Archives For Christmas

Bad Santa

Jason Micheli —  December 22, 2014 — 1 Comment

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

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

Speaking of Mary’s Song, we listen to a lot of music in my house. Even though I can’t carry a tune, strum a chord or eyeball a flat from a sharp, that doesn’t stop me from being a music fan.

(Fan = snob, elitist, smarty-pants)

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

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

     I love music; in fact, during college I DJ’d for a radio station. When you have a voice like mine- a voice so sexy, erudite and virile it practically comes with chest hair- disc jockeying was a natural part-time job.

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

     I’m such a music lover that when the radio station went belly-up a few months after I started DJ-ing (coincidence), I took the trouble to make sure all of the station’s albums found a good home.

(Good Home = my apartment)

      Every last album.

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

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

(Cliche, I know).

     Our first song on our first night in our first ever apartment was Ryan (not Bryan) Adam’s ‘Firecracker,’ and the first time I realized I had just preached an entire worship service with my fly down the praise song ‘Forever Reign’ was playing.

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

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

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

My boys- they love music too.

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

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

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

They love music.

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

(Well, I will now)

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

(Least amount of effort possible)

 

My boys- they love music.

We love Christmas carols too.

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

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

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

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

Now, I know what some of you might be thinking: what’s a pastor doing condoning- advocating even- a song about Santa Claus?

Shouldn’t a pastor be putting Christ back in X’mas and forcing his kids to listen to something like DC Talk’s Christian Christmas rap ‘Yo, Ho, Ho?’

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

Maybe.

But I’ve got no beef with Santa Claus.

 

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

(Where else would his coal come from?)

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

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

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

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

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

(The true miracle of Christmas?)

     And sure, Santa uses an alchemy of myths to condition our children into being good, little capitalists, to want, want, want, to believe that it’s the gift not the thought that matters, but I don’t have a problem with Santa.

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

Nope, I think wonder, imagination and fantasy are a great and normal part of a healthy childhood, and I even think wonder, imagination and fantasy are necessary ingredients for faith- biblical faith.

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

Until-

Until the other day.

The other day we had our Christmas Carol Playlist on shuffle and Bob Dylan’s cover of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ came on the stereo. And when Dylan came around to the chorus a second time, Gabriel says- to himself as much as to me:

‘I’ve been naughty some this year. God might not send Santa to bring me presents this Christmas.’

‘What? What are you talking about? I asked, looking up at him.

‘He watches all the time,’ he said, ‘to see if we’re naughty or if we’re good. He only brings presents if we’re good.’

‘Wait, what’s that got to do with God?’

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

     (Bam. Damn.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John 3.16- and you can ask Tim Tebow, the word ‘world’ has no positive connotations in John at all; therefore, the Christmas Gospel is that God so loved the world- the sinful, wicked, messed up, broken, violent, naughty world- that he didn’t check anything twice or even keep a list, he so loved- so loves- us, undeserving us, that he gave all of himself to us in Jesus Christ.

And then kept giving all the way to a cross.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Santa Claus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gave him grace and mercy.

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

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

That Jesus is nothing less than 100% God.

God in the flesh.

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

(Thank God)

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

     I love music. All kinds.

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

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

And maybe I’m overreacting, who knows.

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

‘That’s a good idea’ I thought.

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

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

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

I’m a music fan not a music writer.

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

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

saint-nicholas

 

 

 

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

His birth and life are just prologue.

Only Jesus’ death matters for salvation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But…what if we took it seriously?

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

champions-of-the-faith-athanasius

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

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

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

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

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

And Athanasius knew something about images.

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

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

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

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

Whatever restoration they attempted was second hand at best.

A vague reflection, a vague memory of the original.

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

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

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

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

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

 

– Thanks to Andrew DiAntonio who contributed to this post

§8-10: Incarnation Quiz

Jason Micheli —  December 17, 2014 — 3 Comments

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

 

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

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

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

C) In Heaven.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

A) God’s honor

B) Sin

C) Fidelity

D) None of the Above

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Missing By Nine Miles

Jason Micheli —  December 15, 2014 — 2 Comments

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

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

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

– John Chrysostom 

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

I began thumbing through the pages of SkyMall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Is there a better way to celebrate Christmas?

The glossy advertisement asked rhetorically.

 

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

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

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

Seriously. Eyeshadow.

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

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

Where you headed? The businessman on my left asked.

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

I’m headed to my in-laws’ house.

