Archives For Questions about Christmas

South-Park-santa-jesus-boysSomeone asked me that question recently.

I recently told my own son this ‘true’ story of St Nick and he’s concluded this St Nick is ‘way more totally awesome’ than the fake Santa at the mall.

It’s even led to interrogatories on whether St Nick could beat up Bruce Wayne (yes…Jesus love trumps dark, tortured vengeance…my words not his).

Now….my answer.

You could tell your kids the vanilla, cliched story about a bearded fat man with an alcoholic’s complexion who lives in solitary confinement with a bunch of unpaid little people and who, once a year, sneaks into your house when your vulnerable and sleeping and if you’re good-but only if you’re good- he’ll leave you a present.

And if you’re naughty he’ll leave you a lump of garbage (because that’s a Christian understanding of grace…not).

You could tell your kids that story, which actually isn’t even a story. There’s no plot- no beginning, middle or end.

Or, you could tell your kids about St Nicholas, the 4th century bishop of Turkey.

St Nicholas attended the Council of Nicea in 325, from which we get the Nicene Creed.

Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, convened the council of bishops to debate the teaching of a priest named Arius.

Arius taught that God hadn’t fully or perfectly revealed himself in Jesus, which meant Arius also didn’t believe in the Trinity.

Anyways, at the Council of Nicea, while Arius argued his position St Nicholas- BECAUSE HE LOVED JESUS SO MUCH- started shaking with anger as Arius spoke.

St Nick turned red in the face, and eventually St Nick couldn’t take it anymore and he got up, walked straight up to Arius and punched him in the teeth.

True story.

The original Bad Santa.

Apparently, the other bishops thought Nick had overreacted (aside: its pretty bad when 4th century Christians think you’ve overreacted to a theological dispute) so they put him in chains and threw him in jail. But that night Jesus appeared to St Nicholas, freed him from his chains and gave him a bible. The next morning the guards discovered Nicholas freed from his chains and quietly reading scripture and they were amazed.

So Nicholas was set free to become a legend.

And Arius was labeled a heretic and exiled, and his death was cheered by the Christian world.

So you could tell your kids about a fat man who still drives a carriage like he’s a color blind Amish and apparently treats his reindeer like a North Pole Jim Crow.

Or you could tell your kids about St Nicholas, someone who loves Jesus so much he’s the only person on record to ever be congratulated by Jesus for pimp slapping someone. 

But I’ll let you be the judge.

jules-hr-600x300It’s a Wonderful-But-Also-Cliched-And Moralizing Life

This time of year, with Gabriel’s ‘Do not be afraids’ and the heavenly host’s ‘glorias,’people tend to have questions about angels.

Much like the devil, pop culture’s assumptions about angels run far afield of what we actually find in scripture.

And as with the devil, the ubiquity of pop culture stereotypes on angels often makes people reluctant to jettison their Touched By An Angel/Highway to Heaven/Fat Cherub Baby Calendar images of angels.

So, if you’re like all the other people who’ve ever asked me about angels and devils then you’ll read my sober, scripturally based response and decide you like Michael Landon better.

As my son says before I smack him, ‘whatever’ (just joking).

First, what are angels?

Simply put, angels are messengers.

That’s what the word ‘angel’ literally means.

And you should notice how similar it is to the word ‘evangel’ or ‘proclamation.’

Angels do evangelism.

That, with few not contradictory examples, is what they do.

Angels are creatures of God and thus subordinate to God. They’re creatures given over to a specific purpose: the mediation of heavenly revelation or messages.

They’re God’s tweets in other words.

Because they’re creatures given for a specific purpose, they have no free will.

Because they are without free will, they are subordinate in creation to human beings- and if you’re about to push back on that it’s because you’ve got Milton’s Paradise Lost in your head not the bible.

Check.

Mate.

Now, this heavenly revelation bit is key.

The message angels deliver is straight from the presence of Yahweh.

Think of the Holy of Holies and how risky it was for Israel’s priests to venture close to it.

Angels bring the holiness of God near into the present. Therefore, they’re scary. In a fear of God kind of way.

There’s a reason Gabriel is constantly having to say ‘Do not be afraid.’

