For our services on the second Sunday of Advent, I offered three reflections in tandem with musical offerings by our choirs. Isaiah 11 and John 1 were the scripture texts.
It’s Better to Receive than to Give
“Get dressed in something nice,” my mother said through my bedroom door, “We’re going to church.” I was a teenager, somewhere between my learner’s permit and my license to freedom, and somewhere, I’m sure, a needle scratched clear off a record. Save for a Holy Roman shotgun wedding, where even elementary-aged me could sense the bride and groom were about to make a terrible decision, I’d never gone to church before.
It was Christmas Eve, and, as a teenager, I had a few expensive (and awesome!) gifts on my wish list. None of them was what I ended up receiving.
From the discreet remove of the balcony, I learned “Silent Night” had more than one verse and I discovered that the magi were conspicuously missing from the gospel lesson the woman in the guady holiday sweater read for us. I’d seen the bumperstickers, of course. I knew Jesus was the reason for the season, but that Christmas Eve it wasn’t at all clear to me what was the reason to keep on fussing in the here and now about somehow locked away two thousand years in the past.
Not until the pastor held up a loaf of bread, broke it, and gave thanks to God and then, pouring wine into a silver cup, he taught us a word that not even this A+ English student knew: incarnation. Lifting the cup of wine and showing it to us like Vanna White revealing a hidden vowel, he explained what lay not so self-evident in the familiar story of Mary, Joseph, and the heavenly host. God takes flesh in Jesus Christ, I heard for the first time. Our flesh, the preacher proclaimed. God became what we are, the preacher preached so that we can become like God.
Here’s the thing—
As an adolescent, I had suffered acne so severe the dermatologist prescribed me medication I later learned had been used initially to treat Hanson’s Disease; that is, leprosy. What I was, I believed, was unlovely and therefore unloveable.
To hear that God would put on my blemished skin, that Love itself would take on my unlovliness, become what I was, take my body as God’s own body— well, that first worship service on Christmas Eve was like a wardrobe into Narnia. I’d been given a gift I didn’t realize I needed and wanted until I had received it.
What was that gift?
Let me ask a better question.
And it’s an important question because, let’s be honest, most of us would feel far more guilty if we neglected our Christmas shopping than if we neglected to go to church on Christmas.
So here’s my question:
Why should we go to church on Christmas?
(For that matter, why should we go to church at all?)
What can you receive at church on Christmas that you can receive nowhere else?
What can you get at church no one else can give you?
The answer, of course, is Jesus Christ.
Only at church, only where the Word is preached and the sacraments are rightly celebrated, can you receive Jesus Christ himself.
And everything that belongs to him.
I shouldn’t have said “of course” because, of course, preachers like me mess it up all the time. We make it seem like what Church has to offer the world is politics or behavior modification, purpose or principles for daily living when, in fact, the gift we have to offer the world is Jesus Christ himself and everything (his righteousness, his sonship, his faithfulness, his resurrection, his Father’s eternal love) that belongs to him.
At the heart of so much Christianity is a strange and self-negating sort of absence. We gather on the sabbath only to hear about what happens elsewhere. In both overt and unintended ways, many churches signal that revelation happens everywhere but here, at the font, at the altar, on a preacher’s imperfect lips and in your sin-harded hearing.
God’s out there, on the move, and it’s our job to find him and join him, preachers like me exhort. God happened in Jesus Christ, we say— and note the past tense, whose teaching and example we can imitate in our own personal lives and for our social causes. Just think about how many sermons you’ve heard over the years that implied the real stuff of Christianity happens not on Sunday morning but Monday through Friday, on the frontlines of the “real world.”
But those sorts of reductions of Christianity misunderstand what kind of word— fundamentally— is the Gospel. The Gospel is not a timeless set of ideas we can apply to our politics or personal lives. The Gospel is not a school of philosophy or, even, a way of life. The Gospel is not a means to make us or our children more moral.
The Gospel is a promise.
The Gospel is a particular kind of promise, in fact.
The Gospel is the promise by which Christ gives himself to us.
The Gospel works like a wedding vow, Martin Luther said. The Gospel is a promise by which the Bridegroom gives himself and everything that belongs to him to his beloved. What makes Christ present in creatures of bread and wine is the same promise of the Gospel proclaimed from the pulpit— the same promise we sing in our Christmas carols. The reason this is the season of comfort and joy is because the promise itself gives us Christ himself. Of all the times of the year, Christmas is the season when Christians should be insisting that it’s better to receive than to give.
