians, 1.15-23. You can listen to the sermon below or you can download it in the iTunes store, here. Better yet, download the free Tamed Cynic App.

I bring you all greetings from Aldersgate United Methodist Church. They also send along their sympathies that you, too, had to endure me as your pastor.

The lay leader at Aldersgate, Steve Larkin, even me wanted to register his irritation with you, St. John’s, complaining:

“had you not been so tolerant towards Jason as a rookie pastor then perhaps I’d have been spared having to deal with the tight-sphinctered griping, angry emails and calls from the bishop that seem to Jason him wherever he goes.” 

     Nonetheless, he wanted to be sure I wished you a happy 125th anniversary.

125 years! That’s a long time. 125 years is about how old I feel when I think about the Hudson and Shewey and Boatwright and Austin kids being old enough to serve in congress.

125 years! I was only here for 2 of those 125 years but, still, I’ve got a lot of memories from those years.

——————————

     I remember the day we moved into the parsonage here. Some folks from St. John’s stopped by to say hello and help us move boxes.

I remember John Kyle Shewey shook my hand and glanced around at my beer-making equipment on the front porch and, deadpan, asked ‘Does all that belong to you?’ And when I said yes, Jake just nodded and, with an opaque expression, replied ‘Hmmm.’ It took me a year before I realized he’d just been messing with me.

I remember my first day in the office here at St. John’s, the day I learned that I should never ask Barbara Catlett for directions, not unless I was prepared to decipher vague hand gestures that looked like aerobic moves performed to the beat of ‘yonder as the crow flies.’

I remember Virginia Waggoner smiling and feeding me a freshman’s 15 worth of pizza at the Italian Restaurant downtown, and I remember Bill Crawford covering for me while I was out of town, praying at Virginia’s bedside as she died.

I was with you for only 2 of your 125 years, but I’ve got a lot of memories nevertheless.

I remember Betty Ward introducing herself with that fake teacher’s scowl of hers and commenting to the air ‘We’ve never had a minister with an earring before…this should be interesting.’ And I remember June Page standing behind her, smiling at me because, she assumed, a pastor with an earring just had to be a Democrat. I remember Warren Slough tapping his cane and telling me how it is and Grace Biles vetting me on points of theology and Kitty Irvine and Dottie Hostetter feeding me when Ali was away at law school.

I remember Billy Snider and Joe Boatwright dressed up for a Christmas pageant, looking less like biblical characters and more like extras from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I remember how Don Drake, a retired forester, could retell any bible story for the children and, in doing so, would make sure you knew said story took place at, near, around or underneath a tree.

     I remember all the Sundays here I’d sit in the back with the acolytes and glance over at Mr Dickinson and then glance down at my watch at 11:00, at 5 after, at 10 after, wondering where in the hell was Ralph, the organist.

I remember how I’d then hitch up my robe and run around the outside of the sanctuary to find him asleep in the choir room.

I remember the night I walked over to Lewis Graybill’s house to tell him the bishop would be moving me to another church. Lewis answered the door in his black bikini briefs.

And nothing else.

I told him I had something to share with him and we sat down on his love seat in front of an Orioles game. I started to tell him, but when our knees touched…I said ‘Dude, I can’t take you seriously. You’ve got to put some clothes on first.’

I remember David Burnett taking me for a ride in his pickup along the Blue Ridge and stopping at an overlook to ask me about heaven. And I’ll always remember everything you’ve done for us, your prayers and emails and cards, during this past year as we’ve gone through my cancer treatment.

I was here for only 2 of your 125 years, but you gave me more memories than I deserved.

——————————

     Maybe because it’s Advent- the season when we await God’s enfleshment in Jesus Christ- some of the memories that came to mind this week were from Christmas Eve here at St. John’s.

My first Christmas Eve here at St. John’s- I had my fingers crossed the whole time, I couldn’t really believe anyone would let me screw with their holiday. And, I held my breath through the whole service, waiting for Ralph Grant to fall asleep and collapse on the organ keys.

Perhaps as a consequence, what came out of my mouth was as straight-forward a sermon as I knew how to preach.

Nothing too flashy or novel.

Nothing very creative or controversial or counter-intuitive.

I just said- and I still have the thumb drive to prove it:

This baby we await at Advent, this infant we get a peek at in the manger…

This child who makes us spend time with our in-laws and tolerate Rod Stewart’s craptastic cover album Merry Christmas Baby…

This long-promised newborn who makes us gain weight and run up our credit cards and pretend not to be creeped out by a bearded fat man who spies on our kids…

This baby, Jesus, is God.

He is, as the scriptures and songs say: Immanuel.

Which means: ‘God with us.’

If you were here that Christmas Eve, 13 years ago, then I’m sure you remember my sermon word for word, but if you weren’t here, then that’s the basic gist of it.

No surprises, or at least I thought so.

Like any Christmas Eve service, we had some visitors that night, visitors who had never heard that message before, never heard of what the Church calls the incarnation.

I remember-

One visitor that night was a young woman who came up to me at the end of the  service.

She was about my age, I guess. I’d never seen her before. She had a couple of kids running around at her legs.

She had this hectic sort of presence about her- like she hadn’t been sure about coming to church that night and she was even less sure about approaching the likes of me.

She forgot to tell me her name. I forgot to ask. She just came right up to me, in the narthex, pushed her hair behind her ears, held out her hand and told me that her husband was in Iraq and that her mom was dying.

That’s how she identified herself.

I started to empathize with her, but she went on to tell me how none of them had ever really gone to church or been religious before. Lots of people apologize like that at Christmas, I’ve since learned. Before I could really say anything in reply she asked me: ‘Is God…’ she caught herself, ‘Is God really like Jesus?’ 

And I felt like saying: ‘Lady, where were you for the last hour? Didn’t you listen to a word of my sermon? Did you not hear me tell everyone how I graduated from Princeton?’ But instead I said: ‘Yes, God…Jesus…they’re one and the same.’

And she… smiled.

She smiled. She didn’t say anything more about it. She didn’t say anything else. I can’t read minds but my guess is she was thinking of her Mom, her Mom who was dying and who’d never gone to church and might not ever go to church until she was dead.

My guess was she liked the idea that the God who would meet her Mom was as loving, merciful and forgiving as Jesus is supposed to be.

Or maybe her smile masked a confusion about how she was supposed to square her deployed husband’s mission with how the baby Isaiah calls the Prince of Peace we call God.

I didn’t ask.

Merry Christmas,’ I remember saying.

——————————

     She wasn’t the only who came up to me that night.

Another was an older man. He was dressed neatly in tweed and wore a black wool stocking cap on his head.

To tell the truth, he seemed kind of grouchy- like a curmudgeon, and he said he was from out of town so, chances are, he belonged to somebody here. In which case, you still owe me.

He told me he was in finance. He said he wasn’t really a church person but that reading philosophy was his passion. He came up to me on the sidewalk outside, after the service.

Standing in front of the church sign, he said: ‘Reverend, that was an interesting message, but one thing wasn’t clear to me. Were you saying Jesus leads to God, or that he is God?’ I couldn’t tell whether he was curious or if he was condescending.

‘In the flesh…’ I replied to him.

‘Really?’ he said, and his face suddenly looked irritated, worried.

He didn’t say anything more and I can’t read minds, but my guess is he was thinking that this baby Jesus was going to grow up. That one day this baby was going to say and do things, this baby was going to make unrealistic demands and exert unqualified expectations that made him uncomfortable.

That if incarnation is the ante then he didn’t want to get stuck with Jesus.

I thought about messing around with him, but Ali was waiting on me. So I just said: ‘Merry Christmas.’

——————————

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible…

     …St. Paul writes a good 3 decades before St. Luke sets down to write the Christmas story.

The trees and decorations this time of year, the carols and the candles, the shiny gifts and friendlier-than-usual greetings- the Christmas cheer, it all collides and contrasts with Paul’s point here in Colossians.

We’re stuck with Jesus.

    I’m no longer the pastor here so I don’t need to worry about making a bad impression on any bright-eyed visitors. I can get away with ruining your holiday spirit and leave Sonja to clean up the mess. I can go ahead and break the gloomy news that the baby in the manger- he grows up to be Jesus, one who we would rather kill than be with or be like.

That’s what Paul’s Christ Hymn in Colossians is driving at- that the whole meaning of Christmas, the shock and irritating specificity of incarnation, the problematic particularity of Mary’s child, it isn’t just ‘God is with us.’

That sounds nice and comforting and maybe even flattering. It’s that God is with us…as Jesus.

The message of Christmas isn’t that God came among us as a baby, that doesn’t sound too demanding.

     No, the message of Christmas is that God came among us as the-baby-who-grows- up-to-be-Jesus.

     Those are the uncomfortable claims we anticipate this Advent season. That in Jesus of Nazareth we’ve seen all of Godall of God- there is to see.

     The message of Christmas is not, that in Jesus we get a glimpse of the divine. No.

The message of Christmas is not, that in Christ we discover but one path (among many) leading to God.

God, I wish.

No, Paul’s claim around incarnation is that in Jesus of Nazareth we’ve seen (and heard) all of God there is to find.

Now, even though I’m a professional Christian, what’s true for you goes for me too: my life would be whole lot easier if God would remain at a comfortable distance, abstract and aloof. I could get to my wants more quickly if I could just say: Well, God’s mysterious, Jesus- he only gives us a glimpse of God. Maybe I’ll go get a second opinion.

That’s what the Colossians wanted. Colossae was a diverse, cosmopolitan city, and like many degreed, smartphone-wielding Nones and Dones today, they believed that the true god was too majestic to be identified with a particular person.

The true god couldn’t be found in specific stories. God was too big to be boxed into 1 tradition, in to 1 flesh.

In their sophistication, the Colossians, preferred to find god in nature, out among the stars. They even composed a hymn, dedicated to the unknowable god who lay behind the cosmos and creation.