Just like Jewels in Pulp Fiction, Gabriel is a ‘Bad m%^&$# F$%^&*(’

And Clarence, no matter how we might feel about the Jimmy Stewart movie, could never ever be mistaken for a Bad m%^&$# F$%^&*(

An angel as sweet and reassuring as Clarence is not an angel sent from the holy presence of Yahweh, the God who is, as Hebrews says, ‘a consuming fire.’ clarence

Back to the Christmas story or just the Gospels in general. What makes the Gospels take an angels distinct (especially compared to some of the Jewish writings in the centuries leading up to Jesus’ birth) is how the Gospels take on angels is thoroughly Christocentric (Jesus centered).

You’ve got angels, most notably Gabriel, at the beginning of the Gospel in the Nativity story.

You’ve got angels at the end, in the form of the strangers at the tomb, when Jesus is raised from the dead.

In the middle, you’ve got Jesus.

Why no angels? Because, back to the top, angels mediate God’s revelation.

And Jesus Christ is himself the perfect, complete revelation of God.

No other messengers necessary.

Which leads to a theological question I don’t have time for now but you can feel free to weigh in on:

Since God has sent us Jesus, the complete revelation of God’s message….

And since Jesus has sent us the Holy Spirit….

Do we need

and/or

does God continue to send angels?


photo-1Last Sunday for our ‘Questions about Christmas’ sermon series I pulled your questions at random from a bingo tumbler and just answered them off the cuff. As I warned, sometimes off the cuff Jason quickly slips into off color Jason but I think I was mostly clean.

This week I will try to post responses to the questions that didn’t get pulled and also summaries of how I answered some of the other questions.

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I answered this question yesterday: Do you even like Christmas? Every year you seem determined to ruin Christmas by preaching on the dark, depressing stories. 

Here’s the sermon (WORST SERMON EVER #3) that prompted the question:

Matthew 1

The Genesis of Jesus

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, discharging 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.

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, prompting 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: “Santa won’t be bringing Nascar tickets this year if you can’t hold it together.”

This was the Fourth Sunday of Advent several years ago at a church I once pastored. A brusque, take-charge mother, who was a new member in the congregation, had approached me about staging a Christmas pageant.

And because I was young an didn’t know any better and, honestly, because I was terrified of this woman I said yes.

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: ‘We’ve got no room.”

The 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.

John 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.

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 uptown gigilo than biblical character.

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When it came time for the performance, I took a seat on the back bench in the narthex where the ushers normally sat.

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 woman 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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St John 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, telling us about the days of Caesar Augustus and a census, about angels heard on high and shepherds watching their flocks by night.

But Matthew, by contrast, begins his Christmas story with a genealogy:

“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 Dennis wouldn’t let me.

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 begats, going all the way back 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- it’s not the cast of characters you’d choose for a Christmas story. 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 slept with the wrong girl by mistake and became the father of Judah.

Judah slept, again by mistake, with his own daughter-in-law, Tamar. She’d cheated him by disguising herself as a prostitute.

I mean- 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 getting in to bed with him.

Not that Boaz ought to have been shocked. His mother, Matthew tells us, was Rahab, a prostitute who betrayed her people.

Boaz’s son was the grandfather of David, who fell in love with a girl he happened to see bathing naked one evening. David arranged for her husband to be murdered. He then slept with her and became the father of Solomon, the next name in the family tree of Emmanuel.

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.

Matthew doesn’t tell us about shepherds filled with good news. Matthew doesn’t bother with imperial politics or mangers filled with straw.

Matthew instead 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.

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?

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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 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 medication-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 the Gospel of Matthew.

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.‘

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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 up and down and then it was over.

I have an uncle who was in prison every other Christmas.

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 here and pretend 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 if God knew who you really were then he wouldn’t be born for you.

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 ours.
And that’s the gift given tonight in Emmanuel.
And it’s a gift Matthew doesn’t think needs to be wrapped in angels’ songs

and shepherds and mangers filled with straw.
The gift given tonight is that God comes to us just as we are.
Not as we wish we could be. Not as we used to be. Not as others think we should be.

Tonight Emmanuel
God with us
Comes to us
Just as you are.
Take if from me, that’s the only gift that can change you.

