Archives For Incarnation

To Live Is To Know God

Jason Micheli —  July 12, 2014 — 1 Comment

This is from my friend, art historian, Janet Laisch:

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God instructed Moses to “make a sacred Tent for me, so that I may live among them, (Exodus 25.8) and thus God resides in the eleventh century Monastery of Dafni, located just outside Athens, Greece (image shown above). The building follows a traditional Byzantine church plan– a cross inscribed in a square. It is not just a quiet place for reflection but a means to follow Christ– a cruciform cocoon— that transforms those who worship, take communion, hear the word of God, and encounter Christ’s life and miracles in this very space.  
In accordance with Orthodox teaching about the Church, the interior of the church itself is understood as a three dimensional icon.  With adjustments, the model of the cosmos by Dionysius the Areopagite who converted to Christianity after hearing Paul speak and also became the Bishop of Athens is reflected in the program of Byzantine church decoration. The Byzantine cross cupola church as the name implies has a cross shaped plan where a dome arches over the crossing point. This cross in square plan symbolizes Christ’s cross as well as the four points of the compass.
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Byzantine church architecture focused almost exclusively on elaborate interior decorations. Jewel mosaic icons thought to create a holy space where the congregation would be confronted with the true nature of the cosmos without worldly distractions cover the walls and ceiling. From the domed cupola to the marble floor, the program had a significant purpose: to illuminate God’s love, to impart this to the worshipper, and to create an encounter with the Holy. From an early Christian perspective the church represented a mini cosmos or heaven on earth where the world was already redeemed.

 

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Congregants traditionally enter through the west and proceed east to receive communion at the altar though they can also enter via the narthex. From the earliest ancient belief, like the rising sun, Christ is expected to come again in the east.  At the entrance, an icon (shown above) with a gold background depicts Mary and Joseph presenting Christ at the Temple (from Luke 2:22) and thus connects this monastery to Christ’s lifetime of ministry at the temple.

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 Also, at the west entrance are reminders that because of Christ we are all redeemed even if our faith is lacking.  The Resurrection icon is above. The Orthodox iconography for the resurrection is slightly different than in western art. Instead of Christ rising from a tomb, he is shown as a valiant soldier. Christ stabs Satan with his great cross and breaks open the gates and bars of hell to free the souls. “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.…” (Romans 8) With one hand Christ pulls Adam out of a grave, while next to him Eve waits her turn.  Next to her are King David and King Solomon.  On the other side John the Baptist stands with one arm raised and holds his fingers to make a circle or sign of everlasting and holds three fingers indicating the triune nature of God. The church is freed of sin and becomes a model on earth of the redeemed cosmos having already reached salvation.
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 Modern viewers can identify with the Doubting Thomas icon (shown above) also at this entrance. Thomas reaches out to touch the wounds which Christ reveals to help his friend believe. Belief in God requires faith not proof but here God offers Thomas and us proof of his resurrection. From this we know that despite our doubt, God’s infinite power and love will make up for what we are lacking and that faith like any gift originates from God alone.  Much like Jesus proved to Mary sister of Lazarus and then said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life (John 11)”.

 

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 The largest and most important icon is found in the very center of the church and at the greatest height. Above the crossing square is a weathered but utterly beautiful domed cupola where Christ resides in gleaming gold watching over everyone at the center of this mimetic mini cosmos. This image is standard for Byzantine churches post iconoclastic controversy. Christ is portrayed frontally as a half figure and framed by a circular rainbow of gems and gold tesserae.  It is known as Christ Pantocrator or the all-knowing Christ who is enthroned as the ruler of the universe.  What happens in this church mirrors what happens in heaven though is not yet visible to the human eye. The cupola or dome symbolizes heaven—the invisible space where God resides.
To live is to know God which means realizing he exists at the center of life rather than the periphery. Christ’s power transforms everyone even in small ways when they come face to face with this image of God inside this church. Within the dome, just below Christ, are the images of the 16 prophets of the Old Testament who foresaw the coming of the Messiah.

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Below the dome, four pendentives support the dome and are decorated with icons. On each pendentive, there is an image of Christ’s life or the life of the Virgin to whom the church is dedicated. On the north pendentives looking toward the altar is the Annunciation (shown above) and looking toward the entrance is the Nativity (shown below) which remind us that God became incarnate to live among us.

