You Are The Light of The World (Matthew 5:14-16)

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You are the light of the world. That is a beautiful compliment. It’s the kind of thing you might expect to read when you open a get-well card. If someone had bought a card for me with that printed inside, I would have felt happy, moved emotionally, and encouraged.

Now imagine someone told you those words, face to face. That changes the entire dynamic. It’s one thing to read a sentiment; it’s another thing to hear the terms for the thought (or idea) to go from a dimensional idea to a three-dimensional reality. In short, it’s nice to hear a compliment, for someone to make a little gesture of thanks, or say a few words of appreciation. A person going the extra mile and showing that bit of grace is sometimes all it takes to change the course of your day. Who knows, if your day changes, your life might as well.

It’s extra nice when Jesus pays you a compliment. Sure, it would be great to go to the mailbox and get a thank you note from Jesus but imagine Jesus telling you in person, “You are the light of the world.” What if that someone giving you a face-to-face compliment is Jesus? What would that do to your day? How would that alter the rest of your life?

Given the state of the world and how dark things feel at the moment, being told you’re the light of anything by anyone is good to hear. These people, like us, aren’t used to getting compliments or encouragement. We feel lucky if no one rear-ends us on the way to Food Lion, or we don’t get into shouting matches with our family and friends over dumb little arguments. Compliments seem out of date and quaint, reserved for birthdays and other holidays, not something we’d do regularly or daily. We take each other and our families for granted, usually operating on the assumption that the people we live with and love know we love them and appreciate them; why do we need to tell them? Jesus is asking us to reconsider that mindset. People need to hear good things, especially when the world feels like it’s going to hell in a handbasket.

I’m sure this took Jesus’ audience by surprise. “I didn’t know I was a light!” I can hear them saying to Jesus. “I’m the light of the world!” Can you imagine hearing that affirmation for the first time? These crowds gathered on the hillside for the sermon of the mount didn’t come from a culture where they encountered a great deal of positive news about themselves or others. They lived in dark times; as occupied people, most couldn’t read the inspiring words of prophets like Isaiah, and if they could, they didn’t think they applied to them. Here Jesus says, you are the light, as an individual, are something good, light!

What does light do? What am I called to do as light? Light makes the world a safer, brighter, happier, warmer place. That’s what light does. You are called to do and be those things. Light changes everything. Nothing can hide from the light. Light makes the intangible tangible, the unsafe safe, the cold warm, the sad happy. It is there, everywhere, and all around. Light cannot be contained.

That’s you! You are more than you ever knew or thought you could be. You are the light. Part of being the light is giving your light away. Light is always available for sharing with people in darkness. Once you have the light, you are always available to share it without losing any of the original light that makes you, you!

You’d be surprised (well, maybe not) how many people are living in darkness. We forget how many people need, want, and are seeking the light of Christ, the light of the world, and to know that they also are the light of the world.

Light is much like empathy. The world needs it to survive. The church needs it. We can’t function without it. If you’ve ever lived in a world without electricity, you know that your entire rhythm of life is more challenging and brutal. Our world has a light deficit as much as an empathy shortage. We’ve grown comfortable living with this shortage, rationing of light, joy, and empathy in a world of darkness. We don’t have to live this way. You are the light of the world. Darkness is not the default setting for our lives and relationships. Light and all it brings, compassion and empathy are part and parcel of our souls whether we realize it or not. Jesus identifies this within us. Are we going to take the compliment from Jesus, pass it on to someone who needs to hear it, and share the blessing Jesus has given us with someone else?

–Richard Bryant

The Beatitudes: God’s Words That Aren’t Intended for Your Scriptural AR-15 (Matthew 5:1-12)

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What’s your favorite Bible story? If you’ve been to Sunday school and heard as many as I have, can you pick just one? I like them all. You might even say I love them all. Here are just a few of my favorites right off the top of my head:

  • Moses and his ongoing frustrations as he leads the Israelites through the wilderness
  • Jonah and whale
  • David and Goliath
  • The conversation between Abraham and Isaac on the way up the mountain
  • Noah, “You want me to build what?”

I could go on and on. Those are just a few of the big ones. But my favorite story in the Bible, in all of these 66 books, is found in the first 12 verses of the fifth chapter of Matthew’s gospel. Here’s how it goes. Jesus, he’s the main character, like a new Moses. He goes up to a mountain to deliver a sermon, a new oral version of the ten commandments. Now, please pay attention; here is where it gets exciting. At the point in the story where he finds a spot to stand where the acoustics are just right, and most of the people gathered around can hear him, he starts to talk. Jesus talks. It’s not the fact that he speaks that makes this story exciting and vital. It’s what he says that is so meaningful. He reinvents ethics, human society, values, and religion, and he does it in 12 verses. What Johnny Appleseed did for apple trees in one song, Jesus did for civilization in 12 verses. Jesus makes it seem so simple, easy to follow, and implement in your life. Do these things, you’ll hear him say, and the world will change.

You realize what he’s asked you to do only after hearing them. At the same time, they sound deceptively simple on the surface (like a 1st century Hallmark Card) but they may be the most demanding tasks ever asked of any person. These “be” statements, as easy as they appear, ask the listener to sacrifice themselves for others in ways they’re not used to doing. They rearrange the order of the universe. Sure, God stays on top, others go first, and our wants, needs, and desires go to the bottom. At first glance, it does look easy. We ask God for the simple paint-by-numbers version of Christianity. Then what happens? 

Jesus goes up the hill and lays it out. Step 1, step 2, step 3, and so on. What do we do? We say, hold on! We asked for easy, not a spiritual commitment to the welfare of others, my community, peace, neighbors, and love. I wanted something that fit my needs, more in line with the Old Testament. 

Jesus, telling his story from the acoustically precise perch atop the mount, says, “my friends, is the new, new thing.” God is expanding God’s horizons. The law is the law but are neighbors need neighbors. Our neighbors need love. Our wars need to end. Our hungry need food—our broken need healing. Our grief needs comforting. Who is ready to come with me and tell this story? People aren’t going to like it, but this has to and must be done. They’d rather talk about the old stuff. But this, this right here, Jesus tells them, is what God is all about.

