An Advent Thought: A Royal Nobody

(Note: I’m (Joel) contributing to a daily Advent devotional. Each post proceeds from a lectionary reading.)

John 7:40-44

When they heard these words, some of the people said, “This really is the Prophet.” Others said, “This is the Christ.” But some said, “Is the Christ to come from Galilee? Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” So there was a division among the people over him.

Jesus was a confusing figure. If he really was the “Prophet” (an end-times figure that 1st Century Jews were looking for as a sign that God’s day of final salvation had emerged) or the “Christ” (a king-like anointed leader; again a symbol that final salvation had commenced) THEN WHY WAS HE FROM GALILEE?

Galilee was backwoods. Galileans were a peasant people. Thoughts like this emerge:

“Nothing wrong with Galilee, but the Christ would have to come from somewhere else.”

“If he is from Galilee, he can’t be him.”

Instead, you see, the Christ would be of royal lineage! From the ancient city of David! From David’s line!

John is writing with great irony here, and intentionally so. Jesus had been born in Bethlehem, but he grew up and lived his adult life in Galilee. While John’s reader knows this, the characters in the narrative do not. John loves this dramatic irony.

In this exchange, however, is the great hope of the Advent season. Further, it’s the hope of the gospel, in miniature.

Jesus is indeed royal. He is the king of kings, for crying out loud. The God of all creation, in him all things hold together.

But at his coming, we have a king on the scene that made himself nothing. He’s in human skin. To draw near. To be God with us. To come for and to identify with the nobodies, the insignificant ones, and the ones who don’t have it all together.

More irony? Heck, when this royal son of David went to the royal city of David for the occasion of his birth, forget a birthing suite. His parents can’t even find a cheap hotel room.

It’s that exact combination — his kingliness and his lowliness — that constitutes all our hope.

A Royal Nobody.

All for us.

One Year, Drew & Ordinary Faithfulness

(Note: A year ago this past weekend (12/14 to be exact), my family commemorated the life of my brother-in-law, Drew, in a memorial service. To say his tragic loss has framed the last year for us is an understatement. We’ve learned much about grief, good news, pain, hope, joy and courage. Below are the thoughts I had the honor to offer at his memorial. It’s an ode to Drew, and the “ordinary,” yet sacred, faithfulness he lived. All possible because of Jesus. Themes of Hopeful Realism pervade.)

Romans 14:8

“For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.”

My name is Joel Busby. It is the great honor of my life to be married to Mandy, Mick and Sue’s oldest, and I’m here to offer a few words on behalf of the family. First, let me just say a sincere thanks to you all for the ways you have loved us, supported us, prayed for us, comforted us in the last week. God gives us the gift of his presence through his people and we have felt that in concrete ways. And, we will need it to continue.

We wanted this service to tell a story, first, you heard about Drew, the fun person, then about Drew, the friend. Well, because I represent the family – Mick, Sue, Mandy, Ashley, Abby, Anna and Abby Clark, I could tell you stories that could top all of it. Because we were privileged to know him longest and best, we could say even more. Simply put, Drew Vigneulle was a wonderful person. He loved his family dearly and we loved him too. This family was crazy about our son, our brother, and best friend.

I’m hear to tell you about Drew, the faithful guy, the faithful to the end young man, AND THEN to turn our attention to exactly who it is that made Drew all these things.

Last Saturday afternoon, Andrew Michael Vigneulle, son, brother, brother-in-law (last time I’ll use that term, we dropped the “in-law” part in this family awhile ago), cousin, grandson, nephew, friend, best friend, mentor, co-worker, acquaintance passed from this life into the very presence of Christ.

I say it this way intentionally and carefully as a very loaded summary statement of his life. Through the pain and sorrow and heartache, there is a basic truth that cannot be missed.

Drew’s story is ultimately a story of great success, great faithfulness, great triumph in the things that matter most.

See, as Christians, we believe that God is good to gift us with a certain amount of days. The number of those days, the when and why and how those days will come to a close….see all of that is not our concern. That is God’s business….not for us to worry about. Ultimately we know that he doesn’t forsake or fail his people, and we believe he is wiser than we are.

But with the days that we’ve been given, the call is actually very simple, not easy, but simple. We are supposed to do our best to love God with everything we are, and to love those around us with a selfless love.

