Archives For Christmas

Rubens-adoration_des_magesFor the 4th Sunday of Advent, we did something a little different. The text was Mary’s Magnificat in Luke, a song Mary takes from the Old Testament Matriarch, Hannah, and makes her own. A cover song so to speak. A sample.

With Mary as my muse, I decided to prepare 5 different beginnings to a sermon.

We spun a wheel to choose a beginning at random. I preached that introduction and then tagged in to Dennis Perry who, like Mary, had to take my words and make them his own and then I finished up where Dennis leaves off.

I’d almost forgotten, but here’s the video from the 4th service that weekend. The theme chosen at random was ‘virgin birth.’

 

lightstock_59323_small_user_2741517Every year during Advent we let our confirmation students loose through the church building to take an informal poll.

The question we give the confirmands is the same every year:

Why did Jesus come to earth?

In other words, why Christmas?

Every year the questions are the same:

More than 3/4 answer:

that Jesus comes

in order to die.

And the problem with that answer is…it’s wrong.

As the 12 Day Season of Christmas comes to a close so does this series of posts:

#1 Reason Christmas Doesn’t Need the Cross:

Because God is like John Irving

I’m a rereader. I’ve been that way since I was a boy. One of the novels to which I return nearly every year is John Irving’s best, The World According to Garp.

The novel’s final scene depicts the writer, wrestling-coach and father, TS Garp, calmly dying an assassin’s gunshot as a helicopter carries away the man who as a boy had dreamed that his absent father was a pilot.

The novel’s last line:

“But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.”

It’s much the same in all of Irving’s books. Before ever committing one word of his story to paper, John Irving already knows what will be the last line of his story, and that last line always makes it way into his story’s title.

He knows the story’s ending before he’s ever conceived of the beginning, much less the plot that will get the story there.

Maybe by the end of chapter 1, Irving the author knows that before his creations get to that already-established end, they’ll have to suffer the loss of a child, betrayal and reconciliation.

But, for Irving, that last line and closing image are first in the author’s intentions.

Irving, I believe, is no different than most a/Authors.

While some Christians insist that the incarnation of Christ presupposes Sin, that God would not have come in the flesh had human flesh never fallen, other Christians read the narrative arc of scripture and reflect on the mystery of the Trinity such that they come to a different conclusion.

For instance, the way John Irving conceives of his stories is analogous to how the Franciscan tradition has conceived the divine Story.

The Franciscan Duns Scotus puts it this way:

“Everyone who wills in an orderly manner, wills first the end, then more immediately those things which are closer to the end; but God wills in a most orderly manner; therefore, that is the way He wills.”

- Opus Parisiense

Another way Scotus puts this:

‘That which is last in act is first in intention.’

In other words, the End God desires is the first thing God determines.

According to scripture, what is the End God desires and towards which God is driving history?

It’s not saved souls leaving Earth to go up to Heaven; it’s Heaven coming down to Earth.

It’s God remaking the Earth.

It’s a restoration of what was intended but it’s also a realizing of something else so as to be called New: no more pain, no more tears. no more Death.

But it’s not all new things; it’s all things new.

It’s Heaven (the presence of the Creator) coming down to dwell with his creation.

It’s the community of Father, Son and Spirit joining the community of creatures.

– Revelation 21 & 22

This is the End which God desires and thus, according to Scotus, is the First God determines.

But how can God dwell with creatures when a creature, something created, is the one thing God absolutely cannot be?

 For God to reside with us God must reside in us.

The End desired, which is first in God’s determination, already presupposes an incarnation.

According to Scotus, to deny this and insist on thinking the other way ‘round requires us to believe God foresaw and predestined the fall of Adam prior to the predestining and begatting of Christ:

“If man had not sinned, there would have been no need for our redemption.  But that God predestined this soul [of Christ] to so great a glory does not seem to be only on account of that [redemption], since the redemption or the glory of the soul to be redeemed is not comparable to the glory of Christ’s soul.

Neither is it likely that the highest good in creation is something that was merely occasioned only because of some lesser good; nor is it likely that He predestined Adam to such good before He predestined Christ; and yet this would follow [were the Incarnation occasioned by Adam’s sin].

In fact, if the predestination of Christ’s soul was for the sole purpose of redeeming others, something even more absurd would follow, namely, that in predestining Adam to glory, He would have foreseen him as having fallen into sin before He predestined Christ to glory.

“It can be said, therefore, that with a priority of nature God chose for His heavenly court all the angels and men He wished to have with their various degrees of perfection before He foresaw either sin or the punishment for sinners; and no one has been predestined only because somebody else’s sin was foreseen, lest anyone have reason to rejoice over the fall of another.”

- Opus Oxoniense

I’m no NT Wright but let me resort to a less literary illustration:

Imagine I wanted to meet my friends for a great party.

With this end in mind, I set out to drive the way there. 

Failing to trust the instructions I’ve been given and insisting on finding my own way, I very quickly get off the intended path; in fact, I eventually happen upon a rupture in the road, too large to travel around or traverse down. I’m now so far off the path I was meant to travel I can’t return to the starting point but neither can I ever hope to fix the separation in the road on my own. I can’t get back from whence I came and I can’t get to where I’m meant to go. I’m lost and need someone to rescue me. And only such rescuing will ever deliver me to my original destination. 

And let’s say one of the friends who’d promised to meet me at that great party, who was already there and waiting for me, left it to come and help me. 

It’s true I’d gotten myself good and lost. It’s true that what separated me from my destination was too great to repair on my own. It’s true that I’d be without hope had my friend not come to save me.

However the getting lost, the rupture in the road, the friend coming to deliver me to the destination are not the point of the journey.

They are necessary and instrumental parts of the journey, but they are not the reason for the journey.

The destination is the point of the journey.

Had I not needed that friend to save me as I was lost, I still would’ve met that friend at the party because the End in action was always the First in intention.

Likewise, Revelation 21 comes before Genesis 1.

“Look the home of God is among mortals” precedes “And God said: Let there be light…”

Indeed incarnation, God taking up residence with us, is the reason God turned on the lights in the first place.

And that’s the good news, the reason for which Jesus is the reason for this season: that God wants not simply forgiven creatures; God wants friends.

 

 

 

 

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From friend, Janet Laisch, for 3 Kings Day…
While excavating in nearby Vespignano, I visited the Uffizi Gallery as frequently as possible, and one of my favorite works of art there is Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi– a large, square, (8 feet x 8 feet, 1 inch), unfinished drawing, begun in 1481. Seeing his unfinished art is like entering his studio and watching him at work; it’s a unique way of understanding his mind and his method.
Even though Leonardo daVinci’s Magi, does not adhere to every detail of the Biblical account, it captures the story’s meaning in a profoundly beautiful way.

The Epiphany, celebrated twelve days after Christmas, is one of the most often depicted Biblical stories in western art as told in Matthew 2:7-12:

“Visitors from the East..They went into the house, and when they saw the child with his mother Mary, knelt down, and worshiped him. They brought out their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and presented them to him.”

Some artists adhere only loosely to this story, choosing instead to showcase their ability to choreograph crowds of people, and paint an array of colorful textures in an elaborate landscape. Donors who commissioned the work, like political propaganda, paid money to include family portraits among the retinue of kings bringing gifts to Christ.

Compared to most western art, Adoration of the Magi scenes characteristically depict some of the only examples of people from Eastern and African origins rather than only western European origin.

Here are a few examples.
Gozzoli-LProcession-BR800
by Benozzo Gozzoli
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by Albrecht Durer
Bosch_copyist_Adoration_of_the_Magi_(Aachen)
by Hieronymus Bosch
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by Peter Paul Rubens
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Leonardo, first a scientist and an inventor, began this work (shown above) only after completing preliminary studies. His notebooks include studies for this work:  a one-point perspective plan, shown below, which he partly abandoned, illustrates how he used one point perspective to plan the background battle scene. To remedy the distorted upper right corner that resulted, he simply omitted it in the final plan.
His Adoration of the Magi drawing, pictured above, captures, in the hazy background, this battle scene among pagan ruins, probably representing the battle and ultimate defeat of paganism marked by Christ’s birth.

As the only Epiphany art depicting a battle scene, it is both a poignant and original choice.

Also notice the roof outlines in this study, which he also abandoned, suggesting that perhaps Leonardo considered depicting this Magi scene in or near a house as described in Matthew.

drawing-1024True to how Leonardo worked, after finishing several studies for this drawing, he laid and revised pencil lines directly on the wood panel.Leonardo carefully choreographed each person in the foreground, creating a controlled rather than haphazard crowd. To anchor the protagonists, they form a triangle in the center of the composition.
Mary’s head forms the point of the triangle and then following Christ’s extended arm to the bowing Magi’s feet, the right point of the triangle is visible; the ground itself forms the base of triangle and two bowing magi on the left form the left side of the triangle, finishing the line at Mary’s head, forms a complete triangle. He orders the crowd behind Christ and Mary in three U-shaped rows, and each individual turns his or her head in different directions– some people gesture wildly with opened mouths, presumably to speak about beholding Christ for the first time.
Only after finishing the composition did Leonardo begin layering dark washes over these pencil lines. Even at this stage, Leonardo’s characteristic sfumato or smoky, hazy atmospheric perspective makes the image appear to emerge from the canvas. In the unfinished drawing, Mary and Christ emerge in sharper focus than the hazy background battle scene. Too, the contrast between light and dark or chiaroscuro helps Mary and Christ stand out against the dark rocks and people surrounding them, since Leonardo has applied fewer dark washes to Mary, Christ and the three Magi at their feet, who are lighter in color, and in sharper focus.  Leonardo is most famous for blending brushstrokes so the under drawing is undetectable in his finished works.
If Leonardo had finished, he would have added more washes and color. A glimpse at some of his finished works such as the Mona Lisa below, reminds us that Leonardo’s sfumato technique, much like modern portrait photography, allows the subject to be in sharp focus while the background is out of focus or blurred.
Revealing-the-Truth-Mona-Lisa-by-Tadao-Cern-5
Leonardo’s Madonna of the Rocks
Leonardo_da_Vinci_-_Ultima_cena_-_ca_1975
Leonarodo’s Last Supper
Also by looking at Leonardo’s finished paintings, we can clearly imagine the colors Leonardo would have applied to finish his Adoration of Magi. By looking at his paint palette, we know he included white, black, red, blue and yellow, which he mixed to create unique variations on aquamarine, burgundy, brown, olive green, and goldenrod. I imagine for Mary, who is painted in a soft S curve, that Leonardo would have applied blue for her dress and red for her shawl. Christ as he is drawn appears sturdy and confident and would wear red around his waist, as his right hand blesses the kings before him.

