A Disappointing Christmas Homily

Good morning! And Merry Christmas!

Together, let us pray:

O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Almighty God, who wonderfully created us in your own image and yet more wonderfully restored us through your Son Jesus Christ: grant that, as he came to share our humanity, so we may share the life of his divinity; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

You know, they say that Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. I’ve even heard it said that it’s the “hap-happiest season of all”!

But, can I take a poll real quick?

Please raise your hand if you’ve ever had a disappointing Christmas.

I mean a Christmas that didn’t live up to your expectations. You wanted it to be filled with love, happiness, and peace, and instead all you got was stress, anxiety, and loneliness.

Have you ever had a disappointing Christmas?

I have. Continue reading “A Disappointing Christmas Homily”

Faithful Faith in a Faithful God: Romans 1.1-17

I. Introduction: The Prodigal Son, Part 2

What a relief, to get out of that house.

Ordinarily, Jude would have scoffed at his father’s request to purchase farming equipment from the next city – a three-day journey!

But ever since Ethan, that rascal (you might even say that prodigal) brother of his, had returned, Jude could not stand to be in either man’s presence for long.

So he relished the chance to forget about his family tension on this farming errand.

But now he was almost home, and the painful thoughts came rushing back.

“Dad has changed. Perhaps it was early-onset dementia that caused him to forget the blessed closeness of our years together, alone, when I was not just the firstborn, but the only son. Sure, I had never been perfect, but I thought that my father was finally proud of me. That, after years of hard lessons learned, I had become the man he wanted me to be.

And then Ethan threw it all away. Continue reading “Faithful Faith in a Faithful God: Romans 1.1-17”

The Prodigal Son, Part 2: Introduction to Romans

An apocryphal introduction to my sermon on Romans 1:1-17.

What a relief, to get out of that house.

Ordinarily, Jude would have scoffed at his father’s request to purchase farming equipment from the next city – a three-day journey! But ever since Ethan, that rascal (you might even say that prodigal) brother of his, had returned, Jude could not stand to be in either man’s presence for long.

So he relished the chance to forget about his family tension on this farming errand. But now he was almost home, and the painful thoughts came rushing back.

“Dad has changed. Perhaps it was early-onset dementia that caused him to forget the blessed closeness of our years together, alone, when I was not just the firstborn, but the only son.

Sure, I had never been perfect, but I thought that my father was finally proud of me. That, after years of hard lessons learned, I had become the man he wanted me to be.

And then Ethan threw it all away.

Actually, you know what, as it that weren’t bad enough, dad threw it all away…for Ethan!

He received much more love than I ever did. I used to get punished for much slighter infractions than throwing my entire life (along with our hard-earned savings) away! I never got a banquet when I broke Sabbath…I got a beating!”

At this point, Jude’s unpleasant thoughts were interrupted by the sight of the homestead on the horizon.

The first thing he noticed was the amount of trash bags on the front porch. Not much later, the smell hit him. Odors he’d only ever experienced in faraway marketplaces, and therefore that much more memorable.

Barely believing his eyes and his nose, Jude took a closer look at the trash.

Grilled pork chop remnants.

Crusty booze bottles.

Bacon pizza fragments.

Ashen cigarette butts.

The slimy shells of shellfish.

His blood pressure rising, Jude spit on the refuse-pile and stormed in the front door.

“Dad! Where are you!? He’s done it again! Brought his dirty Gentile friends into our home! Dad?!”

A very obviously hungover Ethan stumbled into the main room, nibbling on a piece of bacon. “Jude! You’re back…”

And Jude broke:

“Damn you, Ethan! You ethnoi, you Gentiles! How can you continually scorn our father’s, the Father’s, righteousness!?

First, you go and throw away your life and our life-savings to run away with swine?! Then, after the Father somehow took you in – adopted you like some bastard, orphaned children – you bring the swine back into this house?!

You think you’re so strong, so powerful, but you’re weak! You think you know who the Father is, what he’s like, but you’re wrong!

We’re strong! We’re the firstborn sons of God! Who in the hell do you Gentiles think you are?!

If you really loved God, you would follow the Law and keep the traditions…

How can the Father love you people? It’s embarrassing, really.

We never should have allowed you back into this house.”

