Text Study for John 20:19-31 (Part Three)

We come, at last, to “Doubting Thomas.” That title is a misnomer. Jesus does not mention the “doubt” of Thomas. He commands Thomas to stop being “unbelieving.” To move from unbelieving to believing in John is not about intellectual assent. It is rather to accept and embrace a whole new way of seeing. It is being born from above, as we read in John 3.

Thomas is one of a number of witnesses who demonstrate that Jesus’ resurrection appearances are not merely wish-fulfillment. Thomas does not expect Jesus to be alive again. Instead, he had earlier committed himself to go with Jesus to “die with him.” The argument that the stories of resurrection appearances are reports of wishful delusions ignores the content of those reports. Wright notes, “and actually none of Jesus’s followers believed, after his death, that he really was the Messiah, let alone that he was in any sense divine” (Surprised by Hope, page 61).

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“The call to resurrection faith occurs for people of later generations,” Craig Koester writes, “when the message about the risen Jesus is made effective by the risen Jesus. This,” he suggests, “is the dimension of Johannine theology that informs the story of Thomas” (page 70). The resurrection good news becomes credible and life-changing in the midst of genuine encounters with the risen Lord Jesus.

Thomas represents the readers of John’s Gospel in several ways, Koester suggests. We did not see the risen Christ on that first Easter. Instead, we have received the testimony of witnesses to those first appearances, and that testimony is found in John’s gospel. In that testimony we may discover that we too have encountered the risen Christ and may respond with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”

Seeing by itself does not guarantee believing, Koester notes. We are readers of John’s gospel “can be assured that those who have not seen Jesus are not disadvantaged but are as blessed as the first group of disciples” (page 72). Seeing always happens in a context and within a framework of belief in what is possible. In a very real sense, it’s not that we believe something when we see it. Rather, we often see something when we believe it.

Thomas “is one of those who will know the resurrection not through an Easter experience,” Sandra Schneiders writes, “but through the testimony of the church, ‘We have seen the Lord’” (2005, page 27). But Thomas insists, according to Schneiders, on clinging to a pre-Easter perspective, where he must be able to handle Jesus with his mortal senses. It is not the case that Thomas “doubts” anything. That word is not used in the text, regardless of traditional labelling. Thomas refuses to believe. That’s what he says. “I will not believe unless…

John’s gospel spends some time and rhetorical effort on the demands Thomas makes. The other disciples share their testimony with him, but Thomas is recalcitrant. He uses, according to Daniel Wallace, an emphatic, negative subjunctive construction (can also accompany a future tense, as is the case in John 20:25). Wallace notes that this “is the strongest way to negate something in Greek.” The construction is especially used to negate something that could happen in the future (Wallace, pp. 468f.).

Thomas is quite certain – not doubting at all. He is quite certain that unless his standards of evidence are met fully and without exception, he will definitely not believe. Thomas insists on experience rather than witness as the reason for his believing. He wants to impose pre-Easter categories on the post-Easter reality.

But there’s no going back after Easter. In the post-Easter cosmos, it is witness that makes the experience of Jesus possible. “What he misunderstands,” Schneiders writes, “is that it is not their experience [that of the other disciples] which he must accept in place of his own, but their witness upon which his own experience must be grounded” (page 32). This is the situation of every believer since.

There is a tone of brutality in Thomas’ demands here. “Unless I can thrust my finger into the place of the nail and thrust my hand into his side,” he declares, “I will certainly not believe” (my translation). Thomas represents the invasive, penetrative, conquering approach to knowledge as objective facts which must meet my specifications and must be under my control. Of course, any God worth having would not submit to any such external and objective standards of validity. God is God, and I am not. And that’s the good news.

When Jesus stands again in their midst (please see the description above), Thomas faces the glorified and resurrected post-Easter Jesus. He is challenged to evaluate the wounds of Jesus in a new way. “The wounds of Jesus are not a proof of physical reality,” Schneiders writes, “but the source of a true understanding of the meaning of Jesus’ revelatory death” (page 27). Jesus invites Thomas to “bring” his fingers into Jesus’ hands and thrust his hand into Jesus’ side.

Jesus imitates Thomas’ demand for rough handling. He magnifies that demand with a clear command. “Do not become unbelieving but rather continue believing!” (my translation). Thomas doesn’t touch Jesus. Rather, he is touched by Jesus. This isn’t about being convinced. It’s about being converted. Easter isn’t about new information. Easter is about New Creation. Thomas receives the gift of new eyes. He sees the wounds of the Risen Jesus in a new way.

Alan Lewis helps us to understand that Thomas is not a skeptical foil to our heroic faithfulness. “He is not so much the slowest, and most doubtful of the contemporary disciples,” Lewis writes in Between Cross and Resurrection, “as the final and definitive eyewitness of the church’s good news for every generation: that Jesus, born in flesh, crucified with finality, and buried in godforsakenness and godlessness, has been raised by God the Father” (page 104). The conversion of Thomas represents the culmination of the journey from a pre-Easter world to a post-Easter world.

Wright describes this as the “epistemology of love.” This is the only way of knowing which can grasp the resurrection of Jesus. “What we are called to, and what in the resurrection we are equipped for, is a knowing in which we are involved as subjects but as self-giving, not as self-seeking, subjects,” Wright suggests, “in other words, a knowing that is a form of love. The story of Thomas,” he observes, “encapsulates this transformation of knowing.” (Surprised by Hope, page 239).

Now, does this mean that there can be no connection between knowing on the basis of evidence and knowing on the basis of faith? Wright pursues this question in the latter pages of The Resurrection of the Son of God. On the one hand is the skepticism of “objective” history which remains unconvinced in the absence of compelling evidence. On the other hand there is a certain Christian piety which regards any desire for evidence as suspect and as a demonstration that faith is lacking. Will the twain never meet?

Wright points to the Thomas story. In fact, Jesus encourages Thomas to access the physical evidence he desires. And Jesus mildly critiques Thomas for having such a rigid need for physical proof. Evidence can lead to exploration. Openness to new possibilities can lead to new insights. Both ways of knowing can be true and in fact supplement one another. That seems to be part of the encouragement we receive in the Thomas story.

In the end, however, this is not about investigation but rather about Reality itself. And it is about how I will engage with the Reality, if at all. “Saying that ‘Jesus of Nazareth was bodily raised from the dead’ is not only a self-involving statement; it is a self-committing statement,” Wright suggests, “going beyond a reordering of one’s private world into various levels of commitment to work out the implications. We cannot leave a flag stuck on a hill somewhere,” he writes, “and sail back home to safety” (The Resurrection of the Son of God, page 717).

Instead, we too meet the risen Lord Jesus, wounds and all. Those wounds are not embarrassing remnants from a former existence. “The living one is Lord and God,” Alan Lewis writes, “just because he is manifestly none other than the frail and fleshly creature whose final agonies and injuries had emptied him of life and reduced him to a corpse” (page 105). John tells us a story about the Word made Flesh – flesh that can be wounded, flesh that can die, and the Word which lives among us full of grace and truth.

Lewis deserves a lengthy quote to finish here. “From first to last, then, the identity of Jesus is that of one in whom God’s presence and splendor are coexistent with their very opposite – with the finitude of creaturehood, the shame of suffering, the finality of termination, the nothingness of sepulture, the relationless nonpresence of extinction. In him,” Lewis concludes, “the eternal, creating, and resurrecting God of heaven and the perishable and finally perished man of Nazareth are one” (page 105).

References and Resources

Koester, Craig. “Hearing, seeing, and believing in the Gospel of John. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1021&context=faculty_articles.

Lewis, Alan E. Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday.

Schneiders, Sandra Marie “The Lamb of God and the Forgiveness of Sin(s) in the Fourth Gospel.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73/1 (January 2011): 1-29.

Schneiders, Sandra M. “Touching the Risen Jesus: Mary Magdalene and Thomas the Twin in John 20.” CTSA Proceedings 60 (2005), 13-25.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics.

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Text Study for Luke 6:27-38 (Part Three)

“And just as you want that people should do to you, do to them likewise” (Luke 6:31, my translation). Interpreters have worried for a long time whether Jesus’ formulation of the “Golden Rule” here is rooted in a less-than-altruistic reciprocity ethic. Is Jesus telling his disciples that they should only give what they get? If so, how does that fit with the anti-reciprocity sentiments elsewhere in the Sermon on the Plain? And, in addition, how does that fit with the command to love our enemies (full stop, no reciprocity required)?

Is following Jesus about more than giving in order to get? And if so, what’s the “more”?

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Perhaps you will have time to read Alan Kirk’s fine 2003 article on enemy love, the golden rule, and reciprocity here in Luke 6. On the off chance that you have other things to do, I’ll try to summarize and reflect on that article here. It has been cited in most of the commentaries on this passage and is worthy of our time and analysis.