Similarly, we can imagine what God’s finished Creation would look like, starting with the invitation he extends to us all through Epiphany.

 

Matthew’s important words from the Epiphany story, “visitors from the East” probably apply to an even broader diversity.

Surely when Christ reaches out his hand to accept gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, brought from the East and from Africa, it is God’s acceptance of His diverse people as stated explicitly in Acts 11: God has ushered in everyone– to follow his message.

adoration-of-the-shepherds-el-greco-domenico-theotocopuliTomorrow is Epiphany, the denouement of the 12 Day Christmas Season when the magi arrive from the East and offer gifts to the Christ child, gifts that are themselves a tacit recognition of  Mary’s boy’s true identity.

Epiphany hints at the Gospel’s finale: the inclusion of Gentiles into the People of God.

Epiphany shows the promise to Abraham coming to fruition: the healing of the entire world through God’s People.

Since tomorrow is Epiphany, and will be celebrated in most churches today, here’s a sermon on the magi story from Matthew 2.

I’ve aways thought Matthew lends the magi story a fable-like quality with a star that leads the wise men from the East and even hovers over Jerusalem while they sojourn there; therefore. I always tend to write magi sermons that are themselves whimsical.

Like Matthew, I’ve taken what is ‘true’ and bent it for my story-telling aim.

Thus…

When I first sat down on the plane, I did what any of you do.

I began thumbing through the pages of SkyMall.

A 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. He had a Wall Street Journal 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 strongly of some kind of man-perfume.

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 Gordon Gecko and Hannah Montana.

While we waited for take-off I thumbed through the Christmas 2010 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.

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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 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 spent with her husband’s mother. I didn’t turn around but I’m sure her husband was red-faced and gritting his teeth.

     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.

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 minister can provoke unwanted conversations.

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, you can just open it up to the Book of Revelation.

This past Wednesday 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 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 a 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 2010 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 Harry Potter wand for only $70.00.

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

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

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

I looked over at him. You talking to me? Meanwhile I was kicking myself for not having opened my bible to the Book of Revelation.

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     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 the GPS in my car, he laughed.

I thought that might be the end of it. I was about to turn to Revelation 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.

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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 a Nicholas Sparks’ book, 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.

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 exiles and all those who grieve. 

or I wondered if it might be

With what shall I come before the Lord,
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
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.

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

What is? I asked.

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.

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.

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We started our descent. The sun was coming in 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.

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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.

Christmas Prayer

Jason Micheli —  January 4, 2014 — Leave a comment

y_holy_eucharistI’ve written a lot here about how I believe the priesthood of all believers is the unfunded mandate of the Reformation. To that end, I asked a friend and layperson, Caroline Sprinkel, to write a Eucharistic Prayer for Christmas Eve. Not often enough do pastors mine the wisdom and theological riches sitting in the pews. Here’s proof:

Most Holy of Holies, God of all creation,  Author, Director, Producer and Center of all that ever was and ever shall be, the One who called His creation Good, the One who is Love, Righteousness, Justice, Beauty, Grace, Perfection, the Beginning and the End,

We, your creation, give You all our praise and all our thanksgiving, for You alone are worthy.

You, the Holiest of Holies, Glorious beyond all comprehension, the One who breathed life into humanity, who created every single one of us in Your image.

Before the beginning,  before our need was ever established, You chose to enrobe yourself in our flesh, to limit your limitlessness and come to live as we live, in all our earthiness and frailty.

Gracious God, you came, instead, like the least of us, messily born from the poor, Jewish girl, our sister Mary, and you were adopted and discipled by a poor Jewish carpenter – our brother Joseph.

Indistinguishable from your own creation.  Vulnerable – born on the run, in the straw and the dirt, in a stable, where the breath of barn animals warmed you.  And yet, kings feared you, wise men knew of your coming and brought gifts for a King.

Meanwhile, Lord Jesus, you cried, you needed to be fed and changed, you loved to be held and the way your mother smelled.  You learned to give kisses, and learned manners, and learned the Torah listening to your father.  You played,  laughed, made friends, skinned your knees.   You were somebody’s neighbor.  You were the carpenter’s kid.  You grew up.  You worked 18 years at a boring job.  You were just like us.  Known and knowable.  Fully, 100% human.  And, nothing like we could ever be, because even in your human condition, You are also fully 100% God,  living a life just like ours, but without sin.   Intersecting space, time and history as Emmanuel – God with Us.

At just the right time, on a spring evening, after countless meals with friends and strangers, you sat with your closest friends, your disciples and shared the Passover meal together.  Only this time, you did something revolutionary; something that your thirty three human years and 3000(?)  years of scripture and all eternity were leading You to:   You took the bread that represents the Passover lamb and said, Eat this, this is my body which is given for you.  Do this in remembrance of me.  After dinner, you took the Passover wine and said, Drink this – all of you.  This is my blood of the new covenant which is shed for you and for many.  Drink this in remembrance of me.

At tables and alters around the world, Jesus – Emmanuel – the Word Made Flesh –  invites us *all* to be satisfied, healed and freed from death through His human body and His human blood and His bodily resurrection.   He invites us to His table:  the divine feast of oneness with Him, satisfied in Him and by Him, now and forever.

Help us, O God, to believe Your beautiful, impossible reality.  Give us a taste of our eternally Good future – with You in us and among us – now and forever.

Blessed God, with this union and communion

shed your grace brighter than starlight on us

that we may bear your glad tidings, your Good News to all

and renew our weary world in your name:

the name of Emmanuel – God – With – Us.

O come O come Emmanuel.

The Gift of Prayer

Jason Micheli —  January 3, 2014 — 2 Comments

1231472_10201379536123104_1520633178_nThis is from Elaine Woods:

The Gift of Prayer

The Twelve Days of Christmas is a time we focus on generosity.  We shop for Christmas presents for friends and family; and in the spirit of giving, we often think of the less fortunate and donate to charities or help at food kitchens.

We tend to think of giving as something we give to others.  Our money. Our time. Our things.

We are the givers and the less fortunate are the receivers.   After all, we don’t expect to receive something from those who have nothing.

This is especially true of the homeless.

After all, they don’t have a home, barely have enough food or supplies to survive, and may have addiction or psychological issues to overcome.

But just like us, they yearn to connect with others and want to feel valued.  Many of them once had homes and were active members of society.

The book, Same Kind of Different As Me by Ron Hall and Denver Moore, is a true story of the lifelong friendship that develops between a homeless man (Denver) from Louisiana and an art dealer (Ron) from California due to the efforts of the art dealer’s wife (Debbie).

Debbie convinces her husband to join her in serving the poor at the Union Gospel Mission.  Her passion was to treat and care for the homeless with the same respect and love that she gave her own family.  Not just once a week, but 2-3 times. It wasn’t easy.  Both sides were weary of each other’s motives.  Fear and hurt go deep and are not easily removed. But over time, they began to trust each other and a friendship ensued.

At first, Denver wouldn’t speak to either of them.  He was known on the streets as an angry, tough guy and had a reputation to uphold. But over months of watching them, he eventually opened his heart to their friendship.

Years later, as Debbie was dying of cancer, Denver was the one consoling Ron and helping him with his faith.  Denver was able to understand Ron’s anger, and helped him see God’s perspective.  Denver was a prayer warrior who spent night after night holding vigil over Debbie’s illness.

Here’s one of my favorite passages:

“You know, if you ain’t poor, you might think it’s the folks in them big ole fine brick churches that’s doin all the givin and the carin and the prayin.  I wish you coulda seen all them little circles a’ homeless folks with their heads bowed and their eyes closed, whisperin what was on their hearts.  Seemed like they didn’t have nothing to give, but they was givin what they had, takin the time to knock on God’s front door and ask Him to heal this woman that had loved them. ”

Not everyone is called to minister with the homeless; however, it’s important to remember that God values each of us, and will use people from all kinds of backgrounds for His glory. The homeless have keys to the kingdom the same as anyone else.

When Jesus came to earth, His messages and miracles were for everyone.  He redefined what a ‘king’ should look and act like.  He spent time with fishermen, tax collectors, priests, prostitutes, lepers, widows, and children.  All were welcome into the kingdom of God.  And in joining humanity, He prayed for them.

Jesus loved His Father and communicated with Him often.  He prayed for wisdom and guidance in His earthly ministry. He prayed for others to come to know Him as Savior and Lord. He prayed for the twelve disciples, and that God would strengthen their ministry once He departed from them. He prayed with honesty, reverence, joy and praise. But most of all, Jesus prayed with expectation. He knew the Father heard His prayers and would respond.

If you feel like you have nothing to give this season, or you have already given much of your time and money, I ask you to give the gift of prayer.

It doesn’t take much time and doesn’t cost a thing.

God will give you the resources to help others if you ask.

Encourage your children to have their own prayer time. Praying for family, friends, and even strangers is a good place to start.  Children can also use this time to talk to God about whatever is on their mind.

Praying is something every single person on this earth can do, and it’s important to God.  The word ‘pray’ is mentioned 313 times in the Bible.  It is active communication with God.  We talk, listen, or just walk with Him in prayer.

And best of all, prayers are free.

 

 

 

Mary’s Cover Song

Jason Micheli —  January 2, 2014 — Leave a comment

401px-Adoration_of_the_Shepherds-Caravaggio_(1609)For the 4th Sunday of Advent, we did something a little different. The text was Mary’s Magnificat in Luke, a song Mary takes from the Old Testament Matriarch, Hannah, and makes her own. A cover song so to speak. A sample.

With Mary as my muse, I decided to prepare 5 different beginnings to a sermon. We spun a wheel to choose a beginning at random. I preached that introduction and then tagged in to Dennis Perry who, like Mary, had to take my words and make them his own.

Obviously, I only have the introductory text for each sermon but here it is. You can listen to one of the 4 services here or download it in iTunes or, even better, download the free mobile app.

 

Cover Song

Not knowing what to expect once she learns from Gabriel that she’s expecting, Mary travels to her cousin Elizabeth’s house.

Elizabeth is like the photo negative of Mary.

     Both women are pregnant with the promises of God and both unbelievably so. Whereas Mary is young- a virgin- Elizabeth is old enough that she and her husband’s hope for a child had long since past its expiration date.

When Mary sees Elizabeth, she bursts out in prophecy. She sings a song. We call it the Magnificat because of that first line: ‘My soul magnifies…’ Perhaps because we’ve given it a unique title, called it the Magnificat, most Christians don’t realize the song isn’t original to Mary.

It’s a cover song.