By now, Ethan was boiling over as well:

“Damn you, Jude! You judaioi, you Jews!

How can you continually forget our father, the Father’s grace?!

Don’t you realize by now that all your stupid rituals, all your hard lessons learned, were a complete waste of time!? We Gentiles and God have moved on into the age of grace!

You Jews have forgotten the point of God’s grace, and so He’s practically forgotten you! We’re the firstborn, best-loved sons now. We’re the strong ones, and we outnumber you all at least three to one, so shut up and deal with it!

You’ve screwed up so often, you got kicked out of your land! And you didn’t learn any lessons then, because you got yourselves thrown out of Rome!

How could Nero have let you people back into this city? It’s shameful, really.

We never should have allowed you back into this Church, you…”

[KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK]

Someone at the door.

The Roman Christians – Jew and Gentile alike – froze in fear.

Ethan looked at the other Gentile leaders.

Was it a centurion? Had their gathering been reported? Would they be asked to bow the knee, to offer a sacrifice, to the new emperor, Nero? If they weren’t willing to do so, would this be the end?

Jude glanced at his wife, their children, and the other Jewish families.

Had they already outstayed their recent welcome back to the city? After exile, they’d spent four hard, hard years rebuilding their life in Rome. Would they again be driven from their homes? Where would they go?

The slaves in the room – and there were many – anxiously retraced their steps throughout the day.

Which one of their fellow slaves had discovered their secret? Had followed them to this meeting? Had told their master? Would they merely get whipped again? Or had their master’s patience run out?

Jude whispered to Ethan, “You’re in charge here, get the door.”

He trudged to the threshold and pulled it open.

A hooded figure stepped through, walked to the middle of the room, and pulled the hood back. Long brown hair flowed down.

The woman said “Christ is Risen!”

“…He is…risen…indeed,” they all stammered in reply.

She smiled: “He is risen indeed. For twenty-five years now, in fact! Greetings. My name is Phoebe of Cenchreae.”

Rummaging in her pack, she began to explain:

“I bring something for all of you from Paul, the apostle… It’s in here, somewhere. No, not this theology textbook. No, not this to-do list… Ah! Here it is, a letter.”

Jesus is Not Just "One of Us"

NOTE: The audio of the following sermon, preached on July 05, 2015 at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Mountain Brook, Alabama, can be found here. (I began with a bit of a mic issue. Ignore the garbled first 10 seconds or so!)

Introduction

The “hometown,” “home court” advantage is a very real occurrence in many areas of life. Familiar fans and supportive surroundings help us humans to perform better at many tasks, from singing to sports.

But not in sermons.

There is very seldom a home court advantage in preaching!

Family and close friends may inspire us to make the game-winning shot, or hit the highest note, but when it comes to the intimate affair of preaching God’s Word — of transcending the divide between there & then and here & now, making it clear how the words of Scripture should enlighten, encourage, confront, and challenge us — when it comes to preaching to family and friends, it’s hard.

Granted, it might be easier to impress, to invigorate, to lay on the rhetorical relish with grandiose gestures, dazzling diction, and absolutely awesome alliteration.

But that’s not preaching. That’s a show.

Preaching takes guts… It takes bravery to do the necessary hard work at the intersection between the stuff of God and the stuff of life.

Because, if what we Christians believe is TRUE, everything changes, and a preacher’s job is to make that clear.

However, when it comes to family and friends, it’s difficult to preach repentance to those who changed your diapers, calmed your tantrums, kept your secrets.

But every stressed out seminarian, every nervous young pastor preparing to preach to the home crowd, can take heart that the very One we preach, Jesus the Messiah, faced a similar challenge during his earthly preaching ministry.

Mark 1-5

Please turn with me to the Gospel of Mark, beginning on page 836 of your pew Bibles.

To understand today’s Gospel text from Mark 6, we first need a bit of context from Mark chapters 1 through 5. Please follow along with me in your Bibles, glancing at the pages as I summarize these chapters.

The biggest thing I’d like us to note is that Jesus is on a roll.

Mark’s Gospel takes off quickly into the narrative of Jesus, who, after he is baptized by his forerunner John, is affirmed of his identity by the very voice of God. He is then driven yet sustained by the Spirit through the wilderness testings of Satan.