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On the south pendentives looking toward the door is the Baptism (shown below) where the three natures of God are clearly visible. A hand representing God the father extends toward a dove representing the Holy Spirit and Christ is shown with a halo and cross receiving baptism from his cousin John the Baptist. In 325, the Council of Nicea set out to officially define the relationship of the Son to the Father, in response to the controversial teachings of Arius. Arius questioned the eternal existence of the Son prior to his appearance on earth. Led by Bishop Athanasius, the council affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity as orthodoxy and condemned Arius’ teaching that Christ was the first creation of God.  The Council of Nicaea declared Christ– God—“God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father.”
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 The last pendentive, looking toward the altar shows this Transfiguration icon. As told in the Gospel of Mark the four apostles closest to Jesus ascend Mt. Tabor and while up there recognize Christ’s divine nature as depicted through the mandorla or almond shape surrounding Christ colored in bands of blue and silver. This mandorla and rays of light emanating from Christ symbolize divine-uncreated light and emphasize that Christ is the creator rather than being created. Below these pendentives are additional scenes from Christ’s life including miracles such as the Raising of Lazarus.  At the east end, we find the altar.

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Above the altar are icons: the Entry into Jerusalem, Christ’s Crucifixion (shown below) and Descent from the Cross. The Crucifixion is shown above. The altar is reserved for clergy serving communion. According to Orthodox belief, the celebrating priest appears as an icon of the high priest, Christ himself. The visual reminders of the body and blood of Christ are the very icons just above the altar in the apse: a portrayal of Christ Crucifixion shows both his body and blood.  The altar itself is understood as an icon of Christ’s grave and an icon of his high throne in Heaven.
According to Orthodox religion, one of the most central actions of the Liturgy is the consecration and distribution of the bread and wine that constitute Christ’s body and blood. While congregants take communion inside this church, God resides over communion in heaven where the whole of the church mirrors this purpose.

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Below these icons is another level in the hierarchy which includes the saints. The lowest level of icons is at shoulder level and depicts angels. The figurative decoration stops at shoulder height so the congregation is the next level in the hierarchal arranged microcosm. At the very bottom, decorative marble plates are inset in the wall. In this way when we enter the church, we become integrated in the icons. Since we are made in the image of God, we become a part of the complete church decoration.  The act of going to church, worshipping and taking communion brings us closer to God and more reflective of his image. Believers and nonbelievers alike– will all one day encounter God for ourselves. For now the church offers us a role in the cosmos of the redeemed and to hear the word of God.

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IMG_1258The following is a post I wrote for Practicing Families on ‘spiritual practices with our children.’

‘Thank you God for your love. Thank you for your kindness. You are good and gracious. Alleluia.’ 

Now imagine that sung in a faltering monotone and you get the gist of our every meal grace.

My soon-to-be sixth grader now contributes his unreliable, pubescent voice to the effort, meaning whenever he can make it to the last note sans cracked voice the song becomes its namesake: an act of grace. An underserved gift from the Almighty.

My boys are 8 and nearly 12 respectively and we’ve sung that grace for as long as the former could speak and the latter could speak English.

Sometimes they sing it without thinking. Sometimes they sing it without feeling, that is, because we’ve forced them. Sometimes they really sing it without thinking, as reflexively as put the knife on the right side of their plates. There have even been times when they sing with surprising thoughtfulness and sincerity.

In other words, my boys engage the practice of saying grace exactly like grown-ups do.

It’s become a habit in the best sense of the word, a practice which over time, through God’s grace, and in spite of ourselves, Thomas Aquinas says, can cultivate the chief of all virtues: charity.

But my point isn’t the practice of saying the grace. It’s where they- we- first learned it.

5 years ago my boys started helping with one of our homeless ministries in DC, Sunday Suppers. It’s an incredibly simple, Jesusy ministry. Make a large meal in the church kitchen along with brown bag lunches for the next day. Drive the food into DC near Capitol Street. Set up tables and chairs in a parking lot. Kick on some music (Marvin Gaye is best).  Invite the poor to come sit down and share dinner with us.

It’s not a ministry for the poor.

It’s a meal with them. As though we were all part of the same family.

It’s what I think of now when I hear that line from Luke about people coming from East and West and North and South to eat at table in the Kingdom of God. I think of the red, blue, green and yellow metro map that segments the district.