 


photo-1Last Sunday for our ‘Questions about Christmas’ sermon series I pulled your questions at random from a bingo tumbler and just answered them off the cuff. As I warned, sometimes off the cuff Jason quickly slips into off color Jason but I think I was mostly clean.

This week I will try to post responses to the questions that didn’t get pulled and also summaries of how I answered some of the other questions.

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Question: Do you even like Christmas? Every year you seem determined to ruin Christmas by preaching on the dark, depressing stories. 

Yes, for the record, I like Christmas. Love it.

I hate preaching Christmas though. Hate it.

People complain about the commercialization of Christmas and ‘Happy Holidays’ secularism, but actually I think the greatest threat to a Christian understanding of Christmas isn’t commercialization or secularism. It’s sentimentality.

And people love sentimentality. Believe me. I got a shoe box worth of hate mail the last time I preached Christmas Eve. Actual snail mail.

The problem with sentimentality is that it isn’t true. The Gospels don’t tell a sentimental Christmas story. Jesus is born in to poverty and oppression. His mother would’ve been viewed as an adulteress. He’s born with monsters like Herod and Caesar at this manger. When Jesus is born all the other new born sons are slaughtered- it was not a silent night. And no sooner is he born than his family become political refugees in Egypt.

So when we make Christmas sentimental, we forget the actual story. And when we forget the actual story, we risk forgetting why Jesus came in the first place and why we’re waiting for him to come again.

And on another note, I’d just add that, I grew up up in a broken home that was chaotic and anything but happy. So, I’m aware that when we make Christmas sentimental we’re not only describing something that’s not true about the Christmas story, we’re also describing something that’s not true for a whole lot of people in their own lives.

So for me, making sure Christmas isn’t all cuteness and cheer is a way of making sure those people know the story is for them too. For them especially maybe.

 

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.

 

 

Every year around this time, many conservatives rail against the “war on Christmas,” using a few dismantled nativities to suggest that America muffles worship.

Hardly. We have God on our dollars, God in our pledge of allegiance, God in our Congress. Last year, the House took the time to vote, 396 to 9, in favor of a resolution affirming “In God We Trust” as our national motto. How utterly needless, unless I missed some insurrectionist initiative to have that motto changed to “Buck Up, Beelzebub”

I’ve no doubt Frank Bruni’s piece from yesterday’s NY Times, the God Glut, will irritate a few. Okay, likely more than a few.

However, I hope folks are able to take off the spectacles of partisanship and read this through a Christian lens because even though the issue is brought by a writer questioning the presumed Christian perspective I think his critique is, unintentionally and ironically perhaps, a thoroughly Christian one.

To me, this has nothing to do with issues of politics and its certainly not a critique of the military. It is a sobering chastisement of the degree to which we Christians often marry our faith to our nation.

And it’s not that Christians can’t love their country. Hell, Christians all over the world love their country. Ever been to a soccer game in Latin America? I mean, geez, it puts our 4th of July parades to shame. But Christians in this country DO have a propensity to see our nation as elect among the nations in a way that is unique and can threaten a coherent reading of our scriptures.

This is especially apropos during Advent as we look towards the birth of our ‘King’ who is born amidst and as an alternative to lords like Herod and Caesar. If there are takeaways from the Christmas story, then one of them is surely that our attitudes to governments and nations are temporal, finite and ambivalent at best.

Christians forget: the reign of Augustus Caesar was GOOD for your average citizen in the Empire. He brought peace (not to mention sanitation, architecture, clean water, poetry, drama, philosophy, democracy etc- see Life of Bryan) to those whom he favored and he was hailed as a savior.

And yet, the angels sent by the God we follow used those very words for a baby wrapped in diapers with peasant parents standing by his manger.

What gets lost in all the ‘In God we trust’ debates is that we follow a God who didn’t have any coins on him when someone else asked him what should be on the currency. And when he answered their question: ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s (i.e., Nothing) and give to God what is God’s (i.e., Everything).’

Tough. Inconvenient. Answer.

So I encourage you to read the following, pausing to remember that the story we’ve turned in to a harmless Christmas pageant for children was, in its inception, a critique of those who cozied the faith too close to the nation.

