Archives For Incarnation

The Eastertide lections from 1 John got me thinking about antichrist. These letters of John, after all, are the (only) place we found that scary-sounding word in scripture:

“By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess that Jesus has come in the flesh is not from God…this is the spirit of the antichrist.” – 1 John 4

If we take St. John seriously, then it’s easier to be an antichrist than Kirk Cameron has led you to believe.

Identifying the antichrist doesn’t require reading the signs of the times or breaking any biblical codes. It doesn’t even require you to ever turn over to the Book of Revelation.  It just requires a little self-reflection. Because, take it from St John, you might be an antichrist.

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You might be an antichrist if…

If you think Christianity is about ‘spiritual’ things- or timeless ‘truths,’ then you might be antichrist.

If you think that salvation is what happens to us after we die, if you believe that our soul leave our bodies and go off to heaven when we die, if you think the goal of Christianity is to go to heaven when you die, then you might be an antichrist.

If you have ever sat next to a bedside or a graveside and said something like: ‘Her body, his body, that’s not really him, that’s not really her. It’s just a shell’ then you might be an antichrist.

If you ever used that poem for a funeral, the one that goes: Do not stand at my grave and weep/I am not there. I do not sleep/ I am a thousand winds that blow/I am the diamond glints on the snow/Do not stand at my grave and cry/ I am not there/ I did not die.

If you ever used that poem at a funeral, then chances are your undertaker was an antichrist.

If you believe that Christianity teaches the evacuation from creation (ie, the rapture) instead of the redemption of all creation (New Creation) then I hate to be the one to break it to you but you might be an antichrist.

If you think God does not care about the Earth or that the physical, material things in your life are not good gifts from God thus means of grace to God and from God then your belief is what St. John calls antichrist.

If you know someone who insists that they ‘can worship God better in nature’ (ie, play golf) then the next time that someone says that just calmly but convincingly call them the antichrist.

Because you could never find something as counter-intuitive as Jesus in nature and God, the fullness of God, didn’t take spirit. It took flesh.

And God dwelt not in the mountains or the trees but in Jesus. So don’t be shy call them as you see them, call that someone an antichrist.

Don’t be shy about calling them an antichrist because you might be one too.

If you think religious people are all basically the same because ‘we all believe in the same God after all’ you might be an antichrist. Because that generalized God took very particular flesh and became a very specific first century Jewish carpenter from Nazareth who taught some very peculiar things.

     You see, Kirk Cameron with his vacant Growing Pains cuteness has us all fooled.

It’s not that hard to be an antichrist.

You are if you’re uncomfortable with the idea that God ever burped, farted, or hit puberty. I know it might sound silly but you don’t really believe that God became fully human if you don’t believe he was at least as human as you or me.

And that way of thinking- John calls that antichrist. The more you pick at it, the more you pull on the thread, the more you see that St John is right. The spirit of the antichrist is everywhere.

If you think the letter of scripture or your political platform deputizes you for ugly, un- Jesusy, Pharsaic behavior towards another (‘Love the sinner, hate the sin’) then you are an antichrist. You’ve removed the mode of Jesus’ earthly, fleshly life from your message about Jesus.

And, look, pot- meet kettle. I’m guilty too.

Because honestly, it’ll come as no surprise, I spend more time polishing my theological ideas than I do in prayer. I spend more time preaching the Gospel than I do practicing it. I’m amazed that God is gracious to a sinner like me, but I’m annoyed whenever God does the same for a sinner worse than me.

And with Christ, in Christ’s life, it all worked the other way round. Which means my way goes against the grain. Which makes me- you guessed it- an antichrist.

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And that surprises us.

It surprises us because Kirk Cameron, with his vapid Huey Lewis-like expression, has convinced us all that the antichrist is an auspicious figure marked out by the number 666, a fantastical, future political leader who will lure people’s loyalty away from God before ushering in a time of terrible tribulation which itself will usher in the Rapture, the Last Judgment and the ultimate- very unJesusy- destruction of God’s creation by God himself.

He seemed so innocent on Growing Pains that we’ve let Kirk Cameron convince us that the antichrist is the one who will wreak all that scary stuff near the end of your bibles.

But what the street corner evangelists and the cable TV preachers don’t tell you, what the whole end-times, Left Behind industry doesn’t tell you:

The word ‘antichrist’ does not occur anywhere- anywhere– in the Book of Revelation.

Not once.

The word ‘antichrist’ (which is the complicated Greek word αντί  Χριστός, ‘anti-Christos’) occurs nowhere in scripture, nowhere in the Bible except here in St. John’s first 2 letters.

The word ‘antichrist’ occurs just 5 times in bible in only 4 verses in no more than these 2 letters from John. 

And in these letters from John the word ‘antichrist’ is not a title, it’s not a proper name, it’s not a specific individual person who portends tribulation. In John the word ‘antichrist’ refers to those people, any people, who deny that God had a real blood and bones body. That God took flesh in Jesus, that God became fully human.

     Who John had in mind specifically were the Gnostics, an ancient heresy that still pops up all over the place today in both pews and popular culture. The gnostics believed that the physical, material world was corruptible and thus inherently imperfect. They believed that what was eternal was the spiritual.

And therefore the gnostics believed that ‘salvation’ was about your spiritual soul escaping your physical body, escaping this physical world for the spiritual one, for heaven.

Not surprisingly, then, the gnostics took a dim view towards the God of the Old Testament, the God who not only made this physical world and our embodied selves but declared it all ‘very good.’ Even less surprising, the gnostics refused to believe that ‘God’ would ever leave the perfect, spiritual world and take up residence, take flesh in Jesus. And so the gnostics were left two alternatives, the two alternatives that are still with us everywhere.

You could believe that Jesus was human, as human as you or me, but just human, just another teacher, a teacher you can follow as far as you want but dismiss whenever you want.

Or, if you were a gnostic, you could believe that Jesus wasn’t just another teacher but neither was he just another human. Because he wasn’t fully human like you or me because God would never debase himself to become like you or me.

John pulls no punches. He warns us away. He calls all that ‘antichrist.’

And it is.

To deny that God became fully human is antichrist because it leads us to stop seeing the world as Jesus saw it, to stop living in the world as Jesus lived in it, to stop heeding the words that the Word made flesh spoke into it. To deny that God became fully human is antichrist because it leads us in no time to live our lives against the grain of the way he lived his.

I know on any given day I’m in danger. The bad news is that it’s actually pretty easy to be an antichrist. But the good news?

The good news is that the remedies for being an antichrist are many and they’re just as easy.

For example:

Pour a glass of good wine, roast a chicken, hold a baby or have sex. Because the sacred became physical in Jesus Christ and therefore all physical things are sacred.

The remedies for being an antichrist are easy. Here’s another: 

Find a sinner- trust me, they’re not hard to find. Find a sinner, preferably someone who’s wronged you, and say to them: ‘I do not condemn you.’

‘I forgive you you know not what you do.’

‘Even though you curse, I will bless you.’

And when they ask you why you’re doing this or who told you to do this, just say: ‘God himself told me…in the flesh.’

 

 

 

To Christ! Cheers!

Jason Micheli —  January 5, 2018 — 1 Comment

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

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

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

Preface:

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

 

1. To Christ the New Adam

 

To Christ the Lord a brand new Adam, he

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

To him all laud and honor be assigned,

Humanity’s designer now designed.

Once Adam and his counterpart would walk

The garden every evening for a talk

Til temptation’s taste God’s grace betrayed.

These friends of God were naked and afraid.

This Adam is our ancestor and kin,

But now true human life again begins.

Old Adam’s peace with God, as friend,

Is why this re-cast Adam does descend.

Old Adam’s story, our disgraceful fall.

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

 

2. To Christ the New Noah

 

To mind, as friendly beasts around Christ stood,

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

Of Noah called to build for God an ark

As storm clouds gathered, ominous and dark.

The Holy family in a stable hid

As Noah and his family also did.

God tried to wash all fallenness away

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

God chose to never try the flood again,

And here is where our dear Christ enters in.

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

Baptismal waters wash away our dross.

His Spirit is the dove on Calv’ry perched

The Christ-constructed arc is now the church.

 

3. To Christ the New Isaac

 

To Christ the Lord, a brand new Isaac, he

A shoot from Jesse’s Abrahamic tree.

Old Abe was promised kids at ninety-one,

Young Isaac was his Sarah’s firstborn son.

And he was their beloved pride and joy,

But God asked Abe to sacrifice his boy.

In faithfulness and fear Abe acquiesced

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

Then God stopped Abe and proved in Isaac’s life

That this is not God’s kind of sacrifice.

The faithful need not sacrifice another

We need not separate a child and mother.

Instead the sacrifice New Isaac gives

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

 

4. To Christ the New Joseph

 

Imagine Christ the youngest of 12 brothers

His swaddling cloth a coat of many colors.

Eleven brothers did, as Judas will,

Sell Joseph out, a perfect plan, until,

Cast out he finds himself in Pharoah’s court.

The nascent Christ is Joseph, of a sort.

A dreamer, to be sure, but fully wise,

By his own tribal kin likewise despised.

The technicolor curtain to be torn,

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

Seek solace from this famine-fallowed land.

New Joseph sits enthroned at God’s right hand.

From siblings’ malintented cross of wood.

Came resurrection, God’s intended good.

 

5. To Christ the New Moses

 

To Christ the Lord, a brand new Moses, he

Has come to finally set all people free

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

To bring for all earth’s Pharoahs signs that God

Has heard the cries of slaves to greed and might.

He recapitulates Passover night.

In Moses’ basket, Mary lays I AM

Who gives himself to be our Paschal Lamb.

And as in desert wilderness they saw

The gifts of water, manna, and the law

So Christ brings streams of mercy, bread of peace,

And to those held in bondage, sweet release.

As Moses brought commandments from above,

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

 

6. To Christ the New David

 

To Christ the Lord, a new King David, he

Has come to rule the world with equity.

