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


Friday, December 31, 2010

A New Year's Bible Verse - New Creation


In the daily office readings for today, the epistle reading includes this verse which is so appropriate for New Year's Eve day.

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! - II Corinthians 5:17

The context of this verse is to help the Corinthians Christians (and us) see that the resurrection of Jesus Christ has inaugurated a new world and a new way for us to look at the world. Just as new life through Jesus' resurrection has birthed a new world, we too are invited to participate in this new world by allowing Jesus' resurrection life to transform us into a new creation.

Notice that Paul's use of the phrase, "new creation," is to reinforce that this transformation isn't just about "me and Jesus" but about the larger perspective of God's desire to rescue and redeem the whole world. Yes, it's about me and Jesus, but it's also about ecosystems, politics, countries, trees, landscapes, pets, communities, families, and all of creation.

As we begin a new year, remember that through Jesus' resurrection, we are to live as God's new creation.


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Bowl Games, Sauerkraut, & John Wesley's Covenant Prayer


This is the time when our attention is turned toward New Year's festivities and hope for a year filled with peace, joy and good health.

The early 18th century Methodists under the leadership of John Wesley, often participated in a covenant renewal service as a way of dedicating themselves to Jesus Christ for the new year. Wesley would also use this service when visiting his Methodist Societies throughout the year.

One of the prayers from that service is known as "A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition" which my church will be using this Sunday in worship since this will be the first Sunday of the new year. I know of a pastor who prays this prayer every day as a way of offering himself to God for the new day. This might be a good practice for many of us as well.

Earlier this week, my wife asked me, "You are going to use the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer this upcoming Sunday aren't you?"

You know you're a United Methodist when you would ask such a specific question as this!

Happy New Year!

A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition:

I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low by thee. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it. And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

End of the World (May 21, 2011) - A Rebuttal from a Biblical Christian


The ultra conservative Christian radio ministry, "Family Radio" has a large billboard along a highway near where I live that proclaims that God's judgment day will ocurr on May 21, 2011.

THE END OF THE WORLD IS ALMOST HERE!
HOLY GOD WILL BRING JUDGMENT DAY ON
MAY 21, 2011

This radio ministry espouses that judgment day will be a time when the world will end and true believers will be raptured into heaven. This kind of message kind of puts a damper on our "Happy New Year" greetings as we approach the new year.

Well, just in case there are some motorists who see this sign and equate this message with Christians and churches in general, let me set the record straight and say that this is a very isolated group of Christians who proclaim such a thing. Yes, there are a number of Christians and churches who have made such speculations with an assortment of specific dates, but as far as I know, this May 21, 2011 is pretty much confined to "Family Radio."

So much to say in this rebuttal of such a claim but let me offer the following thoughts from a bible believing Christian who reads and interprets the bible in a much different (and I believe a more theologically grounded perspective)
  • First of all (and most importantly) the overall biblical theme that the good creator God who created the earth and will one day redeem and reclaim it through a special act of God's grace (the second coming of Jesus) is totally absent in this group's pronouncement. Instead, they have opted for a view that the world that God created will be destroyed. For a biblical view, check out Revelation 21 where we are told that heaven and earth will finally be united and there will be no more suffering or death. Or just check out the Lord's Prayer where we pray, "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done. On earth as it is in heaven." The whole mission of the church is to offer the healing love of God through Jesus Christ to the world.
  • Secondly, when Jesus returns, we will not be "snatched away" into heaven as rapture theology espouses. This is a misreading of metaphors used by Paul in I Thessalonians 4. From a 1st century historical perspective, the image is that when Jesus reappears, believers will welcome the newly arrived king. The first readers of this epistle would have associated what Paul was saying with how a Roman citizen would welcome the Roman Emperor who had left Rome to visit one of his Roman colonies. They would have met him from a distance and then would have personally escorted him into their city. If you believe in bullet point #1 above, then this second bullet point makes perfectly good sense from a biblical perspective.
  • Thirdly, "Family Radio" has taken a creative biblical literary device of describing time from God's point of view (1 day = 1,000 years) and has turned it into a very literal and wooden interpretation. Using the Noah and the Ark story in the Book of Genesis, and this literal use of a poetic way of describing time, they have arrived at the date of May 21, 2011.

Having offered this rebuttal, I'll end on a positive note. It's always a good thing to anticipate Christ's second coming. But instead of focusing on a specific date that is centered around a theology that is void of fundamental doctrines (ie. God's good creation of the world and desire to redeem it), instead we should live in such a way that anticipates the way God has always intended his creation to be; a place of peace, harmony, justice, love, and joy. Of course, this happens as we depend on the guidance and strength of the Holy Spirit as we feed the poor, care for the sick, find shelter for the homeless, and offer a welcome to those who feel outside of God's fold.

My advice? If you should drive down the highway and notice a large billboard with the date of May 21, 2011, pray "The Lord's Prayer." And when you get to the part that says, "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done. On earth as it is in heaven," invite God to strengthen you to use each day to offer the healing love of God through Jesus Christ in our community and world.

...including May 21, 2011.

Sunday Worship Preview - January 2

January 2 - (8:15 A.M. & 11:00 A.M. Traditional Services & 9:45 A.M. Praise Service) & Wednesday, January 5 (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "Reaching for the Star"

Features - Epiphany Sunday & Holy Communion

Scripture - Isaiah 60:1-6 & Matthew 2:1-12

Theme - The wisemen offer us important things that we need to grow in our relationship with Jesus Christ in this New Year.

Sermon (December 24) - "The Christmas Story According to St. John"


During a Christmas Eve service several years ago, the senior pastor began his Christmas sermon in a most interesting way. After retelling the details of the Christmas story, he then paused and asked the congregation if they had noticed any mistakes in what he had just shared with them.
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He then retold the same story, this time; inviting the congregation to shout out if they heard anything that wasn’t true to the biblical Christmas story. Detail by detail, he told the story again.
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Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem on a donkey because of the Roman census. While they were in Bethlehem, Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger.

Angels appeared to some shepherds who were out in the fields and they announced that a savior had been born. The shepherds went to Bethlehem, found Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus, telling them that the angels had shared this good news with them.

And after going through this story again, detail by detail, this senior pastor, asked, “Do you mean that you didn’t catch the mistake in this story?”

I remember wondering to myself which detail he purposely got wrong, but nothing was jumping out at me.

And then he said, “Everything was true except for one thing. The gospels never mention that Mary and Joseph rode on a donkey.”

The point that this senior pastor was making was that many of us hear the Christmas story so many times, that we don’t really pay attention to the details.

He finished his sermon and we sang a Christmas carol. It was then my turn to offer the children’s sermon. I remember spending the whole week leading up to Christmas Eve, trying to think of a creative children’s sermon to use for that night. Penny suggested a really good idea that the children might like.

For the children’s sermon, I ended up bringing a large gift-wrapped box with a big bow on it and I told the children that God wanted to give them a Christmas present. I said, “Let’s open it up and see what Christmas present God wants to give us.”

I lifted the large lid of this beautifully gift wrapped box and pulled out something which also was wrapped. After I unwrapped it, I said, “Look, it’s Joseph. Let’s stand him up right here.” And then I pulled out another item that was gift wrapped. This time it was Mary. And I said, “Let’s put Mary next to Joseph.”

“But wait, there are more presents in the gift box. What do we have here?” I unwrapped a shepherd and placed him right behind Mary and Joseph there on the altar steps.

Now keep in mind that I was randomly taking the nativity display figures out of the box. I didn’t know which figurine was going to appear next.

And boy did I have the attention of these children. They couldn’t wait to see if Jesus would be the next one. With great anticipation, I pulled out the next figurine and unwrapped it, showed it to the children, and said, “Uh-oh. We have a problem. It’s the donkey. We need to put him back in the box!” The congregation about lost it. They were laughing so hard.

