Archive for December, 2012

Sermon 12-23-12: “Miracle on 34th Street”

December 31, 2012


Miracle on 34th Street is a masterpiece, by far my favorite Christmas-themed movie. Oddly enough, it’s also a strictly secular movie: Everyone talks about the “true meaning of Christmas” in the movie, but no one mentions—you know—the true meaning, as in the Jesus-lying-in-a-manger meaning. That’s O.K., though, because the movie is practically an allegory for Christian faith. This sermon explores many Christian themes just below the film’s surface, including doubt and skepticism, the nature of faith, and Christ-like love.

Sermon Text: Matthew 13:44-46

The following is my original sermon manuscript, with film clips inserted in the proper order.

Our movie begins on Thanksgiving, with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Before the parade starts, a man who calls himself Kris Kringle tries to give the department store Santa tips on how to be a more convincing Santa.

“Don’t you realize there are thousands of children lining the streets, waiting to see you?” Kris asks this intoxicated department-store Santa. “You are a disgrace to the tradition of Christmas. And I refuse to have you malign me in this fashion!” Imagine being hired to play Santa, only to find yourself face-to-face with the real Santa. Would you be proud of your work or embarrassed by your work?

In 1 Corinthians 11:1, the apostle Paul says, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” In Philippians 4:9, he writes, “Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me.” You want to be like Jesus? Paul says. Imitate me, because I’m imitating him successfully. Do the things that you’ve seen me do, because I’m doing what Jesus would have you do. Wow! Would I have the confidence to say that about myself? Would you? If not, why not? What would we need to change in our lives in order for us to make these bold claims for ourselves? Read the rest of this entry »

Being the presence of God to others

December 27, 2012

dowd_columnAt the moment, the most viewed and emailed article at the New York Times website is a Maureen Dowd column, “Why, God?” guest-written by a friend, a Catholic priest named Kevin O’Neil. Props to Dowd for featuring such an appropriately Christian subject for a column at Christmastime!

I like having the “right” answers—I even become sinfully proud, at times, of having the right answers. So take it from me: Father Kevin gets it exactly right when he says that, when it comes to comforting people who are suffering, we don’t have to have the right answers, or the right words. What we need, instead, is to be there for them, which doesn’t require a seminary degree, pastoral training, or expert knowledge of the Bible. Anyone can do it. As he writes:

When my younger brother, Brian, died suddenly at 44 years old, I was asking “Why?” and I experienced family and friends as unconditional love in the flesh. They couldn’t explain why he died. Even if they could, it wouldn’t have brought him back. Yet the many ways that people reached out to me let me know that I was not alone. They really were the presence of God to me. They held me up to preach at Brian’s funeral. They consoled me as I tried to comfort others. Suffering isolates us. Loving presence brings us back, makes us belong.

“Christmas 42”: A new Christmas song

December 26, 2012
Getting ready for my Christmas sermons at my favorite coffee shop.

Getting ready for Christmas this year at my favorite coffee shop.

I finished this Christmas song yesterday—Christmas Day 2012. I called it “Christmas 42,” thinking this was my 42nd Christmas (I’m 42). My wife immediately pointed out, of course, that this is actually my 43rd Christmas, since I was less than one year old at Christmas of 1970. Whatever. My brain doesn’t work that way. So it’s “Christmas 42,” as in Christmas at age 42. 😉

I don’t know how to write a proper Christmas song, and, despite my best efforts, all my songs sound the same. But I hope you’ll appreciate that the part with the bells after I sing, “Here comes the Christmas part.” A Christmas song ought to have bells!

Christmas Eve Sermon 2012: “A Christmas Kind of Faith”

December 24, 2012

A young parishioner made this for me during my sermon on Sunday.

Sermon Text: Luke 2:1-20

Click here to listen to an .mp3. The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Since I became an adult, I have been afflicted with recurring bad dreams. They’re mostly related to academic insecurities. For example, in one of these dreams, I get a call one day—out of the blue—from the principal of my high school. I’m sure he’s long since retired now—and, in fact, my high school is now a middle school—but in my dream it’s still a high school, and he’s still the principal. He informs me that there was a mistake in the record-keeping back in 1988 when I graduated, and, as it happens, I’m going to have to go back to high school in order to receive all the necessary credits I need to earn my diploma. And, oh, by the way… If I don’t go back to high school, they’re going to call Georgia Tech and call Emory University and have them take away the three degrees that I have between those two schools. I’m pretty sure my high school can’t really do that, but in my dream they can.