My boys learned the grace there, sitting across from a Chinese immigrant with lots plastic grocery bags and no English and a heavily tattooed, pierced homeless guy who wove grandiose conspiracy theories while the sun set in the shadow of the Capitol Building.

A lay person from my church taught the song.

We’ve been singing it since.

My boys have sung it too- with that same lay leader- as they’ve participated on our church’s mission teams to Guatemala, spending a week at a time in indigenous Mayan communities- serving along side grown-ups and teenagers from my church.

 

They’ve both been several times. They expect to go. It’s what they do.

More importantly, it’s how they’ve learned to do the faith.

Engaging hands-on, eye-to-eye, one-on-one with those the materially rich label ‘poor.’

Learning that our definitions of such things are all upside down in Jesus’ Kingdom.

Looking to find the face of Christ in the stranger.

Sure, my boys have had such opportunities because it comes with Daddy’s job and, initially at least, they participated precisely because it was my job. With nowhere else to go, they tagged along.

As with most gifts from God, the blessing of their participation has revealed itself only in hindsight and certainly does not reveal me as any sort of stellar parent with the sort of spiritual foresight that warrants my title (‘Reverend:’ one to be revered).

I didn’t intend the practice of engaging the poor to form my children’s faith, but I can with hindsight identify that it’s done just that.

A rock-solid observation from which I derive a few thus-and-so’s.

Too often in the Church we make the mistake of teaching our kids about the Word Made Flesh with nothing but words.

Coloring sheets, bible-based word finds, children’s sermons, Sunday School lessons, graphic-novel bibles and-horror- discussions.

Too often we don’t put flesh on all our words about the Word Made Flesh until our children are teenagers, at which point they’re no longer interested (and, truth be told, we’re more interested in them ‘serving’ the poor so they’ll come home ‘feeling grateful for their blessings’. Bleh).

The point is: too often by the time our children become youth we’ve bored them.

With all our words.

Or better put, our many words have made the Word boring with too many bible studies and too few bible do’s.

In too many ways, we ex-carnate the Word.

But the flesh is just as crucial as the words in knowing the Word Made Flesh.

The grace my boys sing is a means of grace not just for the words they sing but for the memories those words recall.

I’m a firm believer in spiritual practices and a poor practitioner of them, but I’m doing more than saving face when I point out how so many spiritual practices are words, words, words.

But with the Word Made Flesh the words tend to be active verbs:

go, do, eat, welcome, embrace, forgive, feed.

Whatever else we count as spiritual practices, I think the list has got to start with the verbs the Word Made Flesh gives us.

And just count them in your bible- there’s more than enough verbs to keep your children busy for quite some time. It’s easy in fact. Make a meal. Set a table. Kick on some music (Marvin Gaye never fails). Find a sinner, a stranger, or a poor person- none of which are hard to locate. And welcome them to a feast.

As a parent, I get how families are often reluctant to expose their kids to more than they’re ready and as a pastor I get that engaging the poor isn’t always easy and seldom does it abide our sentimental expectations.

It’s risky. I get that. But I also know the risk that runs in the other direction is no less bothersome: the risk they’ll grow up thinking the Word Made Flesh has no skin and bones- the risk they’ll think Jesus is boring.

But a dude who gets murdered by an Empire is, by definition, NOT BORING.

Yeah, it’s risky, putting your kids in situations you doubt they’re ready or old enough for, but as someone who’s watched my boys, I know kids are ready for it.

At least, they’re ready to do the kind of stuff Jesus did rather than just read and hear and talk about it. Maybe that’s exactly what Jesus meant when he said the rest of us need to become like them.

Like children.

Maybe the spiritual practices of our children is one place Christians need to believe in re-incarnation.

 

 

St Thomas AquinasFor a few weeks now, I’ve been running with this pericope from an essay by the late Dominican philosopher, Herbert McCabe:

‘Never think that if you’re contrite and pray to God for forgiveness that God will forgive you…In a fairly literal sense, God doesn’t give a damn about your sin. It’s we who give the damns.’ 

Your prayer for forgiveness doesn’t incline God to forgive you.

God, by definition of the word ‘God,’ does not change.

God’s unchanging nature, God’s immunity to change we could say, is called ‘immutability.’

Understanding God’s nature as immutable has been the consensus belief of most of Christianity since the time of Christ and continues to be so in most of the Church catholic.