After a few more figurines, I finally pulled out the baby Jesus in a manger and placed it in front of Mary and Joseph.

But I still had three more wrapped pieces that were still in the box. And they ended up being the wise men and I said to the boys and girls, “These are the wise men and technically they didn’t arrive until after Christmas, so they need to go back into the box with the donkey!”

So that’s how my children’s sermon went on that Christmas Eve. Not as I had expected!
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So let’s get the details straight. There’s no mention of a donkey and there’s no mention of wise men being present when Jesus was born in Matthew and Luke’s telling of the Christmas story. But at least we get a birth story.

So what’s up with the Gospel of John? Forget about the donkey and the wise men because John doesn’t even include Mary and Joseph. And there’s no mention of angels and shepherds. What kind of Christmas reading is this on a Christmas Eve?
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If I would offer a children’s sermon tonight, according to the Gospel of John, I wouldn’t even be able to use the crèche scene at all.
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Well, actually there is a birth story in John’s opening verses. We just have to dig a little bit to find it, but it is there.

True, John doesn’t have in mind the birth of Jesus specifically. Instead he wants to tell us about the birth of the world. Or should I say the rebirth of the world.

Listen to how he begins his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

The first three words from John’s Gospel are the same three words from the Book of Genesis. “In the beginning.” And then John refers to light in describing Jesus. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Again, John’s reference to light reminds us of the creation story when for the first day of creation God creates light and separates the light from the darkness. The birth of the world.

John clearly wants us to make the connection. Jesus, who he introduces as the light of the world is the embodiment of the creator God who was the one who created light in the first place.

Just by speaking a word, God creates the world. We are told for each day of creation, “And God said...” Notice that the Gospel writer John refers to Jesus as the Word. Jesus is the word which God speaks and brings about creation and new life. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us,” John tells us.

When the world was born, everything was the way God designed it to be. A place filled with beauty, harmony, peace, and justice. A place where there was no sin or death. But then the Book of Genesis tells us that sin entered the world when we disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden. And because of sin, death and brokenness entered God’s creation. And ever since, the world which was born through God’s spoken word but now broken because of sin, has been waiting to be born again.

Yes, even with the Gospel of John, we do get a birth story, just not the one we were thinking we were going to hear on this holy night.

During the fellowship hour on a Sunday morning here at church, Penny and I spoke with an expectant mother who was due any day. This mother allowed me to put my hand on her womb to get a sense of how close she was to giving birth.

Soon after that Sunday morning, she had a post on her facebook page that said, “Still no Jackson, and not much change. My OB is going to try a procedure tomorrow to see if she can induce labor without using drugs yet. Forecast for tomorrow: Partly cloudy with a 50% chance of storms, and maybe a baby...”

Just a few days after that post, she posted this on her facebook page: “We're having this boy today!” And then she asked, “Who had July 22 in the pool to guess which day Jackson would be born?” Later that same day came this happy post: “Jackson David Niceswanger arrived at 12:33 pm today! Length: 21", Weight: 8 lb, 14 oz!”

I know it’s been almost five months now, but congratulations Alicia and Brad Niceswanger on the birth of your son, Jackson David!

We know about how difficult it can be to wait for a child to be born, and the Gospel writer, John, reminds us that it’s also difficult to wait for the world to be reborn. A world that is filled with violence, war, terrorism, human trafficking, economic hardship, child abuse, poverty, hopelessness, sin, and death. And that’s just the world. What about us? We too, long to be reborn and to be the people God has always intended for us to be.

It’s into this longing for rebirth both for the world and for ourselves, that we hear these wonderful words of good news in John’s Gospel about the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”

So just take a moment to think about this good news. The one who was with God in the creation and birth of the world is also the one who has come into our world in the person of Jesus Christ to offer us a new birth and new life.

A while back, I ran across a Larry King Live video clip of an interview he had with the singer and actress, Naomi Judd. She asked Larry, "What will be the first question you will want to ask God?" And true to style and with his typical wit, Larry said that his question to God would be, "Do you have a son?"

John, the Gospel writer’s answer is “yes.” God does have a Son. “And 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.”

Now, if that’s what Christmas is all about – life and light from God through Jesus Christ – it kind of makes you want to celebrate Christmas more than just once a year doesn’t it? Maybe even in July! We should try that some time!

Jesus is the light of the world. What good news for those who are waiting for rebirth and newness of life!

Christians didn’t celebrate Christmas as a holiday until the 4th century. Since the Roman Empire celebrated the winter solstice on December 25 which was a celebration of the birth of the sun, the church decided to transform this pagan holiday of light into a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, who they believed to be the true light of the world.

How fitting that during this darkest time of the year, that we celebrate the coming of the light of the world, Jesus Christ.

One summer night during a severe thunderstorm a mother was tucking her small son into bed. She was about to turn the light off when he asked in a trembling voice, "Mommy, will you stay with me all night?" Smiling, the mother gave him a warm, reassuring hug and said tenderly, "I can't dear. I have to sleep in Daddy's room." A long silence followed. At last it was broken by a shaky voice saying, "The big sissy!"

Jesus, the light of the world has come to offer us new birth and new life.

Just a few chapters later in John’s Gospel we get to ease drop on a conversation that Jesus has with Nicodemus, who out of curiosity, comes to Jesus at night. And notice that John is careful to note that Nicodemus came to Jesus at night; Jesus, the one who John has already told us is the light of the world.

Jesus tells Nicodemus, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born again.” There’s that birth and creation image again. And a few verses later, Jesus offers that wonderful verse, John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

John doesn’t tell us if Nicodemus responded to Jesus’ invitation or not, and we’re left wondering if he experienced a new birth in his life.

But that’s John’s style. We don’t always know how people might respond to Jesus. He tells us this up front when he says, “He was in the world and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”

There’s a lot of suspense in this opening chapter of John’s Gospel. Will people receive new birth through Jesus Christ? Will people receive him and become children of God?

And more importantly, when we leave from this Christmas Eve service tonight, will we receive the new birth that only God can make possible through his Son, Jesus Christ? Will we experience a second birth? How will this story end? And so John leaves us hanging in suspense on this Christmas Eve.

One of the wonderful things about Christmas is that the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ is just the beginning of the story. We are left to consider if we will allow Jesus Christ to be born in us as we leave from this place. The Christmas story according to St. John’s Gospel is a story that is in search of an ending. Will we allow “the Word made flesh” to be born in us? In our church? And in our community?

A while back, I received a call that a close staff member from a previous church had died unexpectedly. When I served that church, our children were in grade school at the time, and if I would be out visiting someone or be away from the church for some reason…this was before cell phones were popular…she would take it upon herself to cover for me.

I can’t tell you the number of times Ginger picked up our kids at school when they were sick or gave me a ride to the car dealer when my car needed to be fixed. She was part of our family.
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When I got home later that day after hearing about her sudden death, I called her husband, Don to offer my deepest sympathy. And to my surprise, Ginger’s son-in-law answered the phone. I had gotten to know him pretty well when I was serving at the church and I told him how sorry I was to hear of the news of Ginger’s death.

And I said to him, “You know Ryan. What’s really strange about all of this is that Ginger had called me long distance just two weeks ago. In fact, the reason she called, was to ask me to pray for you and for Jenny that the artificial insemination would be successful. I know how much the two of you have been wanting to have a baby.”

And then I said, “She told me that day on the phone that she was calling everybody she knew to pray that Jenny would be able to conceive.”

So I asked Ryan, “I’m really curious since I have been praying for both of you. Do you have any news? Did it work?”

Now, I could tell you how this story ends…You’ll just have to come to worship this Sunday to find out.

