Archives For Nativity

401px-Adoration_of_the_Shepherds-Caravaggio_(1609)-1We’re nearing the end of the 12 Day Season of Christmas. All the ornaments, advent calendars and creches will return to their boxes in the basement.

I think of the archives on my blog likewise, loved little ornaments that are perfect for this small space on the calendar.

So here’s a post from the blog’s basement:

Is it just church work? Or does every professional guild have people (read: hacks) who take specious, prosaic ‘facts’ and spin them conspiratorially as ‘what the (fill in the name of the institution) doesn’t want you to find out’ for a pop audience?

And let’s not forget the profits a pop audience can provide.

I mention this because, right on schedule, Newsweek has just published their annual crap Christmas article. This one written by Bart D Ehrman, a biblical scholar at UNC who’s right up there with other unimaginative killjoys like Shelby Spong and Marcus Borg. 1304974446021.cached

Given it’s name, you’d think Newsweek’s article would include, you know, news.

Instead Newsweek has taken observations of the Nativity stories that have been made since the original Church and repackaged them in sensationalist fashion as ‘The Myths of Jesus.’ 

Ehrman’s article spills the beans on all these ‘secrets’ people like me try to keep from the faithful flocks. Among these church-shattering revelations:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ehrman, like me, is a graduate of Princeton so one can presume he’s not stupid or intentionally dense, yet his popular work is a breathtaking exercise in missing the point. It just goes to show that one can be smart yet have no imaginative, poetic sense of how narrative functions to tell ‘truth,’ shape faith and proclaim conviction.

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

Ehrman has to be smart, which means his problem isn’t brains but character. Ehrman’s brand of muckraking never lets on that all of these supposed ‘secrets’ have been known and accepted by the Church for centuries. Maybe they weren’t in the Christian ghetto Ehrman grew up in but for the Church catholic these revelations are a snore.

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

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

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

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

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

I’m being snarky because the entire ‘historical Jesus’ project is about as productive as a fart. Seeking to critique the faith, they fall victim themselves to Feurback’s devastating critique of the faithful: They create Jesus in their own image.

The Jesus of faith isn’t true. The true Jesus was a teacher of timeless wisdom. Sort of like Oprah but skinnier. And on and on and on they go…

There’s simply no where for the historical Jesus people to go because, as Ehrman himself points out, there’s not much first century documentation about Jesus.

Which the Church has always known.

And never been bothered by.

Because the point isn’t that Jesus lived.

It’s that he’s alive.

Advent Through Art: 4

Jason Micheli —  December 26, 2013 — Leave a comment
Geertgen_tot_Sint_Jans_002
This is the last reflection from Janet Laisch.
One Christmas Eve morning, before sunrise, I left the townhome on Via del Seminario where I had been living with an Italian family in Rome to spend Christmas with my parents. I had planned a five hour layover in London to see Night Nativity by Geertgen tot Sint Jans from circa 1490 at the National Gallery.
This painting, pictured above, most accurately portrays the mystical momentimmediately after Christ’s birth– uncluttered with Shepherds, Magi or donors and set at night in a barn rather than a sunny, elaborate landscape–details not mentioned in the Gospels.
Luke 2:6 describes this part of the Christmas story with “and while they were in Bethlehem, the time came for her to have her baby. She gave birth to her first son…and laid him in a manger–.”
The most striking element of this painting is the mystical mood achieved by painting Christ as the light source in the center of the painting. His glowing light illuminates Mary’s intent eyes, slightly parted lips, and praying hands. We witness her response when she faced God as an infant –the moment before the angel has announced the news– the moment before the shepherds have arrived.
Like any new mother, Mary cannot take her eyes off her child, yet she ponders a far greater wonderment than any other mother.

She knows God will live on earth among us and she will have a hand in raising Him.