“Reciprocity is in fact basic to the ethic that Luke 6:27-35 seeks to inculcate,” Kirk argues. But it will take some unpacking to get to that basic fact. Kirk reviews several recent attempts to sort things out in this regard, leading up to the work of Hans Dieter Betz. “Betz’s work on this passage suggests,” Kirk proposes, “that resolution of its problems lie precisely in attention to reciprocity dynamics.”

Kirk notes that reciprocal exchange is a feature of all social relations, including and especially friendship. “Accepting and reciprocating benefits maintains a state of mutual obligation,” he notes, “essential to the social bond between partners in the exchange” (page 674). This obligation, in a friendship, is not some sort of self-interested transaction, but it is experienced as an obligation all the same. Kirk notes that “overt rejection or failure to reciprocate…signals…breach of relationship or protraction of alienation” (page 675).

When we think about reciprocity, we can add some nuance to a general sense of self-interested tit for tat. Kirk notes the work of scholars, especially Marshall Sahlins, who point to three “genres” of reciprocity: general, balanced, and negative. General reciprocity is marked by “open-ended, generous sharing, typically construed in the language of unconditional giving” (page 675). This is the kind of reciprocity that is central to friendship. The appropriate response is not a gift in return but rather gratitude.

General reciprocity is also the kind of giving which elite patrons offer to their (would-be) clients. This reciprocity comes out of an abundance of resources on the part of the patron. “The patron-client relationship, though unequal,” Kirk writes, “is universally articulated in personalized terms as a bond of friendship or fictive kinship, the two domains in which general reciprocity operates” (page 677). General reciprocity is the domain of grace and gratitude.

Balanced reciprocity “features overt concerns for equivalence of exchange, with obligations spelled out and fulfilled within set time frames” (page 677). This sort of reciprocity is the typical quid pro quo which marks transactional relationships – the “you scrub my back…” school of ethics. Negative reciprocity is basically stealing. In its “most extreme mode,” Kirk suggests, negative reciprocity is “retaliation: reciprocating injury with injury” (page 677).

Central to Greek reciprocity ethics, Kirk continues, is the notion of “charis,” a word we would often translate as “grace.” This term “designates both the concrete favors that friends do reciprocally for one another and the gratitude shown in return” (page 678). These favors are voluntary, not coerced. “Thus charis is the vital principle of friendship itself,” he continues. The benefits are conferred by friends for the sake of friends and not for the sake of a return on investment.

“Enemies,” Kirk suggests, “by definition unlikely to return favors, and with whom the relationship is already defined by a history of episodes of negative exchange, are beyond the pale of benefaction” (page 679). In Greek ethics, only stupid and incompetent people would give benefits to enemies. “The operative moral axiom in Greek reciprocity ethics,” Kirk writes, “was that one helps friends and harms enemies, and that it is just…to do so” (page 680). Of course, accidents and misjudgments can happen, but these are not laudable exceptions to the rule.

Kirk moves on to assess Luke 6:27-35 in light of Greek reciprocity ethics as described so far. “Verses 27-29 depict instances of negative reciprocity,” he writes, “the form of exchange characteristic of relationships with one’s enemy” (page 681). Coercion, seizure and violence are marks and tools of negative reciprocity. “The programmatic command ‘love your enemies’ is immediately clarified by the exhortation to ‘do good’…to those who have inflicted injuries,” Kirk continues, “and this is followed by concrete examples of benefaction” (page 681).

The radical command comes in verse 30 – give to everyone, not just your friends. “In effect,” Kirk argues, “this alters the meaning of the exchange from confiscation to gift – in terms of our model, from negative to general reciprocity.” The blessings, prayers, offer of the other cheek, surrender of the shirt as well as the cloak, etc.: “these are stunningly liberal acts of general reciprocity, not abandonment of reciprocity in principle (page 682).

Kirk argues that the Sermon on the Plain remains within the framework of Greek reciprocity ethics while turning the whole system on its head. Verses 32-34 provide a list of “balanced reciprocity” behaviors and exchanges. These are not commended but rather are described as the bare minimum that any self-interested person might do. In contrast to that bare minimum, the teaching returns to love for enemies as the standard to which disciples are commanded to adhere.

Exercising general reciprocity even for enemies is precisely how God operates. Behaving in that way is the mark of those who are children of the Most High God. “Verse 35c depicts the divine benefactor displaying the stunning generosity possible only for elites with vast resources at their disposal,” Kirk writes. “The language of noble magnanimity that accompanies a benefactor’s distribution of benefits does not mean that such giving is disinterested,” he continues. “Rather, benefactors seek by this means to awaken gratitude, create social bonds, and thereby a devoted clientele” (page 683).

Therefore verse 35b “expresses general reciprocity in its benefactor-client dimension,” Kirk summarizes. “God’s benefits are freely bestowed. Though response is desired, the divine giving will not be contingent upon it” (page 684). God’s love is not conditioned on either the merit or the response of the recipient. Thus, the divine gift is “grace.” If it is grace, then “this principle, along with the divine paradigm supporting it, is extended to the benefitting of active enemies and the morally unworthy…” (page 684).

We don’t get to tell God who to love and benefit based on our behavior or our preferences. Nor does anyone else get to determine the gracious generosity of disciples toward those whom God loves indiscriminately.

With all that in mind, Kirk argues, we are now in a position to figure out how the “golden rule” fits into the larger context of the Sermon on the Plain. “While far from ruling out calculated hope for favorable response,” Kirk writes, “the rule limits permissible actions to those one would wish visited upon oneself, with one’s actions not necessarily predicated upon the previous behavior or prospective reaction of others” (page 685). We are as free as God to bestow grace on others, regardless of their behavior toward us. And this grace can only be beneficial to others by definition.

The golden rule, then, is rooted in the alternative social vision that undergirds and is expressed in the Sermon on the Plain. It expresses “the foundational, all-pervasive social norm of reciprocity” and functions as the mechanism that “stimulates the kind of interaction necessary to bring into existence the envisioned social relations” (page 686).

You might want to consider Miroslav Volf’s great book, Free of Charge, as you reflect on our text. Volf argues that our giving imitates God’s giving or it ceases to be giving. “When do we rightly give?” Volf asks. He suggests three primary situations.

We give rightly when we delight in someone. We are just coming off the Valentine’s Day holiday, which, at its best is rooted in this sort of giving. We give rightly when others are in need, as we will see in the Lukan Parable of the Good Samaritan. And we give rightly when we help others give. “In all three types of situations,” Volf concludes, “we give because we seek the good of another. In all three, we imitate God.”

The conclusion of this section of the Sermon is, therefore, almost logically necessary. Be merciful, as your Father in heaven is merciful. That’s the truest definition of Christian freedom there is.

References and Resources

Channing Brown, Austin. I’m Still Here. The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Butler, Octavia. https://legacy.npr.org/programs/specials/racism/010830.octaviabutleressay.html. A Scott Simon interview with Butler related to this essay can be found at https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1128335.

Carter, Warren. “Love your enemies.” Word and World 28.1 (2008): 13.

Henrich, Sarah. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/seventh-sunday-after-epiphany-3/commentary-on-luke-627-38-2.

Kirk, Alan. “‘Love Your Enemies,’ the Golden Rule, and Ancient Reciprocity (Luke 6:27-35).” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 122, no. 4, Society of Biblical Literature, 2003, pp. 667–86, https://doi.org/10.2307/3268071.

Volf, Miroslav. Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace. Zondervan, 2005.

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Sunday Sermon Upcoming

How far would you go to save someone you love?

Sit with that question for a few moments. How far would go to save someone you love? Would you go to the next city, the next state, the next country, the next continent? Probably. Would you mortgage your home, lose your job, max out your plastic, sell your plasma? I would. Would you alienate family and friends, throw your reputation to the wind, break the law? If necessary.

How far would you go to save someone you love?

For many of us, this isn’t a hypothetical question. You have perhaps had to answer this question any number of times. You may have endured endless conversations with physicians who outline treatment options and quote statistical norms. You may have raged at administrators whose hands are tied by petrified policies and procedures. You may have attacked ossified institutions that argue against your dear one as an exception. After all, if we do that, where will it end?

All the while, the life of your loved one is leaking into oblivion. The future of your loved one drains into despair. Every answer is no. Every door slams shut. Everyone is so, so terribly sorry. And none of it makes a lick of difference.

Now we might be ready to hear today’s gospel story. There’s this royal official whose son is on the verge of dying. How far does he go to save his son? The trip from Capernaum to Cana isn’t exactly to the ends of the earth. But it is two days’ journey, even by horse and wagon. That’s two days away from his son’s bedside, not knowing whether his son still lived. Those two days might as well be two centuries for that frantic father.

When our oldest son was eleven months, he had sudden seizures. The local hospital couldn’t figure it out. They sent him by ambulance to a bigger hospital. Usually that trip took about ninety minutes. But this was anything but usual. A blizzard was beginning, and the roads were treacherous.