Merry Christmas!
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Friday, December 24, 2010

Sunday Worship Preview - December 26 (10 A.M. Only)


December 26 - (10 A.M. Only) & Wednesday, December 29 (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "A Service of Lessons & Carols"

Features - Christmas Season & Special Children's Message

Scripture - Isaiah 9:2, 6-7; Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:26-35, 38; Luke 2:1-7; Luke 2:8-16; & Matthew 2:1-11

Theme - As we continue to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ in this Christmas Seasons (12 Days of Christmas) we will participate in a service of lessons and carols. Developed in 1880 by an Anglican Bishop, the service incorporates elements of worship that have been used over the centuries in celebration of the nativity.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Christmast Prayer


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Eternal God, by the birth of Jesus Christ you gave yourself to the world. Grant that, being born in our hearts, he may save us from all our sins, and restore within us the image and likeness of our Creator, to whom be everlasting praise and glory, world without end. Amen.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

My Most Memorable Christmas Eve Service

Christmas is a special time for many of us. Attending church on a Christmas Eve and holding a lit candle while singing "Silent Night" offers a unique experience like none other.

One year, the Christmas Eve service we had worked so hard on didn't go as we had planned. First of all, the service started ten minutes late because several of the worship leaders hadn't arrived on time. The soloist who was supposed to come on stage near the beginning of the service never appeared. The bulletin listed the name of a former pastor as one of the leaders of the service. The main microphone hadn't been turned on making it difficult to hear what the worship leader was saying. Even the children's Christmas play in the middle of the service had confusing parts and it was difficult to hear the lines.

As we stumbled our way through the service, we finally made it to the end when it was time to light our candles. As the congregation began to sing, "Silent Night" each worshipper raised their lit candle into the darkened sanctuary. In that moment, nothing could rob us of the wonder of that moment. Somehow, we had forgotten about the microphone that didn't work and the bulletin with several mistakes. We were awe struck by the holiness of that moment.

Things didn't go as planned when Jesus was born either; an untimely birth while Mary and Joseph were traveling away from Mary's home, no vacancy signs all over Bethlehem, and a jealous king who felt threatened at the news of a newborn king. But none of those things prevented Mary from pondering and treasuring that holy moment when Christ was born.

After the benediction and as people began to leave the Christmas Eve service, I was surprised to hear several people say what a wonderful service that was. Were they just being nice? No, it was just that like Mary, they allowed the wonder of Christ's birth to overcome all of the other distractions around them.

The Christmas Eve that I thought would be good to forget became the one that I will always cherish and remember. Praise God!


Monday, December 20, 2010

Sermon (December 19) - "God Signs"

He wanted to go home badly. It had been two months since he had been admitted to a hospital in Columbus and all he could think about was getting home again. He was stuck in this institutional setting for the foreseeable future and he was willing to do anything to convince the workers at the hospital that they should release him, even though he wasn’t any better.

A nervous breakdown is what sent him to this place away from home. He had been shaving one morning and all of these unresolved feelings from his past began to overwhelm him. And all of the sudden, he quit shaving. He called for his wife, and when she came to the bathroom, she found him sitting on the bathroom floor and he told her, “Something is wrong with me. I don’t even remember how to shave.”

And now he was in a hospital far away from home and in denial that he even needed any help. He was desperately looking for a sign from God.

On an extremely cold January evening about fifteen years ago, I was in the family room of our home in Toledo when Penny and I heard a knock on our front door. Penny was surprised to open the door and find one of the youth of our church standing on our front step shivering and not wearing any coat. She invited him in and I said, “Terry, what are doing out on a cold night like this?”

His lips were quivering as he told me, “I need to talk with you.” I could hardly understand him – that’s how cold he was. Penny, noticing what was going on said, “I’ll make some hot tea for him.”
While we waited for the water to boil, he tried to share with me why he had walked a mile and a half on a windy and single digit January night without any coat to see me. And even when he started to warm up, I still couldn’t understand what he was trying to say to me.

He was very confused and mixed up inside. He was now living with his mother and step-father, both very nice people and members of my church. His father was living in California and Terry and his father didn’t get along at all and that’s why he was now living with his mom and step-dad in Toledo.

But things weren’t working out for Terry in his new home either. He wouldn’t go to his classes at the High School and he was very unhappy and confused.

He spent a good two hours at our home getting warm that cold night. And I talked to him about God’s infinite love and concern for him. I talked about how God was present for him and wanted to help him deal with his problems. But I could tell that I wasn’t getting through to him. He was pretty mixed up inside.

Around midnight, I took him to his house and we must have talked for another hour in his driveway because he just didn’t want to get out of the car. And again, I reiterated how much God loved him and cared about him. I could sense that he felt very distant from God and I just wanted him to know that God was there for him.

Have you ever felt separated from God’s love? Disconnected? Confused where you wander aimlessly?

Nothing pains me more as a pastor then when I see people fall away from their relationship with God and with the church.

I remember a stretch of time when I felt disconnected from God. I really didn’t want to pray. And when you face those times of disconnection, it’s really easy to gradually fall away from the spiritual support system that is so essential for you and me in our faith journey.

And by a spiritual support system, I mean weekly worship, having a daily quiet time with God, and being involved with a group of Christians that support you in your relationship with God. Sometimes, the circumstances of life can lead us to fall away from God.

Maybe you have felt like George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, from the Christmas Classic, It’s a Wonderful Life when George is facing a terrible time in his life. He was going to be sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and so he prays for God to help him.

Let’s watch a clip from this movie where George Bailey prays to God for help.

Can you relate to George Bailey? Do you ever feel like life is just beating you down?

The prophet Isaiah was living during a time when the people of Judah who made up the southern kingdom were being threatened by outside armies. In fact, these armies were laying siege on their capital of Jerusalem.

It was a scary time for the people of God. They were in desperate need of God’s saving hand.
And unfortunately, the people of Judah were led by a King who wasn’t turning to God for strength and help. And when you have a leader who is disconnected from God, it’s really hard on the people because they are looking for spiritual leadership. And in this situation they weren’t getting any godly leadership.

King Ahaz is in panic mode. Things look bleak for the people of Judah.

Until the prophet Isaiah arrives on the scene with a sign from God.

This morning, I want us to think about God signs. God signs are vitally important to each of us as we face doubts and struggles in life. Without God signs, we would be left to despair and hopelessness.

By looking at this scripture from the seventh chapter of Isaiah, which is probably one of the most important Old Testament scriptures as it relates to the foretelling of the future birth of Jesus Christ, we are able to discover and become much more aware of the importance of God signs in our lives.

What are God signs?

Let’s look at this text from Isaiah and learn more about God signs.

The first thing we see in this text is that God signs are meant for everyone and not just for a select few.

King Ahaz was one of the worst kings of Judah and yet God sent him a sign. You know, sometimes we think that God only sends signs to people who are deeply religious people. God doesn’t discriminate. God offers signs to everyone. The question is are we looking for those signs and are we open to those signs that God sends our way.

I love how this text in Isaiah says how the Lord spoke to King Ahaz directly. The Lord tells Ahaz, “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be as deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” Here you have this open invitation for King Ahaz to ask the Lord for whatever he wants to help in this very threatening time for the people of Judah, and yet he refuses to receive a sign from the Lord.
Sometimes, we can get so set in our ways, that we too can refuse God’s obvious signs. Sometimes we can sink so much into despair, that even when God shouts, our ears are closed.

One of the most incredible things about Christmas is how the news of Christ’s birth came to people you would never expect. The first people who found out about Christ’s birth were shepherds of all people! Shepherds weren’t known for their devotion to God. They were considered the outsiders because of their occupation. And yet, God’s announcement of Christ’s birth first came to them.

God’s signs come to each of us. Nobody is left out. God’s grace is offered to each of us. That’s not only good news for us to know that God sends us signs, it’s also good news for us to know that God is always reaching out to the people around us.

Some of us can probably think of people who do not yet know the Lord and we would give anything for them to know God in a personal way. This text reminds us to not give up hope on anybody. Keep praying; keep reaching out to them with the love of Christ. God’s signs are for everyone.