She knows too that God will guide her.
Angel
Christ emanates light on the five female angels on the left (a detail of three of them shown above). The angels react in varied ways. Three hold their hands in prayer; one of whom looks out to the distance in focused prayer, one looks down at Christ frowning, and one celebrates with childlike exuberance as she throws her hands in the air and smiles with raised eyebrows.
Behind Christ, the viewer finds, an ox and donkey and above Christ, the rafters are painted in shadow and establish that the event is taking place in a barn. According to Luke, “there was no room for them to stay in the inn.” An atypically young Joseph stands behind Mary mostly in shadow; he is bearded with his hands crossed over his chest in reverence.
Geertgen_tot_Sint_Jans_002-1
A place–at the front right–is left open for us to stand beside the manger and partake in this event. It is a small artwork–just 2 x 3 feet, so unlike large altarpieces, its main purpose is private devotion rather than decoration.
To achieve this mystical mood, a dramatic contrast of light and dark oil paint was used. The technique, called chiaroscuro, also established convincing three dimensional setting and figures on a two dimensional wood panel.
After outlining the entire scene in paint, Geertgen tot Sint Jans blocked the foreground, middle and background with black glaze and painted the first glaze of Christ’s body a stark white. Additional glazes were layered to accentuate this contrast between the most important elements of each figure and the less important details.
The artist laid paints with both narrow and wide brushes, smoothed and blended colors with a cloth and even rubbed away color as needed to highlight the light source and areas directly hit by this light source so our eyes are immediately drawn to Christ, followed by Mary’s face, hands and then the angels. Oil paint, unlike fresco or tempera paints, enables light to penetrate layers of paint and reflect back through the surface allowing for infinite gradations of tonality.
The background scene narrates the Biblical story as it continues in Luke 2:8-12:
“There were some shepherds in that part of the country who were spending the night in the fields, taking care of their flocks. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone over them…This very day in David’s town your Savior was born–!”
In the background the artist painted a distinction between holy light and light from the fire. The angel’s holy light, like a spotlight, illuminates the background space so that the viewer can identify shepherds, their flock, and a grassy hill whereas the small manmade fire appears dim like a single candle flame in the distance.
Once home, I attended a candlelight Christmas Eve service, an established tradition that included the moment before midnight when the congregation sang Holy Night.
The sanctuary was dark other than a single lit candle.
This flame represented the light of God as He entered the world through the birth of Jesus. Each congregant passed this flame increasing its intensity through our shared belief.
This bright glow became more like the Holy light that emanated from Christ as seen in the image of Night Nativity.
Like Mary encountering God’s gift of Christ, if our faith allows us, any lingering disbelief will be snuffed out as we accept the flame passed to our unlit candle.

With Us: A Christmas Sermon

Jason Micheli —  December 24, 2013 — 4 Comments

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

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

Merry Christmas to all of you. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John wants you to know that tonight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Babies force us to love them on their terms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Merry Christmas.

 

StJosephbyGerritVanHonthorst1620As promised, here’s the audio and video from the weekend’s sermon on Joseph. You can also download the sermon in iTunes under ‘Tamed Cynic.’

Better yet, download the FREE Tamed Cynic mobile app linked in the sidebar.

Here’s the audio:

And here’s the video:

 

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

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

Matthew 1.18-25

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Does anyone want a drink?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that’s not it.

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

Matthew says that Joseph was a ‘righteous man.’

And that’s all Matthew has to say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every jot and tittle.

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

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

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

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

Because this tsadiq is engaged to a woman named Mary.

And she’s pregnant.

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

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

Mary and Joseph weren’t simply fiancees.

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

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

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

Matthew tells you that Joseph is a tsadiq.

Betrothed to an adulteress.

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

 

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

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

That’s what the Torah commands.

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

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

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

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

And then command Mary to drink it.

The bitter waters.

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

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

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

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

 

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

He’ll be a tsadiq no more.

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

But that’s what Joseph chooses to do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

     He decides to divorce her in secret.

He chooses love over the letter of the law.

He chooses compassion over condemnation.

He chooses sacrifice over safety and self-interest.

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

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

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

joseph

 

Flash forward 30 years or so.

 

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

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

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

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

     Like father.

     Like son.

 

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

She’s guilty.

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

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

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

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

     Like father, like son.

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

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

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

And then Joseph’s boy flees to the wilderness.

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

    Like father, like son.

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

At a tax collector’s house.

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

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

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

 

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

He reaches out to women Torah says he should reject.

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

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

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

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

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

     His earthly one.

I don’t know why that should surprise us.

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

God with us.

 

We believe that Jesus is fully God.

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

     But paradoxically, we also believe Jesus was fully human.

     As human as you or me.

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

He was fully human.

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

 

He was fully human.

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

His humanity was not a disguise hiding divinity underneath.

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

 

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

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

Just. Like. We. Do.

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

     And that means…

     that Jesus needed to be taught.

     Like we do.

Jesus needed to be taught how to pray.

Jesus needed to be formed by the practice of worship.

Jesus needed to be nurtured into his faith.

Jesus needed to be instructed in how to interpret scripture

Jesus needed to be trained to give and forgive.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

And so do my kids.

And so do yours.

And so do I.

And so do you.

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

That’s why we do what we do here.

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

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

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

And we can, you know.

Live it.

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

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

It’s a life we can make our own.

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

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

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

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

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

We can serve and bless and welcome like he did.

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

Like him, we can turn the other cheek.

Like him, we can love our enemies.

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

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

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

 

Here’s a great Christmas reflection from St Augustine and is well worth a read. augustine
Awake, mankind! For your sake God has become man. Awake, you who sleep, rise up from the dead, and Christ will enlighten you. I tell you again: for your sake, God became man.

You would have suffered eternal death, had he not been born in time. Never would you have been freed from sinful flesh, had he not taken on himself the likeness of sinful flesh. You would have suffered everlasting unhappiness, had it not been for this mercy. You would never have returned to life, had he not shared your death. You would have been lost if he had not hastened ‘to your aid. You would have perished, had he not come.

Let us then joyfully celebrate the coming of our salvation and redemption. Let us celebrate the festive day on which he who is the great and eternal day came from the great and endless day of eternity into our own short day of time.

He has become our justice, our sanctification, our redemption, so that, as it is written: Let him who glories glory in the Lord.