We followed a snowplow most of the way. The trip took almost three hours. In the days before cellphones, we had no idea if the ambulance was on the road or in the ditch. Those were some of the longest hours of our lives. Those hours were punctuated by prayers and torn by tears. I have some small notion of what that two-day trip was like for the frantic father.

I imagine you know as well. To love anyone is to risk having such a terrifying experience. The fact that the father even undertook such a trip is evidence of his desperation. Everyone and everything else had failed.

The father heard rumors and reports about this Jesus guy. He seemed to have a knack for healing. Folk healers were a dime a dozen in those days. Perhaps the father had tried several already. But what if this guy was the real deal? How far would you go to save someone you love? On a trip to one more healer, it seems.

The rumors and reports came from Galilean pilgrims newly returned from the Passover in Jerusalem. This Jesus character had stirred things up a bit – with some wonder working and civil disobedience. He came back to Galilee through Samaria rather than taking the usual detour around that unclean territory. This wasn’t a stellar resume. But when your loved one is dying, who cares about such details?

The father finds Jesus in Cana. He begs him to come down to Capernaum. A crowd gathers, hoping for some fireworks. Jesus replies to the father, but his first words are for the rubberneckers. “Unless you all see signs and wonders, you all will never believe.”

The father has no time for this theological debate. “Lord, would you please come down before my child dies?”

Pause for a moment as the drama unfolds. How far would you go to save someone you love? The frantic father is also a royal official – a person of power, privilege, position, and property. He is used to giving orders, controlling information, dictating terms. People come to him asking for favors and begging for help.

But not today. Desperate need flattens hierarchies. If my child is about to die, I don’t scan the social registers or research personal pedigrees. I will go to any height – or any depth – to get help for my child.

Jesus says to him, “Go. Your son lives.” That’s it. No hand-waving or incantations. No spitting or sighing or prancing or praying. Jesus is brief, not to mention brusque. Most astonishing, the man puts his trust in Jesus’ words and heads for home.

I would have balked rather than believed. If this isn’t on your schedule, or if it’s above your pay grade, Jesus, just tell me! Don’t put me off with some blue-sky promise. But the frantic father puts his trust in Jesus and heads down the hill.

We’d been on the road for about ninety minutes. We had cried and raged and prayed ourselves into an exhausted calm. We decided that our son had come to us as a gift from God. Nothing changed that. Whatever his condition, his location would not change. He was in Jesus’ loving arms now and always. After that, we drove on in silence.

I don’t know if that’s where the frantic father ended up. But I do know he entrusted the life of his son to Jesus. I do know that he put himself fully in Jesus’ hands, come what may. In the Gospel of John, that’s the definition of believing.

In his Large Catechism, Martin Luther asks a simple question. What is it to have a god? His answer is equally simple and simply profound. “A god,” Luther writes, “is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need.” In other words, a god is whatever or whoever we depend on in life and in death. “That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself,” Luther concludes, “is really your god.”

The frantic father trusts Jesus to be God. John’s Gospel wants us to know that this is the source of Life. Not just biological existence, but Abundant Life – with a capital “A” and a capital “L.” In John 20:31, we read that the signs in this book “are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have Life in his name.”

The man who trusted Jesus went about a day’s journey homeward. His household slaves met him on the road. They said, “Your child lives.” Some calculation revealed that the son recovered at the moment Jesus promised the healing. As a result, the man and his household entrusted themselves to Jesus.

I know that mixture of joy, relief and wonder the father felt. The little boy we sent off by ambulance in a blizzard – he celebrated his thirty-seventh birthday about a month ago. By the time we got to his hospital room, he was standing up, wanting to go home.

How shall we respond to this story in John’s gospel? Let’s rejoice with the father, but let’s also temper our celebrations. This isn’t about cheating death and then moving on. That little boy had a funeral at some point, even through Jesus rescheduled it. Even Lazarus –dead, smelly, and then blinking in the sunlight – even he had another funeral. Abundant Life is more than just delaying death.

The Christian good news tells of a God we can trust in life and in death. The gospel isn’t a primitive terror management strategy. The gospel is about who we are and whose we are in life and in death. In John 1:12 we hear that “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” Or, as Paul puts it in Romans 8:39, nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In addition, look at the frantic father. He probably wasn’t a Jew. He was more likely an agent of the Roman oppressors. If he was wealthy and privileged, he achieved that status on the backs of people like Jesus and the folks in Cana. He wasn’t a solid citizen or model disciple. Yet, he begged, he got, and he trusted. Our human categories and criteria are always too small for God’s grace. God loves every bit of the cosmos and will do everything to save us.

I also invite you to see the father as an image of Jesus. This is the season of Epiphany. How far does God go to save those God loves? From infinity to mortality. From heaven to earth. From deity to humanity. From Creator to Cross. How far does God come to save those God loves? Into the very center of our hearts.

So, we might think a moment of the distances we’re called to cover. Racial divides. Wealth gaps. Class chasms. Gender differences. Ability divergences. Political divisions. How far will we travel to walk alongside those God loves? That’s the ministry question every day…

Let’s pray.

An Early Lamb

Luke 2:1-20

“But Dad, you HAVE to come to the Christmas program. We have all the best parts this year!” Holly planted her ten-year-old fists on her hips. Her lips curled into a prodigious pout. And she stamped her foot three times on the linoleum of the kitchen floor to punctuate her point. “Kevin is the narrator. Cindy is the angel, Gabriel. Jeremy is the littlest shepherd. And I get to be Mary this year instead that stupidhead, Becky Jennings. It’s Christmas Eve. You just HAVE to be there!”

Dad was still in his brown, insulated coverall and five-buckle snow boots. He tipped his head to the left, squinted his eyes tight shut, and scratched the three-day-old beard on his right cheek. If they were going to be on time for the Christmas program, Dad had ten minutes to transform himself into a clean-shaven and respectable Christmas pew-sitter. “Kids, you know how much I want to be there. But one of the ewes down in the barn is going to have a lamb tonight. She’s having some trouble already, and I think things are going to get worse. Besides, the wind chill is forty below outside. If I don’t get that lamb some place warm, that poor thing will be dead in ten minutes. I have to stay here. I’m sorry.”

It wasn’t a satisfactory explanation, but it was the end of the conversation. Dad headed back to the barn, and everyone else went to the car. Dad had started the 1967 Ford Fairlane wagon a half-hour ago, so it was toasty warm when Mom and the kids got in. Dad’s explanation had not appeased Holly in the least. She flung herself in the back seat to punish the vinyl for the unfairness of life. It groaned under the abuse.

Kevin sat in the front passenger seat and kept his own counsel. Last Christmas he had arrived at a startling insight. For a few years, Kevin had noticed that the family was always ready unusually early to leave for the Christmas Eve program. That was especially odd because they were never early for anything. Mom and Dad bundled them all into the car—caps and mittens, boots and scarves, snow suits and presents for Sunday School teachers.

Dad would climb behind the wheel. Then Mom would say, “Dear, I forgot the flashlight (or the iron was still on or the Christmas ham needed to be turned down or some such thing).” Dad would grump and moan and head back into the house while everyone else waited in the car. Some years ten minutes passed before he returned. All hope of being early had vanished. But strangely, Dad always came back to the car humming and smiling.

Kevin knew from long experience that when they returned home from the Christmas eve program, Santa’s deposit of presents would be safely under the tree. The cookies they put out for Santa were eaten; the celery for his reindeer consumed, and Santa’s milk glass was empty. It was a wonderful miracle of perfect timing on the part of Old Saint Nick. Kevin had wondered for a couple of years about the coincidence. Then last year, when the dome light in the car came on, he noticed a slight milk mustache on Dad’s upper lip. The whole thing looked very suspicious.

Kevin was unwilling to draw any firm conclusions—no sense burning one’s bridges unnecessarily. But he did see a correlation, and it made him very excited tonight. There was some kind of connection between Dad’s behavior and the number of presents under the tree. Maybe the presents this year were so numerous or so large or so complicated that Dad couldn’t take time for the Christmas program. That had to be the explanation for Dad’s strange behavior. It was way too early to have any lambs anyway. Kevin hugged himself with anticipation. There was going to be a big haul this year.

The Christmas eve children’s program was, for the most part, uneventful. Kevin’s narration stumbled only once. Rather than noting in Luke 2:2 that Quirinius was governor of Syria, Kevin pointed out that some fellow named “Queerness” had taken the job. Giggles were suppressed throughout the sanctuary. Holly stuck her tongue out at “that stupidhead, Becky Jennings” a few times when she thought no one was looking. Naturally, everyone was.

Cindy’s tinsel-covered halo crept down to the bridge of her nose as she said her lines. But the words were crystal clear: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And Jeremy brought all the dignity his four-year-old frame could muster to the bathrobe and tea towel conscripted to be his shepherd’s costume. Each child received the evening’s payoff from a deacon at the door—a brown paper bag filled with assorted nuts, chocolate peanut clusters, peanut brittle and candy canes. Children began trading for their favorites almost before they got out the door.

