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

Sunday, December 27, 2020

Online Worship (December 27) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our (December 27)
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:20 am]

Friday, December 25, 2020

Sermon (Christmas Eve) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     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.

     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.

     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 gospel writers 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. He needs to go 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!

     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?  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.

     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 this, our world lives with the reality of sin, brokenness, and death.  And ever since, the world which was born through God’s spoken word has been waiting to be reborn as it was meant to be.

     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.  

     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, not to mention a global pandemic.  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 throughout the year and not just this Christmas season.

     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.  

     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 eaves-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.”

     And so yes, in John’s Gospel we do get a birth story. But it’s not so much about Jesus’ birthday. It’s a story about OUR new birth.

     On this holy night, we are invited to receive the light and the life of Jesus and be born again. 

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Online Worship (Christmas Eve) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our (Christmas Eve)
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Monday, December 21, 2020

Sermon (December 20/Advent) by Rev. Robert McDowell

       During these four weeks of Advent we have been thinking a lot about what we can do while we’re waiting for the celebration of Christmas. The appointed scriptures for these past four Sundays have encouraged us to be involved in a time of not passive, but active waiting through confessing, hoping, and rejoicing.

     As we prepare for Christmas, we recognize that we are broken people who have fallen short of who God has called us to be. On the first Sunday of Advent, we heard the words of the prophet Isaiah who said the we are all unclean. When we confess our brokenness to God, we open ourselves and make room for God’s forgiving love to bring healing and wholeness in our lives. Advent is a season of confessing.

     For week two in Advent, the scriptures pointed us to be a people of hope. Our scripture from II Peter reminded us to keep hope by waiting for new heavens and a new earth. This is our ultimate hope that one day God will make all things new.

     Last week, the the Apostle Paul called upon us to rejoice always. Even before the arrival of Christmas, we are called to rejoice in anticipation of what God is about to do. 

     Advent, this season of active waiting is inviting us to confess, to hope, to rejoice, and for this fourth week, we are called to trust. Trust that God will be found faithful. Trust that this season of confessing, hoping, and rejoicing is leading us into a deeper awareness of how God is present and at work in our day to day lives. 

     Our Gospel reading for today features two women, Elizabeth and Mary who offer us wonderful examples of what it means to trust God during this time of waiting. 

     Elizabeth and Mary are cousins and both were told by the angel Gabriel that God was going to use them in a very unique and special way. 

     Elizabeth, even in her advanced years would become pregnant and give birth to John the Baptist who would end up preparing the way for people to encounter Jesus, the Savior of the world. And Mary, a virgin would become pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit and give birth to Jesus.

     I know. That’s a lot for us to take in. I think that’s another reason why we need this season of Advent is to give us time to process this incredible story about these two remarkable women of faith.

     Let’s start with Elizabeth. She is beyond child bearing years and yet with her husband, Zechariah she will become pregnant and give birth to John the Baptist, who will serve as the one who will point people to Jesus.

     Elizabeth’s story might sound familiar. It sounds a lot like the story of Abraham and Sarah from the Old Testament. Remember them? They too were advanced in years and an angel visited them and told them that Sarah would become pregnant. And the great thing about that story is that we are told that Sarah laughed when she first heard this news. Sarah ended up giving birth to Isaac which is a Hebrew name that means, “laughter.” 

     Imagine with me for a moment what must have been going through Elizabeth’s mind when she was told that she would become pregnant and be an important part of the Christmas story. We are told earlier in the first chapter that after Elizabeth conceived she was in seclusion for five months. I wonder what was going through her mind during that long time of waiting.

     Luke does tell us a little of what she was thinking during that time because he tells us that Elizabeth knew that the Lord had looked favorably upon her. Even though she must have still wondered how all of this would play out, she knew to place her trust in the Lord.

     And then we turn to Mary, our Gospel reading for today. She too received a visit from the angel, Gabriel that she would become pregnant and give birth to Jesus, the one who would become the savior of the world. Mary responds with, “How can this be?” 

     Mary and Elizabeth needed to trust that what was told to them would be fulfilled. I’m sure that during their pregnancies, they had all kinds of unanswered questions going through their minds. In other words, during that long time of waiting, they needed to to trust that God would fulfill the promise that was made to them.

     Trusting is such an important part of our faith. Trusting is what we do when we place our faith in God but still have questions along the way. The season of Advent is a season that calls for us to trust. And really, even beyond these four weeks of Advent, trusting is at the heart of who we are as a people of faith.

