Archives For Christmas

To Christ! Cheers!

Jason Micheli —  January 5, 2018 — 1 Comment

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

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

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

Preface:

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

 

1. To Christ the New Adam

 

To Christ the Lord a brand new Adam, he

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

To him all laud and honor be assigned,

Humanity’s designer now designed.

Once Adam and his counterpart would walk

The garden every evening for a talk

Til temptation’s taste God’s grace betrayed.

These friends of God were naked and afraid.

This Adam is our ancestor and kin,

But now true human life again begins.

Old Adam’s peace with God, as friend,

Is why this re-cast Adam does descend.

Old Adam’s story, our disgraceful fall.

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

 

2. To Christ the New Noah

 

To mind, as friendly beasts around Christ stood,

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

Of Noah called to build for God an ark

As storm clouds gathered, ominous and dark.

The Holy family in a stable hid

As Noah and his family also did.

God tried to wash all fallenness away

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

God chose to never try the flood again,

And here is where our dear Christ enters in.

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

Baptismal waters wash away our dross.

His Spirit is the dove on Calv’ry perched

The Christ-constructed arc is now the church.

 

3. To Christ the New Isaac

 

To Christ the Lord, a brand new Isaac, he

A shoot from Jesse’s Abrahamic tree.

Old Abe was promised kids at ninety-one,

Young Isaac was his Sarah’s firstborn son.

And he was their beloved pride and joy,

But God asked Abe to sacrifice his boy.

In faithfulness and fear Abe acquiesced

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

Then God stopped Abe and proved in Isaac’s life

That this is not God’s kind of sacrifice.

The faithful need not sacrifice another

We need not separate a child and mother.

Instead the sacrifice New Isaac gives

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

 

4. To Christ the New Joseph

 

Imagine Christ the youngest of 12 brothers

His swaddling cloth a coat of many colors.

Eleven brothers did, as Judas will,

Sell Joseph out, a perfect plan, until,

Cast out he finds himself in Pharoah’s court.

The nascent Christ is Joseph, of a sort.

A dreamer, to be sure, but fully wise,

By his own tribal kin likewise despised.

The technicolor curtain to be torn,

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

Seek solace from this famine-fallowed land.

New Joseph sits enthroned at God’s right hand.

From siblings’ malintented cross of wood.

Came resurrection, God’s intended good.

 

5. To Christ the New Moses

 

To Christ the Lord, a brand new Moses, he

Has come to finally set all people free

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

To bring for all earth’s Pharoahs signs that God

Has heard the cries of slaves to greed and might.

He recapitulates Passover night.

In Moses’ basket, Mary lays I AM

Who gives himself to be our Paschal Lamb.

And as in desert wilderness they saw

The gifts of water, manna, and the law

So Christ brings streams of mercy, bread of peace,

And to those held in bondage, sweet release.

As Moses brought commandments from above,

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

 

6. To Christ the New David

 

To Christ the Lord, a new King David, he

Has come to rule the world with equity.

From Bethlehem, the Lord’s Davidic home,

Behold he comes to mount his manger throne.

Though Samuel warned a king was a mistake,

As all they do is take and take and take,

The people Israel insisted still

To be like other nations was their will.

Heart-broken over this unfaithful bride,

Their God in perfect patience did provide.

And though King David reigns the Hall of Fame,

This day three Kings bow down at Jesus’ name.

While most kings only take and take some more,

This Christ, new-born, is gracious evermore.

 

7. To Christ the New Ruth

 

To Christ, a recast Ruth, the nearlywed,

We raise a toast as they lay down their head.

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

Committed to a promise, without end.

As Ruth was loyal in the midst of grief,

So Christ shows faithfulness, beyond belief.

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

And, “We will one forever-fam’ly be.”

From boundless fruitful freedom, now enfleshed,

The firstborn of the harvest to be threshed.

To gather in the sheaves of broken dreams,

Our broken, banished-barley souls to glean,

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

That none can put asunder God and us.

 

8. To Christ the New Jonah

 

To Naughty Nineveh God sent him out.

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

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

Aboard a ship he slipped into the spray.

While playing possum, fleeing from the Lord,

His fellow sailors tossed him overboard.

Like Nineveh, our world is sick with sin

But Christ will walk where Jonah fell right in.

Once, Jonah prayed for 3 days in a fish

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

Where Jonah feared, our Christ was thrice as brave:

And for our sake was swallowed by the grave.

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

Plunged into death he rose to victory.

 

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

To Christ the Lord, the Newly-Lighted Way

Isaiah’s glimpse foretold is here today.

In desert exile from the garden, we

Have prayed in shadow bent on feeble knee.

Arise and shine because the Light has come.

The lion and the lamb at last are one.

So walk in light and shout the great Amen.

Our Zion king instructs from Bethlehem.

The good and level road is ready now.

Convert your weapons, dare to share the plow.

Come ruler, president, and governor

And meet your lowly subjects’ comforter.

Trade evil for the Good, do not delay.

For this is Christ’s inauguration day.

