A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Monday, January 14, 2019

Sunday Worship Prayer (Jan. 13/Baptism of the Lord Sunday) Athens First UMC

[We observed “Baptism of the Lord Sunday” by celebrating a baptism and participating in a baptism renewal. It was a time to renew our faith by coming forward to the baptism font to touch the water and take a smooth stone from the bowl as a reminder of God’s renewing presence in our lives. See picture above. The video below is a group of people in our church singing, “A Wonderful Time Up There” which was one of the top songs in 1957 when our church building was dedicated. Even though Athens County was under a Level 2 snow emergency and we needed to have one combined 10:30 worship service, the presence of the Lord was in this place. For the sermon, click here.]

O God, we have gathered at the river even on this cold and snowy winter morning. Thank you for meeting us here by the river and for our baptism font that is a symbol of new life in Christ, the presence of your Holy Spirit in our lives, the cleansing water of baptism, and the forgiveness of sins.

Thank you for Vicky’s baptism and for her renewed journey of faith. We have gathered with her here at the river and have offered to you our aching hearts, our questions, and our expectations. We have gathered here at the river to be renewed in our faith, and to remember our baptisms.

Thank you for your Holy Spirit which always hovers over the waters of baptism offering to us new life, new possibilities, and new joys. We are so blessed to be part of your family here at Athens First.

You have claimed us as your own and you have given us the name, “beloved.” Thank you for reminding us of who we are and whose we are on this special Sunday of the year when we remember Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of his ministry.

And as your baptized community of faith, lead us to serve in his name. Lead us to be the people you have called us to be. Lead us to have a loving faith, a learning faith, and a living faith.

We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, who taught us to pray together saying…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Sermon (Jan. 13) by Rev. Robert McDowell “A River & a Beach”

     What motivated you to make all the effort to wake up on a cold January Sunday morning and come to church today?  We’re in this post-holiday winter month and yet, here we are.  We’re in church.  What was it that prompted you to be here today?

     Something jumped out at me when I first read our Gospel reading.  Maybe you noticed it too.  Luke tells us that the people who came to see John the Baptist were filled with expectation.  I wonder if this partially explains why we make our way to this place on Sunday mornings.  

     I read somewhere that people are more open to attending church when they’re facing some kind of challenge or change in their lives.  It could be a death of a loved one, a loss of a job, a move into a new community, a health issue – We tend to be more open to finding a church and exploring our faith when we are facing transitions in life.

     I’m always interested in what brings people to church.  Sometimes people come through these doors because deep down, they know that there’s got to be something more in life.  There just might be something that will help them to know that there is a positive and powerful presence beyond ourselves.

     Luke tells us that the people came with their questions.  They probably had a lot of questions.  Who is this man standing by the River Jordan calling out for the people to turn their lives around and repent?  Why is he immersing them with water?  Is he the one who will lead us to freedom from Roman rule?  Is this the time we’ve all been waiting for all these years?  

     The River Jordan is symbolic for that place that we all long for, that place where just maybe, just maybe, we can experience wholeness and newness of life.  And we bring our questions, our doubts, our longings, and our expectations.

     Maybe this church is your Jordan River.  I hope this is a place where we feel that we can bring our questions and our expectations and know that there is a community of people who accept us as we are.  

     It’s OK to come to this place and say, “I honestly don’t know how to handle what I’m facing in my life right now.  I have more questions than answers and that’s why I’m here.”  If this sounds like you, I hope you know that this is a church where many of us have similar questions and we’re so glad you’re here.  We recognize that we are all on a journey and together we can be there for each other.

    A church member was telling me about a conversation he had with a friend who doesn’t attend any church.  And this friend of his was sharing about a huge problem that he was facing in his life.  As he talked about this problem, he kept ruling out possible solutions. 

     After patiently listening to this person share his problems and his questions, this church member introduced him to something that he had never thought of doing.  He said to him, “Here is what I have found.  When you don’t know what to do, pray.”  And right there where they had been having their conversation, he prayed for his friend.  He didn’t solve his problems but he did point him to the One who can make all things new.