Then, decades before Matthew tells us about the wise men or Luke Caesar’s census, Paul gets his hands on the Colossians’ hymn, and he rewrites it. He turns it into the Christ Hymn at the beginning of his letter.

Paul wants Colossae to know that things might be easier for us if it were otherwise but, at Christmas, in Jesus, God gets particular. Jesus, we say, is a revelation of the real ways of God. It’s Jesus, not the Defense Department, who shows us what the real world really is.

Think about what that means. Because of Christmas, when we have a decision or dilemma in our lives, we can no longer ask: ‘I wonder what God wants me to do?’ No, now, because of Christmas, we have to ask: ‘What would Jesus do?’ because Jesus is the image of the invisible God.

We’re stuck with Jesus. Merry Christmas.

——————————

    When someone wrongs us or hurts us, we’ve got to work out how to forgive them not just once but, maybe, over and again because Jesus said so and in Jesus all things hold together.

     When someone asks for our help and we don’t want to, we don’t have the time or we doubt the sincerity of the request, not only do we have to help we’ve  got to go farther than they’ve even asked because that’s what Jesus said to do, and through him all things in heaven and on earth were created.

     When social media soundbites tempt us into boxing people into black and white terms we’ve got to put ourselves in other shoes because Jesus told us to worry about the log in our own eyes and he is the firstborn of creation. 

     When the arbiters of secularism try to relegate our faith to the private, the personal, then we’ve got to shake our heads because the one who told us about the samaritan and about rich Lazarus in hell and about the sheep and the goats and about thirsting and hungering for justice- he’s the same one to whom all of heaven and earth belong. 

I couldn’t say that if I was still your pastor.

I couldn’t say:

Watch Out

Don’t get too close to the manger

Don’t be fooled by his smile or his sweet eyes.

Its better to distract yourselves with sentimentality and Santa songs and the fake ‘War on Christmas’ because this is one difficult, demanding baby.

If I was still your pastor, I couldn’t ruin your Christmas season by asking: Are you nursing a grudge against someone you love? Have you gossiped about a neighbor maybe? Are there people who are just too unsavory for you to spend time with them?

Strangers, aliens, refugees you just wouldn’t welcome?

     If so, you may want to think twice before you say Merry Christmas, because this baby’s going to have a few things to say when he grows up and I’m sorry but you’re going to have to listen. You shouldn’t sing him to now and if you’d just rather shut him up later. After all, in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. 

    In other words, we Christians say:

It’s not that Jesus is someone who speaks words about God or words inspired by God.

It’s that Jesus is the Word God speaks to us.

It’s not that Jesus is someone who teaches about God.

It’s that Jesus is what God teaches us.

It’s not that Jesus is one who shows us a way to God.

It’s that Jesus embodies the ways of God.

COMPLETELY.

FULLY.

IN THE FLESH.

You can search under every star in the sky but the totality of God’s Truth and Beauty and Splendor is to be found in this particular Jew from Nazareth, in his life from cradle to cross.

You see, there’s an unavoidable, uncompromising finality to Jesus that Paul wants to hit you over the head with in his hymn.  For Paul, when it comes to Christ, you can choose not to follow. You can refuse to bend your life to his life. You can baptize your kids but never expect them to suffer for it. But you can’t say that in Jesus we find anything less than the fullness of God.

I mean…

Dr. Phil’s relationship advice might seem more practical to us. Joel Osteen might seem more inspiring to us. The Donald or Hillary might make more sense to us. But to wait for this baby at Advent, to sing to him at Bethlehem is to find yourself, after the trees dry up and die and the decorations are put away, stuck with Jesus.

     ——————————

  My first Christmas Eve here at St. John’s I tried to keep things simple and straightforward. I was a new pastor. I had no idea what I was doing and I was distracted by the prospect of Ralph passing out on the organ. I tried to be clear, but some people still had questions.

A man came up to me as I was untying my robe. The Christmas Eve crowd is always kind of a motley crew; you never know who’s going to show up. This man was old, maybe Larry Blackwell’s age. I’d seen him go through the communion line, and, judging from his uncertainty about how to receive the sacrament, I’d guess he’d not been to church much before.

He came up to me down here by the altar rail and he shook my hand. And, with sincerity, he said: ‘I enjoyed your talk. Now were you saying Jesus and God are the same person?’

And I felt like saying: ‘How much clearer can I be? I must have said it a dozen times. Do you people need me to get Carl Allen to draw you pictures?’

But instead I said: ‘Yes.’  And I saw the recognition pass across the man’s face.

He said: ‘Then that means that everything Jesus said and did…’ His voice trailed off. He didn’t say anything more, and I couldn’t read his mind. But my guess is I could’ve finished his sentence for him…

That we’re stuck with Jesus.

That if Jesus and God are one and the same, then that means that everything Jesus said and did- that’s the fullness of God.

     And to try to live his life- even though it’s difficult and demanding, even though we can’t do it perfectly- to try living his life that’s what it means to be fully alive.

That for you or I to be fully human is for us to be as human as Jesus, to be like him.

     ——————————

     I’m not appointed here anymore so I can just give it to you straight up:

What we wait for at Advent and welcome at Christmas, it’s an impossible, unending task.

I mean-

Jesus himself tells us we’ll always have the poor with us.

And that we’re commanded to love our enemies implies that we’ll always have them.

And there’s never any shortage of people who, like Pilate, ask ‘What is Truth?’ assuming they already know the answer.

To worship the baby-who-grows-up-to-be-Jesus, it’s a summons that will always make us ill-fitting in the world and should always make us odd in America.

But it’s not all bad news to be stuck with Jesus.

The good news about being stuck with Jesus?

It gives you all plenty to do for the next 125 years.

Untitled101111For the past year, I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation. The reason being I’m convinced its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

Cancer’s gotten me off my blogging game, but it’s Advent and the schedule of questions I outlined a year ago has incarnation in the queue.

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

15. Would there have been an Incarnation without the Fall? 

Just asking the question is important to reflect upon what Christians mean we say Christ is the eternal God incarnate.

My answer?

Of course.

If Jesus only comes to forgive sin, if he’s born in order to die, then the incarnation is determined by our transgression. Christmas is thus contingent upon us; the infinite determined by the finite.

The cross is what we choose when we meet God in the flesh.

The cross is not what God chooses as the reason for meeting us in the flesh.

The former means God endures our very worst evil for love’s sake while the latter means God trucks in the very worst evil for his holiness’ sake.

Not only is the finite determining the infinite a logical impossibility, it treats the incarnation as the outworking of God’s frustration with us rather than as the manifestation of God’s eternal decision not to be any other god but Emmanuel, God-with-us.

To suggest there would have been no journey to Bethlehem had there been exit from Eden is to say that the incarnation is something less than an eternal, unchanging decision of God’s. That then means at some point in time God changed his mind about us, towards us.

But God doesn’t change.

The ancient Christians had a catchphrase: opus ad extra, opus ad intra; that is, who and what God is towards us in Jesus Christ, God is antecedently and eternally in himself.

Before he’s Jesus of Nazareth, in the flesh, he’s the eternal Son, in the Trinity. That’s what Christians mean when we say that Christ is pre-existent.

There is not when the Son was not, and there can not be when he will not be.

Thus, the incarnation only unveils what was true from before the beginning, before, even, the Fall: God’s decision to be God-with-us.

As it happened, humanity did sin and Christ does reconcile us, but incarnation names a still deeper mystery. The mystery that the nativity is an event that God has set on his calendar from before the first day of creation, that before God brought forth light and life on Earth, God’s shaped his whole life to be Emmanuel, God-with-us.

Jesus isn’t born simply to die for our sin. If Christ is preexistent, then everything goes in the other direction. Jesus isn’t born for us; we were born for him.

We are the ones with whom God wants to share his life. Had there been no need for a cross, there still would’ve been a crèche because the eternal reason for his coming is that God wants to be friends with us just as Father, Son and Spirit are friends with one another.

‘He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; all things have been created through him and for him…‘     – Colossians 1

Still on medical leave, I’m not back to work yet, but you wouldn’t know it from my Inbox. My post from last week on the refugee crisis provoked a number of protestations that I was playing politics.I could reiterate that welcoming refugees isn’t a political position for Christians. It’s a commandment given to Moses. It’s one of the hallmarks of the Jubilee that Mary sings about in her Magnificat. And it’s one Jesus doubles down on in his preaching.

I know the social media soundbites would have us fear these refugees aren’t really displaced people but terrorists bent on harming us.

Of course, that doesn’t really settle the issue for Christians because:

A) The most common exhortation in scripture is that we are not to be fearful

B) We’re to love and pray for our enemies too.

Damn, there’s no out for us.

Rather than argue the point, perhaps its best to extend an invitation. Instead of insisting that our borders be closed and our states refuse any refugees, Christians should partner with other Christians in and around the Middle East who are attempting to care for refugees.

Rather than clicking ‘Like’ on Facebook, retweeting red-meat or trolling on a blog and thinking you’ve fulfilled your baptismal obligation, why not kick over some cash, as my family will this Advent, by giving to International Orthodox Christian Charities.

What better way to worship the Holy Family who were refugees than by caring for another refugee family who are, through God taking flesh, holy?

Here’s what Adam Hamilton recently wrote on the subject. Hamilton, founder of the largest United Methodist congregation in the U.S., is a reliably moderate voice on issues facing the church and the world. He’s neither liberal nor political and his congregation is in one of the most conservative parts of the nation. Incidentally, the video above was produced by Ginghamsburg UMC in Ohio.

‘When God came to this earth, he came as a child fleeing the horrors of tyranny, living as a refugee for the first years of his life.