Actually it’s more like a sample. From the song Hannah sings when she learns, despite her own unlikely circumstances, that she will give birth to a son. Samuel.

Mary samples Hannah’s song and makes it her own.

In other words, Mary takes someone else’s words and, spontaneously, she uses them to proclaim.

This weekend Dennis and I thought that, rather than just preach about what Mary proclaims, we would instead actually do what Mary did. We thought we would take someone else’s words and, spontaneously, use them to proclaim the Gospel.

So, imagine I’m the Old Testament matriarch, Hannah.

Here’s how it’s going to work.

I’ve written five different beginnings to a sermon. Without Dennis’ input or knowledge.

All four halves of sermons are about Mary.

We’ll spin the wheel to find out which beginning we’ll begin with. I’ll preach that beginning of the sermon and then I’ll tag out to Dennis.

Like Mary, Dennis will have to take my words and, in the moment, use them to proclaim something that’s cause for rejoicing.

Sermon #1: 

All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”  

- Matthew 1

Growing up, I always felt this sneaking suspicion that Christmas for me and my family wasn’t what Christmas was for other families. I suspected as much because I knew that my family wasn’t like other families. Norman Rockwell didn’t paint many quaint images of a children sitting around a tree wondering if their Dad would actually come home that night.

Many of us want to experience a perfect Christmas every year, but perfect experiences require perfect people and I don’t know many of those.

And I doubt you know many either.

Nonetheless, Christmas is a time when many of us feel the need to pretend.

And those without the wherewithal to pretend simply conclude that they don’t belong in this story celebrated by the people better than themselves.

It’s odd that so many of us would think this time of year demands either perfection or pretense from us. It’s odd because the Gospel story itself makes absolutely no pretense about how imperfect was the family into which Jesus is born.

It’s all right there in the lengthy genealogy of Jesus which Matthew provides at the beginning of the Gospels. The genealogy is, in fact, the beginning of Matthew’s Christmas story.

The matter-of-fact list of names strikes the average reader as needless, boring prologue to the Gospel story proper. Readers anxious to get on with the meat of the story miss what Matthew might want us to know by telling us Jesus’ lineage in groups of fourteen.

Fourteen, in the Old Testament, is a perfect number- a number which represents completion. Readers in a hurry during the Christmas season risk failing to notice how in all of Matthew’s begats there are some names which shouldn’t be there if a traditional, legitimate- not to mention respectable- genealogy is what Matthew has in mind.

If you know your bible then you know Jesus’ family tree resembles what would happen if Jerry Springer wrote the season finale for House of Cards.

Jesus’ family has liars and cheats in it, adulterers and murderers, prostitutes and illegal immigrants. The branches of Jesus’ family tree betray secrets like incest and political intrigue and even a woman who got pregnant out of wedlock.

So what is Matthew getting at by beginning things with this imperfect family tree?

You can’t answer that question in isolation from what immediately precedes and proceeds the genealogy.

Before this family tree, before the New Testament begins, the Old Testament had ended and God had been silent for over 400 years.

What God had begun in the Garden. all the promises God had made to his People, were over. It seemed. There was nothing now but the darkness and chaos of exile.

And then Matthew begins the New Testament with a list of begats. And that list of begets begins with the word ‘genesis’ which we translate as ‘in the beginning.’

Sound familiar? It’s how the Hebrew Bible begins the creation story.

And then after the family tree, Matthew tells us how ‘Yeshua’ will be born of/from a virgin; in other words, God will bring forth the Messiah ‘out of nothing’ (ex nihilo) from a virgin’s womb.

God doesn’t require procreation in order to create.

God’s Word will create something from nothing.

We affirm the virgin birth every time we recite the Apostles’ Creed, yet often I wonder if its really more like lip service with which we treat the ancient doctrine.

For many Christians, I suspect, the virgin birth is more like a museum piece of Christian belief- an artifact that belonged to those who came before us.

The doctrine today strikes many as curious and weighted with superstition, others as a ‘miracle story’ with little immediate relevance to the incarnation and still others as an embarrassing fragment of the faith that should be hidden away to make the faith more palatable to enlightened, modern minds.

For those who have no trouble affirming the virgin birth, the doctrine instead becomes a sort of litmus test upon which all of Christian belief rests. Ever since Charles Darwin made the Church’s life more complicated, the virgin birth has been one of the ‘fundamentals’ for evangelicals. Thus all the emphasis is put on believing the virgin birth rather than on what Matthew intends by it.

Few ever give attention to what Matthew may have intended by linking the word ‘genesis’ to a list of less than perfect people and then following it with news of a birth out of nothing. A virgin birth.

The bible is the story of salvation but it starts with the story of creation which we call Genesis. The gospel is the story of salvation but it begins with a story of creation which Matthew calls “genesis.”

 

And just as the beginning of the Bibles speaks of a genesis from nothing, the Book of Matthew speaks about a genesis from nothing, from a virgin birth.

 

And all of it is brought about by the Holy Spirit.

 

You see, all of this is Matthew’s way of telling us that Christmas, the incarnation, is the beginning of God re-making creation. Jesus is the genesis of God’s New Creation such that if you or I are in Christ, then, Paul says, we are a new creation.

 

And that’s why Matthew can put these embarrassing, shameful characters in Jesus’ family tree and make a part of the Christmas story. That’s why we don’t have to be perfect or pretend that we are to be a part of this Christmas story.

Because no matter who we are, what we’ve done, from where we come if we’re in Christ we’re a new creation.

Sermon #2: 

‘He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.’ 

- Luke 1 

We’ve had a mission team in Guatemala this past week. They’ve been working to complete the village-wide sanitation project you all helped fund during Lent.

This is the first Advent I’ve not led the team, and I regret it.

I do so because working and living and worshipping in the Highlands in Guatemala during Advent was how Mary first came alive to me as a character in scripture.

I mean you read or hear about how Mary was very likely poor, coming from a no-account town like Nazareth. You can read or hear about how Mary was very likely only 13 years old, but the Mary of scripture really comes alive when you’re sitting in a little church in Guatemala next to an impoverished 13 year old girl named Maria, who has little education, fewer hopes and a baby strapped on her back.

It was that Mary who, several years ago, whispered to me in Spanish how many Christians in Guatemala didn’t know the Magnificat. Because, she said, Guatemala’s dictators had banned any public reading of Mary’s song in Guatemala.

Mary, Jesus’ mother, was deemed too politically subversive.

It’s remarkable how easily we disguise the Christmas story with sentimentality.

We even hear much talk about how Jesus ‘is the reason for the season,’ yet the reason for his coming is never precisely explained.

We talk about the ‘War on Christmas’ but we’re not talking about King Herod and his death squads we’re talking about how we’re greeted at Tyson’s Corner.

When we allow ourselves to be vague and even sentimental about Jesus’ coming, we inadvertently allow Christmas to get abstracted away from Jesus’ life, teaching and death.

What does Christmas then have to do with the rest of the Gospel?

Or is it, as it seems to many, just an origins story designed to satisfy our curiosity or prove the fulfillment of prophecy?

Or does Jesus come down from heaven, as many Christians seem to suggest, just so we can invite him into our hearts and go up to heaven?

What does Christmas have to do with the rest of the story?

It’s odd that we should be so uncertain about the reasons for Jesus’ coming when his mother Mary is quite explicit about what Gabriel’s news means.

She even puts in a song so it’ll be easier for us to remember.

What does Mary sing about?

She sings about the Lord’s mercy to those who fear Him.

She sing about God’s generosity to the poor and hungry and God’s hostility to the proud and rich.

She sings about a King- she is, after all, engaged to a man from King David’s family.

Mary doesn’t sing about the forgiveness of sins or going to heaven when we die. Mary doesn’t sing about how her boy will one day give us timeless principles to live by.

Mary sings about God making good on his promise to Abraham, his promise to Abraham that through Abraham God would set the world right, bring forth a New Creation.

Mary sings about a Messiah who will topple the kings of the world and then rule AS King of Creation.

As confused as we can sound about the purpose behind Jesus’ coming, Mary knows in an instant how to interpret Gabriel’s news. The one she will bear will be the one to bring God’s promise to Abraham to fulfillment.

Even though we often reduce Jesus to being an object of our personal piety, Mary, who perhaps has more cause than anyone to reduce Jesus to personal terms, understands that her boy’s birth will have much larger, political implications.

A few lessons we can draw from Mary’s song:

That Mary magnificates- literally ‘bursts forth’- with these particular words should tell us something about Mary’s faith and the hope to which she clinged.

No passive, pastel or one-dimensional character, Mary is someone who obviously longed for God to set things right in a broken world. Her faith was active and strong so that, when the moment presented itself, she already had the words within her to respond.

That Mary sings this song while Herod and Caesar are still very much on the throne tells us something of her courage. In the face of the world’s power, she boldly casts her lot with the newness God was about to wreak.

We’re so accustomed to seeing Mary painted with stoic, beatific hues we forget how really she was a woman ready to shake her fist at the powers of the world and call upon God’s power.

That Mary sings this Kingdom song not in the future tense (God will cast down the mighty…) but in the past tense (God has cast down…) should tell us something even deeper about Mary’s faith.

Despite the unlikelihood of a Messiah being born to a poor, unknown, teenage girl, despite the long odds that the kings of this world would ever give up their thrones- in spite of everything common sense might suggest, Mary is confident in God’s promises enough to sing as though God already accomplished them.

Mary knows that any promise of God is as good as done.

That Jesus’ very first sermon in the synagogue sounds an awful lot like Mary’s song is suggestive.

Mary’s boy grows up to express the reason for his coming in exactly the same terms Mary sings about here. Not only is she a woman of obvious faith, which we seldom acknowledge, she also has a hand in forming the faith of Jesus, which we never acknowledge.

So rather than being vague and sentimental about the reason for the season, maybe we should just consult Jesus for his reasons. Or his mother.

Sermon #3:

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.’ 

- Luke 1 

We’ve had a mission team in Guatemala this past week. They’ve been working to complete the village-wide sanitation project you all helped fund during Lent.

This is the first Advent I’ve not led the team, and I regret it.

I do so because working and living and worshipping in the Highlands in Guatemala during Advent was how Mary first came alive to me as a character in scripture.

I mean you read or hear about how Mary was very likely poor, coming from a no-account town like Nazareth. You can read or hear about how Mary was very likely only 13 years old, but the Mary of scripture really comes alive when you’re sitting in a little church in Guatemala next to an impoverished 13 year old girl named Maria, who has little education, fewer hopes and a baby strapped on her back.

Protestants have tended either to ignore Mary outright or to treat her exclusively as a Christmas character.