A second thing about God’s signs is this: God’s signs might come in a way that we least expect them. This is an important point about God’s signs. Sometimes, we look for the dramatic sign from God or the earth shattering sign from God.

But in this text from Isaiah, the sign is in a future child. The Gospel writer Matthew shows us that this child is Jesus Christ. But people were not looking for God’s sign to be a child. People were looking for a more dramatic sign from God.

Most bible scholars on this Isaiah text believe that this passage about a young woman who will bear a son, also refers to a child who would be born during King Ahaz’s reign. Some scholars say that Isaiah is referring to a future son of King Ahaz while other scholars would say that the son is a future son of the prophet Isaiah. But they would all agree that Jesus Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of this prophecy.

Christmas reminds us to not look for God’s sign by only focusing on the spectacular and the dramatic, but to look for God’s sign where you might least expect it. Even if that sign from God just so happens to be bundled up in some old rags and nestled in some straw.

As we near the celebration of Christmas, I invite us to not miss those signs that God is placing all around us. We just might miss those signs like so many people did 2,000 years ago.

A song that I listen to from time to time has this wonderful line from the chorus. It says,
“Freedom has a scent. Like the top of a new born baby's head.”

I love that line because the scent of a new born baby’s head is something that you never forget. It was this scent that became confirmation of God’s sign to Mary.

I spent last week with my family in Pennsylvania and stayed at my brother’s newly remodeled home. He had done most of the remodeling work and when I first arrived he took me on a tour of the house, pointing out all of the little nuances that he added to make it feel like home.

The most striking feature of the house is a new stone fire place that is situated in the main room of the house. The stones that make up the fire place are from the fields of our family farm. And like the tiny window that my brother took from our family’s old barn to use as an interior window for his study, the stones of the new fire place are a constant reminder of the land and the farm that were a big part of our childhood.

As my brother was showing me his new fireplace, he asked me if I could see the shape of a cross that he had asked the stone mason to incorporate as part of the fireplace design. It took me a few seconds, and then I could see it.

If you look at the picture of the fireplace and specifically at the chimney, you can see the shape of a cross leaning to the right. It’s subtle enough that you can easily miss it if you’re not paying attention to the details. One of the reasons my brother remodeled his home is because he wanted a bigger home to host large gatherings for meals and fellowship. He incorporated these subtle God signs into the design of his home to help people who visit his home to experience the presence of God.

God’s signs. They come to everyone. And these signs sometime come in a way that we least expect. Who knows what signs God will send our way next?

He was desperately looking for a sign from God. He had now been in this Columbus area hospital for several weeks and all he wanted was to get back home. To be back with his wife. To be back in his own home. But the doctors said he wasn’t ready to go home. He would need to stay for the foreseeable future, they told him, in order to deal with those unresolved issues from his past. He didn’t want to hear that. And he was still in denial that he needed this kind of intensive help.

And then one day, a very good friend of his went to see him at the hospital. After they chatted a bit, this friend said, “I have something for you that I want you to have.” And he handed him a little cross that fit into the palm of his hand. And he said, “Now you know how much this cross means to me. This cross is a sign for me of how Jesus Christ came into my life a few years ago and literally changed my life. And you know how I have carried this cross in my pocket every day, ever since that day that I received Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. You know what a difference Christ has made in my life, in my work, and in my marriage. I want you to keep this cross as a sign of Christ’s love for you and how He will give you the strength to stay in this hospital until the doctors feel that you are ready to come home.”

That little conversation brought tears to their eyes.

He thought a lot about what his friend said to him after they prayed and said goodbye to each other that day, but he still felt distant from God. “God, give me a sign. Give me a sign.” He prayed.

And then one day, he was walking by a piano in the patient lobby of the hospital, when he noticed an open hymn book on the piano stand. He looked closer and he noticed that it was opened to the hymn, “Amazing Grace.”

And for some strange reason, his eyes latched onto the last phrase of the third verse of that hymn which says, “And grace will lead me home.”

It was at that precise moment when he read those words that he knew that he had stumbled upon a sign from God. He thought about the cross that his friend had given him and then he thought about that phrase, “and grace will lead me home” and that’s when he finally decided to quit resisting and to start trusting.

He ended up getting out of that hospital a couple of months later after much needed emotional healing. And I can’t even begin to tell you the number of people that he has inspired since that several month stay in the hospital, including me.

God’s sign to him was a good friend’s cross, and a little phrase out of an opened hymn book in the lobby of a hospital.

During these days leading up to the big Christmas celebration, let’s be open for the signs that God has for each one of us. Even the signs that we least expect.

One final thought about God’s signs. Not only are God’s signs meant for everyone and that they might come to us in a way that we least expect. Number three – God’s signs always lead us to God’s presence.

Isaiah tells King Ahaz that a “young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.”

Matthew, in telling the wonderful Christmas story from the context of Isaiah’s prophecy, adds an editorial comment, just in case people like you and me might not know the literal meaning of Hebrew names. Matthew tells us that the Hebrew word, “Emmanuel” means, “God with us.”
Notice that Matthew tells us that Mary’s baby is to have two names; “Jesus” which literally means “God saves” and “Emmanuel” which means “God with us.”

It’s interesting that after the Christmas story, Jesus is never referred to as Emmanuel even though this is another name for him. Throughout the Gospel, it’s always Jesus, but never Emmanuel, that is, until the very last verse of his gospel. It’s so subtle that we can easily miss it.
As Jesus gives the disciples the Great Commission to go into the world and continue the ministry that he had started, Jesus then says, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” There’s that name again. Emmanuel. God who will always be with you.

And this is really good news especially if you feel like you’re out in the cold and trying to find your way home. This Christmas, may we allow the many God signs that are all around us to lead us home, to that place where we can know with assurance that God is our Emmanuel.
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Sunday, December 19, 2010

Christmas Eve Worship Preview - December 24

December 24 - (5:30 P.M., 8 P.M., & 11 P.M.)

Sermon - "The Christmas Story According to St. John"

Features - Christmas Eve Candlelight Service

Scripture - Isaiah 52:7-10; Hebrews 1:1-4; & John 1:1-14

Theme - John’s Gospel does not include the Christmas story like Matthew and Luke, but it does offer a much larger context of the coming of Jesus into the world. John tells us that Jesus is the light of the world and offers us the invitation to be born again and become children of God.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

4th Sunday of Advent Prayer - (Week of December 19)





Collect of the Day: Fourth Sunday of Advent

Purify our conscience, Almighty God, by your daily visitation, that your Son Jesus Christ, at his coming, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Dave's Deep Thoughts

Here's Pastor Dave McDowell's weekly devotional that he sends out to members of his church. Dave is my brother and serves as the Music Minister at Stewartstown UMC in PA.


Sometimes there is a fox in the hen house,
but lately there has been a squirrel on the road.

My drive to work takes me on a back country road.

It's not unusual for me to see wild life as I drive.....
deer, foxes, and yes..... squirrels.

During the last few weeks,
it seems that there has been one squirrel
who thinks he is going to collect some nuts for winter on the asphalt.

That was my first clue
that he wasn't the brightest bulb on the porch.

Recently, as I reach a certain stretch in the road,
there he is,
scurrying around trying to find his nuts
where nuts simply couldn't be found.

Now it isn't like he doesn't see me coming.
My car is visible from a quarter mile away.

As I get closer to the furry tyke,
he eventually figures out that nuts lose their value
if one has been run over by a car.

I'll give him credit for that much intelligence.

What I can't give him credit for,
is his decision making skills.

I ponder what is going on in that little furry noggin....

This is what he is doing as I get closer and closer..

go right,
no, go left,
no right,
no, no left
go right,
no, maybe left

The good Lord
has given this little creature
every skill to avoid being
turned into road kill...

reflexes, speed, agility

but what the little tyke doesn't have
is a brain,
at least a brain big enough to figure out
that ONE turn will get him to safety.