To many contemporary Christians, to assert that God does not change seems to fly in the face of their understanding of God, particularly the pathos-filled God of the Hebrew Bible. Indeed many modern theologians go even farther than insisting that God changes, making the claim that God feels. Even- God suffers.

What was formerly denounced as a heresy (patripassianism) is now, functionally at least, the new orthodoxy among Protestant theologians.

The argument typically proceeds thusly:

In contrast to patristic thought, biblical thought depicts a God who is intimately and passionately involved in the world. The ancient Christian notion of divine impassibility (that God does not suffer) is blamed on the pernicious influence of Greek philosophy upon nascent Christianity.

After all, the argument erroneously goes, it was the pagan gods who were static and feelingless towards the world, whereas the God of Israel is active, sympathetic, emotional, even to the point of suffering with his people.

Greek philosophy, in other words, led to the deterioration of an originally unadulterated system of biblical belief. Such a caricature however ignores the fact there is no uniform Greek view on the matter of God’s suffering nor is there a unified biblical view, for the same Hebrew Bible that depicts the cuckolded God suffering lady Israel’s infidelities also depicts God self-identifying as ‘he who is’ and asserting that that same God does not change (Malachi).

Herbert McCabe discusses “the involvement of God” in the world in his book God Matters. McCabe addresses this question of the impassibility of God, that is, is God involved in the world in such a way so as to experience suffering?

Many modern theologians dismiss Church Fathers like Thomas Aquinas for saying too much about God’s nature philosophically without deferring sufficiently to God’s self-revelation, Christ.

For example, McCabe cites the founding father of passibility, Jürgen Moltmann on Aquinas’ Five Ways:

The cosmological proof of God was supposed by Thomas to answer the question utrum Deus sit, but he did not really prove the existence of God; what he proved was the nature of the divine, . . . Aquinas answered the question “What is the nature of the divine?,” but not the question “Who is God?” (Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God, 12).

In fact, McCabe points out this is exactly what Aquinas avoided. Aquinas believed we cannot know what God is, that is his nature. We can only know what God is not in his nature. For Aquinas, even God’s self-revelation in Christ does not change the incomprehensibility of God.

As McCabe writes:

it is extremely difficult for readers of Aquinas to take his agnosticism about the nature of God seriously. If he says ‘Whatever God may be, he cannot be changing’ readers leap to the conclusion that he means that what God is is static. If he says that, whatever God may be, he could not suffer together with (sympathize with) his creatures, he is taken to mean that God must by nature be unsympathetic, apathetic, indifferent, even callous. It is almost as though if Aquinas had said that God could not be a supporter of Glasgow Celtic, we supposed he was claiming God as a Rangers fan. (McCabe, God Matters 41).

McCabe reminds us then that we should be careful not to jump to conclusions when we read that God “cannot be changing.”

He continues:

“As with the Celtic and Rangers, it does not follow that, if God is not affected by, say, human suffering, he is indifferent to it. In our case there are only two options open: we either feel with, sympathize with, have compassion for the sufferer, or else we cannot be present to the suffering, we must be callous, indifferent. We should notice, however, that even in our case it is not an actual ‘suffering with’ that is necessary for compassion, but only a capacity to suffer with. Sharing in actual pain is neither necessary nor sufficient for compassion, whose essential components are awareness, feelings of pity and concern” (McCabe God Matters 44). 

God, McCabe argues, cannot literally be understood to have “feelings” of compassion.

McCabe explains that when we have compassion for others, when we are present to another’s suffering we want nothing less than to fully take on that suffering, but we cannot do this because we are always outside the other person.

Compassion is all we have and there is always frustration involved in remaining outside of the other person, that is, not being able to fully be with the other.

By contrast, God, as Creator cannot be outside of his creature; “a person’s act of being as well as every action done has to be an act of the creator” (44).

So, “if the creator is the reason for everything that is, there can be no actual being which does not have the creator as its centre holding it in being” (45).

McCabe holds that our compassion is a feeble attempt to be “what God is all the time: united with and within the life of our friend” (45).

Like Augustine and Aquinas before him, McCabe affirms that it’s in being transcendent that God is intimately involved with each creature much more than creatures could be with one another.

McCabe then goes on to argue that the popularity of a suffering God goes hand-in-hand with a misunderstanding of the incarnation.

McCabe looks back to the Council of Chalcedon, which affirmed the one person of the Jesus as truly human and truly divine.

