Tag Archives: sermons

Why Christians are Uncomfortable with Transcendence

Matthew 17:1-9

Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (read the whole passage)

When I was 17, I had the privilege of going to Germany with my High-school’s concert band program. In addition to concerts and staying with host families, we had the chance to visit historical sites, including cathedrals and churches.

If you have ever been to any of the great cathedrals of Europe, you will know that very few Canadian churches compare to the grandness of a great gothic cathedral. In Cologne Germany, we toured the cathedral. Before cell phones and digital cameras, I had to stand down the street from the cathedral to fit the church into 3 frames stacked on top of each other to take a picture of the cathedral with my film camera.

And when you walk inside, everything draws your eyes up. The arches and fresco paintings, the very high ceilings and domes. There is a pipe organ hanging from the ceiling that is itself nearly as big as a tour bus, not to mention all the pipes that would easily fill our church. There are half a dozen tours available in different languages, and despite there being hundreds of tourists milling about, the church felt very empty when I stood inside the vast space.

The cathedral’s size and design, the towering spires and gothic arches, are meant to convey one simple message. God is big. Very Big. And you are small. Very small.

The fancy word for this is transcendence. God’s transcendence was the message of the cathedral. God filled the world from the ground to the sky, and from nearly any point in the city, the cathedral’s towers could be seen. God seemed to fill every mountain and valley, every nook and cranny of creation. It was human beings who intruded humbly into a world that is God’s and not the other way around.

Today, Jesus and the disciples go up the mountain of transfiguration, and while there Jesus is transformed into dazzling white. Elijah and Moses (two pillars of Hebrew faith) show up, just to make it clear that Jesus and this moment is a big deal. If there is any word to describe what the disciples are experiencing, it would be transcendence. God is filling their world from ground to sky, in every direction and in every nook and cranny.

Yet, the transcendence is not a comfortable feeling… and who can blame the disciples? Wouldn’t we be equally confused to see a transfigured Jesus on a mountain top with Moses and Elijah?

Yet, Peter thinks he has figured things out. He suggested building a dwelling place, or a church or temple on the mountain top. A place where he can put transcendent Jesus and his buddies Moses and Elijah into boxes. Boxes where they can be easily contained and managed.

Peter has the same instinct with God that we so often do. Peter wants to change the transcendent experience of the divine into a imminent one.

Now, what is the imminence of God you ask?

Well, the opposite of transcendent. Imminence is the closeness and nearness of God. The comfortable and the intimate. It is having coffee and reading the morning paper on a lazy weekend morning. It is a snuggling in a nice warm blanket to watch a movie on a snowy day.

Imminence is manageable. And Peter is trying to turn the Transcendence of the Transfiguration into the imminence of God in a comfortable and manageable box.

Peter’s instinct is the same as one we often share. We too get uncomfortable with the bigness of God, with a God who fills the ground to the sky, who is in every nook and cranny in creation. We prefer a cozy and comfortable God, who makes us feel nice and warm, who is manageable.

An imminent God doesn’t challenge us or threaten us. The cozy faith that is only about feeling the warmth of family and friends and coffee and passive entertainment of church and worship is one that we can unconsciously strive for. In fact, Christians in North America often think that the solution to our decline is to make God even more imminent, even more cozy and comfortable, more entertaining and non-threatening.

Yet, the God that our world seems to be longing for is a God who is bigger than the troubles of the world, not a warm blanket that makes us feel nice. The world longs for a God that is bigger than war and violence, than poverty and injustice, than discrimination and inequality. The world needs a God who transcends those things in the world which we no power against, a God who is greater than evil, bigger than suffering, stronger than death. Because we all know that these things are lurking around us, and that even this week we know in our community that we have no power over when tragedy steps out of the shadows.

And so despite Peter’s desire to build literal secure boxes to keep Jesus, Moses and Elijah in, God interrupts it all. As if the Transfiguration couldn’t get more transcendent, God breaks open the heavens and fills the world with God’s voice, and speaks directly to the disciples. And with the same message from the moment of Jesus’ baptism “This is my son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased.” But this time God adds, “Listen to him.”