—————–

Bob Kerrey’s political career spanned four years as the governor of Nebraska and another 12 as a United States senator from that state, during which he made a serious bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. In all that time, to the best of his memory, he never uttered what has become a routine postscript to political remarks: “God bless America.”

That was deliberate.

“It seems a little presumptuous, when you’ve got the land mass and the talent that we do, to ask for more,” he told me recently.

But there was an additional reason he didn’t mention God, so commonly praised in the halls of government, so prevalent a fixture in public discourse.

“I think you have to be very, very careful about keeping religion and politics separate,” Kerrey said.

We Americans aren’t careful at all. In a country that supposedly draws a line between church and state, we allow the former to intrude flagrantly on the latter. Religious faith shapes policy debates. It fuels claims of American exceptionalism.

And it suffuses arenas in which its place should be carefully measured. A recent example of this prompted my conversation with Kerrey. Last week, a fourth-year cadet at West Point packed his bags and left, less than six months shy of graduation, in protest of what he portrayed as a bullying, discriminatory religiousness at the military academy, which receives public funding.

The cadet, Blake Page, detailed his complaint in an article for The Huffington Post, accusing officers at the academy of “unconstitutional proselytism,” specifically of an evangelical Christian variety.

On the phone on Sunday, he explained to me that a few of them urged attendance at religious events in ways that could make a cadet worry about the social and professional consequences of not going. One such event was a prayer breakfast this year at which a retired lieutenant general, William G. Boykin, was slated to speak. Boykin is a born-again Christian, and his past remarks portraying the war on terror in holy and biblical terms were so extreme that he was rebuked in 2003 by President Bush. In fact his scheduled speech at West Point was so vigorously protested that it ultimately had to be canceled.

Page said that on other occasions, religious events were promoted by superiors with the kind of mass e-mails seldom used for secular gatherings. “It was always Christian, Christian, Christian,” said Page, who is an atheist.

Mikey Weinstein, an Air Force Academy graduate who presides over an advocacy group called the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, told me that more than 30,000 members of the United States military have been in contact with his organization because of concerns about zealotry in their ranks.

More than 150 of them, he said, work or study at West Point. Several cadets told me in telephone interviews that nonbelievers at the academy can indeed be made to feel uncomfortable, and that benedictions at supposedly nonreligious events refer to “God, Our Father” in a way that certainly doesn’t respect all faiths.

Is the rest of society so different?

Every year around this time, many conservatives rail against the “war on Christmas,” using a few dismantled nativities to suggest that America muffles worship.

Hardly. We have God on our dollars, God in our pledge of allegiance, God in our Congress. Last year, the House took the time to vote, 396 to 9, in favor of a resolution affirming “In God We Trust” as our national motto. How utterly needless, unless I missed some insurrectionist initiative to have that motto changed to “Buck Up, Beelzebub” or “Surrender Dorothy.”

We have God in our public schools, a few of which cling to creationism, and we have major presidential candidates — Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum — who use God in general and Christianity in particular as cornerstones of their campaigns. God’s initial absence from the Democratic Party platform last summer stirred more outrage among Americans than the slaughter in Syria will ever provoke.

God’s wishes are cited in efforts to deny abortions to raped women and civil marriages to same-sex couples. In our country God doesn’t merely have a place at the table. He or She is the host of the prayer-heavy dinner party.

And there’s too little acknowledgment that God isn’t just a potent engine of altruism, mercy and solace, but also, in instances, a divisive, repressive instrument; that godliness isn’t any prerequisite for patriotism; and that someone like Page deserves as much respect as any true believer.

Kerrey labels himself agnostic, but said that an active politician could get away with that only if he or she didn’t “engage in a conversation about the danger of religion” or advertise any spiritual qualms and questions.

“If you talk openly about your doubts,” he said, “you can get in trouble.”

To me that doesn’t sound like religious freedom at all.

 

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.

P1290750-1This weekend, because I was pulling questions at random and answering them, ‘Midrash in the Moment’ is how I coined it. Midrash being an informal sort of commentary on scripture.

Each ‘sermon’ was a bit different. Some of the same questions came up in more than one service and others came up only once.