The Chalcedonian formulation, McCabe points out, allows us to say “quite literally that God suffered hunger and thirst and torture and death” (46).

The traditional doctrine of the incarnation allows us to affirm that the Son of God assumed a human nature and therefore God suffered in his human nature.

But this is not the same thing as saying God suffered in his nature.

We can say “The Son of God died on the cross” and also “God died on the cross,” but while God signifies Jesus’ divine nature, McCabe reminds us, it refers to what has this nature, that is Jesus of Nazareth.

 

lightstock_1219_max_user_2741517-e1382974207582We just kicked off a new sermon series ‘Revolution of the Heart’ wherein we’ll unpack the story behind our funny church name ‘Aldersgate’ as well as to explore what Jesus means when he invites us to ‘repent.’

The word repent in Greek, metanoia, literally means ‘turn around.’

A revolution.

Jesus’ Kingdom is about a revolution of the heart.

Here’s an old sermon on how what we mean by Trinity and Incarnation has very practical, every day consequences for how we’re called to live. You can also listen to on the side widget, on the mobile app or in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

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.

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus…

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

I began thumbing through the pages of SkyMall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there a better way to celebrate Christmas?

The glossy advertisement asked rhetorically.

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

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

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

Seriously. Eyeshadow.

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

     Where you headed? The businessman on my left asked.

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

I’m headed to my in-laws’ house.

He chuckled and said: Good luck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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     You talking to me? I asked.

Yeah, he said.

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

Yeah, I guess so.

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

I let his voice of trail off.

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

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

The what?

The wise men, I said.

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

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

Sounds like the GPS in my car, he laughed.

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

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

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

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

And I smiled and said: Something like that.

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

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

Can I read it? he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

What’s this? he asked me.

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

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

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

Can you show me? he asked.

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

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

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

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

I wondered if it might be:

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

or

He will judge between many peoples. 

or

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

or

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

or I wondered if it might be

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

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

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

 

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

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

What is? I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’d closed my eyes.

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

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

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

How so?

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

You ought to be a minister, I said.

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

I laughed and said…pretty much.

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

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

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.

Or better still, it’s incomplete. As St Augustine argued:

“In the Incarnation of Christ, other things must be considered besides absolution from sin.”

De Trinitate, XIII. 17

#2 Reason Christmas Doesn’t Need the Cross:

Because Emmanuel isn’t just the beginning.

Emmanuel, God-with-Us, is the End.

As in, telos.

Whereas Western Christianity- and by Western I don’t mean the flyover states but all of Protestant Christianity and the vast majority of Roman Catholic Christianity- has privileged the Atonement over the Incarnation, Eastern Christianity- what eventually became the Orthodox traditions- historically has treated the Incarnation not as simple prologue to the salvation plot but as constitutive of salvation itself.

The Eastern Fathers (like Maximus the Confessor and Gregory of Nazianzus, whom John Wesley sought to retrieve for Western Christianity) viewed the Incarnation as the eternally necessary outworking of God’s creative act, for God’s creative aim is not creation itself nor creation apart from God nor (contra Jean Calvin an eventual overcoming of creation’s Sin by the Son’s cross).

God’s creative aim is the joining together of divinity and humanity, Spirit and flesh, Creator and creature, heaven with Earth.

God’s eternal aim is Emmanuel: God with us.

In this sense, the God-Man, Jesus Christ, whom Paul calls the first first of the New Creation is presupposed in the first creation.

The with-ness of God’s creative aim or end (telos) thus requires Incarnation quite apart from the Fall. As Russian Orthodox theologian, Georges Florovosky, notes in The Motive of the Incarnation:

This was the main line of reasoning of St. Gregory of Nazianzus in his refutation of Apollinarianism:

“That is saved which is united with God.”

Typically Gregory’s quote gets cited in argument for the full humanity of Christ. Christ must be fully human, encompassing all of our human experiences (male and female etc) or else we- or those of us who aren’t Jewish men- do not have share in his sacrificial death for sin’s sake.

While of course our share in the atoning work of Christ is part of Gregory’s meaning it’s not the full or primary meaning Gregory intends. Gregory’s quote means to point out that the word ‘salvation’ names not only the overcoming of sin but more largely the joining together of God and man.

To paraphrase Athanasius without distorting his original intent:

God became man and was always going to do so;

so that, man could be with God.