Don’t the Beatitudes feel like common sense? I mean, really? These 12 verses have always appeared to me to be the most self-evident truths in the Bible. Perhaps that’s why they bear repeating so often. The things that ought to be common sense and self-evident, easy to do, and no-brainers are those that we so easily screw up day after day, month after month, and year after year. On the surface, we should have no problem accepting each of these statements at face value. No Christian in this or any church should argue with Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes or the implications of putting them into practice in your life. They are the central components of Jesus’ teachings, yet when push comes to shove, most people would easily give them lip service yet find themselves unable to realize the full impact of what they agree to when they sign on to, “Blessed are the peacemakers” or “Blessed are the merciful.” We can all agree that peace and mercy are fine qualities to exemplify and promote. But what does it mean to be a peacemaker? What does it mean to make peace and lead a peaceful life? What does it mean to show mercy? When you take the Beatitudes to the next logical step, the “I’m going to live them out” phase, they become the most challenging commitment a Christian can make.

First, remember none of the Beatitudes are quid pro quo. Let’s go back to mercy for a moment. Jesus says, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.” If you are merciful to others, you will receive mercy. If you do this, you get something in return. We don’t do good things because we want good things in return. Jesus is trying to teach that you do the right things in life because it’s essential to do the right things regardless of the outcomes. In the end, doing the right thing is a blessing in and of itself. The mercy we show comes back to us as mercy. This peace we make comes back to us as peace. We’re not hoping for a return. We’re doing the right thing, period.

To whom do we show mercy? Jesus wants us to show mercy to everyone, friend and foe alike. Our mercy isn’t something we disburse in drips and drabs. It’s easy to show mercy to those we love and are related to and those who look like us, worship, talk, and believe like us. The Beatitudes (and Jesus) challenge us to comfort, feed, bring peace, and show mercy to those who we don’t love, dislike, aren’t related to, look nothing like us, don’t worship like us (or at all), don’t talk like us, or believe like us. If you “Beatitude” like the first group, it’s easy; it’s a typical Sunday morning. Christianity is no longer a challenge; we never grow in our faith. We are static, and we will die as a congregation and denomination. That’s what will kill us, not who we ordain or marry. Ultimately, it will be that we stopped taking the Beatitudes seriously, living them out, and regarding them as our mission statement as a congregation. If we lose these, we’ve lost everything.

I wish the people who felt so strongly about using the term “God’s Word” as a weapon and carried Deuteronomy and Leviticus locked and loaded in the chamber of their scriptural AR-15’s, ready to fire, would put down their guns. We have an epidemic of gun violence in this country. We also have an epidemic of weaponized Biblical violence, where we use the words of the Bible like high capacity rounds to kill, maim, and wound those with whom we think God disapproves. The spiritual corpses litter congregations from one side of this country to another. We can’t pick up the bodies fast enough before another verbal massacre occurs. As with the shootings in our streets, we’ve got to stop using God’s word’s, modified for lethality, so that more people’s faith are not left to bleed out on the altar of “scriptural authority.”

The Beatitudes also God’s words, words about mercy, peace, and righteousness. They weren’t meant to be fired at anyone. Put the gun down. Declare a truce. Be a peacemaker. Be a child of God.

–Richard Bryant

You Don’t Use A Net To Fish For People (That’s Called Human Trafficking or Slavery, Not Evangelism) (Matthew 4:12-23)

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I never get tired of talking about the Andy Griffith Show. It was one of the most important shows in the history of American television. Think about all the issues Andy addressed in Mayberry in the early 1960s.  Andy dealt with alcoholism, addiction, greed, fair housing, poverty, women’s rights, single parenting, fair play, and how to handle small-town gossip. He didn’t judge people no matter how uncultured or far back up in the woods they came from.  And he did it all without a gun. And that’s when the show first aired when Eisenhower was in the White House. Andy was cutting-edge! That was, Andy might say, a fair piece of years ago!

There’s an episode where Opie and his friends sell something called “Miracle Salve.”  One of Opie’s buddies, Trey, has been threatened with being “blacklisted” for not selling enough of this worthless salve. The boys don’t know what it means to be blacklisted. Opie guesses his dad will know, so they run off to the sheriff’s office to ask Andy. Andy is out on a call, but they find Barney asleep at his desk.

After waking Barney from a dead slumber, they ask him, “What’s a blacklist?” As he always does, Barney tries to sound more intelligent than he is: “It’s when the party of the first part does something to keep the party of the second part from being able to get a job.” Now the boys are confused. Trey needs this job. Who’s the party of the first part? Some fly-by-night salesmen are taking advantage of the kids, who need summer jobs, to get them to sell their salve.

Barney comes up with this bright idea. He’ll write a letter to the salespeople in Mount Pilot, pretending to be a lawyer, telling them to cease and desist from threatening his clients Opie and Trey. Why is Barney going to do this? He’ll meet one official letter with another. Barney poses his strategy in the form of a question: How do you fight fire? The boys answer with a hose! No! Barney exclaims, “with fire!”  Andy eventually returns, and they run the whole plan by him.  Barney asks him the same question. How do you fight fire? Andy, too says,” with a hose!” Barney, even more frustrated, says, “with fire.”

That’s where we are this morning.  Are we like Andy and Barney having a debate? How do you fish for people? Do we do it with a hose or with fire? Those are not exactly our options, but you get the point. There is the practical answer, which is time-tested, genuine, and makes sense. There’s also the idiomatic, colloquial expression that sounds good when you’re sitting on a bench whittling with your buddies.  We want to find those two answers, specifically those regarding being a follower of Jesus.

Last week we talked about being and becoming excited about Jesus. How long has it been since you were eager to tell someone else about Jesus? What would it take for you to invite someone to church to say, “Come and see Jesus with me.”  Have you ever been as excited about Jesus as you’ve ever been about the things that most excite you in your life? That was last week.

This week we’re taking that one step further. What does it mean to be called to be a disciple? And what are the best ways to reach more disciples? Do we fish for people the same way we fish for fish (i.e., fight fire with fire or with a hose)? Those are the two big questions raised by Matthew’s retelling of Jesus’ calling of his first four disciples along the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Embedded in those questions, others ought to come to mind as we look for more profound answers. What does Matthew mean when he says, “immediately?”  I know what I mean when I think of “immediate” or “Immediately.”  Does Matthew mean the same thing? Did these guys literally drop their tools, abandon their families, and walk away like zombies to follow Jesus without so much of a goodbye to their families and friends?

Popular movies about the Bible like to leave people with that impression. However, suppose you read a little further in the text. In that case, you see Matthew’s definition of immediacy means something closer to this: Peter, Andrew, James, and John started a lifelong conversation on that day, at that time and that place, with their families and friends, that led to their becoming full-time followers (who asked others to come and see) of Jesus Christ. Read four more chapters and you see that Jesus’ definition of immediate doesn’t mean what you think it means.