He chuckled and said: Good luck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stops them every time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

You talking to me? I asked.

Yeah, he said.

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

Yeah, I guess so.

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

I let his voice of trail off.

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

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

The what?

The wise men, I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I smiled and said: Something like that.

 

 

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

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

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

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

Can I read it? he asked.

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

No, not that book, he said.

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

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

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

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

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

What’s this? he asked me.

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

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

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

Can you show me? he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

or

He will judge between many peoples. 

or

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

or

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

or I wondered if it might be

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

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

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

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

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

The Mockingjay pin? I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d closed my eyes.

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

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

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

How so?

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

You ought to be a minister, I said.

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

I laughed and said…pretty much.

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s their 2014 billboard:

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

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

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

Among these church-shattering revelations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which the Church has always known.

And never been bothered by.

Because the point isn’t that Jesus lived.

It’s that he’s alive.

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

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

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

‘God doesn’t seem very nice.’

Yeah.

No wonder God promises never to do such violence again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How is God to restore us?

By our repentance?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His coming alone initiates healing.

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

The imago dei is plural because God is triune.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Fall leads to death.

Sin is illness.

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

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

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

So the incarnation is for our healing and reincorporation.

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

We’re sick. We’re broken.

And we’re alienated.

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

Athanasius hints at a different sort of alienation.

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

Not from God.

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

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

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

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

Take Ferguson. And Michael Brown.

Take Staten Island and Eric Garner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Black and white.

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

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

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

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

All of us.

Untitled44Take a random stranger, walking down the street.

Look at them. What do you see?

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

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

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

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

I remember thinking: Damn, slick response.

And: Yup, probably so.

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

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

Prevenient grace.

Justifying grace.

Sanctifying grace.

We memorize on individuated flash cards.

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

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

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

It’s all grace.

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

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

Everything, it’s all gratuity.

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

Creation from

Out of

No-thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Therefore the Word is God.

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

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

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

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

Untitled44Many of you emailed me to say you planned on reading On the Incarnation along with me during Advent. Here’s my ‘intro’ to the essay. I’ll be posting my thoughts on sections 1-10 in the days ahead.

But Advent’s Not About the Incarnation, Right?

It’s chic in mainline churches to point out (in finger-wagging fashion) that Advent is actually the liturgical season given over to longing for the return of Christ not anticipating his arrival at Christmas.

Advent then is about the second-coming not the first.

Advent is about the eschaton not the incarnation.

Maybe but in my experience Advent so understood is so counter-cultural as to be unhelpfully unintelligible.

What’s more, the official season of Christmas gives preachers precious few days (only 12) and 2 of the lowest attended Sundays of the year to devote their congregation’s attention to the incarnation, the central doctrine of the faith. By the time people return to church from the Christmas holiday, the lectionary cycle of scripture already has Jesus being baptized by John.

There’s been no time spent reflecting on the core mystery that preoccupied the first centuries’ worth of Christians; namely, that Jesus of Nazareth is the image of the invisible God, the Word, which called things into existence, made flesh.

Regardless of appropriate and sanctioned liturgical sensibilities, I think Advent- this time before the ‘Feast of the Incarnation’- when people in and out of the Church imbibe at least the passing intimation that the baby in the creche is God made flesh, is the perfect time to ponder the why of it all. Why does God take flesh in Jesus?

 

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Who is Athanasius?

This is the question St. Athanasius addresses in his classic, little treatise On the Incarnation, which I invite you to read and reflect along with me over the coming weeks.

You can download it free here: Athanasius’ On the Incarnation of the Word

It’s no understatement to say that, like St. Paul before him or St. Augustine after him, the Christianity you know and practice would be significantly different were it not for Athanasius. Even if this is the first you’ve heard of him, his fingerprints are all over your faith. His conviction has been on your tongue any time you’ve said or sung the Nicene Creed and, for that reason alone, On the Incarnation is a worthy devotional for the Advent season.

Whether his name was chosen or a harbinger of things to come, I’m not sure and I’m too lazy to look it up on Wikipedia.

‘Athanasius’ though means literally ‘man of immortality.’

Not only is this a suitable name given the legacy he bequeathed the Church, the name is like a little, 5-syllable Cliff Notes reminder of his governing theme, immortality.

Like Cliff Notes however that doesn’t tell you the whole story because ‘immortality’ for Athanasius didn’t connote what it does for Christians today.