     Like Mary and Elizabeth, God also has calls each one of us to participate in the building of God’s kingdom here on earth. Through our baptism, God has called each one of us to be ministers of God’s saving love for the world. I love how our United Methodist Book of Discipline states this. 

     It says that our theological task, “requires the participation of all who are in our Church, lay and ordained, because the mission of the Church is to be carried out by everyone who is called to discipleship. To be persons of faith is to hunger to understand the truth given to us in Jesus Christ.Theological inquiry is by no means a casual undertaking. It requires sustained disciplines of study, reflection, and prayer.”

     In other words, living out God’s calling in our lives isn’t just handed to us on a silver platter. It’s something that involves trusting and participating with God through the spiritual disciplines of our faith. Sometimes, that process of trusting can take us to places that we would never have chosen on our own.

     During my sophomore year in college, I was really struggling with my purpose in life. I had no clear direction and I wasn’t sure if I was in the right major. 

     So one day, when I was feeling really low, I just decided to get on my knees and pray. And I told God that nothing I was doing was helping me to figure out what to do with my life. I also told God that I was sorry for not making him more of a priority in my life.

     And then I went for broke. I told God that whatever he wanted me to do, I would do it. I also told God how sorry I was for not turning to him sooner and how from that point on, I would follow his leading.

     It was in that very moment, that I felt God’s love in such a powerful way. And I felt this huge weight being lifted from my shoulders. I knew that I wasn’t alone.

     And then I could hear God telling me to do three things. The first thing was to allow him to be first in my life through daily prayer, scripture reading and worship. 

     The second thing was to make my college studies a priority. You see what happens when you pray to God? God messes with our priorities. 

     Up to that point, my college grades were pretty low. I was feeling so overwhelmed with what direction my life should go, that I wasn’t focused on my current classes. That was the first thing God told me to do. Study and get good grades. So, I decided to set aside two hours every day keeping up with my studies.

     And the third thing God told me to do was to start a bible study with people my age. And I did. We had ten to twelve meeting every week learning about the Bible, spending time in prayer, and serving in the community. At the time, I was thinking that I was helping other people my age who were feeling lost in life, but looking back on it, I think that this was God’s way of helping me to stay encouraged. 

     So God gave me these three things to do. Make God more of a priority in my life. Work on my grades. And start a bible study group.

     Even though I felt a sense of peace and purpose in my life, I still didn’t know exactly where God was leading me. I didn’t end up feeling a calling to become a pastor until over a year later. All God wanted me to do after that prayer was to trust him. To put him first. To work on my grades. And to start that bible study. 

     I’ve discovered that this is how God works in our lives. God calls us to follow him even though we don’t exactly know what that future may look like or how long it will take. I learned through that early experience in my life that as we confess to God where we have not made him first in our lives, as we renew our hope that God is leading us into a better future, as we rejoice because of the peace God is offering to us, and as we trust that God will guide us every step of the way, that it is worth the wait. It is worth the wait.

     A friend of mine recently announced that she was making a job change. She said that the decision to change jobs was not an easy one because it meant that she would need to let go of what was familiar to her and step out in faith.

     She sent this photo which really says it all as we think about the importance of trusting in God’s promises. This note says, “God, I have no idea where you are taking me, but I trust you.” 

     Maybe this is a note that we can carry with us at all times not just in Advent but in any season of our life where we are invited to trust in the new future God has in mind for us.

     When I began this Advent series four weeks ago, I shared the story of how I was able to take a picture of this beautiful sunset during vacation a couple of years ago. 

     I almost gave up on taking it. But it was like this voice kept telling me, “Wait for it. Wait for it.” I’m glad I did or I would have missed this incredible display of God’s beauty.

     Confessing our brokenness and shortcomings, hoping because we look forward to that time when God will make all things new, rejoicing because God offers us peace along the way, and trusting because we know that God will continue to be faithful. This is what makes the waiting worth it.

     And like Mary, may we join in saying with her, “Here am I.”

Wait for It! Trusting
Sermon Discussion Questions
Luke 1:26-38
December 20, 2020 

During this four-week season of Advent, we have focused on the importance of confessing, hoping, and rejoicing. This week, our focus is on trusting. Mary and Elizabeth both needed to trust that what the angel had spoken to them was true. Elizabeth in her advance years would give birth to John the Baptist who would later point people to Jesus. Mary would conceive through the Holy Spirit and give birth to Jesus, the long-awaited Savior of the world.

What questions and thoughts do you think were going through Mary and Elizabeth’s minds during their time of waiting and trusting?