Jesus then returns from the wilderness and begins his preaching ministry in Galilee — boldly:

“proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.'” (1:15)

He then calls his first disciples, who join him in his whirlwind ministry of preaching and teaching with authority, healing the sick, and casting out demons. So much for chapter 1!

In chapter 2, he challenges Jewish conceptions about the forgiveness of sins, fasting, and keeping Sabbath.

In chapter 3, we witness the first hints of outright opposition to Jesus on account of his unorthodox Sabbath practices, yet this is immediately followed by a description of Jesus’ growing crowd of followers.

Unfazed, Jesus calls and appoints the twelve apostles. He challenges the experts in Jewish Law, and scandalously stretches the boundaries of family.

In chapter 4, he teaches in parables, before commanding and calming the wind and the sea.

In chapter 5, he upsets an entire region by casting out a legion of demons. And before we get to chapter 6, he reverses death itself for the sake of a synagogue official, and reverses disease for the sake of a woman with a discharge of blood.

In the face of FAITH,Jesus tells the dead to get up. He calls the physically, financially, and relationally destitute one “daughter.”

Jesus is on a roll.

Jesus is up to something BIG, something NEW. He is bringing in the very kingdom of God, unexpectedly centered around HIMSELF, and NOTHING, NO ONE –

  • not winds,
  • not waves,
  • not Pharisees,
  • not scribes,
  • not disease,
  • not destitution,
  • not demons,
  • not even DEATH – can stand in his way.

Well, maybe one thing can.

Our Text: Mark 6:1-13

We’re now on page 841, Mark chapter 6 begins this way:

“He [Jesus] went away from there and came to his hometown [Nazareth], and his disciples followed him.

And on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands? Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?”

And they took offense at him.”

Now, before I get to two negative aspects of the Nazarenes’ reaction, let’s consider two positives:

First, in verse 2, they are asking the right questions.

They recognize that Jesus has wisdom, mighty works, mighty hands – things which should have reminded them of God himself:

The God who, according to Jeremiah (51:15),

“made the earth by his power, who established the world by his wisdom, and by his understanding stretched out the heavens.”

The God who, according to Deuteronomy (4:34 and 7:19), rescued Israel from the house of slavery with a “mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”

Jesus’ wisdom and mighty deeds should have persuaded them that God was up to something big, something new.

The Creator was re-creating. The Redeemer was rescuing and restoring — like Jesus had just done with Jairus’ daughter and the bleeding woman in chapter 5.

Second, in verse 3, everything the hometown crowd says is factually correct!

  • Jesus was in fact a carpenter by family trade.
  • And although it’s perhaps a slur, or a reference to Joseph’s prior death, Jesus is in fact the “Son of Mary.”
  • He did in fact have siblings.
  • He was in fact from Nazareth.

So, what’s wrong with the hometown reaction? Let me focus on two things:

First, their reaction shows us that you can ask the right questions with the wrong attitude.

Sure, Jesus’ wisdom and mighty deeds should have persuaded them that God was up to something big, something new – and that they might have to change their lives because of it.

But instead, they ask their questions with incredulous skepticism:

Just who does Jesus think he is?

What right has he to say these things? To act this way?

We know who he really is. We watched him grow up!

He’s just one of us, a normal Nazarene.

Second, then, their reaction shows us that you can know the facts and miss the point.

In fact, sometimes, you can use the facts in order to miss the point!

You can miss Truth with a capital “T” by focusing on the lowercase.

That’s what they’re doing here. The scandalized hometown crowd is bringing up the familiar, comfortable aspects of Jesus’ existence to give themselves a way out from underneath Jesus’ powerful claims on them and their future.

After all, they don’t have to repent in light of the coming Kingdom of God if this “King Jesus,” what with his preaching and working wonders like some kind of prophet, is really just the homeboy handyman who’s out of his mind, right?

So, Jesus responds:

“A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.”

And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and healed them.

Citing a familiar proverb of the day — something close to “familiarity breeds contempt” – Jesus steps into a long tradition of rejected prophets — those sent by Yahweh to diagnose the sins of his people and point them back to covenant loyalty, but repeatedly rejected because of their intensely unpopular proclamations.