 

10. To Mary Bearer of God

 

If Eve is mother to our wanton shame

Then Mary is a mother free from blame

So ponder with me now this “mother mild”

At once both meek and mighty, like her child.

A pregnant teenaged girl true wisdom had

Contemplative but fierce and shocked but glad

Tis she who births our Savior full of grace,

In labor’s pain rebirths the human race.

Her babe is firstborn of creation, true,

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

The Theotokos is her name in Greek

The bearer of the one the wisest seek.

She bears God into life, and so, may we

Be bearers of the Light we long to see.

 

11. To Christ our Sin

 

Let us who know our sin now raise a glass,

To Christ the scapegoat flanked by ox and ass,

Our asses for to save, he takes on skin,

The guiltless bears our guilt, becomes our sin.

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

His body filled with all our lust and malice.

Who Peter once denied, becomes denial.

The righteous judge endures the time of trial.

Who Judas once betrayed becomes betrayal

Consumes the murderous rage by Cain enabled.

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

Is crucified in flesh by holiness.

And can it be? Let all our tongues employ!

The wrath of God has sin in Christ destroyed.

 

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

 

To Christ the Word made flesh now let us sing

As we behold the poe’try of this thing

This Word was with and was what Wonder wrought

This wondrous Word without which we were naught

Mere mortals mystified by elf on shelf,

This Light now lit is light that lights itself!

The True Light that enlightens everyone

As if there is no shadow, only sun

Unbowed, unbent, unbound by time and space,

From faithful fullness giv’n as grace on grace

He deigns to dine despite those that deny

This life that lives so all of death may die.

So in the name of Light and Word again,

I wish you Merry Christmas, friends. Amen.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a little church.

(#blesstheirheart)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

King Herod was played by the head usher, Jimmy.

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

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

I sat down and King Herod handed me a program.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Who picked the cast for this? Who chose them?

     Then he shook his head in disgust and accused me:

     Do you really think this is appropriate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s as if Matthew wants to say:

Everything about Christmas

Every promise this Christ child offers you

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

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

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

For instance-

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

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

Tamar had cheated him by disguising herself as a prostitute.

(I mean: Hebress with a heart of gold)

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

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

Boaz’s son was the grandfather of David.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary was the narrator for the Christmas story that year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     ‘Appropriate?’ I whispered back.

‘No. No, I think it’s perfect.‘

And Mike glared at me, red-faced.

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

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

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

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

What I mean to say is-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

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

Tonight Emmanuel

God-with-us

Comes to us

Just as you are.

We call it grace.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

No Linus,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

I like it very much.

With haste, she packed her belongings into a duffel.

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

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

     ‘Favored one.’ 

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

    ‘Favored one.’ 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things would never be simple again.

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

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

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

She wondered what that said about God.

And what her boy would one day make of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sleep came hard those nights on the road.

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

Made flesh.

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary knew: hers was different.

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

Life from nothing- that was the difference.

Not from Joseph or anyone else.

From nothing God created life.

Inside her.

From nothing.

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

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

The same way God created Adam and Eve.

From nothing.

As though what she carried within her was creation itself.

The start of a new beginning.

To everything.

For everyone.

A Genesis and an ultimate reversal all in one.

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

Where is the promised peace? Should we preach political sermons on Christmas Eve? Why does the victory feel so fragile? When was the last time we trembled in church?
Our special guest and my former mentor, Dr. Ruben Rosario Rodriguez, returns to the podcast (this time to Strangely Warmed) to talk about the lectionary’s assigned readings for Christmas Eve.
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It was the Council of Chalcedon in the mid-5th century that hammered out the Christology (‘speech about Christ’) that became orthodox for Christians everywhere. According to the Chalcedon formula, the best way to refer to Jesus Christ is as ‘the God-Man.’

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

He is fully both God and Man.

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

Eternally.

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

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

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

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

We all know Sin separated us from God.

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

Our finitude.

Our createdness.

Our materiality.

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

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

At-onement of a different sort.

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

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

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

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

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

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

With us.

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

Rags for Riches

Jason Micheli —  December 4, 2017 — 1 Comment

     First Sunday in Advent – Isaiah 64.1-6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As a Christian.

Usually the exhortations all boil down to one:

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First-

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

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

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

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

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

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

     And obviously we do spend too much.

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

And that gets to my second caution-

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

Or modern psychology for that matter.

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

Here’s what I mean-

Take this statistic: 93%.

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

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

No one disagrees.

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

But we do it anyway.

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

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

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

Thou shalt provokes I shalt not.

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

“Ceaseless censure produces recidivism.”

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

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

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

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

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

     And Christmastime comes with Law all its own.

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

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

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

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

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

Piece of cake, right?

The Law always accuses.

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

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

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

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

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

By what we should do

Who our family should be

How we ought to celebrate.

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

For who we are not

How we fall short

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

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

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

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

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

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

The gift of God in Jesus Christ.

Which is what exactly?

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

Quick, what are they?

I thought so.

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

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

I didn’t think so.

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

And maybe-

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

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

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

But listen again to the prophet Isaiah:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the short, specific answer: righteousness.