Some of you are like, “I would love to go back to high school—knowing what I know now! Youth is wasted on the young!” And I know what you mean. It might be fun to go back if I could be 17 again, but in my dream I have to go back as a 42 year old! That would not be fun.  Read the rest of this entry »

“And I’m dreaming about how my life could have been/ If only, if only, if only…”

December 24, 2012
Back in the mid-'70s, when Stonehill was a pioneer of Christian rock.

From a mid-’70s album cover, back when Stonehill was a pioneer of Christian rock.

As if to balance my cheerful last post, here’s the saddest Christmas song you’ll ever hear: Randy Stonehill’s wonderfully bleak “Christmas at Denny’s,” from his 1989 album, Return to Paradise. The song has always been a favorite of mine. “I don’t need no miracle, sweet baby Jesus/ Just help me find some kind of hope in my heart.”

(I’m not a fan of this homemade video montage, but it’s the only YouTube video of the song I found. Plus the sound quality is good. Purchase the song here.)

Reflecting on God’s faithfulness on the eve of, well, Christmas Eve

December 23, 2012
This beautiful angel was printed on a Christmas card. Who painted her? I love her ambiguous expression.

This beautiful angel was printed on a Christmas card. Who painted her? I love her ambiguous expression.

I’m sitting here now, writing words to my Christmas Eve sermon, and feeling, well… a small measure of that good old Christmas spirit. This morning I concluded my sermon series on classic Christmas TV specials and movies with my favorite holiday classic, Miracle on 34th Street. The whole series, all four sermons—not to mention the great music by the Vinebranch Band, the food, the festive atmosphere—couldn’t have gone better—even though, at the beginning of each workweek, I heard that nagging, skeptical voice in my head: “What are you possibly going to say for 25 minutes about this particular movie?”

In spite of my self-doubt, I don’t think I’ve had a more enthusiastic response to anything I’ve done in my eight years as a pastor. Isn’t that funny?

It is funny… and you know what else? It’s also God. God is so incredibly faithful. I mentioned in my sermon today the challenge of unanswered prayer, but what do I really know about it? I mean, I certainly have unanswered prayer, of course. But who am I to complain? God has been nothing but good to me in every way. He’s done nothing but prove his generosity and mercy and love to me, time and again—in spite of the ways I often fail him or fall short.

Don’t misunderstand me: Christian faith is hard. Anyone who’s heard me preach for any length of time knows that that’s a recurring theme of mine—and it will recur again in tomorrow’s Christmas Eve sermon. Faith is hard… but totally worth it. As Fred Gailey said to his girlfriend Doris Walker, after she accuses him of going on an “idealistic binge” in his legal defense of Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street: “Don’t overlook those lovely intangibles. You’ll discover that they’re the only things that are worthwhile.” I couldn’t agree more.

By the way, here’s the Christmas Prayer that I offered during tonight’s service (which followed the singing of “O Come All Ye Faithful”):

Almighty God, our Emmanuel, God-with-us: We have come here to adore you this evening. For us and for our salvation, your beloved Son Jesus—God from God, light from light, true God from true God—left his home in heaven to pitch his tent here on earth. And though he is rightly the king of the universe, he humbled himself, taking upon himself the form of a servant—born in a barn, with a feeding trough as a bed—who willingly shouldered the burden of our sin on the cross, setting us free from its slavery and enabling us to find forgiveness and eternal life.

Though the first Christmas was some 2,000 years ago, the dangerous world into which he came is one that we so often recognize as our own—a world wracked by senseless violence, corruption, injustice, murder, and self-inflicted pain. Yet it is also the same world that you love with an incomprehensible love, the same world that you are working even now to save, the same world that one day you will redeem, renew, and restore.

This world, to which the sign of the manger points, is one in which swords will be beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, where we shall study war no more.

In the meantime, we, your Church, have work to do. Make us faithful as we bear witness to your love. Empower us to imitate Christ and follow his example. Inspire us to work for justice and peace in this world as ambassadors of your Son, in whose name we pray. Amen.

Miracle on 34th Street and “those lovely intangibles”

December 21, 2012


This Sunday in Vinebranch, I’m preaching on my favorite Christmas movie, Miracle on 34th Street. In the following scene, Fred Gailey, a lawyer, has decided to defend his friend Kris Kringle against being institutionalized by the State of New York. His fiancée, Doris, who’s very pragmatic, doesn’t like the idea at all.