And my brother, Drew, did that. Our family has heard over and over and over from you this week, that our precious Drew did that. So, so, well. For me to be able to say that so definitively…Isn’t that such a gift he gave us? We’ve heard stories of acts of kindness and generosity he showed to people, secretly. Things that we never knew and we never knew them because Drew, more than most people I’ve ever met, and unlike many of us, wasn’t too concerned with himself.

Drew was obviously a phenomenal talent. But, when I think of Drew, I’ll always think of a very simple, genuine, honest, authentic faith, and real and true desire to love the people around him….to be a gracious presence wherever he might go. You all know this, but we’ve never known anyone who was quite like him. We experienced that in our family intimately and personally, his absolute humble, kind gracious presence in our lives, you all experienced that too in school, in your homes, on trips, at camp, at Starbucks, etc. etc…

The last conversation I had with Drew, we talked about these very things. Because I’m a minister, he and I would talk along these lines often, about the ultimate things. That day, at my house, he spoke of his desire to be faithful in the places where God had placed him, the circumstances God had given him, a plain and simple and ordinary kind of faithful.

Here’s the deal: Very few of us, will get to do something outwardly grand, heroic, triumphant, for God….And the older I get and the more life I experience, I’m coming to believe “epic” and “grand” things may be a little overrated anyway….

Instead, our lives will mostly be made of tiny, ordinary, seemingly insignificant moments, each an opportunity to be faithful, to love and serve our great God and and to extend his love to others. An author Drew and I liked a lot called this kind of life a “long obedience in the same direction.” A one day at a time, ordinary kind of faithfulness.

And, here’s the irony, when a life is compiled that has been built on these moments, when it is remembered on a day like today, my gosh is it not something to celebrate?

It is good and sacred and beautiful and inspiring…… and actually far far from “ordinary.”

There are lot of talented people, and Drew was one of them, but there are not many faithful people. And when you meet a faithful person, you have encountered something very very rare.

With what Drew was given – talents, abilities, circumstances, even the challenges, the places he found himself – he did his best (of course not perfectly) and he succeeded, at being faithful to the end.

And here’s the thing: when a Christian does this, serves God faithfully with the days he’s been given – though difficult – it’s a dignified, honorable, noble, appropriate, even good, and an okay thing for them to pass from this life into the very presence of Jesus.

In other words, our Drew did exactly what he was supposed to do with this precious life he was given. And it’s the exact thing we are supposed to do with ours, too. Oh that the same could be said about us….What we are saying and celebrating today, at the end of the day, is the story that we all hope our lives will tell, too, right?

(And one thing I want to say to Mick, Sue, my Mandy, Ashley, Abby, Anna and Abby Clark: You did with Drew’s life exactly what you were supposed to do too. Hear that. You loved him. Supported him. Cared for him. Encouraged him. Championed him. He knew you loved him. You were faithful to the end also with Drew. Be encouraged. You were faithful.)


What made Drew this way? What would make a 25 year old young man this way? I’m about to try something daring and impossible. I’m about to try to explain Drew Vigneulle. I’m going to try to put this wonderful man in context….

Here’s our definite answer: Drew lived this way because the grace and mercy and love of Jesus.

See, Drew believed that his life and his story, was actually caught up in a much grander and bigger story. Drew and I loved to talk about this bigger story. And he would want you to hear this story in a fresh way this afternoon. Celebrating Drew is really about celebrating Jesus. Because all these things we’re saying about him, his life in general, was a sign that point us to Jesus.

And, we all always needed to be reminded of this. It happens to be the best news I know and it just so happens to be all our hope. We need this news today, now more than ever. Humor me, while I tell you this story.

Christians believe that a good God created a good world. And through a crazy sequence of events, the world has become marred and broken. This is true on a cosmic scale, we taste death and evil and disasters and tragedy. Just a few minutes glancing at the news will show you what I mean. But it is also true on a personal level. We are victims of this brokenness, but we are also participants. We feel it in our own hearts, our selfish attitudes, in desire to live in a way that says “forget you God”, our propensity to screw things up and make a mess and hurt people, not to mention our fears and insecurities and flaws and imperfection. We are in bad shape, we’ve lost our way, we are in great need. Our world, and ourselves, are broken almost beyond repair. The key word there is almost.