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

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

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

No amount of shopping will improve upon that gift.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Hear the good news:

You have no Christian “obligations” at Christmas.

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

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

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

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

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

You see-

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

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

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

Christians get the gift-giving tradition honest.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

     It’s a strange-sounding word: homage.

It’s a word that feels as though it belongs dressed up in period costumes, a word that could be found in an heirloom bible.

Isaiah’s vision of God’s light intruding upon the darkness comes at a moment in Israel’s story when all the promises of God seemed like broken memories. Not unlike the time when King Herod rules Israel and Caesar Augustus issues his decree for a census.

The prophet Isaiah foresaw a time when God’s light would shine bright and clear not just to those within the covenant but to those far outside it. A time when a caravan of nations would travel to the Promised Land to present this God with gifts and to pay him ‘homage.’

That’s how the Hebrew in Isaiah 60 puts it: homage.

St. Matthew, in his Nativity story, tells of this prophecy being fulfilled some 500 years later in the journey of the magi. According to the hymn, these star-followers were “kings,” leaders of the gentile world coming to honor the King of Kings. According to that same hymn, there are three of these “kings.” According to Christian tradition they have names: Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar.

And according to the poet TS Eliot, after having encountered the baby in Bethlehem, these star-followers returned home, “no longer at ease” in the world they had previously known.

Tradition has done much with the magi, but Matthew is mum about all of that.

Matthew doesn’t tell us much about the magi but he is clear and emphatic about why they’ve come: “Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews?” they ask the scholars and priests in Jerusalem, “For we have seen his star in the East, and we have come to pay him homage.” 

     And when they arrive at the manger, before they give him gold, before they give him frankincense, before they give him myrrh- they drop down onto their knees and they give him homage.

Every Christmas season I like to peruse the newsstand magazines- weeklies like Time and Newsweek– to read their obligatory cover stories about Christmas.

Usually the articles promise new discoveries and have provocative titles like: ‘Was It Really a Silent Night?’ ‘Who Was Jesus’ Real Father?’ or ‘The Christmas Story the Church Doesn’t Want You to Know.’

A couple of weeks ago I was browsing the newsstand at Barnes and Nobles, and I came across a story that featured Richard Dawkins giving his thoughts on Christmas.

Dawkins, as you may already know, is an Oxford biologist and something of a rabid atheist. He’s also the author of the bestseller, The God Delusion.

So who wouldn’t want his thoughts on Christmas?

I flipped through the article and a few of Dawkins’ Christmas comments caught my eye.

“I participate for family reasons,” says Dawkins. “With a reluctance that owes more to aesthetics than atheistics…so divorced has Christmas become from religion that I find no necessity to bother with euphemisms such as holiday season…understanding full well that the phrase retains zero religious significance, I unhesitatingly wish everyone a Merry Christmas.”  

Wow, he’d be a kick-ass party guest, wouldn’t he?

Richard Dawkins is by any academic or intellectual measure a wise man. He may understand much about a great many things that would leave my head spinning. Yet, I don’t think he understands- I don’t think he knows much about that word.

Homage.

Matthew calls them “wise” men so it’s easy for us to forget that the magi don’t know any scripture. When they follow the star to Jerusalem, the magi have to ask the city’s priests and scholars what the star means.

Matthew calls them wise men, but they don’t know what Messiah means. They don’t understand the ways in which this Christ child is already and will be later a threat to the ways things are and to the powers that be. When they approach the manger in Bethlehem the true identity of the baby inside is still very much a mystery to them.

That doesn’t stop them, though, from paying him homage.

They don’t let what they don’t know, what they still have questions about, what they still don’t understand- they don’t let all that keep them from giving him homage.

Their journey, their visit, Christmas- it was about more than gift-giving. It was about more than paying their dues or finding the answers to their questions.

It was about homage. It was kneeling and bowing and submitting. Worship.

It was an act of humble commitment. A commitment that came with the expectation of servant-hood.

     Before they give their gifts, before they understand who he is or what he means for the world…they kneel before him, Immanuel- God with us, and they give him their lives.

They give him homage. 

     That’s what makes them wise. 

     Knowing God, being close to God- it’s not so much about understanding or knowing the scriptures or being a religious insider. It’s about giving homage.

When it comes to approaching the manger, it’s not about first having all the answers. It’s not about getting your junk in order before you a take a step closer. When it comes to Jesus, worship comes first.

     What I mean is…

There are things about God you can only understand once you’ve given him your life.

I know that sounds counter-intuitive. I know someone like Richard Dawkins would say that it’s intellectually dishonest. I also know it’s true.

It’s almost an impossible thing to do, to hand over your whole self to Christ. It’s almost impossible, but it’s easier than waiting for all your doubts to be erased. It’s easier than remaining who you are and living for yourself only.

It’s almost impossible but it’s, entirely so, wise.

God Gets Particular

Jason Micheli —  December 28, 2016 — 3 Comments

 

This sweet baby Jesus in his golden-fleece diapers is God. In the flesh.

That was the basic gist of my Christmas Eve sermon as it was, I’m sure, for most of my clergy colleagues.