Immortality didn’t mean eternal life, at least not in the Jesus Prayer way we so often hear it. Immortality wasn’t shorthand for going to heaven when we die, some place that is not God where God is.

No.

Immortality meant union with the Triune God.

Immortality referred to the finite uniting with, becoming, joining the infinite.

So while his enemies called him ‘the black dwarf,’ his given name, Athanasius, gives you everything you need to know to read On the Incarnation rightly, for Athanasius believed that the eternal purpose of the incarnation and the very point of the Christian life is our union with the infinite we call Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

His incarnation is for our immortality.

Our union with God

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It’s an Evangelical Essay 

You can read online more about Athanasius’ historical context than I wish to regurgitate here. Suffice it to know that Athanasius wrote as a Bishop in the early part of the 4th century, a time for which 2 dates are key to understanding him.

In 313 AD, after 3 centuries of often brutal persecution, the Roman Empire- noticing the rapid growth of Christianity and reading the tea leaves- shifted to a posture of toleration towards the Church. Suddenly, Constantine, the Roman Emperor, had a stake in using the Church to unify his empire so in 325 he convened the first ecumenical council at Nicaea and “invited” its episcopal bishops to hammer out a consensus creed of the faith where a diversity of confession had previously been the norm.

Prior to 313 the experience of the Church was one of persecution. Post 325 the experience of the Church was one of theological infighting. Athanasius’ career and writings span the periods inaugurated by those two dates.

While most of his writings were occasioned by the intramural debates of the latter and are thus polemical in tone (he was frequently exiled when his views fell out of favor), Athanasius wrote On the Incarnation in the optimistic, take-a-deep-breath period following 313. Rather than being provoked by nasty in-fighting and controversy, it simply attempts a concise statement of the Christian faith, and rather than trying to settle an in-house theological question in dispute, On the Incarnation is an evangelical essay.

It’s 40-odd pages are meant to elicit a response in the reader, to compel the reader to make a decision for the Christian vision and life.

Athanasius’ imagined readers were neither the mass of the poor in Alexandria nor its philosophers but the ‘Nones’ of the 4th century, i.e., educated pagans. With them in mind he presents- as the Church must learn to do today for our Nones- Christianity as a rival to the world views which vie for humanity’s attention and loyalty.

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They Had the Opposite Hang-Up as Us

As critical, if not more, as historical context, is locating Athanasius in his theological context.

Whereas modern believers (and skeptics) have little trouble countenancing the real, genuine humanity of Jesus yet struggle with conceiving how the fully human Jesus could ever also be God, Christians for the 4 centuries of the Church’s history took it as self-evident that Jesus was fully God.

They had the opposite hang-up we do.

We struggle to comprehend how the human Jesus could be God; they struggled to comprehend how God could be One, since the human Jesus was self-evidently divine.

How could God be the Father and the Son and still be the one Lord of Israel’s shema?

To answer the question, Athanasius and his peers turned to a philosophical term common in their day, homo-ousios, which meant ‘of the same being’ or ‘of the same essence.’

Jesus is God, but God remains One because the Son is of ‘one being with the Father’ as we recite in the creed- thanks to… Athanasius.

Unlike you and me, the human Jesus- though still fully human, has no being or essence apart from the Being of the Father.

Being and essence are tricky terms for us (more on them later) but the divinity of Jesus and the oneness of God are the building blocks for Athanasius’ central theme in On the Incarnation: the re-creation of the fallen world by the Word who made the world in the very beginning. 

What Athanasius’ evangelical essay wants you to accept is the new life made possible by the life of Christ- which itself is made possible because that human life was lived by God!

As he puts it, and this is the whole essay in a nutshell:

Jesus’ divinity makes his human life powerful, and his humanity makes his divine life ours.

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The Incarnation is the Most Natural Thing for God

Athanasius’ strong view of Jesus as the incarnate deity draws a sharp contrast to the two competing views of his day.

Plato believed the Supreme Being too remote and humanity too lowly on the scale of creatures for God ever to become incarnate. Meanwhile, Arius was a Christian thinker and eventual heretic who thought Athanasius’ doctrine of the incarnation threatened the unity and oneness of God. Alternatively Arius  understood Jesus as an intermediary creature between the true God and humanity, a demigod who can connect us to God without being God himself in the flesh.

Both the Platonic and Arian views, it’s important to note, saw God as a being within the universe albeit an exalted one, and, as a being within the universe, they assumed God was limited by the differences between creatures.