The essential words Jesus utters in this passage involve Peter’s (and the other’s) transition from fishermen to disciples. We have to understand the nature of that transition to understand Matthew’s definition of immediacy and how Jesus will immediately (pun intended) show them his fishing methods can yield large catches of people.

Let’s talk about fishing methods on the Sea of Galilee for just a moment. I know a little about this because the fishermen on Ocracoke also used net fishing methods like Peter, James, and John. The fisherman who lived directly across from our church on the island would string his nets across his front yard and mend them, just as Matthew described Peter mending his nets in this passage. I’d walk out my office door and see the Bible happening right before my eyes. I’ve been to the Sea of Galilee, and these methods came alive when we lived on the Outer Banks. Nets require constant mending and upkeep. It takes skill and stamina to stay up all night, throw them out, and bring them back into rickety boats.

I’m going to do an Andy/Barney thing for a moment. What’s the goal of the fishing net? It’s to capture and ensnare as many dumb and unsuspecting fish as possible in your net and hoist them onto the deck of your boat, so deprived of oxygen that they quickly die. Once dead, they can be sold to fish merchants, and people can buy the fish and eat them.  This is what net fishermen do. They aren’t like Bill Dance in a bass boat with a depth finder. 1st century fishing methods are still in use in many places around the world today. Throw out the net and hope to God it lands over a school of fish or shrimp dumb enough to swim into your net. Peter, Andrew, James, and John were fishermen. Being a good fishermen is not something that happens to you because of good luck, weather, and years of experience. Fishing is arbitrary. Use your common sense here: When Jesus said to them, from now on, you will stop being fishers of fish and be fishers of people do you think Jesus wanted them to substitute what they usually did in their quest for fish except literally do that now for people?

Was Jesus asking them (and by extension us) to use nets to capture unsuspecting people, lure them into our communities, suck the life from them, throw them onto our decks, gut them of their hearts and souls, and tell them not to be whom God created to be? Once in our net, you’re not a fish; you’re money, a number, and anything other than whom God created you to be. Do you honestly think that’s what Jesus meant when he said you’ll be fishing for people, as it was when you were fishing for fish? Because if you do that, you are going to run everybody off. That’s like saying you fight fire with more fire, not a hose!

You fish for people by bringing people together and not by cutting people off from their families but by bringing their families in.  Here’s how I know Peter, Andrew, James, and John, didn’t drop their tools and walk off like zombies.  The Bible tells me so.  I keep reading—just four chapters over in Matthew 8.  Peter had a Jewish mother-in-law.  You don’t just leave your wife to follow a charismatic even if his Jesus of Nazareth.  He’s got a mother-in-law.  That means he’s got a wife and a reasonable guess that a married Jewish man in the first century will probably have a couple of kids. Is Jesus of Nazareth, the most remarkable man in the world, going to ask a married man to abandon his wife, kids, and sick mother-in-law? Is that the kind of thing Jesus would do? Or, as in Matthew 8, he would heal Peter’s mother-in-law and invite the whole family to the Jesus movement.

Suddenly, now stay with me, he’s caught Peter, Peter’s wife, Peter’s Mother-in-Law, and Peter’s children. If the same pattern is repeated for Andrew, James, and John, Jesus has caught approximately 20 people. Talk about fishing for people. He’s gone from one person (himself) to, most likely, 20 or more, by healing and being gracious to Peter’s mother-in-law. He wanted to meet Peter’s entire family. It wasn’t a one and done operation. When Jesus opens up a space for conversation, the idea of immediacy takes on a whole new dimension. It’s more like, “Let’s immediately go home for dinner.” 

No one is captured in a net and forcibly brought into the fishermen’s boat. We don’t have any nets. I didn’t see any when we were putting out or putting away the Christmas decorations. We have a few fishermen in the church, and they use poles. There aren’t any net fishermen, as on Ocracoke, regularly mending nets, going out each night to catch shrimp to sell to local restaurants.

Though shame, guilt, and the church can cast modern-day nets, we must be careful. We can quickly revert to fishing for fish instead of people. We want to grow through warmth, charm, love, and invitation. So often, though, churches find it easier to get people on the boat through shame and guilt. You know what I mean: you better get here, get in the net, or you’re going to hell. Change your ways or else. You’re a dirty rotten, low-down sinner; God hates you, you don’t come to church, and you’re bound for damnation. Do you know why you got COVID, cancer, or other diseases?  It’s because you don’t come to church or didn’t pray hard enough.  The list could go on and on. People say those things. Let’s try not to. That’s not how you fish for people. People aren’t fish. People deserve our best. Jesus gave us his best. He gave us his life. Let us expand by reaching out to anyone and everyone who wants to be in our boat.  We don’t have to capture people. Evangelism isn’t warfare. As the Love Boat theme song says, “Come Aboard, we’ve been expecting you.”

–Richard Bryant

You’ve Got To Meet This Guy John 1:29-42

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Have you ever been so excited that you can’t wait to tell someone else about a new thing you’ve discovered? Maybe it is a new restaurant, a dish at this restaurant, hearing a new band, a song by this band, a particular vineyard, and a unique grape they use to make a new pinot noir. It could be any of those things or something else. Whatever it is, you’ve been turned on. Now everyone you meet, from family to friends, has to hear about your trip to this restaurant, how good this one particular dish was, how the chef combined flavors in a unique way that created a virtual nuclear explosion of taste on your pallet unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before, the dish was plated like a Salvador Dali painting, and before this person does anything else, they have to make a reservation and go with you to this restaurant at their next available moment. You want to be there with them to see the look on their face when they are served an appetizer of lemon caviar on raw oysters with mignonettes followed by pressure-cooked vegetables, roasted fillet, potato confit, beef just, and bone marrow. Then you want to say, “See, I told you, wasn’t this the best thing you’ve ever eaten!”