     Notice that when the people brought their expectations and questions to John the Baptist, he didn’t try to provide easy answers and quick solutions.  Instead, he pointed them to the One who can make all things new.  He pointed them to Jesus Christ.  

     Our church is a place where we can bring all of our questions and expectations and encounter the presence of Christ.  We might not have all the answers, but like John the Baptist, we can point each other to Christ who promises to be with us always.

     This kind of reminds me of a pastor who was leading a children’s sermon.  He told them that he had something very exciting to share with them that day.  The children’s eyes lit up and they couldn’t wait to hear what it was.  

     The pastor asked them, “What is small and furry, has a big tail that often goes straight up and runs around the yard gathering nuts?”  One very attentive little boy timidly raised his hand.  “OK, Jimmy.  What do you think it is?”

     And this little boy said, “Well…I know the answer is Jesus, but it sure sounds a lot like a squirrel.”

     What a great answer!  This little boy had learned that Jesus is at the center of all of our questions and longings.  Jesus is at the center of all our deepest needs.  Jesus is at the center of all our hopes and dreams.  

     And all that John the Baptist needed to do was to point people to Jesus.  He knew that if they found Jesus, that they would receive more than what he had to offer.  The church member who was listening to his friend could have offered his personal opinions and advice, but instead, he pointed him to Jesus and invited him to pray.

     It’s not our advice that makes us the church.  It’s the One to whom we point that makes us the church.  I’m not that clever of a person.  I don’t have a whole lot of wisdom that can help people experience hope and transformation.  But I do know the One who has made me whole.  I do know the One who has freed me from my brokenness and sin.  I do know the One who is more powerful than all of us combined.  That’s him over there, the one with a dove descending upon him, the One who has heard a voice from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

     The water of baptism reminds us of the river where we encounter the One who makes all things new.  It’s through our baptism, that God claims us and calls us by name.  It’s through our baptism that we are reminded that we are never alone.  God is with us.

     The water of baptism reminds us of the river where John the Baptist stood so long ago.  But it also reminds me of the ocean and the beach…Rehoboth Beach, Delaware to be exact.  This is where Penny and I spent our vacation one summer.  Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.  It’s just south of Atlantic City, New Jersey and it’s just north of Ocean City, Maryland.  

     Penny and I were sitting on the beach, 78 degrees, blue skies, listening to the waves, reading, and relaxing, when I turned to her and asked, “Why haven’t we been going to the beach every summer?  What is wrong with us?”  

     Do you know why we finally went to the beach that summer?  It’s because of all of those summer vacation beach pictures that people post on facebook every single summer.  I couldn’t take it anymore! I said, “This year, we’re going to the beach!”

     During one of our days at the beach, we got some ice cream and we sat down on a bench there on the boardwalk.  And I noticed an historical marker directly across from us.  I like history, so I went over to read about the history of Rehoboth Beach.  

     Now, I was fully aware that Methodists have started over 100 colleges and universities.  And I’m also aware that Methodists have over 70 hospitals and clinics throughout the country and many more around the world.  But I didn’t know that the place where I was standing as I was reading that historical marker was started by the Methodist Church!

     So here is a summary of this historical marker: 

     In 1872, the Methodist preacher, Robert W. Todd of St. Paul’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Wilmington, Delaware was feeling very tired and feeble from weeks of conducting several camp meeting services.  

     He decided to spend time at a beach on the Jersey Shore.  He returned to his church greatly restored in health and spirit. He shared of his experience in a sermon using as his text the words, “And the sea hath spoken.”

     This holy personal renewal led this Methodist clergyman to establish The Rehoboth Beach Camp Meeting Association of the Methodist Episcopal Church on January 27, 1873.  His desire was to provide a place where people could come to hear the good news of Jesus Christ and to experience the beauty of God’s creation along the Atlantic Ocean.  This Methodist preacher who had experienced God’s renewing love on his recent trip to the beach wanted others to experience this transformation as well.

