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

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Pastoral Prayer (Christmas Eve) Athens First UMC

[Our church celebrated two Christmas Eve services which included a children-friendly puppet & glowstick service at 4:30 pm, and a traditional candlelight service at 7:00 pm. For the sermon, click here. The pastoral prayer below was shared at the 7 pm service. A big thanks to the choir, instrumentalists, greeters, ushers, audio/visual helpers, skit writers, puppet performers, and staff who put in so much extra time to provide these services. Merry Christmas to all!]

Jesus, Emmanuel, welcome to our world. Welcome to our world of so much beauty. 


As you grow older, your parents will show you the green fields of Galilee. They will introduce you to the vivid colors of the lilies of the field. They will take walks with you by green pastures and still waters. They will tell you unbelievable stories about your many faith ancestors; stories about Abraham, Sarah, Deborah, Ruth, Naomi, David, Isaiah, and all the prophets. They will teach you songs of the Psalmists; songs of thanksgiving and songs of praise that point us to a loving God who created this world and called it good.


But they will also tell you about the Romans and many other kingdoms of the world who have oppressed your people, including many stories of how Israel has not been faithful in being the people God has called them to be. You will hear about the glory days of your ancestor, David but also how his kingdom split in two leading to internal fighting and a divided kingdom. You will be taught Psalms of lamentations where the Psalmist will cry out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.” And there will be people telling you to fight against the Romans and resist. And others will tell you that nothing can be done and that there is little hope.


Jesus, Emmanuel, welcome to our world of so much beauty but also of so much pain, brokenness, longing, and suffering. This is the world in which you are born.  Some things have never changed.


But your name is Jesus. Your name is Emmanuel. You are the the promised Messiah, the long awaited King who will usher in a new kingdom of righteousness, justice, and peace. 


As we prepare to light and lift our candles in honor of your birth tonight, we pray that your kingdom would shine through each one of us, a kingdom where all are welcomed, a kingdom where those in low estate are raised up, a kingdom where the prisoners are set free, a kingdom where love overcomes hate.


Jesus, Emmanuel, we want to be part of your kingdom even as we pray the prayer that you taught us to say together, “Our Father, who art in heaven.”

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Sermon (Christmas Eve) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     Suppose that one day you were reading a story in which an elderly woman is talking to her pregnant granddaughter: “Now listen, my dear,” the old woman says, “I would ask that you name this child after your grandfather and so give him the name, ‘Nelson.’”

     Suppose the young woman agrees. “Okay, Grandma, his name will be Nelson.,”

     But then you read, “This fulfilled a prediction once made by the pregnant woman’s father that her firstborn would be named, ‘Wallace.’”

     Well, which name should be given to the baby? Nelson or Wallace?

     We have this same kind of puzzle in Matthew’s Gospel about the naming of Jesus. In Matthew, chapter one, our Gospel reading tonight, the angel says to name the baby, “Jesus” and just a few verses later, Matthew turns around and assumes we won’t be confused when he says, That’s right, the prophet had said a long time ago that this baby would be given the name, ‘Emmanuel.’” 

     So tonight, we celebrate the birth of Jesus. No wait, his name is Emmanuel. But he also goes by Jesus. Can you just pick a name so we know what to call this baby, Matthew? 

     Well, I guess it’s not as simple as that. They are both important names that point us to why we are celebrating this baby’s birth tonight. I mean, think about it. You could be at home watching old Christmas movies, but you chose to come to a baby shower instead.

     One of the first things we want to know when we meet a parent of a newborn is the name they gave their child. Names tell us a lot about who the child is.

     I was almost named Adam because my great-grandfather was named Adam. Instead, my parents went with Robert probably because it was one of the more popular boy names back in 1863. Robert means, “bright fame.” Yeah, I’m still waiting for that call from Hollywood.

     The origin of our names can help lead us to live out our calling. At the elementary school where our kids attended, they had a teacher whose name was Mrs. Crayon. And the name of the principal was Mrs. Schooly. You just can’t make this up. And I’m sure we could be here all night sharing names of people who match their professions.

     What makes the naming of Jesus unique though is that there isn’t one name that can adequately convey all of who he is. So let’s spend some time tonight exploring these names of Jesus and Emmanuel. 

     Both of these names convey the good news of Christmas. Jesus means “One who saves, rescues, and delivers.” Santa delivers presents. Jesus delivers salvation.

     So Christmas is about God coming into the world through Jesus to save us, to rescue us, to deliver us. Jesus saves us from our sins. Jesus rescues us from our brokenness and pain. Jesus delivers us from bondage.

     The name, Jesus is so commonly used that sometimes we forget the origin of the name, even around Christmas. Giving him the name, Jesus gives us a hint even as we gather around the manger tonight, that this baby will launch the long awaited healing, wholeness, and salvation for the world. The wait is over. The long season of Advent has come and gone. The blue altar cloths have been replaced tonight with colors of gold and white. It’s time to celebrate! The savior is born and Jesus is his name.