That’s what this passage is about, that kind of encounter. Instead of some innovative gastronomy, the one thing you’ve become so incredibly excited to share with the world is a person whose name is Jesus of Nazareth. We’ve all been that excited about something in our lives. It may have been the last time you bought a new truck or car. Perhaps it was the place you stayed on your previous fishing trip. You’ve felt the energy and enthusiasm of an event or an encounter. You know what it is like to be unable to keep good news bottled up and to yourself. So here’s my first question this morning. Have you ever felt that way about Jesus? In your entire life, have you ever been so excited about your relationship with Jesus that you couldn’t shut up about Jesus and had to say, “I’ve got to tell someone else about Jesus?” We tell people about the new bigger engine in our trucks or how we got a new roof on our church. We tell people about where we went on vacation, how we had a great time, and how they ought to go there and enjoy it in the same way we did. Think of all the heartfelt and exciting recommendations you give day after day. When was the last time you said to someone, “Oh my God, you have got to meet this guy Jesus; he changed my life! Let’s go now or at your first free moment; I’ve got to see your face when you talk to him.”

People used to put bumper stickers or license plates on cars saying, “Follow me to church,” but those are not the same. I can’t tell you the last time a bumper sticker changed my life. I’ve never voted for anyone or changed my opinion about anything because of a bumper sticker. With my bifocals, I can’t read bumper stickers or vanity plates. I can, however, respond to conversations. Come and see; we hear the disciples saying. Come and see; I know what it means. When was the last time we spoke to someone, “Come and see?” When was the last time you wanted to see Jesus? Do you want to have a face-to-face encounter with Jesus? Are we afraid of how the conversation might go? Some of us might be worried about what he wants to talk about. We’re comfortable talking to him in prayer. Come and see opens the door to the possibility of him talking back. Yes! Amen! That’s where our Christianity and our faith start to get exciting.

When the disciple found Jesus, what did they see? What did they see in him? That’s the question that has fascinated me most about this passage. They heed the call to “come and see” Jesus. I wonder about their first impressions of the man who was destined to save the world, this humble rabbi, identified by John as a “teacher” in their eyes; what did Jesus look like (physically), and who did he seem to be (spiritually)? These are meaningful questions because whatever they saw was necessary (and substantial) enough to cause them to drop everything, become his students, follow him, and start telling more people to come and see the carpenter-turned-teacher from Nazareth.  
So how did he appear? I picture him exuding kindness, approachability, and love. You know those people. Whether by genetics or life experience, some people carry a countenance that disarms critics, invites conversation, and welcomes questions. Regardless of whatever charisma their words or spirit may convey, their body language and gestures include others in their world. I believe the gospels offer this image of Jesus.

A man who readily held children and brought lepers into his life was open to everyone who was all too willing to reject anyone who defied religious norms and traditions. Here was God in the world, something these people had yet to fully comprehend, not existing above or beyond creation but entirely within the world. This wasn’t magic, smoke, and mirrors. Jesus was flesh and blood. Simon, Andrew, and John weren’t following a ghost, a spirit, or the appearance of a man. Something about this man was different, they might not have been able to put their finger on it at that moment, but they knew it when they saw it, so they went. They came, they saw, and they believed. It’s worked the same way ever since. He spurs something in us that makes us want to be better than we are at the current moment and tell others about this experience of kindles, love, and acceptance. We’ve never known something that could only come from God because God knows people don’t treat each other this way.

The other question this passage raises is this: “What does Jesus see in us?” I hope he sees potential. We’re a motley crew, we modern-day Galilean fishermen. Just look at us. Despite our differences in age, genetics, skills, diversity of opinions, and taste in basketball teams and music Jesus looks at us and still sees possibilities. Jesus looks at us unlike anyone else, except maybe your Mama and Daddy look (or looked) at you. You are worth being loved no matter what. Nothing you can do or say would drive me away, separate me from you, or make me turn my back on you. He looks so hard at you that he almost says, “I’d die for you.” Paul put it this way; there’s nothing that can separate us from the love of God. In Romans, Paul writes, “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I believe Jesus sees love in us.

As I’ve said on many occasions, the gospel writers make a big deal of Jesus knowing people’s names. Jesus is not a “hey you, worship me” kind of God. We’re not just numbers on a divine spreadsheet of followers. When we use the phrase “personal relationship,” we mean a personal relationship and all it entails. He walks with me, talks with me, and chucks me on the chin while the car defrosts in the morning. Yet so often, that person is one-sided; we know him. We phrase it this way: we know Jesus. We’ve met him. We’ve let him into our lives. That’s how we talk. Our language places us as the ones choosing to allow us entrance or access to the most vital areas of our existence, our souls. We accept salvation. Not to make too fine of a theological point, but Methodists believe that Jesus saved us all on the cross, and what happens down the road is that we realize that Jesus is already in here, and we didn’t know it. We don’t need to let him in; he’s been here the whole time. There was never a time Jesus wasn’t in our lives; we just weren’t aware that he was there. So when Jesus sees us, he sees people already on his team; we don’t know we’re on the bench and about to be put into the game.  

You may pick up a nickname when someone gets to know you. Sometimes we get nicknames during childhood that stick our entire lives. I’m sure you all know a Bubba in their 50s or 60’s that’s been Bubba since they were in the third grade. Here I’m talking about real nicknames that friends give each other because they reflect a person’s personality. People who don’t know each other well don’t give each other nicknames. Generic nicknames like hoss,  chief, sport and big guy don’t count. I’m talking about real nicknames. This is what Jesus does to the disciples, specifically Peter, in this passage. Jesus says, “I’m going to call you Cephas.” Jesus says, “I’m going to call you Rocky, Rocky Johnson. Cephas/Peter means Rock, and he was the son of John. That’s Peter’s name, Rock Johnson. Not only did Jesus know his name, but he felt so comfortable and familiar with him to give him a nickname immediately. What do you think your Jesus nickname might be? Think about it this week; email me and let me know.

Get excited about Jesus! Someone brought you here to come and see. Could you tell someone else to come and see? Jesus is already at work in people’s lives, waiting to hear about this next big thing that we can’t keep to ourselves any longer, this Jesus, this carpenter, the teacher from Nazareth. He sees us and knows in ways no one else ever will. Whom will you tell?

–Richard Bryant

You Keep Using That Word. I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means.