Christmas Eve isn’t the time for cute or clever surprises. Or at least I thought so. Apparently we had some visitors who had never heard that before, never heard of what the Church calls the incarnation.

One was a young woman who came up to me at the end of the 9:00 service. She was about my age, I think. I’d never seen her before. She had a couple of kids running around at her legs.

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

She forgot to tell me her name. I forgot to ask. She just came right up to me, pushed her hair behind her ears, held out her hand and told me that her husband was in Iraq and that her mom was dying. That’s how she identified herself.

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

And I felt like saying: ‘Lady, where were you for the last hour? Didn’t you listen to a word of my sermon? Do you know how long I spent writing it?’

But instead I said: ‘Yes, they’re one and the same.’

And she… smiled.

She smiled. She didn’t say anything more about it. She didn’t say anything else.

I can’t read minds but my guess is she was thinking of her mom, her mom who was dying and who’d never gone to church.

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

Merry Christmas,’ I said.

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

Another was an older man. He was dressed expensively and wore a black wool beret on his head. To tell the truth, he seemed kind of grouchy- like a curmudgeon, and he was from out of town so, chances are, he belongs to somebody here.

He told me he was in banking. He said that he wasn’t really a church person but that reading philosophy was his passion. He came up to me at the end of the 7:00 service, and he said: ‘Reverend, that was an interesting message, but one thing wasn’t clear to me. Were you saying Jesus leads to God, or that he is God?’

I couldn’t tell whether it was a condescension or a question.

‘In the flesh…’ I replied to him.

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

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

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

‘Merry Christmas,’ I said.

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…

So…Christmas is over on all but the liturgical calendar. Trees and decorations have been taken down. We’ve exchanged gifts and greetings and here we are again…stuck with Jesus.

That’s what I couldn’t say on Christmas Eve. It would’ve made a bad impression on all the bright-eyed visitors we had here. It would be better if they came back a few times before we let them know what they’re getting into, before we let them know the baby in the manger grows up to be Jesus.

That’s what Paul’s Christ hymn in Colossians is driving at- that the whole meaning of incarnation, the shock and irritating specificity of incarnation, it isn’t just that ‘God is with us.’ That sounds nice and comforting.

It’s that God is with us as Jesus.

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

No, the message of Christmas is that God came among us as the baby who grew up to be Jesus. Those are the uncomfortable claims we make. That in Jesus we’ve seen all of God there is to discover.

Now, even though I’m a minister, I can tell you that my life would be whole lot easier if God would just remain abstract and aloof. I could get on with my priorities more quickly if I could just say: Well, Jesus- he only gives us a partial glimpse of God. Maybe I’ll go get a second opinion.

Things might be easier for us if it were otherwise but, at Christmas, in Jesus, God gets particular.

Jesus, we say, is a revelation of the real ways of God. Think about what that means.

Because of Christmas, when we have a decision or dilemma in our lives, we can no longer ask: ‘I wonder what God wants me to do?’

Now, because of Christmas, we have to ask: ‘What would Jesus do?’ because Jesus is the image of the invisible God.

We’re stuck with Jesus.

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

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

When the world tempts us into thinking about issues or people in black and white terms we’ve got to put ourselves in other shoes because Jesus told us to and he is the firstborn of creation. 

That’s what I couldn’t say at Christmas.

I couldn’t say:

Watch Out

Caution

Buyer Beware

Don’t get too close to the manger

Don’t be fooled by his smile or his sweet eyes because this is one difficult, demanding baby

I couldn’t ask:

Do you have anger against someone you love?

Have you sinned against a neighbor?

Are there people who are just too unsavory for you to spend time with them?

Because you may want to think twice before saying Merry Christmas, because this baby’s going to have a few things to say when he grows up and I’m sorry but you’re going to have to listen.

After all, in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. 

In other words, we Christians say: It’s not that Jesus is someone who speaks of God. It’s that Jesus is what God speaks to us.  It’s not that Jesus is someone who teaches about God. It’s that Jesus is what God teaches us. It’s not that Jesus is one who shows us a way to God. It’s that Jesus embodies the ways of God. COMPLETELY.

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

You see, there’s an unavoidable, uncompromising finality to Jesus that Paul wants to hit you over the head with in his hymn.

For Paul, when it comes to Christ, you can choose not to follow. You can refuse to bend your life to his life. But you can’t say that in Jesus we find anything less than the fullness of God.

I mean…

Dr. Phil’s relationship advice might seem more practical to us. The Dali Lama might seem less threatening to us. Political pundits might make more sense to us.

But to welcome the baby at Bethlehem is to find yourself stuck with Jesus.

On Christmas Eve, I tried to keep things simple and straightforward. I tried to be clear, but some people still had questions.

A man came up to me at the end of the 11:00 service. The 11:00 crowd is always kind of a motley crew; you never know who’s going to show up that late at night.

This man was old, maybe Dr. Perry’s age. I’d seen him go through the communion line, and, judging from his uncertainty about how to receive the sacrament, I’d guess he’d not been to church much before.

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

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

But instead I said: ‘Yes.’ 

