Christmas 2021 – The Return of Ricky Bobby

“And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”  All people?  I’ve been stuck on this very familiar line for the last two weeks.  Is this Christmas good news for people living in hotels because their homes are too damaged?  Is this Christmas good news for people mourning the loss of loved ones to natural disaster, violence, or disease?  Is this Christmas good news to the tired, over-worked, and heavily burdened?  Can the good news that the angels brought into the Judean countryside really be for all people?  I suppose these questions could be asked every year, but when widespread pain hits so close to home, they seem to sit down in our living rooms, look us in the eye, and ask, do you really believe in this good news?

It’s been an uphill battle, to be sure, but tonight, I am finally back to the place where I can say, with full conviction that, yes, I do believe that the birth of a baby in a backwater town, to an unwed mother, two thousand years ago is good news for all people.  I believe it, in part, because I have come to know this child, Jesus, in my life in many different ways.  Earlier this week, at the funeral service for the longest-tenured member of this congregation, Jesus came to me as the Good Shepherd depicted in the window above me.  He arrived as a comforter who promises to carry me through those moments when I just can’t handle one more thing.  I’m grateful to Good Shepherd Jesus because he got me through the hardest parts of this week.

As the week went on, however, I found another Jesus creeping into my consciousness.  This Jesus knew that I had a sermon to write for tonight and just kept nagging at me to tell his story.  This Jesus is the baby Jesus, but not the tender and mild one you see in nativity scenes the world over.  Instead, this Jesus was first introduced to me in the 2006 theological wonder known as Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby.  Ricky Bobby, played by Saturday Night Live alumnus Will Farrell, is a successful NASCAR driver.  One night, as he, his wife, kids, father-in-law, and best friend sit down to a dinner made up of all his sponsors, Ricky began to pray,

“Dear Lord baby Jesus, or as our brothers to the south call you, Jesús, we thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Dominos, KFC, and the always delicious Taco Bell… Dear Lord baby Jesus, we also want to thank you for my wife’s father, Chip, we hope that you can use your baby Jesus powers to heal him and his horrible leg… Dear tiny, infant Jesus…”

When challenged with the fact that Jesus did, in fact, grow up, Ricky responds, “I like the Christmas Jesus best and I’m saying grace. When you say grace you can say it to grown-up Jesus, or teen-age Jesus, or bearded Jesus, whoever you want…” He folds his hands and bows his head again and says, “Dear tiny Jesus, in your Golden Fleece diapers with your tiny, little, fat balled up first…”
Again, Ricky is challenged, “He was a man, he had a beard!”  Ricky finally finishes his prayer, “Dear eight-pound six-ounce, newborn infant Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant, so cuddly, but still omnipotent. We just thank you for all the races I’ve won… thank you for all your power and your grace dear baby God, Amen.”

It is very strange to hear it out loud, but I think that this is often the way we pray. “Dear tiny infant Jesus” is a pleasant way to picture our God. And, you know, I don’t think there is anything wrong with that image of Jesus. It is part of what makes Christmas so special. God came to earth to put creation back together not by appearing magically out of thin air, but through the natural means by which a human being comes it this world. God entered the world just as helpless as the rest of us. God arrived as “dear tiny infant Jesus” – fully God and fully human.

God comes to us in all kinds of ways.  In that same dinner prayer scene, Ricky’s friend, Cal Naughton, Jr. tells Ricky, “I like to picture Jesus in a tuxedo t-shirt because it says like I want to be formal, but I’m here to party too…” and “I like to think of Jesus with giant, eagle’s wings and singing lead vocals for Lynyrd Skynyrd with an angel band…”  Ricky’s oldest son, Walker tells his dad that he likes to think of Jesus as a ninja, fighting off evil samurai.  Like I said, God comes to us in all kinds of ways.  The good news for all people is that in the incarnation, God became human so that humanity might become like God.

Incarnation is a fancy church word, and for that I’m sorry. It is created by combining two Latin words. The first, y’all know well, “in” which means, well, in. The second is “carnis” which means flesh. In – Flesh. Theologically, it is the understanding that God became human in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Incarnation means that God was one of us. It means that as Jesus experienced desires, temptations, frustrations, joys; all the messiness of life as a human being, it became a part of God.  As Jesus experienced them, so too did God.  Jesus being “in flesh” means that the gap between God and humanity was bridged; our relationship was restored. God, having now felt what it is like to be a human, to have a will that is prone to messing up, knows more fully what it means when we come to God with all of our joys and all of our sorrows. God was “in flesh” on earth! This is the good news of Christmas; God intervening radically in creation to restore our relationship; not just as a helpless baby, but throughout the life of experiences of teenage Jesus and grown-up, bearded Jesus.