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Traditionalists think United Methodists like me are the problem. But unfortunately, I think the people who self-identify as traditionalists don’t understand what it means to be a “traditionalist.” For many in our denomination, being a “traditionalist” is holding to one position on human sexuality and marriage. For me, being a traditionalist means many different things. It’s never been about the conflict between my vision of God and the rest of the world. Here’s what I envision when I hear the words “traditionalist” and “traditional”:

  • I eat the same thing for breakfast most mornings.
  • I watch the Andy Griffith show every day. Mayberry wasn’t perfect. Andy dealt with bigots, addiction, sexism, the place of technology in society, people set in their old-fashioned ways, greed, and hate. And he did it without a gun. I embrace that vision of traditional America.
  • I miss my grandmother every day. She died in August 2005. She made great biscuits.
  • I read the Bible every day.
  • Nutmeg.
  • I want “Softly and Tenderly” sung at my funeral. The words “come home” are powerful.
  • I believe love is the best tradition of all.
  • I believe people are afraid of God’s new plans because they prefer the traditions of slavery in Egypt.
  • I believe there are hurtful traditions.
  • I believe in the traditions of the Sermon on the Mount.
  • I believe Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, is largely absent from our debate on tradition.
  • I’m so traditional that I still believe that the Gospel is a Love Story, not a Sin Story.
  • I come from a tradition where people didn’t weaponize the phrase “The Word of God.”
  • It took guts for the Apostle Paul to walk away from his tradition. I love him for that.
  • I’m so traditional and rooted in the past; I remember when going to church was fun and not perpetually teetering on the edge of destruction. I miss that tradition.
  • I believe traditions, in their best sense, should give meaning to our lives.
  • Traditions should not be used to demean people from being whom God created them to be.
  • I say no to the idolatry and false God of manufactured human traditions.
  • Our task is not to protect tradition. We are to proclaim the Good News.
  • Tradition can quickly become a form of institutionalized violence.
  • The divine is bigger than any of us or our ideas for creating new Methodist traditions.

–Richard Bryant

There Has To Be A Better Way To Pray

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This winter has been hard on my congregation. So many people are sick with COVID, respiratory viruses, and other diseases that it’s becoming difficult to keep up with everyone. When I combine my congregational concerns with my father’s recent lymphoma diagnosis, I start dropping the balls I’m supposed to juggle daily. I went so far as to create a spreadsheet of prayer concerns (versus a list). It didn’t help. Once I got them down on paper, isolated in illnesses, homebound and hospitalized, church members, family, and friends, adults and children, life-threatening and chronic conditions, humans and pets, Ukraine, and America, I was even more overwhelmed. Where do I start? At the top? With the sickest? With my dad? The sheer human misery before me is too difficult to describe. I’m at the point I don’t know what to say to God about these concerns because I don’t know what to say. I am literally out of words.

I gather with a small group of church members to pray through our concerns and celebrations each Thursday at 10 am. After a few moments of Lection Divina, we read through each name and concern on our church’s prayer list. There are nearly 100 names. I wonder why we are reminding an omniscient and omnipotent God of realities of this God is already fully aware of. The exercise feels pointless. If God requires the constant repetition of my father’s name and the fact that he has Leukemia to bring him daily healing and comfort, are we praying to a God? Or are we just talking to ourselves? Is prayer, in the means we’ve constructed it, little more than a supernatural protection racket? We keep giving God our best words in the hope of blessings and eternal security, so bad things don’t happen to us. There must be a better way to pray.

Is there a means of prayer that does more than make us feel better by acknowledging our helplessness in the face of illness and tragedy? Are there prayers where we partner with God to help those who pray create and become the answers to their prayers? It’s gotten to where I don’t look forward to asking for prayer concerns and celebrations in our worship services. These are the most soul-crushing minutes of our worship hour. I do not want to deny anyone the opportunity to share their concerns. Yet once we share our pain, the joy leaves our sanctuary like air from a punctured tire. Persons with blessings feel too ashamed to speak up because they feel their prayers aren’t worth mentioning considering the “serious” concerns previously shared. That’s wrong as well. We must rethink how we pray, for whose benefit we pray, and if we’re praying to be heard by God or each other.

The most honest and genuine prayer I’ve been able to offer recently is this: “Look!” “Help” hasn’t gotten me anywhere. I’ve settled on the model of the minor prophets. If I’m asking God anything, I’m asking God to do what I know God is already doing: see the mess we’re in and, if possible, relieve some of this interminable suffering. I’ll be glad to do anything. I am burned out. I can’t keep repeating names and recounting suffering. Something has to give. Point me toward one person who needs something tangible. That’s a doable place to start. We can answer prayers together.

–Richard Bryant

Thoughts On Baptism and Ploy of Original Sin Matthew 3:13-17

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What is the big deal about Baptism? Is it just a holy bath with some sacred words said over you by a preacher? What does it matter today, whether it happened to you when you were a baby or an adult? Does it matter if you were sprinkled, poured, or dunked in the river? How does it change your life? Does it erase “original sin”? What difference does Baptism make?

To answer these questions, we must understand how we got to baptism as we know it today. Baptism didn’t fall from heaven as in its current, well-defined form. What is baptism intended to do? What is the practical and spiritual benefit of being baptized? How does baptism change your life? Is baptism crucial to our salvation? Jesus told his disciples to go out and baptize people, but is it needed to get into eternity? Remember, back in the middle ages; people would wait until right before they were about to die to be baptized. They didn’t want to sin after their baptism and nullify the impact of baptism, preventing them from getting into heaven. Most of us are baptized as babies, and then we go about living and sinning. How did that notion change? When did that shift occur?

Do you understand what I’m saying: people of faith viewed baptism as something so sacred that it wiped away all our sins, something we did at the end of our lives to guarantee our entry into God’s presence to something we now do at the beginning of our lives, fully aware of our sinful nature. At some point in Christian history, theologians and people, not God, decided that Baptism became a symbolic act that addressed original sin, not our daily sins. And if we were managing our daily sins and asking Jesus for forgiveness in something such as the Lord’s prayer and our original sin was addressed by baptism, our likelihood of living a virtuous life and having a shot at heaven was better than average. Someone came up with that idea and invented it out of whole cloth. Jesus, Paul, or no one else in the Bible said to wait until you’re about to die to be baptized, baptize babies, or baptize people when they can decide for themselves. We made up the rules.

This theology of Baptism, whether the medieval wait-until-you-die method or the modern, do it when you’re a baby to address original sin, and the community of believers will raise you according to Christian standards, are nowhere to be found in the Bible. They are the work of theologians, written 300-plus years after the death of Jesus and John the Baptist, by regular people trying to write rule books for the early church. They tried to connect an ancient Jewish purification ritual to what evolved into an early Christian initiation rite, then create a practice that has remained unchanged for a thousand years. That was until the Protestant Reformation, and the first Baptists bought a swimming pool.