Years later when Jesus would describe the Last Judgment to his disciples he spoke of the final judgment being a moment when the Son of Man would separate the nations of the earth as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  The sheep would be welcomed into God’s eternal kingdom, and the goats sent away.  Jesus said the difference between the sheep and the goats was that the people who were sheep in this parable were those who helped people in their hour of need.  The people who were goats turned them away.  Who did they help or turn away?  It was the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, imprisoned, and the stranger.  Stranger in Jesus’ parable signifies the foreigner.  I think Jesus included this last category because he himself had been a refugee in Egypt.

In the parable it appears that the goats thought of themselves as religious.  They were therefore surprised when, at the last judgment, there were turned away.  So, why did the goats turn away those who were in need? I think it was because they were afraid and they allowed their fear to override their compassion and humanity.  And the sheep?  They found the courage to overcoming their fears and to act with compassion and love.

We’re right to insist on proper screening of refugees (on this I don’t know enough about the current processes for screening to know if it is adequate or not). If the current practices are inadequate, let’s improve them. But our fears cannot lead us to completely close off our hearts to children, families, seniors who need our help and have nowhere to go.

The Syrian crisis is complex.  Doing our best to ensure security is important.  But we must also find a way to help people fleeing from harm to find refuge.

If you’re not receiving refugees in your state, how can you or your church help those who are?’

 

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517Maybe it’s because I’m a pastor and my social media is flooded with churchy headlines and hashtags, but I’ve grown weary of the Christmas ‘tradition’ of bemoaning the commercialization of the season and criticizing others (usually referring to non-Christians) for being so materialistic about Christmas.

I mean, I’ve got my own gripes with Black Friday and Xmas music in late September but is there anything more cliche than surveying the wrapping paper debris on the curb and the pine needles on the floor and lamenting that we’ve missed the meaning of Christmas?

As cliche as such pious hand-wringing is, I’m not so sure it’s truly in keeping with the spirit of Christmas.

Since Trinity is its own ‘economy’ (economy is a Greek NT term for ‘community’ or ‘household’) of constant gift and exchange, then I wonder…

Perhaps the best way for believers in the Trinity to celebrate Christmas is the old fashioned materialist route of giving actual things to those we love.

Specifically, what I think is problematic about decrying the materialism of Xmas is that it implies there’s a deeper ‘spiritual’ truth to Christmas that we’re missing.

But Christians don’t believe in abstract spiritual truths. We believe in Jesus.

And here’s the thing:

The Incarnation- what we celebrate these 12 Days of Christmas- is the most materialistic thing of all.

Christmas is when Christians celebrate that God took human (material) flesh and lived a life just like ours amid all the material stuff of everyday life. He made things (carpenter) and presumably gave some of those things to people. He drank wine, ate bread and fish, and partied with sinners.

To say nothing of the magi who brought the baby Jesus their resolutions to lead lives of justice and compassion…sike….they brought him stuff.

Expensive stuff too.

The incarnation shows us that God is the most materialistic One of all of us because it’s by incarnation that God takes the material stuff of life to get up close and uncomfortably personal to all of us.

Materialism is how God spent the first Christmas so what’s wrong with us having passed Christmas the very same way?

Sure enough, at this point, many of the unimaginative and painfully literal among you will point out the gross overabundance with which many of us mark the season and how little that has to do with a Savior born into poverty.

I don’t argue with that. I’m only suggesting that the Heifer Project (gifts you’ll never see given for people you’ll never know) isn’t necessarily the only or even the best way to celebrate the incarnation.

If Jesus is Emmanuel- God with us- then giving sincere material gifts of love and friendship that highlight or accentuate our withness our connection to someone else just might be the most theologically cogent way of marking his birth.

In other words, instead of cows and chickens maybe the most Christian thing to do this Christmas was to give your wife those earrings you know she’s wanted for a long, long time but hadn’t bought herself or the Playstation your boys have wanted for several years running.

Maybe materialism is exactly what we need to ‘reclaim’ about our understanding of Christmas.

Untitled31

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted any money quotes from DBH’s The Beauty of the Infinite.

Since Christmas is a time not only for exhausted credit limits and maxed out parents but also a time for sloppy Christian thinking, in which it’s often implied, if not downright said, that God taking flesh in Jesus indicates a change in God’s identity or disposition, I thought I’d post this to mark the holy day.

Of course, were it true that God changes at all or in the incarnation specifically, we’d all be committing idolatry on Christmas.

For a god who changes is, by definition, not God.

Take it from DBH.

david_bentley_hart_zps3fe63909

“The Church Fathers were anxious to reject any suggestion that God becoming human was an act of divine self-alienation, a transformation into a reality essentially contrary to what God eternally is: for this would mean that God must negate himself as God to become human- which would be to say God did not become human.

Hence, a strict distinction must be drawn between the idea of divine change and that of divine kenosis.

When scripture says, ‘the Logos became flesh,’ the word ‘became’ signifies not any change in God but only the act of self-divesting love whereby God the Son emptied himself of his glory, while preserving his immutable and impassible nature intact.

God did not alter or abandon his nature in any way, but freely appropriated the weakness and poverty of our nature for the work of redemption…

To say God does not change in the incarnation is almost a tautology.

God is not some thing that can be transformed into another thing.

God is the Being of everything, to which all that is always already properly belongs; there is no change of nature needed for the fullness of being to assume- even through self-impoverishment- a being as the dwelling place of mystery.

Moreover, as a human being is nothing at all in itself but the image and likeness of God- the Logos- in the one man who perfectly expresses and lives out what it is to be human, is in no sense an alien act for God. The act by which the form of God appears in the form of a slave is the act which the infinite divine image shows itself in the finite divine image: this then is not a change, but a manifestation, of who God is.

And finally, and most crucially, the very act of kenosis is not a new act for God, because God’s eternal Being is, in some sense, kenosis: the self-outpouring of the Father in the Son in the joy of the Holy Spirit. Thus Christ’s incarnation, far from dissembling his eternal nature, exhibits not only his particular proprium as the Son and the splendor of the Father, but also the nature of the Trinity in its entirety.”

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517Thinking of Christmas Eve, I’ve had Jesus’ family tree on my mind. Here’s a sermon based on the Book of Ruth. In case you don’t know, Ruth’s story finds its way into Jesus’ family tree in Matthew’s Gospel.

I tried to imagine the Holy Family telling her story to the little Jesus as a bedtime story.

——————————————————————————————————-

‘Your father and I read this story at our wedding,’ the young mother told her little boy. And when the boy asked why, his father told him that it was tradition. ‘It’s a love story,’ he said.

The lights from the menorah on the window sill made the boy’s dark room glow. The light of the candles danced off the colored Hanukah decorations. The smells of holiday food lingered in the house. Mary and Joseph were curled up with their little boy.

He’d taken the old, black family bible from its shelf in his room, and it now rested on his lap just as he sat on his mother’s lap. The bible was the kind with the thick, special paper in the front, the kind with gilt lines to fill in important dates: marriages, births, baptisms and, beneath those, lots of lines to sketch the family tree.

Mary had filled in the family tree before she was even properly married, before she started to show. At the time she’d been confused by a great many things, but she absolutely knew that one day it would be important for her boy to know: where he came from, who is ancestors were, and what kind of person they made him.

And so, every night before his parents’ kiss and lullaby, they would read him a story from the bible, a story about one of those names his mother had written on the front, cream-colored page of Joseph’s family bible.

He would point with his little boy finger at one of the names on the family tree. ‘Tell me a story about that one’ he would say. He was just a boy. He liked the adventure stories the best- the stories with action and danger, stories where God spoke like thunder or moved like fire and wind, stories like those of Abraham and Jacob and, of course, David- the boy who would be king.

But on this night the boy pointed to a different name, one he hadn’t pointed to before. ‘Tell me a story about that one.’

And his mother smiled and looked over at her husband. ‘We read this story at our wedding,’ she said. ‘It’s a love story.’

The boy looked skeptically at his mother as she began…

A long, long time ago, in the days when judges ruled… famine struck the whole land that God had promised his people. The stomachs of God’s people were grumbling and empty. Even in Bethlehem where you were born people went hungry.

There was a man on your father’s side of the family named Elimelech. Elimelech had a family and, like everyone else in the land, his family was starving.

‘What did he do?’ the little boy asked, ‘did God provide bread from heaven like in the story of Moses?’

And his mother said, no, not like that. Elimelech had to look out for his family so one night he and his wife and their two sons packed only what they could carry. In the cover of darkness, they snuck across the border and crossed through the muddy river into a new country, Moab.

Elimelech’s wife was a woman named Naomi. ‘Naomi means ‘sweetness,’ said the boy’s father, ‘but Naomi was anything but sweet.’

The little boy asked why that was and his father told him that no sooner did Elimelech’s family arrive in Moab than Elimelech died and Naomi was left alone with her two sons. A widow’s life is hard his mother explained. Don’t ever forget that.

At first things went well for Naomi. Her sons married two girls from Moab, Orpah and Ruth. They weren’t Jewish girls so their marriages would’ve been forbidden back in Bethlehem, but they were happy.  Naomi’s boys were married happily for ten years. They had food and money and work. After ten years both of Naomi’s boys died. Just like that, no one knows why.

And poor Naomi, she always worried in the back of her mind that they died because God was punishing her for something, perhaps for letting her boys marry unbelievers.

‘But God doesn’t do things like that, does he?’ the boy asked.

No, his mother said, God doesn’t do that and she kissed the top of his head.

But Naomi felt she was being punished. She was left with two daughters-in-law, in a country where she didn’t belong, in a man’s world with no man, no husband, no sons.

‘What does she do?’ the boy asked. Naomi decided to return home, to go back to Bethlehem. ‘All by her self?’ he asked. An uncertain future seemed better to her than what she could expect if she stayed in Moab. So she packed up her things- again just what she needed- along with a photo of her husband and boys, and after her sons were buried, numb with grief, she just started walking… towards home.