     Jesus’ name conveys that through him our sins are forgiven. Whatever regrets that linger from our past. Whatever pain we may have caused others. Whatever missed opportunities that still may haunt us. Whatever unnecessary baggage that is weighing us down. Jesus is more than able to save us.

     Several years ago, I helped to lead a youth retreat and during that retreat, youth were invited to spend some time in a candle-lit sanctuary one evening and think about their faith. These teenagers had just heard several youth and adults share what a difference Jesus has made in their lives. This was now their time to find a place in that large holy space and absorb what they had heard and experienced from those testimonies.

     I was quietly sitting in one of the first pews in case a youth wanted to come and talk to me. As I sat there, I noticed one of the youth who had come up to the cushioned kneeling rail which had several lit candles flickering on the altar in front of her. And for the next several minutes, she quietly knelt there staring at one of those candles. She didn’t take her eyes off that one candle.

     I’m not totally sure what that lighted candle in which she was giving her total focus meant to her personally, but it sure seemed like she was being drawn closer to the heart of God.

     I think of the candles we will be holding tonight and how those candles offer the light of Jesus’ saving love for the world. Jesus saves.

     And Jesus rescues us from our pain and brokenness. Jesus has come to do for us what we are not able to do for ourselves. Jesus rescues.

     And Jesus delivers us from our bondage. There’s a freedom when we receive Jesus in our lives. Jesus delivers us from all that would keep us from being who God has called us to be. Like the wonderful verse from the Advent hymn, “Come, Thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free; from our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in Thee.”

     Jesus saves us. Jesus rescues us. Jesus delivers us. As the one hymn puts it, “His name is wonderful, Jesus my Lord.”

     This reminds me of the story of when a pastor was giving the children’s message during church on Sunday. For this part of the service, he would gather all the children around him and give a brief lesson before dismissing them for children’s church. 

     On this particular Sunday, he was using squirrels for an object lesson in making a spiritual point. He started out by saying, “I’m going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is.”

     The children nodded eagerly. “This thing lives in trees (pause) and eats nuts (pause)…”No hands went up. The pastor continued with more hints. “And it is gray (pause) and has a long bushy tail (pause)…” 

     The children were looking at each other, but still no hands raised. “And it jumps from branch to branch (pause) and chatters and flips its tail when it’s excited (pause)…” Finally one little boy tentatively raised his hand. 

     The pastor breathed a sigh of relief and called on him. “Well…,” said the boy, “I know the answer must be Jesus…but is sure sounds like a squirrel!”

     Matthew tells us that the name of this baby is Jesus, but he also is given the name, Emmanuel, a Hebrew word that means, “God is with us.” 

     There probably isn’t a better name to convey what is at the heart of the Christmas story. Christmas is about God with us in the form of a baby. In theological terms, we refer to this as the incarnation. God becoming flesh.

     A church member shared me with just a few days ago that her small group decided to make little Christmas tree decorations that light up and to give anyone who might be feeling lonely this holiday season.

     She told me that she gave her Christmas tree decoration to a woman who had Alzheimer’s. When she gave her that tree, a big smile came to the woman’s face. She then turned the lights on, and this woman started to cry and asked her, “Is this for me?” She said that it was a gift for her. 

     And this woman replied, “I’m all alone. You remembered me. Thank you for being so kind.” In that moment, this woman experienced the good news of Christmas. We are not alone. God is with us.

     This is such a profound but wonderful mystery of our faith, the incarnation. Emmanuel. God with us. God with us in all our flesh and blood realities and messiness. God with us in diapers. God with us as close as Mary would have held Jesus to her chest. God with us in learning how to eat. God with us in learning how to drink from a cup without spilling milk all down his chin. 

     To borrow a phrase from the Christian mystic saint, Teresa of Avila, “we look for Christ among the pots and pans.” Jesus among the barn animals and those quirky magi astrologers and then all the rest of the Gospel’s curious cast of characters. God with us.

     God with the prostitutes and the lepers and the outcasts in whose company Jesus would delight again and again. God at the dinner table laughing at a story his dad is telling about his day. 

     God with the little children who come to him for a blessing. God lifting the cup of wine while gathered with the disciples in an Upper Room. God with us in all our ordinary times and days. God with us in what we have been calling “Thin Place Moments,” those holy moments when God is made present to us in surprising and beautiful ways. 

     Emmanuel is God with us in the cancer clinic and at the local nursing home where bodies slump in wheelchairs pushed up against the hallway walls. Emmanuel is God with us in the hospice room and when life’s final breath slips past a loved one’s lips. 

     Emmanuel is God with us when you pack the Christmas decorations away and with an aching heart, realize afresh that your one son never did call over the holidays. Emmanuel is God with us when your dear wife or mother stares at you with an Alzheimer’s glaze and absently asks, “What was your name again?”