Not only does God experience what it is like to be human, but we have a chance to see how God would have us live. The other side of the Incarnation coin is that God is made comprehensible by being “in flesh.” In the full life of Jesus, we see a life lived fully in accordance with God’s will. From Jesus’ first cry as an infant to his final gasp for breath on the cross, we get in the life of Jesus a life lived in perfect harmony with God. And, to be honest, we see that it isn’t all that demanding. It begins with a life lived modeling tiny-infant-Jesus; looking up with wide-eyed awe at the splendor of God’s creation; recognizing our full dependence on God for all things. As we grow in faith, we become more like teenage Jesus, getting to know God through Worship and the word. And then, as we mature, the model becomes grown-up-bearded Jesus. His life was one of service to the poor, outcast, sick, widowed, and orphaned. It was a life lived sharing the good news of God’s divine justice for the oppressed, the sad, and the lonely. It is a full life; from birth to death; a life lived from Sunday to Saturday – week after week after week.

The incarnation is all about God’s love for us overflowing. It is about God coming “in flesh” to show us how to live in response to that great love. As we gather this night to celebrate the Incarnation in the Nativity of tiny-infant Jesus we take that first step. As we leave tonight to await Santa’s arrival, we enter the world refreshed and renewed; ready to live another year in the model of the life of God “in flesh”. We prepare ourselves for another try at living in full harmony with the will of God. But we go, not filled with our own abilities, but instead empowered by the Holy Spirit, glorifying and praising God for all that we have heard and seen; excited for what a life lived with Jesus has in store.

Thanks be to God for sending Jesus to us in exactly the way we need him: newborn infant Jesus; teen-aged Jesus, Good Shepherd Jesus, Ninja Jesus, or Lynyrd Skynyrd Jesus. Thanks be to God for being willing to restore all of creation by living as one of us. And thanks be to God for the perfect model of Kingdom living. May God fill us to overflowing for another year of trying to live that life. Amen.

Merry Christmas

With Advent 4 and Christmas Eve falling on the same day this year, there isn’t much time to switch gears.  This is true in the life of the parish.  The greenery is already hung, candles are in the windows, and the remote control for the battery powered pillars has been located.  It is beginning to look a lot like Christmas, but only beginning.  The poinsettias and magnolia won’t show up until after the morning services are complete.  The Christ candle, lit twice this season in celebration of the Resurrection of the Dead, won’t get lit until Sunday night.  The decorations have only begun, but we know there won’t be much time to make the transition.  The same it true for preachers.  I’m grateful for the blessing of a staff.  This means that unlike many of my colleagues, I won’t be preaching Advent IV in the morning, Christmas Eve that night, and Christmas Day early the next morning.  While this blog has been focused on Advent IV, my exegetical life has been already focused on Christmas Eve.  This also means there isn’t much time to make the switch here either.  So, with apologies to the Advent Police, today, with the O Antiphons still on our lips, I take a moment to consider the joy that comes on Christmas.

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It seems that every Christmas, my interest is drawn to the same place.  Having twice been in a labor and delivery room, I’m not real interested in hanging out with Mary and her midwife for the delivery of the Christ child.  Instead, since it isn’t my child, I’ll act like a 1950s dad and hang out on the greens.  I’m always glad for the shepherds in the Christmas story.  I’m grateful that it is to them that the Good News of Great Joy is first delivered.  There, out on the margins, is where the heavenly hosts arrive to sing praise to the God of our salvation.

Nobody liked shepherds.  They were a necessary evil in a world still transitioning from nomadic farming.  They were smelly and suspect in character.  They were not to be trusted, and yet, it is to them that the Good News has been entrusted.  The unbelievable witnesses will tell the unbelievable story of God’s unbelievable love for all of humanity.  There is something comforting about all that disbelief.  It makes me feel like maybe, just maybe, I too might be qualified to tell the story.  It makes me sure that you, dear reader, have what it takes to spread the Good News of Great Joy for all the people.

As you make the quick transition from Advent to Christmas this year, my prayers are with you.  May God bless you with the words necessary to share the unbelievable joy that comes in a manger on the outskirts of Bethlehem.  Merry Christmas, dear reader, I will see you in the new year.

For Everyone!

The iconic image of the Angels on Christmas night is their song.  The heavenly choir breaks out in hymn as they sing to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

But the choir doesn’t arrive until after a single angel speaks to the shepherds saying, “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 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.”

Good news of great joy for all the people!

Clergy tend to get snobby this time of year as we talk with forked tongues about the Chreasters who will darken our doors on December the 24th.  We tend to side with the heavenly choir that sings about peace for “those whom God favors”   thinking that God’s favor rests upon us, our vestries, and the (traditionally) 20% who give fully of time, talent and treasure.

The great error in this way of thinking, is that we forget that God shows no partiality.  His favor rests upon all of his creation.  The good news of great joy is for all people, not just those we would prefer.

Deep down, I think we really believe that God’s love is for everyone.  How many of us work extra hard to preach that perfect sermon on Christmas Eve, hoping and praying that it motivates the Christmas/Easter/Mother’s Day crowd to show up every Sunday?  I honestly believe that we all hope that everyone will get to experience God the way we do, we just have a funny way of expressing it, I suppose.

So, dear reader, if you are preaching this Saturday night, remember, the good news of great joy is for everyone.  Yes, even you.