And with this, the disciples finally realize what this moment is. And they fall to their faces in fear. The transcendence of this mountaintop has finally hit them. They have been struck by the message: God is big, very big. And you are small, very small. But not in terms of significance, but relationally. God’s bigness, God’s transcendence fills our world. God cannot be contained in a box and restricted to a mountain top. God is filling the world, God is filling the disciples world and our world. And God the Father has sent Jesus the Son to do the filling so the disciples ought to pay attention to their friend and teacher.

And all of a sudden, everything is back to normal Jesus isn’t in dazzling white, Moses and Elijah are gone. It is just the same four who walked hiked up the mountain are left to go back down.

But Jesus has done what Peter and what we cannot. Peter tired to turn the transcendent into the immienent, to fit a Big God into a small and cozy box, just we often try to do in our churches and communites, in our boxes of faith.

But Jesus turns to the imminent into the transcendent. Jesus take the imminent experience of being a teacher and friend of the disciples, of being close and near and intimate, of being comfortable and manageable and Jesus bridges us to the transcendence of God. For you see, even though the white closes and the pillars of faith are gone, the voice of God is no longer speaking from the heavens… the transcedence is still there.

Jesus and disciples go back down the mountain, yet the bridge to the heavens remains. And ir remains through Jesus himself. Jesus is bringing the heavens down to with him to the people. Through Jesus God is about to fill creation with God’s grace and mercy again.

Through the Jesus who will go to the cross, to the next mountain of Golgatha where the heavens will be opened again, this time as the powers of death are defeated.

And it is the same bridge to the heavens, to the transcendence of God that Jesus brings to us. No matter how comfortable and cozy we want our faith to be, Jesus bridges the imminence with the transcendent.

With intimate words of confession and forgiveness, Jesus opens us up to the mercy of God.

With water that drenches our head and hands, Jesus proclaims our identity in the Kingdom of God.

With words of eternal life spoken on our lips and in our ears, Jesus declares that God’s love for all creation is also for each and everyone one of us.

With bread and wine served with our hands and eaten with our mouths, Jesus joins us to one another and to the Body of Christ across time and space.

It was not the mountain top or the bricks and mortar of the cathedral that permitted the transcendent to exist in our midst. Rather, God is bridging us to the divine each time we gather as the body of Christ. And then Jesus brings that bigness into our small places of our lives.

On Transfiguration Sunday, in these transcendent places, Jesus opens up the heavens and connects us to the Kingdom of God. Because no matter how much we want a warm blanket God, we need a God who is bigger than all the great powers of our world. We need a God who transcends sin, suffering and death…. A God who brings heaven down into the valleys of life and who shows us that God is bigger than it all.

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11 Christmas Eve Sermons that often get preached, but we don’t want to hear

easter-church-coloring-106We have all been there before. It’s Christmas Eve. The church is full. A whole bunch of people who aren’t normally at church on Sunday mornings, are sitting in the pews. Perhaps you are one of them.

Christmas carols have been sung. Maybe there was a pageant with a real live Mary, Joseph and baby. Maybe the sunday school kids are singing a sweetly off-key version of ”Away in a Manger”. There are some prayers and more singing, and someone has read the familiar Christmas story that begins, “In those days a decree went out…”

But before you can hold the candles and sing Silent Night, the pastor is going to ramble on for a while. This is the part you dread. What is the pastor going to say this year?

As a pastor, I am deeply aware that most people in church on Christmas Eve are not there to hear me. It is a weird night for us who preach. I would wager a guess that many Sunday morning folks look forward to sermons, or at least welcome sermons as an important part of worship. But Christmas Eve is different. Churches are uncharacteristically full. Visitors, strangers, unfamiliar faces fill the pews. It feels like the Superbowl of the church year. Your small group of devoted fans have been watching you all year, but now the whole world wants to see the show… well not really the show, they are really there for the commercials.

I have been in the pew more than in the pulpit on Christmas Eve during my life. And I have been subjected to atrocious Christmas sermons. Sermons from good preachers that make me think… “Huh? Did I miss something?” For some reason, Pastors pick strange sub-themes for their Christmas Eve sermons, sub-texts that are really about something else… I call these Junk Food sermons because they are mostly empty calories that don’t really fill us. They are more about the anxiety of the preacher, than about the story of Jesus. Here are 11 of them.