See, we believe, that because God loves sinful broken things and people, he made a move to begin to redeem, renew and rescue. This rescue plan, picked up steam when God himself, unexpectedly, mysteriously, took on skin, became human, entered into our story, showed up on the scene, entered into our mess. (It’s the very thing we celebrate at Christmas.)

And Jesus lived for us, obediently and faithfully, and in his very person and work, he brought redemption and salvation and his rule and reign into our world.

This work comes to a height when, again, mysteriously, he gave his life on a cross. In the greatest expression of love and grace and mercy, he took on evil, and suffering, and tasted death for you and me. At this cross, forgiveness of sin, redemption and rescue were all accomplished. Because of his work we can be right with God, we can be reunited with him. We can be truly free.

And Jesus was raised from the dead, a sign of at least three things:

1) He had defeated sin and evil and death. Obviously, death hasn’t disappeared yet but it has literally been disarmed. It’s ultimate sting is gone. A death can now strangely and mysteriously be celebrated as a crossing of a finish line, as a “gain,” simply “falling asleep.” Something so dreaded is now just a nap. Our son and brother Drew, because of the work of Jesus is now safe and home and more alive than he’s ever been in the actual presence of this Jesus.

2) That God does some of his best work in the darkest situations. Our family hopes in that today.

3) And Jesus’ resurrection was a sign that he is creating something new and fresh and exciting in the world, despite how things sometimes appear. That our God is at work to repair and redeem, to work good, and to extend his rule and reign to all nations. We believe this Jesus will return again to finish this saving work fully and finally, and to create a New Heavens and a New Earth, where sin and death will actually be no more. We obviously are not there yet. We long for his coming, some days more than others.

When people trust this God, cling to him and embrace his grace and mercy, he makes them new and alive. And while we await his return, these Jesus-followers are then sent out as agents, to extend his rule, to extend his love, to proclaim this amazingly good news with words and deeds and to extend his grace in whatever places they find themselves, to work alongside their God in his work to repair and redeem….To shine light into the darkness in plain and simple ways.

That is what my brother Drew was doing.

That was what he was living. Because he had been loved so generously and freely, he was safe and secure and could freely pour that out grace all around him. He believed that this story applied to him personally.

Make sense now?

He was simply playing his role in a bigger story. The good news of Jesus was the behind the scenes story that informed and shaped his life. And it can shape yours, too.

Though ____________ ; yet I will……

(From today’s Daily Office)

Habakkuk 3:17-18

17 Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.

Ours is a broken world. It’s as broken as it is confusing. The strange juxtaposition of “beautiful and terrible things” is almost too much to fathom.

In this passage, the prophet resolves to rejoice in the Lord, in spite of the way things are.

The text is a very appropriate Advent reading.

It is easy for us to think that God is most at work when things are going right. This is not true. He is at work in the way things actually are. No matter how difficult. Martin Luther believed that one look at the cross tells us as much.

This is why God came. A light needed to come into the darkness.

Where do you need him today? During this season?

Fill in the blank for your life: “Though the ___________, yet I will rejoice in the Lord.”

Jesus came, so that he could come into our present tense painful situations.

Believe and hope.

The Sacrilege we call “Incarnation” (and the Divine Love of Drastic Measures)

Facing the western rose window in Durham Cathedral
Facing the western rose window in Durham Cathedral

The Word became flesh and dwelled among us… (from John 1:14)

Last night was the annual Carol Service for St Mary’s College. As Chaplain, the organization of everything but the music was my responsibility (and for the online record, the St Mary’s Chapel Choir may be the best of its kind—anywhere). Intermingled with the ethereal, other-wordly beauty of the choral music were readings textured with earthy grit.

Other-worldly beauty plus earthy grit—these lie at the heart of Christmas. And the line above from John 1:14 lies at the heart of the Christian tradition.

Below is a slightly edited version of what I preached last night in Durham Cathedral…

The Word—God himself in the Person of Jesus—became flesh.

So GOD…with toenails. GOD…with pores, cuticles, and hair follicles. GOD vulnerable to bug bites, infections; even prone to body odor. GOD with a belly button. I

know this Cathedral is almost 1,000 years old, but I doubt “belly button” has been said from this holy pulpit with much frequency.