From Bethlehem, the Lord’s Davidic home,

Behold he comes to mount his manger throne.

Though Samuel warned a king was a mistake,

As all they do is take and take and take,

The people Israel insisted still

To be like other nations was their will.

Heart-broken over this unfaithful bride,

Their God in perfect patience did provide.

And though King David reigns the Hall of Fame,

This day three Kings bow down at Jesus’ name.

While most kings only take and take some more,

This Christ, new-born, is gracious evermore.

 

7. To Christ the New Ruth

 

To Christ, a recast Ruth, the nearlywed,

We raise a toast as they lay down their head.

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

Committed to a promise, without end.

As Ruth was loyal in the midst of grief,

So Christ shows faithfulness, beyond belief.

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

And, “We will one forever-fam’ly be.”

From boundless fruitful freedom, now enfleshed,

The firstborn of the harvest to be threshed.

To gather in the sheaves of broken dreams,

Our broken, banished-barley souls to glean,

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

That none can put asunder God and us.

 

8. To Christ the New Jonah

 

To Naughty Nineveh God sent him out.

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

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

Aboard a ship he slipped into the spray.

While playing possum, fleeing from the Lord,

His fellow sailors tossed him overboard.

Like Nineveh, our world is sick with sin

But Christ will walk where Jonah fell right in.

Once, Jonah prayed for 3 days in a fish

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

Where Jonah feared, our Christ was thrice as brave:

And for our sake was swallowed by the grave.

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

Plunged into death he rose to victory.

 

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

To Christ the Lord, the Newly-Lighted Way

Isaiah’s glimpse foretold is here today.

In desert exile from the garden, we

Have prayed in shadow bent on feeble knee.

Arise and shine because the Light has come.

The lion and the lamb at last are one.

So walk in light and shout the great Amen.

Our Zion king instructs from Bethlehem.

The good and level road is ready now.

Convert your weapons, dare to share the plow.

Come ruler, president, and governor

And meet your lowly subjects’ comforter.

Trade evil for the Good, do not delay.

For this is Christ’s inauguration day.

 

10. To Mary Bearer of God

 

If Eve is mother to our wanton shame

Then Mary is a mother free from blame

So ponder with me now this “mother mild”

At once both meek and mighty, like her child.

A pregnant teenaged girl true wisdom had

Contemplative but fierce and shocked but glad

Tis she who births our Savior full of grace,

In labor’s pain rebirths the human race.

Her babe is firstborn of creation, true,

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

The Theotokos is her name in Greek

The bearer of the one the wisest seek.

She bears God into life, and so, may we

Be bearers of the Light we long to see.

 

11. To Christ our Sin

 

Let us who know our sin now raise a glass,

To Christ the scapegoat flanked by ox and ass,

Our asses for to save, he takes on skin,

The guiltless bears our guilt, becomes our sin.

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

His body filled with all our lust and malice.

Who Peter once denied, becomes denial.

The righteous judge endures the time of trial.

Who Judas once betrayed becomes betrayal

Consumes the murderous rage by Cain enabled.

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

Is crucified in flesh by holiness.

And can it be? Let all our tongues employ!

The wrath of God has sin in Christ destroyed.

 

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

 

To Christ the Word made flesh now let us sing

As we behold the poe’try of this thing

This Word was with and was what Wonder wrought

This wondrous Word without which we were naught

Mere mortals mystified by elf on shelf,

This Light now lit is light that lights itself!

The True Light that enlightens everyone

As if there is no shadow, only sun

Unbowed, unbent, unbound by time and space,

From faithful fullness giv’n as grace on grace

He deigns to dine despite those that deny

This life that lives so all of death may die.

So in the name of Light and Word again,

I wish you Merry Christmas, friends. Amen.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was a little church.

(#blesstheirheart)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

King Herod was played by the head usher, Jimmy.

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

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

I sat down and King Herod handed me a program.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Who picked the cast for this? Who chose them?

     Then he shook his head in disgust and accused me:

     Do you really think this is appropriate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s as if Matthew wants to say:

Everything about Christmas

Every promise this Christ child offers you

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

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

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

For instance-

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

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

Tamar had cheated him by disguising herself as a prostitute.

(I mean: Hebress with a heart of gold)

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

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

Boaz’s son was the grandfather of David.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary was the narrator for the Christmas story that year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     ‘Appropriate?’ I whispered back.

‘No. No, I think it’s perfect.‘

And Mike glared at me, red-faced.

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

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

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

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

What I mean to say is-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

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

Tonight Emmanuel

God-with-us

Comes to us

Just as you are.

We call it grace.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

No Linus,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I like it very much.

With haste, she packed her belongings into a duffel.

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

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

     ‘Favored one.’ 

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

    ‘Favored one.’ 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things would never be simple again.

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

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

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

She wondered what that said about God.

And what her boy would one day make of it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sleep came hard those nights on the road.

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

Made flesh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary knew: hers was different.

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

Life from nothing- that was the difference.

Not from Joseph or anyone else.

From nothing God created life.

Inside her.

From nothing.

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

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

The same way God created Adam and Eve.

From nothing.

As though what she carried within her was creation itself.

The start of a new beginning.

To everything.

For everyone.

A Genesis and an ultimate reversal all in one.

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

Where is the promised peace? Should we preach political sermons on Christmas Eve? Why does the victory feel so fragile? When was the last time we trembled in church?
Our special guest and my former mentor, Dr. Ruben Rosario Rodriguez, returns to the podcast (this time to Strangely Warmed) to talk about the lectionary’s assigned readings for Christmas Eve.
Give us a rating and review!!!

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

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A Waste of Wood

Jason Micheli —  December 18, 2017 — 1 Comment

It’s just a few bricks shy of brimstone- my 3rd Sunday of Advent sermon on Isaiah 61.

I spent one Advent a few years ago in Guatemala with a mission team from Aldersgate, in a poor community near the mountains called Chicutama. I was working at my last home for the week, building my last wood-stove for my final family before making the journey home for Christmas.

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

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

It was a one-room home, paid for by a relative who worked illegally here in the states. Tacked on the far wall was a cracked, laminated poster of multiplication tables. In the righthand corner was a long branch from a pine tree, propped up in a pink plastic beach bucket and decorated with pieces of colored foil and plastic. Thick smoke from a fire wafted into the room through the tin roof. Scavenged and saved bits of trash were stacked neatly on the dusty floor.

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

Jason didnʼt have any shoes and his feet were black with dirt and they looked cold. He had a rash on his cheeks and mites in his hair and his eyes were red and his nose was running black snot from the smoke.

They were sitting on the bed and Veronica was feeding them breakfast with a toy dollʼs spoon. She was feeding them Tortrix, lime-flavored corn chips like Fritos, and soda in a baby bottle.

Because that was the only thing they had to eat.

Because junk food is cheap.

And clean water is not and thatʼs all they could afford.

Above the bed hung a calendar. It was flipped to December. The top half had a picture of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus. At the bottom of the picture, in Christmas gold-leaf, was a scripture verse in Spanish:

“The Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

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

I looked at them there with the baby Jesus hanging above them on the wall along with the prophet Isaiah’s words in gilded italics as though to say to someone like me that Jesus Christ had come for them.

And them only.

        ———————-

     Somehow it never really gut punched me until I found myself staring at Jasonʼs dirty bare feet and bloodshot eyes and black runny nose whilst I wondered what altruistic-Instagram picture I’d post of myself when I retuned home.

Somehow only there in Jason’s ramshackle home did it finally strike me:

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

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

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

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

I mean, Iʼd rather count myself among Mary and Josephʼs family (I think).

Or at least among their friends (if they had any), waiting outside the manger with a balloon for the baby and a cigar for the father. Iʼd even settle for being one of the shepherds, whose dirty work disqualified them from religious life, but to whom the heavens nonetheless break open with angels and good news. Iʼd even take being one of the magi, unbelieving strangers from Iraq, who bring to the promised child gifts they probably couldnʼt afford.

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

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

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

     In other words, I’m not the poor who hungers for good news.

I’m not.

I’m not the captive who cries for liberty. I’m not the oppressed who yearns for exodus. I’m not blind; I can see just fine. I’m not lowly; I don’t need to be lifted up (thank you very much, Mary).

That Advent in Guatemala-

That’s when the truth stung me:

Iʼm not sure I like my place in the Christmas story.

————————

According to the prophet Isaiah-

Not only is the promised Messiah not for someone like me, the Messiah is promised by God exactly in order to be against someone like me.

As the Messiah’s mother sings:

      “He will scatter the proud and bring down the powerful and send the rich empty away…”

I hate to put a crimp in your Christmas cheer, but in 22308 that’s you and me.

Just listen again to today’s text:

The coming of Christ isn’t jolly, glad tidings for everyone.

According to Isaiah, arrival of the Lord’s favor coincides with the day of the Lord’s vengeance. Today’s text actually begins in chapter 59 where the prophet Isaiah says:

It displeased the Lord that there was no justice among the people. The Lord was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so the Lord [will] put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrap himself in fury as in a mantle. And according to their deeds, so will he repay; wrath”

I mean you have to give Herod credit. He wasnʼt stupid. He knew bad news when he heard it. Herod knew that joy coming to Maryʼs world meant an attack upon his world. Herod knew that the prophet Isaiah promised that when God takes flesh in the Messiah, God would take sides:

With those on margins.

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

With the oppressed and the lowly and the refugee.

For Herod, for the white-collared and the well-off and the people at the top of the ladder, for the movers and shakers of the empire- Christmas was bad news not good news.

And they were smart enough to know it. Christmas, Herod knew, didn’t signal jolliness or joy. It signaled judgement.

Far be it from me to be cynical (thatʼs a joke), but I wonder if thatʼs why we spike the eggnog and drape Christmas with so much cheap sentimentality.