     Emmanuel, God with us when you get another news alert on your phone of another mass shooting and you just want to scream because nothing seems to ever change. Emmanuel, God with us when you are feeling so angry toward God that you don’t feel like praying or doing this whole church thing anymore. 

     But even when you refuse to look at God, he never looks away from you, always reaching out to you, always wanting to be in a relationship with you, always present whether you are by still waters or walking through the valley of the shadow of death. 

     God will never leave or forsake you. He can’t. And that’s the wonderful thing about Christmas.

     It’s all in the name. 

Monday, December 23, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Dec. 22/Advent) Athens First UMC

[When Athens High School alum, Joe Burrow mentioned in his recent Heisman Trophy speech about the extreme poverty that is present in his home area of southeast, Ohio, this has led to hundreds of thousands of dollars being donated from all over the country to our local Athens County Food Pantry. Not only has this been what some might call a “Christmas Miracle,” perhaps it also is an answer to many prayers that have been lifted for impoverished families in our county to find some needed relief. God works in mysterious ways as we will soon celebrate at our 4:30 pm and 7:00 pm Christmas Eve services this week. For the 4th Sunday of Advent sermon, click here.]

Gracious and loving God, we have so many questions to ask you. What kind of star led the wiseman to Bethlehem? How many shepherds are we talking about? Three, four, maybe twenty? Explain to us the virgin birth and how that could have happened. It’s hard for us to understand. Why do only two of our Gospels have the Christmas story?


We have so many questions to ask you, O God. How can the story of Christmas make a difference in our lives? How can the good news of Christ’s birth make this world a better place? Is Jesus really the one who has come to bring peace on earth or should we look for another?


Like John the Baptist, we live with so many unanswered questions and yet if we are alert enough, there are signs of your presence all around us. There are glimpses of your presence in so many mysterious and surprising ways.


We have been praying for the many families and children in our surrounding area who have limited access to food and just hours after Joe Burrow’s Heisman Trophy speech, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been donated to our Athens County Food Pantry from all over the country. Thank you for this Christmas miracle, O God!


For this year’s Christmas Angel Tree program, we were assigned to help 18 children and because of so many generous people, we were able to provide 53 gifts, 32 bibles, & 25 hams for a total of 29 families! Thank you for this Christmas miracle, O God!


Just a few weeks ago, we didn’t know what we were going to do for this Tuesday’s 4:30 family-friendly Christmas Eve service, but thanks to some creative ideas and people willing to help, we now have a special service planned for those who will attend. Thank you for this Christmas miracle, O God!


O God, even as we have many questions about our faith and about the mystery of the incarnation, thank you for these holy and surprising ways that you remind us of your presence. 


We pray this in the name of Jesus who taught us to say together… “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Sermon (Dec. 22) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     We sat in my office and talked about the many religions in the world.  He was a very religious young man and wanted to get my opinion about why I had chosen Christianity with so many other possible religious choices available to me.

     The religion he was describing to me in my office wasn’t one religion in particular.  A very opened minded person, he had chosen certain parts of several religions as well as a few that I had never heard about and had woven them together in a way that made sense to him.

     I had the distinct impression that he probably thought I was a bit odd for settling on one religious faith when I could have so much more.

     How do I know that Jesus is the one, he wanted to know.

     In our scripture reading from Matthew’s Gospel this morning, a man is behind prison bars and he is asking the question, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another.”

     Isn’t this the ultimate Advent question?  As we prepare for Christmas in this season of preparation, what better question is there for us to ask then this very question:  “Are you the one, Jesus?”

     In John’s day which was a time when Israel was under the military occupation of the Roman Empire, there were a couple of religious options within Judaism.  

     The first option was to follow someone who claimed to be the Messiah and who was willing to lead a violent revolt against the pagans who were ruling over the people of Israel.  And this is what some of the people of Israel did around the time of the 1st century.

     About 150 years before Jesus’ birth, Judas Maccabaeus led such a revolt against the Syrians who were controlling Israel at the time and he actually defeated them, at least for the next hundred years.  By the way, it’s through Judas Maccabaeus that we have the present day holiday of Hanukah, also known as Festival of Lights which begins tonight.

     A 2nd option for the people of Israel during this time was to compromise and accept the fact that they were under Roman occupation.  “Don’t rock the boat” was the mindset of some of the Jewish people during this period, although that didn’t mean that they wouldn’t have wanted to be delivered from the Romans.  It just meant that they felt this was their only option.  Get along as much as possible was their thinking.

     So we can see why John, who is now in prison, would still be wondering if Jesus was indeed the Messiah and if so when was Jesus going to make his move against the Romans.

     Things don’t look good when you’re behind prison bars.  “Are you the one, Jesus?”

     Maybe you have asked that same question at one point or another.  Maybe you’re asking that question now as you look around at so much suffering and heartache in the world – “Are you the one, Jesus?”