Watch this scene and ask yourself, “Will this preach?” Off the top of my head, I’m thinking of Jesus’ parables of the Pearl of Great Price and the Treasure Buried in the Field… I’m also thinking of Matthew 6:19-21 and Jesus’ words about storing up treasures in heaven, “where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

Sermon 12-16-12: “A Charlie Brown Christmas”

December 19, 2012


This sermon, based on the Christmas TV classic A Charlie Brown Christmas, challenges us to reconsider our culture’s often vain pursuit of happiness. Charlie Brown, as he says in several places, isn’t happy—even though he knows supposed to be, especially at Christmas. But who says we’re supposed to be happy all the time? After all, being faithful to Jesus will sometimes mean being unhappy. When this happens, we can take courage from the examples of faithful heroes such as Elijah, Mary, and Joseph.

I also find in Charlie Brown’s love for the little green Christmas tree an analogy to God’s love for us, demonstrated so fittingly at that first Christmas.

Sermon Text: 1 Kings 19:1-4, 9-13; Luke 2:8-20

The following is my original sermon manuscript with video clips inserted in the proper order.

[ACBC01.m4v. Time: 2:01]

“Something must be wrong with me,” Charlie Brown tells Linus. “I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.” Then he tells Lucy, “I know I should be happy, but I’m not.”

Here’s my question: “Who says?” Who says you’re supposed to be happy—at Christmas or any other time of the year? Even the founding document of our country says that we only have a right to pursue happiness. Whether we achieve it or not is anyone’s guess.

But… You might object. “We’re Christians. Aren’t we supposed to always be happy? Isn’t something wrong with us if we’re not happy.” To which I say, “No.” As your pastor, I’m giving you permission to be unhappy—even at Christmastime. And there is nothing necessarily wrong with your faith if you aren’t happy. In fact, sometimes being unhappy comes with the territory. Read the rest of this entry »

About Bart Ehrman’s Newsweek cover story

December 19, 2012

newsweekcoverIt must be either Christmas or Easter, because one of the major newsweeklies is featuring New Testament historian Bart Ehrman in its pages. You know Ehrman—the former self-described fundamentalist-turned-agnostic. Several years ago, he was the go-to Bible guy for the New Atheist movement. His defection from the ranks of Christian believers gave him extra credibility in their eyes. (Never mind that traffic on that particular highway flows in both directions.)

Still, Ehrman proved to be an unreliable witness for the prosecution. For example, his book-length defense this year of the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth (a proposition, by the way, doubted by no serious historian) rankled many erstwhile skeptic friends. And, truth be told, he doesn’t say anything about the virgin birth in Newsweek that any mainline Protestant seminarian isn’t exposed to in the first semester of New Testament class. There’s nothing new or startling here—only a rehash of 200 years of modernist thinking.

Heck, if I didn’t know better, I’d say Ehrman was just another friendly liberal Christian, like so many others in academia. For him, the virgin birth is pious legend communicating theological rather than historical truth—you know, if you go for that sort of thing.

On the other hand, how else is Ehrman going to come across in Newsweek? The editors must imagine that they have more than a handful of Christian readers, and heaven knows they need all of them they can get!

What bothers me is not that Ehrman’s point of view is represented, but that his is the only point of view represented, as if people who actually believe in the virgin birth are members of the Flat Earth Society. There are plenty of other seriously good New Testament scholars and theologians—including, for example, that German one who now heads the Roman Catholic Church—who could happily go toe-to-toe with Ehrman on the facts. Do they still employ reporters at Newsweek, or is every article now an op-ed piece? Under the rules of journalism, a reporter would have represented these other voices.

I’m no historian or Bible scholar, but I spot a couple of problems with Ehrman’s point of view. First is his insistence that evidence within the Bible itself doesn’t count—that we need independent corroboration. This is a double-standard. Modern historians who study the ancient world accept single-sourced evidence all the time. From what I’ve read, if we required independent corroboration before we believed anything in the ancient past, we would have to be skeptical of much of what we otherwise take for granted.

Besides, except for Mary herself—who we know for sure was a member of the early church—who else could have possibly witnessed the Annunciation and reported what happened? Were those shepherds abiding in the fields supposed to call the New York Times or something?

Also, to what end would the early church invent a virgin birth account? The premise behind the so-called “pious legend” theory is that Matthew and Luke (or the people behind their traditions) invented the Christmas story in order to sell the idea that Jesus was the Son of God—that they were adding an extra layer of divinity to Jesus to really hammer home the point. Look—here’s a rather literal way in which Jesus is God’s Son: God impregnated Mary!

To which I say: As if!