I wonder if in our heart of hearts we know that if we braced ourselves and told the story of Christ’s coming straight up as the Gospels tell it, then, like King Herod, we might have a reason to fear.

I wonder if deep down, underneath all our Christmas kitsch and phony nostalgia and self-medicating day drinking, we’re afraid.

    I wonder if we’re afraid that if Christ’s coming wasn’t primarily for people like us, then…

when he comes again…

he’ll be against people like us.

If he didn’t come for us at the first Advent, then when he comes again at the second Advent will he be against us, bringing not joy but judgement?

———————

    Now, I know I’m going to have to repeat this so pay attention:

Advent is not about getting ready for Christmas.

Advent is about getting ready for Christ’s coming again.

Advent is not about getting ready for Christmas. Advent is about getting ready for Christ’s coming again.

That’s why the paraments are purple instead white, as they will be on Christmas. Advent is not about getting ready for Christmas. Advent is about getting ready for Christ’s coming again. That’s why the Medieval Church spent the Sundays of Advent on the themes of Heaven, Hell, Death, and Judgement.

Advent is not about his coming long ago in a Galilee far, far away.  Advent is about his coming again.

To you and me.

That’s why during Advent the Capital-C Church forces you to listen to Isaiah tell you all your best deeds are no better than fifty rags  Forces you to listen even to Jesus predict how his coming again will coincide with the end of the world as we know it. That’s why the ancient Advent hymns and the music of Handel and Bach and Mozart dwell so much on the Dies Irae, the Day of Wrath.

What are we? Masochists?

Listen to Isaiah again:

     The coming of Christ and the end of the world as we know it should not leave us, like REM, and feeling fine.

The coming of Christ and the end of the world as we know it- it means God’s favor…for some.

But it means judgement for others: the Lord’s vengeance and wrath.

What are we doing putting the purple paraments up?

Are we insane? Are we really that stupid?

Or are we collectively kidding ourselves that when Isaiah speaks of the poor and the downtrodden and the captive and the oppressed we are somehow included too?

He doesn’t mean poor in spirit. He doesn’t mean spiritually impoverished. He doesn’t mean captive to anxiety or oppressed by low self-esteem.

He means poor. He means captive. He means oppressed.

He doesn’t mean people like us.

———————-

For his rookie sermon in Nazareth, Jesus chooses today’s text from Isaiah. Standing up in his hometown church, Jesus quotes the prophet, saying:

“‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

And then Jesus slams shut his Bible and declares: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Did you notice what he did there?

Jesus says:

“‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…to proclaim release to the captives ….to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

And then Jesus says: “Check. I’ve fulfilled this one.”

Did you catch it?

Jesus cut it.

Jesus cut out Isaiah’s other line.

Jesus doesn’t say:

“‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me…to let the oppressed go free…to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor… and the day of vengeance of our God.”

     Jesus takes out Isaiah’s prophesy about God’s vengeance. He cuts it.

Why? Was the prophet Isaiah incorrect?

Does Jesus edit out Isaiah because Isaiah was wrong about who God is or how sinful we are?

When Jesus declares “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing…” does Jesus mean “You’ve heard it said that God is a God of love and wrath, favor and vengeance, but I say to you, nonsense, God is just as nice as Oprah swears by?”

No, when Jesus takes out Isaiah’s words about God’s vengeance and then says that he’s the fulfillment of those words, Jesus is saying that he is the promised one who brings God’s favor to us by bearing God’s vengeance against us.

     Isaiah’s line about God’s vengeance- he cuts it out because it’s in him.

It’s in his body, where he’ll carry it to a cross.

The prophet Isaiah was right. The salvation brought by the Messiah goes through wrath not around it. The salvation brought by the Messiah does not avoid God’s wrath; the Messiah saves us by assuming God’s wrath. Christ doesn’t cancel out God’s wrath; he bears it on our behalf.

You see, it’s not just that Christ’s faithfulness is reckoned to you as your own; it’s that your sin- all of it, your every sin- is reckoned to him as his own.

His righteousness is imputed to you, and your every sin is ex-puted to him.  In his faithfulness he has fulfilled all righteousness. And in his suffering he he has fulfilled all judgement.

     His Mother Mary wasn’t wrong:

The coming of Christ does mean God’s judgement on the unjust.

The coming of Christ does mean the comeuppance for the rich and the proud and the powerful but that comeuppance comes on the cross.

As the the Apostle Paul says in Colossians, God in Christ disarmed the powerful and the rich, ruling authorities by making a public spectacle of them and triumphing over them by the cross.

His Mother Mary wasn’t wrong because neither was his cousin John the Baptist wrong:

Mother Mary’s son is the Father’s Lamb who bears the sins of the world.

And if he bore the sins of unjust us, then when he died our sins died with him.

Once. For all.

Once for all our sins: past, present, future.

There is no sin you have committed and, more importantly, there is no sin you have yet to commit that is not already covered by the blood of the lamb

His righteousness has been gifted to you.

It’s yours and it’s free by faith.

And your sin, it belongs to him now.

Such that to worry about your sins, to hold onto the sins done to you- Martin Luther says it’s like stealing from Jesus Christ.

They don’t belong to you anymore. They’re his possessions.

Luther also says the cross frees us not to pretend.

The cross frees us to name things for what they really are.

So let’s call it for what it is-

You’re not the poor. You’re not the oppressed. You’re not the captive on whom God’s favor rests.  Yes, you’re proud and, yes, you’re powerful and, yes, you do participate in and you perpetuate injustice.

Yes, you do.

And, yes, you deserve to be punished for your sins. You have been. You have been punished for your sins.

     You were punished when God drowned you in your baptism into his death and resurrection so that his favor might be yours too.

The cross frees us to call things as they are so let’s just name it: if Christ had been born not into the 1st but the 21st century then, chances are, we’d be the bad guys in the story not the good guys. Not the ones on whom God’s favor rests.

But, the Lord’s favor rests upon people like us NOT by us doing good works for those on whom his favor rests.

The Lord’s favor rests upon people like us only by trusting that while we were yet enemies Christ the Judge was judged in our place.

Only a conscience free from the fear of judgement is truly free to make the poor and the oppressed the object of compassion instead of the object of your anxiety. We are justified not by our place in this story but by faith in what Christ does at the end of this story at a place called Calvary.

———————-

    And so, we can put up purple paraments on the altar. We can read about axes and winnowing forks and we can freely admit our good deeds are filthy rags. We can sing joyfully about the Day of Wrath because we know the Day of Wrath is already not not yet.

     Jesus didn’t eliminate Isaiah’s Day of Vengeance; he experienced it.

On a Friday afternoon on a hill a few miles outside of town.

And when he comes again we can greet him, naked and unafraid, because we know that whatever sin he finds in us has already been born by his body.

Otherwise, his cross is just a waste of wood.

     ———————-

     That Advent in Guatemala, after our weekʼs work was complete, the women of the village cooked a meal for us and thanked us.

These are women who, in their lifetimes, have been victimized by dictators and armed thugs.

These are refugees whose people over generations have been displaced and pushed into mountains as their land was stolen by the rich. These are poor women whose husbands and sons either have been killed by civil war or are living as economic exiles here in the states.

And there I was. Neither poor nor oppressed, already filled with good things.

Jasonʼs 17 year old mother was there. She presented me with a little tapestry sheʼd sewn and she said into my ear: ʻI thank Jesus Christ for you.ʻ

And then she wished me a Merry Christmas and then she embraced me.

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

     Isaiah’s not wrong- Jesus Christ came for people like her.

But Jesus Christ died for the ungodly like me.

That’s how Mary’s son makes his mother right.

 

      Second Sunday of Advent – Isaiah 40.1-11

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. And by fan, obviously, I mean a snobby, elitist, smarty-pants.

I’m a fan of all music except Jesus-is-my-Boyfriend Christian Music or that Baby-Making Smooth Jazz that Dennis likes to play in his office, which makes the sofa bed in there all the creepier.

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 to which I was the only applicant.

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.

In my apartment.

Every last album.

‘Every’ except Journey and Hall ‘N’ Oates. I really don’t get the Journey thing, people.

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 band was playing the praise song ‘Forever Reign.’

I love music. I use ticket stubs for bookmarks. I’ve got concert posters on every wall of our house, and I’ve got more songs in iCloud than Ronald Moore has credible accusers.

We love music in my house.

 

We’ve got 311 of them, but none of them are the obvious, bourgeoisie carols that play on repeat at Starbucks starting on Epiphany of the previous year.

There’s no ‘Let It Snow’ by Dean Martin or Rod Stewart, no drek like Neil Diamond singing ‘Jingle Bell Rock and no aesthetic-corroding ‘Christmas’ by Michael Bubble. Save the Amy Grant for the Dentist’s Office.

No, any savior worthy of our worship should be anticipated and celebrated with the likes of Sufjan Stevens, Nick Lowe, and Wynton Marsalis.

The boys and I- our favorite Christmas song is Bob Dylan’s emphysemic rendition of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town.’

Favorite because it drives Ali crazy, nails-on-chalkboard-kind-of-crazy.

Seriously, nothing tightens Ali’s sphincter and fills her eyes with hints of marital regret like Bob Dylan wheezing his way like an asthmatic kitty through that particular Santa song.

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? Shouldn’t a pastor be on the front lines with Roy Moore, rebuffing the enemy’s advances in the War on Christmas?

Maybe.

But I’ve got no beef with Santa Claus.

I mean- what’s not to like about a whiskey-cheeked home invader with Chucky-like elves on shelves creepily casing your joint all through Advent? If nothing else, Santa at least gives us one night a year when no one in the NRA is standing their ground. That just may be 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. 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. So I never had a problem with Santa Claus.

Until-

Until one day a couple of years ago.

We had our Christmas Carol Playlist on shuffle and Bob Dylan’s lung cancer cover of ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ came on the stereo.

And when Dylan came around to the chorus a second time, Gabriel said- 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 if,’ his voice trailed off, ‘we’re good.’