And I saw the recognition pass across the man’s face.

He said: ‘Then that means that everything Jesus said and did…’

His voice trailed off.

He didn’t say anything more, and I couldn’t read his mind. But my guess is I could’ve finished his sentence for him…

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

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

Judging from the look on his face, my guess is I could have finished his sentence.

But instead I said: ‘Merry Christmas.’

 

You ARE Worthy of Salvation

Jason Micheli —  December 21, 2016 — 1 Comment

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

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

As the popular CCM song puts it:

Thank you for the cross Lord

Thank you for the price You paid

Bearing all my sin and shame…

Thank you for the nail pierced hands

Washed me in Your cleansing flow

Now all I know Your forgiveness and embrace

Worthy is the Lamb…

We are not good.

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

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

O Lord, I am not worthy

That Thou should’st come to me,

But speak the words of comfort,

My spirit healed shall be.

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

Maybe.

Maybe not (exactly).

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

ar·tif·i·cer

ärˈtifəsər/

noun- archaic

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

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

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

Notice-

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

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

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

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

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

Our provenance makes us worthy of reclamation. 

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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.
As 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.

img26064At-One-Ment

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

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

He is fully both God and Man.

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

Eternally.

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

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

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

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

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

Our finitude. Our createdness. Our materiality.

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

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

At-onement of a different sort.

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

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

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

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

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

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

With us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God’s immutability.

God’s unchanging nature.

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

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

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

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

Because he was always going to come.

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

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

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

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

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

As in, ‘shalom.’

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

As in, the opposite of fear.

Just take it from Master YodaUnknown

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

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

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

Do not be afraid.

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

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

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

In other words: Do not fear.

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

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

Stuck with Jesus

Jason Micheli —  December 7, 2015 — 1 Comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——————————

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And nothing else.

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

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

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

——————————

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

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

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

Nothing too flashy or novel.

Nothing very creative or controversial or counter-intuitive.

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

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

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

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

This baby, Jesus, is God.

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

Which means: ‘God with us.’

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

No surprises, or at least I thought so.

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

I remember-

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

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

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

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

That’s how she identified herself.

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

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

And she… smiled.

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

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

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

I didn’t ask.

Merry Christmas,’ I remember saying.

——————————

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

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

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

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

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

‘In the flesh…’ I replied to him.

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

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

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

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

——————————

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

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

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

We’re stuck with Jesus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God, I wish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re stuck with Jesus. Merry Christmas.

——————————

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

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

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

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

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

I couldn’t say:

Watch Out

Don’t get too close to the manger

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

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

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

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

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

    In other words, we Christians say:

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

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

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

It’s that Jesus is what God teaches us.

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

It’s that Jesus embodies the ways of God.

COMPLETELY.

FULLY.

IN THE FLESH.

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

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

I mean…

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

     ——————————

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

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

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

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

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

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

That we’re stuck with Jesus.

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

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

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

     ——————————

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

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

I mean-

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

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

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

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

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

The good news about being stuck with Jesus?

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

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

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

You can find all the previous posts here.

III. The Son

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

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

My answer?

Of course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But God doesn’t change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn, there’s no out for us.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Christmas Ends in the Dark

Jason Micheli —  January 5, 2015 — 1 Comment

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517     This Sunday we celebrated Epiphany, the arrival of the magi to pay homage to Jesus. I extended the lectionary text, Matthew 2.1-12, to include verses 13-18, which narrate Herod’s rage and the slaughter of the innocents in and around Bethlehem.

You can listen to the sermon here below, in the sidebar to the right or you can download it in iTunes here.

A couple of Advents ago, I spent the week before Christmas with a mission team from Aldersgate, in a poor community in Guateamala near the mountains called Cantal.

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

Weʼd just begun working. The husband and wife of the house were busy mixing mortar. And even though here in Northern Virginia at their age theyʼd be taking the SATʼs and visiting colleges, in their part of the world they were married and busy surviving and making sure their three children did too.

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

You know, Facebook photo kinds of stuff.

It was a one-room home. Tacked on the far wall was a cracked, laminated poster of multiplication tables. In the righthand corner was a long branch from a pine tree, propped up in a pink plastic beach bucket and decorated with pieces of colored foil and plastic.

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

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

Jason didnʼt have any shoes and his feet were black with dirt and looked cold. He had a rash on his cheeks and his eyes were red and his nose was running black snot from the smoke. They were sitting on the bed and Veronica was feeding them breakfast with a toy dollʼs spoon. She was feeding them Tortrix, lime-flavored corn chips like Fritos.

Because that was the only thing they had to eat. Because junk food is cheaper and thatʼs all they could afford.

Above the bed hung a calendar from several years earlier. It was flipped to December. The top half had a picture of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. At the bottom of the picture was a scripture verse in Spanish: ʻ…a light shines in the darkness…ʼ

I stepped into the doorway and saw them there, the two little girls and the boy with my name, looking dirty and sick and shoeless, eating the only food they had while their mother and father worked with the kind of speed that comes from being sentenced to a lifetime of hard labor.