     When I read that sign, I felt God’s presence in a very real way.  Just two weeks earlier, I had experienced a death in my family and this vacation couldn’t have come at a better time for Penny and me.  Being at the beach was truly a spiritual renewal for us.

     And then as if that wasn’t enough, I remembered that this was the same beach where my church youth group would go for a weekend spiritual retreat each year.  During one of those summer youth retreats, I experienced God’s love for me in a very real way.  After I returned  home from that retreat, I knew that Jesus was in my heart.  I knew that God would always be with me.  

     All of these emotions came rushing over me as I stood in front of that Rehoboth Beach historical marker.  I said a quick prayer of thanks to God for this feeling of renewal and hope.  God really does work in mysterious ways.

     For the people in our Gospel reading, it was a river.  For me that summer, I experienced Christ at a beach.

     Whether it’s a river or a beach, Christ invites us to bring our aching hearts, our questions and our expectations. And trust me, trust me, he will meet you there by the water.

A River & a Beach
Sermon Discussion Questions
Acts 8:14-17 & Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
January 13, 2019
This Sunday on the church calendar is known as “Baptism of the Lord Sunday” when Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. This Sunday gives us the opportunity to reflect on the meaning of baptism. Basically, there are five theological meanings associated with baptism. It signifies 1) Our response to God’s grace 2) Renewal 3) New Birth 4) Inclusion into the community of faith 5) Forgiveness/Cleansing
Which of these five meanings is most meaningful for you? Why?
In our Gospel reading, Luke tells us that the people came to John the Baptist out of curiosity. They had questions and expectations for something meaningful. In this way, the Jordan River where people were baptized is a symbol of where our hopes and curiosity lead us to Christ and newness of life. 
What are some questions and expectations you have at this point in your faith journey?
A story was shared in the sermon how two people were having a conversation and the person was sharing about a very difficult problem that he was facing. After sharing for a few minutes without any obvious solutions, the other person said how prayer helps him whenever he feels like there are no clear answers. Instead of offering advice, he simply invited to pray for his friend.
When has prayer helped you through a difficult situation you were facing?
Pastor Robert shared that Rehoboth Beach, Delaware was started by a Methodist preacher back in 1873 to be a place for renewal. He did this because this beautiful and relaxing setting along the Atlantic Ocean helped him to find spiritual renewal  in his life. It was known as the Rehobeth Beach Camp Meeting of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Yes, Methodists have founded beaches as well as churches, hospitals and colleges!
Do you have a sacred space where you can go to receive renewal in your faith journey?

Monday, January 7, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Jan. 6/Epiphany) Athens First UMC

[Sunday was Epiphany on the church calendar which represents the 12th Day of Christmas and the day that the Wise Men brought their gifts to the Christ Child. It’s also known as the day when we invite the congregation to take down the Christmas decorations after each worship service which is what is happening in the photo above. The video below the prayer is our choir singing “We Three Kings” during the 10:30 worship service. For the sermon, click here. Happy Epiphany, everyone!]

O God, thank you for giving us great reasons to joyfully skip into this New Year. On this twelfth Day of Christmas, we join the Wise Men in joyfully offering our gifts to the Christ Child. We don’t have gold or frankincense or myrrh, but we do offer to you our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. 

We skip into this New Year because you sent Jesus to be the Savior of the world. We skip into this New Year because you offer forgiveness and abundant life. We skip into this New Year because you have created us to have a loving faith, a learning faith, and a living faith. We skip into this New Year because you have given us each other for encouragement and support. We skip into this New Year because no matter how dark the world may seem, you can always overcome the darkness because you are the light of the world. We skip into this New Year because you promise to meet us in a very real way every time we receive the bread and the cup. 

On this Epiphany Sunday, this day when your light shines brightly, we pray for those who are experiencing darkness; the darkness of loneliness, the darkness of depression, the darkness of grief, the darkness of disappointment, the darkness of emotional, relational, and physical pain, the darkness of poverty, the darkness of missed opportunities, the darkness of sin.