  1. The “come to church” sermon: The pastor tries tell all the visitors that because Jesus was born in a manger, they should try out this church on some other days of year. Churches are usually described as places that are pretty to cool to hang out at, or at the very least not so bad that they should be avoided. Pastors try to be welcoming but can come across as lonely people, in need of some friends.
  2. The “come back to church” sermon: This is related to the last one but it is for all the non-attending kids and grandkids of the regulars. The Pastor stresses the importance of Jesus’ birth, and the commitment that follows. Jesus was born for you, so you better join a committee and give some money. Well, not quite that direct, but there is the awkward sense that we were signed up for a job without our permission.
  3. The “why are you here?” sermon: This is preached by the pastor who has done a few too many “come to church” sermons. It is a passive aggressive lecture for the Christmas Eve crowd. It reminds them that coming to church once a year doesn’t count as being a real church goer, and so we should all feel bad for missing any Sundays at all.
  4. The “Jesus is the reason, so Santa is not” sermon: This one is a bit of a killjoy. The pastor tries to explain the “real story” behind Christmas, by telling us that Santa isn’t real. The War on Christmas folks love this sermon, but everyone else feels a little sheepish for having the wrong kind of Christmas joy, and writing “From Santa” on the present they gave to their kids. (The War on Christmas people wrote “From Jesus”).
  5. The “This God stuff sounds implausible, but you can believe it because we love each other” sermon: This one can get a little esoteric. The pastor talks about virgin births, angels, and magi following stars. It all sounds a little fantastical yet skeptical at the same time. But the pastor assures you that it is okay because the rest of us believe this crazy stuff.
  6. The “magic of Christmas” sermon: This one has all the feelings. And nostalgia. Maybe the Pastor shares a story of a childhood Christmas complete with grandmother’s knitting and Charlie Brown Christmas tree. The only mention of Jesus is an uncomfortable apology for his awkward presence.
  7. The “chicken soup for the… huh?” sermon: This is a storytelling sermon. The Pastor pretends to tell the story from the perspective of the donkey that Mary rode to Bethlehem, or the inn-keeper’s nagging barmaid wife, or even from the vantage point of a nearby tree. It seems to be somewhat related to the Christmas story, but no one is sure why or how… not even the pastor, apparently.
  8. The “theology lecture” sermon: This one is long, dry and confusing. It has big words like incarnation, eschatology, missio dei. The pastor seems to be really explaining what all this Christmas stuff is about, but you can hear snoring, a teen playing games on an iPhone and  a baby crying the whole time. No one knows when it will end.
  9. The “anti-consumerism, let’s meet at the soup kitchen afterwards” sermon: This one is full of high-minded values, except everyone feels ashamed for having seen a Christmas commercial or accidentally singing along with a Christmas carol on the radio in the previous month. The good news is that the local soup kitchen has been informed that we all are coming to serve dinner after the service.
  10. The “christmas spirit will make you believe” sermon: This one talks a lot about faith, believing, finding the divine, opening our hearts, letting the spirit in. The Pastor says just have faith, but what we are supposed to have faith in is not quite clear. Is it Jesus? Or Santa? Or Christmas Trees? Or Holiday spirit? All seem like valid options.
  11. The “please believe in Jesus, my job depends on it” sermon: This one is from the pastor who is feeling pressure to get more members. We are encouraged to start believing in Jesus, even if it isn’t cool. But Baby Jesus was cool. Oh and join the church, even though it isn’t cool. But our youth worker is cool! This one feels desperate.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I know there are a lot of great Christmas sermons that have been and will be preached. I know that many of my fellow pastors work hard to proclaim the story of Jesus born into the world for all creation and for us in particular. But I think Christmas can drive pastors, squirrelly, trying to preach a good sermon on the same story year after year. And if you do get one of the sermons above, forgive your pastor. He or she is just trying to do a good job on, maybe, the most pressure filled day of year.

To my colleagues. I don’t have the answers, I am an unrepentant story-teller. But try to keep it simple. Tell the story of God coming into the world. Don’t worry about why we should believe it or getting visitors to come back. Let God do that stuff. Just preach it like the angels:

“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 Saviour, 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.”


Any stories of Christmas sermons you have endured? Are there more to add to the list? Share in the comments or on twitter @ParkerErik or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor

***Thanks again to my wife for contributing. You can follow Courtenay at @ReedmanParker on twitter.***

Other Advent and Christmas posts:

I am at war with Christmas

Two Reluctant Prophets: John the Baptist and Nelson Mandela