Cindy wore her halo and Jeremy his shepherd’s towel all the way home. Holly still basked in the glory of virgin motherhood. But Kevin was wandering in visions of new bicycles, miniature race cars, remote controlled airplanes, a new chemistry set, his own television—enough dreams to occupy someone for a lifetime of Christmas eves.

Mom pulled the car under the tree next to the chicken house. Before she could stop him, Kevin was out of the car and headed toward the house at a gallop. He shed his snowy shoes on the back porch, dropped his sack of candy on the kitchen table, and burst into the living room. As he passed the couch, he froze in astonishment. Not one thing had changed since they left. Not a package, not a stocking, not so much as an explanatory note had appeared. Kevin sprinted back to the kitchen. Not one bite out of the cookies or one sip of milk gone. This was a disaster of epic proportions!

At that moment, Dad stepped into the kitchen carrying a cardboard box. He had a hand towel wrapped around his face. The towel was dotted with chunks of ice and flecks of straw. The sleeves on his coverall were frozen dark and stiff with what could only have been blood. His coverall and jacket were unzipped to his navel. Kevin could see that Dad had spent most of the evening stripped to the waste, on his knees, next to an old ewe, in a frigid barn. There was no Christmas eve deception here. What Kevin noticed most, though, was Dad’s eyes. They were red and puffy—like he had been crying.

Mom and the other kids struggled through the door. “I’ll get the hair dryer and some towels,” Mom said. It was the standard routine. A frozen little bundle of wool and hooves was placed in a box on the furnace register. The old hair dryer—only rarely used for its stated purpose—was placed on a chair, pointed down toward the box and turned on high heat. A little milk replacer was mixed up in a saucepan and warmed on the stove. Then all waited to see if the verdict would be death or life.

After all was in place, Mom noticed the pain on Dad’s face as he sat on a kitchen chair in a flannel shirt, white long johns and wool socks. “Are you all right, dear?”

Dad sighed. “I should have sent that old girl off to market last fall. But it was that little Cheviot—my favorite, I guess. That white face and the pointy ears and the tiny feet—you know, she was one of our original flock. She produced a lamb every spring just like clockwork. I guess she got to be kind of like an old friend. But I should have retired her. Having a lamb was just too much for her this year. Her calendar was all screwed up. I guess that’s why she was so early, She couldn’t take the strain. She was suffering terribly. After the lamb was born, I had to shoot her to put an end to it.” A trickle of tears ran down each of Dad’s cheeks.

There was a shuffling sound from the cardboard box that said “Van Camp’s Pork and Beans” on the side. Then a small bleat came from the box. In a few moments two tiny ears appeared above the rim of the cardboard. Then the small lamb stumbled a bit as he shook off the burlap wrappings that had kept him warm in his first moments on earth.

The kitchen had witnessed this small miracle dozens of times before. But something else came to pass on this night. Cindy spoke in her clear and sweet seven-year-old voice. “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” Cindy paused for a moment, as if to allow all to absorb the profundity of her announcement. The lamb insisted on further attention by trying to crawl out of the box. Cindy spoke again, “Daddy, I think we should call him ‘Good News.”‘ And so the lamb was named all the days of his life.

Christmas returned to normal after that. They all ate chocolate covered cherries and peanut butter kisses. Mom took pictures until she ran out of flash bulbs. Dad stayed up to watch Midnight mass from New York City and to complain about how the Catholics made it all too big of a production. In the morning, the presents were under the tree, the cookies were eaten, the celery was consumed and the milk was gone. There was no bike or racetrack or chemistry set, but it was nice anyway. And by noon, Good News was in a pen out in the chicken house—the first of several orphans from the latest lambing season.

Often, years later, Kevin thought about that Christmas—how it was more special than so many others were. An early lamb came into a hostile world. He was engulfed in cold and darkness and the threat of death. A mother gave herself for him and wondered if that threat would follow his steps. Wrapped in burlap feed sacks and carried in a pork and bean box, his prospects were poor. Only a scruffy and overly sentimental shepherd saw the birth as anything approaching glad tidings. Yet the early lamb stood up and shook off the wrappings. He stretched out to feel the warmth and the touch of light on his face. And he walked into a world just as hostile as the moment he was born. But it was a world where he could live and give life.

Leave it to Cindy to see through the details and to name that lamb “Good News.” For Kevin the reality was inescapable. Jesus came into the world as that early lamb—the product of an untimely birth, wrapped tight against the cold, threatened on every side. But shepherds came to worship him. Who else would know better the power of this miracle? Who else could better appreciate this good news?

An early lamb—the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world—an image of that good news had stood among them that night in the kitchen. He was the lamb who came at an unexpected time, at God’s time, to bring life and light to all the world. He started out in a box and ended up on a cross. Yet the world could never be the same again. His name, too, is ‘Good News.’ It took an angel to tell them about it. It took a shepherd to adore him. May that early Lamb be born in us today. Amen.

Another Perfectly Good Christmas

John 1:1-14

He really didn’t like Christmas very much at all. The man didn’t hate this time of year. That would have taken far more energy, passion and commitment than he was willing to spend on anything. He wasn’t opposed to the season in the way that, for example Dickens portrayed old Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. That, too, would have required a personal stand and individual effort that he just couldn’t muster up at this time of year. No, for him, Christmas was more of a dull ache or irritation. Christmas was a fingernail cut too short. It was elastic on his underwear that had lost its vigor. Christmas was a pebble in his shoe, a rattle in the dashboard. He didn’t like it. But he could hardly generate the initiative to do much about it.

His name was Hilbert Neugebauer. He was the custodian at the old downtown church. That probably didn’t help his Christmas mood any–what with taking chairs down and putting them up for fourteen different Christmas teas, the interminable vacuuming after children’s programs and concerts, after parties and receptions, after luncheons and meetings. Worst of all, it was his job to put out the decrepit old Nativity scene. Reuben and Mildred Broadbuckle had made and donated the set nearly forty years ago. Apparently no one had the gumption or the nerve to suggest that the decaying plywood characters should be replaced by more state of the art Christmas decorations. So year in and year out, the old custodian put up the same characters in the same places at the same time. He just didn’t like Christmas very much at all.

The Nativity scene itself was fraught with tradition and required behaviors. December 6th, St. Nicholas Day, was the unwritten deadline by which the scene must be erected on the church lawn. Only once in his years as custodian did Hilbert miss that deadline. His tardiness was still the topic of conversation when things got a little slow around the church coffee pot in December. The positioning of the characters was also sacrosanct. Mary was to Joseph’s left. The donkey had to be to the right of the sheep. The shepherds were downstage left. The wise men were upstage right. The star was fastened to a strand of number nine wire connected to the left arm of the wooden cross that served as a background to the whole scene. The angel was fastened in the same way to the right arm of the cross. The angel was required to be exactly eighteen inches higher than the star, to reflect how Reuben and Mildred understood the divine order of creation. Hilbert thought it was all a royal pain in the…oh, never mind.

It was Monday and there was a new phrase on the church sign. It was a Bible verse, although the custodian couldn’t quite place where it came from. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The old man could always tell when the pastor was feeling overworked and harassed. Those were the times when the pastor resorted to a Biblical quotation rather coming up with some clever and pithy saying. It took far less effort to just whip out a few choice lines from Holy Writ than to invent something that might actually be novel and stimulating. The old custodian grumbled to himself, “None of it ever changes. The same crummy nativity set, the same tired Bible verses, the same silly Christmas carols–why don’t we just phone in this whole Christmas thing and save a lot of trouble!”

Hilbert just didn’t like Christmas very much. Part of it was that for years he had been particularly sensitive to illnesses and deaths around Christmas. Working for the church for as long as he had, he was pretty much in the know about all such events in the community. He remembered when the Johannsen boy was driving a tractor and pushing some snow, not two days before Christmas. The boy got a little over zealous with the tractor and rolled the rig right on top of himself. The custodian remembered the big funeral on that bitterly cold December 26th. Then there was Agnes Plueger, their next door neighbor–finest pumpkin pecan pie the world has ever tasted. And there she was, in the ground on December 16th of 1972. Every time something like that happened, he would sit by the table at home and cluck knowingly, “Another perfectly good Christmas, all shot to…” But before he could finish that dire phrase, his wife would shoot him a glance that stopped all speech in the room. Anna Neugebauer had no patience for his swearing and would have none of it in her house, especially when the subject was Christmas.

It was all smug speculation until that first Christmas six years ago when she was no longer there. She hadn’t felt quite herself for a few days, and he nudged her a few times about seeing the doctor. But she was sure that it was just a little indigestion. Then, on December 17th of 1993, she was gone. No goodbyes, no final tearful embraces, none ofthat–just alive when he crawled into bed that night and gone the next morning. Even now he could remember standing next to the bed after futile efforts to wake her and thinking to himself, “Another perfectly good Christmas all shot to…” Even now, out of love and respect for her, he could never bring himself to finish that awful phrase.

