Tuesday, December 20, 2011

the supernatural conception(s)


And so what exactly is Christian formation? Here’s my definition.

Christian formation is the Spirit’s work for forming Jesus Christ inside of us, which is our destiny as God’s image bearers.

That’s it! Christian formation is about Christ being formed inside of us. And so notice, Christian formation isn’t limited to a class, nor is it about doing something – it’s about the spiritual renovation of our insides. As the 2nd century theologian Iranaeus put it, out of his boundless love, Christ became what we are to make us what He is. In our words, we far too often forget the second part of the Christmas message. God became man – that’s the first part; but God became man for a purpose; so that we might become more like God. That’s the second part of the Christmas message, and what I’d like to talk about this morning.

After all, that’s what today’s Gospel is all about; Mary saying “yes” – Mary saying yes to God who wants to form Jesus Christ inside of her – right? Now, I’m not saying that today’s Gospel is merely a metaphor, or that it didn’t happen. Of course it happened. But the point of my sermon today is that it happens – that as unique as Mary’s supernatural conception was, it’s at the same time normative for the Christian life. And so as Jesus Christ was literally formed inside of Mary, the point of our faith is to have Jesus spiritually formed inside of us. And that’s what Christian formation is about; saying “yes” like Mary did to a God who wants to form Jesus Christ inside of us.

And what I see in today’s Gospel is a reliable, threefold pattern that can shed some light on how Christian formation actually works. And that pattern can be stated as follows: God visits us, God favors us and we respond by saying yes.

First, God visits us. God found His way to Mary; it wasn’t Mary who found her way to God. And of course the same is always true of us. You see, Christianity is not a set of teachings that will enable us to climb the ladder to visit God. It’s the good news that in Christ God has climbed down the ladder to visit us. As the author of 1 John puts it, “in this is love not that we loved God but that He loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” It is not we who visit God. It is always God who visits us.

C.S. Lewis was once asked by a group of his colleagues at Oxford about the uniqueness of Christianity. “All religions present ethical challenges. Other religions have stories of virgin births and miracles of gods walking the earth. So what,” they sneered, “makes Christianity any different?” “What makes Christianity different?” Lewis asked rhetorically before giving his one word response. GRACE.

Christianity is about grace. It’s not about us trying harder, or about us doing better, or about us changing the world. It’s about a God that freely chooses to visit us and heal us and save us. Christianity is about grace. God visits us.

But second, God favors us. And trust me when I say that there is nothing more difficult to believe, and at the same time nothing more necessary to believe, than this. God favors us.

It’s difficult to believe because our hearts, and sometimes other people, are always condemning us. We feel small and flawed and sinful and broken and so we come to church and hope that God will accept us. But the good news of the Gospel isn’t that God accepts us. I “accept” paying taxes. I don’t want to pay them, but I’ve got to. That’s what it means to “accept” something and far too often I think we assume that God feels the same way. “I don’t want to forgive them, but Jesus died so I’ve got to.” But notice, that isn’t what the angel tells Mary. “Greetings, favored one.” “Don’t be afraid, you have found favor with God.”

Brennan Manning, who’s one of my favorite authors, tells the true story of an Irish priest who stumbles upon a peasant praying by the side of the road. And so the priest, who’s impressed, says to the peasant, “You must be really close to God.” And this is how that peasant responded. “I am, because God is very fond of me.” You see this peasant knew what Mary did – that he had found favor with God.

How sweet would life be, how many problems would disappear, if we only believed that? If we believed that God is fond of us –not that we’re forgiven, or accepted, or tolerated – but that we are all the apple of His eye.

And so does the God we imagine only favor the right, the respectable, the religious, and the rule-keepers? Because God’s intention in visiting someone like Mary was to demolish that idea. You see in Mary’s culture no one was favored less than an unwed, childless, teenage girl. And God came to her and said, “I choose you. I favor you. Not because your good – but because I am. Not because you’re worthy, but because the Most High will overshadow you and Christ will form within you and that – that will make you worthy.”