While she gives birth to the object of our faith, Christians don’t often consider Mary herself as a woman of faith.

Both Luke and Matthew agree in their nativity accounts that Mary became pregnant prior to her marriage with Joseph, a fact embarrassing enough for us to conclude that it must be true.

Not to mention, no one in Israel expected the Messiah to be born of a virgin so it’s odd that both Luke and Matthew would independently tell us that in their different ways.

Both Gospels agree as well that Joseph knew he was not the father of Mary’s child.

The darker side to the annunciation is that when Mary receives news she will become pregnant by the Holy Spirit, she is almost certainly hearing news which no one else will believe.

Nazareth was a small town. You can be sure wagging tongues and whispering gossip will almost certainly follow Mary from here on out, speculating as to the ‘true’ cause of Mary’s premature pregnancy.

According to custom, Mary would have been no older than sixteen when she became engaged. According to tradition, Joseph most likely was an older man, marrying for the second time.

According to Torah, because Mary and Joseph were betrothed, any sexual activity prior to her wedding day would have been understood as adultery not fornication (Deut 22.23).

What if a woman in Mary’s position claimed she had been raped? What if her husband had brought false charges against her? What if she flatly denied any wrongdoing?

For such murky, disputed circumstances, as I showed you last week, Numbers 5 prescribes the ‘law of bitter waters’ wherein a suspected adulteress would be brought before a priest, required to let down her hair, and under oath drink a mixture of ash, holy water and the ink from the priest’s written indictment.

What I didn’t share with you last week.

The woman’s oath in the bitter waters ritual goes like this: ‘May the Lord make me to become a curse among my people when he causes my womb to miscarry and swell.’

Whatever we may think today of such customs, this was the reality which governed Mary’s world. It was the reality in which she nonetheless, hearing Gabriel’s news, replies: ‘May it be…’

Mary would’ve known the likelihood she’d be accused of adultery. Just as surely she would have known the proscribed punishment she might receive.

Mary would’ve known how Torah insisted Joseph divorce her, and she certainly would’ve known that whatever child she gave birth to before marriage, regardless of the angel’s promises, forever would be regarded as an illegitimate child and banned from the cultural and religious life of Israel.

Still, in the face of all those likelihoods, Mary summons the courage to say ‘May it be with me according to your word.’

Over 1500 years ago, St Augustine preached a Christmas sermon in which described all the angels of heaven holding their breath and peeking down through the clouds, waiting to see if Mary would say ‘yes.’

The obvious conclusion we can draw from this scene is that Mary had a faith sufficient to say yes to the vocation God had for her.

We can assume Mary had faith that the God of Israel is merciful and would protect her.

We can assume Mary knew from her scripture stories of women- suspect women- who nonetheless played a part in God’s plan and were safeguarded and ultimately rewarded by God. Mary must have known, we can imagine, that God’s call is very often a summons to serve and to suffer for love’s sake.

When Mary assents to the annunciation, she does so knowing her life will never be the same. Her Nazareth, she had to have known, would never look at her the same way again.

It’s in Mary’s ‘Yes’ to God here in Luke 1 that we can spot for the first time the shadow of her Son’s cross.

If we allow Christmas to be merely about sentimentality, we miss how Mary suffers for the Messiah before the Messiah himself suffers.

Indeed one could speculate that Jesus learns suffering love and the demands of faithfulness on his mother’s knee.

Sermon #4: 

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host…saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”            

- Luke 2 

Megyn Kelly at Fox News caused quite a storm a few days ago by asserting on-air that both Santa and Jesus are white.

Never mind that Saint Nicholas was originally a 4th century Bishop of Turkey and so most definitely not white but you don’t necessarily need to know skin color or ethnicity to understand the story of Santa Claus. It’s incidental.

However, you do need to know Jesus’ ethnicity to understand his story. It’s the essential ingredient to the story.

To understand the Christmas story, you need to know that Jesus wasn’t white. He was a 1st century Jew from Nazareth.

And, perhaps just as importantly, so was his mother.

We can’t get too upset over Megyn Kelly’s misrepresentation of Jesus though.

We’re just as guilty as her.

In Roman Catholic tradition, Mary is most often depicted as beautific.

In our Christmas crèches, she’s gentle and passive. She’s sweet and fresh-faced on Hallmark cards, and in Christian art for two thousand years she has been somber, sober, soft and white-faced.

Making Mary and Jesus just like us is a way of making them a-political; that is, it’s a way of removing the politics from their story.

But what Luke knows is that Jesus is born with monsters at his manger and that Mary delivers him into the world at a cost to herself that we have difficulty imagining.

When the Holy Spirit overshadows her, the Spirit also, for all practical purposes, hangs a bulls-eye on Mary’s back.

By the time her belly begins to show, Caesar Augustus had already been emperor for longer than she’d been alive. Caesar ruled the known world, and he was revered for bringing “peace” to it- peace, by any means necessary.

While God was beginning to work a different plan in the shadows of Mary’s life, Caesar ruled a kingdom of absolute power, a kingdom that brought “glory” to the man on top and “peace to those on whom his favor rested.”

By her second trimester, 1500 miles away in Rome, Caesar will lift his little finger and a young Jewish couple will find themselves submitting to a census, to be taxed, to pay for Caesar’s brand of peace.

And by the end of her third trimester, in Israel, Caesar’s puppet, Herod, will hear news of a promise rising with a star and this young Jewish couple will find themselves hunted. Like so many other Jews before and after them.

Before Jesus grows and preaches one himself, Rome already had a gospel of its own. About their emperor, Roman citizens- ordinary men and women- would proclaim with thankful hearts: ‘Caesar Augustus, son of god, our savior, has brought peace to the whole world.’

To a first century world grown numb to the 24/7 headlines of war, the advent of Caesar was considered “good news.”

It can’t be accidental that when the angel Gabriel surprises Mary with an unexpected future, he tells her that the child she’s to bear will be called ‘son of God.’ 

     It can’t be accidental that when the angels break open the sky directly above the shepherds, they make a threateningly familiar proclamation: “…GOOD NEWS of great joya SAVIOR has been born.” 

     And then the angels all sing: ‘Glory to God in the highest…and on earth, PEACE TO THOSE ON WHOM GOD’S FAVOR RESTS.’  

No doubt the shepherds then tell the news to Mary.

When the wise men show up at the scene, Mary just as surely would’ve known that Herod’s interest in stars and babies was far from innocent.

For Mary, it could all add up to only one thing. If her son was Savior, then Caesar- even if he could compel a census- was not. If her boy was King, then Herod- even if he could hunt them- was not.

The annunciation makes Mary not just a mother. It makes her a Middle Eastern political refugee because Mary was delivering not only a baby but a new Gospel story.

And this new Gospel made Mary’s life dangerous. Gabriel didn’t have to spell it out, Mary knew that by saying ‘Let it be with me according to your Word’ Mary was agreeing to have God place her in the dangerous middle of two competing Kingdoms.

You see, Mary didn’t just have a baby entrusted to her. She had a different, dangerous story to steward safely.

It’s not just the fact of this new baby that sends Mary running into Egypt; it’s this new Gospel that makes her a target.

It’s this news that God was about to bring down the mighty and fill the poor with good things, that those who sit on thrones and in the halls of power don’t have the last word, that the limits and circumstances of our lives are never final.

Christians around the world and throughout history have venerated Mary for being sinless, chaste, and pure- for being the ideal woman and for having such faith that she was ready to say ‘Yes’ when God called her.

Yet Mary gets no credit for being someone who safeguards and shares the Gospel story at risk to herself. We owe Mary more than we think- we owe her the story we gather around this time every year.

I mean, we never stop to think: who was the first person to tell the Gospel story?

After Jesus is born, Gabriel is not heard from again. The shepherds go back to their flocks. The wise men return home. The Story stays with Mary.

Rome called Caesar SAVIOR and SON OF GOD. His rule was GOOD NEWS because he brought PEACE TO THOSE ON WHOM HIS FAVOR RESTED.

Not so subtly, the angels use those very same expressions to announce the birth of Christ. And not so safely it’s Mary who begins to tell the Story, no matter what it might cost her.

The Story of the Son’s birth and what it means and what it contradicts comes to us by word of the Mother.

When Mary runs for her boy’s life to Egypt, you can bet she holds this Story as closely to her as she holds her baby.

Behind our proclivities to picture her in gentle pinks and blues, Mary should be painted with the boldness that can face down empires.

Sermon #5: 

‘All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.’ 

- Acts 1, 2

I was surprised the first time I realized that Mary, after only Peter and Paul, receives the most mention in the New Testament- 217 mentions in the New Testament.

I was shocked the first time I read the beginning of Acts and noticed Mary’s name dropped in there among the list of those who comprised the first church.

A Christian legend holds that, following the crucifixion, the Beloved Disciple took Mary with him to Ephesus where they lived quietly and while he cared for her. It’s a legend that, perhaps unwittingly, portrays Mary as rendered helpless by her grief.

The legend abides and you’re likely to hear it repeated upon a visit to Ephesus today.

Luke, in Acts, gives us a much different take on Mary. There Mary is quietly mentioned as a leader in the Acts church, devoting herself along with everyone else to Jesus’ teaching, to the fellowship of the community, to the Eucharist and to prayer.

How is it we never think of Mary as one of the believers gathered in Jerusalem for Pentecost in Acts?

How is it we never think of Mary as one of the disciples who receive the gift of tongues at Pentecost?

Yet surely, since she’s mentioned here along with the others, she also participated with them in the Pentecost miracle.

If Pentecost is a story of God unwinding the effects of Babel and creating a new community, a new family of God, then Mary is there at this new family’s birth, as one of its leaders.

I like to think that in the birth of this new community Mary finally sees the promise of Messiah coming true, that in the life of this new community the Jubilee she’d sang about in her magnificat was finally being fulfilled.

After all, here was a community ruled by love rather than thrones, a community where the lowly are indeed lifted up and the hungry filled because ‘everyone held everything in common.’

Just as she’d sang about before his birth, all of this is made possible by her Son.

What Mary must realize in Acts, little more than month after her Son’s death, is what she must have started to guess at the Annunciation: that God was bringing together a new People, a people distinguished not by the usual lines of blood or family but a people called together by the particular life which claimed them, a people brought forth not through simple biology but through practicing the life of Jesus.

lightstock_59323_small_user_2741517Every year during Advent we let our confirmation students loose through the church building to take an informal poll.

The question we give the confirmands is the same every year:

Why did Jesus come to earth?

In other words, why Christmas?

Every year the questions are the same:

More than 3/4 answer:

that Jesus comes

in order to die.

