December 31, 2007
There is a word from Paul with some serious teeth. I have spent most of Christmastide dealing with what it means that 1) God moved into the neighborhood and 2) the Incarnation makes God comprehensible. Paul deals with both nicely.
That God came to earth In Flesh and spent time here; considerable time here, means that all have access to God. God broke down the barriers that the religious establishment had set up by dwelling with us. He tore the curtain of the holy of holies and became a common man. Through Jesus Christ we have been given unprecedented access to God.
That we have access to God does not mean that the danger of holiness has been removed. Rather, to approach God, to claim our rightful access, means to approach God with boldness and confidence. We are bold to assume that God desires a relationship with us; God needs nothing from us. We must draw on confidence to come before God, sin and all, hopeful that he will not utterly destroy us.
The Incarnation is a messy thing. It makes simple theology necessarily systematic. What does it mean that God walked the earth In Flesh? What does it mean that regular people, sinful people, interacted with God one-on-one? What does it mean to be given access to God? What does it mean to be bold and full of confidence as we approach his countenance?
Major feasts always get me back in seminary mode. I want to write papers on this stuff. But my call is to preach it with boldness and confidence. Should be an interesting week of reflection.
I sorta joked with you at Christmas about how soft and cuddly God is for us when we picture the baby Jesus lying in a manger. If you recall, I noted that, for me, there is nothing wrong with having as our primary image of God, Jesus as a tiny infant. Luke’s Nativity story gives us a wonderful insight into the Incarnation. This morning, however, we get a whole different way to view the Incarnation; God becoming flesh. In 18 verses John takes us on a philosophical trek from Creation to Incarnation. Now, it would be really easy to get bogged down in the philosophical trek part of this. We could sit and ponder John’s use of words that would carry weight with both Greek scholars in Athens, Roman philosophers in Alexandria and Jewish minds in Jerusalem. Then we could have fun with it by bringing the concepts forward 2000 years and comparing John’s intentional use of language with postmodern philosophy’s in depth study of the impact a name has on an entity. I found a 218 page book on Amazon called Incarnate Word, Inscribed Flesh: John’s Prologue and the Postmodern. It would be such a delight if we were in a seminary classroom, but I feel y’all might run me out of Foley after a three hour lecture.
So instead, I propose we deal with the second task of John; taking his readers from Creation to Incarnation. We all know very well that God is hard to get our minds around. Be it the concept of God or the person to whom we offer prayer and praise, God is beyond our comprehension. Perhaps that is why John decides to begin this trip at the beginning, or more accurately before the beginning. John dives right into his account of the Good News of Jesus Christ by placing us with the Trinity before Creation. We get a glimpse into that difficult world called theology as we try to think about what it means that “In the beginning WAS the Word.” Not “In the beginning the Word began,” but “In the beginning WAS the Word.” John is letting us know that we are not dealing with something that was created, but rather the Creator. Before time and space and matter and life existed, before the beginning the Creator was. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit; three-in-one; in perfect harmony with one another, are hanging out before the beginning.
John then proceeds to take us on the journey; the culmination of which comes in verse 14, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” From the Trinity in perfect harmony to the Word spoken at Creation to the prophecy of John the Baptist all was pointing to one final event; the Word becoming Flesh. But not just the Word becoming Flesh for a minute or two to fix a couple of small issues with Creation. The Word became Flesh and made his dwelling among us. The Word became Flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth and set his tent up alongside us.
There is the moment of grace for us. God dwelt among us. See 2000 years removed from Jesus walking on earth it is easy for us to miss how huge that is; that God walked among humans. But for Jew, Greek, and Roman alike this was more than huge; it was universe altering. For the Jew, Greek, and Roman the divine made their home in the Temple. Be it the Tabernacle the Jews carried in the wilderness or the Parthenon of Athena for the Greeks – the divine were considered too holy and thus too dangerous to be in the realm of normal human beings. It was the job of the priests and priestesses to interact with the divine. And so, for John’s audience the concept that God would make his tent alongside us is a major deviation from theology as usual.