In other words, for Plato and Arius God cannot become incarnate because ‘divinity’ is categorically different from ‘humanity.’

Athanasius, on the other hand, believed God was absolutely transcendent, not a creature within the universe but a God, Father, Son and Spirit, in whom is contained all difference; in fact, the Trinity, a union of peace and difference, is the Source of difference itself.

For Athanasius, then, to say the incarnation is the most natural thing for God renders it no less mysterious.

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Things to Notice

In the next couple of days, I’ll post my thoughts on sections 1-10 of On the Incarnation.  In the meantime here are some points that might help you make sense of what you read.

          Death vs. Wrath:

Unlike many Christians today, Athanasius sees the consequence of the Fall not as God’s wrath but as death. Thus God comes in the flesh not to suffer God’s wrath towards sin but to undo death by dying our death.

          Salvation is Restoration:

How you define the problem determines what you see as the solution. Because Athanasius sees death, not sin and wrath, as the problem ushered into creation by the Fall, he does not view salvation, as we so often do, in terms of forgiveness and redemption. Those are but motifs within his larger theme of salvation as restoration, the revivification of humanity in God’s image.

          God’s Like an Artist or a King:

Taking restoration as the main theme of the incarnation, Athanasius uses metaphors of artwork or kingdom to unpack the reasons for God’s coming in the flesh. It would not be good or worthy of an Artist such as God, he argues, to allow his handiwork to go tarnished and without repair. Suppose a king’s kingdom was pillaged by vandals in his absence. A good king must return, dispatch the invaders and set his kingdom to rights.

Whereas we typically use the term ‘worthy’ to denote our lack of worthiness for God’s gift of salvation, Athanasius turns it around. As God’s artwork, we are worthy of salvation. Indeed God would not be worthy (to his own goodness) should he leave us in our state.

lightstock_59323_small_user_2741517This Advent we kick off a sermon series entitled ‘Mystical Christmas,’ looking at Advent through the perspective of some of the Church’s ancient mystics.

This past Sunday I borrowed from St Maximus the Confessor (580-662) who viewed the Incarnation as the absolute and primary purpose of God in creation.

In other words, according to Maximus, the Incarnation is neither occasioned nor determined by the Fall.

You can listen to the sermon here below, in the sidebar to the right or download it here. Though, I’ve got to admit that the holiday combined with my birthday produced a rather flat delivery. Mea culpa.

Every year during Advent we let our confirmation students loose through the building to take an informal poll of you all.

Armed with paper and pencil, they’ve snuck up on you here in the sanctuary as service begins. They’ve accosted hangers-on still lingering in the fellowship hall after the 8:30 coffee hour, and they’ve barged into Sunday School classrooms, emboldened by the permission to be as irritating as necessary in order to get answers to the questions we’ve given them.

In years’ past more than a few Sunday School teachers have told me they don’t particularly like anyone interrupting their class time.

A couple of people, including He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, have balled me out for putting them on the spot and making them looking foolish in front of sixth graders.

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

Why did Jesus come to earth?

In other words, why Christmas?

About 15% of people always respond that Jesus comes to teach us how to love one another and help the needy. I suppose those are the liberals among us (I’ll get an email about that).

Without fail, a reliable 85% of people answer, in so many words, that Jesus comes to forgive us for our sins. That Jesus is born to die.

Every year the questions are the same and, remarkably, every year so are the answers. The needle doesn’t move at all. More than 3/4 answer, year in and year out, that Jesus comes in order to die for us.

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

Or rather, it’s incomplete.

We lament the commercialization of Christmas. We talk about how Jesus is the reason for the season, and we root for Kirk Cameron to put the Christ back in Christmas.

But it’s not clear to me that we’re at all clear on what the reason for Jesus is.

A few Advents ago, as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was chewing me out in the church hallway after having been grilled by confirmands and their poll, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named grumbled at me:

‘Well, if I don’t know the answer to your questions is that my fault or my pastor’s fault?’ 

I told him that was a fair point and that if he wanted he could go right ahead and assign blame to his pastor…Rev. Dennis Perry.

Seriously, in the 13 years I’ve spent at bedsides and gravesides, the more  confessions I hear and struggles I listen to, the more people share their faith and their fears with me, the more kids and youth ask me questions, the more I’m convinced that the question ‘Why does Jesus come?’ is the most important question we can ask.

So today I want to do something different.

I want to give it to you straight up.