 John was baptizing people for the forgiveness of sins, not purifying people for entrance into the temple. John wasn’t preparing people to become Christians or baptizing them in the name of the father, son, and Holy Spirit. What we read about, what John said, what Jesus experienced, and what we do are different expressions of similar practices.

Much human intervention went into creating what modern Christians call Baptism, what it means, what it represents, and how it plays a role in our faith. It’s a very subjective sacrament. We know this, and we see evidence of this because most denominations have different views on how they regard baptism when they baptize people, how they baptize if they baptize people more than once, does baptism erase original sin, and so on. Churches of all shapes and sizes share language, theology, and some commonalities in Holy Communion. It’s not the same with baptism. Most denominations have made their rules about baptism as they go along. First, they say, “We think this is what God wants us to do.” Then the next denomination comes along and makes different rules.

Baptism is a variable.  Baptism’s meaning is subjective and, in our day, depends mainly on your denominational tradition. Besides, Jesus telling us to “go baptize” doesn’t explain what he means by baptism, his theology of baptism, when to baptize, and how to baptize. (Remember the debates about “John’s baptism” or “Jesus’” baptism, what were those differences?) Whether baptism is about original sin is never covered. We’ve filled in the blanks and hope we’re right. That’s a giant leap to infer meaning from Jesus’ understanding of a vast theological concept. Essentially, we’re trying to read the mind of God from a few words in a 2000-year-old text. Talk about presumption. (Maybe that’s our original sin, presuming to know the mind of God?) I prefer to err on the side of caution. I don’t want to guess what Jesus meant. I think that’s where Christians get into trouble. I want to go with what I know.

Let’s go back to the beginning. Baptism evolved from a Jewish purification ritual. People had to take a ritual bath to go to the temple. This had nothing to do with moral or ethical cleanliness (for the most part) but with becoming clean after all those things in daily life (sex, death, menstruation) that made a person unclean and unable to enter the temple grounds and participate in the ritual life of the Jewish community. Living life made you unclean. Doing ordinary things in ordinary ways leads to ritual uncleanliness. That’s not sin; that’s just living. So people would go to a ritual bath, enter on one side and come out the other clean. Then they go to the temple. This is what large portions of Deuteronomy are about. How to stay clean in life.

If you committed a moral transgression, that would have to be addressed with a sacrificial offering in the temple. If you needed to atone for murder or another violent crime, you had to be made pure to enter the temple first for the right offering for that specific sin and forgiveness to be sought. The water didn’t forgive you of the murder. Instead, it cleansed you of your daily impurities and got you to a place where you could enter the temple. Once in the temple, you could address a more in-depth sacrifice with the priest for the more severe offense you’ve committed.

What John does in the desert has nothing to do with temple worship. He’s baptizing people for the forgiveness of sins. It’s a new thing, independent of the sacrificial system in the temple (recognizing the corruption in the temple) and trying to renew the spiritual life of ordinary Jewish believers.  He’s not starting a new church. There are no babies in pretty white outfits. It’s a simple proposition. John is a prophet. People trusted him to cleanse their souls more than they trusted the priests in the temple.

Jesus gave John’s actions validity. When he showed up at the Jordan, it changed the entire baptismal dynamic. This was to be more than an off-the-beaten-path symbolic step in the river. Instead, something bigger was happening. Once Jesus arrived, John realized that forgiveness was more significant than he had imagined. With Jesus on the scene, Baptism wasn’t ultimately about sin, the depth or depravity of sin, but the expansiveness of forgiveness. This is what Jesus brought to the riverside. 

Whereas we usually focus our discussions of Baptism on sin and repenting, Jesus, here in Matthew 3, has two clear and distinct emphases: forgiveness from sin and being beloved. Far from stepping into the waters, the river, the swimming pool, and the font and being reminded of washing away the stain of original sin, we are reminded that baptism marks us as part of a community from the beginning of our time in God’s community we are forgiven (what I call original forgiveness-not your identity as a sinner), and that forgiveness is made manifest in being called “beloved” of God. In this way, Baptism is not a choice we make or a choice our families made for us as infants. Ultimately, baptism is a gift to us from God. It is a means of receiving God’s grace, freely entering our lives.  I don’t think we need to make up an elaborate theological system as to how baptism works. Isn’t being told that through this one action, we are God’s forgiven beloved enough? Why do we need more? Why is our trust in God’s providence lacking?

What do we do about our original sin? Doesn’t it need to be addressed? Isn’t this what baptism is all about? Again, this is a question first posed by Saint Augustine and refined by later generations of Christians, one that Jesus never mentioned or discussed. To Jesus, sins were rather ordinary, a fact of life. Nobody was so broken that they couldn’t be put back together or redirected toward God. Instead, as we talked about last week, Jesus restored people to a right relationship with God. We didn’t understand that God had blessed us and the full implications of that blessing. God wants to be in a relationship with us. Our failure to comprehend God’s over-the-top willingness to love us-that’s the root cause of sin, not whether Eve ate an apple from a talking snake. (Besides, the word sin doesn’t appear in the Bible until the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 3.)

Blessings are God’s original trademark. Creation began not with condemnation and evil but with God proclaiming blessing over the entire world, exclaiming, “It’s all good.” Somewhere along the way, we stopped seeing God reaching out with blessing after blessing and began to focus solely on sin and judging others. At our baptism, God redirects our priorities. This is what we read in the Gospels and what we hear the voice of God reiterate as if proclaiming the blessings of Genesis again, “You are my beloved, and I am well pleased. Be blessed.”

The gospel is not a story of sin. It’s a love story. If you listen to the message from most churches, you’d think God is obsessed with sin. It’s the other way around. We’re obsessed with sin. God is consumed with love.

Sin is about division. Sin separates us from God. Everything Jesus does is about bringing people closer to God. God is inviting us to stand in the water together. In the waters of creation, recreated in the waters of Baptism, we are reminded that God did not create us to be originally sinful.

On the contrary, we were made in God’s good image. Sin is not at the heart of our being. Even in our most malformed moments, we are the body of Christ. Therefore, when God looks upon us, even the disaffiliated community of Christians called Methodists, God calls us beloved and blessed.

Jesus is about restoration, healing, and wholeness. Our brokenness can be mended. The dirt on our souls can be cleaned. By accepting the invitation to embrace a life of watery-infused, creation-inspired fullness, we can live holy lives, even on days with severe ups and downs.