What all our other versions of Christianity obscure is how what’s present to us in the promise of the Gospel, even if we are nothing but unimpressive, ordinary Christians, is greater than all the possible experiences in the world. Nothing less than Christ himself, Luther wrote, is what all believers receive by faith alone. By faith in the promise we are united with Christ. Through the promise of the Gospel— whether the promise is proclaimed from a pulpit or sung by a choir or placed in your mouth on bread and wine— Christ lives in you and you in him. Through that promise, Paul writes, the Maker of Heaven and Earth dwells in your heart. God is not far away in heaven nor is God off at work in the world busier with someboday other than you. God is in his Word and the Word that takes flesh in the virgin’s womb still takes up residence among us.
The Gospel is the promise by which Christ gives himself to us.
This is why the Bible teaches that salvation comes by hearing because Jesus Christ is salvation and he comes to us the same way he came to Israel, by the announcement of a promise.
What I received that first Christmas Eve, in my ears and on my lips, it wasn’t an idea.
It was God himself.
That’s why the church is necessary.
We only have one gift to give, as the Church, but it’s a gift that can be infinitely distributed. And because only Christ is without beginning or end, he’s the only gift you can receive that will keep on giving.
Pretending to Wait
Have you ever noticed how Advent is a season when Christians play at waiting. We pretend to be waiting. We light purple candles and we sing songs like “Come, O Come Emmanuel” to recapitulate Israel’s exilic longing as our own. We pretend to be waiting for the arrival of what we believe has already come. .
After all, what distinguishes Christians from Jews is the fact we believe that for which Israel waited has already arrived. The day promised by the prophet Isaiah, John’s Gospel makes clear, has come. The Kingdom of God prophesied by the John the Baptist has come in the one John identified as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world— the Kingdom and the King are one and the same.
Advent is the time when we pretend to be waiting because we believe the promise has already been fulfilled. By the baptism of Christ’s death and resurrection, we Gentiles have been grafted into the People of God. The Powers of Sin, Death, and the Devil have been defeated by Christ’s cross; there is therefore now no condemnation. Likewise, the Great High Priest has sat down forever from his work because the judge became the judged, offering a perfect once-for-all sacrifice. And having ascended to the Father, the lamb slain from the foundation of the world sits on the throne as the world’s true King and from thence he shall come again to the quick and the dead.
If the long-expected messiah has already arrived in the ark of Mary’s womb, if Emmanuel has already ransomed us from captivity to the Babylon of Sin and Death, then to what end do we break out the purple paraments every Advent and rehearse a yearning that’s already been fulfilled in the flesh?
Stanley Hauerwas, the geezer theologian who irritated some of you two weeks ago, writes in his latest book, Minding the Web:
“Israel learned to wait by God’s gift of the Law that made her a people who had to learn to live out of control. To be sure, she was often less than faithful to what her Lord had given her, but through the ups and downs of her history, she learned what it means to wait on the Lord.”
The Law, in other words, was a gift through which Israel learned to wait on the Lord; so that, through such waiting, Israel could learn faithfulness. But the gift we’ve been given in Jesus Christ is not the Law but the Gospel. As John puts it in the closet thing to a nativity story his gospel has got, “The Law was given through Moses, but Grace and Truth have come in Jesus Christ.”
If the Gospel of Grace, the glad tiding of the Law’s fulfillment for you, is the gift we’ve been given, then how might waiting— resting— with this gift glean from us a deeper faithfulness? What’s the wisdom in pretending to wait for a promise that has already come— a promise that is no further away than Sunday’s bread and wine?
Robert Farrar Capon was an Episcopal priest and food writer for the NY Times who died a few years ago. Capon opens his least known book, The Foolishness of Preaching, with a screenplay of sorts. Capon uses a set-up you’d expect on Bay Watch first to script a typical presentation of the so-called gospel. A woman is drowning in the seaside. The lifeguard/hero/Christ-figure swims out through the rough waves, fights the undertow, then drags the woman to shore, and depleted of all energy, still manages to give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. She was as good as dead, until … the lifeguard named Jesus saves her.
That’s one version gospel, which is really no gospel at all, Capon says, crumpling up the script and tossing it in the rubbish bin.
For take two, the lifeguard rushes down off his chair, swims out to the drowning woman, grabs her, and never lets her out of his grip. And then the lifeguard goes down with the drowning woman. Down to the ocean’s floor. Then, as Capon’s screenplay notes, the camera pans across the startled and disturbed onlookers and then freezes, focusing on a spare note left behind by the lifeguard.
The lifeguard’s note reads, “She’s safe in my death.”
Capon goes on to apply to preachers and hearers of the Gospel:
“Our preachers tell us the wrong story entirely. They can’t bring themselves to come within a country mile of the horrendous truth that we are not saved by our efforts to lead a good life. Instead, they mouth the canned recipes for successful living they think their congregations want to hear. It makes no difference what kind of success they urge on us: ‘spiritual’ or ‘religious’ success is as irrelevant to the Gospel as is success in health, money, or love. Nothing counts but the cross of the Christ child. But for even a sadder thing, on the rare occasions when they do get around to proclaiming the outrageousness of salvation by death of the divine Lifeguard, they can do it for no more than fifteen minutes. In the last five minutes of the sermon they meekly take back with the right hand of plausibility everything they so boldly set forth with the left hand of paradox.”