‘Is that the story?’ the boy wanted to know.

No, his mother said and looked at the lights in the window. You see, her sons’ wives followed behind her. At first Naomi simply thought they wanted to say goodbye, to wave to her as she disappeared over the horizon. When they got to the outskirts of town, though, Naomi realized they weren’t just seeing her off. Orpah and Ruth, she realized, intended to stay with her, to go with Naomi all the long way back to Israel, back to Bethlehem.

‘Well, did they?’ the boy wanted to know. Not exactly, his mother replied. First Naomi turned around and yelled at them. She yelled at Ruth and Orpah. She told them to turn around, to turn back, to go home to their own families.

They didn’t belong with her. In her country they’d just be foreigners. They wouldn’t be welcome. I’m very grateful for you, Naomi told Ruth and Orpah; I pray that God would give you happiness and husbands. But go.

Ruth and Orpah, they just stood there- stubborn. Naomi yelled at them again, but she was really yelling at God. When Naomi was done cursing, she fell down weeping, crying in the middle of the road with traffic going by.

That was when Orpah decided to do as her mother-in-law asked. She gave her dead husband’s mother a long embrace and picked up her bags and walked back into town.

But Ruth, your great….grandmother, she wouldn’t budge. She wouldn’t leave Naomi to fend for herself. She just planted her feet in the dirt and put her hands on her hips and told Naomi that wherever Naomi went Ruth would be going too, wherever Naomi lived Ruth would be living there too, and the place Naomi died would be where Ruth would die.

Ruth, your great…grandma, she was willing to leave behind her home, family, country, even her religion just to care for someone else.

And God never told Ruth to risk all this. She never had a special word of calling like Abraham, never a vision like Moses, no dream like Jacob.

‘God really speaks to people in their dreams?’ the boy asked.

Yes, he does, said the boy’s father.

Ruth and Naomi walked the long walk to Bethlehem in silence. Naomi didn’t speak a word until she introduced herself to the people they met in Bethlehem, but she didn’t say that her name was Naomi. Call me ‘Mara’ she told people.

‘Why would she change her name?’ the little boy asked. Mara means bitterness; Naomi was convinced that her life was already over.

Remember, a widow’s life is hard. God’s Kingdom should belong to them.

Don’t ever forget that. ‘I won’t,’ the boy promised.

Ruth and Naomi found a place to live in Bethlehem. Nothing fancy, not even nice, but Ruth tried to make the best of it. Naomi though just sat in the dark corner of the apartment and stared blankly through her tears and through the window. Ruth had promised to take care of Naomi and she wasn’t about to quit.

They still had no food so, after they settled, Ruth went out to the fields to scavenge what the harvesters left behind. She didn’t know it at the time, but the fields belonged to a rich man named Boaz. Boaz was family to Naomi.

Every day Ruth left to scavenge for food and every day she came home to Naomi’s bitter quiet. But one day, everything started to change.

One day, the same as any other, Ruth was working the fields, looking for leftovers.

On that day, Boaz came out to look over his property and check on his workers. He said hello and thanked them. Then he saw someone he didn’t recognize bent over at the edge of the field, a woman. He pointed to Ruth out in the distance and he asked his foreman: ‘Who is she?’

And his foreman told him all about Ruth and how much Ruth loved her bitter mother-in-law and how Ruth had risked everything to care for her.

Boaz listened to the foreman’s story, and later that day he walked out to the edge of the field. He said hello to Ruth. Then he did a strange thing.

‘What?’ the boy asked. He urged Ruth to scavenge only in his fields. He promised her that his men would never bother her and that they would even leave extra grain behind for her. Ruth stood in the sun and listened to Boaz tell her all of this.

Now, for the first time since her husband had died, it was Ruth’s turn to cry. She fell down at Boaz’s feet and wept and she told him that she was just a foreigner, that she deserved rejection not kindness.

Boaz just smiled gently and he said softly: ‘May God reward the love you’ve shown Naomi.’

When Ruth returned home that day, she told Naomi everything that happened with Boaz.

For the first time, Naomi pulled her wistful eyes away from the window and she said, almost like she’d been holding her breath for a great long while: ‘Bless you!’

When she said it, Ruth didn’t know whether Naomi was talking to her or to God.

‘Is that it?’ the boy wondered aloud, thinking it not nearly as exciting a story as David and Goliath.

No, his mother said. Nothing else happened to Ruth or Naomi for a while. Then one morning Naomi burst into Ruth’s bedroom and she told her that that day Boaz would be winnowing barley with his workers. Its long work, Naomi explained.

The whole town will be there to help. It’s like a festival. There’ll be food and music and dancing and wine, lots of wine, she said with knowing eyes.

Ruth still looked puzzled so Naomi grabbed her by the shoulders and told Ruth to take off the black clothes she’d been wearing since her husband died. Go take a long shower, Naomi told her. And when you’re done anoint your whole body with perfume and then put on a nice dress. You need to look beautiful in every way.

And when Ruth asked why, Naomi told her what she was to do.

That night, after the day’s work and the evening’s party, Boaz wouldn’t be going home. Instead he’d be sleeping in his barn. You’re to go to him, Naomi told Ruth. Go to him and lie down next to him.

‘What did Ruth say?” asked the boy. ‘Probably something like: let it be with me according to your word,’ his mother answered.

Whatever Ruth said, she did everything Naomi told her. When she snuck into the barn that night, the band was still playing outside and Boaz was already fast asleep in the hay.

Before Ruth lay down in the straw next to Boaz, she tried to take off his shoes for him. She woke him up. I imagine he was surprised, said the boy’s mother.

When Boaz startled awake, he asked Ruth what she was doing there. And Ruth blushed and panicked. Naomi had told her what to do, but not what to say.

‘What did she say?’ the boy asked.

Ruth told him that if he really wanted to care for her, if he really prayed that God would reward her kindness to Naomi, if he really wanted to help her care for Naomi, then he would marry her.

‘She asked him to marry her?’ the boy asked surprised.

Yes, and Boaz said yes. And he let Ruth sleep there next to him that night.

In the morning, before the sun came up or anyone else awoke, Boaz told Ruth to meet him that afternoon at the gateway that led into town. That’s where he would marry her.

And before Ruth left that early morning, Boaz gave her a gift of barley. He helped load the bag of barley onto her back. Your great-grandma Ruth, she always told people that that morning, helping her with the barley, was the first time they ever touched.

Mary could see that her boy was drifting asleep. So they married, she concluded. And they had a boy named Obed. And he became King David’s grandfather, and, without them, you might not be here with us…

Joseph crept up and blew out the lights on the menorah, and Mary tucked her little boy into bed. And with half open eyes, the little boy said that God wasn’t even in that story. God didn’t say anything or do anything or appear to anyone.

And Mary kissed the word made flesh on the forehead and she said that sometimes God’s love is revealed to us in our love for one another.

Sometimes God is in the person right in front of you.

That’s what the story’s about, she said.

And of all the people in the world, only Mary knew just how true that was.

Bad Santa

Jason Micheli —  December 22, 2014 — 1 Comment

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517   This Sunday I closed out our ‘Mystical Christmas’ Advent series by taking a look at St. Nicholas, who received a mystical encounter with the Risen Christ after his ‘You talking’ to me?’ moment at the Council of Nicaea. I used the screen behind me to convey the parenthetical comments you see in the text- my little homage to the finale of Cobert.

You can listen to it here below or in the sidebar to the right. You can download it here.

Speaking of Mary’s Song, 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.

(Fan = snob, elitist, smarty-pants)

     And I’m not picky or narrow-focused, I’m a fan of genres of music. Blues, Bluegrass, Bakersfield Country, Indie, Jazz, Clash-era punk- you name it, I’m a fan of it all.

(All = not Pop, Contemporary Christian or Baby-Making Smooth Jazz)

     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.

(Job = unpaid hobby for which no one else answered the want ads)

     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.

(Good Home = my apartment)

      Every last album.

(‘Every’ = except Journey and Hall ‘N’ Oates)

     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 praise song ‘Forever Reign’ was playing.

I love music. I use ticket stubs for bookmarks. I’ve got concert posters on every wall of our house, and more songs in iCloud than South Dakota has legal residents. I love music, and we’ve raised our boys to love music too.

And, as parents, we didn’t waste our time with lamo kids’ music like Raffi or Baby Einstein or Jack Johnson.

No, the first song Gabriel danced to at 16 months old was Nirvanna’s single ‘Lithium,’ which is ironic since lithium is exactly what I felt I needed after I changed his diaper.

My boys- they love music too.

Gabriel could create a playlist on the iPod before he was potty-trained. Alexander, before he knew his consonants from his vowels, knew all the words to every Ben Folds Five song.

(Even Ben Fold’s cover of Dr. Dre’s ‘B#$%$@! Ain’t S$%^’ = #badparent)

     Gabriel even cried crocodile tears when he discovered that his beloved White Stripes had broken up the year he was born.

They love music.

It may be true that boogers are just one of the many things my boys eat with their hands, but from the age when other kids are stuck singing ‘Farmer in the Dell’ they’ve known to look down their noses at anyone who listens to Billboard topping pop. I call it my curriculum of cool.

(Well, I will now)

     I mean- I can’t teach my boys to change the oil, hang a door or rewire a light switch, but I can team them that no homo sapien worth his thumbs should ever waste their time listening to Taylor Swift and that subscribing to Sirius Radio is the musical equivalent of wearing sweatpants in public.

(Least amount of effort possible)

 

My boys- they love music.

We love Christmas carols too.

We’ve got 211 of them, but none of them are the obvious, bourgeoisie carols that play on repeat at Starbucks starting the 5th of July. There’s no ‘Let It Snow’ by Dean Martin or Rod Stewart, no drek like Neil Diamond’s ‘Jingle Bell Rock and no aesthetic-corroding ‘Christmas’ by Michael Buble.