No personal stories. No clever rhetoric. No funny anecdotes. No desperate or ironic antics to win your attention. Not even a Joel Osteen crank.

Nothing to distract you away from what I want you to know.

Today I want to make a theological argument, and I’m going to take the gamble that you all can handle it.

My wife, Ali, assured me you were up for it. I told her I doubted it; she told me that you might find that insulting. If that’s the case, then I leave it to you to prove her right.

And if you’re not up for it, or if that’s not your cup of tea, then it’s your fault for coming to church the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

Higgins, Mary, Scan

The problem in answering that Jesus comes to forgive our sins, the problem in suggesting that he’s born to die, is that it makes Christmas determined by us. It makes the incarnation contingent on us: on our sin, on the Fall, on Adam and Eve’s disobedience.

     The infinite (i.e., God) is determined by that which is finite.

You and me.

Instead of something that flows from God’s abundance, the incarnation is something provoked by our weakness. Instead of a gift God gives out of joy for us, the incarnation is the outworking of God’s frustration and disappointment in us.

Christmas then isn’t something God freely does of his love and grace; it’s something God’s compelled to do because of our plight. It’s something God has to do to rescue us from Sin.

     But by definition God doesn’t have to do anything.

And, secondly, to say that God sends Jesus; so that, we can be forgiven of our sins is to make Jesus a solution to a problem.

It’s like saying I married Ali; so that, I wouldn’t be lonely. I shouldn’t need to say that Ali is surpassingly more than just a hedge against loneliness. She’s not simply a solution to my problem.

But when we say God sends Jesus so that we can be forgiven of our sins, that’s exactly what we do. We reduce Jesus to a strategy. We circumscribe him according to his utility. We render Jesus down until he’s little more than a device God uses to bail us out of our situation.

Jesus isn’t a device.

No matter what Joel Osteen promises you, Jesus isn’t merely a solution to our problems.

Even our problem of Sin and Death. (I couldn’t help myself)

     Jesus isn’t a strategy made flesh; he’s the eternal fullness of God made flesh.

The image of the invisible God, as Paul’s Christ hymn puts it in Colossians 1.

Third, by saying that Jesus comes to forgive us our sins, we picture creation as a sinking ship and we imagine Jesus as God’s last ditch effort to save us. Or worse, we imagine ‘sin’ as something predestined or concocted by God merely to display his holiness and mercy upon the Cross.

But to picture Jesus as God’s last ditch effort to save us is to presume that Jesus would not have come if we hadn’t sinned.

That if there’d been no exit from Eden there’d have been no journey to Bethlehem.

     To suggest that Jesus might not have come is to say that the incarnation is something less than an eternal, unchanging decision of God’s.

Indeed it’s to say that Jesus isn’t really the image of the invisible God because 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 God changed his mind about us, towards us.

And if God changed his mind at some point in the past, 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 forgiven once and for all, but that alone is not why he comes.

That’s not why he comes because he would’ve come anyway, because he was always going to come.

card

 

The ancient Christians had a catchphrase they used to think through this.

In Latin, it’s: opus ad extra, opus ad intra. That was their way of saying: Who and what God is towards us in Jesus Christ, God is eternally in himself.

If what Jesus teaches us is really the Word of God, if the Cross is in fact a perfect sacrifice for your sins, if your salvation is indeed assured, if the one born at Christmas is truly Emmanuel- God with us- and nothing less, then who and what God is in Christ on Earth, God is antecedently and eternally in himself.

If Jesus is the supreme expression of God, then he must’ve always been so. Before he’s Jesus of Nazareth, in the flesh, he’s the eternal Son, of the Trinity.

 

That’s what Christians mean when we say that Christ is pre-existent.

That’s what we profess in the creed when we recite that Christ is the one ‘by whom all things were made.’

That’s what the first Christians sang in the hymn Paul quotes in his letter to the Colossians that Christ is:

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

He was before was was.

He’s back behind yesterday.

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

What’s that mean?

     It means the incarnation only unveils what was true from before the beginning.

It means that what we unwrap at Christmas isn’t simply a rescue package but an even deeper mystery:

The mystery that the Nativity is an event that God has set on his calendar from before the first day of creation. The mystery that the incarnation is God’s primal, primordial, eternal decision not to be God in any other way but God-with-us. The mystery that there is literally no limit to God’s love. There can be no time at which you can exhaust God’s love for you because Jesus Christ is before time.