And the problem with that answer is…it’s wrong.

#3 Reason Christmas Doesn’t Need the Cross:

Because Christ is the Image of God

Chreasters coming out for my Christmas Eve service no doubt will be expecting the familiar mashup of Luke and Matthew’s Nativity stories, the one where Mary delivers the baby Jesus nearly upon arrival in Bethlehem, the angels sing a-political songs to the shepherds, the magi don’t show up that night not 12 days later and no innocent children get hurt by the monsters that loom near Jesus’ crib.

Instead of the Nativity story, this is the scripture I’ve chosen:

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, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 

- Colossians 1

This text is actually a Christian hymn, earlier than Paul’s letter, likely making it older than just about anything in the New Testament.

The hymn gives a window into how the very earliest community of believers understood and worshipped Jesus.

And what does the hymn sing about?

It praises Jesus as the image of God.

The imago dei.

According to the early Church, Jesus is the imago dei.

Christ is the image of God.

For the earliest believers, it wasn’t just that Jesus is God. It’s that Christ is the created image of God. In other words, he isn’t just true God as the creed says he’s also true man- the true human. img26064

Look at it another way.

If God is Trinity then the life of the Son belongs eternally to God; therefore, when God declares in Genesis 1 ‘let us make humankind in our image’ God’s talking first and foremost about the life of Jesus.

In his desire not for his own furthering but for the Kingdom

In his relationships that paid no regard to prejudice, convention or fear

In his obedience to the way of God no matter the cost to himself

In valuing the Reign of God over the finite kingdoms and power of the world

In his truthfulness

And in his absolute trust in God, that God would vindicate him

The early Church found in Christ a content-filled definition, an embodiment, of what it means to reflect the image of God.

Very often those who formulate the Incarnation strictly in its relation to the Atonement inadvertently idealize the pre-fall humanity of Adam and Eve. Because Eve and Adam sinned in the Garden, humanity became sinful, a condition which worsens exponentially and finally eventuates in the blood sacrifice of the Son.

If only Eve and Adam hadn’t sinned- the thinking goes- Jesus wouldn’t have had to die; nay, Jesus wouldn’t have had to come in the first place.

     No originating sin of Adam’s, no actual sin of ours.

No sin, no Jesus.

Implicit in this logic is the assumption that Adam and Eve were fine before they fell, that they already constituted what God initiated when God declared ‘let us make humankind in our image.’

But according to scripture, Jesus not Adam and Eve constitute the imago. They may have been naked and unashamed. They may have walked and talked with God in the Garden, yet Adam and Eve weren’t anything like Jesus.

I don’t know about pride coming before the fall but trust (a lack thereof) certainly came before the first fall. And trust (in God), if we look to Jesus’ life for clues, is got to be in the top three attributes of what the imago dei means.

All this to say-

I believe there would still have been a Christmas had there never been a need for a Cross because God’s intent from the first week of creation was for the human community to resemble the divine community we call Trinity.

But how would we ever know our purpose apart from seeing our prototype?

Genesis 1 (‘let us make…’) requires a John 1 (‘…and the Word became flesh and lived among us…’).

Indeed I’d argue that not only is the incarnation logically necessary irrespective of the fall, the ‘fall’ is only possible by way of hindsight because of the incarnation.

That is, we now read Genesis realizing something we couldn’t have realized before Christmas: we are not who Jesus is or was in his earthly life.

Our world isn’t the sort of place that welcomes or tolerates a person like Jesus. The world may be replete with goodness and it may show forth abundant beauty but it still crucified Christ. Think of the crowds on Palm Sunday who hail and welcome Jesus only to cry for his death later in the week- we may be good people but we still crucify Jesus. As Paul says, even our best intentions net results that fall far short of Jesus’ life.

It’s not enough simply to say that Jesus comes to die for our sin.

Rather we only know what ‘sin’ means and the extent to which it defines us because God has come in Jesus.

 

With Us: A Christmas Sermon

Jason Micheli —  December 24, 2013 — 4 Comments

postcardHere’s a Christmas Eve sermon on John 1.1-16 from several years ago.

If you’re in the area, then come to our Bluegrass Christmas Eve Service at 5:00. 

Merry Christmas to all of you. 

The first time I ever went to church was on a night like tonight. Christmas Eve.

My mother made us go, my sister and me. We’d never gone to church before so we didn’t know on Christmas Eve you have to come early. We sat far up in the balcony in some of the last seats left.

I was a teenager then, 16 or 17 years old. And I didn’t want to go. I didn’t want to get dressed up. I didn’t want to sing songs that others knew better than me. I didn’t want to sit in a hard, uncomfortable pew and listen to a minister preach. Or tell lame jokes.

I mean- why would anyone want to ruin Christmas by going to church?

I didn’t believe. Better still, I disbelieved more strongly than I believed in anything.

I was convinced you Christians just turn God into whatever and whom ever you want God to be. If you’re a Republican then so is God. If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat then, surprise, God agrees with you on most essential things.

You put God in a box. You wrap him in whatever flag you’re already flying. You put him on your side of this or that issue.

And what better example of that could there be than tonight? I thought. Christmas Eve, the night when, you Christians say, God Almighty swapped heaven for a trough, when God took flesh and became a baby: a sweet, passive, docile, wordless, dependant baby.

You know…if you want a god that can be used by us, then Christmas Eve is made to order. A baby? That’s a god that lets us be in charge. That’s a god we can worship and celebrate without having to be changed or challenged. I thought.

The philosopher Ludwig Feurbach said that when Christians say “God” they’re really just talking about themselves in a loud voice. When I was 16 or 17, I was a lot like Feurbach- except I also like Super Mario Brothers and Professional Wrestling.

I didn’t believe. And I knew all the arguments why I didn’t.

The thing is, back then, I didn’t know much about babies.

My first son, Gabriel, was already 15 months old when I got to hold him for the first time. My wife and I, we held him for the first time not in a hospital or maternity ward but in a hotel.

That’s where our adoption worker brought him to us. Instead of pinks and blues, the “delivery” room was decorated with tropical plants and Mayan art.

Technically speaking, he wasn’t still a baby. He was no longer a newborn but his toddler’s eyes still looked out at the world with innocence and wonder. His fingers were still small and fragile beneath their soft, pudgy skin, and they still clutched onto my fingers for protection. And even though he knew a handful of words already, he still most often spoke in shrieks and cries that demanded care.

We spent our first few days as a new family in that little hotel in Guatemala while we completed the paperwork for Gabriel’s adoption.

The wrought-iron table in the hotel courtyard was where I first sat him on my lap and learned how to feed him and wipe his mouth and clean up after his spills.

The slate patio outside our hotel room, where we sat down on the ground opposite each other, pushing plastic cars back and forth, that’s where I learned to earn his trust.

The hotel garden had a tall, thin palm tree growing in it. That’s the tree I pulled on and swayed back and forth, pretending to be an angry gorilla. That’s where I made Gabriel laugh for the first time. That’s where I made him laugh away his fears.

And then there was the old burgundy armchair in our room- that’s where I held him against me and, for the first time in my life, let my too-cool, cynical voice sing soothing and silly songs to him.

When I was 16 or 17, I didn’t know much about babies. I thought that just because they’re wordless and dependant then they must be passive, harmless. I didn’t know then that babies alter lives. They clutch and grab and pull on us when we’d like to get on to something else.

How could I have known at 16 or 17 how babies disturb schedules, how they force us to think about someone other than ourselves? They jumble and reorient priorities. They call out of us a tenderness and compassion we didn’t know we possessed.

Babies give us a glimpse at the person we could be if everything else in our lives was wiped clean or made new.

I didn’t know it when I was 16 or 17, but if you really want to invade someone’s life, if you want to mess with their priorities and preconceptions, if you want to change them or draw out them love and mercy- then you send them a baby.

If the Gospels were college courses, then John’s Gospel would be a 400-level class. John’s Gospel is the course with all the prerequisites because John presumes you’ve already heard the Nativity story before.

John expects you to know that, when the story opens, Caesar rules the world by the sword and that he needs a census to pay for it.

John expects you to remember that this “king” is born to a poor, unwed, 15 year old Jewish girl, whose unlikely pregnancy few will believe is a sign of anything more than what you could read on the bathroom wall about her.

John expects that by the time you get to his Gospel you should be able to write a short answer essay on the paradox of this cosmic news being delivered not to the press or priests, not to the wealthy or the wise, but to shepherds, who in first century eyes were about as smart and savory as the sheep they kept.

You need to know that the news the shepherds hear from angels is an answer to a prayer so old it had almost been forgotten.

John expects you to know all that because John doesn’t just want to tell you the story of Christmas. He wants to interpret it for you.

He wants you to be able do more than point at tonight’s scene and say ‘the manger goes here, the wise men go over there.’

John instead wants you to be able to creep up to the manger and look down upon the baby it holds and say to whoever will hear your awed whisper: ‘This is what it means. This is why this birth, this night, is more holy than any other.’

Holy because the baby Mary holds is, inexplicably, God- made flesh.

His cooing voice is the same voice that long ago said: ‘Let there be light.’ His tiny fingers that hold onto Mary’s are somehow the hands that first hung the stars in the sky, and the light in his half-open eyes is the same unquenchable fire that once met Moses in a burning bush.

Tonight, his skin is still splotchy. It feels new and warm, but the truth is he is timeless. Eternal. And in his small, gently rising lungs is the power to make worlds.

John wants you to know that tonight.

John wants you to look down into the manger and know that God’s plan to finally disarm us of everything but our love is to send a baby.

And not just any- but Himself, made weak and wordless and wrapped in strips of cloth. Made flesh.

Made every bit like one of us so that every one of us might be made more like God.

Our first night with Gabriel was Easter night, a year and a half ago. My wife was asleep on top of the bed still in all her clothes. The television played softly in Spanish and showed pictures of Easter parades from earlier that day. Gabriel stirred awake next to my wife, crying and fearful.

At that point in my life I’d been a Christian for 11 years. I’d been a minister for 5. And it was Easter. But it was the first time in my life that I really understood tonight.

I sat Gabriel in the burgundy armchair with me. He curled up in my arms and I sang him back to sleep. I saw pictures of the Easter Jesus play across the TV screen and I looked down at Gabriel: tiny, trusting and unknowing. And I thought to myself: ‘This could be God.  In my arms. Breathing against me.’

That’s when the strangeness and mystery of what John tells us tonight really hit me for the first time. Thinking about how much Gabriel had already changed me in just a few hours, I realized for the first time what a powerful thing it is that God does tonight.