No, my boys love music so they know any savior worthy of worship should be anticipated and celebrated with the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Nick Lowe and Wynton Marsalis.

Our favorite Christmas song- favorite because it drives Ali (my wife, their mommy) crazy, nails-on-chalkboard-crazy- is Bob Dylan’s angelic rendition of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town.’

‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town,’ written in 1934 for the Eddie Cantor Radio Show, is our favorite Christmas song and because it tightens Ali’s sphincter and fills her eyes with hints of marital regret, Bob Dylan’s is our favorite version of it.

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 and forcing his kids to listen to something like DC Talk’s Christian Christmas rap ‘Yo, Ho, Ho?’

Shouldn’t a pastor and his kids be arm-in-arm, on the front lines with Bill O’Reilly, rebuffing the enemy’s advances in the War on Christmas?

Maybe.

But I’ve got no beef with Santa Claus.

 

I mean- sure, Santa apparently turns a blind eye to shaming and bullying among his Jim Crow reindeer. Sure the only difference between his North Pole workforce and a coal mine in Matewan, WV is one of height.

(Where else would his coal come from?)

     I mean- sure, Santa rides in a carriage in the 21st century like a colorblind Amish man.

Sure he’s ‘happily married’ (in an Ike and Tina kinda way) to a wife whom he apparently doesn’t allow to leave the house; meanwhile, he trots the globe wearing what, on anyone else, would be considered a porn star costume.

But hey- what’s not to like about a whiskey-cheeked home invader with Chucky-like elves on shelves creepily casing your joint all through Advent?

So, no, I don’t have a problem with Santa Claus.

If nothing else, Santa at least gives us one night a year when no one in the NRA is standing their ground.

(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. I don’t think it sets up our children to question everything else once they learn the Claus con.

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- biblical faith.

So I’ve never had a problem with Santa Claus.

Until-

Until the other day.

The other day we had our Christmas Carol Playlist on shuffle and Bob Dylan’s cover of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ came on the stereo. And when Dylan came around to the chorus a second time, Gabriel says- 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, right? ‘If,’ his voice trailed off, ‘we’re good.’

     (Bam. Damn.)

     And just like that….that Ted Kennedy-complected fat man with the diminutive sweatshop slaves and the sleeping-with-the-enemy spouse looked not a little like Satan himself.

Every year we complain about how the carols and the decorations and the advertisements begin around Arbor Day.  We complain about materialism and greed and stuff- how more and more it’s gotten to be about getting more and more.  We complain about ‘Happy Holidays’ and the ‘War on Christmas’ and how Jesus is the reason for what’s become a secular season. We complain about all of it, but the one thing we don’t complain about is the one thing we should rail against.

Because what could be more antithetical to the Christmas Gospel than this whole idea of kids sitting on Santa’s lap or elves sitting on shelves or God sitting in heaven watching us, judging us, deciding what we deserve- before he decides what he’ll give?

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

Not to get too preachy but the Gospel is that ‘while we were yet sinners, God died for us.’ The Christmas Gospel, therefore, is ‘while we were still naughty, God took flesh and gave us the gift of himself.’

The Gospel is that ‘He became sin who no sin; so that, we might become the righteousness of God.’ That’s 2 Corinthians 5 and the Christmas Gospel corollary to it is ‘God became human; so that, we, who are no good through and through, through him might receive the gift of salvation.’

The Gospel is that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…’

John 3.16- and you can ask Tim Tebow, the word ‘world’ has no positive connotations in John at all; therefore, the Christmas Gospel is that 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.

And then kept giving all the way to a cross.

That’s the Christmas Gospel, and I want my son to know it- to know that God loves him regardless if he’s bad or good or shouts or cries.

I want you to know it too, to know that God loves you whether or not you’re naughty or not so nice. I want you to know that Christmas has nothing to do with how good you are.

And, since you’re all in church today, I want you to know too that you getting this gift from God- it doesn’t mean that you’re good, doesn’t make you good.

For goodness sakes, that’s what we mean by the word ‘grace.’

God doesn’t give us what we deserve and God gives us more than we deserve. That’s the Gospel and it wasn’t until the other day that I realized how that Pavlovian song about a bourbon-bellied fat man wreaks all kinds of naughty on our understanding of Christmas.

And I’m sure ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ is just one example of how our message has gotten all messed up.

So now my Christmas Playlist numbers 206 songs not 211- gone are the covers of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ by Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra, Mavis Staples and Run DMC.

I won’t sing it anymore. Or play it even.

And before you accuse me of being one of those reactive ‘War on Christmas’ clergyman, you know who else wouldn’t sing ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town?’

Santa Claus.

Nichols-Punch-Meme

That is, the real St. Nicholas. The real St. Nick would never sing that song.

The real St. Nicholas, in case you didn’t know, was a 4th century Christian Bishop. A would-be martyr, St. Nick was exiled and tortured under hostile Roman Emperors, one of whom gouged out Nicholas’ eye, trying to compel him to recant his allegiance to Christ.

But you know how I know the real St. Nick wouldn’t sing ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town?’

The real St. Nick was a delegate at the Council of Nicaea in 325 where he helped write the words of the creed we recited this morning. It was at the Council of Nicaea that Nicholas encountered a rival church leader named Arius, who was later denounced as a heretic.

On the council floor, Arius argued passionately that the person we meet in Jesus Christ is not the fullness of God, that Jesus is not God made flesh.

I know the real St. Nick wouldn’t sing ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ because it only took him a few minutes of listening to Arius pontificate before jolly old Nicholas started to turn red with anger and only a few moments more before he stood up and strode down to the council floor and then, with all those vicars of Christ looking on, he punched Arius in the teeth, as though they were both in a Martin Scorsese film version of their lives.

1467293_563592787054489_335397325_n  It’s a true story. St. Nick round-housed him right to the nose, until Arius had tears in his eyes and blood in his mouth.

And for it, St. Nicholas quickly found himself on the Emperor’s naughty list. He was thrown in prison. He was stripped of his vestments. His beard was shorn, burnt off.

But while he was chained, naked, in a prison cell, Nicholas received a mystical vision. The Risen Jesus appeared to him, smiling upon him, and restored his beard and gave him a bible.

In other words, the real St. Nick lost his cool, cold-cocked a heretic and, after he gets thrown in the clink, he gets a thumbs up from the Risen Christ.

Don’t you see- Santa is the original Bad Santa. But even when St. Nicholas was naughty, Jesus came to him and gave.

Gave him grace and mercy.

And so I know- not even St. Nick would sing that song about St. Nick.

Because Nicholas staked his life on the Gospel claim that the Jesus who said ‘I do not condemn you’ and the Jesus who said ‘I came to seek and save sinners not the righteous’ and the Jesus who said the Kingdom is exactly like a Father’s embrace of a child who’s lost their way in all kind of ways…

That Jesus is nothing less than 100% God.

God in the flesh.

image

I know St. Nick would not sing that song about St. Nick because Nicholas gave his eye and his beard and his status and was ready to give his life for the Christmas Gospel that when God comes to town in Jesus Christ, the gift he gives he gives to the naughty and to the sinners and to the traitors and to the liars and to the narcissists and to the addicts and to the bigots and to the cowards…just like you and just like me.

(Thank God)

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

     I love music. All kinds.

But ever since the other day I’ve pared down my Holiday Playlist to 206 Christmas Cuts.

Santa Claus may still be coming to town but he’s not doing it on my stereo anymore.

And maybe I’m overreacting, who knows.

Of course, Gabriel suggested that if the song’s message was so contrary to the Christmas Gospel then rather than forbid the song and expunge it from iCloud, I should write my own song- a song to rival ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ that even the real St. Nick would sing.

‘That’s a good idea’ I thought.

But even though I love music, I quickly discovered that writing a catchy jingle-jangle song about a one-eyed celibate with a singed beard and anger management problems, who pimp-slaps a fellow cleric over incarnational theology and gets a slap on the back from the Risen Christ as a reward…that’s a harder song to write than you might think.

Not to mention, it’s hard to find rhymes for the word ‘Christological.’

As much as I might like to write my own song to rival ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town,’ one that proudly proclaims what the real Nick knew so well- that we are, all of us, all naughty and all loved; that there’s nothing we can do to make God love us less and there’s nothing we can do to make God love us more- as much as I might like to write that song, I can’t.

I’m a music fan not a music writer.

Instead of verse, I’ll have to stick to prose.

I’ll have to figure out a way to communicate that message not in a catchy, 2 minute jingle but in the everyday, humdrum words and actions of my life.

saint-nicholas

 

 

 

Untitled44One of the deficiencies in arguing that Jesus (only) comes to die for our sin is that it leaves no redemptive room for the life and teaching of Christ.

His birth and life are just prologue.

Only Jesus’ death matters for salvation.

As NT Wright likes to quip, ‘What about all those bits in the middle?’

It comes as no surprise then that for many Christians our lives are only prologue as well, possibly interesting but not essential.

As Brian Zahnd likes to point out, when we deemphasize the life of Jesus we, in effect, demote the Ascended King who’s been given dominion of the nations to ‘Secretary of After Life Affairs.’

In §10-12 of On the Incarnation, Athanasius begins to take up a theme held by his fellow Church Fathers; namely, that salvation begins not on Good Friday but on Christmas Eve, for the eternal, macro goal of creation is theosis, the joining together of the infinite and the finite, of humanity with divinity. But therein lies the problem for Athanasius- not our guilt but our inhumanity.

Because of sin, we’re not sufficiently human to be joined together with life of the Trinity.

We no longer resembles the image of God so joining with God is an impossibility. Our image needs to be repaired.