And so Jesus doesn’t just come to forgive us our sins. He isn’t born just to die. Because when we say that Christ is pre-existent, we say that he would’ve come anyway, that he always going to come, that even if there hadn’t needed to be a Cross there still would’ve been a cradle.

Because before he brought forth light and life on Earth, God’s shaped his whole life to be Emmanuel, God-with-us.

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

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

We are the ones with whom God wants to share his 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.

Higgins, Mary, Scan

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. Fellowship.

With us.

In the Trinity we discover that God is a community- an eternal friendship- of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

In Jesus Christ, we discover that God became what we are so that we might be taken up into what God is. A friendship. A community of Father, Son and Spirit.

So the next time someone asks you ‘Why does Jesus come at Christmas?’ you’ve got no excuse.

You can’t blame Dennis. Now you know the answer.

Jesus comes because God wants to be friends with you. Or rather, Jesus comes because God wants you to join the friendship we call Trinity.

And that answer’s not as simplistic as it sounds.

‘Being forgiven’ doesn’t ask much from you, but friendship- the kind of faithful friendship Jesus displayed with the Father- that kind of friendship could potentially ask everything of you.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Why did Jesus come to earth?

In other words, why Christmas?

Every year the questions are the same:

More than 3/4 answer:

that Jesus comes

in order to die.

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

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

#1 Reason Christmas Doesn’t Need the Cross:

Because God is like John Irving

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

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

The novel’s last line:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Franciscan Duns Scotus puts it this way:

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

– Opus Parisiense

Another way Scotus puts this:

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

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

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

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

It’s God remaking the Earth.

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

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

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

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

– Revelation 21 & 22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Opus Oxoniense

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The destination is the point of the journey.

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

Likewise, Revelation 21 comes before Genesis 1.

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

lwf14
From friend, Janet Laisch, for 3 Kings Day…
While excavating in nearby Vespignano, I visited the Uffizi Gallery as frequently as possible, and one of my favorite works of art there is Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi– a large, square, (8 feet x 8 feet, 1 inch), unfinished drawing, begun in 1481. Seeing his unfinished art is like entering his studio and watching him at work; it’s a unique way of understanding his mind and his method.
Even though Leonardo daVinci’s Magi, does not adhere to every detail of the Biblical account, it captures the story’s meaning in a profoundly beautiful way.

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

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

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

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

Here are a few examples.
Gozzoli-LProcession-BR800
by Benozzo Gozzoli
albrechtdurer_adoration_of_the_magi_detail1
by Albrecht Durer
Bosch_copyist_Adoration_of_the_Magi_(Aachen)
by Hieronymus Bosch
Rubens-adoration_des_mages
by Peter Paul Rubens
lwf14
Leonardo, first a scientist and an inventor, began this work (shown above) only after completing preliminary studies. His notebooks include studies for this work:  a one-point perspective plan, shown below, which he partly abandoned, illustrates how he used one point perspective to plan the background battle scene. To remedy the distorted upper right corner that resulted, he simply omitted it in the final plan.
His Adoration of the Magi drawing, pictured above, captures, in the hazy background, this battle scene among pagan ruins, probably representing the battle and ultimate defeat of paganism marked by Christ’s birth.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus…

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

I began thumbing through the pages of SkyMall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He had what sounded like some sort of Eastern accent- Boston maybe- and he smelled strongly of some kind of man-perfume.

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

And there I was, the happy holiday traveler, stuck in the middle of Gordon Gecko and Hannah Montana.

While we waited for take-off I thumbed through the Christmas 2010 edition of SkyMall where, among other things, I discovered that the $90.00 Star Wars-themed Chewbacca sleeping bag actually comes in adult sizes.

Is there a better way to celebrate Christmas?

The glossy advertisement asked rhetorically.

pastedGraphic.png

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

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

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

Seriously. Eyeshadow.

And the woman behind me- though it sounded like she was actually in my ear canal- was giving a blow-by-blow recount of the last holiday she’d spent with her husband’s mother. I didn’t turn around but I’m sure her husband was red-faced and gritting his teeth.

     Where you headed? The businessman on my left asked.

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

I’m headed to my in-laws’ house.

He chuckled and said: Good luck.

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

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

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

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

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

Religious people will think you’re doing your devotions and will respect your privacy and non-religious people won’t say anything for fear you’re Baptist and might evangelize them.

And if you really want to make sure no one bothers you, you can just open it up to the Book of Revelation.