Now it's not just squirrels that have this problem,
put chipmunks and rabbits in the dunce corner as well.

Quite frankly,
it's hard to feel sorry for them.

But consider the turtle.

A sure sign of summer for me
is to see a turtle on the road,
warming itself.

When my hard shelled little friend sees me coming,
what does he do.....

Gotta go,
gotta get moving....
Let's get going.....
oh boy.....
this just isn't happening fast enough.....

You see the good Lord gave this guy a brain,
what he didn't give him
was speed.

It's hard for me not to feel sorry
for my slow footed friends.

And so what happens to squirrels and turtles.....
they all die..

People are like squirrels and turtles,
each gifted with certain attributes,
each lacking other abilities.

Think of a woman with maternal instincts unable to conceive,
while an ill-prepared teen girls finds herself pregnant.....

Or how about a person with a master's degree
who can speak 5 languages,
and finds himself in a homeless shelter.

Or a frumpy unimpressive looking lady,
who opens her mouth at a singing contest
and wows the world?

We are all different,
and we experience different life circumstances.

It is easy to measure out our compassion to others
based on performance.

It is easy to bestow mercy upon others
based on production.

It is easy to offer grace to others
if we understand the inability.

But God so loved the WORLD
that he sent His son.

He sent his son for all the slow motion
turtle type people in the world,

He sent his son for all the squirrel mortals
that don't know how to make up their minds.

He sent his son for everyone,
knowing in advance that he wouldn't get
the same response from everyone.

But He still did it.
Because every squirrel, every turtle matters.

That is the story of Christmas.
So the next time you approach
a squirrel or turtle in your life,
don't press down on the accelerator......

Slow down.

Take time to let that person know,
that they matter,
matter to you, and matter to God.

Who knows,
in doing so,
you might just find yourself
closer to the heart of God.

For God so loved the world,
that he gave His only begotten Son,
that whoever believes in Him,
shall not perish,
but have everlasting life.
John 3:16
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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

How the BCS Helps the Church to Celebrate Christmas

Leave it to college football to help Christians to reclaim the Season of Christmas. I'll get to that in a moment.

Many people believe that the twelves days of Christmas refer to the twelve days leading up to Christmas day. This is understandable in a culture that associates the month of December with the Christmas Season rather than the Advent Season.

The Advent Season is a time to help us prepare not only for the coming celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, but to also anticipate his second coming when he will appear in all of his glory and all of creation will be renewed by a special act of God's grace. This is the ultimate hope of the Christian faith - for the world to be made new by our loving creator God.

Unfortunately, we have used the Advent Season as a pre-Christmas celebration, collapsing the Advent and Christmas Seasons together. It's no wonder that we no longer are interested or have the energy to celebrate Christmas beyond New Year's Day.

The Christmas Season lasts from Christmas Eve to twelve days later, January 6 which is Epiphany, the day we celebrate when the Wise Men brought gifts to Jesus to honor him as king. Imagine in our culture today, trying to extend the Christmas celebration an extra twelve days after using up our energy for all of the shopping and parties in the month of December. The church calendar reminds us that the Christmas celebration continues through January 6 and it helps us to not cut short our observance of the coming of Jesus Christ into the world.

In the old days when the college football season ended on New Year's Day, the end of the college football season coincided with the melancholy of what we thought was the end of the Christmas celebration. January 2 was a downer day, indeed. But because of the new BCS system, there are big games on January 3, 4, and the really big game on January 10.

So here's my question - Do you think the post January 1 bowl games can help the church recapture the twelve days of Christmas? Should the media begin to tout the Ohio State/Arkansas game as the Tenth Day of Christmas bowl game?

Forget about political correctness of not focusing on one religious holiday over the other. If Christians would become patient enough to wait to say "Merry Christmas" until the actual Season of Christmas, not only would most people be a little more accepting of this holiday greeting, but it would help the church to reclaim the real Christmas Season.

Thank you college football and the BCS system for reminding the church to celebrate the Christmas Season for a full twelve days. Now, if you could only put together a bowl playoff system during the Twelve Days of Christmas to determine the true champion on January 6, that would be a win-win for both of us.
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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Sunday Worship Preview - December 19

December 19 - (8:15 A.M. & 11:00 A.M. Traditional Services & 9:45 A.M. Praise Service) & Wednesday, December 22 (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "God Signs"

Features - 4th Sunday of Advent & Advent Candle Lighting

Scripture - Isaiah 7:10-16 & Matthew 1:18-25

Theme - The prophet Isaiah reminds us that the sign of Christmas is that a young woman will bear a son and his name shall be called Immanuel. What are the signs God offers to us today to help us know that we are not alone and that God is with us? As we draw closer to the celebration of Christmas, look for the God signs that are all around us that are pointing us to the hope and promise of the coming of Jesus Christ into the world.
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Friday, December 10, 2010

3rd Sunday of Advent Prayer (Week of December 12)





Collect of the Day: Third Sunday of Advent

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us; and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Dave's Deep Thoughts


Here's Pastor Dave McDowell's weekly devotional that he sends out to members of his church. Dave is my brother and serves as the Music Minister at Stewartstown UMC in PA.


Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays,
probably because I love food.

This Thanksgiving was going to be special,
as I was to meet my nephew's fiancee,
Since they were traveling from the west coast,
it would be the first time that most of my family
would meet her.

I had heard much about her.
A bright young lady,
studying veterinary sciences,
and rather attractive to boot.
I was looking forward to meeting her.

It all sounded good until my nephew
told me in a phone conversation prior to their trip east .....

Uncle David,
I hate to tell you this,
but she did her undergrad work at _ _ _ _

I can't even print it.

It is my school's arch rival from across town,
and it is a four letter word.

I gasped.

And you're marrying her? I said
kiddingly.

Yeah, she's makes fun of your school
all the time.

I knew then that Thanksgiving was going to be unusual,
a meal where us and them are both invited

Any time us and them gather,
it's uncomfortable at best,
probably like the first Thanksgiving.

I would think that between the
Pilgrims and Indians first Thanksgiving,
there had to be a little bit of an
us and them vibe as they gathered
at the table....
two very different peoples
sitting down to table.

I'm sure Miles Standish
wasn't extremely comfortable
sharing the creamed corn with the Indian's cousin Larry.

And so I came to Thanksgiving,
knowing that us would meet them.

I vowed to be the most gracious us
that them ever met.
I would not talk about her school,
I wouldn't wear any of my school paraphernalia.
I would focus on the things that bring us together.

All was fine for the first 15 minutes,
polite conversation,
asking all the getting to know you questions.

I think it started with the passing of the cranberry sauce......

Out of the blue, the fiancee said to me....
Isn't your school where the football players cheat??

I almost gagged on my sweet potatoes.
Everyone around me chuckled.

This them was a pistol,
and she was fully loaded.
My family awaited my response.

I think it was just one person that cheated.
Would you pass the stuffing please? I said changing the subject.

But them would have no part of the subject changing.

But didn't the whole team get punished for cheating? them continued.
She was going for the jugular,
and I hadn't even received the gravy yet.

Yes they did, I said politely,
while gnawing out my frustrations on my turkey,

Doesn't that make you feel
less about the education that you received there?

Them was mashing me
more than the potatoes.

Finally I couldn't take it anymore,
I stood up and ripped off my shirt
revealing my us tee shirt.

I'd rather be an us on probation
then a them not on probation! I snapped.

The room was dripping in silence

Then them looked over at her fiancee, my nephew, and said,

I think I am going to really like your family.
Then she looked at me and winked.

I winked back and said
May I have the Waldorf salad please?

It's easy to live in a world of us and them

Western culture versus middle eastern culture.
Rich versus poor.
Educated versus uneducated.
Old versus young.