And this is where Athanasius finds a redemptive purpose for the teaching of Christ that many common takes on the cross neglect- and not just the teaching of Christ; this is how Athanasius views the purpose of the prophets in the Hebrew Bible too.

A lot of times we throw around the phrase “made in the image of God,” as a way to dismiss others without sounding bigoted.

It’s often “we’re all made in the image of God, but…” It’s become the theological equivalent of “I’m not racist, but…”

But…what if we took it seriously?

What if in every human being, in every person we met, we truly believed we saw the ‘image of the Living God?’

champions-of-the-faith-athanasius

It’s easy to saw when looking at children, or Mother Theresa, or Nelson Mandela. But what about Stalin? Or Attila the Hun? Or Sarah Palin?

There are people we see everyday and when we look at them the image that stares back at us could not look anything less like God. Or perhaps its not even the face of someone else – maybe its the face that gazes back from the mirror that shows no sign of God’s likeness.

Athanasius took the phrase “made in the image of God” seriously.

An Egyptian bishop living 300 years after Jesus, Athanasius took seriously the claim – the promise – the declaration that God made humanity in God’s image. Imprinted on each of us is a portrait of the God who declared “Let us make Humanity in our image.”

“Let us make them in the likeness of God.”

And Athanasius knew something about images.

Once when he had run afoul of the emperor he had to flee Alexandria and hide in the tomb of an Egyptian mummy. He would have been surrounded by once beautiful painting – paintings that had faded. Painting that had flaked and cracked. Paintings that were worn away by the elements.

Athanasius imagined that what we see in the prophets – what we see in the life of Israel – what hear from Scripture – was an attempt to repair, to repaint our portraits. Moses and Isaiah, Daniel and Miriam, Jacob and Ezekiel, they all briefly saw God.

They saw what the original subject of the portrait looked like. They caught a glimpse of God’s likeness and returned to their people.

Athanasius-blog-Zachary-FranzenBut its hard to reproduce a painting from memory.

Whatever restoration they attempted was second hand at best.

A vague reflection, a vague memory of the original.

In Jesus – in God made flesh, “God with Us,” the original subject – the likeness of God is made flesh.

In Jesus we can look upon God and can, through him, restore our image.

In the life of Jesus the perfect image of God is manifest – made available to all of us.

When Mary looked at the baby she had carried for 9 months, when Joseph looked at the son he would raise, that he would love and take care of – when they looked at Jesus they saw God’s image for the first time.

In Jesus’ life and faithfulness, in his words and deeds, we discover not only the image of God in which we were created but also the possibility of our own image.

 

– Thanks to Andrew DiAntonio who contributed to this post

§8-10: Incarnation Quiz

Jason Micheli —  December 17, 2014 — 3 Comments

Untitled44Here’s a pop quiz based on the first 10 sections of Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.

 

1. Prior to the Incarnation, God the Word was:

A) Far away from us with God’s back turned against us because we are sinners and God is holy.

B) Nearer to us than we are to ourselves because even prior to the Incarnation the Word imbues all things in creation and holds them in existence.

C) In Heaven.

Bonus: What does it say about us that we typically think of God as remote? 

 

2. According to St. Athanasius, God the Word took flesh in order to:

A) Suffer God’s wrath in humanity’s stead.

B) To pay the price, suffering sin’s penalty for us.

C) To die our death and, in doing so, exhaust Death of its power over us.

D) To demonstrate God’s holiness by demonstrating the wages of sin upon the cross.

Bonus: What does it say about us that we interpret the cradle and the cross punitively when Genesis 1 speaks of death as sin’s consequence in no such tones?

 

3. Athanasius identifies the debt paid by the Incarnate One as:

A) God’s honor

B) Sin

C) Fidelity

D) None of the Above

Bonus: Why do we literalize scriptural metaphors like ‘debt’ when the Church Fathers felt free to use them without explaining exactly how they worked. 

 

4. For Athanasius, the place and purpose of Christ’s teaching in the Incarnation is: 

A) For us to get right with God through right actions.

B) To describe for us the ideal human life which will be possible only in the Kingdom.

C) To show us what we should do because Jesus told us to do it.

D) To reveal the means by which our tarnished humanity may be restored in God’s likeness.

Bonus: Why do so many of our understandings of how Jesus saves us on the cross have little place for the life and teaching of Jesus? 

 

You don’t really need the answer key do you?

Missing By Nine Miles

Jason Micheli —  December 15, 2014 — 2 Comments

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517This Sunday I continued our Mystical Christmas series by looking at Matthew 2.1-12, the Magi’s journey, through the lens of a journey of my own, both ordinary and not so ordinary.

I got the idea from the ancient Church Father, John Chrysostom, who writes of the passage:

“The star of Bethlehem was not an ordinary star, for no other star has this capacity to guide, not merely to move but to beckon and invite…The star remained after bringing them to the place, in order that the child might also be seen. For there is nothing conspicuous about Christ. The inn was ordinary. The mother was ordinary. The star needed to manifest and illumine the ordinary until they had reached their destination.”

– John Chrysostom 

When I first sat down on the plane, I did what any right-thinking person does.

I began thumbing through the pages of SkyMall.

A Kenny G musak cover of Van Morrison’s ‘Crazy Love’ played- barely audible- over the speakers as the throng of travelers stepped on board and stowed their stuff above them.

Across the aisle, caddy-corner to me, a boy who looked to be in the third or fourth grade was wailing loud enough to make the veins in his neck pop out.

His mother had her arm around him and was saying shush but the boy was inconsolable. He stomped his feet and screamed at the top of his lungs: I don’t care how much pumpkin pie Grandma’s made I don’t want to fly.

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

On my right, on the aisle side, a teenage girl was smacking her gum and blowing bubbles. On her lap she had opened a copy of Seventeen magazine. She was reading an article about teens and plastic surgery and how to know how much is too much.

Sitting on my left, a middle-aged man in an expensive-looking suit was barking orders into his Blackberry- seriously a Blackberry. He had a Wall Street Journal as well as a Financial Times folded underneath his arm and a leather tote overflowing with papers on his lap.

He had what sounded like some sort of Eastern accent- Boston maybe- and he smelled so strongly of man-perfume that I couldn’t help but wonder if his musk had real bits of panther in it.

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

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

While we waited for take-off I thumbed through the Christmas 2014 edition of SkyMall where, among other things, I discovered that the $90.00 Star Wars-themed Chewbacca sleeping bag actually comes in adult sizes.

     Is there a better way to celebrate Christmas?

The glossy advertisement asked rhetorically.

 

I had an early morning flight. The sky was still dark enough that when we were in the air you could see the stars.

The fasten seatbelt sign chimed off and the captain came on and spoke reassuringly over the intercom about every angle and altitude of our journey ahead. Not that you could hear him over the boy who was still wailing and still stomping his feet and who’d started to hyperventilate.

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

Seriously. Eyeshadow.

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

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

Where you headed? The businessman on my left asked.

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

I’m headed to my in-laws’ house.

He chuckled and said: Good luck.

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517

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

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

And I’ve discovered the hard way that sitting on an airplane in between strangers can be just like that.

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

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

Religious people will think you’re doing your devotions and will respect your privacy and non-religious people won’t say anything for fear you’re Baptist and might evangelize them. And if you really want to make sure no one bothers you, just open it up to the Book of Revelation along with the current issue of Guns and Ammo.

Stops them every time.

That morning I thumbed through SkyMall and I had my bible out and opened, not to Revelation but to Matthew 2- not only to stymy potential conversation with the businessman to my left but also because Advent was ahead and I thought I’d jot down some sermon notes while I had the chance.

Meanwhile the businessman sitting next to me pulled out his laptop and then he dug deeply into his leather briefcase and pulled out a stack- at least 12 inches thick- a stack of catalogs: Eddie Bauer, LL Bean, Pottery Barn, Williams Sonoma etc.

He pored over them like he was reading an ancient map.

Every now and then he would look up from them, marking a spot on the page with his index finger, and then he would type quickly into his laptop.

I watched him do this several times before I realized what he was doing.

He had Excel opened up on his computer and he was building a Christmas shopping spreadsheet. He was typing in the name of the item, the cost, the person who would receive the gift and then a hyperlink to the company’s website.

Every now and then he would click the ‘Sum’ button on the screen, giving him a grand total cost for his 2014 Christmas.

I watched him do this a while. Then I went back to thumbing through the Christmas issue of SkyMall where I saw that I could get a replica Mockingjay pin, like the one worn by Catniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games, for only $80.00.

I was just thinking to myself who in their right mind would pay that much money for a fake Mockingjay pin when the guy sitting next to me said: Hey, can I see that a minute? My nephew would love that.

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

     After he finished, he let out a deep, exhausted sigh.

And he said: It’s the same every year. This can’t be what it’s all about. Can it?

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517

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

 

You talking to me? I asked.

Yeah, he said.

Are you religious, he asked, and nodded at the bible on my tray.

Yeah, I guess so.

That’s good, he said in an absent sort of voice. I’m not, never have been.

I let his voice of trail off.

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

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

The what?

The wise men, I said.

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

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

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

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517

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

But then he asked me: Why do they go to Jerusalem first?

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

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

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

And I smiled and said: Something like that.

 

 

Outside the window the stars were starting to fade against the oncoming sunrise. The boy across from me was hyperventilating into a vomit bag.

The woman behind me was giving her husband the silent treatment.

And the girl next to me had fallen asleep reading 50 Shades of Grey, with a half-blown bubble of gum spread across her bottom lip.

The man next to me sat up and turned towards me.

Can I read it? he asked.

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

No, not that book, he said.

And he held out his hand for my bible. So I handed it to him. I pointed out the first part of chapter two: It’s this part I said.

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

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

Then he turned it over and gazed at the back cover and then the front cover, gazing at the cheap, beat-up bible like it was a talisman or a treasure.

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

What’s this? he asked me.