This change that marks the beginning of John’s gospel is the crux of John’s theology. That the Word was made to be In Fleshed means that the light of God came into a world considered to be dark and the darkness could not overcome it. Though it may have looked like darkness won when the light of life was snuffed out upon the cross, John knows, and wants his readers and us to know, that the story does not end there. God making his tent alongside us means that holiness, while still dangerous, is not as dangerous as once thought. The divine has been made available to all. God In Flesh did not destroy Creation and Creation did not destroy God In Flesh. What wonderful news John has to share with his readers and still today with us – God; who from before time was; entered the world with grace and truth, to make us all children of God; not just Caesar, not just the priests and priestesses, not just the Pharisees, but everyone could come to be an heir of the light of life through The Word In Flesh.
The Prologue to John’s gospel is beautiful. It is poetry without rival, but like poetry, for me, it is scary. It is so deep with meaning and nuance that I fear constantly I am missing a huge chunk of what is being said. It is philosophy that spoke to the greatest minds of John’s time. It is so over-my-head that I know I am just scratching the surface of what John’s message was and is. Ultimately, however whether poetry or philosophy, the Prologue to John’s gospel is good news of great joy. Verse 18 sums it up for us best, “No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known.”
He setup camp alongside us. He walked among us as a light to the world. And he made God known. He made God accessible to us all. He removed the barriers that humanity had set up and made the darkness bright. And, “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.” Thanks be to God! Amen. Amen.
December 29, 2007
It is tough for me to slog through Advent. Singing Advent Carols instead of Christmas Carols. Waiting not just for Christmas, but for Jesus’ return to earth with power and great glory. Advent, is, no doubt, an important time of waiting, but for me, Christmas can’t come soon enough. And tonight, it is finally here. On the Eve of the Eve of Jesus’ Nativity at least part of our waiting is over. Jesus Christ is born this night, a Merry Christmas indeed.
Luke does a wonderful job of telling this story. We get a full detail of how it is that Joseph and his pregnant, virgin, bride-to-be, Mary, get from Nazareth to Bethlehem. We find them set up in a quaint Nativity scene, as if Luke knew that one day our knick-knack shelves would hold a display of his story. We see the baby Jesus, in perhaps his most famous role, a newborn infant, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. This portrait of baby Jesus and the one 30 some years later, hanging on the cross, define, for most of us, our image of Jesus. And it is the first image, the one we celebrate this evening that is most assuredly preferable. It is a lot easier to picture Jesus lying silently in the manger. It feels a lot safer. It makes our God a lot more cuddly.
In the movie, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, we see, in popular culture, what this image of Jesus offers us.
As the Bobby family sits down to dinner, Ricky offers a prayer, “Dear Lord baby Jesus, or as our brothers to the south call you, Jesus, we thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Dominos, KFC, and the always delicious Taco Bell… Dear Lord baby Jesus, we also want to thank you for my wife’s father, Chip, we hope that you can use your baby Jesus powers to heal him and his horrible leg… Dear tiny, infant Jesus…”
When challenged with the fact that Jesus did grow up, Ricky responds, “I like the Christmas Jesus best and I’m saying grace. When you say grace you can say it to grown-up Jesus, or teen-age Jesus, or bearded Jesus, whoever you want…” He folds his hands and bows his head, “Dear tiny Jesus, in your Golden Fleece diapers with your tiny balled up first…”
Again, Ricky is challenged, “He was a man, he had a beard!”
Ricky finishes his prayer, “Dear 8 pound 6 ounce, newborn infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant, so cuddly, but still omnipotent. We just thank you for all the races I’ve won… thank you for all your power and your grace dear baby God, Amen.”