O God, shine your light brightly for all of those who are facing darkness. We name them silently in our hearts and lift them to you in this very moment.

(Moments if Silence)

O God, like our prayer hymn says, “We want to walk as a child of the light. We want to follow Jesus. In him there is no darkness at all. The night and the day are both alike. The Lamb is the light of the city of God. Shine in our hearts, Lord Jesus.”

Shine in our hearts, Lord Jesus as we pray the words you taught us to say together… 

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Sermon (Jan. 6/Epiphany) by Rev. Robert McDowell “Skipping Into the New Year”

     I grew up on a farm in southeastern, Pennsylvania.  I dreaded it whenever it was late at night and dad would ask me to go to the barn and check on something.  Off I went, just hoping that I would make it back safe and sound!

     After I accomplished whatever chore needed to get done, and believe me, I did it very quickly I would run as fast as I could back to the house.  It’s amazing how fast you can run when you’re afraid!

     We live in a world that is filled with fear.  Some people like to use fear to get you to think like they think or to do what they want you to do because they know that fear is an effective tool.  This is why bullying is a huge problem in our schools.  Ironically, people choose to be bullies because they are the ones who are afraid.  They’re afraid of people who are different from them and so they act out of their fear.

     Bullying isn’t confined to young people.  There are adults who are bullies.  There are adults who use verbal threats and shouting matches to get their way because they are afraid of losing control and power.

     Often times, we don’t know how afraid we are until we are put into crisis situations.  They reveal what’s inside of us.  

     A little over seven years ago, you may remember being stricken and saddened over the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.  During one of the news shows, they interviewed the adult daughter of the Principal of the school, Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung who was killed while trying to stop the shooter.

     The daughter said that it didn’t surprise her that her mom put her life in danger to protect her school. Here is what she said:

     “She faced every single problem that she ever had in her life head on.  My cousin referred to her as a bull yesterday. There’s no stopping Dawn when she has a mission.  She gets it done, and she gives it everything she has.”

     This daughter than shared this note that her mom had written for her which she shared during the interview.  The note read:

     “My dearest Erica, you are and forever will be my sweet baby girl.  You possess a piece of my heart and soul, and I will never be complete without you.  Remember this in your darkest times…you are never alone. Your Mom.”

     “Remember this in your darkest times...you are never alone.” 

     I remember watching a news story about a burglar who broke into a home.  A young child was the only one in the house at the time and he calmly called 911.  He didn’t let fear overcome him and he was able to stay focused.

     It’s not easy to stay calm in a world that is filled with fear.  As we enter into a new year, we might be experiencing some anxiety and fear.  We don’t know what the future holds.  We wonder if we’ll be able to handle the challenges that will come our way this year.

     Today is Epiphany Sunday, the 12th day of Christmas.  Epiphany is a very hope-filled day on our church calendar because it focuses on Jesus who is the light of the world.  It was a shining star that led the wise men from afar to find the Christ Child.

     The gospel writer, John begins his gospel by referring to the light that has come into the world.  “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”  The reason I was scared for my life every time I went out to the barn late at night was because of the darkness.

     If you walk through the Carlsbad Caverns National Park, you enter through a very narrow, short corridor where the park ranger will have you stand still and then all of the lights are shut off.  It is so dark in that moment that you can’t see your hands even if they are right in front of your eyes.

     The ranger will then flick on a very powerful flashlight.  The light from that beam literally overcomes the darkness.  This is the image that the gospel writer is using in introducing Jesus Christ to us.  It’s like John is saying, “Look, I know the darkness of life is very real.  I know that the world can be a scary place.  I know that there are times when it seems like there is nothing but darkness in front of us.  But here’s the good news. There is a light that can overcome any darkness that might come your way.  And that light is Jesus Christ.