Name your us and you will find a them.

We talk about seeking unity in the church,
while the reality is we already have our unity in Christ.
All we need to do is to claim it.

But I think the Lord went beyond that.
He saw all people as us.
He wept for the entire city of Jerusalem.
He spent far more time on the streets then in the temple
embracing people from all walks of life.

He understood that if he treated everyone as an us,
it opened the door for everyone to become an us.

For God so loved the world
is the most memorized and quoted scripture.
As far as I can see
the world is everybody.

Who in your world is a them
that needs to be seen as an us,
so that they indeed can become an us.

Give it a try,
I suggest starting with the cranberry sauce.
Who knows,
you might just make it to the pumpkin pie.....

He came for a witness,
that he might bear witness of the light,
that ALL might believe through Him.

John 1:7


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Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Elizabeth Edwards & Advent Hope

The heartbreaking news of Elizabeth Edward's death leads us to once again join the Psalmist in crying out to God.

"Is your steadfast love declared in the grave, or your faithfulness in Abaddon? Are your wonders known in the darkness, or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness. But I, O Lord, cry out to you; in the morning my prayer comes before you." - Psalm 88:11-13

I have a wonderful small book that I often take with me for hospital visits. It's a book filled with verses from various Psalms and brief prayers that connect with the themes of those Psalms. There are Psalms of thanksgiving when there has been healing from illness. There are Psalms of guidance and direction when the way doesn't seem clear. There are Psalms of hope when we are sensing despair. There are Psalms for use before a surgery as well as after a surgery. And there are Psalms for times when life support is withdrawn.

The Book of Psalms is the ultimate prayer book in the bible. This June, I'll be preaching a sermon series on how the Psalms can serve as a wonderful prayer guide in our faith journey. The series is called, "Expressions of the Heart."

While the Psalms (and the bible in general) do not address the question, "Why does God allow bad things to happen," at least directly, they do provide a tremendous word of hope in helping us respond to times of sickness, grief, sorrow, and pain. The Book of Job does give us the opportunity to wrestle with the question of why God allows bad things to happen but it never gives us the complete answer to that question.

Even though the bible doesn't give easy answers when facing times of loss and sadness, it does offer us an incredible word of hope which is a word we often hear in this Season of Advent. And the word of hope consists of the following:
  1. God created this world and called it good.
  2. Even though we sinned and there is brokenness, pain, and death in God' creation, God is on a mission to rescue the world.
  3. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ was the launching of God's rescue of the world. Jesus' resurrection in the middle of history is the signpost of a future time when all of God's creation will experience complete healing and wholeness by a special act of God's grace. This will be a time when all righteousness will be fulfilled.
  4. In the meantime, the Holy Spirit empowers us (specifically the church) to continue to carry forth what God has already begun through Jesus' death and resurrection.

Whenever we cry out with the Psalmists during times of sadness and pain, it's important for us to remember all of the points above but especially #3. While #3 doesn't give us an easy answer as to why bad things happen, it does remind us that there will come a time when everything will be made right.

Unlike some religions/philosophies, Christianity embraces a linear view of history in which we are moving toward a future time when justice, righteousness, and love will one day fill all of God's creation the way it was always meant to be. If we ever doubt this to be true, which many of the Psalmists remind us that it is OK to do since life can be really difficult, it's important to hear from people like Mary who we will hear this Sunday for the 3rd Sunday of Advent.

"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior...He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever." - Luke 1:46-47, 54-55

Mary proclaimed these words because she knew that the baby in her womb was going to be the means by which God would fulfill his covenant in reclaiming and rescuing the world. Mary knew that this was a significant part of God's salvation plan for the world to fulfill the covenant that had been made centuries earlier with Abraham and Israel.

The Christian faith offers this tremendous word of hope - A day is coming when sin and death will be defeated once and for all. This is at the heart of our Advent hope. This is the hope we can embrace especially upon hearing the news that a very courageous and faith filled woman has just passed away from cancer.


Monday, December 6, 2010

Happy St. Nicholas Day! (December 6)


James Kiefer, who writes about Christian saints shares this information about today's saint (December 6) - St. Nicholas, 4th Century.

Nicholas was a native of the western part of what is now Asiatic Turkey Anatolian Plateau). He became Bishop of Myra in the fourth century, and there are many stories of his love for God and for his neighbor.

The best-known story involves a man with three unmarried daughters, and not enough money to provide them with suitable dowries. This meant that they could not marry, and were likely to end up as prostitutes. Nicholas walked by the man's house on three successive nights, and each time threw a bag of gold in through a window (or, when the story came to be told in colder climates, down the chimney). Thus, the daughters were saved from a life of shame, and all got married and lived happily ever after.

Because of this and similar stories, Nicholas became a symbol of anonymous gift-giving. Hence, if we give a gift to someone today without saying whom it is from, it can be called "a present from Saint Nicholas (or Santa Claus)." Some parents explain this to their children and invite the child to join them in wrapping a toy (either something purchased for that purpose, at least partly with the child's allowance, or else a toy that the child has outgrown but that is still serviceable) or an outgrown but not shabby item of the child's clothing, or a package of food, and then going along to donate it to a suitable shelter that will give it to someone who will welcome it. This gift is then called "a present from Santa," so that the child understands that this is another name for an anonymous gift given to someone whom we do not know, but whom we love anyway because God does. (Presents within the family can be "From Santa" or "From Santa and...")

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Sermon (December 5) - "'Tis the Season Before the Season"

Based on our Gospel reading this morning, I definitely would not want John the Baptist to serve as one of our worship greeters on Sunday morning.

Our worship greeters say appropriate things like, “It’s great to see you today.” “Good morning.” “Welcome to First Church.” Or “It’s nice to see you.”

Instead of these welcoming phrases, John the Baptist greets people with, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”

“John – how can I say this in a nice way? You’re going to need to work on your people skills if you want to continue to be one of our ushers on Sunday morning. We have a training event next month. You might want to sign up for it.”

Can you imagine if one of our greeters would say something like that to somebody entering our church for worship?

“Did that person just call me a snake? Must be having a bad day, I guess!”

If this text from Matthew’s Gospel reading this morning got your attention, then Matthew did his job well in introducing us to this wild and radical prophet of God, who we know today as John the Baptist.

We don’t find John baptizing people in a local synagogue. No. We find him standing in the wilderness, the middle of nowhere, and yet people from all around the region are coming to him to hear his preaching and to be baptized.

Baptism. Why would people go out of their way to be baptized? Why would they even think about driving past a dozen synagogues in order to be baptized out in the middle of nowhere by this eclectic and wild man named John?

“Who is he anyway? Has this guy been through the district’s Lay Speaking course or met with the district committee on ordained ministry? Somebody better check out this guy’s credentials.”

Matthew gives us a hint as to why people came from all over the place to be baptized by John. He tells us that they were baptized in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

Honest to God. These people were longing for this opportunity to confess their sins and begin anew with God.

Isn’t that great? We are given every indication in this text to believe that these people came to John with the right motives and with the right attitudes. They wanted to get right with God.
Christmas is a wonderful time of year for you and me to get right with God. That’s why the church calendar sets aside these four significant weeks called the season of Advent. To give us the opportunity to get right with God so that when Christmas day comes, we will be able to receive the gift of God’s Son, Jesus Christ in all of His fullness.

The season of Advent is a wonderful gift to the church. There are important reasons why the season of Advent is a gift to the church.

First of all – it heightens the suspense.

I officiate for several weddings here at First Church. And for each wedding rehearsal, we have the bridal party practice lining up in the order that they will be coming down the aisle.

And I always tell the bride and the person who will be escorting her down the long middle aisle (usually her father, but not always) to wait behind our sanctuary wall until the very last possible second, to give some suspense as the people wait eagerly to see the bride for the first time in her beautiful dress.