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

Meanwhile the businessman sitting next to me pulled out his laptop and then he dug deeply into his leather briefcase and pulled out a stack- at least 12 inches thick- a stack of catalogs: Eddie Bauer, LL Bean, Pottery Barn, Williams Sonoma etc. He pored over them like he was reading a map. Every now and then he would look up from them, marking a spot on the page with his index finger, and then he would type quickly into his laptop.

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

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

Every now and then he would click the ‘Sum’ button on the screen, giving him a grand total cost for his 2010 Christmas.

I watched him do this a while. Then I went back to thumbing through the Christmas issue of SkyMall where I saw that I could get a replica Harry Potter wand for only $70.00.

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

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

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

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

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     You talking to me? I asked.

Yeah, he said.

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

Yeah, I guess so.

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

I let his voice of trail off.

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

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

The what?

The wise men, I said.

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

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

Sounds like the GPS in my car, he laughed.

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

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

Well, they were looking for a King. The magi were just like us: educated, rich and sophisticated. They came from a powerful nation. They went to Jerusalem first because they just assumed any ‘King’ worth their worship would be found at the center of money and might.

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

And I smiled and said: Something like that.

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Outside the window the stars were starting to fade against the oncoming sunrise. The boy across from me was hyperventilating into a vomit bag. The woman behind me was giving her husband the silent treatment. And the girl next to me had fallen asleep reading a Nicholas Sparks’ book, with a half-blown bubble of gum spread across her bottom lip.

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

Can I read it? he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

What’s this? he asked me.

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

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

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

Can you show me? he asked.

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

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

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

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

I wondered if it might be:

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

or

He will judge between many peoples. 

or

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

or

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

or I wondered if it might be

With what shall I come before the Lord,
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with tens of thousands of rivers of oil? 

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

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

 

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

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

What is? I asked.

For the wise men to be able to reorient everything they knew about the way the world worked.

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

I guess I never thought about it like that, I said.

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

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

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We started our descent. The sun was coming in through the windows.

I’d closed my eyes.

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

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

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

How so?

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

You ought to be a minister, I said.

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

I laughed and said…pretty much.

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

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

Christmas Prayer

Jason Micheli —  January 4, 2014 — Leave a comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blessed God, with this union and communion

shed your grace brighter than starlight on us

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

and renew our weary world in your name:

the name of Emmanuel – God – With – Us.

O come O come Emmanuel.

The Gift of Prayer

Jason Micheli —  January 3, 2014 — 2 Comments

1231472_10201379536123104_1520633178_nThis is from Elaine Woods:

The Gift of Prayer

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

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

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

This is especially true of the homeless.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s one of my favorite passages:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And best of all, prayers are free.

 

 

 

Mary’s Cover Song

Jason Micheli —  January 2, 2014 — Leave a comment

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

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

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

 

      1. Mary's Cover Song

Cover Song

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

Elizabeth is like the photo negative of Mary.

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

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

It’s a cover song.

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how it’s going to work.

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

All four halves of sermons are about Mary.

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

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

Sermon #1: 

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

– Matthew 1

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

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

And I doubt you know many either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God doesn’t require procreation in order to create.

God’s Word will create something from nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Sermon #2: 

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

– Luke 1 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does Mary sing about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon #3:

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

– Luke 1 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I didn’t share with you last week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon #4: 

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

– Luke 2 

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re just as guilty as her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No doubt the shepherds then tell the news to Mary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon #5: 

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

– Acts 1, 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why did Jesus come to earth?

In other words, why Christmas?

Every year the questions are the same:

More than 3/4 answer:

that Jesus comes

in order to die.

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

#3 Reason Christmas Doesn’t Need the Cross:

Because Christ is the Image of God

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

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

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 

– Colossians 1

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

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

And what does the hymn sing about?

It praises Jesus as the image of God.

The imago dei.

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

Christ is the image of God.

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

Look at it another way.

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

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

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

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

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

In his truthfulness

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

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

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

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

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

No sin, no Jesus.

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

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

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

All this to say-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

With Us: A Christmas Sermon

Jason Micheli —  December 24, 2013 — 4 Comments

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

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

Merry Christmas to all of you. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John wants you to know that tonight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Babies force us to love them on their terms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas.

 

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

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

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

Now….my answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

True story.

The original Bad Santa.

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

So Nicholas was set free to become a legend.

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

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

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

But I’ll let you be the judge.