Truth, then, has arisen from the earth: Christ who said, I am the Truth, was born of the Virgin. And justice looked down from heaven: because believing in this new-born child, man is justified not by himself but by God.
Truth has arisen from the earth: because the Word was made flesh. And justice looked down from heaven: because every good gift and every perfect gift is from above.

Truth has arisen from the earth: flesh from Mary. And justice looked down from heaven: for man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven.
Justified by faith, let us be at peace with God: for justice and peace have embraced one another. Through our Lord Jesus Christ: for Truth has arisen from the earth. Through whom we have access to that grace in which we stand, and our boast is in our hope of God’s glory. He does not say: “of our glory,” but of God’s glory: for justice has not come out of us but has looked down from heaven. Therefore he who glories, let him glory, not in himself, but in the Lord.

For this reason, when our Lord was born of the Virgin, the message of the angelic voices was: Glory to God in the highest, and peace to men of good will.

For how could there be peace on earth unless Truth has arisen from the earth, that is, unless Christ were born of our flesh? And he is our peace who made the two into one: that we might be men of good will, sweetly linked by the bond of unity.

Let us then rejoice in this grace, so that our glorying may bear witness to our good conscience by which we glory, not in ourselves, but in the Lord. That is why Scripture says: He is my glory, the one who lifts up my head. For what greater grace could God have made to dawn on us than to make his only Son become the son of man, so that a son of man might in his turn become son of God?

Ask if this were merited; ask for its reason, for its justification, and see whether you will find any other answer but sheer grace. 

JohnchrysostomI first had to read this sermon as an undergrad in ‘Elements of Christian Thought’ a 300 Level Theology Course taught by Gene Rogers at UVA. It’s the first known Christmas sermon and was preached by John Chrysostom.

BEHOLD a new and wondrous mystery. My ears resound to the Shepherd’s song, piping no soft melody, but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn.  The Angels sing.  The Archangels blend their voice in harmony.  The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise.  The Seraphim exalt His glory.  All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven.  He Who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in place of the sun, enfolds within itself on every side, the Sun of justice.  And ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields.  For He willed, He had the power, He descended, He redeemed; all things yielded in obedience to God.  This day He Who is, is Born; and He Who is, becomes what He was not.  For when He was God, He became man; yet not departing from the Godhead that is His.  Nor yet by any loss of divinity became He man, nor through increase became He God from man; but being the Word He became flesh, His nature, because of impassability, remaining unchanged.

And so the kings have come, and they have seen the heavenly King that has come upon the earth, not bringing with Him Angels, nor Archangels, nor Thrones, nor Dominations, nor Powers, nor Principalities, but, treading a new and solitary path, He has come forth from a spotless womb.

Since this heavenly birth cannot be described, neither does His coming amongst us in these days permit of too curious scrutiny.  Though I know that a Virgin this day gave birth, and I believe that God was begotten before all time, yet the manner of this generation I have learned to venerate in silence and I accept that this is not to be probed too curiously with wordy speech.  For with God we look not for the order of nature, but rest our faith in the power of Him who works.

What shall I say to you; what shall I tell you? I behold a Mother who has brought forth; I see a Child come to this light by birth.  The manner of His conception I cannot comprehend.

Nature here rested, while the Will of God labored. O ineffable grace!  The Only Begotten, Who is before all ages, Who cannot be touched or be perceived, Who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, that is visible and liable to corruption.  For what reason?  That coming amongst us he may teach us, and teaching, lead us by the hand to the things that men cannot see.  For since men believe that the eyes are more trustworthy than the ears, they doubt of that which they do not see, and so He has deigned to show Himself in bodily presence, that He may remove all doubt.

Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the lowliness of our nature’.  For it was to Him no lowering to put on what He Himself had made.  Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator.  For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker.

What shall I say!  And how shall I describe this Birth to you?  For this wonder fills me with astonishment.  The Ancient of days has become an infant.  He Who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger.  And He Who cannot be touched, Who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of men.  He Who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infants bands.  But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness.

For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life.  He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit, that He may save me.

Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity.  For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been ‘in planted on the earth, angels communicate with men without fear, and men now hold speech with angels.

Why is this?  Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh.  He did not become God.  He was God.  Wherefore He became flesh, so that He Whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things arc nourished, may receive an infant’s food from His Virgin Mother.  So, the Father of all ages, as an infant at the breast, nestles in the virginal arms, that the Magi may more easily see Him.  Since this day the Magi too have come, and made a beginning of withstanding tyranny; and the heavens give glory, as the Lord is revealed by a star.

To Him, then, Who out of confusion has wrought a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Ghost, we offer all praise, now and for ever.  Amen.

Here’s a contemporary take on the story of Jesus’ birth. It’s filmed in Bethlehem – a modern city of hope, pilgrimage, and unspeakable sorrow – it is powerful in its own understated way.

 

23COVER-articleInlineTomorrow evening at 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11 many of the pews will be occupied by what preachers and church people call the ‘Christmas crowd.’ Or, as they’re called in the NY Times opinion piece this Sunday, ‘Chreasters,’ those who attend only on Christmas and Easter.