It is very strange to hear it out loud, but I think that this is often the way we pray. “Dear tiny infant Jesus” is a pleasant way to picture our God. And, you know, I don’t think there is anything wrong with that image of Jesus. It is part of what makes Christmas so special. God came to earth to put his creation back together not by appearing magically out of thin air, but through the natural means by which a human being comes it this world. God entered the world just as helpless as the rest of us. He arrived as “dear tiny infant Jesus”; fully God and fully human. But, unlike Ricky, we can’t stop there. God’s coming into the world was much larger than a Nativity scene on a knick-knack shelf.
Which brings me to the theological reason why I love Christmas; because it is the day that we celebrate what I believe to be the key to God’s restoring of relationship; the Incarnation. Incarnation is a fancy church word, and for that I’m sorry, but I’ll break it down. It is created by combining two Latin words. The first, y’all know well, “in” which means, well, in. The second is “carnis” which means flesh. In – Flesh. Theologically, it is the understanding that God became human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Incarnation means that God was one of us. It means that as Jesus experienced desires, temptations, frustrations, joys; all of the messiness of life as a human being it became a part of God – as Jesus experienced them, so too did God. Jesus being “in flesh” means that the gap between God and humanity was bridged; our relationship was restored. God, having now felt what it is like to be a human, to have will that is prone to messing up, knows more fully what it means when we come to him with all of our joys and all of our sorrows. God was “in flesh” on earth! This is the good news of Christmas; God was intervening radically to restore our relationship; not just as a helpless baby, but throughout the life of experiences of teenage Jesus and grown up bearded Jesus.
Not only does God experience what it is to be human, but we have a chance to see how God would have us live. The other side of the Incarnation coin is that God is made comprehensible by being “in flesh.” In the full life of Jesus we see a life lived fully in accordance with God’s will. From Jesus’ first cry as an infant to his final gasp for breath on the cross, we get in the life of Jesus a life lived in perfect harmony with God. And, to be honest, we see that it isn’t all that demanding. It begins with a life lived modeling tiny-infant-Jesus; looking up with wide-eyed awe at the splendor of God’s creation; recognizing our full dependence on him for all things. As we grow in faith, we become more like teenage Jesus, getting to know God through Worship and the Word. And then, as we mature, the model becomes grown-up-bearded Jesus. His life was one of service to the poor, outcast, sick, widowed, and orphaned. It was a life lived sharing the good news of God’s divine justice with the oppressed, the sad, and the lonely. It is a full life; from birth to death; a life lived from Sunday to Saturday – week after week after week.
The incarnation is all about God’s love for us overflowing. It is about God coming “in flesh” to show us how to live in response to that great love. As we gather this night to celebrate the Incarnation in the Nativity of tiny-infant Jesus we take that first step. Hopefully, it is the beginning of another year, growing in faith with this remembrance of Jesus’ birth. As we leave to our parties and to await Santa’s arrival, we enter the world refreshed and renewed; ready to live another year in the model of the life of God “in flesh”. We prepare ourselves for another try at living in full harmony with the will of God. But we go, not filled with our own abilities, but instead empowered by the Holy Spirit, glorifying and praising God for all that we have heard and seen; excited for what a life lived with Jesus has in store.
Thanks be to God for coming into the world as the newborn infant Jesus. Thanks be to God for his willingness to restore his creation by living as one of us. And thanks be to God for his perfect model of Kingdom living. May he fill us to overflowing for anther year of trying to live that life. Amen.
 From, Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby¸2006. Written by Will Farrell and Adam McKay.
December 20, 2007
I’d like us to take a moment this morning to think back. It being Rose Sunday we are called on by the church to take a moment in the midst of the waiting season of Advent to rejoice. So let’s do that, let’s rejoice. Think for a moment of your greatest faith experience. Maybe it was a Happening. Perhaps you found the Lord at Camp Beckwith as a child. Many of you sat on the mountain top during a Cursillo Weekend. For me, it was a mission trip to rural North Carolina, my last official act as youth minister at St. Thomas in Lancaster. Whatever it is, find that place, and just for a moment try to remember what it felt like to be so close to God. [Silence]
The mountaintop experiences of faith might be the most fantastic experiences possible in this life. To be that close to God and to feel his love that strongly is unlike anything we can feel in the flesh. And it is but a foretaste of what life in the Kingdom of God will be like. Mary’s Magnificat is a perfect example of a human’s response to God’s grace pouring out in abundance. Mary’s hymn of praise has given words to many who were caught speechless by their experience of God. And though her song expresses great joy, we know the pain that she, as the mother of our Lord, will experience as she stands at the foot of the cross helpless against the Roman regime.