God doesn’t just accept us. In Christ, he favors us, loves us, dotes on us, and embraces us. He calls us son. He calls us daughter. There is nothing more difficult, but at the same time nothing more necessary, to believe than this – that we, us! – have found favor with God.

Now, to the extent that we know that, we will respond by saying yes. You see a mature Christian is someone who lives their life with Mary’s words carved into their heart. “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And the spiritual word for this is submission. Submission begins the moment we acknowledge that God is incredibly invested in how we live, that our need to control things never turns out well, that when God forbids us to take the forbidden fruit it’s because He wants us to be happy, and that the only way to find our life is by losing it. You see what Mary did in today’s Gospel is something God asks us to do every single day. This is how C.S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity.

The first job each morning consists simply in shoving [all your hopes and wishes for the day] back; in listening to that other voice. We can only do it for a few moments at first. But from those moments a new sort of life will be spreading through our system: because we are now letting Christ work [inside of] us. It is the difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye that soaks all the way through. (Mere Christianity, 198)

In other words, submission is about saying “yes” to God – not with our lips, but with our lives. And so for example, every time we pray, read scripture, or sit in contemplative silence, we submit God. Every time we feed the poor, befriend the friendless, or greet the stranger, we submit to God. Every time we refrain from judging, show others mercy, or forgive someone who has hurt us, we submit to God. And we do this not in the hope that God will favor us; but in the knowledge that in Christ He already does; because God is incredibly found of us all.

Now, I know that Christmas is a week away, and you have a lot on your mind. It’s a busy time. I also know that in the coming year your rector will ask you to engage in Christian formation in a much deeper way than you have in the past, and a lot that is already underway. In fact, Josephine led an excellent class this morning. And so here’s what I’d leave you with as the 25th approaches.

God became like us for one purpose only: so that we could become more like Him. You see what happened to Mary in the physical sense must happen to us in the spiritual sense – there must be a supernatural conception. Christ himself must grow inside of us. The goal is to be able to say with St. Paul, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Because there is a difference; between us trying to climb the ladder to be with God and us knowing that He climbed down to be with us; between trying to earn God’s favor and knowing that we already have it; between controlling, which leads to death, and submitting, which leads to life.

There is a difference between paint, which is merely laid on the surface, and a dye that soaks all the way through. The point of our faith is to have Jesus Christ soak all the way through.

Christian formation is the Spirit’s work for forming Jesus Christ inside of us, which is our destiny as God’s image bearers.

It still happens. Mary said “yes.” The question I leave us with today is, “will you?”

Tuesday, December 13, 2011



“Rejoice always; give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

A good friend of mine dressed up as a Puritan for Halloween a couple years back. Now, at first I was disappointed. Halloween costumes in my opinion are meant to be scary and so if you don’t have fake scars, fake teethe, fake moles, or fake blood – in my opinion it just doesn’t count. But I have to say she played the part of the Puritan perfectly. She had no make-up, no flashy clothes, but most importantly, no smile. She didn’t laugh the entire night. Her goal was to look completely joyless.

Now, actually like the Puritans and think the costume was a caricature. But it is true - Puritans aren’t really known for being the life of the party. And historically speaking, a lot of Puritans thought laughter was evil. In fact, I heard one man was sentenced to three days in jail for smiling during his baptism. Why? Because the way of Jesus, they thought, was really, serious business. It meant frowning in this life to secure a smile in the next one.

Now, I think a lot of Christians are heir to this legacy. Christianity, we’ve heard, is about doing our duty. It’s about rolling up our sleeves and even stuffing the deepest desires of our heart to serve a much more noble purpose. The problem is that none of this meshes with Paul says in today’s reading from 1 Thessalonians. “Rejoice always.” Paul says. “Give thanks in all circumstances.” “This is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Now, I have to say, living a joy-filled life is a challenging thing in today’s world, and there are a lot of reasons for this but I’ll go ahead and name three.