Trusting is such an important part of our faith that goes beyond the Advent Season. Trusting isn’t a passive waiting. It’s an active waiting. Listen to these words from our own United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline. It says that our theological task, “requires the participation of all who are in our Church, lay and ordained, because the mission of the Church is to be carried out by everyone who is called to discipleship. To be persons of faith is to hunger to understand the truth given to us in Jesus Christ.Theological inquiry is by no means a casual undertaking. It requires sustained disciplines of study, reflection, and prayer.”

In what ways can we participate in “sustained disciples of study, reflection, and prayer?”

Pastor Robert shared in the sermon of a time when he was in college and made a recommitment of his life to God. He said that it involved a lot of trust because he wasn’t sure where God would lead him.

Share a time in your life when you made a conscious decision to trust God. What was that like? 

Mary’s trusted God by responding with these incredible words of faith, “Here am I.” 

What do you think she meant by saying those words? What does it mean for us to say those words?

Sunday, December 20, 2020

Online Worship (Dec. 20/Advent) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our (December 20/Advent)
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:20 am]

Monday, December 14, 2020

Sermon (December 13/Advent) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     The theme of our Advent sermon series is “wait for it.” Advent is a season of waiting and being patient as we prepare for the Christmas celebration. So if that’s the meaning of these four weeks leading up to Christmas, it seems a little premature to add rejoicing to what we should be doing in the middle of December. 

     Rejoicing is what we do on Christmas when we celebrate the birth of Christ. Rejoicing is what we do when we gather with family to open presents and laugh together around the dinner table . Rejoicing is what we do when we gather on Christmas Eve and sing “Joy to the World.” 

     Even so, the Christian calendar knows that you need to have at least a little fun during these long weeks leading up to Christmas. It can’t all be so serious.

     This is why the third Sunday of Advent is known as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is the Latin word for rejoice. And it’s the reason why today’s New Testament scripture reading is from I Thessalonians where the Apostle Paul writes, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances.”

     Paul wrote those words for Christians who were living in Thessaloniki and who were being persecuted for their faith. It was during this time of adversity, that Paul encouraged them to not give up and to keep waiting for the coming of Jesus.

     And this reminds us that Advent is not just a time that we await to celebrate the birth of Jesus. Advent is also a time that we await the second coming of Jesus when something even bigger and greater will happen. That’s when God will make all things new. Even after the Christmas holiday comes and goes, we are still an Advent people because we await that time in the future when God will make as the scriptures tell us, new heavens and a new earth. 

     Or think of it this way. These four weeks of waiting for the first coming of Christ into the world is a reminder that we are also called to wait for the second coming of Christ. If we thought his first coming was wort waiting for, imagine what his second coming will be like!

     This is the big picture of the whole reason why we observe Advent. These four weeks are meant to remind us that we are always a people who are in waiting. We are waiting not just to open Christmas presents, but we are waiting for this world to be transformed, renewed, and reclaimed by God. 

     And Paul is reminding the Thessalonians that they are not to wait passively. They, like us are invited to wait proactively. We are to wait by rejoicing always, praying without ceasing, and giving thanks in all circumstances.

     For the past several months, we have all been in a waiting mode as we have been making sacrifices to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. We have also been patiently waiting for a vaccine to be developed and made available for people all around the world.

     I remember when I started to work on this Advent series thinking that these four weeks leading up to Christmas are nothing compared to these past several months in which we have been in a waiting period for a medical breakthrough. If anything, this global pandemic has forced us into a long-term waiting mode.

     And I’ve been wondering how this time of waiting has impacted people in different ways. Our hearts break for families whose loved ones have passed away because of this virus. One of the ways that I have been impacted during this time of waiting is in being more appreciative of what we have. As Tom Murray, our coordinator of Monday Lunch reminds me, “our health is our wealth.”

     Remembering to be thankful for our health, for our loved ones, and for our blessings in life has stood out for me especially during this long and challenging year. I’m more inclined to rejoice in the things I have rather than be sad about the things I don’t have.

     During the weeks leading up to the start of school this past August, school districts had to make very difficult decisions on whether they were going to allow students in the schools or offer online learning only or a combination of the two. I was following the discussions that were happening with our local area schools but I was also following an out of state school district. 

     I made the mistake of joining a Facebook page of this out of state school district. It consisted mostly of parents of students as well as other people in the community. At first, the comments that were shared were civil and respectful, but after about a week, the opinions that were being shared became so negative and toxic that I decided to leave the group discussion.

     And I know that there is no way you can make everybody happy, but that’s when I realized that this was an example of how we can so easily forget to be thankful for what we already have. I was thinking, what if this pandemic happened back in the 80s or 90s or even just ten or so years ago when we wouldn’t have even had an online learning option at all?