Uniting is/was God’s larger, more general intent of which Atoning became a necessary work.

All of this is meant only as preface to this excerpt from Orthodox theologian Sergei Bulgakov‘s ‘Du Verbe Incarne.’ Nesterov_Florensky_Bulgakov

Bulgakov’s book Lamb of God is a must read.

God wants to communicate to the world his divine life and himself to “dwell” in the world, to become human, in order to make of human kind a god too. That transcends the limits of human imagination and daring, it is the mystery of the love of God “hidden from the beginning in God” (Eph 3:9), unknown to the angels themselves (Eph 3:10; 1 Pet 1:12; 1Tim 3:16).

The love of God knows no limits and cannot reach its furthest limit in the fullness of the divine abnegation for the sake of the world: the Incarnation. And if the very nature of the world, raised from non-being to its created state, does not appear here as an obstacle, its fallenstate is not one either.

God comes even to a fallen world; the love of God is not repelled by the powerlessness of the creature, nor by his fallen image, nor even by the sin of the world: the Lamb of God, who voluntarily bears the sins of the world, is manifest in him. In this way, God gives all for the divinization of the world and its salvation, and nothing remains that he has not given.

Such is the love of God, such is Love.

Such it is in the interior life of the Trinity, in the reciprocal surrender of the three hypostases, and such it is in the relation of God to the world.

If it is in such a way that we are to understand the Incarnation–and Christ himself teaches us to understand it in such a way (Jn 3:16)–there is no longer any room to ask if the Incarnation would have taken place apart from the Fall.

The greater contains the lesser, the conclusion presupposes the antecedent, and the concrete includes the general.

The love of God for fallen humankind, which finds it in no way repugnant to take the failed nature of Adam, already contains the love of stainless humankind.

And that is expressed in the wisdom of the brief words of the Nicene Creed: “for our sake and for our salvation.”

This and, in all the diversity and all the generality of its meaning, contains the theology of the Incarnation. In particular, this and can be taken in the sense of identification (as that is to say).

So it is understood by those who consider that salvation is the reason for the Incarnation; in fact, concretely, that is indeed what it signifies for fallen humanity.

But this can equally be understood in a distinctive sense (that is to say, “and in particular,” or similar expressions), separating the general from the particular, in other words, without limiting the power of the Incarnation nor exhausting it solely in redemption.

The Word became flesh: one must understand this in all the plenitude of of its meaning, from the theological point of view and the cosmic, the anthropological, the Christological and the soteriological.

The last, the most concrete, includes and does not exclude the other meanings; so too, the theology of the Incarnation cannot be limited to the bounds of soteriology; that would be, moreover, impossible, as the history of dogma bears witness.

The Incarnation is the interior basis of creation, its final cause.

God did not create the world to hold it at a distance from him, at that insurmountable metaphysical distance that separates the Creator from the creation.

God intended to surmount that distance and unite himself completely with the world; not only from the outside, as Creator, nor even as providence, but from within: “the Word became flesh”.

That is why the Incarnation is already predetermined in the very first human kind.

 

 

 

 

Mary’s Cover Song

Jason Micheli —  January 2, 2014 — Leave a comment

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

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

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

 

Cover Song

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

Elizabeth is like the photo negative of Mary.

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

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

It’s a cover song.

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s how it’s going to work.

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

All four halves of sermons are about Mary.

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

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

Sermon #1: 

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

- Matthew 1

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

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

And I doubt you know many either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God doesn’t require procreation in order to create.

God’s Word will create something from nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Sermon #2: 

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

- Luke 1 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does Mary sing about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon #3:

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

- Luke 1 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I didn’t share with you last week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon #4: 

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

- Luke 2 

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re just as guilty as her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No doubt the shepherds then tell the news to Mary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sermon #5: 

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

- Acts 1, 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why did Jesus come to earth?

In other words, why Christmas?

Every year the questions are the same:

More than 3/4 answer:

that Jesus comes

in order to die.

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

#3 Reason Christmas Doesn’t Need the Cross:

Because Christ is the Image of God

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

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

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

- Colossians 1

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

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

And what does the hymn sing about?

It praises Jesus as the image of God.

The imago dei.

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

Christ is the image of God.

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

Look at it another way.

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

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

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

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

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

In his truthfulness

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

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

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

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

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

No sin, no Jesus.

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

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

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

All this to say-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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