See the mountain tops are great. And given our druthers we’d all love to live there forever, but it doesn’t happen. Life goes on, retreats end, mission groups return home, real life begins again. And while we are left with the memory of that time, like Mary, we know that we cannot hold onto it forever. John the Baptist had his fair share of mountain top experiences, even from before he entered this world. We are told that he leapt for joy within his mother’s womb as Mary arrived for a visit. He was given special knowledge as he was called as a prophet of the Most High to make straight a pathway for God. And, in what is perhaps the greatest mountain top experience in Christian history, as he baptized Jesus he heard the voice of God and saw the dove descend upon God’s anointed one, the Messiah, Christ the Lord.
But even John was not immune to what happens as we return to real life. Today we find John physically in prison; a dark and nasty place. We find John also spiritually in a dark and nasty place. Prisons in first century Palestine were not the place to go for three square meals a day. There were no services in prison. Family and friends were the source of food, clothing, and of course gossip. John had been hearing all sorts of stories about Jesus, and it seems as though the combination of his continued imprisonment and the stories of Jesus’ ministry in the sticks have lead John to doubt he got it right. “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” John has moved deep into the valley. John had preached of a new world order. Things were going to be flipped upside down with the coming Messiah. The axe was at the base of the tree and furnace was plenty hot. God was going to enact his vengeance on those who did not follow his ways. And none of it was happening. Jesus wasn’t putting together an army to overthrow the Romans. He wasn’t seeking political clout by hanging out with the elite in Jerusalem. What Jesus did and what John expected were not matching up.
What about you? Is what God is doing matching up with what you expected him to? As you moved back into real life following those high points were you frustrated that the good feelings didn’t linger longer? Have you found it necessary to ask “Is this all?” Faith, even for all-stars like John the Baptist, isn’t perfect. There are times when holding onto faith is hard. There are times when we, like John, have to ask, “Did we get this right?”
And, praise God, he is just as willing to accept our questions as he is our adulation. Jesus doesn’t chastise John for being in a dark place. Instead, he answers with honesty and love John’s concerns. “Tell John what is going on here – the blind can see, the crippled can walk, the sick are healed, the deaf now hear, the dead are alive, and the poor are receiving good news!” John will have to make do as the rest of us; a second hand account of the miracles and the message of Jesus. He will have to hear from his disciples that Jesus is doing exactly what Jesus came to do, and it will have to be enough for him. In the midst of his doubt John will be confronted by the simple fact that Jesus is doing the work of God – even though it doesn’t look how John wants it to look.
We are confronted by the same simple fact – our hopes and dreams won’t define the kingdom of God. It will most likely look vastly different that what we expect to see. But it will be a place where God’s will is lived out at all times for eternity. Our mountain top experience will last forever one day, just have faith.
While Jesus doesn’t get upset with John’s question, he does finish his message with a kick in the butt, “Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.” “Even with this comment, Jesus is being kind and compassionate with John. Jesus did not say, "Blessed is the one who never, ever has the slightest doubt about me!" Had he said something like that Jesus would have slammed John as well as anyone else who has ever harbored a doubt in the quiet recesses of his or her heart. But Jesus didn't chide John for having a hard time figuring everything out. Jesus did not deny that his ministry was surprisingly quiet even as it was happening in rather out-of-the-way locales.