I looked at them and I saw the baby Jesus hanging there on the wall above them. I bit my lip to keep my eyes from tearing up, and I muttered to myself: ʻChrist is born this?ʼ

Despite what we sang on Christmas Eve, it was not a silent night.

Not really.

Not at all.

At least not according to Matthew.

According to scripture, sometime after the shepherds returned to their flocks and after the magi found a different route home and after Mary and Joseph wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a trough, all the other mothers and fathers of sons in and around Bethlehem lay their babies in their cribs and tuck their toddlers into bed.

And while they sing them a lullaby or tell them a bible story or kiss them goodnight on the forehead, they hear:

The sound of boots stamping down the dusty roads

The sound of doors being knocked on and kicked down

The scraping sound of metal on metal as swords are unsheathed

The chaotic sounds of orders being shouted

And fathers being shoved aside

And mothers gasping

And babies being taken.

It was not a silent night, that night when Mary, whoʼd already traveled 70 miles on foot the week she delivered him, rouses her baby awake and wraps him against the cold and tells her husband to pack whatever he can.

It was not a silent night-

That night they sneak away across the border with no money to their name

That night the skies, in which the angels had sung ʻGlory to God in the highest heaven,ʼ fill with the cries of mothers and fathers as their sons are silenced forever.

It wasnʼt a silent night.

Which makes it all the more strange that when it comes to the mere mention of the word, ʻChristmasʼ triggers everything that is nostalgic and comforting and sentimental.

Yet in scripture Christmas isnʼt sentimental, not at all.

In scripture- in Matthew’s Gospel, especially- Christmas is all steely-eyed recognition that this world is very often a shockingly horrible world. Where despots plot and evil flourishes and children are victims. Where the poor are powerless and the powerful do whatever they please to the nations they regard as backward and justify after the fact.

Christmas in scripture isnʼt like Christmas at Tysonʼs Corner or Times Square. Itʼs not like an old-fashioned Christmas with a fire warming the hearth and a blanket of snow frosting the window outside.

     Christmas, real Christmas, is light.

     An epiphany.

     Which means it has to be a light shining in the darkness.

And for that to be true requires the recognition that the world is not as God would have it be, that the world is often a dark place.

So itʼs strange how we turn Christmas into a nostalgic dream, into a sentimental escape. Because in the bible Christmas couldnʼt be more gritty and realistic.

Matthewʼs and Lukeʼs Christmas stories could just as easily be reported by protestors on Twitter.

The stuff of hashtags is all there:

Thereʼs a massacre of innocent children and a world too busy to stop and notice.

Thereʼs political intrigue and the maneuverings of an empire in the Middle East.

Thereʼs the Holy Family finding themselves political refugees in an inhospitable world, finding themselves illegal aliens in a foreign land.

Thereʼs no way it was a silent night.

 

And somehow that never really hit home for me until that Advent morning in Guatemala, staring at Jasonʼs dirty bare feet and bloodshot eyes and black runny nose and wondering why Jesus is born at all, that it finally struck me:

     When I read the Christmas story, itʼs not fair for me to read myself into the place of Mary or Joseph or the shepherds or even the wise men.

I donʼt know what itʼs like to live under the heel of an empire. I donʼt know what itʼs like to have my life jerked around by the rich and the powerful.

What I realized that Advent morning, what I realized at Jasonʼs house- is that if I have a place in this story, my place is in Rome with Caesar Augustus.

Or maybe in the gated communities of Jerusalem, rubbing elbows with King Herod, Caesarʼs lackey.

I mean, Iʼd rather count myself among Mary and Josephʼs family. Or at least among their friends (if they had any), waiting outside the manger with a balloon for the baby and a cigar for the father.

Iʼd even settle for being one of the shepherds, whose dirty work disqualified them from religious life, but to whom the heavens nonetheless break open with angels and good news.

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

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

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

Iʼm well-off. I’m rich. I’m powerful.

Iʼm not as sophisticated as Caesar Augustus, but Iʼm the beneficiary of an expensive Ivy League education. I donʼt live in a castle but I do live in a home that a majority of the worldʼs people would call a palace. Iʼm not a king or an emperor but I have more control over my life than probably even King Herod did back in the day.

That Advent morning at Jason’s house it hit me for the first time that Iʼm not so sure I like my place in the Christmas story.

 

So itʼs strange.

When you think about it, about who we are and where we are in the story. Itʼs strange that so many of us flock to church on Christmas. Itʼs strange that the Christmas story doesnʼt strike us as it did Herod: with fear and agitation.

     I mean you have to give Herod credit.

He wasnʼt stupid- maybe, even, he was smarter than us.

He knew bad news when he heard it.

He knew the ʻgloryʼ the angels sang was confirmation of the threatening song Mary had sung 8 months earlier.

Herod knew that joy coming into Maryʼs world meant an attack on his world. Herod knew that when God takes flesh in Jesus, God also takes sides:

With those on margins.

With the people working the night shift and with those working out in the fields.

With the oppressed and the lowly and the refugee.

With all those whose- we have to be reminded- lives matter.