     A friend loses his job and she doesn’t know how she’s going to pay the bills, let alone how she will buy Christmas presents for her kids.  “Are you the one, Jesus?”

     You’ve been working hard on a new ministry through the church and it doesn’t seem to be making any headway and you’re about ready to give up.  “Are you the one, Jesus?”

     A man who was in the prime of his life is struck down by a terrible disease, leaving behind a grieving family who now must learn to live without his wonderful guidance and support.  “Are you the one, Jesus?”

     You get another news alert and there it is again. Yet another mass shooting.  “Are you the one, Jesus?”

     Some people want to ask that question but are afraid to ask it because people might think differently of them if they do.  So they don’t ask it.  They keep it to themselves.

     But John the Baptist asked it.  The one who had prepared the way for Jesus out in the wilderness.  The one who said, “The one who is coming after me is more powerful than I.”  He asked it.  “Are you the one?”

     So Jesus’ disciples come back to him with this question from John the Baptist.  And Jesus’ answer?

     “Go and tell John what you hear and see.” 

     That’s just like Jesus to put the question back on us, isn’t it?  Do you think the disciples, who probably wanted to ask Jesus that very same question weren’t just as curious as to what Jesus would say as John the Baptist was?

     Jesus says to the disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see.”  And he quotes right out of their own Hebrew scriptures – Isaiah chapter 35.  “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” 

     “We were expecting a yes or no, Jesus.  And here you go quoting scripture?”

     Sometimes a straightforward answer just won’t do.  While a simple answer might satisfy us on a surface level, what really matters is that we experience the answer for ourselves.

     Educators tells us that we learn best when we are put into situations where we experience the world around us rather than simply take notes in a classroom, as important as that may be.

        One of the many things that I love about our church is that we encourage people to ask questions about their faith. I often share with you how I have changed in the way I interpret the scriptures because of new experiences and new understandings. 

     Those changes happen because it also starts with asking questions. What was the historical context of when that particular passage of scripture was written? Who was the author? How would the original hearers of that scripture passage have received it? What have been my biases in interpreting that scripture passage? What does that scripture mean for us today in 2019? 

     And often times, those questions about the Bible will lead to a deeper understanding and maybe even lead to more questions and to new possible interpretations.

     How we approach the Bible and how we develop our theology around various understandings of the Bible can lead to sometimes very unsettling times along our faith journey. Sometimes, out of fear of change, I want to keep my questions to myself and pretend they aren’t there. 

     But then I think of our focus today and how the Bible encourages us to ask questions and to wrestle in our faith. And that’s actually a more biblical attitude than the simplistic view of “the Bible says it. I believe it. And that settles it.”

     That simplistic statement always assumes that my interpretation of the scripture is the right one and the only one. But if we are humble enough, we will realize that maybe I have more to learn. Maybe there are more questions to ask. Maybe I need to live without the answers I am searching for a while.

     To help encourage us to ask questions about our faith, I invite you to submit questions about the Bible, about faith, about theology, about the church in general or about our church specifically. You can send any questions you have to my church email address over the next several weeks.

     On Sunday, January 26, instead of a sermon, I will do my best to respond to any questions you may submit, not necessarily with satisfactory or simplistic answers, but by offering my thoughts and reflections that will hopefully be helpful to all of us, because there will probably be other people in our church who have a similar questions that you submitted. I’m calling it “Ask the Pastor Sunday.” Last Sunday of January. 

     So please, let me know your questions about the Bible, faith, theology, or the church, and we’ll make that the focus on the last Sunday of January. My hope is that this will continue to encourage our church to be open to a variety of perspectives and thoughts. 

     Speaking of questions about our faith, many of us have read about Mother Teresa and her crisis of faith as documented in the book, “Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light” written by Brian Kolodiejchuk.

     The book reveals that Mother Teresa, over the last fifty years of her life, she often did not feel the presence of God.  It’s a controversial book because a lot of people have assumed that Mother Teresa had more faith in God than almost anyone else on the face of the earth. 

     But think of what Mother Teresa saw and heard.  Starving children and immense and overwhelming poverty day after day, year after year, decade after decade.  She saw a world that was inequitable, unfair in its allocation of life-giving resources, and an economic system that is often unjust.  

     And yet, it’s also important to remember what else Mother Teresa has seen.  The day when Mother Teresa won the Nobel Peace prize.  It was during the Season of Advent on December 11, 1979.  

     And she said in her speech that the upcoming Christmas holiday should remind the world “that radiating joy is real” because Christ is everywhere – “Christ is in our hearts, Christ in the poor we meet, Christ in the smile we give, and in the smile that we receive.”

     “Go and tell what you see and hear,” Jesus tells the disciples.

     For now, this answer will have to do for the locust and honey eating man who is now behind prison bars.  It will also have to do for the young teenage mother who’s been told that she has found favor with God.