I used to scoff at Christmas because I thought a baby was just a safe idol that could be used by us, could be made into whatever and whomever we wanted. But it’s actually the opposite. Babies have within them the power to remake us. What God does tonight is actually more powerful than a hundred floods or a thousand armies.

I mean- go ahead and ask a baby about what you’ve done or not done in the past. Ask a baby about that relationship you’ve yet to reconcile. Ask them about the expectations you’ve not met or about the sins you’ve committed or that thing you’re afraid to tell your spouse or your children or your parents.

You’re not going to get an answer. Babies don’t give answers. They just give light. With babies all that matters is that they are present, that they are there, that they are with you.

I mean- try telling a baby you’re not completely convinced they exist. Try telling a baby: ‘I don’t think believing in you really works in a modern world.’ It’s not going to get you off the hook. With a baby all our questions are relativized.

Babies force us to love them on their terms.

The calendar and the TV said it was Easter, but to me that first night with Gabriel was like Christmas. Holding him in my arms I could sense a new life that he opened up to me. He had neither the words nor the power to absolve me, but, holding him, I felt that everything had been forgiven. Who I’d been before he came into the world no longer mattered.

It only mattered who I would be from that moment on.

Tonight, the baby Mary holds in her arms, the baby breathing against her, IS God. Maybe you’ve heard the story before. Maybe you know where the manger and the wise men should be placed.

But I don’t want you to leave her tonight without knowing that- without knowing that because God takes on a life that means your life is sacred, without knowing that God is new and warm and cooing tonight in order to disarm you of everything but love, without knowing that God is born tonight in order to draw out of you the person you no longer thought could be.

Tonight, Mary holds him in her arms: the Word made flesh.

Tomorrow, Mary’s reputation will still be suspect in the eyes of her community. Tomorrow, she and her fiancé will still be homeless. They’ll still be poor. Tomorrow, their lives will be in danger. Tomorrow Mary won’t know what the future holds or if she’s strong enough to get there.

Tomorrow, her questions and fears and doubts will still be there. And so will yours.

But tonight none of that matters. Tonight, all that matters is he is with us. Tonight, that’s enough.

So listen to John’s invitation and creep up to the manger. Look at the light in his eternal, newborn eyes and know that everything you’ve done or been before tonight is forgiven. Know that all matters is who you are from this moment on, the moment he comes into the world.

Because I can speak from personal experience- this child, he has the power to make you new again.

Merry Christmas.

 

South-Park-santa-jesus-boysSomeone asked me that question recently.

I recently told my own son this ‘true’ story of St Nick and he’s concluded this St Nick is ‘way more totally awesome’ than the fake Santa at the mall.

It’s even led to interrogatories on whether St Nick could beat up Bruce Wayne (yes…Jesus love trumps dark, tortured vengeance…my words not his).

Now….my answer.

You could tell your kids the vanilla, cliched story about a bearded fat man with an alcoholic’s complexion who lives in solitary confinement with a bunch of unpaid little people and who, once a year, sneaks into your house when your vulnerable and sleeping and if you’re good-but only if you’re good- he’ll leave you a present.

And if you’re naughty he’ll leave you a lump of garbage (because that’s a Christian understanding of grace…not).

You could tell your kids that story, which actually isn’t even a story. There’s no plot- no beginning, middle or end.

Or, you could tell your kids about St Nicholas, the 4th century bishop of Turkey.

St Nicholas attended the Council of Nicea in 325, from which we get the Nicene Creed.

Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, convened the council of bishops to debate the teaching of a priest named Arius.

Arius taught that God hadn’t fully or perfectly revealed himself in Jesus, which meant Arius also didn’t believe in the Trinity.

Anyways, at the Council of Nicea, while Arius argued his position St Nicholas- BECAUSE HE LOVED JESUS SO MUCH- started shaking with anger as Arius spoke.

St Nick turned red in the face, and eventually St Nick couldn’t take it anymore and he got up, walked straight up to Arius and punched him in the teeth.

True story.

The original Bad Santa.

Apparently, the other bishops thought Nick had overreacted (aside: its pretty bad when 4th century Christians think you’ve overreacted to a theological dispute) so they put him in chains and threw him in jail. But that night Jesus appeared to St Nicholas, freed him from his chains and gave him a bible. The next morning the guards discovered Nicholas freed from his chains and quietly reading scripture and they were amazed.

So Nicholas was set free to become a legend.

And Arius was labeled a heretic and exiled, and his death was cheered by the Christian world.

So you could tell your kids about a fat man who still drives a carriage like he’s a color blind Amish and apparently treats his reindeer like a North Pole Jim Crow.

Or you could tell your kids about St Nicholas, someone who loves Jesus so much he’s the only person on record to ever be congratulated by Jesus for pimp slapping someone. 

But I’ll let you be the judge.

lightstock_59323_small_user_2741517Every year during Advent we let our confirmation students loose through the church building to take an informal poll.

The question we give the confirmands is the same every year:

Why did Jesus come to earth?

In other words, why Christmas?

Every year the questions are the same:

More than 3/4 answer:

that Jesus comes

in order to die.

And the problem with that answer is…it’s wrong.

#4 Reason Christmas Doesn’t Need the Cross:

Because Christ is the Image of God

One of the deficiencies in rendering Incarnation according to its utility, making Incarnation secondary to the Atonement, by arguing that Jesus (only) comes to die for our sin and thus would not have come otherwise is that it leaves no redemptive room for the life of Christ.

His birth and life are just prologue.

They may be interesting and even instructive but they’re not essential.

Only Jesus’ death matters for salvation.

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

Again, this is not to deny the reality of Sin and the need for redemption on the Cross. Rather to argue that the Incarnation is necessary irrespective of the need for a Cross is to assert that the life of Christ itself has salvific attributes.

Salvation begins not on Good Friday but on Christmas Eve.

This is especially true if you take the perspective of the Eastern Church Fathers who believed the eternal, macro goal of creation was theosis (divinization), the joining together of the the infinite and the finite.

Atonement (our redemption from Sin through the Cross) was a more specific, instrumental means of achieving a larger, prior goal of At-one-ment.

Because theosis is/way the original, eternal, prior-to-the-Fall desire of the Trinity, the Eastern Fathers believed that the incarnate life of Christ changes us or makes a new some things- if not all things- new.

The Incarnation is itself redemptive in nature…because it’s the joining together of Spirit and nature.

In other words:

To argue in this case that Christmas doesn’t need the Cross is not to argue that the Cross is unnecessary.

It is instead to argue that the Incarnation serves a necessary work which the Cross cannot.

396741_267162973337995_300112313_nThis entry comes from Andrew DiAntonio, a student (and part-time pastor) at Yale. He’s got one of the sharpest theological minds I know. Here he is, to my left, in Guatemala. 

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?’

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. ______________________

champions-of-the-faith-athanasiusSt. 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 ran 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.

But 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 at God and 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.

 

Advent Through Art: 3

Jason Micheli —  December 18, 2013 — Leave a comment

This is from Janet Laisch:

One winter in Rome, on my way to research at the Vatican Photo Archives, I stopped and requested a ticket to attend Papal Mass. On that third Sunday of Advent, I arrived early enough to enter the Vatican and find a vantage point of the Pope. However, the Pope’s proclamation was well beyond my understanding of Italian.

Rather than leave my seat, I reviewed my camera’s images.

These images depicted the story I had hoped to hear.

Pope Benedict XVI conducts the holy mass of Pentecost Sunday in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican

The advent story continues about a week prior to Christmas with Mary and Joseph on a journey to Bethlehem as Luke win 2.1-5.
“At that time Emperor Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Roman Empire. When this first census took place, Quirinius was the governor of Syria. Everyone, then, went to register himself, each to his own hometown. Joseph went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to the town of Bethlehem in Judea, the birthplace of King David. Joseph went there because he was a descendant of David. He went to register with Mary, who was promised in marriage to him. She was pregnant…”
Only about a week before Mary gave birth, with a full, round belly and a desire to nest rather than undertake dangerous, unplanned travel, Mary and Joseph journeyed 70 miles south through rocky terrain and dangerous circumstances to fulfill Biblical prophecy.
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chora1

Very few art pieces exist showing the Journey to Bethlehem. Thus, I appreciated this mosaic at the Chora Church in Turkey dating from the twelfth century even more for its rarity. Entering the Chora Church is different from entering the Vatican. To walk through the Chora Church is like entering a life size jeweled box where every surface sparkles as colored glass, gold and semi-precious stones reflect and refract light. The artisans achieved this shimmery quality using chisel blades to hammer stones or tesserae into varying sizes and shapes.
Next, they incised this image using a sharp instrument and laid pigments to guide the placement of tesserae. The team climbed scaffolding to reach the upper walls and carefully placed thousands of tesserae into a wet plaster foundation.
At the Chora Church, large gold tesserae sparkle in the background of the Journey to Bethlehem. The town of Bethlehem, depicted on the left, is the smallest image of the mosaic which helps create a sense of three-dimensional space. Smaller glass tesserae represent red roof tiles, stucco townhomes, towering stone walls, and soaring cypress trees. In the middle-ground, gray, with accents of blue and white tesserae represent the rocky terrain from Mary and Joseph’s arduous journey.
In the foreground, green tesserae depict lush grass rather than dry, desert more typical of topography near Bethlehem. A life size Mary has the most convincing proportions whereas a haloed Joseph following behind Mary is elongated.
Typical to Joseph imagery, he walks with a slight stoop of an elderly man. The smallest tesserae in varying shades depict detailed and loving expressions on their faces. Joseph’s eyes are turned toward Mary who has her head turned towards him. One of Joseph’s sons is leading them carrying a small knapsack.

Meister_der_Kahriye-Cami-Kirche_in_Istanbul_005

The next mosaic, at the Chora Church, depicts the registration for their taxes. Quirinius, the governor of Syria, sits on a throne at the left flanked by an armed military guard. In the middle, scribes hold a scroll recording names and taxes paid. On the right, Mary is standing tall with her head bowed toward the officers. Joseph is shown with his sons helping her. As in the previous mosaic, the background shimmers in pure gold tesserae.
Unknown-1Unknown-2

Light is an integral medium of these mosaics; it not only enhances color and tonality, it makes surfaces kinetic like a hologram.

This kinetic quality encourages the believer to reach out and touch the rough and smooth surfaces and feel the stones dip and climb beneath their fingers.

Before church leaders proclaimed the Gospel in vernacular, one significant way Christians learned Bible stories was by interacting with images like these. Christians must have had a similar experience as I had, listening to the Pope speak in a language other than their native tongue. The message was lost.
Art, as a universal language, illustrates the Bible– stories so vital to knowing God.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

lightstock_59323_small_user_2741517Every year during Advent we let our confirmation students loose through the church building to take an informal poll.