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

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

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

Can you show me? he asked.

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

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

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

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

He will teach us his ways so that we might walk in his path. 

or

He will judge between many peoples. 

or

Nations will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation nor will they train for war anymore. 

or

He will gather the lame and assemble the immigrants and all those who grieve. 

or I wondered if it might be

With what shall I come before the Lord?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?

(in other words, will the Lord be pleased with all my stuff)

What does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

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

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517

A few minutes passed before he closed his laptop and said: That’s quite a gift you know.

The Mockingjay pin? I asked.

No, he said, the wise men.  For the wise men to be able to reorient everything they knew about the way the world worked.

     For them to be able to look at a helpless baby in a poor woman’s arms in a little village, for them to believe he’s the one, the only one, they should honor, for them to believe he’s the one to make Micah’s words come true- for them to able to do that, it’s got to be a gift from God.

     I guess I never thought about it like that, I said, even though, now that he’d said it, I could think of an ancient Church Father who’d written something very similar.

I travel a lot, he said. I don’t get to see my family much. Every year I try to make up for it at Christmas. I search to find just the right gifts, but lately I feel like I’m always looking in the wrong places.

The Good News is so were the magi, I said.

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517

 

 

We started our descent. The stars had leeched and disappeared in the sky. The sun was coming up through the windows.

I’d closed my eyes.

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

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

I guess we’re more like the wise men anyway, he said.

How so?

None of us have angels telling us what to do or making things easier for us. We’ve just got to search, and, when we find what we’re searching for, decide whether or not we’ll let it change us.

You ought to be a minister, I said.

He laughed and said: I don’t think so. Aren’t ministers all dull and creepy?

I laughed and said…pretty much.

 

 

As we were getting off the plane, the journey over, I asked him:  Are you going back to DC after the holiday?

No, he said, I’ve made some commitments. I’m going home a different way.

A better Christian blogger would bite his virtual tongue and remain diffident. After all, beating up on American Atheists Dot Org is like making fun of Joel Osteen’s teeth or pointing out that Ted Cruz is a McCarthy-esque a@#-clown.

It’s just too easy to ridicule a group that takes itself even more seriously than the evangelicals they’re wont to battle.

Sure enough it’s Advent and American Atheists Dot Org are putting up their annual craptastic ‘War on Christmas’ billboards all over the Bible Belt.

That American Atheists Dot Org apply the same obtuse, tone-deaf literalism to the Christmas story as do the conservative Christians with whom they’re supposedly locked in pitched rhetorical battle makes me suspect their ‘War on Christmas’ is just a franchise of Bill O’Reilly’s ‘War on Christmas.’

If not, it at least provides bipartisan consensus that unimaginative killjoys exist in both fundamentalisms, Christian and None.

At the very least, it proves that fundamentalism itself- with literalism as one of its dominant motifs- is itself the product of modern liberalism.

Here’s their 2014 billboard:

1417804650640

Don’t even get me started on their (false) assumption that the absence of Christian mythology equates to freedom from any and all other mythology (Secularism, Freedom, America, Racism, Capitalism, Individualism).

With tones of self-congratulatory enlightenment, American Atheists Dot Org’s website etc enumerates in sensationalist fashion the ‘fairy tales’ from which they would have us closeted non-believers rise up in erudite opposition.

You know the ‘secrets’ that the leaders of ORGANIZED RELIGION like me hide from the poor ignorant bastards who comprise their faithful flock.

Among these church-shattering revelations:

1. The bible does not say what year Jesus was born (gasp!).

2. The bible does not say Jesus was born on December 25, originally a Roman holiday (what? no!)

3. The bible doesn’t say there was an ox and an ass in the manger (how dare artists elaborate the story for the sake art!).

4. There are extra-canonical gospels that include other details about Jesus’ birth and childhood (No! It can’t be! Didn’t the ancient Christians know this?).

5. The bible doesn’t say there was 3 wise men (see #3).

6. Only 2 of the 4 Gospels have nativity stories (really? I never noticed that, damn).

7. Matthew’s Nativity story is different and, chronologically, irreconcilable with Luke’s Nativity story (how did I miss that?).

The membership of American Atheists Dot Org boasts some pretty impressive names so one can presume they’re not all stupid or intentionally dense, yet their craptastic billboards are a breathtaking exercise in missing the point.

It just goes to show that one can be smart yet have no imaginative, poetic sense of how narrative functions to tell ‘truth,’ convict, shape faith and elicit transformation.

It also goes to show, I’d wager in many of their cases, how destructive it can be to raise your kids in an idiot Christianity (Fundamentalism) that they then react against with their own version of black/white, overly rationalistic, idiot Fundamentalism.

American Atheists Dot Org brand of muckraking billboards never lets on that all of these supposed ‘secrets’ and ‘fairy tales’ have been known and accepted by the Church for centuries.

1417804650640

For the Church catholic these revelations are a snore and for that reason their billboards should provoke a pitying ‘there, there’ chuckle.

For example, Christians only began celebrating Christmas in the 4th century. Meaning: it’s possible to worship God-in-Christ without the nativity stories (Mark and John obviously thought so); therefore, none of these breathless ‘fairy tales’ drive the dagger into the heart of Christianity as AA imply.

Yes, Matthew and Luke tell different stories. That’s the freaking point. They tell the stories they do the way they do NOT because they’re attempting to construct the sort of biography AA apparently expects. They tell the stories the way they do to make a particular confession about who Jesus is.

Matthew tells his story through Joseph and by way of Egypt to profess that Jesus is the New Moses for a New Israel through whom God is working deliverance.

Luke tells his story the way he does to make the oldest of Christian claims: Jesus (ie, not Caesar) is Lord.

And yes, I know Luke and Matthew didn’t actually write those Gospels. They were attributed to them later in a honorific gesture. But guess what? St Augustine beat American Atheists Dot Org to that newsflash by about 1600 years.

What American Atheists Dot Org gets right is that there’s not much first century documentation about Jesus.

Which the Church has always known.

And never been bothered by.

Because the point isn’t that Jesus lived.

It’s that he’s alive.

Untitled44These short sections of On the Incarnation brought two different, disparate movies to mind.

The first film is last spring’s Noah starring Russell Crowe (#4 on Jason’s Man Crush List). I watched it with my boys until the scene just after the Flood when things felt like they were about to get a little rapey on the boat and I pressed pause.

Just before that scene, though, after the many waters have come and you can hear the agony of all those creatures great and small dying a terrible death outside the ark, my youngest son, who’s got at least a dozen storybook versions of this same story in his bookcase, said aloud, as though an epiphany:

‘God doesn’t seem very nice.’

Yeah.

No wonder God promises never to do such violence again.

3838816_orig

Reading Athanasius’ account of the incarnation, it hit me that the way we often speak of the cradle and the cross would have God break that post-Flood promise.

If Jesus is born in order to suffer the punishment we deserve, as we so often sing and say, then doesn’t God- at least symbolically- renege on his promise never to flood the earth again?

How is God killing all but a few of creation by water substantively different than saying Jesus was tortured the torture all of humanity deserve in God’s eyes?

Is it just a matter of quantity versus quality? Is God off the hook because he only kills Jesus this time?

Or can we surmise that when God forswears flooding he also rejects crosses? Rejects ‘redemptive violence?’

Noah and these thoughts came to mind because in §6 of On the Incarnation I was struck by the different tenor with which Athanasius speaks of the Word’s coming.

Due to the corrupting nature of death, Athanasius writes that the creation made by the Artificer was disappearing; in fact, you could follow Athanasius’ logic and argue that prior to the incarnation ‘humanity’ no longer existed.

But such is what God had said would happen: ‘If you eat of the fruit of the tree…you will surely die…’

Athanasius notes that it would be ‘monstrous’ if God, Goodness itself, turned out to be a liar. Once set in motion, Death spread inexorably, not as a punishment, but more like a disease that infection’s allowed to set in.

If it would be monstrous for God to be proved a liar, Athanasius also argues it would be ‘unseemly’ should God prove neglectful. ‘Neglect reveals weakness,’ Athanasius posits, ‘and not goodness on God’s part.’

If the Artificer let his creation dissolve into ruin and nothingness, then it would be better had he not made us in the first place, for ‘…it were not worthy of God’s goodness that the things he made should waste away.’

If we deserve restoration as God’s creatures, if God must restore us if he is to be worthy of his goodness, then the question turns from one of why to how.

How is God to restore us?

By our repentance?

While Athanasius doesn’t dismiss the value in repenting, repentance itself does not protect the veracity of God’s words in the Garden. Death is the problem. God said we would die and our repentance can’t undo death.

What’s more, repentance does not set us on a permanent course back to incorruption. We can’t say we’re sorry all the way back to Eden.

As Athanasius puts it, ‘…repentance [does not] call men back from what is their nature- it merely stays them from acts of sin.’ Put differently, ‘I’m sorry’ from creatures who are now less than creatures doesn’t cut it.

Death, which prevents us from living a fully human life, a life in God’s image, is the problem.

The only way to restore humanity then is for a true human life to be lived. For a true human life to suffer death and, in dying, triumph over death. This is a key different between Athanasius and many popular notions of cradle and cross.

For others, the incarnation is instrumental; it’s simply the means by which God gets to the end of the story- the cross- where the suffering Christ can elicit our repentance.

For Athanasius, the incarnation is the means and the end in itself. The Word taking flesh is like the antidote for which resurrection from death is the full and final cure.

Aslan-Narnia-320x480

To reference the promised second movie, the Word taking flesh is like Aslan’s rumored arrival in Narnia in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Aslan’s landing in Narnia alone begins to melt the White Witches’ snow long before the Christ-like lion suffers death on the stone table.

His coming alone initiates healing.