     The same can be said for the church. What if the only option we had to help people stay connected would be sending out a newsletter through the mail. I can’t imagine what it would be like if we didn’t have our new sanctuary camera to make these online worship recordings. 

     I remember this past July after one of our worship recordings, one of you told me over the phone that you felt like you were physically here in our sanctuary even though you were watching the recorded service on your computer. That positive comment led me to a moment of rejoicing and I think it did for you as well. 

     I think this is a little of what the Apostle Paul is saying in his letter. “Give thanks to God in all circumstances.”

     Maybe your blessing during this long year of social distancing is that you have been able to spend more time with a loved one, enjoy a hobby or maybe start a new one. One of the new hobbies I started is to identify plants in my neighborhood. I downloaded an app on my smartphone to help me do this.

     When I go on a walk, I take a picture of a plant and the app will instantly tell me what it is and even if it can detect a diseased plant. When I come home from a walk, I’ll mention to Penny that I never realized how many wild grape leaves are in our neighborhood or that one of the trees near our house is a black cherry. I’m learning all kinds of things about God’s wonderful creation that I never took time to notice. 

     When we focus on what we do have rather than on what we don’t have, it helps us to give thanks in all circumstances. What helps you to be thankful for God’s blessings especially during this long time of waiting? And what prompts you to rejoice even when life can seem so mundane at times?

     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 having a little fun during the Advent season.

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

     Some examples of practical St. Nerdnuk 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 have some fun during Advent, I have taken it upon myself to establish the Monday after the 2nd Sunday of Advent as St. Nerdnuk Day which would have been last week. I chose Monday because it seems like it is in the spirit of the purpose of this Feast Day.

     I’ll remind you about this next year so that you’ll have time to purchase, wrap, and deliver practical/utilitarian St. Nerdnuk gifts to your loved ones. 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 over thirty years ago now. 

     I often wonder what St. Nerdnuk would have probably looked like. Maybe he looked like this picture on this oven mitt. This could become the new logo for St. Nerdnuk Day.

     The Apostle Paul tells us to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances. This is what it means to be a people of faith who wait for the coming of Christ.

     It’s not always easy to wait for it, but it’s good to know that there are moments of rejoicing as we wait for that time when God will make all things new.

Wait for It! Rejoicing
Sermon Discussion Questions
I Thessalonians 5:16-24
December 13, 2020 

Knowing how difficult it can be to patiently wait for the coming celebration of Christmas, the 3rd Sunday of Advent is known as “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete is a Latin word that means, “rejoice.” Even though we are still in a waiting period, this Sunday reminds us to appreciate God’s blessings even as we wait.

Share how God is blessing you during this Advent season.

In the spirit of Gaudete Sunday, our I Thessalonians scripture reading invites us to rejoice always, pray without ceasing and to give thanks in a circumstances. The Apostle wrote these words to encourage the Christians in Thessaloniki as they awaited the 2nd coming of Jesus. This reminds us that we are not only waiting for Christmas to come during this Advent season. We are also waiting for that time in the future when Jesus will return and God will make new heavens and a new earth.

What does this connection between the 1st and the 2nd coming of Jesus mean to you? How does the future 2nd coming of Jesus give new meaning to the 1st coming of Jesus when he was born at Christmas? 

Pastor Robert shared a fun way to rejoice during this Advent season by celebrating St. Nerdnuk Day that always falls on the Monday after the 2nd Sunday of Advent. It’s a day to give more practical and utilitarian type of Christmas gifts to each other and save the more special gifts for opening on Christmas Day. 

What are some creative ways that help you to have some fun and rejoice even during this Advent season of waiting?

Share in this Advent prayer which reminds us to rejoice as we await not only Christmas but that time in the future when God will make all things new.

Spirit of the living God, during this season of Advent, help us to draw closer to you. Guide our preparations for Christmas so that we will hold fast to what is good and holy. Remind us that in all of life’s circumstances, you are with us. You never forsake us! We confess that we often try to solve the challenges of life with our own strength and we quench your Spirit. Forgive us for not turning to you in our time of need. Teach us in this time of waiting to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances. Amen.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Online Sunday Worship (Dec. 13/Advent) Athens First UMC

Welcome to our (December 13/Advent)
online worship service!
Athens First UMC
2 S. College St., Athens, OH 45701

[Live-Stream Begins @ 10:20 am]

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Sermon (December 6/Advent) by Rev. Robert McDowell

     Many of you know that I plan out my sermon themes a year in advance. When I came up with our Advent series a year and a half ago based on the theme of waiting, little did I know how important this topic would be for us now. As they say, the Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways!