For Herod, for the white-collared and the well-off and the people at the top of the ladder, for the movers and shakers of the empire- Christmas was bad news not good news. And they were smart enough to know it.

Far be it from me to be cynical (thatʼs a joke), but I wonder if thatʼs why we drape Christmas with so much cheap sentiment. I wonder if thatʼs why at this time of the year we prefer nostalgia for a world that never was instead of a truthful recognition of the world that is or an honest longing for the world God promised will be.

I wonder if deep down we know Christmas means God may not be on our side. I wonder if in our heart of hearts we know that if we told the story straight up as Matthew tells it, then like Herod we might have a reason to fear.

To fear that his birth, if we take it seriously, will turn everything in our lives upside down. That Advent afternoon, after our weekʼs work was complete, the women of the village cooked a meal for us and thanked us.

These are women who, in their lifetimes, have been victimized by dictators and armed thugs. These are refugees whose people over generations have been displaced and pushed into mountains as their land was stolen by the rich.

These are poor women whose husbands and sons either have been killed by civil war or are living as economic exiles here in the states.

And there I was. From a different world completely.

Jasonʼs 17 year old mother was there.

She presented me with a little tapestry sheʼd sewn and she said into my ear: ʻI thank Jesus Christ for you.ʻ

And then she wished me a Merry Christmas.

And when she said that, I muttered to myself again: ʻChrist was born for this.ʼ But this time it wasnʼt a question.

Because even though itʼs not the sentimental story we like to hear this time of year, Jesus was born for this. Jesus was born so that someone proud like me would gladly humble himself so that a poor, humble woman like her could be filled with pride. Jesus was born so that someone rich like me would gladly empty his pockets to fill her childrenʼs bellies.

Jesus was born so that someone on the top like me would gladly take some bad news on the chin so that she could be lifted up. Christ was born in the dark; so that, the powerless would know that God was with them in the flesh and the powerful would know that we canʼt save ourselves.

 

She wished me a Merry Christmas, and then she embraced me.

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

     There is no kingdom in this world like that other than the Kingdom that belongs to the Prince of Peace.

Thatʼs why heʼs born.

In the dark.

lightstock_55952_small_user_2741517

Here’s an Epiphany sermon from the vault…

Matthew 2.1-12

“Surely the Bible can teach and inspire. But has it lost the ability to startle us? To make us gasp? In our society, where 90 percent of households possess a Bible and more than a third of American adults say they’ve read from it in the last week, it’s hard to see the text with fresh eyes. Even if you’re in the small minority that admits to never having read it, you probably know something about it. Maybe too little to embrace it. Or maybe too much.”

I read.

I felt like I was in between worlds. For roughly twenty-two minutes, the time it took to go from the first notes of the ‘Overture’ to the end of track six ‘But Who May Abide the Day of His Coming,’ I was caught between worlds. To induce me into the mood of the season, I was listening to Handel’s Messiah on my IPOD. This was a couple of weeks ago and I was in Starbucks at Mount Vernon Shopping Center, trying to write a sermon different from this one.

In my ears, the hopes and prayers of the prophet Isaiah were being sung by the London Philharmonic. And in front of me, on the page of my opened Bible, was the news from St. Matthew’s Gospel that in the birth of Jesus Christ those prayers had been answered, those hopes fulfilled.

Despite surrounding my senses with the joy of the season, I felt caught between worlds.

For sitting next to me among the crowded round tables was a man and a young a man- a father and son, I presumed. And what I heard between them could not have been a further cry from “…good news of great joy.”

The coffee shop was loud and crowded, filled with the noise of shooting steam and tables of people debriefing their holiday shopping. Already it was dark outside, the lights from the store fronts bleeding out any notice of the stars.

I was getting my notes and books in order when they sat down. The father, who hadn’t ordered anything at all, was already animated. I tried hard not to make eye contact. I didn’t want my eyes to betray my accidental but now intentional eavesdropping.

Looking down at the tiled floor, I noticed he was wearing expensive-looking loafers, the kind with tassles on them, and also exotically patterned socks. He smelled of cologne and had a distinct if undefined accent. They were sitting, father and son, at a small round table, the kind that’s just large enough for a cup of coffee and a conversation. Apparently the table was not small enough, though, as the father scooted in his chair to sit even closer- at a right angle- to the boy who bore his younger likeness.

You don’t need to have read any pastoral counseling books to identify the father’s posture, his gesticulating, his facial shrugs as aggressive. Dismissive.

Nor do you need to have read any of those books to correctly identify the widening splotches of red on the son’s neck and cheeks and face as shame.

Maybe because I’ve been in similar situations myself, but I could easily read the scene before me. The cues were all there and they were unmistakable. It wasn’t a father scolding a son over poor grades or a missed curfew. It wasn’t a routine argument or a heated but inconsequential debate.

     A marriage was breaking up and, judging from the father’s fury, the relationship was well-beyond his or anyone’s ability to repair.

‘Irreconcilable Differences’ would have been a euphemism, I quickly guessed. And, as it goes in such battles, the casualties were young and innocent.