And just like that….that Ted Kennedy-complected fat man with the diminutive sweatshop slaves and the sleeping-with-the-enemy spouse was dead to me.

———————-

     “…so you better be good…”

For goodness sakes, Santa songs are just one example of the strings we attach to God’s gift of grace.

They’re just one example of how we muddle the Gospel with conditions.

Take Krampus, for instance, a 17th century Austrian tradition wherein a half-goat/half-demon called Krampus would accompany Santa Claus on his jolly sleigh ride in order to scare and terrorize the bad children.

     Gifts if you’ve been good.

A terrifying Goat-Demon if you’ve been naughty.

Seriously, somewhere along the way some Christians in Austria thought Krampus up and thought to themselves: “Jah, that jives with the Gospel.”

In Holland, St. Nick travels not by sleigh but by boat accompanied not by elves or reindeer but by 6-8 black men.

Until the 1950’s, these 6-8 black men were referred to as “Santa’s slaves” but now they’re just considered good friends.

“I think history has proved that something usually comes between slavery and friendship, a period of time marked not by cookies and quiet hours beside the fire but by bloodshed and mutual hostility” (David Sedaris).

But Santa and his former slaves seem to have worked it out fine.

In any case, Santa travels with an entourage of slaves-turned-buddies because if a Dutch child has been bad then on Christmas Santa’s 6-8 black men beat the child with sticks, and if a child has been especially naughty, Santa’s formerly-enslaved pals throw the kid into a sack and carry him away from his home forever.

     Gifts if you’ve been good.

Assault and battery and kidnapping if you’ve been bad.

That sounds amazingly like grace.

It’s easy for us to poke fun at creepy, antiquated, anti-Christ traditions like Krampus, but, then again, since 2005 parents have purchased millions of elves for their shelves.

According to the accompanying children’s book, The Elf on the Shelf, by Carole Aebersold, these nanny-cam scout elves, looking as thin as heroin addicts and as creepy as that doll from Annabelle, sit perched in your home from Thanksgiving to Christmas Eve, judging your child’s behavior before returning to the North Pole to narc on them to St. Nick.

So not only are gifts conditioned upon your child’s merit, you also get to encourage your child to bond with a magical elf friend for nearly a month so that then, long before they go through their first nasty break-up or divorce, your child can experience betrayal when their elf friend absconds northwards to rat them out to Santa.

     It’s like John says: For God so loved the world he sent a little Judas to sit on your shelf…

———————-

     Krampus, 6-8 black men, Elf on the Shelf– it would all be innocent and funny if this wasn’t how we spoke Christian the rest of the year.

The conditions we attach to Christmas with characters like Krampus are the same strings we tie onto the Gospel all the time:

God in Jesus Christ has given his life for you, but first you must believe.

The balance sheet of your life has been reckoned right- not by anything you’ve done, by God’s grace- but you must serve the poor, pray, go to church, give to the church.

Just talk to anyone who’s been asked for a pre-nup:

The word ‘but’ changes a promise into a threat.

God forgives all your sins but you must have faith.

That’s not a promise.

That’s a threat: If you don’t have faith, God will not forgive your sins.

How we speak at Christmas in naughty vs. nice if/then conditionality- it’s how we (mis)speak Christian all the time, turning promise into threat.

If you repent…then God will love you.

If you believe…then God will have mercy on you.

If you do good, if you become good…then God will save you.

And if you don’t?

Krampus.

———————-

     “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” was written for the Eddie Cantor Radio Show in 1934 by John Frederick Coots.

You might already know this but John Frederick Coots is a pseudonym, a pen-name, for Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness.

I’m only half-joking.

In his fable The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis has the devil catechize his minion, Wormwood, by teaching him that the best way to undermine Christianity in the world is not through direct and obvious attacks, like injustice, pornography, drug addition, war, or health insurance companies.

No, the best way to undermine Christianity, the Devil says, is by simply confusing the Church’s core message about who Christ is and what Christ has done, once for all; so that, the Devil’s work is done without Christians ever even noticing it until the Church is left with a Christ-less Christianity and a Gospel that is Law.

If you went to an Elf on the Shelf book-signing, I don’t know if author Carole Aebersold would smell like sulfur. I don’t know if John Frederick Coots really was the Devil in disguise.

But I do know- getting us to believe that God’s gift of grace is conditional that is the Devil’s kind of work.

Just read the Gospel of Matthew where the Devil tempts Jesus in the wilderness.

If you’ll fall down and worship me,” Satan says, “then I’ll give you the kingdom.”

We think we’re speaking Christian at Christmas but, really, we sound like the Devil in the Desert.

     It’s Satan who speaks in If/Then conditionality.

It’s the Gospel that declares unconditionally that ‘while we were yet sinners, God died for us.’

It’s Satan who speaks in If/Then conditions.

It’s the Gospel that declares unconditionally that ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…’

And you can ask Tim Tebow, the word ‘world’ in John’s Gospel has no positive connotations at all; therefore, it emphasizes the unconditional nature of the gift.

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 in order to list our names in the book of life.

When you speak about the gift given to us at Christmas, do not sound like Satan. There’s no ifs. There’s no buts. There’s no strings attached.

There’s just the unconditional promise that-

Yes, you’ve been naughty.

No, you’ve not been nice.

No matter, all your penalties have been paid.

The IOU on your debt has been folded over and someone with enough riches to cover it for you has signed his name- that’s what the prophet Isaiah means when he refers to our receiving double for all our sins.

The invoice has been folded over, doubled, and signed by a surrogate.

     Krampus is not Christmas because the Gospel is that the Lamb was slain so that goats like us might be counted as sheep among God’s faithful flock.

The gift of God in Jesus Christ is not conditional upon your goodness- upon the goodness of your faith or your belief or your character or your contributions to the Kingdom.

By its definition, a gift is determined by the character of the giver not the receiver. Otherwise it’s a transaction; it’s not a gift.

The gift God gives at Christmas is not conditional upon your righteousness.

Nor is the gift God gives at Christmas conditional upon your response to it.

     By its definition, a gift elicits a response but it does not require one.

In other words, what’s inside this gift God gives, the forgiveness of all your sins and Christ’s own complete righteousness, is true whether you ever open it or not.

You see, the gift given has nothing to do with how good you are and, no matter what Satan sings in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” the gift does not require that you become good.

———————-

     Obviously the gift changes lives. The gift changed my life- and not in a good way. I’d have preferred to go to law school.

Yes, this gift can change lives but the power of this gift to change lives is not the promise we proclaim- because what God has done in Jesus Christ for you is true for you whether or not it changes your life.

For goodness sake, the truth of God’s salvation is not tied to your subjectivity.

The promise we proclaim is not what God’s gift can do in your life. The promise we proclaim is what God has done to forgive and redeem and save your life.

And this is important to remember- pay attention now- because most people today think Christianity is a message about people getting better, that the Christian faith is intended to improve your life, that the Church is here to help you become good.

Thus, it’s only natural that for many people Christianity would become but one option among many.

     You don’t need the Church to become a better you.

Joel Osteen and Soul Cycle can make you a better you.

You don’t need the Church to live your best life now, but you do need the Church- you need it’s promise of the Gospel- to be saved. Your therapist can improve your life, no doubt, but your therapist cannot redeem you from Sin and Death.

Only faith, the faith proclaimed by the Church, can do that. The Church is not about learning how to become good (though you might become good in the process). We’re not here because we need to learn how to be good; we here to hear that we’ve been rescued from our badness.

The prophet Isaiah paints a pretty grim picture of who we are and our situation before God. According to Isaiah, we don’t need a life coach; we need a savior.

Even if it’s what you came here looking for, you don’t need life lessons or advice or to be told to get your act together because the message of Isaiah, and all of the Bible for that matter, is that we cannot get our act together.

That’s why the language Isaiah uses in chapter 40 is not exhortation: Do Better! Be better! The language Isaiah uses is the language of exodus: You’ve been delivered!

     Christ does not come to show us the highway to a holy God.

     Christ comes to be the highway: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

He is our goodness.

He is our faithfulness and virtue.

He is our exodus.

And we are led in the path of holiness not by following in his steps but in him, by being incorporated into him in our baptism.

The Gospel according to Isaiah is that our salvation is not found within us.

No matter what your life looks like, whether you resemble Christ or Krampus, how good or bad you are is beside the point because you are on that holy highway to God because Christ is the highway and by faith through your baptism you are in him.

And because you’ve been baptized into him who is the highway-

You can never wander

You can never go astray.

You can never be lost.

———————-

     So this Christmas-

Whenever “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” comes on 91.9, here’s my advice:  Turn it off.

And when your children ask why you did so, use it as a teachable moment to inform them that that particular song was written by Legion, Lucifer, the Prince of Darkness, the Devil himself and you don’t want to play that song on the radio because maybe then the Devil will hear it and come for them.

Just a piece of advice.

And if you put your kids on Santa’s lap this season, then here’s another, out of the box, suggestion:

Stand your ground.

Stick a shiv to Santa’s bourbon belly and force him to tell your kids that the gossip’s got him all wrong.

He’s not watching every move they make and he’s not making a list because Santa already knows they’re sinners like him. And he’s bringing them presents no matter what because Christmas is about the niceness of God while we were yet naughty.

And tell that Judas on your shelf to pack it in early.

When the kids wake up some morning looking for their magical narc friend, you tell your kids that you knew how much they misbehaved and that you knew the little tattling rat was going to snitch on them to Santa, and so- like Christ crushing the head of the serpent- you interceded for them (Paul Koch).

And you killed the elf instead.

Tell them you killed the elf.

Tell them you killed that accusing elf because you love them.

And the gift of Christmas is theirs regardless of their goodness.

I offer it to you, in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

     

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

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

He is fully both God and Man.

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

Eternally.

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

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

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

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

We all know Sin separated us from God.

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

Our finitude.

Our createdness.