Every year, like the Times article, there’s a story in the paper or on TV talking about the preacher’s challenge on Christmas Eve. They  always want to know how does the preacher come up with a creative, attention-grabbing, stuffed-to-the-gills-with-the-gospel sermon to connect with those people who only come on Christmas Eve, who only come because their mother-in-law makes them, who will never come again until next Christmas. Or maybe Easter.

When it comes to the ‘Christmas Crowd’ here’s what I can’t say about them in my sermon tomorrow night:

The dirty little secret is that often the way preachers and church people talk about ‘Chreasters’ makes them sound like the bad guys, like we want to make them feel guilty for not being regular church-going people.

Which doesn’t make any sense to me because I gotta think ‘Chreasters’ are exactly the sort of people Jesus would prefer to hang out with.

It’s true. It’s all in the bible: those of us who look down our noses at those who only show up once or twice a year, while we faithfully serve and worship God week after week, have more in common in with the Pharisees, who killed Jesus, than we do with those Jesus chose to hang out with. How ironic is it that Matthew, to whom one of the Gospels is attributed and from whom many churches will be reading tomorrow night, was a tax collector. Not a good religious person.

So rather than looking down on them with guilt-inducing contempt. We should, like the Lord we adore, simply welcome them in the thrill to be with them.

The NY Times article reflects on how the changing demographics and the rise of the religiously unaffiliated means there will be less ‘Chreasters’ in the pews tomorrow night than ever before. As someone who loves Jesus, I gotta think that’s a bad thing.

THIS week millions of “Chreasters” — Americans who attend church only on Christmas and Easter — will crowd into pews to sing carols and renew their vague relationship with the Christian God. This year, there may be fewer Chreasters than ever. A growing number of “nones” live in our midst: those who say they have no religious affiliation at all. An October Pew Research Center poll revealed that they now account for 20 percent of the population, up from 16 percent in 2008.

Avoiding church does not excuse Americans from marking the birth of Jesus, however. Most of us have no choice but to stay home from work or school — and if you complain about this glaring exception to the separation between church and state, you must be a scrooge with no heart for tradition. Christmas has been a federal holiday for 142 years.

Yet Christianity’s preferential place in our culture and civil law came under fire this year, and not simply because more Americans reject institutional religion. The Obama administration subtly worked to expand the scope of protected civil rights to include access to legal marriage and birth control. Catholic bishops and evangelical activists declared that Washington was running roughshod over religious liberty and abandoning the country’s founding values, while their opponents accused them of imposing one set of religious prejudices on an increasingly pluralistic population. The Christian consensus that long governed our public square is disintegrating. American secularism is at a crossroads.

The narrative on the right is this: Once upon a time, Americans honored the Lord, and he commissioned their nation to welcome all faiths while commanding them to uphold Christian values. But in recent decades, the Supreme Court ruled against prayer in public schools, and legalized abortion, while politicians declared “war on Christmas” and kowtowed to the “homosexual lobby.” Conservative activists insist that they protest these developments not to defend special privileges for Christianity, but to respect the founders’ desire for universal religious liberty — rooted, they say, in the Christian tradition.

The controversial activist David Barton has devoted his career to popularizing this “forgotten history” through lectures, books and home-school curriculums. Mr. Barton insists that “biblical Christianity in America produced many of the cherished traditions still enjoyed today,” including “protection for religious toleration and the rights of conscience.”

Bryan Fischer, spokesman for the American Family Association, told me that he saw the “nones” as proof that “the foundations of our culture are crumbling.” The Pew poll, he said, “is one of the signs.” A couple of weeks after we spoke, he told a radio audience that God did not protect the children killed in the Newtown, Conn., massacre because of the Supreme Court decisions banning prayer and Bible reading in public schools. “God is not going to go where he is not wanted,” Mr. Fischer said.

How accurate is this story of decline into godlessness? Is America, supposedly God’s last bastion in the Western world, rejecting faith and endangering religious liberty?

The truth is that “nones” are nothing new. Religion has been a feature of human society since Neanderthal times, but so has religious indifference. Our illusions of the past as a golden age of faith tend to cloud our assessment of today’s religious landscape. We think of atheism and religious apathy as uniquely modern spiritual options, ideas that Voltaire and Hume devised in a coffee house one rainy afternoon sometime in the 18th century. Before the Enlightenment, legend has it, peasants hurried to church every week and princes bowed and scraped before priests.

Historians have yet to unearth Pew studies from the 13th century, but it is safe to say that we frequently overestimate medieval piety. Ordinary people often skipped church and had a feeble grasp of basic Christian dogma. Many priests barely understood the Latin they chanted — and many parishes lacked any priest at all. Bishops complained about towns that used their cathedrals mainly as indoor markets or granaries. Lest Protestants blame this irreverence on Catholic corruption, the evidence suggests that it continued after Martin Luther nailed his theses to the Wittenberg church door. In 1584, census takers in Antwerp discovered that the city had a larger proportion of “nones” than 21st-century America: a full third of residents claimed no religious affiliation.

Here’s the rest of the article.

552680_4344155444981_1433493502_nThere’s a great crescendo at the end of a famous ancient sermon in which Leo the Great riffs on the words ‘pro nobis.’