He was thinking about his Anna the second Monday in December as he performed his annual cleanup of Nativity Scene vandalism. Another of the unwritten traditions connected with the Nativity Scene was some creative, but very secretive, remodeling of the Nativity scene by the senior high Bible class. Sometimes the vandalism was quite creative. About ten years ago Hilbert came to the church one morning to find the Mary and Joseph characters stacked on top of the manger. Attached to Joseph was a note that read simply, “Luke 2:16.” Hilbert looked it up and read these words, “So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger. ” Other years were not quite to clever. Unfortunately Joseph had clearly distinguishable fingers on his right hand. Hilbert had lost track of the number of times he had to replace all but the middle finger on that hand. Once, Mary appeared made up with glaring purple nail polish, false eyelashes, ruby red lips and half a pound of rouge on her cheeks. That, Hilbert thought, was quite a commentary on the Virgin Mother.

This year was one of the least creative efforts. The baby Jesus was up in a tree limb. The sheep were placed in morally questionable relationships to one another. Joseph had a pack of Camels in his hand and Mary had an open bottle at her feet. Hilbert grumbled, “Even the Christmas vandalism isn’t what it used to be.”

That night disaster struck. The vandals returned to complete the job. A lack of creativity turned into an expression of malice. Some lighter fluid and matches did the trick. In a few moments the ancient, tinder-dry figures had flames licking at their faces. The wind picked up, and the flames moved to the ancient wooden cross behind the Nativity. There wasn’t enough fire to reach the church or damage any buildings. But the Nativity scene was a total loss. Worse yet, the base of the cross, fragile from years of rot and moisture, gave way. Fortunately no one was injured, because the twenty foot cross toppled into the middle of the ruined Nativity, flat on the snow.

Hilbert’s phone rang in the early morning. “Do you know what time it is?” he shouted into the phone before he even looked at his alarm clock. “It’s 6:30 a.m., Hilbert.” The pastor was on the other end. “You better come to the church. Someone burned down the Nativity.”

Oh, the curses and imprecations, the fantasies of dismemberment and execution that went through the old custodian’s mind as he drove to the scene of the crime! He saw Joseph, blackened from the chest down. He looked at Mary, paint curling up toward her chin. He saw scorched shepherds, singed wise men, charred camels and stumps that used to be sheep. He began to clean up the mess. He muttered to himself, “Don’t know what difference it all makes. Nobody seems to care anyway. Christmases come and go and nobody notices. Should have probably burned this stuff years ago. Oh well, what can you expect. Another perfectly good Christmas all shot to…well, you know.”

The one item that survived the fire in good shape was the sign, the one with the Bible verse–The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. Maybe that’s what did it. Maybe it was just plain a miracle. Who knows? At any rate, in a day or two, there was a Nativity resurrection in front of that old church. First there was a shepherd that looked suspiciously like Herbie Husker. Then there was a wise man who bore a striking resemblance to the Smoky the Bear figure down at the fire station. Mary and Joseph seemed to have had a previous existence as manikins in the J.C. Penny store that closed a year or so ago. The donkey was a first cousin to a pinata character that Lillian Dornbusch kept in her parlor. The new camel was apparently a fraternal twin to Jefrey Giraffe from Toys’ R’ Us. The new manger might have been liberated from the county fairgrounds, although no one was talking. The star seemed to be a spotlight from Andy’s Auto Repair down the street. The angel still had on his Superman cape, but somehow that seemed to work into the scene. The baby Jesus had done time as a Cabbage Patch kid, and he looked relieved to be working a new gig. Finally, some considerate person put a small fire extinguisher in the new manger as a precaution against future adventures.

Hilbert just shook his head as the gifts continued to appear. To one side that wretched sign kept broadcasting its message: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. In the middle of it all lay the cross–singed, blackened and broken, but still there. And as he worked and grumbled and moped, he was suddenly reminded of another perfectly good Christmas all shot to…well, you know.

It was a Christmas with more than its share of rough spots–a long trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a pregnancy of questionable origin, parents of impeccable credentials but with little credibility, a birth in a barn and a crib licked shiny by the tongues of a hundred cows. Yet, for all that, it looked awfully good for awhile. Angels, shepherds, magi–a cast of thousands to be sure. Songs of praise, words of wonder, treasures of great price–things were certainly looking up for the little boy and his family. A miraculous escape by night to a foreign country, a trip home to wondering relatives, years of growing in wisdom and stature and favor with God and people–the boy showed great promise. It was a perfectly good Christmas.

Then the inevitable shadow appeared. It was a shadow in the shape of a cross. That shadow lay across that perfectly good Christmas just like the cross lay across the makeshift Nativity scene. The little boy who had cried in that Bethlehem stable screamed from a Jerusalem hill, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” The twelve year old who debated fine points of theology with temple scholars whispered in agony, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” The young man who looked up to a heaven torn to shreds and heard the words, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased”–he groaned his final words, “It is finished.” This teacher and healer who made the lame to walk and the blind to see–he breathed his last and committed that breath to his heavenly Father. And he too was dead. Just like my Anna, Hilbert thought. Another perfectly good Christmas, shot to…well, you know.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. That sign just would not quit. Because here was something else. Here was resurrection. Here was new life where there had been only death. It was an act of foolishness, of stupidity, of irrational malice that burned down the Broadbuckle Nativity. How different was that from the sin, the death, the evil that had nailed Jesus to a cross so many years ago? Not very much, Hilbert thought. Yet, the Nativity refused destruction. The darkness took its best shot and lost. A new light shone forth from a tomb. What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people.

The makeshift Nativity scene stayed up all that Christmas season. After Christmas people decided to take up a collection and buy a new, respectable set of characters. The old wooden cross was retired and a new steel one was set in its place. The whole area was illuminated with a security light, and the tradition of Nativity scene vandalism became a subject of exaggeration and legend. But Hilbert always remembered that Christmas. After it was over he went to the cemetery to Anna’s grave, to talk to her like he did sometimes. He said to her, “You know, Anna, it was another perfectly good Christmas.”

In That Region There Were Shepherds

Luke 2:8-20

The Larson Chapel is a lovely stone building in the center of the Lautenberg University campus. The chapel once stood downtown, not half a block from the old county courthouse. Then a generous (and slightly loopy) alumnus decided that the chapel would look better at Lautenberg U. He bought the chapel and paid to have it moved stone by stone from the city square to the tree-covered campus. There Larson Chapel has stood for nearly a hundred years.

Albert Neugebauer was the Lutheran Campus minister at Lautenberg U. He belonged to old Christ Lutheran Church downtown. In fact, Christ Lutheran stood on the spot where Larson Chapel had once been. Christ was one of four “Christ Lutheran” churches in the city, so people affectionately called it “Christ on the Corner. “

The folks at Christ on the Corner had a special concern for Lutherans at Lautenberg U. It was historically a Roman Catholic institution. Members of Christ on the Corner were afraid some of their young folks might be infected with the alien Romish theology. So they hired a half time lay person to bring the true Lutheran gospel to the benighted campus. Albert was the latest edition of that fortunate person.

It was Christmas Eve. Albert walked toward the Larson Chapel. It was the first time he would lead Christmas worship there. A few students were staying on campus during winter break. Most happened to be part of Albert’s little flock. They begged him for services on Christmas Eve. He offered to transport them to worship at Christ on the Corner. But they insisted that it simply wouldn’t be the same. They loved their little stone church and their tight-knit community

The chapel was in sight. Snow crunched under Albert’s boots. He thought about his little congregation. In the beginning, he had such high hopes. He longed for a church filled with theology students, a choir composed of music majors, and faculty members who would be stirring and credible guest preachers. All of that happened. But it happened during daily mass In the campus auditorium.

For some reason, most of the Lutherans were theater majors. Fine folks all. But as Albert’s grandfather—the sexton at Christ on the Comer—would say, they were all “about a quarter bubble out of plumb.” They didn’t want a “normal” Christmas Eve service. They wanted to act out the Christmas story, complete with script, costumes and special effects. Albert rolled his eyes, took a deep breath and (against his better judgment) agreed.

They were already at the chapel door! Albert shook his head and sighed. The crowd looked like a collision between a camel caravan and a Renaissance festival

“Merry Christmas, Al!” caroled Sarah Potter. Clearly she was the Virgin Mary, ready to deliver at any moment. Brian Bingum dressed as Joseph, complete with a tool belt over his Bedouin robes. He thought the cultural contrast was a powerful artistic statement.

Brian was studying theater construction, so he built a wooden donkey to transport his betrothed. When Brian pulled on the reigns, the donkey’s eyes lit up. A tug on the donkey’s mane produced a braying that caused passersby to believe the poor thing was dying. A switch under the left ear controlled the tail. When turned on, it spun like a propeller.

“Merry Christmas, everyone!” Albert replied. “Let me get the key so we can go in.” Several groups used the chapel during the week. The university administration, however, would allow only one key. So that key rested in a small hole in the rock above the great double doors. It had been a foolproof system— until tonight.