     And it will have to do for us on this fourth Sunday of Advent.  “The blind receive their sight.  The lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news preached to them.”

Advent Questions
Sermon Discussion Questions
Matthew 11:2-11
December 22, 2019

In our Gospel reading, John the Baptist asked an important question that is important for us to ask in this Advent Season. While he was in prison, he sent word to Jesus asking him, “Are you the one who is to come or are we to wait for another?”

Share a time when you experienced doubt and wanted to know if Jesus really is the true Messiah, the one sent to be our savior and redeemer. What circumstances in your life led you to ask that question.

Why do you think people have questions about whether or not Jesus is the true Messiah?

When Jesus heard that John the Baptist wanted to know if he truly was the Messiah, he didn’t offer a yes or no answer. Instead he quoted Isaiah 35, “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” 

Why do you think that Jesus answered John the Baptist with this response?

Mother Teresa was known as one of the most faithful Christians of our modern era and yet she admitted that there have been many times when she did not feel God’s presence in her life. Many Psalmists express a similar honesty in their prayers. During the season of Advent in 1979, Mother Teresa won the Nobel Peace Prize. In her speech she said that the upcoming holiday season should remind the world that “radiating joy is real” because Christ is everywhere.

Have you experienced God’s radiating joy recently? How did that help your faith to grow stronger?

Sunday, December 15, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Dec. 15/Advent) Athens First UMC

[Our theme this Sunday was Advent Music and the joy we can have as we anticipate the coming of Christ into the world. The Chancel Choir sang several anthems including the one above, “It Don’t Have to Change” by John Legend. It’s a song that longs for the good old days but also celebrates that our love for each other never needs to change. The video below is our Bell Choir playing an arrangement of “The Little Drummer Boy.” Our church is so blessed by our music ministry.]

Lord, it is true, that some things don’t have to change. 


Some things like your love for the world through the gift of your Son, Jesus Christ. Some things like our love for each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. Some things like love, peace, joy and hope as represented by our four Advent candles. Some things like growing in what it means to have a loving faith, a learning faith, and a living faith. O Lord, thank you that some things don’t have to change.


But we also know that some things do change. Some things like new experiences and perspectives. Some things like having more of an open mind. Some things like becoming more patient, more loving, more thankful, more forgiving. Some things like being less judgmental, less critical, less hurtful. Some things like new understandings of scripture and our approach to faith. 


Lord, guide us in discerning the difference between what doesn’t have to change and what does need to change. 


Lord, thank you for this Sunday of music to help us prepare for what the shepherds heard so long ago in announcing the birth of your Son. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace among all people.”


In this season of Advent, this time of waiting, this time of anticipation, thank you for giving us a song that points us to the good news of your coming. Thank you for giving us a song, not just in a pew at church, but also in our places of work, in the classroom, on the streets, in the nursing home, in our neighborhoods, in our homes, in the surgery waiting area, in line at the grocery store, at the Convo, in every single place we may be, thank you for giving us a song to sing that always points us to you and reminds us that we are not alone for you are our Emmanuel, our God with us.


We pray this in the name of Jesus; the one who is to come, and the one who taught us to pray together, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

Monday, December 9, 2019

Happy St. Nerdnuk Day!

Do you know who St. Nerdnuk was? I would guess not. One of my seminary professors had created this fake saint day for the church calendar. He came up with the idea of having a St. Nerdnuk Day because it was my professor's way of reclaiming Christmas.

As the story was told, my professor didn't like it when family members gave practical gifts to each other for Christmas. He created this new pre-Christmas Feast Day to be the day when we give the practical and utilitarian gifts to each other so that Christmas can be reserved for more special gifts.

Some examples of practical gifts? Toasters, oven mitts, underwear, cooking utensils, coasters, pillows, pens/pencils, etc. These types of gifts are meant to be given on St. Nerdnuk Day. The more special and personal gifts are to be reserved for Christmas.

This professor has since passed away and I don't remember the exact details of St. Nerdnuk Day. I'm sure he had a special date for it in December. I just don't remember which day. As a way of honoring this professor's creative way of reclaiming Christmas, I have taken it upon myself to establish the Monday after the 2nd Sunday of Advent as St. Nerdnuk Day.

Since that would be today, I apologize for not giving you any time to purchase, wrap, and deliver practical/utilitarian gifts to your kin. Maybe there will be some "Day after St. Nerdnuk" discounts tomorrow if this article goes viral by the end of the day. Or, be my guest and go to a department store tomorrow and ask the clerk if you can get 15% off the toaster oven so you will have this to give away next year on St. Nerdnuk.

Actually, I'm a little surprised that I even remember the name of this made up special saint day. I'm not sure if this would be the correct spelling for St. Nerdnuk. I'm spelling it like it sounded when he first told me this story. I often wonder what St. Nerdnuk looked like. Maybe the picture above on the oven mitt looked something like him. This could become the new logo for St. Nerdnuk Day.