     John is using Genesis and creation of the world language to emphasize that Jesus is the light of the world.  Just as God created light at the beginning of creation, God has sent Jesus to be the light of the world.  What a powerful image for us to keep in mind as we begin this New Year together.

     Jesus is the light of the world.  And the reason that Jesus is the light of the world is because John tells us that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  In other words, in the person of Jesus Christ, God has moved next door to us.  God is that close to us.  This is the good news of Christmas.  This is the good news of Epiphany.  “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

     Many times, I am reminded of this good news of our faith during pastoral visits. I’ll never forget a particular visit. I went to see a church member who was in the hospital.  He was in the room all alone, lying flat on his back.  During my visit with him, he became teary eyed as he shared, “You don’t know how much it means to me that different people from the church have been stopping by to offer a scripture verse and to prayer for me.  It reminds me that I’m not alone.”  

     I remember another visit with a church member who recently moved into a nursing home.  It hadn’t been that long ago that I officiated at her husband’s funeral. They had been married seventy-three years! As I was visiting with her, I couldn’t help but to think about all of the major changes that were going on in her life.  

     It was just her living in this room toward the very end of one of the nursing home wings.  She said that it’s quiet back in that corner of the building and she has a lot of time to think and pray.  

     During my hour long visit, she said something that has stuck with me.  And she said it at least three different times during our conversation.  After she said how she misses her husband and the home where they had lived for so many years, an unexpected smile came to her face and she said, “But I know that I’m not alone.  God is with me.”

     Those words stayed with me the rest of the day and I often think of them whenever I am facing fear and uncertainty.  “But I know that I’m not alone.  God is with me.”  Would you repeat that with me?  “But I know that I’m not alone.  God is with me.”

     “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

     A few years ago, a pastor was visiting a church on the first Sunday of the New Year.  They were celebrating Holy Communion that Sunday, like we are today.  This pastor and his wife were sitting in one of the front pews that Sunday morning which meant that they were one of the first to receive the Sacrament.

     After they received the bread and the cup, they returned to their pew.  This pastor was sitting there listening to the beautiful music and reflecting on the meaning of the Sacrament and God’s love when he noticed a young family that was just kneeling at the chancel railing.  

     The two little girls, probably around five and seven years old, enthusiastically received the Sacrament in such a joyful way that this scene made him smile with delight.  After this family received communion, they stood up and began to walk back the center aisle to their seats. The girls walked on either side of the father while holding his hand.  

     The five year old on the dad’s left broke into a huge smile and she started skipping back to the pew.  The joy of being in worship and receiving the Sacrament overwhelmed her and she responded by skipping.  As this pastor watched this scene, he said a little prayer for himself and everyone in that sanctuary to have that same kind of joy in their faith as this little five year old girl.

     I think this pastor’s experience can become a symbol for our faith.  Like the little girl that day, let’s skip into this New Year.  Let’s receive the bread and the cup with joy.  Let’s take the hand of Jesus and skip with great delight.  Let’s skip into the darkness, knowing that Jesus is the light of the world.  Let’s skip into the unknown, knowing that “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

     Let’s skip into the New Year, knowing that we are not alone.  God is with us.  Let’s skip into the New Year, because Jesus will overcome any darkness we may face.  Let’s skip into the New Year because the light that led the Wise Men to Bethlehem is the same light that leads us to Christ.

     Let’s skip into the New Year because with Christ, there is nothing to fear.

Skipping Into the New Year
Sermon Discussion Questions
Isaiah 60:1-6 & John 1:10-18
January 6, 2019