For us.

When it comes to Christmas (and Christianity in general for that matter), we tend to think the operative word of the season is ‘for.’

Christmas is a time we feel drawn to doing things ‘for’ others.

We search out the right presents ‘for’ our loved ones.

We stress out about cooking up the perfect feast ‘for’ our family.

More so than any other time of year, we think this is the season when we should do something charitable ‘for’ those who are less fortunate than ourselves.

‘For’ is our Christmas word. But that’s a problem.

Because ‘for’ for all its good intentions, can’t repair that broken relationships, ease alienation or keep the poor from remaining strangers.

Our fixation with ‘for’ at Christmastime is problematic because ‘for’ isn’t the way God celebrates Christmas.

Remember, the angel says to Joseph, “‘Behold, the virgin shall bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’”

And then in John’s gospel, we get a same-but-different summary of what Christmas means: “The Word became flesh and lived with us.”

‘With.’

It’s a tiny little word but it gets to the heart of Christmas.

This morning a service team from Aldersgate left for Guatemala.

This week we will be building two projects: a community center and a school kitchen in the village of Chuicutama.

Chuicutama is where our team this summer stayed while building the kitchen in Chikisis. It’s at 11K feet off the Pan-American Highway in the Mayan Highlands. It’s remote, poor and beautiful.

While the tangible bricks and mortar projects we do ‘for’ Chuicutama this week are important. They’re not the most vital part of our week.

We’re here at Christmastime to experience firsthand the difference between ‘for’ and ‘with.’ I believe by being with each other for 8 long days and being with the poor, living right there in their homes with them, we will get close the mystery of Christmas.

And one of the things we’ll discover is how “with” is harder than “for.” Probably for God too.

“For” doesn’t require a conversation, a real relationship, or any change in your own life to incorporate the other.

What makes many gestures of Christmas charity seem hollow is not that they’re not well-intentioned, but that what isolated and impoverished people usually need is not gifts or money but the faithful presence of a people who will be “with” them.

In Guatemala mission, the word we use for that ‘withness’ is accompaniment.

But “with” can be scary because the “with” seems to ask more of us than we can give. We’d all prefer to keep charity on the level of “for,” say the Salvation Army ringer, where it can’t hurt us.

And that’s why it’s gospel, good news, that God didn’t settle on “for.”

At Christmas God said unambiguously, “I am ‘with’.” My name is Emmanuel, God “with” us.

That’s the good news of Christmas.
And how do we celebrate this good news? By doing exactly what we’re doing this week.

By being “with” people in poverty and distress even when there’s only so much we can do “for” them. By being “with” one another as an end in itself. By being “with” God in prayer and worship rather than rushing in our anxiety to do yet more things “for” God or others.

 

20121124-123103.jpgThe Sunday of Advent is traditionally known as ‘Guadete Sunday‘ from the Latin for ‘joy.’

It’s the Sunday we focus on Mary and we light the pink (sexist, huh) advent candle.

The Third Sunday of Advent is also when churches traditionally read Mary’s song, the Magnificat, which is really equal parts Hannah’s song from the Old Testament and a Jubilee song.

Christians don’t often pause to muse over Mary’s words, in which she gives praise that her boy will be the one to shame the proud and powerful and send the rich away empty. Not what we normally associate with Christmas.

There’s a contradiction sitting square in the middle of the Nativity Story we seldom acknowledge:

What Mary thinks her child has come to do (turn the status quo on its head) and what Christians tend to think Jesus comes to do (die for our sin so we can go to heave when we die) couldn’t be more divergent. 

Sometimes it’s useful to have an outsider remind you of who you are and what you should be about. That’s the case with Jackson Browne’s unlikely Christmas Carol, ‘The Rebel Jesus.’

Looking ahead to hearing Mary’s Magnificat, there’s probably no better musical appetizer than Browne’s insight that her son came to question the status quo, challenge the authorities and customs of the day, and generally turn things upside down.

Here are the lyrics:

“The Rebel Jesus,” by Jackson Browne

All the streets are filled with laughter and light
And the music of the season
And the merchants’ windows are all bright
With the faces of the children
And the families hurrying to their homes
While the sky darkens and freezes
Will be gathering around the hearths and tables
Giving thanks for God’s graces
And the birth of the rebel Jesus

Well they call him by ‘the Prince of Peace’
And they call him by ‘the Savior’
And they pray to him upon the seas
And in every bold endeavor
And they fill his churches with their pride and gold
As their faith in him increases
But they’ve turned the nature that I worship in
From a temple to a robber’s den
In the words of the rebel Jesus

Well we guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why there are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus

Now pardon me if I have seemed
To take the tone of judgment
For I’ve no wish to come between
This day and your enjoyment
In a life of hardship and of earthly toil
There’s a need for anything that frees us
So I bid you pleasure
And I bid you cheer
From a heathen and a pagan
On the side of the rebel Jesus

photo-1When I pulled this question from the bingo tumbler on Sunday for our sermon, Midrash in the Moment, I just answered:  Yes.

And moved on.

But here’s a bit more. Just a few thoughts.