The question we give the confirmands is the same every year:

Why did Jesus come to earth?

In other words, why Christmas?

Every year the questions are the same and, remarkably, every year so are the answers. The needle doesn’t move at all.

More than 3/4 answer, year in and year out:

that Jesus comes

in order to die.

And the problem with that answer is…it’s wrong.

So I thought what better way to anticipate the ‘Feast of the Incarnation’ than with a series of posts, mining the riches of saints and church fathers on the logical necessity of the incarnation irrespective of the Fall.

#5 Reason Why Christmas Doesn’t Need the Cross:

Because God Can’t Love Us…Without Jesus 

To suggest that Christmas doesn’t need the Cross is not to minimize nor deny the noxiousness of Sin.

To argue for the logical necessity of the Incarnation irrespective of the Atonement is not (necessarily) to argue against the actual necessity for atonement.

To believe that the Son still would’ve taken flesh in Jesus had Adam and Eve never taken flight from Eden is instead to point out that the Incarnation solves problems other than the wrath satisfied by the Cross.

When we say that God still would’ve condescended had Adam never fallen, we’re pointing out the (rather obvious) fact that there are certain metaphysical realities that require Incarnation if our speech as Christians about God is to be more than nonsense.

Christian faith is as distinct from superstition as it is from science.

In the previous post, I noted that our very materiality separates us from God not just our sin.

Our finitude.

God is Creator and we- imago dei aside- and we are creatures, and that is a gulf immune to analogy.

Indeed the problem with many theories of the atonement, which imply that God ‘can’t’ love us- sinners that we are- until someone dies for the infinite offense, is that they neglect to notice how the gulf between Creator and creature is already so inconceivably severe that…

God can’t love us anyway.

Not if ‘love’ is to have any meaningful definition.

timothy-radcliffeAs Herbert McCabe argues:

one of the primary characteristics of any definition of love is equality between the lovers.

Love entails a recognition between two of the other’s existence as as valid as one’s own existence. To put the point more clearly, says McCabe, just consider how ‘fostered inequality’ registers with us as the opposite and enemy of love.

If equality is an essential attribute of a loving relationship, then it becomes evident that ‘whatever relationship there may be between God and his creature it cannot be one of love.’

The relationship is instead as unequal as it can possibly be.

We might think of God as caring benevolently for his creatures or as the Source of all value in them or as a Master rewarding/punishing them, but we can’t, McCabe argues, ‘think of God has giving himself in love to a creature.’

The gulf between Creator and creature is such that to say God loves me is on par with saying that I love yeast creature that made my beer possible.

Those hackneyed Christian songs might speak of the singer being in love with God, but it’s even more ridiculous to suppose the singer could sing about God being ‘in love’ with us.

McCabe, the philosophically trained might notice, takes with complete seriousness Nietzsche’s critique of the Christian God. Nietzsche didn’t argue that God was evil, wicked Boss in the sky; Nietzsche resisted because the relationship between God and us could never be anything other than Boss to slave.

That is, to Nietzsche the relationship between God and creatures could never be a relationship of love (between equals).

Nietzsche, in other words, did not disbelieve God; he rebelled against God. God in his estimation was not worthy of worship, for why would I care if the yeast creature in my beer worshipped me?

McCabe takes Nietzsche’s critique with seriousness and in turn laments how many have reacted to Nietzsche:

‘with a deplorable and idolatrous tendency to diminish God. In order that God may stand in relationship with his creatures, God is made one of them, a member of the universe, subject to change and even disappointment and suffering. Even the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation is interpreted in these terms.’

God CAN’T love us, McCabe (a Dominican priest, no less) argues.

And this is where Herbert pivots to scripture:

“The most important thing Jesus said (and he does not only say it in John’s Gospel but shows it and implies it in a thousand ways) is something about himself: the Father loves him.”

Italics all McCabe all the way.

To sing ‘Jesus loves me for the bible tells me so’ is to miss the point in McCabe’s mind. We should be singing: ‘God loves Jesus…for the bible tells me so.’

For Jesus to claim the Father loves him is itself to announce equality with God, that sort of equality implied by and required for love.

Jesus, the Incarnate Logos, is the (only) One who makes it possible for God the Creator to love his creatures. And we Him.

It’s not just Sin that separates us- of course Sin doesn’t help.

God, McCabe, says, loves Jesus and loves him from before all time as his co-equal Son, ‘owing his existence indeed to God though not created but, as I suggest, loved into existence.’ 

Regardless of what went down in the Garden, the Son would’ve still come down to be Mary’s son because:

‘it is into this eternal exchange of love between Jesus and the Father that we are taken up, this exchange of love that we call the Holy Spirit.

And this means, of course, that we are taken up into equality, the equality demanded by and involved in love.’

Nietzsche was right.

God could not love creatures. God still cannot.

What did Nietzsche miss, according to McCabe?

We’re no longer just creatures. Because the Son became a creature, we creatures now share in the Son.

God can’t love us, but God loved the Son.

And in the Son, through the Spirit, the Father loves us.

We who were once creatures have been made children of God.

 

 

Caravaggio_FlightIntoEgypt_detail_Joseph_and_angelHere’s the sermon from this weekend. I’ll post the video and audio from the sermon once it’s ready. As you’ll see below, I began with an updated rehearsal of Numbers 5 that’s better seen than read.

Joseph has gotten short shrift in the Gospels, Church History, Christian Art and Preaching. If you’d like to read more beyond the sermon, I’d suggest Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed, or Ken Bailey’s Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels.

Matthew 1.18-25

     The sermon begins without explanation, with random volunteers from the audience performing updated parts of the ritual for the bitter waters:

First, barley is measured out of its package- 2 quarts worth- and poured into an offering plate.

Second, holy water is poured from the baptismal font into a large clay pitcher.

Next, the ‘indictment’ is written on a piece of parchment and then its burnt, its ashes put into the water and mixed together.

Then, the pen with which the indictment was written is unscrewed and the ink is poured into the pitcher of water.

Finally the floor of the altar is vacuumed and the suctioned dirt is removed from the bag and put into the pitcher. It’s all mixed together a last time and poured into a clear glass.

‘Does anyone want a drink?’

There’s something about this (the bitter waters) story, and there’s something about Joseph that always makes me think of my boys.

But it’s not for the reason you might guess.

Sure it’s true that Jesus isn’t Joseph’s biological son.

It’s true that, like me, Joseph is an adoptive father.

It’s true that in Jewish tradition as soon as Joseph names him and claims him as his own- adopts him- Jesus is as much Joseph’s child as he would be had Joseph been the biological father.

And it’s true that I know firsthand how true that is and feels.

But that’s not it.

That’s not the something about Joseph that always makes me think of my boys.

Matthew says that Joseph was a ‘righteous man.’

And that’s all Matthew has to say.

I know Matthew’s nativity sounds like a short, simple, straight-forward story, but that’s because we live on this side of Christmas. On the other side of Christmas it’s not a simple, straight-forward story at all.

And it all hinges on Matthew calling Joseph a ‘righteous man.’

     In Hebrew the term is ‘tsadiq.’ And it’s not just an adjective for someone.

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

Tsadiq in Matthew’s day was a formal label. An official title.

Tsadiq was a term that applied to those rare people who studied and learned and practiced the Torah scrupulously.

Tsadiqs were those rare people who believed the Jewish law was the literal Word of God as dictated to Mose, and therefore, as the Word of God, tsadiqs believed the Torah should be applied to every nook and cranny of life.

When Matthew tells you that Joseph was one of those rare, elite tsadiqs- righteous men- Matthew tells you everything you need to know to unlock this story.

 

Because when Matthew tells you that Joseph was a tsadiq, he’s telling you, for example, that Joseph wore phylacteries, little boxes of scripture against his head and around his arm- as commanded in Deuteronomy 6.

When Matthew tells you that Joseph was a righteous man, he’s telling you that Joseph wore a prayer shawl at all times as commanded in the Book of Numbers 15. A shawl with tassels hanging from every corner, each tassel a tangible reminder of all the commands of God.

When Matthew tells you Joseph was a tsadiq, he’s telling you that Joseph had a long, never-trimmed beard, a beard that would fill me with envy, a beard that would set him apart as different and holy- just as Leviticus 19 commands.

Joseph was a ‘righteous man,’ says Matthew. A tsadiq.

Which means there were specific things Joseph did and did not do.

As a tsadiq, Joseph covered his right eye and prayed the shema twice a day: ‘Shema Yisrael, adonai eloheinu, adonai echad.’

‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.’

And as a tsadiq, you can bet Joseph had a copy of this prayer rolled up and nailed to his doorpost.

If Joseph was a tsadiq, then he gave out of his poverty to the Temple treasury.

He traveled the 91 miles from Nazareth to Jerusalem every Yom Kippur to have a scapegoat bear his sins away.

He practiced his piety before others to remind them that God had called them to be perfect, as God is perfect.

Joseph was a righteous man, Matthew says. A tsadiq.

Meaning, there were specific things he did and did not do.

He did not violate the Sabbath, no matter what, because God created man for the Sabbath, for the glory of God.

And as a tsadiq, Joseph did not eat unclean food.

For that matter, as a tsadiq, Joseph did not eat with unclean people: gentiles or outcasts or sinners.

When Matthew tells you that Joseph was a righteous man, he’s telling you that Joseph was one of the rare few who could be called ‘righteous’ because they lived the righteous law of God to the letter.

Every jot and tittle.

If the Torah commands that you care for the immigrant in your land then a tsadiq does just that without questioning.

And if Torah commands that you avoid and dare not touch a leper, then a tsadiq obeys God’s righteous law and keeps his distance.

In Israel, in Matthew’s day, after being a priest there was no greater honor than being given the title tsadiq- a righteous man who follows every letter of God’s righteous law.

And that’s the incredibly complicated dilemma that Matthew hides behind that word ‘tsadiq.’

Because this tsadiq is engaged to a woman named Mary.

And she’s pregnant.

And he’s not the father- of course he’s not. He’s a tsadiq.

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You see, in Mary and Joseph’s day, betrothal was a binding, legal contract. Only the wedding ceremony itself remained.

Mary and Joseph weren’t simply fiancees.

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

They were already bound together and only death or divorce could tear them asunder.

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

Matthew tells you that Joseph is a tsadiq.

Betrothed to an adulteress.

 As a tsadiq, Joseph knows what the Torah now requires of him.