As if people living in the first century were really gullible. As if the ancients didn’t know the facts of life. As if they didn’t know that babies were only conceived by a human father. The premise behind the pious legend theory is obviously wrong. Why else does Matthew report that Joseph wanted to divorce Mary? Because this naive first-century carpenter of course had no trouble believing his fiancée when she told him about her pregnancy? Hardly! The New Testament writers knew that they weren’t helping their cause by including a difficult-to-believe story about Mary’s conceiving a child without a human father. Moreover, given that the Church could have arrived at most of its theological commitments about Jesus without the virgin birth (both the Gospel of Mark and John have no Christmas story, and Paul makes only a passing reference to it), why introduce a new problem into the story unless—oh, yeah—you happen to believe it’s true?

No, what’s beneath Ehrman’s point of view, I fear, is the chronological snobbery that people in the ancient world were dummies, and now we know better. I don’t buy it.

But Ehrman isn’t a believer, so what else is he going to think? What about those of us who are believers? Is it really so difficult to believe in the virgin birth? As with most miracles in the Bible, if we already believe that a good God created this universe—which requires a rather large intervention in the physical world (without which, obviously, there would be no physical world)—is it really so much harder to believe that God intervened in Mary’s life in this way? If so, why?

In his wonderful new book on the first Christmas, Pope Benedict puts his finger on the answer. Regarding the virgin birth and the resurrection, he writes:

These two moments are a scandal to the modern spirit. God is “allowed” to act in ideas and thoughts, in the spiritual domain—but not in the material. That is shocking. He does not belong there. But that is precisely the point: God is God and he does not operate merely on the level of ideas. In that sense, what is at stake in both of these moments is God’s very godhead. The question that they raise is: does matter belong to him?

Naturally we may not ascribe to God anything nonsensical or irrational, or anything that contradicts his creation. But here we are not dealing the the irrational or contradictory, but precisely with the positive—with God’s creative power, embracing the whole of being. In that sense these two moments—the virgin birth and the real resurrection from the tomb—are the cornerstones of faith. If God does not also have power over matter, then he simply is not God. But he does have this power, and through the conception and resurrection of Jesus Christ has has ushered in a new creation. So as the Creator he is also our Redeemer. Hence the conception and birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary is a fundamental element of our faith and a radiant sign of hope.[†]

Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives (New York: Image, 2012), 56-7.

Celebrating Christmas in the wake of Newtown

December 17, 2012

A high school classmate messaged me on Saturday, asking what she promised was not a snarky question: How will I preach a “normal” Christmas sermon in the wake of Newtown? It’s a good question. There are parents like myself who are trying, perhaps in vain, to protect our younger children from the news—certainly the grisliest details. More deeply, though, she wondered how we can celebrate in the face of this kind of tragedy. (To make matters worse, did she see that I was preaching on A Charlie Brown Christmas? Would a children’s cartoon not be hopelessly beside-the-point at such a time? If you attended my church service yesterday, I hope you saw that it wasn’t.)

Regarding this deeper objection, however, I reminded her first that Christians ought to be the most realistic people on the planet about evil—its reality, its pervasiveness, its intractability. This is the very evil, after all, that God sent his Son into the world to defeat. That this victory remains elusive to us is also no surprise: the world in which suffering, death, and evil will no longer exist is discontinuous with our own. Our faith is eschatological: Christians don’t share the burden, under which our modern-minded friends labor, that our world is or should be making “progress.” As David Bentley Hart said in response to the Indian Ocean tsunami many years ago, our Christian faith sets us free from optimism and teaches us hope instead.

We celebrate Christmas in the wake of Newtown because Christmas teaches us hope.

Besides, at the very center of the Christmas story is another Newtown: King Herod, hearing reports of a rival king born in Bethlehem, sent soldiers there to murder every boy two-years-old and younger. The first Christmas proclaims hope in the midst of tragedy and suffering and unspeakable evil. Try naming any Christmas since then in which that wasn’t the case.

In yesterday’s pastoral prayer—after referring with great circumspection to Newtown—I directed our attention to a future beyond our present world, when “the blood of all your beloved children will be avenged.”

Avenged. Some Christians bristle at the idea of God’s vengeance. Isn’t that an Old Testament idea? they ask—as if they never read Revelation, not to mention the four gospels. If so, I would point them to something that Yale theologian Miroslav Volf, who lived through the civil war in the former Yugoslavia in the ’90s, wrote in Exclusion & Embrace. He said that those Christian traditions (Anabaptists, for instance) most committed to non-violence and pacifism are also most comfortable with the idea of God’s vengeance. We should learn from them, he writes.

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.

In yesterday’s sermon, I said the following: “Among other things, Christmas means that there will come a day when the Herods of the world will face the justice they so richly deserve.”

It’s perfectly appropriate, as we reflect on the events of last Friday, for us to look forward to that day.

Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 304.