And just at the right time, she appears, and immediately begins processing down the middle aisle. And if everything goes well, the mothers are crying, the fathers are sweating, and the people are nervously awaiting the big moment to arrive. That’s what we’re after! The big build up. The heightened anticipation.

Advent is a time for us to wait expectantly for Jesus Christ to appear in all of His glory. Just like at a wedding, there are signs before the service that something wonderful is about to happen - the seating of the mothers, the lighting of the unity candles, the procession of the groomsmen – and you know that it’s only a few moments before you will see the bride coming down the aisle.
And guess what? After that long suspense – before you know it – the service is over!

We tend to appreciate gifts more as we allow the suspense to build to that special moment.
If we bypass the season of Advent, we end up limiting that special moment when we celebrate the One who is to come into the world, Jesus Christ.

A second gift Advent gives us is an opportunity for us to get right with God. Notice how the people in Matthew’s text were hungering for the opportunity to confess their sins and be baptized. There was a hunger to get right with God. There was a hunger to begin again.

And notice that this is before Jesus Christ has even started his public ministry. It would be getting the cart before the horse if we would skip the season of Advent and rush to Christmas, without having first prepared our hearts and our minds for Jesus Christ to be born in us.

Or think of it this way. If Jesus Christ would say to you this morning that he will be coming to your house to be your guest this Friday, would you end up changing your plans for this week? Would you change some of your priorities? Would you do things a little differently this week if you knew that Jesus would be coming to your house in just a few days?

The season of Advent is a time for us to reconsider our plans leading up to Christmas Day and the Christmas Season. It’s a time to rethink our priorities. And we might decide to do things a little differently in these weeks leading up to December 25. Why? Because we know that this special day in which we celebrate Christ’s birth is coming and we want to have our hearts ready to receive Him by faith.

That’s what the people were doing in our scripture reading this morning. They were coming to John the Baptist, to prepare themselves for God’s coming kingdom.

And I don’t know if you want to call it a 6th sense that John had, or if it was even more obvious than that – but when John the Baptist saw some of the religious leaders of his day showing up to be baptized, John ends up pulling them aside.

And this is why he calls them “brood of vipers.”

You see, not only was John the Baptist the worship greeter, he was also the preacher.

John was calling into question their motive in coming for baptism.

And this leads us to the third reason why we spend four weeks in preparation for the Christmas season. God wants us to bear good fruit. John reminds the Pharisee and Sadducee leaders that baptism and repentance mean nothing to God, unless it leads us to bear fruit.

John is calling for the religious leaders to have a faith that is alive and fresh and new.

And out of all these reasons for having Advent, this one really hits me the hardest. If John’s purpose was to wake me up this morning, then he did a great job, because now I’m awake.
John the Baptist is telling us that our faith is to be so much more than simply going through religious motions that have no bearing on how we live Monday through Saturday. John says - that’s not faith. Faith is bearing the fruit of obedience in our daily living. Faith is living out what we profess on Sunday morning.

Our scripture this morning is a wake up call for those of us who have been part of the church for any length of time. John is saying to us, “When you participate in these religious services, come with an attitude that your life will be radically altered.”

Every year, the season of Advent is a time for us to become more conscientious of what we do on Sunday mornings so that it connects with our everyday living.

I was reading about a guy named Dennis, who lives in Katy, Texas, and how he needed some same-day dry cleaning before he left on a trip. He remembered one store with a huge sign, “One Hour Dry Cleaners” which was located on the other side of town.

Since he needed his clothes dry cleaned right away, he made the drive across town. After he filled out the tag, he told the clerk, “I’ll be back in an hour.” And she said, “I’m sorry, but I can’t get this back to you until Thursday.” Dennis said, “But your sign says, ‘One Hour Dry Cleaners.’”
“I know,” she said. “But that’s just the name of the store.”

Those of us who carry the name Christian, but fail to act like the one whose name we bear throughout the week, are like those religious leaders who came for the ritual as long as it didn’t change their way of living.

Advent is a time of the church year to heighten the suspense of the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. It’s a season that helps us to get right with God. And it’s a season that reminds us to bear good fruit.

Penny and I were walking through one of the anchor stores at a mall on a Sunday afternoon during the fall season when it occurred to me that there were Christmas decorations all over that store. There were Christmas trees, greenery, ornaments, and wreaths everywhere throughout this department store. I mean, what’s next? Some church will probably decide to celebrate Christmas in July, or something crazy like that!

Usually I take this early Christmas stuff all in stride, but this time, it hit me the wrong way. Do we really want to bypass the gifts of the Advent Season, just so that we can celebrate a hollow Season of Christmas?

I said to Penny that they might as well leave the decorations up throughout the year. Just have Christmas sales throughout the year. Or maybe mix the Easter decorations with the Christmas decorations and the stores could call it Eastmas shopping year round.

And as I walked through that store on that beautiful sunny October day, all I could think about was, “You know, I’m not ready for Christmas. I’m not ready to rejoice in the Savior’s birth in the middle of October. God is still working on me. I need Advent!”

I need the season of Advent to heighten my anticipation about what God is going to do next. I need the season of Advent to be a season of repentance and preparation for the coming of the Messiah to our dark and broken world. I need the season of Advent to get my heart right with God.

He attended a men’s retreat weekend over twenty years ago, not because he wanted to, but because he was coerced by his wife. He had attended church – maybe not regularly, but on occasion he would come.

He went to this retreat dragging his feet. “Why did I agree to go on this weekend? Just think of what you could be doing, if you weren’t stuck at this men’s retreat.”

But he was there to stay. The first night didn’t go so well. It was kind of slow. They were asked to practice the spiritual discipline of silence, and so from Friday evening of the retreat until breakfast the next morning, they were encouraged to not speak out-loud, but to use that time to be in silent prayer with God.

To his surprise, that silence was needed. God began to work on him and he began to think about things that were out of order in his life. He started to feel God’s presence again. He hadn’t felt this way in quite a while, because he had gotten so busy with life and work. You know how that goes.

And as the weekend progressed, he started to feel not only God’s presence, but God’s love through Jesus Christ. He was able to connect with the other men on the retreat who were just ordinary men like he was, but who could also sense that God was up to something that weekend. Something powerful. Something wonderful. Something life changing.

By the end of that retreat, he had made a decision to allow Jesus Christ to be number one in his life, in his marriage, and in the life of his family.

When he came home from the retreat, his wife asked him how things went, not knowing what a loaded question that was. To her surprise, his face gleamed with excitement as he shared how he had been able to reconnect with God in a powerful way.

He told her that he wanted them to work together as a couple in having Jesus Christ to be first in their marriage and in their family. Worship took on a whole new meaning for him. He began to see his job as a way to serve God and others. He got more involved in the life of his church. He asked how much they had been giving financially to the church and when his wife told him, he was appalled. He said, “We’re going to start tithing our money immediately. Let’s do the math and begin giving that amount.” When faith has an impact on our bank account, usually that means true transformation is taking place.

That men’s retreat became that significant period of time that he needed to receive Jesus Christ into his life in a new and fresh way. That weekend retreat became for him, his Advent – his time in which he set aside time to allow God to work on his heart. The light of his faith, which had just been a flicker of light before that weekend retreat, had all of the sudden lit up in such a way that it ended up transforming his life.

This past summer, some of us didn’t have electricity for several hours. I think the church was down for about six hours. And when it got dark, I can’t tell you the number of times that I went to flick on a light switch, expecting there to be light, and of course nothing happened.

And after every time I reached for a light switch during that power outage, I was reminded of how much I take light for granted. I just expect it to magically be there. So we lit candles, used the flashlight, and spent the remaining time waiting patiently for the power to come back on. And when it finally came back on, I was that much more appreciative of the precious gift of light.

This past week during my young adult bible study, I asked them since many of them have young children, “Are your children getting pretty excited for Christmas?”