Whether or not you choose to celebrate St. Nerdnuk Day is totally up to you. Hopefully this new Feast Day will remind us that we are to save our best gifts for Christmas Day. As our church seeks to reclaim the true meaning of Christmas this year which is all about offering our gifts to be a blessing to a broken and hurting world, let's remember St. Nerdnuk Day.

If he actually lived, St. Nerdnuk probably would be famous for this quote, "Remember, Christmas isn't about buying each other new oil lamps or parchments. Christmas is about giving a generous financial gift toward your local church's special Christmas missions offering." - St. Nerdnuk, North Africa, 4th century (I just made this up but it sounds historically plausible.)

Happy St. Nerdnuk Day! 

[This post is in loving memory of Dr. James Nelson, Professor of Church History, United Theological Seminary.]

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Dec. 8/Advent) Athens First UMC

[On this 2nd Sunday of Advent, we hear the cry of John the Baptist calling us to come to the water and be transformed as we prepare for the coming of Christ. For the sermon, click hereOur Chancel Choir sang “Sound Over All Waters” which reminded us of John the Baptist calling us to be baptized and bear fruit in how we live and treat others. Melissa Brobeck offered the solo and Matt James provided a saxophone accompaniment. Click on the video above to enjoy this song. We were also blessed by Christmas concerts this weekend. See below for photos and a video from the Lancaster Chorale Christmas concert on Saturday evening.]

O God, are you really out here in this desert wilderness? This doesn’t seem like the place we would find you. Can’t we simply meet you in a beautiful sanctuary like everybody else on a Sunday morning?


And yet we can hear someone shouting for us to come near the river. He’s shouting for us to prepare the way of the Lord. How can we prepare for the coming of the Lord out here in the middle of nowhere? What? You also want us to wade into the river where the water covers us? This is how we are to prepare the way of the Lord? 


Well since we’re out here, we will trust you. As we go deeper into the Jordan, we almost feel weightless. Hope is replacing despair. Grief is giving way to new life. Anger is being overcome by love. Fear is turning into peace. We’re willing to go even deeper! This is beginning to feel a little like that daily prayer we’ve been praying at 4:57. “Baptize us afresh in the life-giving spirit of Jesus.”


O God, during this Advent season and especially on this Sunday with our focus on transformation, baptize us afresh in your life-giving spirit. 


Baptize us afresh so that we will be ready when you arrive. 

Baptize us afresh so that we not only light an Advent candle each week, but that we would be your light in our community and world where there is so much darkness. 


Baptize us afresh so that your light would expose all of our hidden insecurities, fears, and sins. 

Baptize us afresh so that your light would lead us to bless others through our special Christmas offering this year.

Baptize us afresh so that your light would shine through us as we offer Christmas joy to our Angel Tree families this week. 

Baptize us afresh so that your light would surround the people of our congregation especially those who are grieving, those who are away from home, and others who are on our hearts and minds this day. 

Baptize us afresh so that your light would point us to your promised coming into the world.


As we wade even deeper into the water, baptize us afresh in the life giving spirit of Jesus who taught us to pray together saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven…”

[Our church hosted a Christmas concert last evening with the Lancaster Chorale. It was a great way to prepare for the coming celebration of Christmas. See photos below for from our evening concert. The video below is the last verse from “O Come All Ye Faithful.” Part of what it means in being faithful is that we take time during this Advent season allowing God to transform us from the inside-out which is the point of our pastoral prayer for this 2nd Sunday of Advent.]

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Sermon (Dec. 8/Advent) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     Let’s face it and I’ll just go ahead and get this out on the table.  Four weeks from now, only a few of us will actually still have that holiday feeling.  And the rest of us will either be exhausted from all the holiday rush, or annoyed that we have to climb back up that rickety attic ladder to get all those empty Christmas decoration boxes down.

     Or at the very least, many of us will feel some of those post-holiday blues.

     I shared this story a couple of years ago during a Christmas Eve service so for those of you who didn’t hear it, I’d like to share it again.

     When I was a kid one Christmas, Santa brought me an electric football game.  Maybe some of you remember this large metal football field with the vibrating football players that rarely would go the direction you wanted them to go.  

      The commercial claimed that it would be just like a real NFL football game, only the players were plastic and the field was a sheet of metal.  But everything else was just like a Sunday NFL game.  They even had cardboard crowds that you could insert as a backdrop to make you feel like you were in a real stadium, complete with scoreboard. You kids now a days with your fancy video games. You don’t know what you are missing!

     Do you remember how most of the scoring was done with this game?  It certainly wasn’t by touchdowns.  And my brother and I never quite figured out how to kick field goals with that little yellow hinged leg man and the microscopic size football.  Most of the scoring was through safeties because your player would start to go down the field but then turn around and head back into your own end zone.  One dust particle on that sheet of metal could make the difference between a 1st down or a 15 yard loss.