Our materiality.

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

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

At-onement of a different sort.

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

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

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

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

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

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

With us.

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

Rags for Riches

Jason Micheli —  December 4, 2017 — 1 Comment

     First Sunday in Advent – Isaiah 64.1-6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As a Christian.

Usually the exhortations all boil down to one:

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

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

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

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

———————-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

First-

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

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

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

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

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

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

     And obviously we do spend too much.

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

And that gets to my second caution-

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

Or modern psychology for that matter.

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

Here’s what I mean-

Take this statistic: 93%.

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

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

No one disagrees.

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

But we do it anyway.

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

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

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

Thou shalt provokes I shalt not.

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

“Ceaseless censure produces recidivism.”

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

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

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

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

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

     And Christmastime comes with Law all its own.

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

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

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

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

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

Piece of cake, right?

The Law always accuses.

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

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

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

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

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

By what we should do

Who our family should be

How we ought to celebrate.

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

For who we are not

How we fall short

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

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

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

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

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

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

The gift of God in Jesus Christ.

Which is what exactly?

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

Quick, what are they?

I thought so.

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

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

I didn’t think so.

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

And maybe-

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

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

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

But listen again to the prophet Isaiah:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s the short, specific answer: righteousness.

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

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

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

No amount of shopping will improve upon that gift.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     Hear the good news:

You have no Christian “obligations” at Christmas.

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

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

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

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

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

You see-

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

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

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

Christians get the gift-giving tradition honest.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Friday afternoon my oldest son and I milled around downtown Charlottesville in the hours before the tiki-torch bearing scare mob descended from the Rotunda, spouting racist nonsense whose ultimate Author I feel compelled by faith to name as Satan.

“Dad, don’t make any jokes about your being Jewish!” I laughed not sure that I should be laughing.

We saw the empty Emancipation Park with the barricades up festooned in police tape. We saw the omnipresent homeless looking dazed and curious about the stage craft setting up around them. We saw the lonely looking white men boys we’d later recognize in the Washington Post, their faces illumined by flame and fury.

There’s an elementary school near the park there in Charlottesville. Mostly African American kids. I used to work there in their After School program, M-F, when I was an undergraduate. Summers too.

I thought of Christopher Yates the boy who had no father at home whom I took to Long John Slivers on occasion. Back then, he had no idea there were people in the world who looked like me who hated people like him simply because they looked him.

Loitering in Charlottesville Friday with my son, who is not white and growing in to an ugly but necessary awareness of that fact, I thought of Christopher.

And I got pi@#$%.

Right after he’s baptized, Jesus goes to Galilee. ‘Galilee’ is Mark’s shorthand way of saying ‘on the other side of the tracks. As soon as he arrives, a leper comes up to Jesus. Gets down on his knees begging. Leprosy assaults your body as your skin rots away. But ‘leprosy also attacks your social network.

It brings you isolation. It makes you unclean. It leaves you socially unacceptable’ (Walter Brueggemann). So not only does leprosy makes sick, it stigmatizes you. Which, if you weren’t already, makes you poor.

And according to the Law of Moses, a leper’s ‘uncleanness’ can only be ritually removed by a duly vested priest. This leper obviously knows the rules don’t give Jesus the right to cleanse him. That’s why he gives Jesus an out: “You could declare me clean, if you dare.” And Mark says that ‘moved with anger’ Jesus stretches out his hand and Jesus touches this untouchable leper- touches him before he heals him- and Jesus says: “I do choose. Be made clean!”

And while the leprosy leaves him, Jesus doesn’t say ‘come and follow me’ or ‘your faith has made you well.’

No, Mark says Jesus snorts “with indignation.”

ὀργισθείς

Here’s the money question Mark wants you to puzzle out:

     Why is Jesus so angry?

Because this pushy leper didn’t say the magic word?

Because now all anyone will want from him are miracles?

Because this leper is only interested in a cure not carrying a cross?

Why is Jesus so angry?

     In order to answer that question, you have to ask another one:

     Why does Jesus send this ex-leper to show himself to the priests?

The answer Mark wants you to tease out is that this ex-leper had already gone to the priests and with the same question: ‘Will you declare me clean?’

Jesus is angry. Jesus snorts with indignation. Jesus huffs and puffs because before this leper begged Jesus, he went before the priests. Just as the Bible instructs.

And they turned him away.

You see, the priests in Jesus’ day charged money for the ritual cleansing. And money, if you were a leper, is something you didn’t have. So not only were lepers marginalized and ostracized, they were victimized too. And that, Mark says, makes for one PO’d Messiah.

What Would Jesus Do?

As often as we ask ourselves that question, ‘Get Torqued Off’ isn’t usually what comes to mind.

Jesus only has 19 verses of actual ministry under his belt here and already he’s righteously mad. And Jesus keeps on getting angry, again and again, in Mark’s Gospel.

When a man with a withered hand approaches Jesus in church and the Pharisees look on in apathy, Jesus gets angry. And when Jesus rides into Jerusalem and sees what’s going on, Jesus gets angry and throws a Temple tantrum. And when Peter brings a sword to protect the Prince of Peace, Jesus gets angry and scolds him.

We tend to think that anger is a bad thing, that it’s something to be stamped out not sought after. Some have even numbered anger a ‘deadly sin.’ But we believe that Jesus was fully human, in him was the full complement of sinless human emotions.

Not only do we believe Jesus was fully human, scripture calls Jesus the 2nd Adam.

Meaning: Jesus wasn’t just truly human; he’s the True Human.

He’s not only fully human; he’s the only human- the only one to ever be as fully alive as God made each of us to be. 

Yet Jesus is angry all the time. So anger isn’t always or necessarily a bad thing.

Instead of a flaw in our humanity, anger could be a way for us to become more human, as fully human as Jesus. But how do we know the difference? Between anger as a vice and anger as a virtue?

Scripture speaks of sin as ‘missing the mark.’  That is, sin is when our actions or desires are aimed towards something other than what God intends. When you read straight through the Gospels, you notice how Jesus gets angry…all the time.

But what Jesus gets angry at-

is injustice, oppression, poverty

suffering and stigmatization

abuse and apathy.

That’s the kind of anger that hits God’s mark.

As a pastor, I run into people all the time who are convinced either that God is angry at them OR that the god of the Bible is an angry god.

So let me just say it plain:

     The love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for us is unconditional.

     Because the love between the Father, Son and Spirit is unceasing.

     God’s love for us is unchanging because GOD IS UNCHANGING.

We cannot earn God’s love, no matter how hard we try. We cannot lose God’s love, no matter how hard we try. God does not change his mind about us. Because God does not change his mind. Because God does not change.

     God IS NOT ANGRY.

     God CANNOT EVER BE ANGRY.

     Because he’s God.

But Jesus, the True Human Person, the 2nd Adam, the Fully Human One, he gets Angry.

And that means…so should we.

I’ve seen a lot of well-meaning white folks this week commenting on social media, counseling against ‘adding fuel to the fire’ by adding their own anger and outrage. I’m as guilty as the next comfortable white guy of commending moderation simply because it’s the medium that best comports with my comfort. So I sympathize. I also believe in the Gospel which tells me Jesus died not for the saintly social justice warrior but for the ungodly, and I can think of no better image of ungodly than that picture of tiki-torch lit rage on a face like mine in front of a statue of a slave master like Thomas Jefferson.

Nonetheless, I not only believe Jesus is God but I believe Jesus is the (only) true human being which means to react to Charlottesville with something less than rage and anger (see: Trump, The Donald) would, quite literally, make me less than human.

     Here’s my sermon from this Sunday. I guest preached at the Kingstowne Communion for their series on the Apostles Creed. My text was Philippians 2.1-11.

Not long ago, USA Today featured a story about perceptions of God in America, and how a person’s perception of God influences their opinions on issues of the day.

The research can be found in a book by two sociologists at Baylor, the Baptist University in Texas. Their book’s entitled: America’s Four Gods: What We Say about God and What that Says about Us.

The researchers identify four primary characteristics of God. They are: Authoritative, Benevolent, Critical and Distant. Based on surveys, they have come up with percentages of what American people believe about God:

Authoritative 28%:

According to the authors, people who hold this view of God divide the  world  along good and evil and they tend to be people who are worried,  concerned and scared. They respond to a powerful, sovereign God  guiding this country.

Distant 24%:

These are people who identify more with the spiritual and speak of finding  the mysterious, unknowable God in creation or through contemplation or in elegant mathematical theorems.

Critical 21%:

The researchers describe people who perceive a God who keeps a critical  eye on this world but only delivers justice in the next.

Benevolent 22%:

According to the researchers, their God is a “positive influence” who cares for all  people, weeps at all conflicts, and will comfort all.

Benevolent.

Distant.

Critical.

Authoritative.

Along the way, their research nets some curious findings.

For instance, if your parents spanked you when you were a child, then you’re more likely to subscribe to an Authoritative God view. If you’re European, then in all likelihood you have a Distant view of God.

If you’re poor then, odds are, you fall into the Critical view.

My wife only seldom agrees to spank me but presumably if you’re into adult spanking then you subscribe to a Benevolent God view.

United Methodists meanwhile- proving we can’t make up our minds about anything- tend to be evenly distributed among the four characteristic views.

The book is several years old now so I was surprised to discover that the sociologists’ survey is still up and running online.

As people take the survey, the percentages change.

You might be interested to hear that right now the Distant God is now pulling ahead in the polls, as the Authoritative God falls behind, and the Benevolent God gains a few points.

———————

     When I discovered the website not long ago, I decided to take the survey, all twenty questions of it. I was asked to rate whether or not the term “loving” described God very well, somewhat well, undecided, not very well, or not at all.

Other divine attributes in the twenty survey questions were “critical, punishing, severe, wrathful, distant, ever present.”

I was asked if I thought God was angered by human sin and angered by my sin. I was asked if God was concerned with my personal well being and then with the well being of the world.