1. It’s impossible to be joyful if we’re preoccupied with ourselves. You see what John the Baptist acknowledges in today’s Gospel is actually pretty profound: “I am not the Messiah.” In other words, there’s a direct correlation between humility and joy. And when I use the word humility I don’t mean thinking less of ourselves – I mean thinking of ourselves less. I mean thinking more of God. You see joy is not something we can manufacture for ourselves. It’s the fruit of Jesus Christ being formed in us, which can’t happen if we’re preoccupied with ourselves.

2. It’s impossible to be joyful when we’re preoccupied with things. Psalm 1 actually says a lot about this when it compares a happy person to a tree that’s planted by streams of water. And I have to say I love this image. Because – there’s a difference between being a tree that draws on a nearby stream and a tree that depends on the fickleness of the outside rain. In other words, there’s a difference between drawing on inner resources – that is our own intimate relationship with God – and depending on outside factors that are completely outside of our control. And so think of the things that tend to make us happy – the size of our bank account, positive feedback at work, a clean kitchen, no one we love being sick or depressed, our football team winning, a new car, you get the idea – these are all like “the rain.” And sometimes they fall down on us steadily, and sometimes they don’t come at all. But the psalmist’s point, and the consistent witness of the Bible, is that we can’t depend on any of these things for our sense of happiness and joy. But like the tree in psalm 1 we have to be rooted; we have to be drawing on something that isn’t subject to changing seasons, something greater than our circumstances; and of course that Something is God and the stream is Jesus Christ.

3. It’s really hard to be joyful if we’re always trying to avoid the things in life that hurt. We get rid of our pain by seeking distractions. We get rid of our insecurity by eliminating risks. We get rid of our disappointment by downplaying our deepest hopes. But here’s the paradox of Christianity. Joy isn’t found in avoiding our cross. It’s found in embracing our cross with Jesus and for Jesus. As Paul puts it in Romans, “suffering produces perseverance and perseverance character and character hope.” In other words, pain isn’t good. But God is. And part of God’s redemptive work is to help move deeper into our pain in order to make us more like Himself. And becoming more like God is what increases our capacity for joy.

And so joy is impossible if we’re preoccupied with ourselves, or with things, or with trying to get rid of our pain. And yet Paul commands us. “Rejoice always. Give thanks in all circumstances. This is will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” And so the question is, how do we do it?

1. To rejoice always, we have to properly understand God. Because we won’t get joy if we don’t first understand that God is the most joyful being in the entire universe. In fact, it’s important to know that God lives a very interesting life. After all, when God created the heavens and the earth, He didn’t casually remark, “It’ll have to do.” No. God rejoiced when he saw that it was very good. And when God created you, He didn’t say “it’ll have to do.” God rejoiced because he saw that you are very good. And that’s because joy is foundational to the character of God. You see the sorrow of God, kind like the anger of God, is just God’s temporary response to our fallen world. But all sorrow and anger will forever be banished from God’s heart on that future day when Jesus sets our world is set right. And so if we’re going to learn to rejoice always, this is something we have to understand about God. Joy is foundational to the character of God.

2. To rejoice always we have to be obedient to Jesus – the incarnation of our joyful God. And Jesus came as the joy-bringer. Or to quote the Gospel of John, Jesus came so that our “joy may be complete.” You see, it’s not that we have to be joyful before we begin to obey Jesus. Joy is just what happens to us as we move deeper and deeper into a life of obedience. Joy isn’t found in taking the forbidden fruit, as if God were stingy and holding out on us. And so if God tells us not to do something, God’s not holding out on us. That just wouldn’t be consistent with God’s character. This is how the great hymn writer John Newton put it, “Our pleasure and our duty, though opposite before; since we have seen his beauty, are joined to part no more.” In other words, Jesus didn’t come to stuff the deepest desires of our heart; he came to grant them. The point of losing our life is to find new life in Him.

And so as you go out into the world this week here’s what I’d leave you with. Practice the discipline of celebration. Allow the Spirit to draw you outside of yourself. Dance. Sing. Be goofy. Live. Love. Lighten up. Christ has died, Christ has risen and Christ will come again. God wins. You and I are free.