Thinking that they would say something about toys and presents, one set of parents said how their son is really into Christmas lights. All he wants to do is to see the Christmas lights on people’s homes.

In these remaining three weeks of this season called Advent, let’s focus on the light of Christmas – let’s take our bibles, find some space during our daily routine, and maybe hang on to the sermon outline found in the bulletin that lists our weekly scripture readings for this month, and allow the suspense of this season to build, and to use these weeks as a time to get right with God, and to bear fruit in our homes, in our jobs, and in our daily living.

Let’s face it. John the Baptist would have made a lousy Sunday greeter. But that’s what you get when you have a wild man in the middle of the wilderness shouting, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

Let’s pray: Lord God, the second advent candle is lit and we can’t wait for the celebration of your Son’s birth. We want you today. We want you now. The light of the Advent Season is getting brighter, and yet, we also need more time to get our hearts right with you. Take our broken lives and prepare them for your coming. This we pray in the name of the one who is to come, Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.
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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Sunday Worship Preview - December 12

December 12 - (8:15 A.M. & 11:00 A.M. Traditional Services & 9:45 A.M. Praise Service) & Wednesday, December 15 (6:30 P.M. Casual Service @ Crossroads, 2095 Fair Avenue)

Sermon - "'Joy!"

Features - 3rd Sunday of Advent & Advent Candle Lighting

Scripture - Isaiah 35:1-18 & Luke 1:46b-55

Theme - The 3rd Sunday of Advent includes the lighting of a pink candle which reminds us that even in this season of confession, preparation, and contemplation, the fast approaching celebration of Jesus' birth offers us great joy. The Magnificat is also traditionally read on this Sunday of Advent which is Mary's joyful prayer that in her womb is the Savior of the world.
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Saturday, December 4, 2010

2nd Sunday of Advent Prayer


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Collect of the Day: Second Sunday of Advent

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Men's Prayer Breakfast Devotional Summary - December


Our men's monthly prayer breakfast met this morning and here's a summary of the devotions that were shared.

• Matthew 1:18-23
• Name was to be Jesus.
• Baby names. Anyone here named after a specific family member? The idea is that your name will remind you as well as other family members of that loved one.
• Interesting thoughts about Jesus’ name:
1) In Hebrew, “Jesus” is pronounced “Joshua.” Reminded people of Joshua of OT when he led them into the Promised Land. Good memories. God’s salvation! Joshua means “God saves.”
2) V. 23. Jesus shall also be known as Immanuel which means “God is with us.” The name doesn’t appear anywhere else throughout the gospel until….
Matthew 28:19-20
Subtle but creative!
• This Season:
1) Say the name, “Jesus” during this Advent Season and picture Joshua leading the people into the Promised Land. Think of how Jesus led us into the Promised Land through his life, death, and resurrection.
2) Say the name, “Immanuel” during this Advent Season. Take comfort in knowing that you’re never alone. God is always with us!
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Friday, December 3, 2010

Bible Study Summary - Upcoming Sunday's Scriptures


Here at Lancaster First UMC, I am privileged to be part of two weekly bible study groups that study the scriptures for the upcoming Sunday worship services.

2nd Sunday of Advent
Matthew 3:1-12
• Road, water, fire, axe are the 4 symbols in this reading.
• Context of verse 3
A rumor that a king is on his way, but there’s a problem. There’s no road for him to get here!
A messenger begins shouting to begin building a road, right away!
This message was first mentioned in OT – Isaiah 40. The king will bring comfort, hope, and healing after their exile. This raises the question of when the exile ended. Exile was still happening in the 1st century A.D. even though they were living in the Promised Land. Rome was in charge!
• Big problem – The people weren’t ready! But John the Baptist did his job and the people came from every direction to get ready.
• John helped them get ready by being baptized. This wasn’t about them personally, but about getting ready for the coming of the King. Instead of crossing the river for the first time, they would cross it again (through baptism in the Jordan) to prepare to enter into the Promised Land and this time knowing that the King was coming.
• Getting ready isn’t easy. Need to rid ourselves of pride and be humble and seek God with all our hearts. This is how you build a highway.
• How do you know that you’re ready? Are you bearing good fruit? Alternative is a bonfire!
• Looking ahead to Jesus’ arrival. The coming of the King didn’t look like what they were preparing for. Jesus would offer his very life on the cross.
• In what ways can we build a highway during this Advent Season so we’re ready for Christmas?
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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Christmas Breaks Out in a Shopping Mall


Oh how I wish I had this for September's "In Concert with God" sermon series especially when the focus was on how classical music can help us appreciate the beauty and magnificence of God. A big thanks to members of my church who sent me this video.



Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Dave's Deep Thoughts


Here's Pastor Dave McDowell's weekly devotional that he sends out to members of his church. Dave is my brother and serves as the Music Minister at Stewartstown UMC in PA.

Call it tradition,
call it a return to childhood......
just don't call me late for dinner.

Every Sunday evening
I make it a ritual to come home from work
and make a toastie cheese
along with a bowl of tomato soup.

It's a nice way to unwind
after a long day of rehearsals and worship.
It also brings back memories
of one of my favorite school lunches
back in the day.

There is something comforting
in remembering the good things
in our past.

When I was an immature 3rd grader,
I remember running
(we will call it walking really fast
to appease my 3rd grade teacher)
to the cafeteria on toastie cheese day.

Later, when I was a mature 11th grader,
I realized that butting into line
was the quickest way to get my toastie cheese.

Now that I am a very mature adult,
I realize that butting and running are not necessary,
because I have my own kitchen,
and because as an adult,
I have more than 25 minutes to eat.

This precious Sunday evening ritual
went by the wayside
during the 13 months of construction
when I did not have a kitchen.

Once in a while during those 387 days,
I would heat up a bowl of tomato soup in the microwave,
but tomato soup just isn't tomato soup
without a toastie cheese.

This week,
my new kitchen became functional.
With the knowledge that my stove actually worked again,
I ran home from work
(okay, maybe not as mature as I thought......)
salivating at the thought of hearing
the toastie cheese grill on the stovetop.

It has been said that absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Although I think that saying was intended to describe personal relationships,
I find it equally true regarding my relationship with toastie cheese,
my stove, and my refrigerator......

As I restarted my ritual,
I had a new found appreciation for the refrigerator
as I pulled out the tub of margarine.
I was giddy as I reached for a butter knife that wasn't made of plastic.
My heart lept for joy
as I felt heat emanating from the stove top.
Euphoria set in as water flowed out of the spighot
to rinse my utensils.

I was overwhelmed with a profound sense of gratitude
as I reclaimed the very basics of household living.

Just when I didn't think I could feel more grateful,
I heard it.
It was a sound I hadn't heard for months......
that precious sound of an ice cube
slowly falling into the ice maker.

It almost brought me to tears.

My lip began to quiver as I pondered my options...

should I crush it
or perhaps cube it??

It is human nature to take things for granted,
particularly things that are common for us,
but not so in places of poverty.

I had the means to rebuild my home.
But what about earthquake victims in Haiti and Chile this year?
What about innocent people displaced during military revolts in Africa?
What about the person within miles of my home,
who has become homeless because of a job loss,
an injury, an illness, or the lack of a family support system?

The week after Thanksgiving,
I continue to give thanks,
and am humbled by why the Lord
gave me this life to live as compared to those who live in far greater need.

As I savored the moments in my virginal kitchen,
I realized that answer is that I am not the owner,
I am merely the steward.
And this steward has decided
that this kitchen, this home,
will always be open to both the friends that I know,
and the friends that I don't know.

May each of us,
have our own toastie cheese moment of enlightenment.

Oh yes,
while having this moment ,
I burned my toastie cheese.
Man I hate that!

To whom much has been given,
much shall be required.
Luke 12:48b
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