Whenever we begin a new year, it can be both exciting and a little frightening because we don’t know what awaits us.
What are some of the fears you are facing or have faced in your life? How do you try to overcome those fears?
Epiphany, the 12th Day of Christmas which always falls on January 6, is a very special day because it reminds us of how the bright star in the sky led the Wise Men to Jesus where they offered him gifts. The Gospel writer, John begins his Gospel by referring to Jesus as the light that has come into the world and the darkness did not overcome it.
Share a time when the light of God helped you to overcome a fear.
Pastor Robert concluded his sermon by sharing a story about a little girl who went up to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion with her dad one Sunday and she ended up skipping back to their pew because she was so happy after receiving the bread and the juice.
What are some of your thoughts/feelings when you receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion? Does it give you more joy in your life knowing that Jesus Christ is the light of the world?
In addition to the Sacrament of Holy Communion which we celebrate and receive each month in church, there are other means of grace to help us skip with joy throughout the new year. These include participating in the loving faith, learning faith, and living faith ministries of our church. 
What new loving faith, learning faith, and living faith ministry is God calling you to consider in this new year? These ministries are meant to help us know that we are not alone. God is with us! Jesus is the light of the world and the darkness has not overcome it!

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Christmas Eve Pastoral Prayer - Athens First UMC

[Our church continues to celebrate the good news of Christ’s birth during these twelve days of Christmas which will conclude on January 6 (Epiphany Sunday.) Below is the pastoral prayer that was shared at our Christmas Eve services. For the Christmas Eve sermon, click 

God of light, thank you for always lighting the way for us and especially for sending us Jesus Christ who is the light of the world. Thank you for all of the candles around the Advent Wreath that remind us that you are always shining the light of hope, peace, joy, and love not just at Christmas time, but every day of the year.

Whenever we face disappointment, grief, sadness, loneliness, confusion, or pain, help us to remember this night of lights. Remind us of this night when we lit the Christ Candle and how beautiful it is when your church shines your light together. 

Thank you that Christmas is real. Hope is real! Peace is real! Joy is real! Love is real! Christ is real!

Tonight, as we lift your light as we sing “Silent Night,” we lift up those who are in need of hope; those who are anxious about the future, those who are hungry, those who are without shelter, those who have experienced disappointment. 

We lift up those who are in need of peace; those who are in places of war and conflict, those who are serving in the armed forces and away from their families, those experiencing broken relationships.

We lift up those who are in need of joy; those who are in prison, those who are tired; those who are ill. 

We lift up those who are in need of love; those who are separated from their families, those who find it hard to forgive themselves, those whose hearts are hardened.

On this holy night, O God, we lift up the light of the Christ Candle on behalf of all these needs as well as others that are on our hearts and minds this night. Amen.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Sermon (Christmas Eve) by Rev. Robert McDowell “Light the Christ Candle!”


   According to an NBC news affiliate which aired a few years ago leading up to the Christmas season, well over half of us prefer an artificial Christian tree instead of a real one. According to this report, only 18% of us are old school when it comes to our Christmas trees.

     My brother happens to part of that 18% and he proudly reminds me of this every single Christmas. He knows that Penny and I sold out a long time ago when it comes to buying real Christmas trees. We think we have a very beautiful Christmas tree, but all he can see are the metal tubes and the fake pine needles.

     I must admit that I’m envious every time I see his 12 foot tall authentic Christmas tree that has been freshly cut down and always includes the delightful smell of pine throughout his house. That’s something you just don’t get with an artificial tree that gets stored in a box year round.

     In one of the churches I pastored, the young adult Sunday School class invited me to a Christmas decorating party that was held in their classroom where they met at the church. When I arrived, they had punch and cookies and after about ten minutes, somebody said, “Let’s start decorating.” 

     I watched as a couple of the class members walked to a nearby storage closet and carried out an artificial Christmas tree that still had the lights and the decorations on it from the previous year. They stood up the tree in the corner of their classroom, plugged in the lights, and someone yelled out, “That should take care of it! Help yourself to some more punch and cookies.” 

     I guess there is something to be said for real Christmas trees.

     Whether you have a real Christmas tree or an artificial one isn’t really the point. The real question is if our faith is real or not.  

     The Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke is all about keeping it real. The gospel writer reminds us that God risked everything by sending us Jesus. 

     The one who would be given the title the King of Kings was first born in the shadow of the mighty Roman Emperor Augustus who claimed this title for himself. 