In order to capture my understanding of and belief in God, maker of heaven and earth in whom we live and move and have our being, according to my watch, the survey took all of two minutes and thirty-five seconds.

Or, roughly 10,078 minutes faster than God managed to create the world.

After I finished, I was told what percentage of people in my demographic shared my view of God (college educated men under the age of none of your damn business).

You may be interested to know, but no doubt not surprised, that the survey says that this pastor maintains a perception of a Benevolent God.

It was only after I answered all the questions, only after I saw my results, only after I saw how I measured up against other respondents….only then did it strike me how the Baylor survey never asked me about Jesus.

The survey asked me to choose if I thought God was Authoritative or Distant or Critical or Benevolent, but it never asked me, it was never given as an option, if I thought God was Incarnate- in the flesh, among us, as one of us.

I’m no sociologist.

Presumably,

‘Do you believe that God, though being in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself  taking the form of a slave being born in human likeness and being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death even death on the cross…’

Presumably that’s a lousy survey question.

Even still, it struck me that I’d just taken a supposedly thorough survey about my belief in God, and Jesus was not in any of the questions nor was he ever a possible answer.

I even tried to go back and undo, invalidate, my responses but it wouldn’t let me.

The problem with the survey is that, whether I like it or not, God’s not someone I get to pick with just the click of a mouse.

———————-

     I’m a Christian. How I conceive of God isn’t optional. It isn’t up for grabs.

We don’t get to define God according to whatever generalities we’d prefer instead when we confess Jesus Christ is Lord we profess that God has come to us with the most particular of definitions.

The problem with the survey is that I don’t believe God is Authoritative, Distant, Critical or Benevolent.

I believe Jesus is God.

Christians are peculiar. Maybe it takes a survey to point that out.

When we say God, we mean Jesus.

And when we say Jesus, we mean the God who emptied himself, the God who traded divinity for poverty, power for weakness, the God who came down among us and stooped down to serve the lowliest of us.

John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, said that if God had wanted to God could’ve been Sovereign. If God had wanted to God could’ve been All-Powerful or All-Knowing. If God had wanted to God could’ve been Holy or Righteous.

But instead, said Wesley, God chose to be Jesus.

You see- it’s not that God’s power and glory and divinity are somehow disguised behind Jesus‘ human life. It’s not that in Jesus God masquerades as someone he’s not already.

The incarnation isn’t a temporary time-out in which God gets to pretend he’s a different person.

Rather, when we see Jesus in the wilderness saying no to the world’s ways of power, when we see Jesus- the Great High Priest- embracing lepers and eating with sinners, when we see Jesus stoop down to wash our dirty feet, when we see Jesus freely choose death rather than retaliation, when we see Jesus pour himself out, empty himself, humble and humiliate himself we’re seeing as much of God as there is to see.

In the Son we see as much of the Father as there has ever been to see.

Just look at today’s scripture text.

The song Paul quotes here in Philippians 2 is a worship song, older even than the Gospels themselves.

Don’t forget, the believers who first sang that song- they were good synagogue-going Jews; as such, they could worship only God alone.

To worship any one other than God was to break the first and most important of commandments.

But here their song praises Jesus as only God can be praised, lauding him as Lord to whom, the song concludes, has been given the name above every name.

Of course, the name above every name is the name that was too holy for Jews to utter or even write.

The name above every name is the name that was revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush.

     The name above every name is the name of God.

     And now that name’s synonymous with Jesus.

———————

     After I completed the Baylor survey, in less than three minutes, a window popped up on the screen to tell me, conclusively, that I had a perception of a Benevolent God.

For me, the survey said, God is a positive influence on people. I suppose that means God is like Anderson Cooper or Donald Trump.

The survey results also explained how my particular perception of God likely impacted my worldview, in other words, how my belief in God played out in my positions on contemporary issues and politics.

But the survey never mentioned anything about a community.

According to the survey I’m just an individual person who has a certain perception of God and that perception influences my opinions on political issues. It never said anything about a community.

I told you it was a terrible survey.

———————

     This past Thursday a couple asked to meet with me. Even though I emailed and texted them beforehand, they wouldn’t tell me why they needed to meet with me so urgently.

Great, I thought, they’re either PO’d at me and are leaving the church, or they’re getting divorced. Either way, I’m going to be late for dinner.

When they came to my office, I could feel the anxiety popping off of them like static electricity. The counseling textbooks call it ‘active listening’ but really I was sitting there in front of them, silent, because I had no idea where or how to begin.

The husband, the dad, I noticed was clutching his jeans cuff at the knees. After an awkward silence and even more more awkward chit-chat, the wife, the mom, finally said: “You and this church have been an important part of our lives so we wanted you to know what’s going on in our family and we thought we should do it face-to-face.” 

Here we go, I thought. They’re splitting up or splitting from here.

“What’s up?” I asked, sitting up to find a knot in my stomach.

And then she told something else entirely. Something surprising.

She told me their daughters, youth in the church about my oldest son’s age, had both come out to them.

“They’re both gay” she said.

“Is that all?!” I asked. “Good God, that’s a relief. I was afraid you were going to tell me you were getting a divorce! Jesus doesn’t like divorce.”

They exhaled. I could see they’d been holding their breath.

“This church has been a big part of our lives and we wanted to make sure you knew that about them” she said.

“But also…” her voice trailed off and then her husband spoke up. “We also wanted to make sure that they’d still be welcomed here.” 

“Of course. Absolutely.” 

I could see the hesitation in their eyes, like I’d just tried to sell them the service plan at Best Buy so I said it plain: “Look, I love them. This church loves them. And God loves them. Nothing will ever change that.”

“You don’t think they’re sinners?” she asked.

“Of course they’re sinners” I said “but that would be true if they were straight too. Besides, it doesn’t change my point. Jesus loves sinners.”

We talked a bit more.

About how this “issue” is playing out now in the larger Church. About how you can know your kids but still they can be a surprising mystery to you too. About how it can be hard to adjust to picturing your kids’ future as something different than what you’d always imagined.

“You guys baptized and confirmed them here” the dad said by way of example. “I’d always pictured them getting married here and you performing their wedding.” 

“Their wedding photo might look a little different than you’d imagined it, but I’ll still be in it. I’ll still do it” I said. “But, let’s wait until they’re out of high school.” 

“Isn’t there a rule against you doing it?” the mom asked. “Wouldn’t you get in trouble?”

“There is and I might” I said “but what am I supposed to do? I serve a God who says his Kingdom is like a wedding to which all the wrong kinds of people get invited. He’s the only rule I’ve got to obey.”

They laughed a little, but then he said, with absolute seriousness:

     “I guess we came here because they want to know, and we want them to know, that God still loves them.” 

———————-

     Maybe it was because I’d just filled out that silly survey, but after they left the church office I thought about sort of God it is that could produce the conversation we’d just had.

What sort of God is that?

Authoritative? Distant? Critical? Benevolent?

Or is it Jesus? Is it the God who trades away his divinity so that he might be with us?

Is it the God who takes flesh to welcome outcasts, embrace lepers, and feast with sinners?

What sort of God could produce the conversation we’d just had?

Authoritative or Distant or Critical or Benevolent or the God who is with-us, while all of us were still sinners with us, with us through the grief and joy and confusion of our lives?

With us such that to be faithful and obedient to this God we must be willing to be with one another no matter what?

What sort of God could produce the conversation we’d just had or the kind of community capable of such a conversation?

Benevolent doesn’t even scratch the surface of the God who took flesh, became what we are; so that, what we are- male or female, black or white, gay or straight- we are in him so that all of us must treat every one of us as him, as precious as him.

All of us must treat every one of us as Christ.

     He became what we are.

     What we are- black or white, male or female, gay or straight- is in him.

All of us therefore must regard everyone of us as though we were him.

Distant. Critical. Benevolent. Authoritative.

Tell me what sort of God other than Jesus Christ could produce that posture?

What sort of God could produce the conversation we’d just had?

Sure, there’s scripture verses that could’ve taken the conversation in the opposite direction, but we’re Christians.

We believe Jesus, not scripture, is the Word God speaks to us because we believe Jesus is God.

Maybe if our God was Authoritative or Critical or Distant even, maybe then we could throw around scripture words like abomination but we believe Jesus is God.

Jesus is God and, in Jesus, God refuses to cast stones. God says to the woman caught in adultery “I do not condemn you” even though scripture condemned her.

God forgives those who know exactly what they’re doing. God eats and drinks with sinners, and to the thieves by the cross God gives the first two tickets to paradise.

And speaking of the cross, God responds to the crosses we build with Easter. With resurrection.

Only that sort of God could produce the conversation I’d had with those parents.

Even more importantly- only that sort of God could produce the community that produced those parents that produced our conversation.

     Only that sort of God could produce the community that produced those parents that produced those girls who yearned to hear that God loved them.

———————-

     After they left my office, I emailed the Baylor sociologist responsible for the survey:

     Dear Dr. Bader,

I’m a United Methodist pastor in Alexandria, Virginia. Having read about your book and your research in USA Today, I just completed your survey online Since I was unable to cancel or otherwise invalidate my responses I felt I should share a few comments with you.

First, let me take issue with the four views of God that you group responses into. I don’t deny there is a diversity of religious belief in America. It’s just that, as a Christian, I was surprised to find that the God whom I worship isn’t to be found in any of your questions or categories. I believe Jesus of Nazareth is as much of God as there to see.

Authoritative, Distant, Critical, or Benevolent therefore are not sufficient categories to describe the God who empties himself of divinity, takes flesh, lives the life of a servant and turns the other cheek all the way to a cross. Perhaps you think my definition of God is too specific. The trouble is in Jesus of Nazareth God couldn’t have been more specific.

Second, your survey suggests that believing in God is primarily a matter of having a particular worldview that then influences one’s opinions on issues. I can’t speak for other religions, but as a Christian I can say that if Jesus Christ is Lord, then it’s not a matter of opinions.