The NIV translates Jesus' words in verse 6 as blessing the one "who does not fall away on account of me." Actually, the original word in the Greek is skandalizo, which means to be scandalized by Jesus. In Jesus' day a "scandal" was literally something you could trip over and so cause you to fall flat on your face. In order to enter God's kingdom you need to pass through Jesus. He is the door, the way, the gate that leads to life. So blessed are those who can pass through that door without tripping over the nature of Jesus' life and ministry. Blessed is anybody who can see Jesus for who he really is despite the fact that Jesus led no major political revolutions, made apparently no impact on the Caesar in his day. Blessed is anybody who can admit that Jesus really did get crossed out by the Romans while at the same time believing he is the resurrected Lord of life even yet today”
We see today John the Baptist as he stumbles, but he does not fall. He, like many others, has miss-judged what God’s will for a redeemed world would look like. He has to ask the question, but knows what the answer will be. “Yes, Jesus is the one who was to come. No, you need not look for another. See, he has done great signs; God is at work in him. Listen, he proclaims God’s love to those who society says God could never love; God is turning things upside down. It is more subtle that we had hoped. It will take a lot longer that we want, but it will happen, just keep the faith.”
As we wait this Advent season, the message remains the same. 2000 years later we are still waiting for it to be finished, for God’s will to reign supreme on earth as it does in heaven, but it will come, just hang on, just keep the faith. For now, remember those moments when you got a glimpse of it; the blind can see, the crippled can walk, the sick are healed, the deaf now hear, the dead are alive, and the poor are receiving good news, and rejoice that those moments will someday last forever. Amen.
December 18, 2007
But is it really good news of great joy when 95% of it is focused on how crappy we are as human beings? Is that why God came to walk among us? So that we could focus on how terrible we are and not on how wonderful God is? I dunno. I feel as though we need to make a shift. We need to repent, to turn, from our fascination with us and return our attention to God.
Maybe Christmas is a chance to do that. Maybe as we see God entering the world in the same way we all have, we can see the goodness of Creation. Maybe we can focus on the good news of great joy that God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son to live as one of us. Sure, he lived without sin, but he still lived as one of us. His birth was just as messy as ours. His childhood was full of dirt. His hands were rough from the hammer and chisel. He was God and he was human and it was good.
At Draughting Theology this week we are pondering "what does it mean that God came to earth?" So I guess that's on my mind. What does it mean that God was human for 33 years. It means that our bodies are not inherently evil. It means that we have the possibility of goodness within us. It means that things aren't as bad as we have been led to believe. For me, today, that's the good news of great joy. And thanks be to God for a word of encouragement.
December 14, 2007
None of those who have died here in the last six months were JBap's, but all had their role as a follower of Jesus Christ. Some were active in prison ministry, some played musical instruments to the glory of God, some gave richly of their time, talents, and treasure, some where devoted spouses, some were amazing parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. And they each have been offered a place of honor in the kingdom. They wait with us for the ushering in of the new creation, but for now dine alongside JBap at the heavenly banquet.
As we wait on this side of life patience can run thin. We miss our friends and family members who have gone on before. We wish Jesus would return already so we can stroll on the beach with them once again. Our loved ones wait as well, but I can't imagine patience running thin at that table; the make-your-own omelet station aside.
Anyway, waiting is on my mind today. Waiting here. Waiting there. Waiting.
December 12, 2007
He is in prison and is hearing all sorts of stories about what Jesus, the one he called the Messiah, the one he saw God descend upon, the one he heard from the mouth of God about, is doing. And he is not happy. The first verse could easily read, "When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he wondered what-the- is he up to?" Matthew, to his credit, has already answered the question. For the first time in his gospel he calls Jesus the Messiah, so we know that no matter the struggle JBap is facing, Jesus will be shown to be the anointed one of God.