First, it’s interesting that what the first Christians- the ones who actually knew Jesus or knew those who did- struggled with wasn’t Jesus’ divinity but his humanity. To them, it was obvious that Jesus was fully God. It took them centuries though to argue and iron out how they thought he was human.

Second, the term ‘Son of Man’ that comes Daniel 7 was understood by many Jews leading up to the time of Jesus’ birth to be God-man, an incarnate like being who would redeem all of creation. ‘Son of Man’ was the term Jesus most often used to describe and refer to himself. So to say Jesus isn’t God is in some way to accuse Jesus of lying.

Third, and this is what I tell my liberal social activist Christian friends all the time (the ones who just want to focus on Jesus’ teachings) it’s believing that Jesus is God-in-the-flesh that makes sure we treat his teachings seriously.

If Jesus is just some teacher, we can ignore him in favor of some other perspective that makes more sense to us or fits our own perspective better.

But if Jesus is God then when Jesus says to go the extra mile for your enemy, that’s God telling you to do it.

 

photo-1As promised, this week I’m going to try to answer the questions that didn’t get pulled in this weekend’s bingo sermon questions, Midrash in the Moment.

Here’s a question I did answer in one of the services. I think it’s a good one so I took a listen to what incoherent ramblings came out of my mouth and typed it up here.

Question: I’m not even sure I believe in God. Is there something in the Christmas story for me?

There’s two ways I think you could approach that question.

The first would be to point to the magi. The wise men were astronomers, 1st century scientists, men of reason and objective observation. And they were Gentiles, foreigners. They didn’t believe in God, at least not the God with a capital G. They didn’t anything about the God of Israel. They see an usual constellation in the sky. They do some research and find out about this Jewish prophecy from Isaiah about a king, and they go check it out. They don’t go there intending to worship the God of Israel and yet the grace of God makes them a part of the Gospel anyway.

So you could point to the magi and conclude that there’s a place for unbelievers at the manger.

Or you could point to who’s not at the manger. The scribes.

Remember, the star only leads the magi to the Jerusalem. When they get there, they ask Herod’s scribes- biblical scholars and religious believers- where the King was foretold to be born.

And the scribes don’t know.

They’d forgotten their story. They’d forgotten God’s promises. They have to hit the stacks in the library and look it up in order to find Micah’s prophecy about Bethlehem.

So maybe another way to answer is by pointing out that being a religious person doesn’t necessarily guarantee you a place at the manger.

It’s not enough just to believe in God.

It’s about believing God, making God’s story and God’s promises a part of you such that you never forget them.

So, yes, there’s something in the Christmas story for you. And there’s also something of a warning in it for people like me.

 

 

photo-1As promised, this week I’m going to try to answer the questions that didn’t get pulled in this weekend’s bingo sermon questions, Midrash in the Moment.

Here’s Jeff’s question: Why did Jesus come when he did? As opposed to some other point in history?

That’s a million dollar question. That’s also impossible to answer. I even asked Scot McKnight for a hint and he couldn’t do much better than I’ve got below.

At least from a God’s-eye perspective. Scripture says God sent Jesus ‘in the fullness of time’ which suggests there was something auspicious about when Jesus came.

We can’t really know why from God’s perspective.

What we can do is answer from a human perspective, from scripture’s point of view.

At least as far as the scripture writers’ understood it, God sends Jesus when he does because the oppression and idolatry of Rome had gotten to a point that necessitated or provoked the incarnation.

God heard his people’s cries, in other words.

That’s why Matthew tells his Gospel in a way that makes explicit that Caesar is a new Pharaoh and Rome is the New Egypt.

And Matthew’s Gospel begins with a ‘genesis’ just like the Hebrew story begins. That’s Matthew tells you that Herod kills all the new born sons just like Pharaoh did. That’s why Matthew has Jesus’ life beginning in Egypt just like Moses’ did.

How does Luke begin his Gospel? ‘In the days of ____________________’

All the language in Luke’s Christmas story, that we don’t even think about, is loaded with double-meanings meant to show how Christ is God’s alternative to Caesar.

In the ancient world, Caesar’s rise to the throne was referred to as the Advent of a Golden Age.

He was worshipped as a god.

And the proclamation that was made about Caesar throughout the Empire: ‘Caesar Augustus, son of god, our savior, has brought peace to those on whom he favors.’ 

What do the angels say to the shepherds when Christ is born? Yep, same thing but this time they’re referring to a baby in diapers and not a Caesar in, well, diapers.

From the Gospels’ perspective, then, Jesus is born to deliver Israel from Rome just as Moses did from Egypt. It’s how Jesus delivers that is unexpected.

60_BobGoff_1139x541_1When I first read this list by Bob Goff in Relevant Magazine, my reaction was: ‘Damn, I don’t follow hardly any of these principles.’

Sometimes Advent can change everything, including your perspective. Reading over this list again while anticipating Emmanuel’s, God with Us, arrival on December 24, I notice that Goff’s guide to an extraordinary life is largely premised on being ‘with’ people as a priority.