Before the creed is a profession of our beliefs; it’s a pledge of our allegiance. If Jesus Christ is Lord then faith in him means faithfulness to him.

His life is the pattern to which we must conform our lives.

And “must conform” is the right wording, for if Jesus is Lord, then he’s owed not our belief but our obedience.

And obedience for Christians means imitation. Imitating Christ.

So, you see, Dr. Bader, Jesus expects a lot more from us than having the right positions on issues.

Finally, I just came from a conversation with parents of two teenage girls who just came out of the closet.

And during my conversation with them it occurred to me.

In all of your questions on your survey, you never asked if I believed that God loved me. Postulating a loving God in the abstract isn’t the same thing as believing that God loves me, ME, no matter what.

You never asked that question, and that’s the most important question. For those parents whose fear of God’s rejection I could see in their eyes and for their girls who’ve already been baptized into Jesus Christ- for those girls and for their parents, I thank God that in Jesus Christ the answer is yes.

No doubt the harsh tone of my email will lead you to conclude that I score in the ‘Authoritative God’ category.

Not so, even though my mother did spank me as a child. No, I rate solidly in the ‘Benevolent God’ category. So I hope you will believe it’s in a spirit of benevolence when I say, for lack of a better expression, I think your survey is crap.

Blessings…

Jason Micheli

God Gets Particular

Jason Micheli —  December 28, 2016 — 3 Comments

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And she… smiled.

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

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

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

Merry Christmas,’ I said.

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

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

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

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

‘In the flesh…’ I replied to him.

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

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

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

‘Merry Christmas,’ I said.

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

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

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

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

It’s that God is with us as Jesus.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re stuck with Jesus.

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

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

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

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

I couldn’t say:

Watch Out

Caution

Buyer Beware

Don’t get too close to the manger

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

I couldn’t ask:

Do you have anger against someone you love?

Have you sinned against a neighbor?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I mean…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But instead I said: ‘Yes.’ 

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

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

His voice trailed off.

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

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

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

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

But instead I said: ‘Merry Christmas.’

 

You ARE Worthy of Salvation

Jason Micheli —  December 21, 2016 — 1 Comment

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

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

As the popular CCM song puts it:

Thank you for the cross Lord

Thank you for the price You paid

Bearing all my sin and shame…

Thank you for the nail pierced hands

Washed me in Your cleansing flow

Now all I know Your forgiveness and embrace

Worthy is the Lamb…

We are not good.

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

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

O Lord, I am not worthy

That Thou should’st come to me,

But speak the words of comfort,

My spirit healed shall be.

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

Maybe.

Maybe not (exactly).

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

ar·tif·i·cer

ärˈtifəsər/

noun- archaic

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

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

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

Notice-

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

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

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

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

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

Our provenance makes us worthy of reclamation. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

crackers-and-grape-juice-beer-camp-editionWe never tire of working for you at Crackers & Grape Juice, and before you complain about the audio quality in #60 just remember we do this for you gratis in our spare time.

We’ve got two episodes that dropped early this week.

For Episode #60, the C&GJ posse got together to argue about Advent and my assertion that we’d be better off focusing on the second coming not during Advent but as part of the Ascension.

For Episode #61, Morgan spoke with Ana Yelsi Sanchez and Alicia Crosby about their experience as women of color at the Standing Rock protest.

Just a reminder:

The Cracker & Grape Juice team will be part of Home-brewed Christianity’s Theology Beer Camp this January in L.A..

battle-of-the-podcasts
Want to join us?
All you need to do is head over to theologybeercamp.com, click the button to buy tickets, and use the discount code below to receive $100 off:
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But this discount will only be good through Christmas!

Be on the lookout for future episodes with Father James Martin and Mandy Smith.

You can download the episode and subscribe to future ones in the iTunes store here

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Help us reach more people: 

Give us 4 Stars and a good review there in the iTunes store. 

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It’ll make it more likely more strangers and pilgrims will happen upon our meager podcast. ‘Like’ our Facebook Page too. You can find it here.

Oh, wait, you can find everything and ‘like’ everything via our new website: www.crackersandgrapejuice.com

If you’re getting this by email, here’s the permanent link to the episode.


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

God can’t love us anyway.

Not if ‘love’ is to have any meaningful definition.
As Herbert McCabe argues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this is where Herbert pivots to scripture:

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

Italics all McCabe all the way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nietzsche was right.

God could not love creatures. God still cannot.

What did Nietzsche miss, according to McCabe?

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

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

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

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

img26064At-One-Ment

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

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

He is fully both God and Man.

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

Eternally.

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

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

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

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

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

Our finitude. Our createdness. Our materiality.

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

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

At-onement of a different sort.

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

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

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

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

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

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

With us.

img26064

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God’s immutability.

God’s unchanging nature.

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

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

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

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

Because he was always going to come.

15317970_10211005366952360_5805070194313765446_n    For this weekend’s sermon, I decided to preach an ‘old’ sermon to coincide with the launch of my new book. This was actually the last sermon I preached before cancer whisked me away from the pulpit for a year. Some of this makes its way into the first chapter of the book.

     In addition to the Isaiah lection for 2nd Advent, my text was 2 Corinthians 5.17-21

‘God was in Jesus reconciling the world to himself…’

     So I’ve got this mole, right here on my shoulder.

It’s not gross or anything. It’s just large and discolored and has a few hairs growing out of it. ‘Suspicious’ my former pre-med Mrs calls it, right before she points at it and quotes that line from Uncle Buck about finding a rat to gnaw it off.

My wife, Ali, had been after me for months to go to the doctor and get it checked out. But, because I’m an idiot, instead of going to the doctor I consulted WebMD, a website- I’m now convinced- that was designed by ISIS to frighten Western infidels. If you haven’t checked out WebMD already, don’t. (Right after Breitbart) it’s the most terrifying internet you’ll ever browse.

I consulted it for a suspicious mole, and 12 hours later I logged off in black despair, convinced that I suffer from IBS and TB, convinced that my kids have ADHD and maybe scolios too and that I might as well pre-order those little blue pills because ‘that’ is likely right around the corner for me as well.

To be honest, even though I spend 2-3 hours every day admiring myself in the mirror, I didn’t even notice the mole was there. I didn’t realize it was there until the summer when I took my shirt off at the pool and Ali threw up a little bit in her mouth.

Now as all you Waynewood Pool members already know, me taking my shirt off at the pool is normally an Event (with a capital E).  A moment that provokes jealousy among men, aspiration among boys and awakens 50 shades of Darwinian hunger in women.

Like Bernini unveiling his David, normally me taking my shirt off at the pool is a siren call, overpowering all reason and volition and luring the primal attention of every female to be dashed against this rock.

But I digress.

The point is when I took my shirt off at the pool that summer and saw Ali wipe the vomit from the corner of her mouth it got my attention.

Ali got after me to go to the doctor. My youngest, Gabriel, who tried to biopsy my mole for his new microscope, got after me. My mom, who is a nurse, got after me. And the voice in my head confirmed what WebMD and all the rest had told me.

But my personal philosophy has always been that if you wait long enough the worst will always happen so for months and months I didn’t do anything about it.

Then one behind-closed-doors-kind-of-night Ali whispered across the pillow that she was never going to touch me again until I scheduled an appointment.

I called the doctor the next morning.

Of course, because I have health insurance, I can’t just call the dermatologist to schedule an appointment. No, that would make us socialists.

No, first I had to blow a morning and a co-pay at the general practitioner in order to get a referral to the skin doctor.

The nurse at the general practitioner’s office weighed me and, with a toll booth worker’s affect- took my blood pressure. Even though I told her I was just there for my mole, she insisted on typing my age into her tablet and asking me the questions that my age automatically generated.

First question: Have you experienced depression or thoughts of suicide in the past month?

Her second question was ‘Have you noticed an increase in memory loss recently?’ ‘Not that I recall’ I said.

Stone-faced, she moved on to her third question, asking for the date of my last prostrate exam. ‘Uh, never’ I stammered and, not sensing my sudden anxiety, she asked me when I’d had my last colonoscopy.

‘Wait,’ I said, ‘I’m not old enough to need those things done, am I?’

‘Just about’ she replied.

‘In that case can we go back to the depression question?’

Ten days, a copay and 3 double-billing mistakes later I went to the dermatologist, clutching my referral like a winning lotto ticket.

When I last went to the dermatologist in 1994 as a puberty-stricken middle schooler, the dermatologist’s office was one step above the guy who showed up at gym class and told you to turn your head and cough.

Now, it’s like something from the Capital in the Hunger Games.

I walked into the steel and glass, Steve Jobs-like office where a receptionist with impossibly purple hair and a dress made of feathered, bedazzled boas handed me paperwork on a clipboard and told me to have a seat.

‘All I Need for Christmas’ was playing overheard on the stereo while a flatscreen on the adjacent wall advertised the dermatologists’ many services to do away with age, imperfection and just garden variety ugliness.

A slide advertising the office’s newest service, eyebrow implants, slid horizontally across the plasma screen.

Judging from the model’s face on the screen, eyebrow implants are a procedure designed to give septuagenerian realtors Alex Trebeck mustaches above their eyes.

The next slide was a photo of the office itself along with its staff, centered above a cursive catchphrase. Their mission statement.

“Feel as perfect on the outside as you do on the inside.”

And as I started to fill out the paperwork, I wondered what sort of psychotic person came up with a slogan like that.

I mean- if the goal is to appear on the outside how I normally feel about myself on the inside, then I’m already as ugly as I need to be.

Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Santa Claus is Coming to Town’ started to play as a door opened and a nurse, who looked a little like the supermodel Elizabeth Hurley, called for Mr. Michelle.

Liz led me through a maze of hallways to a room so antiseptically bright I half-expected to be greeted by the Giver.

Inside the exam room, Liz handed me a hospital gown and instructed me to take off all my clothes and promised that the doctor would be in in a few minutes.