I'm not sure why this surprised me, but it did. I guess I forget that God chose normal people back then the same way he does now. My faith is not perfect. I, from time to time, have wondered, is this really it? Am I on the right train? In fact if we were the least bit honest with ourselves and each other we have all wondered why David Koresh was a nutter and Jesus was the Son of God. So today I'm learning how real God's chosen ones are. Even the great bridge between the Old Covenant and the New had his doubts. And like us, all he had to go on was the word of someone else. He didn't hear Jesus teach. He didn't see the miracles. Somebody told him, second hand. No wonder we falter from time to time. Our "second hand source" is scantly second hand, almost 2000 years old, and has been corrupted by more bad translations that we care to think about. Thank God he doesn't call us to be without doubt; he just calls us to see, hear, and believe. I can do that... at least for today.
December 11, 2007
Our discussion today turned the narrative into a series of questions.
As we approach the coming of Christ at Christmas and prepare for his coming again, we are like JBap, wondering if we've got it right. And so we, from our virtual prisons, send out feelers, hoping that there might be some undeniable proof that Jesus is the Messiah.
Jesus responds with three questions.
What have you heard?
What have you seen?
What did you expect?
Have you heard God respond to your prayers? Have you heard the Good News? Does it make sense any other way?
Have you seen miracles? Have you met the face of Christ in another? Does the world look different with Jesus as your Lord?
Did you expect him to restore things right away? Do you reject him because he isn't pretty, because he calls you to service, because his message isn't only about your personal salvation? Do you expect him to do it all for you?
We bounced around how Western (and especially Mainline) Christians have given up seeing God at work and hearing his voice. We have so much other stuff to rely on; our jobs, our houses, our cars, our families, our friends, our networks, our churches, our secretaries, our physicians, our psychiatrist, and on and on, we don't need to see God at work becuase there are so many other things working for us. But in a place like the Sudan, where there is nothing but Christ crucified to rely on, well there the church looks like a first century church; healing, feeding, preaching, seeing God's hand at work in the world about them - miracles happening all the time.
So I guess there is a point to preach this Rose Sunday. Is there room in my life to see God at work? Is there silence enough to hear God's voice? And if not, what did I expect? Relying on all the world offers means I'm not relying on the one who created all things.
I am thankful to my friend for bringing this anniversary to my attention. Adam and his laugh joined the heavenly choir December 14, 2004. I am also grateful that my thinking about Adam led me to a blog post by a former employee of VTS who reflected on his death the day of. It is a great post and I share it with those who read this blog who knew Adam for their own remembrance. It is here.
December 10, 2007
Also, thank you for the prayers. I was recommended for ordiation by the Commission on Ministry, approved for ordination by the Bishop, and the Standing Committee concurred! God willing and the people consenting I will be ordained a priest sometime in late January. Thanks again!
December 5, 2007
Anyway, one of the things I did was assign purchase order numbers to track costs. For jobs that weren't big and/or not repeating - like installing an emergency generator for our Pastor, we gave out OSD purchase order numbers - One Shot Deal.
This week's reflections could be numbered 1OSD - cuz all I can do this week is going to be posted today. So on with 1OSD.
In our Lectionary group yesterday we had a very fruitful discussion around who JBap might be yelling at if he were on the bank of the Mississippi today. It is so easy to point at somebody else - like Matthew does - and say, "those fundamentalist evangelicals are the brood of vipers - so mired in their rules." But, we wondered, if we were to be real with ourselves for a minute how obvious are our own failings? Do we produce fruit? Are we willing to be refined by the fire? Do we bog ourselves down with useless things? Do we care about the poor, the widowed, the orphans? Can we afford to have outsiders in our church? It was a real call for me to re-evaluate my preconceived notions - a seemingly daily task anymore.
Along those same lines is the Romans reading. "Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." We particularly liked the version one of our group had that calls not for living in harmony and acceptance, but "to welcome one another as Christ welcomes us." Rowan Williams would be happy with that translation I think.
Anyway, Prophet Sunday seems to be calling us to repentance, as usual, but I think this particular year I am hearing a call to repent of the way in which I see the other and to welcome openly all who I encounter. Or as the Baptismal Covenant says, "seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself."
Thanks for the prayers and the patience with a OSD this week.