You know that’s what Advent is about, right? Don’t be confused by the purple – it’s not primarily about repentance like Lent; it’s about joyful expectancy. It’s about reminding ourselves that God has already become human in the person of Jesus Christ, that his resurrection has set the new creation in motion, and that a day will surely come when he returns to make all things new. And that’s something worth celebrating.

After all, God built us to celebrate. I mean, what’s the Trinity but one big celebration? Remember, the angel that appeared to those shepherds abiding in the field didn’t just bring good news. The angel brought “good news of a great joy.” And that’s what Advent is about. It’s not just about our Lord coming to meet us. It’s about us coming with joy to meet our Lord.

And so let’s go back to my friend’s Halloween costume – “the Puritan.” There is nothing scarier, nothing more frightening, than a person who never smiles; a person who never laughs; a person who’s completely joyless – especially when they do so in the name of Jesus. Of all people, we Christians should be the life of this party that’s happening on earth.

“Rejoice always. Give thanks in all circumstances. This is will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Prepare the King a Road

A sermon on Mark 1:1-8




Formation is about discipleship; it’s about the renovation of our heart and the transformation of our character. And so my job’s is to help every single person in the Diocese of Texas move from a life lived in service to self to a live lived in service to God: not very hard. And yet – this transition is what Christianity is about. As C.S. Lewis put it, “the Church exists for nothing else but to draw men to Christ, to make them little Christ’s. If they are not doing that, all the cathedrals, clergy, missions, sermons, even the Bible itself, are simple a waste of time.” And I would agree. The sole purpose of the church is to form disciples – to draw people closer to Jesus so that Jesus can make them more like Himself.

Which is actually what today’s reading from Mark is all about – the way we become disciples of Jesus. Now, I bet that’s not what you thought. You thought today you had to sit through the prologue so that next week you could hear the good stuff. No, today’s the good stuff; it’s Mark’s thesis statement where everything that’s important is introduced.

And here’s how I’d summarize Mark’s thesis: Our God and our King is coming. Let our hearts prepare him a road.

You see the first thing Mark wants us to know is what following Jesus will entail – and that’s a trip to the wilderness. Where did Moses meet God in the burning bush? The wilderness. Where did Jacob wrestle with God? The wilderness. Where did the people of Israel encounter God? Not Egypt, but at Mount Sinai, in the wilderness. And in today’s Gospel Mark tells us where we must go to encounter our God and our King: the wilderness.

Now we hear the word wilderness and we think “state park.” When we go to the wilderness we bring water and a tent and shelter and beer and firewood and food and an I-pod and you know, we really “rough it!” Or maybe we hear wilderness and we think Bear Grylls – about learning to survive ourselves.

But in the Bible, the wilderness is opposite; it’s a place where life can’t be sustained naturally. There’s no bread, no water; absolutely nothing natural you can draw on to survive. You see in the Bible’s wilderness, our achievements don’t matter; our money doesn’t matter; our skills don’t matter. Even MacGyver’s out of luck in the wilderness. And yet this is precisely the place our heart must go, Mark says, to meet Jesus.

And so if we are serious about our faith, there’s a question we need to ask. Have we met Jesus in the wilderness? Because it’s tempting, and it’s easy, to just pack Jesus up next to the beer and the I-pod and to have him join us at the state park; or think that we can make it just fine ourselves in life but that Jesus is on standby to help. It’s tempting to think Jesus is like a really good vitamin – something we need to get on with our day. And what Mark is saying in today’s Gospel is “no.” “If we want to meet Jesus, we’ve got to go to the wilderness; where if we want water, it’s going to come from the rock; where if we want bread, it has to come like manna from heaven.” In other words, the point of today’s is to remind us of something important: that we cannot provide for ourselves, that apart from God we are grass, and that the very things we’ve built our lives on – our looks, our spouse, our achievements, our status, our money, our intellect, whatever – they’re fine and wonderful things, but if they’re our foundation, it’s sand.