All my clothes?’ I begged for clarification.

‘Yep, even your underpants’ she said.

For some reason Liz Hurley using the word ‘underpants’ on me made me feel like a 5 year old boy whose mother makes him follow her into the ladies’ room.

She closed the door gently behind her as I unfolded the baby blue gown.

Now, I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals, but up to that point I’d never been a patient before and most of the patients I had seen were underneath sheets and blankets.

Now that I held my own hospital gown in hand, I discovered that the correct way to wear it is not as self-evident as you might think.

Are you supposed to wear it open in the back, like a cowboy’s chaps? Or should you wear it open in the front, like a bathrobe? Or maybe, I pondered, you should take your particular ailment as a guide?

Since my mole- the cause for my visit- was on the front of my body, I reasoned, I decided upon the latter ‘style.’

So there I sat, like The Dude in The Big Lebowski except I didn’t have a White Russian in hand.

And, I was naked.

If I was unsure about the correct way to wear the gown, I got my answer when the doctor knocked, entered, and immediately snorted and said ‘Oh my.’

‘I wasn’t sure…’ I started to explain, but he waved me off and said ‘It’s okay, not a problem. You won’t have it on for long anyway.’ Words that proved to be more auspicious than temporal.

‘Are you cold?’ he asked, looking at me. ‘We can turn up the heat.’

‘No, I’m fine.’

The doctor sat down on a round stool in front of a black computer and I proceeded to give him my professional diagnosis based on my degree from WebMD.

He listened and rolled his eyes only once when I told him my suspicions of also having MS and when I finished said ‘Let’s have a look.’

So I showed him my mole, which- I’ll point out- was very easy to do since I was sporting the gown like a smoking jacket.

He looked at it for a few moments, looked at it through a magnifying glass for a few moments more and then, just as Rod Stewart started to sing ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,’ the doctor said ‘I don’t think there’s anything to worry about. The hairs growing out of it make it look worse than it is.’

Relieved, I started to get up to get ready to go, but the doctor said: ‘Not so fast. While you’re here, we should probably do a full body scan.’

‘We?’ I wondered to myself as he left and returned a moment later with Liz Hurley, who- I noticed- struggled to suppress a giggle when she saw me in the gown.

With Liz gawking on, he proceeded to peel back my gown like it was cellophane on a pound of ground beef, which is probably a good analogy because there’s nothing quite like being naked, perched on top of butcher paper, clutching your bait and tackle to make you feel like a piece of meat- that grayish, 50% off, sell-by-today-kind-of-meat.

The date-rapey Christmas song ‘Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ started to play, which seemed appropriate since they then both started to bend me in impossible positions as though I was a yoga instructor or Anthony Wiener on the phone.

Bending and contorting me, they both picked over my every freckle and blemish like we were a family of lice-ridden Mandrills.

‘Anything suspicious down there?’ he asked ominously.

‘I hope to God not’ I said, but apparently invoking the deity did not provide sufficient medical certainty for him because he took his examination south, which was when he decided- for some reason- to ask me what I did for a living.

Normally when strangers ask me my profession, I lie and tell them I’m an architect. It helps avoid the awkward and endless conversations that the word ‘clergy’ can conjure.

But with no clothes on and even less dignity, there seemed to be little reason to pretend.

‘I’m a minister’ I said.

‘Really? What tradition? You’re obviously not a rabbi’ he said with a wink.

‘I’m a Methodist minister’ I said.

‘My grandmother was a Methodist’ he muttered.

Maybe it was because this was about the last position I wanted someone associating their grandma with me or maybe it was because the whole situation was so impossibly awkward, but once I started talking I found I couldn’t stop.

You’d be amazed how interesting you can make denominational distinctions sound when you’re as in the buff as Wilfred Brimley in Cocoon and being pawed over like a 4-H cow.

John (Cougar) Mellencamp’s ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa’ came on as the doctor finished and said in a measured tone: ‘You do have some moles on your back that concern me.’

Then he ordered me to sit back down and lean forward as far as I could, which I did, clutching the last corner of my gown against my loins.

The doctor took a black sharpie and drew circles on my back, which struck me in the moment as not very scientific; meanwhile, Liz Hurley grabbed a digital camera off the supply counter.

Under normal circumstances, the combination of supermodel, a nurse’s outfit and a digital camera would pique my interest, but somehow I knew what was next.

She told me to lean forward again so she could snap some close-ups of my back, which she did with slow, shaming deliberation. Then, I can only assume to degrade me further, she actually showed me the close-ups of my back.

Now it was my turn to throw up a little in my mouth.

‘That’s what I look like from behind? It’s like a flesh-colored Rorschach test. I should call my wife and tell her I love her’ I said to no one in particular.

She laughed and said: ‘The images are magnified so don’t worry. Trust me, everyone appears kind of ugly and gross when you get up that close for a look.’

‘And that’s not even the ugliest part about me’ I said.

She frowned. ‘Do you think there’s something we missed?’

‘No, no, you were thorough all right’ I said, ‘I was just thinking of something else- my soul.’

‘I guess that’s your speciality, huh Father?’ Liz laughed.

The doctor laughed too.

They thought I was joking. They both thought I was joking.

James Taylor was finishing his rendition of ‘Lo, How a Rose Ere Blooming,’ that line that goes ‘…true man, yet very God, from sin and death he saves, and lightens every load’- he was singing that line as I sat on the butcher paper and watched as Liz loaded the snapshots of me onto the black computer.

Watching each unflattering image first pixilate then load on to the screen in front of me, I thought again of that cursive catchphrase in the lobby and what rubbish it was: “Feel as perfect on the outside as you do on the inside.”

Because if you could get close up- all over- to me, not just looked at my skin but lived in my skin, lived my life- and not just in my shoes but in my flesh- then you could come up with a lot more ugly, indicting pictures of me than a hairy mole.

Because the cold, incarnate truth is, I’m even more pockmarked and blemished on the inside than I will ever appear on the outside.

On the inside-

I’m impatient and petty. I’m judgmental and a liar. I’m angry and insecure and fearful and unforgiving and…and I’m just a normal guy.

The cold, incarnate truth is- if you stripped me all the way down, not just of my clothes but of my pretense and prevarications, stripped off the costumes I wear and the roles I play right down to my soul, then you’d see how unsightly I really am.

I mean, the prophets Isaiah and John the Baptist wouldn’t tell us to make straight the pathways for the Lord if we weren’t all twisted up, tangled and knotted on our insides.

And really, that was what was so unbearable about baring it all in that exam room. It reminded me how seldom I allow myself to be made vulnerable.

What being exposed exposed was just how much I try to cover up my true self. What being revealed revealed was how often I hide behind masks and manipulations, how often I fail to be authentic because I’m afraid of failure, how seldom I’m fully, genuinely me with others because I’m convinced there’s a whole lot of me I don’t think is worth sharing.

So I pretend.

I act like everything’s alright when it’s not. I pretend me and mine are happy when maybe we’re not. I act like I’ve got my _______ together even when my _______’s falling apart all around me. I project strength when I feel weak, and I wear other people’s projections of me like masks.

I don’t keep it real. I pretend. I play-act. I hide.

And so do you.

And since we’re baring it all, we might as well go full monty: the truth is we feel the need to hide and pretend and put on a good face more at Christmas than any other time of the year.

Which is odd.

Because when it comes to Christmas, we don’t just believe that God takes flesh. We don’t just believe that God puts on skin. We don’t just believe that God puts on a body. We don’t just believe that God puts on Jesus’ body.

No, we believe that, at Christmas, God assumes- puts on, takes on- our humanity.

All of it. Every bit. Of every one of us.

The pathway God chooses to get close to us is our humanity- all of it, every bit of it. 

Every bit of every one of us. 

On the stereo Aretha Franklin belted out ‘Hail, hail the Word made flesh, the Babe, the Son of Mary’ from the second verse of ‘What Child as This.’

As Aretha sang and Liz finished up with my snapshots, the doctor gave me a patently false promise about not feeling a thing just before he started to dig out my first mole with the finesse of a mobbed-up Italian barber from North Jersey.

Hearing Aretha overheard and seeing my snapshots on the computer screen and thinking of my shame that morning and every unsightly truth it brought to mind, I thought of St. Gregory.

Gregory of Nazainzus.

The 4th century Church Father who taught that what it means to say ‘God was in Christ,’ as Paul puts it in 2 Corinthians, is to say that all of our humanity is in the God who was in Christ.

All our humanity. Every bit of every one of us.

It has to be.

     Otherwise, as Gregory put it, ‘that which is not assumed is not healed.’

Those parts of humanity not taken on by God in Christ are not healed.

Those embarrassing parts, those imperfect parts, those shameful and fearful and broken parts of us- if it’s true that Christ comes to save all then all those parts of us are in him; otherwise, they’re not healed.

Every bit of every one of us is in Him, Gregory says.

So there’s no need to hide. There’s no to pretend. There’s no need for shame or masks. We can give every embarrassing bit of our selves over to him because it’s already in him.

We’re not perfect on the outside and we don’t need to pretend that we are on the inside because every part of us is in him already.

Says Gregory.

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With the gentleness of a cycloptic, differently-abled butcher, the doctor removed the rest of my blemishes and finished up by saying ‘You should come back in a year so we can do this again.’

‘I can’t wait’ I said as I started unfolding my street clothes.

Dressed, with my back looking like Clint Eastwood’s in Pale Rider, I found my way back to the lobby.

Someone, I’m not sure who, was on the stereo singing “Cast out our sins and enter in, Be born to us today.”

O’ Little Town of Bethlehem.

The plasma screen on the lobby wall was back to flashing their mission statement: “Feel as perfect on the outside as you do on the inside.” Accompanied by phony photos of people who pretended to feel both.

And, as I left, I said a little ‘Thanks be to God’ to myself because that that is not our Gospel.