Hear the haunting words of 2 Chronicles 36(:15-16). Commenting upon the faithlessness of Judah, it says:

“The LORD, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place.

But they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord rose against his people, until there was no remedy.”

(…speaking there of the Babylon exile)

Friends, Jesus is the remedy! He is Yahweh’s true Prophet! He brings us back from exile. He is the King in the Kingdom of God, with dominion over demons, disease, and death! 

And yet, in the face of stubborn unbelief at Nazareth, Mark is willing to say that Jesus was UNABLE to so a mighty work there.

Sure, he healed a few sick people, but whereas elsewhere in the Gospels it is the crowds who marvel at the mighty words and works of Jesus, here he himself is STUNNED by their unbelief! 

Conclusion:

Sisters, brothers: You can know the facts, and miss the point. Because FACTS aren’t FAITH. 

FAITH is not merely intellectual assent to true propositions about Jesus. Look back at Mark 5, to Jairus and the bleeding woman!

Faith is about entrusting yourself, your entire life, to Jesus as your King – your only Hope, your only Lord.

When you hear “faith,” think “faithfulness.” Think “trust.” Think “loyalty.”

Faith is something absolutely necessary for a relationship to exist. This is true with humans, and it’s true with God.

Knowing the right things, having the Creed memorized backwards and front, is not the same as life-changing loyalty to Jesus Christ.

And, to be sure, faith cannot merely be produced by sheer force of will. We would be nothing but faithless were it not for God’s grace.

But faith does involve our wills, our entire selves. It is something we commit to. It is something that, by God’s grace, we participate in.

And it is something that can be rejected.

Now, there are some in the world who would be perfectly comfortable to come right out say “I reject and refuse Jesus as Lord.” Unbelief can take the form of outright opposition to Jesus. In the Gospels, we see this in those who want Jesus dead.

But that’s not the rejection Jesus receives here at Nazareth. And, my guess is, that’s not the refusal he receives from me, from you, either.

Because, see, we’re prone to the subtler (and therefore greater) rejection of Jesus by making him to “just one of us.” 

Now, don’t misunderstand me. Jesus was and is fully human. He doesn’t save us from a distance. He dove from heaven’s heights into the muck and mire of our sin-stained existence to bring us back to God.

But this salvation involves repentance. It requires turning away from our faithless pursuit of Sin and Death. And it requires the faithfulness of turning toward our faithful God.

Salvation does not require us getting back to God on our own efforts or merit, but it does entail complete and utter dependence on and allegiance to Jesus as King.

But, as we’ve seen, we can escape total allegiance to King Jesus if he’s “just one of us Nazarenes.”

Friends, King Jesus is not “just one of us“!

He has his own agenda of cosmic redemption. He has his own approach, which often appears upside-down to us, because it involves repentance and self-sacrifice, because it includes suffering on a bloodstained Cross before the triumph of the Empty Tomb.

King Jesus is not “just one of us“!

So the uncomfortable question stands: Are we loyal to King Jesus above all else? Or are we loyal to a “Jesus” we’ve made in our own image?

King Jesus is not “middle-to-upper-class-American-Jesus.”

Don’t get me wrong, he cares about the welfare of those around the world and those in this country more than we do. His agenda surely has implications for life here in the United States of America, and it very well might require the hard work of being faithful with many resources and possessions.

But, hear me:

King Jesus doesn’t just want to add a pearly gate to our picket fences. He doesn’t just want to stamp a Jesus-approved ticket to heaven on our pre-existent American Dream.

He wants us to crucify the American Dream!

He calls us to abandon our self-centered agendas of upward mobility, and instead to take up our crosses! To adopt his others-focused agenda of self-sacrificial love!

And just like it was for Jesus’ hometown crowd back then, our easiest way out of this required repentance now is to make Jesus’ message a little less demanding and his mission a little bit more like our ownuntil finally, faithlessly – though we may worship Jesus with our lips – in our hearts, we worship only ourselves.

Briefly notice with me that, in Mark 6:7-13, Jesus sends out his disciples to do what he himself had been doing: preaching repentance, casting out demons, and healing the sick.

King Jesus’ followers carry forward his mission. Do we?

Will we, in faith, entrust our entire lives in allegiance to him? No matter the changes? No matter the costs?