     I’ll never forget this.  It was the day after Christmas, and a neighbor buddy of mine thought it was really cool that I got this game for Christmas.  It was a really close game and with time running out in a scoreless game, my little plastic NFL man was breaking loose for a game winning touchdown. 

     He’s at the 20, the 15, the 10, the 5, TOUCHDOWN!!!!

     In my exuberance, I tried to do a handstand, but I flipped over and I landed right in the middle of that field of metal, putting a huge dent around the 40 yard line.  I tried to fix it but I could never flatten that dent out.  And from that point on, those little players would just vibrate down into that dent in the middle of the field.

     It was only one day after Christmas, and I had lost that holiday feeling.

     The Season of Advent, these four weeks leading up to the Christmas season, is not meant to get us all excited about the holiday, only to leave us down and discouraged after all the decorations have been put away.

     The Season of Advent is meant to have such an impact on our lives, that we will never be the same again.  

     Take for example our Gospel reading on this 2nd Sunday of Advent.  Notice that the focus isn’t on the manger scene at all - the focus is on a prophet like man getting people like us ready for the beginning ministry of Jesus.

     John the Baptist is drawing great crowds to hear him preach and get this – he is nowhere near a Target or a Best Buy.  He’s in the middle of nowhere.  In this busy month of December, a wide open space of dirt and rocks is probably the last place that we would choose to go.  But this is where the action is on this 2nd Sunday of Advent.

     John is baptizing people left and right and let’s just put it this way - he’s not spreading a lot of holiday cheer.  Instead, he’s saying to repent and prepare for one who is more powerful than he.

     But isn’t it interesting that Matthew tells us that people were responding to John’s message?  And even the religious leaders were coming to be baptized and to be part of this interesting religious experience.

    But that’s when the music stops.  Just when the religious leaders had jumped in line waiting to be baptized, John turns to them and refers to them as snakes and he challenges their motives for joining the crowd.

     This text has always bothered me a bit, because at first glance, I’m thrilled that these religious leaders even showed up.  And notice that they didn’t ask if John was a properly credentialed licensed local pastor or if he had been through Lay Speaker training.

     I’m impressed that they were at least willing to jump on the bandwagon and get an extra dose of religion.

     But that wasn’t what John was about – to have people enjoy a nice religious experience or add a little more God to their lives.  No.  John was up to something a lot bigger.  So big that the kind of baptism he was offering would change their lives forever and maybe even make their lives more difficult.  John was preparing the way not for a warm religious experience, he was preparing the way of the Lord.

    And without holding back, John looks at those religious leaders and tells them, that the only folks who should wait in line by the river are those who really want to change.  “Bear fruit worthy of repentance,” John tells them.  “Think twice before getting dunked because your life will never be the same again.”

     Well, that puts Christmas in a different light, doesn’t it, because Christmas is about top to bottom, outside/in, inside/out, long lasting, transformational change.  The kind of change that goes well beyond Christmas Eve.  It goes with us the rest of our lives.  Is that the kind of Christmas we’re hoping for this year?

     I was talking to a church member following a forty day church-wide spiritual focus that we had just completed. The worship services, the sermons, and the small groups were all designed to lead us into a deeper and more profound relationship with Christ.

     And this member shared something with me that afternoon at his kitchen that has stuck with me to this day.  He said, “You know, don’t you, that the 40 day study isn’t really over.  It’s just beginning.  Now’s the hard part.   We need to live out what we promised to do.”

     John the Baptist would have said, “amen,” to that.

     “Bear fruit worthy of repentance” John tells us in this season leading up to Christmas, because if you don’t, Christmas won’t really mean a thing.  It will just be another religious experience that gets boxed up and put back in the attic.

     My book shelves are filled with notebooks from seminars I have attended over the years. I’ve stopped saving these notebooks because they take up so much space on my shelves so now I take notes on my laptop so I’m more likely to refer to them from time to time.  For some reason, when those hard-bound notebooks get stored on my shelf, I tend to forget about them.

     I don’t want to store Jesus on a shelf and forget about him.  I want Jesus to live in me to shape and mold me to be the person he is calling me to be.   And that’s a life long process.  And that’s why the message of John the Baptist is so important for us today.  Don’t put Jesus on a shelf.  Repent and bear fruit worthy of repentance.

     Charles Simeon was a student at Cambridge University in England in the 18th century.  During this time, students at English Universities were required to attend church regularly and to receive Holy Communion once a year.

     As you might imagine, this requirement to attend chapel and receive the Sacrament had some negative effects because of the many students who attended for the wrong reasons – just to fulfill a requirement to stay enrolled in the university.