And maybe it is okay to laugh a bit. If my children have not yet giggled over the idea of God with bug bites and a belly button, then I will be shocked. To speak in such theological absurdities, to speak of God in this way, can evoke 1) laughter, because the idea of God with crumbs in his beard and wine on his breath seems almost comical.

But to speak with such earthy grit about God can also evoke offense. It assaults our sensibilities about the divine. God encased within a warm, membranous sack of amniotic fluid that spilled on the dirt clotting up dust in a Judean stable—it sounds sacrilegious, unworthy of the pleasing aesthetics of our choral music, too jarring for the lovely sentimentality of our favourite John Lewis commercial.

But this “sacrilege” we call “Incarnation”: the Word became flesh.

At the heart of Christian faith is the apparent “sacrilege” of God with a body, of God becoming materially visible, touchable. It also made him, of course, killable, as the Cross reminds us.

Some mysteries are not meant to be unraveled. But a reason is provided for this Incarnation. Why did “the Word become flesh and dwell among us?” From John chapter 3—because “God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son.

Why did Divinity end up with an umbilical cord and eyelashes? Because of a love so energetic that compelled God to take drastic measures.

When I was at university, I was quite the cynic toward love and romance. But in my final year I suddenly found myself ensnared, arrested, overpowered… and she had no idea. After much inner turmoil, eventually we began a dating relationship that, was fairy-tale wonderful. Six months later we had scheduled what now would now be called a “gap year.” She was leaving to spend a year in South America, and I was boarding a plane for a trip around the world. There at the airport gate I hugged her one last time, trying not to cry and make a scene. Then I told her, “the next time I see you, I’m going to ask you to marry me.” I turned away and boarded that plane.

Several months later I was on another plane. With no training in Spanish, I landed in the sweltering coastal heat of Guayaquil and traveled by night into the interior of Ecuador. The next day I somehow I managed to get onto this rickety old bus full of locals, chickens, maybe a pig or two, and there I was, a nervous gringo with a very conspicuous bouquet of flowers. We wound through remote villages in the Andes Mountains, and at around 3,000 metres above sea level, I hopped off the bus. Then, after some searching and waiting, I found the girl. She said yes, and she is sitting here tonight.

My point is this: When someone loves you fiercely, they will come after you. When someone fiercely loves you, they will bridge the distance, propel through the blockades; they will take drastic measures.

And that is why “the Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” For God so loved. No matter how many ferries or buses or planes or mules I would have had to take, I would have found that girl in those mountains. But God has made a cosmic leap, from the ethereal beauty of heaven into our earthy grit. Come hell or high water, no distance daunted him, and he came into our mess to find us.

That is why God had pores and eyelashes and dust between his toes: For God so loved.

It is the sort of love that makes angels sing aloud in the dark.

The Feast of God (serving up a heap of Death)

NOTE: This is a post I wrote some time ago, but since Thanksgiving is upon us once more, and since I really love Isa 25:6–10, a text I taught on in a lecture earlier in the week, I want to re-post.

Enjoy the feasting…


For Americans, Thanksgiving is a day of grateful feasting, a day when there is a greater ceremonial significance for the table, a day of solemn yet joyful reflection on divine goodness with fork and glass in hand.

Feasting can be holy.  We see Jesus regularly “at table,” as if affirming the dinner gathering as sacred time and sacred space.  For remembering and honoring Him, He gave us a meal—the grinding of unleavened bread with our teeth, the sweet touch of wine on our lips… “do this in remembrance of me.”

The holy feast has a long tradition for God’s people.  In Isaiah, we read about a special, eschatological feast:

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples

a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,

of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. [Isa 25:6]

But while the mortal myriads sup such luxurious wine and munch on such a lavish, meaty spread, God Himself will be eating…

And He will swallow up on this mountain

the covering that is cast over all peoples,

the veil that is spread over all nations.

He will swallow up death forever;

And the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from all faces. [Isa 25:7]

While the redeemed and rescued are sitting at a sumptuous table celebrating salvation, God will be having His own meal.  Served at the feast of God is Death itself.  The massive jowels of the cosmic Lord will be grinding up the squirming, dying enemy of all flesh, that age-old foe so ruefully welcomed into a fresh, teeming world through another meal, a forbidden meal of fruit from an Eden-tree.  Splayed out on a platter and set before the hungry eyes of the Almighty, Death will be digested, perhaps singed to well-done by a consuming, holy fire.