–Richard Bryant

Would We Let Three Foreign Monks Into Church Today? (Matthew 2:1-12)

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Would we let wise men (or women) inside our church or churches today? I’ve been considering this question over the past few days. Matthew’s gospel is the only account we have of these mysterious visitors from the east, often assumed to be Zoroastrian astrologers, who arrived in Nazareth sometime after the birth of Jesus. Christians don’t know that there were three kings, magi, dudes on camels, or whatever we want to call them. A “Subcommittee for the Determination of the Number of Wise Men” was formed at the United Methodist General Conference held in Nicaea in 372 CE. They duly reported back to the next General Conference (held in Damascus) in 376 CE that three gifts indicated one gift per person. As such, paragraph MMDLII of the 380 CE Book of Discipline would suggest that for all time and any subsequent United Methodist Christmas pageants and Epiphany sermons, three wise men, was the accurate, appropriate, and orthodox number. Twelve people may have shown up in Nazareth, eight men and four women carrying three gifts purchased under an agreed ten-dollar limit, but because the text said three, our Book of Discipline and we United Methodists settled on three men from out of town, representing ill-defined and mystical eastern religious practices, who wanted to show some respect to a wholly Wesleyan baby Jesus.

That’s how we got here. My question is this: would we do it today? Imagine we’re in church, doing our thing, singing “We Three Kings” and “Joy to The Word” sometime over the next few weeks. Things are rocking and rolling along. It’s a spirit-filled New Year’s Day service. The pastor preached about turning the page and making a new start with God or some other generic New Year’s Day nonsense. No sooner than the congregation has rattled off number 880 in the United Methodist Hymnal, the Nicene Creed, by heart, and you’re ready to start your community prayer concerns and celebrations, everybody notices some strangers have walked in the door.

It’s cold outside, just below freezing, and these three guys are wearing neither coats nor shoes. They are bald and clad in maroon, saffron, and orange robes. You hear some Captain Obvious observe using their outside voice, “I think they’re from out of town.” The gentle whiff of incense follows them as they process down the church’s center aisle.  What do you do? Does the usher who works the door, the one with the concealed carry permit, draw his gun? Does the mom in the back row pull out her phone and dial 911? Who are these strange men, and what do they want? Do they want anything? Are they a threat? Yes, brother and sisters, what would we United Methodists do if into our neat and tidy Epiphany services, as we sang “We Three Kings,” Tibetan Buddhist monks, Theravada Buddhist monks from Myanmar, or Jain monks from India walked into our services unannounced and asked to pay reverence to our God, the Christ child, the anointed one of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem?

How are we at letting others with different faith traditions and have no intention or desire to convert to Christianity, but respect our faith enough to be respectful to us and our God,  share our joy? Do we have the common decency to say, “thank you?” Or, will we find ourselves wanting to say, “Can I tell you about my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ?” Here’s the thing: they wouldn’t be there if they didn’t know about Jesus. They’ve traveled a long way to show Jesus homage. We could learn a thing or two from the Wise Persons and the different traditions they represent in our day and time. If other people are willing to go out of their way to show Christianity respect, we need to be more respectful of others and their faith traditions. The visitors from the east offered gifts (both tangible and spiritual), went home, and lived the rest of their lives according to their beliefs. Awareness and appreciation for someone else’s faith does not diminish our own. As Ted Lasso says, “be curious, not judgmental.” If we learn anything from Matthew’s story of the wise men, remember that. Allow the strangely dressed foreigners from other traditions to respect Christ, then show them the same respect. Invite them in. We’ll all be better for it.

–Richard Bryant

Confessions of a Burned Out, Tripped Up, Fence Riding, People Pleasing, Generation X, Emotionally Challenged, Preacher from the Wrong Side of the Theological Tracks

Aloha, Namaste, Howdy, and Ho, Ho, Ho. I bid you glad tidings of great joy.

Let us begin in the beginning! Christmas makes as good a place to start as any. In a perfect world, if there were no guardrails and I could say whatever I wanted from the pulpit on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, it might look like this:

I’m tired. I’ll say that from the start. I’m tired of saying things year after year that contradict long-held scholarly consensus, academic convention, and what I was taught in seminary. I do this because I fear offending people and making them angry if I challenge even the slightest aspect of something they’ve always believed to be true about Christmas. I do not want to alienate anyone. I only want to do the job I was trained to do and do it well.

In a world so rife with division, we could use more truth throughout our denomination and the church. I’m not attacking faith. Faith is what I preach, proclaim, and live. However, I believe we can be faithful people without asking each other to ignore history and science and unwittingly embrace the problematic aspects of the Christmas and Epiphany stories year after year.

I know virgin births were a common motif in divinity origin stories among the ancient Near East religions. Jesus’ and Mary’s account of a virgin birth is not unique. What matters is that Jesus is born. The how isn’t important. We’ve created a theological framework linking our salvation to Mary’s virginity. Who came up with that idea? A man. A human man, not a divine being. Men have a history of calling the shots over women, their bodies, religion, and sexuality. I’m a parent of three daughters. I’m a man and a feminist.

The church celebrates the birth of the Christian son of God on a co-opted pagan Roman holiday for worshiping the pagan son of God: myth becomes history then history becomes myth again. This cycle has repeated itself for two thousand years. Why can’t we keep things simple and tell the truth? Jesus was probably born in the spring. Christmas works for our market-driven 21st economy, but it’s not historically accurate. I should be able to say this from the pulpit without fear. What matters is that Jesus was born. I have faith in his birth. That, to me, means more than anything else.

Let’s talk about the Wise Men. Can we believe the Holy Family hung around in Nazareth for months (or years) after Jesus’ birth? No. At the same time, Zoroastrian astrologers chased a wandering comet to somehow end up right on his doorstep. It’s a great story, but it’s not true. It’s a beautiful and colorful invention on Matthew’s part to show Jesus’ appeal beyond the Jewish people, but after two thousand years of nativity plays, we’ve come to believe a falsehood; three guys (we assume three because of three gifts it could have been ten, the text doesn’t say an exact number) showed up to pay homage to Jesus.  It’s a weird story and a little dark when you consider it. This low-income family from Galilee, unable to return to Nazareth, was being used as political pawns between these “unsuspecting” foreign dignitaries and King Herod’s machinations for genocide. How could the wise men not have sensed Herod’s evil intentions? If we take Matthew’s story of the slaughter of the innocents at face value, they were crucial to Herod’s plan to murder hundreds of innocent children. As the story stands, the Wise Men are accessories to genocide. Today, they would be tried as war criminals in an international criminal court. We regard them as side players and bathrobe-wearing extras in our nativity pageants. No, they do not belong.