That was what was happening next to me at the adjacent coffee table. The loyalty and perceptions of the man’s son had become an object to fight over- like a house or a car or a couch. The awkwardness of their body language and the reticence of the son made it clear to me: that they had agreed to meet there, at the coffee shop, only after much negotiation. That they were, according to their agreement, on neutral ground.

And I felt caught between worlds. As soon as I recognized what was playing out in front of me I tried to refocus, to ignore them, to read St. Matthew’s news of a new world dawning, to listen only to Isaiah’s words sung in my ears: “Comfort ye my people, says your God.” 

But the father was as angry as something caged and he said things- about the boy’s mother. Things that cannot be said in this place, things that Handel’s Messiah could not drown out or overwhelm. And with each indictment of the boy’s mother, the father would point contemptuously at his son, and each time he finished he would hold out his hands like a lawyer who’s just finished his closing argument.

The shame on the boy’s face made him look younger but he was in high school, I think. He wore a black hooded sweatshirt, baggy cargo pants and Vans on his feet. He looked like a kid you might see skateboarding in the church parking lot. Sitting there, he was curled up in as much of a fetal position as the table would allow. More self-aware than his father, he was quiet, obviously embarrassed by the audience his father’s anger had provoked there in the coffee shop.

The boy spoke, subdued and down at the table top.

“But mom said…” was all I could hear him say several times, each time his voice trailing off and fading. And each time his father would shrug his eyes and wave him off, as if his own perspective were the only star worth following.

     Now that I am a father myself, I know, unreservedly, that there are some things that ‘circumstances’ can never excuse, that no ‘situation’ justifies a child being made the prey of another’s contempt.

 And now that I’m a father I know that I don’t need to know another side to the story to know that the man sitting at the table next to me was proud, angry, without grace, and unwilling to admit error or offer mercy.

That, no matter the cost, he was determined to be his own guiding light.

The whole thing only lasted twenty minutes or so, just long enough to get from Handel’s ‘Overture’ to track number six on my IPOD. And then it was over.

I’m sure there were some there, amidst the shooting steam and holiday chatter, who didn’t notice any of it just as I’m sure there were some who didn’t notice how the father waved his son off with a “I’m finished with you” gesture, and left him sitting there crying beneath his black hood.

Like his son was a lost object, like a house or a car or a couch.

Left behind in the seat of the father’s chair, I noticed later, was a folded and wrinkled copy of the Washington Post Book World. The irony of the bold heading caught my eye so I picked it up and beneath the central graphic I read the introductory lines that the proud and contemptuous man had been sitting on:

“Surely the Bible can teach and inspire. But has it lost the ability to startle us? To make us gasp? Even if you’re in the small minority that admits to never having read it, you probably know something about it. 

Maybe too little to embrace it. Or maybe too much.”

     Epiphany, the journey of the magi to discover the One revealed by heaven’s star, would seem to have little to do with the scene I’ve just drawn for you.

What I’ve just told you would seem to have little to do with three exotic kings from Persia, Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar, bringing their caravan of camels to Israel in search of a foretold king of the Jews.

Matthew, though, doesn’t tell us their names or where they’re from. He doesn’t even tell us how many of them there or even that they were kings. And St. Luke doesn’t tell us about them at all.

Matthew only tells us that wise men from far away searched out a promise of God and, when they found him, they paid him honor and worshipped him.

And when they left, these men who were used to guiding their lives according to the skies and the stars, couldn’t go home the same way, for the light of Christ had reoriented their whole lives.

Still, though, the story I just told you would seem to bear no connection to Matthew’s story of the magi bringing their gifts to the infant Messiah.

Unless, of course, Matthew’s story is true.

If Matthew’s story of Epiphany is true and the King the wise men discover in Bethlehem really is:

  • The mercy of God in the flesh
  • The almightiness of God revealed in the vulnerability and humility of a baby
  • The love that moves the stars in the sky is to be found in the Body of One who will be broken for the sake of the ungodly

     If heaven really is held in Mary’s manger and…

In the love and life of this baby, God chooses to forever see and judge each one of us, then Matthew’s story- Epiphany- it couldn’t have more to do with how we treat one another.

If all that is true…then, you and I, we honor this King not by bringing gold and frankincense and myrrh to him, but by bringing love and mercy and forgiveness and humility to our lives that he was born in order to redeem.

Every year at Epiphany it is the Church’s liturgical custom to talk about:

  • How the journey of the exotic magi represents the inclusion of the Gentiles into the People of God
  • How the searching of the wise men demonstrates that the light of Israel is meant to be light for the whole world
  • How the worship of these foreigners is a harbinger of that future Day when every knee shall bend and every head bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord of all Creation.

And that’s all true and with good reason, but the way I’ve seen it since that late afternoon in Starbucks…when it comes to honoring and adoring the Christ child, you’ve got to somewhere: so why not with husbands and wives and fathers and mothers and sons and daughters and friends and neighbors injecting into their lives the loving mercy of the One made flesh.

So today perhaps the Washington Post is right. Maybe today the Bible won’t startle you or make you gasp, but I do pray that it will at least begin to transform you.

Amen.