 

Joseph can’t simply forgive Mary and forget. Only God can forgive sin.

No matter how much Joseph might love Mary, his love of God must trump his love of neighbor- they’re not equivalent. According to the Book of Deuteronomy, Joseph must take Mary to the door of her father’s house, accuse her publicly of adultery and say to her: ‘I condemn you.’ And if she does not protest or deny the accusation, the priests and elders of Nazareth will stone her to death. On her father’s front porch.

That’s what the Torah commands.

And Joseph, Matthew tells us, is a tsadiq. A righteous man.

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

According to the Book of Numbers, Joseph is commanded to take Mary before a priest, bringing an offering of barley with them. About 2 quarts’ worth.

After offering the barley upon the altar, the priest will compel Mary to stand before the Lord. The priest will pour holy water into a clay jar. Then the priest will sweep up the dirt from the synagogue floor and pour it into the jar of water. Then the priest will write and read out the accusation against her and Mary will be compelled to say: ‘Amen, amen.’ Finally the priest will take the accusation and the ink in which it was written and mix them into the water.

And then command Mary to drink it.

The bitter waters.

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

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

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

She will be considered a sinner. Specifically, an am-ha-aretz, a term that was reserved for people like lepers and tax collectors and shepherds.

 

And as a tsadiq, someone who lives the Torah inside and out, Joseph certainly knows he’ll be considered an am-ha-aretz too if he marries Mary.

He’ll be a tsadiq no more.

On the other hand, if he does anything other than, anything less than, what the Torah commands he will be a tsadiq no more. He will lose his status as quickly as though it were emptied and poured out from him.

But that’s what Joseph chooses to do.

Matthew says in verse 19 that ‘Joseph resolved to…’ but Matthew leaves it to us to imagine just how long it must’ve taken Joseph to come to that decision.

And it’s not like Joseph’s happy about it.

That word in verse 20 that your bibles’ translate ‘considered,’ the root word in Greek is ‘thymos.’ It can mean ‘to ponder’ as in ‘to consider’ or it can mean ‘to become angry.’

It’s the same word Matthew uses in chapter 2 to describe King Herod’s anger at learning the magi have escaped him.

It’s the same word Luke uses to describe how the congregation in Nazareth responds to Jesus’ first sermon right before they try to kill him.

So it’s not like Joseph is happy about it.

But still, Joseph decides to violate the Torah by refusing to condemn Mary.

Joseph ignores his obligation as a tsadiq by refusing to have Mary’s guilt tested by the bitter waters.

Joseph forsakes his power and privilege as a tsadiq for Mary’s sake, for a sinner’s sake.

     He decides to divorce her in secret.

He chooses love over the letter of the law.

He chooses compassion over condemnation.

He chooses sacrifice over safety and self-interest.

And here’s the giant thing Matthew hides in these few, little verses:

     Joseph makes that choice before the angel Gabriel ever whispers a word to him.

     Joseph chooses this path before he finds out that Mary is anything other than exactly what people will assume she is.

joseph

 

Flash forward 30 years or so.

 

And the boy that Joseph made his own is all grown up.  And one day Joseph’s boy meets a woman at a well. Jacob’s well.

Even though it’s almost dark and Torah commands that they shouldn’t be talking with each other, especially at night, Joseph’s boy sits down next to her and does just that. The woman’s had 5 husbands and the man she’s with now, she’s not married to. Which, according to Torah, makes her guilty of adultery.

According to Torah, she’s exactly the type of person who deserves to be given the bitter waters.

But instead Joseph’s boy, who doesn’t even have a bucket, offers her something that sounds like the opposite of bitter waters: Living Water.

     Like father.

     Like son.

 

And one day, Joseph’s boy is at the Mt of Olives and a group of experts in the law- tsadiqs- come up to him, carrying stones and a woman they’ve caught in adultery.

She’s guilty.

And Joseph’s boy knows what the Torah commands. He can probably cite the chapter and verse: Deuteronomy 22.

It’s not an ambiguous case; it’s a dare.

And Joseph’s boy looks down at the ground and responds with a double-dare: ‘Whoever is without sin may cast the first stone.’

And when he looks up the tsadiqs have all left, leaving their stones on ground. Then Joseph’s boy kneels down and looks the woman in the eyes and says the opposite of what Torah commands: ‘I do NOT condemn you.’

     Like father, like son.

And one day as Joseph’s boy is leaving synagogue a leper reaches out to him and says ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’

Because he’s not clean, Torah is clear about that.  And Torah is clear about commanding that Joseph’s boy should put as much distance as possible between himself and this leper.

But instead Joseph’s boy reaches out to him and touches him and says to ‘I do choose.’ And Joseph’s boy reaches out to him and touches him and says that to him before he heals him.

And then Joseph’s boy flees to the wilderness.

He has to- because the leper’s uncleanness has become his own.

    Like father, like son.

And when Joseph’s boy returns from the wilderness he invites himself to dinner.

At a tax collector’s house.

And it’s when Joseph’s boy is seated around a table, eating and drinking with sinners and tax collectors- people who were considered am-ha-aretz by good Jews- that’s when Joseph’s boy uses the word ‘disciple’ for the very first time.

But I can’t help but wonder if maybe Joseph’s boy was the first disciple.

I can’t help but wonder if maybe he was an apprentice in more than just carpentry.

 

When Joseph’s boy grows up, again and again, he chooses mercy over what the law mandates.

He reaches out to women Torah says he should reject.

He teaches ‘You’ve heard it said…I know Torah says this…but I say to you…’

He talks about the spirit of the law and not the letter.

He says the law was made for us to thrive; we weren’t made for the law to trip us up.

When he grows up, this son-of-a-former-tsadiq preaches ‘Blessed are those who…’ and in doing so he redefines ‘righteousness’ in a way that was all upside down from ‘right.’

    In other words, when he grows up Jesus acts and sounds an awful lot like his father.

     His earthly one.

I don’t know why that should surprise us.

After all, as Matthew points out, we call Jesus: ‘Emmanuel.’

God with us.

 

We believe that Jesus is fully God.

We believe that Jesus is God incarnate. God in the the flesh.

     But paradoxically, we also believe Jesus was fully human.

     As human as you or me.

Jesus stank and sweated. He spit up as a baby, and when he sneezed real boogers came out of his actual nose.

He was fully human.

And if you don’t believe that you’re committing the very first Christian heresy. Your thinking is what St John calls ‘anti-Christ.’

 

He was fully human.

He didn’t just seem human. He wasn’t God pretending to be human.

His humanity was not a disguise hiding divinity underneath.

His divinity did not steer his actions or control his thoughts anymore than you or me.

 

He was truly human. As human as you or me.

He got tired like we do. He got hungry like we do. He laughed and he wept like we do. He sometimes lost his temper and dropped a curse word like we do (Mark 7). He got constipated and everything else I can’t get away with mentioning in church.

Just. Like. We. Do.

    He was fully, completely, 100%, no artificiality, nothing missing, no faking it, human.

     And that means…

     that Jesus needed to be taught.

     Like we do.

Jesus needed to be taught how to pray.

Jesus needed to be formed by the practice of worship.

Jesus needed to be nurtured into his faith.

Jesus needed to be instructed in how to interpret scripture

Jesus needed to be trained to give and forgive.

Jesus needed to be discipled in what it means to follow God before he ever called his disciples to follow him.

     We believe that Jesus was truly human, as the creed says.

     You see, Jesus taught what he taught not because it was a satellite broadcast from our Father in heaven.

     No, Jesus taught what he taught because that’s what his father and mother taught him.

     And that’s the something about Joseph that always makes me think of my boys.

 

Because if Jesus couldn’t be Jesus without his father, then my boys can’t possibly ever be like Jesus without theirs.

Without me. Without you. Without their mother. Without a community like this one.

Jesus needed to be apprenticed into the faithful person he became.

And so do my kids.

And so do yours.

And so do I.

And so do you.

     If Jesus wasn’t Jesus all by himself, then it’s ridiculous to think that we can be like Jesus all alone by ourselves.

That’s why we do what we do here.

Teaching the stories. Offering bread and wine. Baptizing with water. Serving the poor. Praying the prayer he taught us- which I’ll bet sounds just like the prayer his father taught him.

And that’s the reason we’re starting another faith community in Kingstowne.

Because if Jesus needed to be discipled before he could deliver the Sermon on the Mount, then we need to be discipled before we can live it.

And we can, you know.

Live it.

     Because if the incarnation is true, if Jesus was fully human, as human as you or me-

then the life of Christ isn’t just an impossible ideal we admire once a week.

It’s a life we can make our own.

Because if its true that Jesus was fully human, as human as you or me, then the logic of the incarnation works the other way too.

     If Jesus was as fully human as you or me, then you and I can become as fully human as him.

     If Jesus was fully human, then you and I become as fully human, as fully alive, as him.

It’s not just that Jesus got tired like we do, got hungry like we do, laughed and wept like we do.

No, if the incarnation is true, then we can forgive like he did.

We can serve and bless and welcome like he did.

We can receive those whom others would reject like he did.

Like him, we can turn the other cheek.

Like him, we can love our enemies.

Like him, we can give our selves to an upside Kingdom.

And like him, we can live such beautiful lives that God can’t help but to raise us from the dead.

But just like him we can’t do it by ourselves.

lightstock_59323_small_user_2741517Every year during Advent we let our confirmation students loose through the church building to take an informal poll.

The question we give the confirmands is the same every year:

Why did Jesus come to earth?

In other words, why Christmas?

Every year the questions are the same and, remarkably, every year so are the answers. The needle doesn’t move at all.

More than 3/4 answer, year in and year out:

that Jesus comes

in order to die.

And the problem with that answer is…it’s wrong.

So I thought what better way to anticipate the ‘Feast of the Incarnation’ than with a series of posts, mining the riches of saints and church fathers on the logical necessity of the incarnation irrespective of the Fall.

In other words:

That if Adam had never sinned God still would have taken flesh in Mary’s womb. Or someone like her.

That Joseph (or someone like him) still would’ve laid God in a manger even if God had not needed to die for our sin.

That the Son still would’ve donned golden fleece diapers even if we hadn’t needed a Suffering Servant to bear our iniquity.

#6 Reason Why Christmas Doesn’t Need the Cross:

At-One-Ment

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

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

He is fully both God and Man. img26064

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

Eternally.

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

According to Maximus the Confessor- indisputably one of the greatest minds in the history of the faith, someone who could even out smoke, out drink and punch out Karl Barth:

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

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

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

Our finitude. Our createdness. Our materiality.

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

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

At-onement of a different sort.

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

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

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

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

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

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

With us.