Thanksgiving is a day to eat, drink, and be merry.  Christians ultimately do so not because they have a nice country in the U.S., but because a better country awaits, one in which the oppressive “covering” of Death will be crunched up and obliterated in the eschatological feasting of God.

To that, I say, “Cheers.”

Happy Thanksgiving, friends….

The UK Version of ‘TheoMedia': now available

My book TheoMedia is now a UK citizen, so to speak. The Lutterworth Press secured the rights to publish the book here and came up with their own cover design (which turned out very well, I think). The copies are being printed and available for order at their website.


The difference between this version and the US version released a year ago?

An INDEX. And it is awesome (as far as indices go).

A big thanks to the folks at Lutterworth!

Submitting the PhD thesis


[NOTE: Having returned to the blog after a long hiatus, I found some quirks in the blog theme I had been using. We will probably be trying a few other designs over the next couple of weeks, so please forgive the aesthetic shifts!]


On 15 August I handed over a 105,328-word document to someone behind a welcome desk in Durham University’s Palatine Centre. It was a rather unceremonious act  in form.

Not in reality. And the good folks at Flat White Coffee supplied a memorable scene that was ceremonious enough (note the “receipt” of my submission next to the espresso drink).


As my wife pointed out—with a bound copy of the PhD thesis sitting between us on the dining table—that PDF is the most expensive thing we own… at least in a sense. Our lives have been hinged to the conviction that my vocational service to the church includes an academic slant. Multiple moves and costly degree programs have defined our past decade… along with the adventure of rearing 4 precious children amidst the pressures.

A “viva”(oral exam) still awaits. And yes, I am nervous about it. But for now, a few brief thoughts…

The Bio of the Book

I will post more on the topic and arguments of the thesis later. For fun, though I would just like to point out that 17 years ago I was sitting at a desk in the O’Callaghan house reading John’s Gospel and noticing a few threads that seemed worthy of further exploration.

14 years ago I started checking out PhD programs from the computer lab at Beeson Divinity School.

8 years ago I made my first (of two) exploratory trips to Durham.

And then a few weeks ago I turned in my third “book.” (Thanks for indulging the historical sketch).


A PhD is often a Pyrrhic Victory

I wrote once here at HR that the Christian vocation can often feel like a Pyrrhic victory. This is from that earlier post :

Pyrrhus was a Greek king who soldiered valiantly into the might and muscle of Rome in the 2nd century BC. After a brutalizing series of particular engagements, the battle dust began to settle and someone gave him the news that he was the victor.

Pyrrhus did not feel very victorious.

In fact, he felt messed up, broken down, and demoralized. To gain this “victory” he had sustained massive losses. Though most of the 15,000 corpses lying across the outskirts of Asculum belonged to the Romans, the Greek body count was grievously high (and the Romans had been much better resourced).

A Pyrrhic victory is one in which the gains are roughly commensurate with the losses. From the annals:

“Pyrrhus replied to one that gave him joy of his victory that one more such victory would utterly undo him. For he had lost a great part of the forces he brought with him, and almost all his particular friends and principal commanders….” (see here for Plutarch’s biographical sketch).

I have been a bit of a drama queen over the difficulties of pursuing the PhD. (Please forgive me). But to be absolutely clear: it is miserably hard (though the academic stuff was often less difficult than the circumstantial).

A “Victory,” Nonetheless…

Though a keen sense of the sacrifice in writing that these certainly accompanies its submission, I am delighted to report that over the following days it gradually occurred to me that breathing was a bit easier (figuratively), as if I had been sucking in air for years with a boulder on my chest only recently lifted. The increased oxygen supply has been wonderful. Unburdened by the thesis, my lungs have been able to expand a bit.

And next…

Amidst sleeping a bit extra and reading fiction mostly guilt-free, I am now in quest for a job. And the viva looms nearer each day, for which I feel I must have John’s Gospel memorized in the Greek, along with all the writings of Alexandrian theologians in the first few centuries of the church. These scholarly endeavors are impossible feats, of course (at least for me).

But overall I am pleased to report a general sense of relief, and possibly an increased degree of sanity.

I feel almost 105,328 words lighter.