I recorded audio of the 9:45 Sunday service, which was the longest sermon time, and it is available here and in the iTunes Store under ‘Tamed Cynic.’  

Audio of all four sermon Q/A sessions is available at here.

 

 


photo-1This Sunday for our ‘Questions about Christmas’ sermon series I pulled your questions at random from a bingo tumbler and just answered them off the cuff. As I warned, sometimes off the cuff Jason quickly slips into off color Jason but I think I was mostly clean.

This week I will try to post responses to the questions that didn’t get pulled and also summaries of how I answered some of the other questions.

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One thing you have to remember is that the early church was an oral culture. They were good storytellers and, being good storytellers, they would never begin a Gospel with a list of begats unless there was a good point they wanted their listeners to catch.

The first thing Matthew’s audience would’ve noticed is the fact that this isn’t a traditional Jewish genealogy. You can compare Matthew’s list to the lists in the Old Testament. Jewish genealogies were men’s only clubs. But Matthew’s has women in it.

And not just women. Gentiles. Matthew’s constructs a genealogy of Jews and Gentiles, and the only way Matthew can include Gentiles is through women because all the men in Jesus’ family were Jews. So Matthew works in Ruth and Rahab and Tamar and Bathsheba.

Those women aren’t just Gentiles. Matthew also constructs a genealogy of saints and sinners. Tamar slept with her father-in-law, on ‘accident.’ Ruth seduced Boaz. Bathsheba very likely seduced David. Rahab was a hooker.

So what Matthew’s doing isn’t trying to biologically tie Jesus to Jewish history because that would be impossible. What Matthew’s doing is giving you the overture to his Gospel; he’s hinting at the themes to come.

And one of those themes is the compassion Jesus shows women like Tamar and Rahab, who, incidentally, are the kind of women that most would’ve assumed Jesus’ own mother was.

He’s foreshadowing themes: Jesus’ compassion on sinners and women, Jesus’ ministry to Gentiles and outsiders. This becomes more obvious when you flip to the end of Matthew’s Gospel and see that it closes with Jesus giving his Great Commission to ‘make disciples of all nations…‘ Meaning: Jews and Gentiles.

So the genealogy isn’t about Jesus’ biological make-up; it’s about the make-up of his Kingdom. It’s Matthew’s of telegraphing that Christ will be a different of King.

A couple of other points:

The word genealogy is genesis. In the beginning. Matthew begins his Gospel in the same way the Hebrew Bible begins. This is Matthew’s way of saying that Jesus is the beginning of a new creation.

Another thing, Matthew says ‘from the deportation to Babylon to the birth of the Messiah…’ In other words, Matthew’s suggesting Israel’s exile to Babylon never ended, that even though Israel returned from Babylon, their exile never truly ended until Jesus was born. That’s what makes ‘Come, O Come, Emmanuel’ an Advent song.

Lastly, Matthew’s not trying to give a proper, traditional family tree for Jesus, but if he wanted to he could do that through Joseph. As an adoptive father myself, I have a stake in this point. In the same way my boys have Virginia birth certificates though they were born in Guatemala, according to Jewish law, Jesus becomes Joseph’s legal son the moment Joseph claims him as such, which is what makes Joseph’s leap of faith and participation in the Christmas story so vital.

20121124-123103.jpgThis week for our ‘Questions about Christmas’ sermon series I’ll be doing a sort of Midrash in the Moment. Randomly selecting your questions and answering them in the time allowed. It’ll be a little off the cuff and a little different than a normal worship service. Hopefully it’ll be fun and edifying too and if not…Dennis gets back soon.

Anyway, every Christmas season and I mean EVERY CHRISTMAS SEASON people ask me about the Virgin Birth and/or tell me they bite their tongue during that part of the Creed.

So I expect to get Virgin Birth questions this Sunday.

Here’s a great, hilarious and insightful spin on how some of our beliefs and scriptures can sound loony to a skeptic. It’s from Mr Deity which all of you should know….This is worth 3.5 mins of your time.

For the denser among us….the guy in the goatee, Mr Deity, is Yahweh. ‘Jesse’ is Jesus and Larry the neurotic OCD character is the Holy Spirit.