     When told that he would be required to receive the Lord’s Supper during the middle of the term, Charles was faced with a dilemma.  He wasn’t a Christian and he certainly didn’t want to be a hypocrite and receive the Sacrament for the wrong reasons, so it was at that moment that he decided that if he must go he would repent, turn his entire life over to Christ, and become a totally committed follower of Jesus Christ.

     That decision on February 2, 1779 literally transformed his life.  From that moment on, he dedicated himself to be a growing disciple of Jesus Christ everyday.  It’s a commitment he kept for the rest of his life.  In his journal, he wrote, “and so earnest was I in these exercises that within the three weeks, I made myself quite ill with reading, fasting, and prayer.”

     Charles Simeon went on to become a chaplain of Holy Trinity Church in Cambridge where he faithfully served for 55 years until shortly before his death in 1836.  He was often criticized for the enthusiasm and zeal that he brought to his faith.

     For Charles Simeon, it was all or nothing when it came to faith in Christ.

     And this is the message for us from John the Baptist this morning. Are we all in? Will we allow this season of preparation to last longer than the Christmas break?  Don’t let Christmas be a holiday that simply comes and goes.  Allow the Christ of Christmas to change your life from the inside out.

     Inevitably, in the middle of January, we will no doubt see a house here and and there that will still have their Christmas lights up.  

     Even in the beginning of February, you might even see a Christmas tree with lights flickering through a bay window.

     But the more important question for you and me in this Season of Advent is – once the decorations are put away, the broken toys are pushed toward the back of the playroom, and the clothes that don’t fit are returned, will the light of Christ still be shining brightly through you and me for all to see?

     And the answer to that question depends on how deep into the Jordan River we’re willing to go.

Advent Transformation
Sermon Discussion Questions
Matthew 3:1-12
December 8, 2019

The Season of Advent is meant to prepare us for the coming birth of Jesus Christ AND to live out the good news of Christmas well beyond the holiday season. Today’s focus on John the Baptist and his call for transformation reminds us to begin making changes now so that our faith will continue to grow even beyond the celebration of Christmas. His call for us is to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

What kind of “fruit” do you think is connected with “repentance?” 

Pastor Robert shared the story of Charles Simeon who was a college student in England back in the 1700s. He wasn’t a Christian at the time, but was required to attend chapel services and receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Not wanting to be a hypocrite, he decided to give his life to Jesus Christ. He made it a daily habit to read the Bible, fast from meals, and pray. As he experienced transformation through his new-found commitment to Christ, he responded to a calling to become a chaplain, serving the church for fifty-five years! He was often criticized for the enthusiasm and zeal he brought to his faith. 

In what specific ways is God calling you to take your faith to a deeper level during this season leading up to Christmas and beyond? What do you need to change in your life to help make this happen?

Monday, December 2, 2019

Sunday Pastoral Prayer (Dec. 1/Advent) Athens First UMC

[The photo above is our sanctuary Christmas tree with three gifts already under the tree. These gifts represent world-wide mobility carts for people in developing countries who are unable to walk, the 2020 Athens First UMC Honduras summer mission trip scholarships, and the West Ohio Conference Light the Way” campaign to revitalize existing churches and start new churches. This month’s Advent/Christmas special offering will support these three mission focuses. Checks can be made payable to “Athens First UMC” with “Christmas Missions Offering” on the memo. We are receiving this offering throughout the month of December. This is a great way to live out our 1st Sunday of Advent theme which is to put on love, be the light, and keep our focus on the coming of Jesus into the world. Click here for the sermon.]

Loving God, as we begin this new church season in which we prepare for your coming into the world, help us to hear your alarm to be loving. Remind us during this busy time of year to be a little more patient, a little more forgiving, and a lot less focused on ourselves.


O God, help us to owe nobody anything but love.


God of light, as we begin this new church season in which we prepare for your coming into the world, help us to hear your alarm to shine your light. Remind us during this busy time of year to take time each day to reflect on those areas of our lives that are in need of transformation, those areas of our lives where we have not been thoughtful in our decision and actions. 


O God, help us to put on the armor of light.


And Lord Jesus, as we begin this new church season in which we prepare for your coming into the world, help us to hear your alarm and invite you to live at the very center of our lives. Remind us during this busy time of year to not only prepare for the celebration of your birth, but to also anticipate that time when you will come again and renew all of creation. 


Lord Jesus, help us to to keep our focus on you.


Thank you for these alarms that lead us to be the people you have called us to be. Wake us up so that we don’t miss out when the heavenly chorus sings, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come.” 


And O God, may our church wake up to your alarm during this holy season. May our church be a blessing to all who attend the memorial service for Dave Liggitt this afternoon. May we be a blessing to all who attend the Christmas concerts that we will be hosting next weekend. May we be a blessing to all who attend our Sunday worship services. And may we be a blessing to all who attend our Christmas Eve candlelight services.


O God, help our church to love, to be your light, and to keep our focus on Jesus. In anticipation of his coming, we pray together, “Our Father…”