Will we refuse to make Jesus into “just one of us”?

King Jesus has dominion over disease, demons, and death. Does he have dominion over our dreams and desires?

By God’s grace — given to us in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ our Lord — By God’s amazing grace, may these things be so, may we follow him faithfully.

Amen.

The Hope of the Holy Innocents

(PDF: The Hope of the Holy Innocents)

Today is December 28 (2014) – just the third day since Christmas – a commemoration of what is often called “The Slaughter of the Innocents,” the killing of the baby boys of Bethlehem by King Herod.

The Church’s regard for this day as a feast day is quite early, going back to at least the fifth century. In the fourth century, Chromatius described these babies as the first martyrs of Christ – the first counted worthy to die on Christ’s behalf. Around the same time, St. Augustine claimed that these nameless victims, “whom Herod’s cruelty tore as sucklings from their mothers’ bosom are justly hailed as the infant martyr flowers, the first buds of the church killed by the frost of persecution. They died not only for Christ but in his stead.”

What if we knew the names of the victims of Herod’s infamous, paranoid rage?

What if the cries of Bethlehem took place today in Birmingham?

…For [REDACTED (NAMES OF BOYS IN CHURCH AGED TWO AND UNDER)] Continue reading “The Hope of the Holy Innocents”

My Sermon: Our Help

Hey internet: I was recently given the chance to preach at my church, St. Peter’s Anglican, on the Second Sunday of Lent. The sermon audio is now online. If you’ve got 23 minutes to spare, give it a listen

First, here are the passages

  • Psalm 121
  • Genesis 12:1-4
  • Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
  • John 3:1-17

Then, make sure to ignore my two seconds of speech from 16:35-16:37 in the audio, I departed from my notes — which ended at “Nicodemus then fades from the narrative,” (which he does in the passage at hand) — and said that Nicodemus apparently never gets it and never shows up again. As I was quickly reminded after the service, he does appear twice more in John’s Gospel. Oops! Next time I’ll stick to my notes and not make any extemporaneous comments about minor characters without thinking through the context first. 

Grace and Peace

~Josh

(Un)Righteous Anger? – Yoda, Jonah, Nahum, and Us

(TEXTS: Jonah 3:5-10; 4:1-11; Nahum 1:1-8)

INTRODUCTION

Image

A great green theologian of old claimed that anger is based on fear, that it leads to hatred, and results in suffering. And while I do not wish to disregard the wisdom of a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I would like to take a closer look at anger as discussed in Scripture, and to consider what makes certain instances of anger righteous or unrighteous, legitimate or illegitimate.

This is a question that has been on my mind throughout my final year at Cedarville University. After hearing of a few rumblings at the end of my Junior year, I left for the summer and got myself married. When my feet finally touched the ground at the beginning of term, my university felt like a battlefield. I heard that Michael Pahl had been “reviewed” and then fired over the summer months. Others were being reviewed to see if they really did toe the doctrinal line, or if they were guilty of mind crimes against the thought police. And things didn’t get any better from there.

I saw the havoc that the Cedarville environment was wreaking on my mentors, friends, and their families. My leaders got rid of and harassed beloved members of my community, and then deceptively refused to own up to their nefarious actions.

I got angry. I spoke up. And I was convinced that my anger was righteous. Others were less convinced.

Some stayed poignantly and painfully silent throughout the chaos. Others repeatedly gave platitudes that everything was OK, that we were obligated to trust our leaders, that to question their actions was inherently disrespectful. And some from this latter group met my kind of anger with their own frustration and anger that I dared to criticize their beloved Cedarville.

I’d love to say that I met this opposition with nothing but grace and equanimity, but that wouldn’t be true. I frequently lashed out against these types of people – when they sent me long messages to accuse me of causing unnecessary dissentious strife, or when they parodied us student activists as complete morons with nothing better to do than cook up conspiracy theories.

My university’s behavior was sickening, but these people’s behavior was infuriating. I couldn’t comprehend how they could overlook the suffering I was witnessing and try to protect people who were clearly hiding the truth. So, at times, I lashed out in frustration. And I am convinced that my anger was unrighteous. But what’s the difference between these two types of anger?

Continue reading “(Un)Righteous Anger? – Yoda, Jonah, Nahum, and Us”