“Oh, good grief,” Albert sputtered. ‘The key isn’t there! Now, how are we going to get in?” He felt the anxiety of the group go up as the temperature dropped.

H. Randall Hanson produced a cell phone from beneath his robes. The “H” stood for “Herluf,” although Randy revealed that only within the confidentiality of the confessional. “Call Campus Security and I’m sure they’ll let us in.”

Albert did a double-take. “H. Randall, what are you supposed to be?” He wore a pointed wizard’s hat. His robe was fluorescent gold covered with sun, moon and stars. He carried a staff with a bulb on one end that flashed when he tapped the ground. “I’m one of the wise men, Al! Can’t you tell? They were magicians, weren’t they?”

At that instant, Albert grasped his situation. He was surrounded by magicians, belly dancers, Roman soldiers, angels, and a herd of livestock, all anatomically correct and walking upright. He dialed Campus Security at record speed.

No one answered. Albert suspected some well-lubricated merrymaking down at the secunty office. The message said that in case of emergency, he should call the local police. At the moment, Albert wouldn’t have made that call for a million dollars

“I’m afraid we have to go to Plan B,” Albert announced. “We could drive down to Christ on the Corner and have our service there.” His words hung in the suspicious silence that followed. A few cynical souls suspected that he had planned this. Albert beat a strategic retreat. “I suppose we could try some other alternative.”

Amber Ellingson, one of the goose-pimpled belly dancers, said, “Let’s go looking for a church that needs us! We can walk to several from here.” She clashed her finger cymbals together for emphasis.

Albert rubbed his eyes and tried to remain calm. When Lautenberg University was founded, it rested in the little village of Lautenberg. It was a safe haven from the big city. But the city captured the village Now it was a neighborhood of pawn shops, adult book stores, delicatessens, bars, palm readers and vacant lots. The Lautenberg U. brochure said the neighborhood offered a “culturally diverse setting.”

Amber was already headed down University Avenue. The whole group followed. The lone musician produced a recorder and began to play “O Come, All Ye Faithful.” Albert felt like a leaf riding a tidal wave.

They were in their fourteenth chorus of “O come, let us adore him,” when they passed a vacant lot. A ten foot high chain link fence guarded the space. Out of the darkness charged a pair of bull mastiffs. The dogs hurled themselves against the fence. The costumed singers fled in terror.

Albert stood his ground as the growling sentries returned to their posts. Jackie Muller, dressed as a Guernsey cow complete with all the plumbing, said, ‘Now we know what Mary and Joseph felt like when the Roman soldiers announced the census.” People nodded, and the singing resumed.

The lights were on at River of Life Church of God in Christ. ”Let’s go in there!” Summer Judson exclaimed. Summer’s skin was so fair that she glowed in the dark. Albert was certain his little flock would be, shall we say, “conspicuous” in the African American congregation—even if they didn’t look like refugees from an Arabian garage sale.

Summer was not dissuaded. “Come on, Al! It’ll be fun!” Choir members were warmmg up in the front of the sanctuary. They were in red robes trimmed in gold. When the Lutheran parade entered, they stopped singing. The silent seconds stretched to a minute. Then Summer began in her clear soprano voice: “Angels we have heard on high.. ” The choir members joined in. Soon everyone was swinging, swaying, and clapping.

H. Randall Hanson approached the pastor, the Reverend T. Everett Hollandsworth. “Reverend, may we do our Christmas play for your service?” Hollandsworth had served the congregation for forty-three years. He thought he had seen it all. But this was anew one.

“Son,” he said, ‘that’s kind of you. But we already have our young folks ready to lead worship. I don’t think it will work. But please stay and worship with us!”

That wasn’t what the Larson Chapel crowd had in mind. Amid shouts of “Merry Christmas!” and “Thanks anyway!” they headed back down University Avenue.

Two blocks later they were in front of St. Paul Lutheran Church. Services had just ended, and people were coming down the big stone steps. Frigid stares were common. A few people crossed the street to get to their cars. “I didn’t realize the Drag Queen convention was in town,” someone said in the dark. One compassionate soul came over and said, “Kids, church is already over. We’re going home to have Christmas with our families. You should do the same.”

Heads sank and shoulders sagged. Andrew Norgaard—who hardly ever spoke and was dressed as a lamb—said, “Wow! I guess there was no room in that inn either.”

Albert hoped that common sense might return now. But the joumey was not yet complete. Amber Ellingson saw activity in another vacant lot. “Look, there are people around that fire barrel. Let’s do our play for them!” The tidal wave was on the move again. Albert began to compose the letters he would write to parents explaming what had happened to their precious children. He felt nauseous.

They arrived at the lot and began the play. “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world would be taxed. ” The Roman soldiers began waving their swords at Joseph and Mary.

At that moment a police car pulled up, The officers strolled toward the group with their night sticks unsheathed. Albert started to calculate how much bail might be for twenty-three people. H. Randall Hanson held out his helmet and sword to one of the officers. “We’re telling the Christmas story. Would you like to help?”

The man hesitated for a moment. Then he put his cap on Randall’s head and assumed his post as Caesar’s centurion.

“While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. ” On cue, Sarah Potter dropped to her knees and uttered a blood-curdling scream. She then produced a naked doll from beneath her robes. Brian Bingum took the doll and swatted it firmly on the bottom. A computer chip—installed personally by Brian—produced a reasonable facsimile of a baby’s cry.

A homeless woman had edged closer during this scene. Without a word, she held out her arms. Sarah gently handed the doll to the woman. She held it close and rocked back and forth. She wept as she rocked. Sarah’s cheeks were damp, too. “I guess she’s a lot more like Mary than I am,” the college girl whispered.

“But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people… ” At that moment, the other police officer hit the spotlight and the siren. The fire barrel crowd scattered in fear. When nothing happened, they returned to see angels glittering in the white light and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors. ” The police officer’s smile was almost as bright as the spotlight.

The light revealed shepherds kneeling at the feet of the homeless woman. They had used every bit of fake beard material in the theater department. Their robes were musty from decades of storage. Their hands and faces were smudged and greasy. One enterprising youth had even blacked out four of his well-tended front teeth.

One of the University natives declared, “Hey, you guy look just like us! Can we be shepherds, too?” Four homeless men knelt with their university colleagues.

“In that region there were shepherds in the field watching over their flocks by night. ” A few days later, the president of Lautenberg University learned of the Christmas Eve adventure. He decreed that such a thing should never happen again. He also ordered two dozen keys made for the Larson Chapel.

Too bad, Albert thought to himself. On that night, Jesus was once again among his people. Boundaries of class and race and education melted away. Shepherds were once again watching in the fields, and angels told the Good News. The inns were full, but the baby found loving arms. Albert hummed a verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

“O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray.

Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.

We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell.

O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Immanuel.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!

Look Deeper

Luke 2:1-20

On Christmas, we must see beneath the surface. Otherwise there is nothing to see.

It was the night of November 14th, 1940. Four hundred and fifty German bombers flew toward England. Their target was Coventry. Coventry was a city filled with aircraft factories, munitions works and chemical plants.

The planes dropped one million pounds of high explosives and forty thousand fire bombs. Fourteen hundred people died or were wounded. German Air Marshall, Hermann Goehring, created a new word to describe the devastation. He warned other British cities that they would soon be “Coventrated.”

Coventry hosted an ancient cathedral. Bombs ripped the old building apart. Flames engulfed the structure. Parishioners saved what books, pews, and liturgical vessels they could. The senior pastor laer said, “It was as though I was watching the crucifixion of Jesus upon the cross.”

That was the surface view. On Christmas, we must see beneath the surface. Otherwise, there is nothing to see.

The morning after the attack, the cathedral stone mason was picking through the rubble. He noticed two charred timers. They had fallen into the shape of a cross. Parishioners had put that cross on an altar made of smashed stones. Someone wrote two words on the wall behind the makeshift altar.

“Father, forgive.”

That cross and those words remain today in the ruins of old Coventry Cathedral.

On Christmas, we must see beneath the surface. Otherwise, there is nothing to see.

It is a strange story. At first, it seems like business as usual. The powerful give the orders. The powerless comply. Only two things are certain—death and taxes. The Emperor calls the tune and the Empire gets up to dance. But then we take a closer look.

While they were there,” Luke tells us, “the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

Here is a look beneath the surface. This night we see the cross in the midst of the rubble. We see hope underneath the despair. We see new life built on the ruins of the old.

In 1865, near the end of another war, William C. Dix wrote a Christmas carol. He named it, “What Child is This?”

What child is this, Dix asks us, sleeping on Mary’s lap? Shepherds show up to hear good news. Angels sing celestial songs. Heaven and earth meet together around a cattle trough. On the surface, it is all just too strange.

So take a closer look.

“Why lies he in such mean estate,” Dix wonders, “where ox and ass are feeding?” If you look beneath the surface, you can glimpse what is happening. Listen to the angelic announcement: “For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord!”