And maybe there’s a theological reason this is the key to a good life. After all, if Jesus is true God and true Man then what it means to be authentically human- our true selves as we were created to be- is to be like Jesus. To be most fully alive is to be the sort of person who makes being with others more important than anything else.

That is, is it not, the priority God makes at Christmas. To be God with us. Indeed, as Barth says, God decides not to be God without us.

———————-

When Bob Goff answers the phone, it’s a bit of a shock. It shouldn’t be. His phone number is one of the world’s most easily accessible—available at any bookstore in the country. He printed it in the back of Love Does, his best-selling collection of stories about a few ways he’s managed to turn each day into a “hilarious, whimsical, meaningful change to make faith simple and real.” As you dial the number, you might expect a hotline, or a secretary, or at least a voicemail. But you’ll get no such thing. Call the phone number, and you’ll be greeted with, “This is Bob Goff!”

If it’s possible for someone to become famous for no other reason than that he loves genuinely and lives fully, then Goff has done it. He’s a lawyer in Washington. He’s the Ugandan honorary consul to the U.S. He’s a professor at Pepperdine Law School and Point Loma Nazarene University. He’s the founder of Restore International, which serves underprivileged children in Uganda and India. His endless supply of stories charm, his overseas work inspires and his demeanor encourages—but the most truly fascinating thing about Bob Goff is Bob Goff.

Somehow, using the same 24 hours in a day the rest of us have, Goff has crafted an extraordinary life of adventure, joy and love. It’s an appealing prospect for anyone, and we wondered: What are his secrets? And: Will he share them?

The answer, as with most things in Goff’s life, was an emphatic yes.

1. Don’t Let Anyone Go to Voicemail

“We get really busy,” Goff says. “But the less time Jesus had on earth, the more available He became to people.”

So when Goff put his phone number in the back of Love Does, he made the promise to himself to answer every call—regardless of whether or not he knew who it was. There are practical limits to this, of course. “I don’t feel guilty if I’m on the other line, or on a plane,” he says. But from where Goff sits, Jesus wouldn’t have ignored many phone calls. So neither does he. “If I get a call, I answer it,” he says. “And it’s been terrific!

“There’s a God we can talk to anytime, anywhere, about anything, and I’m so glad He doesn’t screen my calls—because I don’t have anything that’s particularly interesting to say. And I’m understanding that better because I’m available to people.”

2. Don’t Make Appointments

Goff says, “When someone calls me and says, ‘Can we meet two Tuesdays from now at 3 p.m.?’ I say, ‘How about now?’ If you call me two Tuesdays from now at 3, I’ll probably say the same thing.”

That’s right. As implausible as it sounds, Bob Goff, lawyer and Ugandan consulate, doesn’t set appointents.

The benefit of this thinking becomes evident even now—he is, as we speak, driving home from an impromptu meeting with a young man who needed to talk.

“Guess what!” he says, laughing. “I didn’t have any appointments that I needed to cancel … I’ve got all the time in the world because I don’t have any appointments.”

Goff insists when your life is appointment-free, your time is at the service of others instead of your personal demands. Plus, you become a different person when you structure your life around others’ needs.

“Can you imagine a lawyer who doesn’t make appointments?” Goff asks, recognizing the absurdity of it. “But it’s been great.”

3. Be Incredibly Inefficient at Love

“Don’t do an efficient brand of love,” Goff says.

Then he does what he does best—launches into a story without missing a beat.

“The woman who lives across the street from us has cancer. She called me up and told me the bad news, and I told her, ‘I’m not going to call you ever again.’ She’s like, ‘What?’

“I went to Radio Shack and got us two walkie-talkies, and it was terrific. For the last year, we’ve been talking on walkie-talkies every night. It’s like we’re both 14-year-olds and we’re both in tree forts.

“She took a turn for the worse about four days ago, so this morning, I woke up about 5, and I went to the hospital. I sent the nurse in with a walkie-talkie, and I sat in the next room and called her up. I heard her just start crying—because there’s something inefficient and beautiful about it. We were sitting in a hospital, separated by a room, talking on walkie-talkies.”

Here he breaks off and seems choked up for a moment.

Then he continues. “Be inefficient with your love. The more in-efficient, the better. It would have been a lot more efficient for God to not send Jesus to die for us. That was very inefficient love. But so sweet and so tender.”

4. Don’t Have a Bible Study

When it comes to Bible studies, Goff says simply, “I’m done. I’ve got all the information I need.”

But this doesn’t leave the Bible out of his daily routine. To the contrary, he’s upped the ante.

“I’ve met with the same guys every Friday who I’ve been meeting with for a decade,” he says. “And we have a Bible Doing.”

The idea, Goff says, is basically that memorization is only effective if it motivates you to action. It’s great when believers meet together to internalize the Bible, but why not externalize it as well?

Goff is likewise unconventional in his approach to a morning quiet time. “I can’t do them,” he says. “I think I got sent to the principal too much when I was a kid.”

“Instead, I take Scripture, I let it wash over me, and I say, ‘What do I really think about this?’” Then he shares his reflections by sending out a morning tweet.