You see Jesus doesn’t invite us into the wilderness to polish the foundation we’ve spent our live building. He invites us to the wilderness to give us a new one.

And that’s why John begins his ministry by baptizing people, and says it’s a precursor to Jesus’ baptism of the Holy Spirit. Now you may have heard that baptism was already a common practice in Jesus’ day. I did some homework. It wasn’t. The tradition before John had to do with self-washings, ablutions and immersions, and most scholars are too lazy to point out the difference. And so as a symbol for their need to be cleansed, Jews would wash their hands before entering the temple. And if a Gentile wanted in, the rule said they had to pour water over their entire bodies, you know because they were really unclean. But here’s the difference. Before John you always washed yourself. The tradition was self-washing and self-immersion and self-cleansing and what Mark is telling us today is that with Jesus the self-washing done!; that to be a disciple of Jesus we have to let him baptize us, not just with water, but with the very Spirit of God.

The Christian Gospel is not just another self-washing technique. It’s a trip to the wilderness to be washed by Someone greater; and that our job is to prepare for that. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” he writes, “make his paths straight.”

Now, a better translation of that word “way” is actually road. “Prepare a road for the Lord,” or for the King – that’s a bit more true to the Greek, which is important to note because a king – back in the day – would send his messenger ahead of him, like Jesus did John, to announce to a city that the King was planning to visit. And the custom of the day was to prepare a new road for that King; you know to support the full entourage that would no doubt be traveling with him. Well, here’s the thing. Making a straight path, building a new road, this was a burden. I mean, people had to stop what they were doing to clear rocks, uproot weeds and level the ground. It was a burden, and frankly meant to be; it was the king’s way of lording his power over others. And so by beginning his Gospel by announcing a King’s arrival and by saying that it’s time to build him a road, Mark’s audience would have started to question – is this King also going to enslave us? Is preparing to meet him just another burden?

Now, I don’t know about you but I’ve asked that question before. If I really try and obey God’s will, won’t I be missing out? I mean, if God says don’t eat fruit from that tree, the only way to really be free is to take it, right? To be our own King? And of course from the very beginning of Mark’s Gospel we’re told that this King is different – that his arrival is “good news.”

I mean, you know that’s what the word Gospel means, right? It doesn’t mean good advice or good life strategy, the word Gospel means good news, which is why when Mark uses the word road or way from here on out – and he uses it a lot – it’s always a reference to Jesus’ road through the wilderness all the way to the cross. This King’s not coming to enslave. The King comes to set us free.

And so that’s Mark’s thesis statement: prepare the way of the Lord, a new kind of King has arrived, and so clear Him a path in the depth of your heart so the King can set you free.

You see, that heart preparation is what Advent’s about, what formation is about, what this Church is about, and what our life should be about. Because if Jesus is the King Mark’s talking about, it is a silly thing to invite Him into our life as a self-help coach or an encourager or as anything other than a liberating King worthy of our devotion in every aspect of our life. And in some sense that’s the question Mark’s putting before us. We can baptize ourselves, or Jesus can baptize us. We can build our own foundation, or we can come to Jesus for a new one. We can go to the state park or we can go to the wilderness but what we cannot do, once having heard the news, is fail to decide.

And while it is a decision that we all have to make, if we’ve only made it once, I doubt we ever made it at all. Because our King has come and is coming; and although we weren’t worthy to stoop down and touch his sandals, the good news of Christianity is that He’s made us worthy. Because our worthiness is not found at the end of some road that we must walk for ourselves; but at the end of a road that the King’s already walked on our behalf.

And so when it comes to our hearts, let us clear the rocks, uproot the weeds and level the ground. Let’s Pray. Read Scripture. Serve. Love. Bless. Share. Give. Fast. Celebrate. Be silent. Rejoice. Decide. Transition – from a life lived in service to self to a live lived in service to God; because the only reason the church exists is to make us into little Christ’s.

Our God and our King is coming. Let our hearts prepare him a road.