We’re all born lawyers. With the Law hardwired onto our hearts, as Paul says, we all want to be told what to do and then try our damndest to do it. We’re all born lawyers. We have to be taught the Gospel.
Better put, we need to learn to trust the message that we are justified before God not based on what we do for God but based on what has been done for us by the God-Man. The Gospel of grace comes so unnaturally to us that first it had to come to us in a virgin’s womb— that’s not natural.
That’s why we pretend every Advent, playing at an expectation that’s already been met and acting as though we’re waiting on a promise that hasn’t already come. Advent is an annual reminder to us, who insist on otherwise, that salvation not about a path that we make for ourselves to God but about God coming to us. We spend every year hearing again Isaiah and John the Baptist speak of God’s highway in the desert so that we, who are hellbent on adding another outband, glorybound lane to that highway, will finally learn to trust the happy news of God’s one-way love.
I’ve Got the Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy Outside My Heart
When I was counselor at a United Methodist summer camp, we sometimes had to sing with the kids that song “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart.”
You know the song?
I hate that song.
Especially this time of year.
It’s always been hard for me to feel at peace during Advent. It’s never been easy for me to feel joy down in my heart at Christmas. And it took me a while to understand how that’s okay. It took me a while to understand that it’s okay I don’t feel very joyfol or at peace during this season because it took me a while to understand the Gospel.
It starts with a particular Christmas Eve when I was boy during my parents’ on-again, off-again marriage.
My mother was working the night shift at the hospital, and my grandpa was there to keep an eye on my little sister and me. We had finished up the dishes when my father came home from whatever bar had closed early for the holiday. He was quite drunk. It wasn’t the first time he’d come home drunk, but he’d never come home drunk on Christmas. The next Christmas he didn’t come home at all. I remember my mom driving me around town to help her look for his car. He was parked in front of someone else’s home, a woman. I still remember the colored lights on whoever’s porch reflecting on my mom’s windshield.
After my parents finally split up for good, my mom struggled knowing that we weren’t having the sort of Christmas she thought we ought to have, the Christmas she thought other families gave their children. The oughts always accuse, and this ought stressed her out. Disappointed her. Frustrated her. And every year it would come to a head while we decorated the Christmas tree. Every year, trimming the tree invariably ended with me shouting unfair accusations and shedding tears and my mom throwing the treetop angel on to the floor and yelling “To hell with it all!” One Christmas, I recall, she pushed the artificial tree down on its side just as the jack-in-box from the stop- motion Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer said, “We’re all misfits.”
Call it post-yule stress disorder. Feelings of peace and joy have always been hard for me at Christmas. And, as a pastor, I know I’m hardly alone. Christians at Christmas are often made to feel guily if they’re not filled with joy down in their hearts.
For Christians to think they ought to feel a certain feeling simply because they’re Christian, not only is that impossible— and impossibly cruel to put on others who suffer grief and depression— it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about what kind of word is the Gospel.
The Gospel is the promise that gives you Christ and everything that belongs to him.
And that’s enough!
Martin Luther said that the Gospel of God’s condescension to us to be with us and for us in Jesus Christ sets us free to name things as they are. You can let everything in your life be what it is, and you can let your feelings be what they are. You’re free not to pretend because the point of the promise called Gospel is not that you’re supposed to feel a certain way, joyful and at peace all time. The point of the Gospel promise is that something glad and joyous has happened, outside of you, and, regardless of how we feel and what’s going on in our lives, we Christians agree it’s worth celebrating.
The Gospel may not be a joyful word in you this season but it’s still a joyful word in and of itself no matter how you’re feeling or what cross you’re bearing because it’s a word that gives you Christ himself. You have him in his promise regardless of your feelings. The Gospel may not always give you a peaceful, easy feeling, but the Gospel does give you the Prince of Peace, as real and present with you by means of his promise as he was in Mary’s womb.
And what would you rather have when the you-know-what hits the fan?
No matter how you feel inside, you can always cling to this promise outside of you.
Our message this season isn’t “You should feel glad and joy-filled and at peace (and something’s the matter with you if you’re not).”
Our message this season isn’t about you at all.
It’s “Hear the good news, for you is born this day in the City of David…a savior, the Prince of Peace, who will free his people from their sins…”
The Gospel may not be a joyful word in you this Christmas, but it’s still a joyful word because it’s true.
And regardless of what’s true about you this season, you’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy outside of you in the Gospel. You’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy outside of you in this promise that Christ will love you, no matter what. And because the empty grave proves that Christ keeps his promises, you can rest assured— you can be at peace— that, in the end, with you, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”