This morning habit helps his day start on the right foot in front of God and everyone else. “It helps me dwell in Christ,” he says. “But it also helps me not be a pill midday. I can’t send a beautiful tweet in the morning and then be a pill.”

5. Quit Stuff

“Every Thursday, I quit something,” Goff says. It’s one of his more infamous habits, one that he follows faithfully—and, often, dramatically. He’s been known to break apartment leases, throw out furniture and quit jobs. “You can quit cussing if you want,” he says, “but go a little higher up on the tree. It can be something really good.”

His most recent Thursday resignation was from the board of a prominent charity. “I called the guy that runs it up and said, ‘I’m out!’ And he said, ‘How come?’ And then he paused and said, ‘No! Thursday!’”

The idea is not to be a liability to charitable organizations (although that might be part of the fallout). It’s to give yourself room to grow and to give God room to work. The patterns of life can weigh down and hold back. Quitting things forces you forward to explore new opportunities, to try things you wouldn’t have time for otherwise and to fill your life with things that are fresh, different
and dangerous.

6. Do What You’re Made to Do

In today’s functional culture, the common question is, “What am I able to do?” People take tests to determine skill sets and aptitude and then march off to pursue a career based on the results.

But Goff says the better question is, “What am I made to do?” He goes on to say, “It’s as simple as asking, ‘What are the things you think are beautiful? And you want in your life?’ … And then there’s other stuff you stink at, and they cause you a bunch of stress. I just try and do more of the first and less of the second.”

7. Get More Unschooled, Ordinary Friends

For most people, friendship is accidental. You see someone often enough, find a few common interests, hang out and strike up an easy friendship. New friends probably come from the people you work with or go to church with. The childhood idea of “making friends,” a proactive pursuit, has been replaced with the idea of “letting friends happen.”

Goff suggests making friendship intentional and, moreover, risky. Because sometimes you can learn more from friends who stand just left of center than those with whom you share everything in common.

One of Goff’s dearest friendships began with a simple thank you, for example.

“They call me Mr. G at the airport, because I’m there just about every day,” Goff says. And before every flight, the same TSA security guard—Adrian—checked Goff’s ID. After a few months of this, Goff decided to extend his appreciation.

“You start every day for me,” he recalls telling Adrian. “When I think of you, I think of God. You’re so tender and kind to everybody!”

And just like that, the diminutive security guard put his arms around Goff and held him, in front of a line of waiting passengers. “It started this terrific friendship,” Goff says. “We spent the next six Christmases together with his family at our house.”

Adrian tragically passed away last summer, but not before coming to Jesus. “And now, when I think of heaven,” Goff says, “I don’t think of St. Peter. I think of a guy like Adrian, who’s checking IDs. And all of that came because I decided to get more unschooled, ordinary friends.”

8. Jump the Tracks

Goff spends most Wednesday mornings at Disneyland, prepping to teach his courses at Pepperdine University. From his vantage point on Tom Sawyer Island, he watches hundreds of park visitors board the monorail, content to be whisked wherever the train takes them.

And their park experience, says Goff, suffers because of it. The real adventure, both in Disneyland and in life, is when you venture outside the fixed loop.

But Goff is quick to point out there’s a difference between fighting the system and choosing to explore new paths outside the system. He says everyone should be jumping more tracks: “Not with a militancy. Not with a black arm band around your arm, just saying what you’re against. But with a resolve.”

And what can you expect to find off the beaten path? Adventure, and good company. “I’ll know more about my character, and I’ll know more about Jesus,” he says. “I’ll meet a lot of cool people.”

9. Crowd-Surf Each Other

At a speaking event, Goff met a man who had just received word that his 8-year-old son had been diagnosed with leukemia. Someone suggested everyone lay hands on him and pray for healing.

“That means the four dudes next to him put hands on him, and the guy in row 50 is really just putting hands on the guy in row 49,” he says.

Not satisfied with this set-up, Goff called out, just as the group was bowing their heads, “Let’s crowd surf this guy.”

So the man was passed up and down the rows of the auditorium. “That’s the picture that’s etched in my mind,” he says. “This man in agony and delight.”

Goff, who is big on physical touch, doesn’t shake hands. “If we say we’re the body of Christ, let’s act like it,” he says. “Let’s stop treating this faith thing like it’s a business trip. I want us to treat it like it’s a family. Family picks up the phone. Family surfs each other. Family hugs each other.”

Goff’s personal policy is to hug whoever he meets. It doesn’t suit everyone’s comfort zone, but he says it’s part of his identity as a believer. And the benefit of breaking through these bubbles of security is being opened up to a deeper understanding of community.

“I’m the big winner,” Goff insists, on crowd-surfing others. “I understand more about my faith and the idea of being a body.”

10. Take the Next Step

Many people are passionate but often have no idea how to get where they want to end up. Goff says you don’t really have to. You just have to start.

“If I could do this Jedi move over a lot of people, I’d just tell them to take the next step,” he says. “And then the next step. You don’t know all the steps, but most people know the next step.”
And even if not, Goff says that’s no excuse. “I’m not that freaked out about knowing what the next step is. Because I know that if I trip, I’ll fall forward. I’ll be moving toward the next thing.”