Untitled44In the 26th verse of Genesis, God declares ‘Let us make humankind in our image…’ The first person plural is not peripheral for Athanasius. If the ‘us’ is a referent to the Trinity, then you and I do not on our own constitute the divine image. If God is only God as a community of fellowship and love between Father, Son and Spirit, then what it means for humankind to be made in the image of God is for the human community to be a fellowship of love in, with and under the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

The imago dei is plural because God is triune.

Which means you’re more you when you’re in loving friendship with the ‘we.’

Moreover, because God created from nothing, God is literally the Source of all that is. God is Life. The opposite of such a God is privation. Death. Nothingness.

This is key to how Athanasius and the other Church Fathers construed the Fall. By seeking life independent of God, humanity incurs not sin and wrath but death. Adam and Eve do not provoke a long story of humanity offending God’s honor or holiness, as Calvin et al later held. No, as the Genesis text makes abundantly clear, Adam and Eve’s choice leads to death- not as a punishment but as a logical, do-that-and-you’re-gonnna-die, consequence.

The Fall for Athanasius simply induces a return to our ‘natural’ state. If God is the Source of everything than turning our backs on God leads to nothingness.

If God is the Source of Life, then the Fall leads to Death and, ultimately, to our disintegration.

card

Disintegration is the closest Athanasius comes to speaking of Hell but already therein you have a wide departure from the popular notion of Hell as a place of eternal, conscious torment. Implicit in the latter view, is that the things in Hell remain things. Hell is a place that has a population.

For Athanasius, if God creates from nothing and holds everything in existence then there is no ‘hell,’ for hell, or the ‘people’ in it, are no-thing.

So there could be no more discordant concept to force upon On the Incarnation than the popular notion that God predestined sin in order to display God’s holiness in Christ’s Cross. Only the categories of guilt and punishment require such logic. Instead, for Athanasius, sin is better understood as an illness to be healed not an infraction to be punished.

The Fall leads to death.

Sin is illness.

Nothing could be more important to understand how Athanasius understands the incarnation.

The Word comes in the flesh because the flesh is sick.

The triune God who is the Source of Life created us in his image; therefore, sin is like a deprivation of what makes for life and a disintegration of the community for which we’re made.

So the incarnation is for our healing and reincorporation.

As sinners, we’re not reprobates worthy of wrath.

We’re sick. We’re broken.

And we’re alienated.

Most pop renderings of the incarnation and atonement stress how, as a result of sin, we’re alienated (‘separated’ is the preferred term) from God. I was only a youth director for little more than a year but even I resorted to the terrible, Romans Road illustration of Christ’s cross bridging chasm between God and you.

Athanasius hints at a different sort of alienation.

If the God who made us is community, then the Fall names a fracture of community. Because of sin, we’re alienated.

Not from God.

God is the One who sustains us at every moment of our existence; we’ll never be so great that we could alienate God from us- that’s idolatrous.

No, because of sin we’re alienated from one another:

“ Cities were at war with cities, and nations were rising up against nations; and the whole earth was rent with civil commotions…” 

eric-garner-police-brutality-ramsey-orta

Athanasius’ On the Incarnation isn’t as archaic as you might think, not nearly as irrelevant as you’re tempted to suppose.

Take Ferguson. And Michael Brown.

Take Staten Island and Eric Garner.

Take ‘Hands Up. Don’t Shoot’ and ‘I Can’t Breathe.’

Take those police and the (not so?) grand juries.

Some on one side call it sin. Others, maybe on the same side, call it injustice.

Others on the other side call it tragic necessity. Or duty.

Whichever side, those on one side see those on the other side as ‘other.’

Whatever else you can or would like to say about Michael Brown or Eric Garner, what you can say without debate- what even the grand juries would have to concede- is that they are exhibits A and B for how alienated we are from one another in America.

Black and white.

Poor and not nearly as hard-up as you like to think.

Athanasius looks at Ferguson and Staten Island and the eventual forgetfulness among whites that will settle in and he says that the Fall begat not God’s wrath but disintegration.

A loss of the communal fellowship we call Trinity and in whose image we were made.

Sin then, for Athanasius (like Flannery O’ Connor 1.5 centuries after him) isn’t something we do. It’s something we’re in.

All of us.

Untitled44Take a random stranger, walking down the street.

Look at them. What do you see?

Do you see a sinner, deserving of God’s wrath punishment?

Or do you see a creature, made by and loved by God?

I recall my Jedi Master, Dr. Robert Dykstra, posing that multiple choice to us as an aside one semester at Princeton. The question was one that had been put to him by the chair of his ordination committee.

His answer was something like ‘I know the first answer makes me ‘right’ theologically speaking, but I think the second answer will make me a better pastor.’

I remember thinking: Damn, slick response.

And: Yup, probably so.

In §2-3 of On the Incarnation Athanasius begins to unspool his case that the second argument not only makes for better pastors, it makes for a better God. He does so by linking together creation and incarnation, cross and new creation all as one single work grace.

In my own little cul-de-sac of the Christian tradition, United Methodism, we spend a lot of time parsing and divvying up, labeling and sequentially ordering, the many forms or  movements of God’s grace.

Prevenient grace.

Justifying grace.

Sanctifying grace.

We memorize on individuated flash cards.

Among Methodist ordinands, there’s even a terrible likening of the ‘stages’ of God’s grace to a house with a front porch as though the mystery of God’s sharing of God’s own life with us is analogous to a Thompson Creek commercial on 106.7 The FAN.

For Methodists, ‘prevenient’ (from the Latin- our lone moment of slumming it with the papists- for ‘to come before’) grace is the work of God which comes before your Christian conversion. It’s the grace by which God gives you sight to recognize and character to accept the (real) grace God does in Jesus Christ the Cross.

Contrary to Methodists, Athanasius would countenance no such divisions or distinctions when it comes to God’s unmerited work among us. For Athanasius, everything, every last single damn thing, is completely gratuitous.

It’s all grace.

Viewed from the Artist’s perspective, it’s all the same grace.

lightstock_55124_small_user_2741517

Before and after make no sense when it comes to grace. Seeing the Cross as the ‘amazing’ grace is to make a category mistake for it obscures that you likewise don’t deserve for the Creator to hold you in existence at every moment of your existence.

Everything, it’s all gratuity.

To so argue, Athanasius roots his understanding of the incarnation where others seldom even give a passing glance, with the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo.

Creation from

Out of

No-thing.

In §2 Athanasius contrasts creatio ex nihilo with the two rival views of his day.

On the one hand, there was Plato who believed that ‘God’ had created from pre-existing materials- which would’ve meant that ‘creation’ in some sense was eternal.

On the other hand, there were those who believed that the Supreme (remote) Being would not have deigned to create the world; therefore, creation was the result of exalted, subsidiary being(s).

The former view, Athanasius argues, would imply that God is not an Artificer, creating from things which did not exist, but is more like a mechanic or tradesman, crafting-not creating- from the stuff around him. And hence something less than thoroughly, sheerly gratuitous.

The latter view, Athanasius points out, renders Jesus something less than divine.

For Christian speech to be intelligible, neither view is acceptable.

The Word which created must not be distinct from the Word which comes in the flesh, but the Word which took flesh from nothing in Mary’s womb must also have created originally from nothing.

Lest grace be something less than constitutive God’s very character, which would make creche and cross something more like a change in God’s mood.

The One God created gratuitously, every thing from no thing.

But the Word was with God, present, at creation.

Therefore the Word is God.

Athanasius-blog-Zachary-Franzen

If so, the salvation wrought by the Word made flesh is but a continuation of the original grace that is creation by the same Word. Or better put, according to Athanasius’ reasoning, ‘salvation’ is a word that names everything in between ‘let there be light’ ‘behold, I tell you a mystery.’

It names it all because the only reason for a creation from nothing is that there can be no reason. It’s all gift. And so the only ‘reason’ is that God desires to share triune life. Just as each moment in Jesus’ ministry is but a part of what it means for Jesus to be incarnate, each moment after creation is an episode in the large, seamless drama of God bringing us into union with God.

So it’s true that, within that drama, there are chapters in which Dr. Dykstra’s first possible answer is demonstrably true. We are sinners worthy of wrath. But if the Word made flesh also made everything ex nihilo, then the bigger, truer, older answer is B.

We are completely gratuitous creatures of the Creator and, thus, loved as precious children.

Jesus Doesn’t Exist

Jason Micheli —  December 5, 2014 — 1 Comment

Untitled101111
I’ve become convinced that its important for the Church to inoculate our young people with a healthy dose of catechesis before we ship them off to college, just enough so that when they first hear about Nietzsche or really study Darwin they won’t freak out and presume that what the Church taught them in 6th grade confirmation is the only wisdom the Church has to offer.

I’ve been working on writing a catechism, a distillation of the faith into concise questions and answers with brief supporting scriptures that could be the starting point for a conversation.

You can find the previous posts here.

III. The Son

3. Is Jesus a Human Being?

No.

Not like you or me even though he’s every bit like you or me.

Jesus is the union of humanity and divinity.

He is the ‘God-Man’ as the early Christians put it; in other words, the two natures- human and divine- share, in Jesus, one substance. The two natures are not discrete properties which for a time share the same real estate in Jesus. They share same existence.

To bring the distinction into still greater focus:

Jesus has no existence of his own apart from his existence in the Word.

There is no mortal, historical person called Jesus of Nazareth who still would have existed had there been no incarnation. Apart from his existence in the Word, Jesus has no existence as a human being. The human Jesus exists only also as the eternal Son.

So, yes, Jesus has an authentic human existence, as human as you or me, but Jesus’ human existence is only by virtue of his existence in God.

Unlike you and me.

Whereas we get our human existence from God, the human Jesus exists in God. The very existence of the human Jesus is God’s existence.

So, no, Jesus is not just a human being because Jesus is never not of one Being with the Father.

“He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being…” 

– Hebrews 1.3