Historians, for decades, have looked for evidence of a large-scale genocide of children in the region around Bethlehem during the years 4-6 BCE.  None has ever been found. There is no historical or archaeological evidence of Herod’s massacre of the innocents. To fulfill the prophecy that Jesus needed to come “out” of Egypt like a new Moses, Jesus and his family needed a reason to be driven into Egypt. Matthew provided one. Do we need to hinge our faith in a manufactured genocide? The wise men never arrived in Bethlehem because the precipitating event which drove them home “by another route” never occurred.

What does this do to our image of Jesus as a refugee, fleeing Herod’s persecution to live in a foreign land (Egypt)? This, too, rests in the category of Matthew’s embellishments. Perhaps Christians should help refugees because it is the right and moral thing to do, not because Matthew claims that Jesus was a refugee. Do we not have an obligation to aid the poor because it is right to help them above and beyond the fact that Jesus was poor? If we’re only doing the right thing because our stories tell us to do so, then what on earth are we doing?

What’s wrong with letting Jesus, the redeemer of humanity, stand on his own two feet? Isn’t Jesus strong enough to warrant our attention span without these admittedly good yarns? Why do we believe our faith, to survive, needs to be woven through misrepresentations, outright distortions of the truth, and fantasy? If I knew that, I wouldn’t be telling you what I don’t dare preach on Christmas.

–Richard Bryant

The Word Became Like You and Me: John 1:1-14

The prologue, the opening to the Gospel of John, contains some of the most poetic, beautiful, and memorable verses in the New Testament. Make no doubt about it; the fourteen verses we read this morning are verses in a literal sense. They are poetry, some of the finest ancient Greek verse ever written, on par with Homer and the great Stoic philosophers. Yet like Homer, John’s verse does double duty. It’s not poetry for the sake of poetry. These aren’t Shakespeare’s love sonnets. John also retells history, recalling the past with carefully chosen words and images. He is a storyteller who thinks in verse, words, and pictures instead of a linear narrative. When we read John’s opening verses, we should remember that we are encountering a work of art. We step into a museum, sit on a bench, and before us are Monet’s haystacks or Van Gogh’s sunflowers. And for as long as we want, we are drawn in by the beauty of what we see. We encounter something new every time we look, read, and listen. We see shading differently. The contrast between light and dark strikes in a manner we’ve never felt before. John 1 is always yielding fresh insights.

Therein, as Shakespeare would say, is the rub. The irony of John 1 is that the newness it radiates also reveals the reality that we are reading history. John 1 is written in the past tense. Shakespeare’s Sonnets about love are always in the present; for love has always been and will ever be. As Homer did of the Trojan War, John writes about events that had already occurred. This changes how we approach the first chapter of John’s gospel today. “The word was with, and the word was God.” “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in him, he gave power, to become children of God.” Did you hear all of those past tense verbs? If John was writing to specific people in a particular time and place about events that have already occurred, where do we fit in? John wrote about people two thousand years ago, some of whom rejected and others who accepted Jesus as God made flesh. As John said, those who accepted this claim received the right to become children of God.

What then is to become of us, who, in the present tense, seeking to accept and be accepted by God now? John never imagined, in his wildest dreams, that people of mostly Anglo-Saxon heritage from Northern Europe, a land he did not know existed, two millennia after these words were written, would gather, ponder, and ask: “what does it mean to accept this statement as true – the word became flesh.”

 Is this story over? Can we still participate in cosmic John’s dialogue or have time? The past tense and history left us sitting on the sidelines. By genetics, history, and tradition, we are not, as John describes, his (or Jesus’) “own” people. His people were persecuted 1st century Palestinian Jews desperately searching for a Messiah. We are middle-class Americans, primarily well-off, living off credit and statin drugs, and our idea of a savior looks more like Kevin Costner in a cowboy hat than Jesus Christ in sandals. In our past tense, literal reading of John, we neither accepted nor rejected Jesus. Other than observers, who are we?

Now we’re getting somewhere. Are we able to find ourselves within the text? Is there a place for us in John’s story? Beneath the Platonic philosophy, Greek poetry, and Trinitarian theology running through the heart of this passage, one verse stands out for its transcendent humanity: “He came to what was his own, and his people did not accept him.” Here’s where I plug in. I know that verse. I feel those words in the pit of my stomach each time I read them. Why? I know what it feels like not to be accepted. We’ve all had that experience. Whether it’s been being picked last for the kickball team, being turned down to go out on a date, or having a flat tire and calling AAA only to be told your membership expired yesterday, all of us know what it means to be rejected. That’s what John is saying in verse 11. The people you thought would have accepted Jesus left him instead. Some of their rejections were indifferent. People ignored him and went about their way. Others stayed with him and then abandoned him at the last minute. While he so threatened one group, it wasn’t enough to ignore him or walk away; they rejected him by trying to erase his presence from human history.

Verse 11 gives meaning to the cosmic grandeur of verse 14; it provides the context we desperately need. To become flesh, authentic, and substantial is to be alive, and when we are truly alive, we will know exhilaration, joy, love, and rejection. This is how we know that Jesus wasn’t wearing the façade of humanity, a God-man in human clothes, but fully human, so that he knew what it meant to be a person, like you and I, on our best days and our worst days. If God’s humanity, the humanity we celebrate today in the incarnation of the Christ child, isn’t real, then neither is our salvation. This is all one big joke. We’re wasting our time and money for nothing. We’re singing some great traditional carols and hymns, but that’s about it. Religiously speaking, we’ve done nothing unless the word becomes flesh, not superficially, not in theory, but as a real live honest to God human being like you and me.

The word became flesh. This child is God. God is this child. If this child doesn’t spit up, poop his diapers, cry, and do all the things that children do and you have trouble accepting that, well, maybe, you are one of those people John is writing to. Do you accept him, not just as an ideal, but as a real person?

If you like cheesy manger scenes and plastic Jesus you can stick to your dashboard, you probably don’t like John 1. Plastic Jesus doesn’t ask much of you. You can put him up for the year and drag him back out next November.

Real Jesus is right here, in flesh and blood, a baby, waiting to be accepted. This is where we come in. We enter the text here, at this altar. Are you ready?

–Richard Bryant