This child is a sign that appearances are deceiving. What matters is underneath, deep down, in the heart of God. And that’s precisely where this child comes from.

We could stop there and be happy with the clutter of Christmas cuteness. But the story will not stay put. “Nails, spear, shall pierce him through,” William Dix reminds us. “The cross he bore for me, for you.”

Now we know why our eyes linger on the surface. You don’t see any cross-filled mangers at Wal-Mart. You find no Christmas crucifixion cards at the Hallmark store. Why do we refuse to g deeper? Because the depths hold death. And that is the one deep thing we want to avoid.

The surface is where the world helps us lie to ourselves. Here are some of those lies. I can have love without suffering. I can have happiness without community. I can have peace without justice. I can have power without responsibility. I can be my own god.

On Christmas, we must see beneath the surface. Otherwise, there is nothing to see.

So we look deeper. Like Mary, we ponder all these things and treasure them in our hearts. “Good Christian, fear,” Dix reminds us, “for sinners, here the silent Word is pleading.”

Now we can see the depths of God’s love for us and for the world. Here is Emanuel, the Word made flesh. Here is God, who will not abandon us to our own foolish devices. Here is the Creator of the Universe who comes as the Redeemer of the World. Caesar may issue orders for the moment. The world’s one true King has come to overturn all the powers that imprison us.

If we see that, we must be changed. Otherwise, we have seen nothing.

The charred cross remains in Old Coventry Cathedral. A new church has been built along the ruins. In the new church you can find the headquarters for Coventry’s international ministry of peace and reconciliation. This ministry focuses on forgiveness and changed lives as the key to global peace.

A deeper look changes us. Otherwise we have seen nothing. We must not exchange one set of chains for another. It is not enough to climb from one casket into another. In the end, that is all the world can offer.

William Dix offers this invitation. “The King of Kings salvation brings; let loving hearts enthrone him.”

Let loving hearts enthrone him. This is the call of Christmas. This is how we change when we look deeper. Let us be amazed at the words of the shepherds. Let us rejoice in the song of the angels. Let us smile at the coos of the baby. And let us pray about the call of Christmas.

Will Jesus sit on the throne of your heart? Let us pray…

Worth Pondering

Luke 2:1-20

But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.”

It was such a mean old world. What a time to have a baby! The government raised taxes at the point of a sword. A pregnant women was ordered to travel dark and dangerous roads on the brink of birthing. An old king worried himself into a genocidal rage. Poor people were turned into migrants and refugees at the whim of a distant despot. Housing demand exhausted supply. A damp, dark cave became a delivery room.

And it was all so…so normal. Graft and greed, vice and violence, fraud and fear…this was the order of the day. There was nothing to ponder. No one was surprised. It was such a mean old world.

Into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love was born. This was not just any old baby. This was a promise fulfilled. “For a child has been born for us,” Isaiah declares, “a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love was born. So the days of this mean old are numbered. Oppression will be over. Combat boots and bloody fatigues shall fuel the fires of festivals. God’s justice and righteousness shall be the order of the day, every day. God’s passionate longing to set things right shall be satisfied.

For the shepherds it was just another cold night in this mean old world. They lived in the shadows of society, on the rim of respectability. Their safe and familiar darkness exploded into terrifying light. “Do not be afraid,” the angel thundered, “for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people…” Somehow, their mean old was world about to change.

To you,” the angelic announcer continued, “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” This was anything but normal.

Into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love was born. Love was born in a manger on the margins. Love was born to migrants on the move. Love was born to overturn oppression. Love was born to defeat the darkness of death and despair. Love was born into to this mean old world to bring all that meanness to an end.

It’s still a mean old world. I confess that too often it burdens me. We live in tribes divided by twisted truth claims. We are divided by race and class and gender and age. The world worships power and rewards arrogance. People are trafficked and tortured, abused and abandoned. Shouting heads and lying lips fill our airwaves. The mortality rate is still one hundred percent. And the meanness rate is close behind.

And it is all so…normal…for us. It’s so easy to forget that none of this is normal for God.

Into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love is born. “The grace of God has appeared,” Paul writes to Titus, “bringing salvation to all…” Tonight we can treasure these words and ponder them in our hearts. Love is born into our hearts and into our world in Jesus, God’s Word made flesh. It is a night to remember all the ways that Love is born into this mean old world.

When I am burdened by all the pain, I ponder. I ponder the gratitude of families as they received bulging baskets of food here for Thanksgiving. I ponder the celebration of one of our own members just a year removed from jail and now building a life of faith, hope and love. I ponder the joy of children hugging our own Santa Claus and receiving gifts from the angels here at Emanuel because their parent cannot give from behind the walls of a prison.

Into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love is born.

When I am burdened by all the pain, I ponder. I ponder the witness of our young people who showed us the best Christmas pageant ever and pointed us to all the horrible Herdmans in our own community. I ponder the love and care you show to one another as injury, illness, grief and death still shadow our homes and our lives. I ponder how we are blessed as a faith community to serve and to celebrate in this season of life and light.

Into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love is born.

So I invite you to ponder as well. Where is Love born in our life today, this week, this year? It is worth some quiet time in prayer and reflection. Amid the mayhem of this mean old world, a manger is filled with light and life. And we are invited to glorify and praise God for all we have heard and see.

It’s a mean old world. But into the heart of all this humdrum hatred…Love is born. Let us ponder how we can make our world the birth place of Love.

Receiving the Child

I preached this sermon on December 14, 2014 and based it on John 1. In the early part of this week, I’m sharing some previous sermons in the hopes of offering some quick help to preachers who are dealing with multiple worship services and gatherings and the probability that they will also have a Sunday service hard on the heels of the Christmas festivities.

A young couple drove to the hospital to have their first child.  On the way, the baby decided to speed up the schedule.  The young father-to-be pulled into the parking lot of a convenience store.  He sprinted inside and yelled, “Call 911!  We’re having a baby!”  One employee made the call.  The other followed him back to the car.  Soon a little girl was born.  She was received into a tomato and grease stained apron that had been warmed in the store’s pizza oven.

It wasn’t the quality of the receiving blanket that mattered.  The important thing was the willingness to receive the child.

We travel toward the birth of a child.  All the lessons remind us today to get ready.  As we get ready, let’s think about our hearts as “receiving blankets”.  We will treasure a child, keep him warm, hold him close. 

Let’s get ready to receive a child.

Paul’s words to the Thessalonian Christians (1 Thessalonians 5:16-24) steer us in the right direction.  Rejoice, pray, give thanks!  Receive the Spirit’s guidance.  Don’t turn up your nose at prophecy.  Test everything you see and hear, and keep what gives life.  These are instructions for preparing the receiving blankets in our hearts.  These instructions are best summarized in Paul’s words: “Do not quench the Spirit.”

Think about Mary, the mother of our Lord.  Here is someone with her receiving blanket prepared.  Let us not minimize the difficulties she faced.  She was not married, but was to be a mother in the most unbelievable of ways.  Sometimes we pretend that ancient people might have taken this all in stride.  But they knew how babies arrive—and this was not the way it happened.

At best, Mary faced rejection by family and friends.  At worst she risked being stoned to death for adultery.  Her family honor would be damaged beyond repair.  She might be reduced to selling herself in order to survive.  It would have been rational for Mary to reject the child rather than to receive the child.  Madeleine L’Engle puts it this way:

This is the irrational season

When love blooms bright and wild.

Had Mary been filled with reason

There’d have been no room for the child.

Mary’s response is remarkable.  “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”  She was willing to receive the child, the gift of God’s Spirit.  This is the Advent invitation.  Do not quench the Spirit.  Get your blankets ready.

Of course, ours is a rational society.  Children often are not welcome—especially those who come to us outside of normal channels.  Children are too often regarded as a choice rather than a gift.  Children are too often regarded as burdens rather than blessings.  Children are too often regarded as distractions rather than as delights.  We may never think such things about our own children.  But only a few minutes of the day’s news tells us that our culture does not welcome children.

I say this with the full awareness that we live in a time when some people think they are all about the children, especially before they are born. The minute those children hit the real air of life in this world, however, they become unworthy of attention, support, and care. Political posturing is not care.

Receiving the child is always a ministry of self-sacrifice.  Think about John the Baptist.  He came first.  He should have gotten top billing.  He should have been the star.  But John took his place.  He received the child.  He was the voice crying out, “Get ready for the baby!”

The glory of it all is that we were received long before we were called to receive.  That is what it’s really all about.  Listen to these words from John one, verse twelve.  “All who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the power to become the children of God.”  And so we are the ones who are received.  This is the first gift of the Holy Spirit to you and me.  The Holy Spirit tells us that we are God’s beloved children in Jesus.  Can you allow God to be as good and loving as God wants to be?  Do not quench the Spirit.

My favorite Christmas carol has a verse that says it best:

“O Holy Child of Bethlehem,

Descend to us we pray.