     The one who would go on to heal the sick, calm the storm, and feed the multitude would first be placed in a feeding trough of all places upon his birth.  

     And the one who would face rejection and betrayal, would be turned away at his birth because there was no room in the inn.

     Yes, the Christmas story itself is a story that helps us to keep it real. It doesn’t get any more real than this. Real people. Real animals. Real fear. Real risk.

     Over the past several Sundays here in church, we have been lighting the Advent Candles. Traditionally, these candles stand for hope, peace, joy, and love. When we shine these lights, it helps us to keep Christmas real, not fake.

     During the first Sunday of Advent, we looked at how we can keep Christmas real by lighting the candle of hope. George Iles once said, “Hope is faith holding out its hand in the dark.” A little later in our service, we will be doing just that. We will be lifting our lights in the dark of the sanctuary and the hope of Christ will bring light to this place.

     To help make hope more real, some of us have been doing some fridge journaling where every time we open the refrigerator we jot down on a note pad, a time when God got us through what seemed at the time like a hopeless situation.

     And then we were given the challenge to share some of these experiences of hope with the people around us. Sharing hope with others is a way to keep Christmas real.

     On the second Sunday of Advent, we lit the candle of peace. When we put our focus on Christ, rather than only on the sentimental surface meaning of Christmas, we experience a deeper sense of God’s peace in our lives. 

     Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Peace is not merely a distant goal that we seek, but a means by which we arrive at that goal.” One of the ways we can keep it real this Christmas is by seeking peace rather than division. We will discover that it’s when we are actively seeking peace, that we will experience a peace that passes all understanding.

     On the third Sunday of Advent, we lit the candle of joy. That’s why one of the candles around the Advent wreath is pink and not blue like all the others. Blue reminds us to patiently wait for the coming of Christmas, but the color pink reminds us that we can experience joy along the journey. 

     The pink candle represents the third Sunday of Advent leading up to Christmas. The church refers to this Sunday of Advent as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is a Latin word that means “Rejoice.”

     Helen Keller once said, “Joy is the holy fire that keeps our purpose warm and our intelligence aglow.” If you want to keep Christmas real, just look around at how God is at work in our world, and you this will lead you to a Gaudete moment of rejoicing.

     And yesterday which was the fourth Sunday of Advent, we lit the candle of love. It’s when we share the love of Jesus that we experience the deepest kind of love there is. This love is an unconditional love that accepts us for who we are and loves us just the way we are.

     Morrie Schwartz once said, “The most important thing in life is to learn how to give out love and let it come in.”

     I see so many examples of people sharing God’s love through our church and it’s all because God’s love is just too incredible to keep to ourselves. It’s the kind of love that fills us and we can’t help but to share it with the people around us.

     If you are looking to keep it real this Christmas, just remember to always light the candles of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. These Advent Candles remind us of how we can keep it real this Christmas and beyond.

     One year leading up to Christmas, the church I was serving at the time donated Christmas gifts to several needy families in the community much like we do here. It’s a wonderful thing when churches do this.

     One of the people we helped for Christmas that year was a man in his 50s who shared this letter with the church. If anything can help us keep Christmas real this year, it would be this man’s letter. Here’s what he wrote and these are totally his words:

     “I receive disability and both kids live with me right now.  Me and my wife separated a year ago.

     My wife had a mental breakdown and had to stay in a hospital for a while and we both agreed that it would be best for the kids to live with me but while my wife was in and out of the hospitals, me and the kids were homeless and we stayed in a shelter for a couple of months and recently received help to get me and my kids into an apartment.

     From April to July, me and the kids have lived in a tent, took baths in creek water, cook food over an open fire. Community Action helped us get into an apartment.

     In September, I had a heart attack and found out I have a big blood clot in my heart.  They say I have not got much time so I hope that this Christmas will be a good one for me and the kids. The kids and I don’t have much but at least we have a home thanks to people who have helped us.”

     I called this dad to let him know that I received his letter and that our church was glad to help them for Christmas. I offered him words of support and shared in a prayer with him, reminding him that God was with him and that God loved him. He kept thanking our church over and over again during that phone call.

     After I hung up the phone, I remember thinking that Christmas never felt more real to me than it did in that moment. And I know it had something to do with our church lighting the candles of hope, peace, joy, and love in helping this family.

     I was on the phone with my insurance company a couple days before Christmas one year. As the person on the other end of the line was pulling up my policy, she noticed that I was a minister. So she said, “So Rob, are you ready for your Christmas Eve services? I mean, this is a really busy time of year for you.”

     Now, this happens occasionally when someone calls me Rob or Bob even though I go by Robert. I didn’t think too much of it.

     And so, I answered her and told her that I was close to being ready. And she said, “Well, that’s great, Rob.”

     Since her computer was slow in pulling up my information she asked me another question just to pass the time. “So, I imagine it would be really hard to preach on Christmas Eve? Don’t you ever run out of something new to say?”

     Now, up until that very moment, I had been feeling pretty good about my Christmas Eve sermon. All of the sudden, I wasn’t so sure anymore. This insurance person on the other end of the line was reminding me that it really is a challenge to think of something new to say about something we have already heard many, many times.

     So I said to her, “Yeah, it’s a challenge, but I think I’m ready again this year.” She said, “Well, that’s good to hear, Rob.”

     As I think back to that conversation, she’s totally right. Never mind that she didn’t call me by my real name during that long and drawn out conversation, but she was so right when she said to me, “So, it must be really hard to preach on Christmas Eve. Don’t you ever run out of something new to say?”

     And the truth is, we preachers are uneasy about Christmas Eve. What can we possibly say that is new and insightful and memorable? What can I possibly say to all of you even though you have probably already heard your share of Christmas Eve sermons?

     And then it dawned on me. I actually do have a fresh message to share with you even though you have heard the story of Christmas a zillion times, most likely. 

     Here’s my super insightful and genius thought to leave with you tonight. Are you ready for this? This is going to totally blow you away. Here’s my genius thought for you to remember, fresh from the Holy Spirit.

     This Christmas, just remember to keep it real.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Dec. 23/Advent) Athens First UMC

[Following our Sunday services, Emily Brown shared about her work with the Peace Corps in Uganda. She is home for the holidays. Our theme for this last Sunday of Advent was “Light the Candle of Love.” Click here for the sermon. Emily is a great example of how people in our church are shining God’s love in our community and world even as far away as Uganda. We are proud of you, Emily!]

O God, thank you for our Advent journey these past four weeks and the lighting of the candles of hope, peace, joy, and love. The candles around the Advent Wreath are getting smaller and smaller as they slowly burn down each Sunday during worship but each of those flames continues to shine brightly.

Help us to be like these Advent candles, loving God. We pray that your light of hope, peace, joy, and love would continue to shine for all to see. Help our church to be like a giant candle that provides light and warmth to the people of our community and beyond. We especially pray for all who will come to this place for our Christmas Eve services tomorrow evening that they would be drawn to you as we all hold up our lights as we sing “Silent Night.”

Thank you for our special Christmas missions offering this month that will go to purchase Personal Energy Transportation carts, help start new faith communities in our West Ohio Conference, and closer to home, provide food through the Athens County Food Pantry. O Lord, thank you for all these ways that we are seeking to shine your light in a world that is often filled with darkness.

During this season of Advent, you have reminded us that every single gift we offer in your name helps to make that flame a little brighter. The gifts of inviting someone to church, teaching a Sunday School class, running the sound board, going on a mission trip, folding bulletins, serving a meal, greeting at the door, listening with compassion, offering to pray, picking up litter, delivering flowers, sharing a testimony, making a pledge, sponsoring a radio broadcast, visiting the lonely – all of these gifts are making your flame that much brighter in and through our church.

And whenever we are in need of hope, peace, joy, and love, remind us to pray the words that Jesus taught us to pray together…

“Our Father, who art in heaven…”