Cast out our sin and enter in.

Be born in us today.”

This is our prayer in receiving the child.  Be born in us today.

There is nothing easy about being open to the Spirit.  That’s especially true when that guidance contradicts our hopes, our plans, our ambitions, our images of ourselves.  We have high opinions of our own priorities.  Winston Churchill was once told that his opponent, all things considered, was a very humble man.  “That is just as well,” Churchill replied, “since he has a lot to be humble about.”

This is true for us as well.  The temptation is powerful to quench the Spirit, to turn up my nose at God’s word to me.  There is nothing easy about receiving Jesus, God’s son.  He comes to tell us that world is to be turned upside down.  He comes to tell us that the poor, the helpless and the oppressed get God’s special attention.  He comes to tell us that strangers are to be received like neighbors and enemies are to be welcomed as members of the family.

If this is the Spirit to be born in us, it is no wonder that the process feels like labor and delivery!

But we know how to do this.  Today we practice these skills.  At our second service, we honor our children as they tell the Christmas story.  We share our gifts with children in our community who need our care—children who are impoverished; children with a parent in jail; children without a home for the holidays; children who suffer abuse or neglect.  I thank you for all the ways that you receive the child in and through our community of faith.

As we move toward the Christmas celebration, let us welcome the Spirit.  Let us open our hearts for that baby to be born in us, among us, and through us.  Let us pray to receive the Child.

Bedroom Talk — Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines

Bedroom Talk

“If you think you can find God in the comfort of your bedroom,” wrote St. John of the Cross, “you will never find him.” Tell that to Mary in her room in Nazareth! God comes as the original alien invader. “Do not be afraid,” the angel tells Mary.

Easier said than done.

I don’t share this often, but it seems appropriate today. I was in my bedroom on our farm west of LeMars, Iowa. It was Christmas break in 1978, my senior year in college. A few weeks before, I had failed to take the Graduate Record Exam. That was required for me to apply for the doctoral program in my future. The application deadline had passed. I hadn’t made any conscious decision. I simply forgot.

To this day I cannot imagine how that happened. I can remember the day with relative clarity, but I cannot see how I could have missed such an important appointment. Others have suggested over the years that Divine intervention was the cause. I’m not willing to write off my own sloth, lack of organization, and subconscious resistance (perhaps) as God’s work. Instead, I’m grateful that God could take such shoddy material and create a life of meaning, purpose, and joy.

Photo by Tan Danh on Pexels.com

In any event, there I sat in my room, wondering what to do with my life. I was engaged to be married. I was going to graduate with degrees in history and philosophy—highly unmarketable majors. I hadn’t told anyone except my fiancé about my failure—not my parents, not my friends, not my advisor. There was no comfort in that December bedroom for me.

Late one night during that lonely Christmas break, I heard a voice that said, “Go to seminary.” Speculate if you will whether it was a real voice — whatever “real” means in that context. Wonder about my mental stability at the time. I certainly did (and have never really left off wondering). Debate whether this came from vocation or desperation. It makes little difference.

My first question was, “What did you say?” My second question was, “Are you sure you have the right number?” Of course, somewhere in there was the factual question — What’s a seminary?

I didn’t hear the voice again, but the voice vexed me. When I got back to school, I really had to make some sort of decision. One morning, I called my home pastor. I said, “I think I’m supposed to go to seminary.” I waited for the laughter on the other end of the line. He said, “I’ll be there by supper time.” He drove the five and a half hours to see me and hear my story.

Before long I visited Wartburg Seminary, registered for my New Testament Greek class, and the rest, as they say, is history. I did not find God in the comfort of my bedroom. Instead, God decided to make my bedroom a very uncomfortable place indeed. That hasn’t changed much in forty years.

Because of my experience, I have a special place in my heart for Mary, the mother of our Lord. This week, we read the story of the Annunciation—the angelic announcement that God had big plans for this little girl. She did not find God in the comfort of her bedroom. Instead, God decided to make her bedroom a very uncomfortable place indeed.

This announcement is about Mary’s vocation. Her first question is, “What did you say?” Her second question is, “Are you sure you have the right number?”

God comes to us — where we are, whether in bedrooms or boardrooms, in faith or in doubt, in comfort or in crisis. That is the heart of the Christmas message. Strip away the tinsel and trees, the parties and presents, the elves on shelves and hooves on housetops. God comes to us. And as a result, nothing can stay the same.

God comes to Mary with a call. That’s always the way with God’s coming. She is not qualified. She does not apply. She doesn’t even know there’s an opening. God’s grace comes first. “Greetings, favored one!” the angel declares. “The Lord is with you!” In response to this announcement (and after the questions), Mary sings a song of praise that we call “The Magnificat.”

God sees Mary in the depths of life and calls her to the heights of faith, hope, and love. She puts her trust, according to Luther, not in the gifts but rather in The Giver. She loves God for God, not for what God will produce. She can do that by the Spirit’s power because she is loved “for nothing” rather than for what she can produce. This love, which is the fruit of faith given by the Spirit, is the only source of real peace for the believer.

The Magnificat begins with that mystical experience of God’s unconditional regard, but it does not end there. The result of that experience, as Lois Malcolm puts it, is Mary’s “prophetic witness to God’s great transforming work of justice in history” (page 171). This witness issues forth at precisely the moment when Mary is at her “lowest,” just as the great work of Life issues forth precisely when Jesus dies on the cross.

“The Magnificat does not tell a tale of God meeting a prideful sinner,” Malcolm writes, “Rather, it tells a tale of God meeting a woman whom society has seen as insignificant and giving her a new status…as well as a new sense of agency in God’s coming reign…Far from recapitulating the dynamics of her previous life,” Malcolm argues, “Mary was transformed and entered a new beginning” (page 173).

God comes to us. That Christmas message is for you as well. Greetings, favored one! You—beloved of God, marked with Christ, sealed with the Spirit—the Lord is with YOU! You are not qualified. You need not apply. You may not even realize there’s an opening. God comes to you in Jesus. You have found favor with God. That is true even, and especially, when we find ourselves at the lowest points of our lives.

God comes to us – especially at those low points. This is the heart of the Christmas message. God comes to you and me with a call. Now we can return to that opening quote from St. John of the Cross. “If you think you can find God in the comfort of your bedroom,” he wrote, “you will never find him.”

When we need God’s comfort, God will indeed bring it. But mostly we want God to give us a life that is undisturbed and pain-free. That’s not something God will do. Because that sort of life is not worthy of those who bear the image of God in Creation. We are not called to be boring and mediocre.

God comes to us. And when God comes, God turns our lives inside out and upside down. The Holy Spirit turns our focus from inside ourselves and out into the world. The Holy Spirit turns our worldview from a race to the top of the heap to a love for the least, the lost and the lonely.

Our God does not come as a theological therapist. God comes as the Divine Disruptor. Our God is not nice. Our God is not safe. Our God is not comfortable. Our God is good and loving and merciful — and destabilizing.

God invades our sanctuaries and changes our lives. And our God has big plans for those who are called to bear Jesus to the world.

Just ask Mary.

And then look to Mary as a model of faith. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord,” she says. “Let it be to me according to your word.” We can relax into self-satisfied serenity. We can resist the call and run the other direction. Or we can surrender to the call of the Holy Spirit and find true comfort and peace.

That surrender will involve struggle. It will require sacrifice. It will produce pain. I tell people that I have spent almost forty years trying to run the other direction. But there is no joy in fleeing. There is only joy in accepting. Accepting God’s call makes us bearers of God’s presence in the world, just as Mary has led the way.

The revelation of the Kin(g)dom of God is not reserved for spiritual savants or religious rulers. It does not happen only in temple precincts or pastoral pulpits. The Holy Spirit is not an endowment limited to the privileged few or regulated by academic or ecclesial authorities. As John reminds us, the Spirit blows where it will. Age or gender, status or ethnicity, position or power – these are not factors in determining where the Spirit works and through whom the Spirit speaks.

God comes to us where we are. These are the last words of the Advent season. God comes calling in Jesus. How will we respond?

References and Resources

Boesak, Allan A. “The riverbank, the seashore and the wilderness: Miriam, liberation and prophetic witness against empire.” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 73.4 (2017).

Croy, N. Clayton, and Alice E. Connor. “Mantic Mary? The Virgin Mother as Prophet in Luke 1.26-56 and the Early Church.” (2011).

Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Jacobson, Karl. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-139-45-46-55.

Jacobson, Rolf, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-146-55-3.

Malcolm, Lois E., “Experiencing the Spirit: The Magnificat, Luther, and Feminists” (2010). Faculty Publications. 275. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/275.

Skinner, Matthew L., “Looking High and Low for Salvation in Luke” (2018). Faculty Publications. 306. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/faculty_articles/306.

Wilson, Brittany E. “Pugnacious precursors and the bearer of peace: Jael, Judith, and Mary in Luke 1: 42.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68.3 (2006): 436-456.