     Wait for it. That’s basically what we have been doing since last March. We have been waiting for when our world, our community, and our church will get back to some type of normalcy. 

     A week or two after we needed to close down our church building because of the coronavirus, I was speaking with one of our church members. And if you remember, at that time, we were being told that it would be another month or two, like by the month of June before we would be able to resume a more normal routine.

     And this church member said to me, “Wow, I can maybe handle a couple of weeks of this, but I can’t get my mind around dealing with this for the next two to three months.” I remember responding in agreement. I just couldn’t imagine being apart from each other for that length of time.

     But then around early to mid July, the cases started to spike all across the country. Even though some businesses had reopened, we knew that we were still far from where we needed to be in fighting this virus.

     And then I started feeling some hope when they were saying that a vaccine was going to be available by the end of this year. But then, they said how it probably wouldn’t be until the summer when the vaccine will be available for everybody.

     It was at that point, that I put up the white surrender flag and just accepted that there was no quick solution to help us get back to normal. I’m saying all of this because it feels like the Advent season of waiting didn’t start last Sunday. Advent started last March!

     But really, if you think about it, we are always in a season of waiting, not just these four weeks leading up to Christmas.

     In our II Peter scripture reading we read this verse… “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” 

     II Peter isn’t referring to the end of a global pandemic. He’s thinking of that time in the future when there will be new heavens and a new earth. And this is what gives us hope during this time of waiting. A time is coming when God will make all things new.

     Imagine what that time will be like when there will be new heavens and a new earth. Imagine that time when all of the problems of this world will cease and there will be only peace, joy, harmony, justice, equality, freedom, and unity.

     II Peter is saying, that this is why we can have hope because God is leading us into that future. What gives you hope and patience during this time of waiting? 

     This past summer, I was thinking about this very question. The long months of the pandemic coinciding with the many protests across our country made it difficult to feel any hope during this difficult time. You can sense it in people’s eyes even when they are wearing a mask that all of this is overwhelming us. The pain and brokenness of our world has been too much to bear. 

     Where can hope be found when it seems like all around us is only pain, fear, and anger? That’s what I was asking myself one day this past July as I was getting ready for work.

      And of all places, I was reminded of hope by watching the morning news. Imagine that! Again, God works in mysterious ways.

      They were reporting at the funeral of Congressman John Lewis, civil rights leader and activists who died after a long battle with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. They were reading John Lewis’s farewell letter to our country which he had written shortly before he died. It’s a letter of hope. I know you might have already heard this or read it, but I think it fleshes out a little of what II Peter is telling us in this season of Advent.

     John Lewis wrote, “While my time here has now come to an end, I want you to know that in the last days and hours of my life you inspired me. You filled me with hope about the next chapter of the great American story when you used your power to make a difference in our society. Democracy is not a state. It is an act, and each generation must do its part to help build what we called the Beloved Community, a nation and world society at peace with itself. Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble.

     Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to  answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life, I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring. When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21stcentury, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”

     Usually the news is just background noise but this time was different. I sat down and listened to the reading of his letter.

     And I thought to myself, if this man who had his skull fractured by police back in 1965 while leading 600 peaceful demonstrators across a bridge in Alabama in support of equal rights and continued to dedicate his entire life to freedom and justice, then maybe I had a lot more to learn about patience. If this man kept hope alive his entire life through service to his country, than maybe I had a lot more to learn about hope. 

     Advent is a season that reminds us that even though we haven’t arrived to the place where God is calling us to be, to keep hoping because at the very heart and center of the compelling biblical narrative is that God will one day make new heavens and a new earth. That hope is deeply rooted throughout the scriptures.

     When God sent Jesus into the world, it was a visible sign that God was keeping his promise. Jesus, the very embodiment of God was born into our world, died for our sins, rose again, and then promised that he would come again to renew all things.

     This is one of the reasons why II Peter is encouraging us to stay patient because he knows that it’s easy to grow weary during this waiting period. It’s easy to become impatient. It’s easy to lose hope when we focus only on how far we need to go.

     Advent is a time for us to keep hoping as we wait.

     And as we wait, look for those signs of hope that are all around us. I see so much hope through our church.

     Facing a global pandemic? No problem. We’ll buy a recording camera for the sanctuary and offer a high quality online worship service each week.

     Facing a global pandemic? No problem. We’ll still help Habitat for Humanity to build a house this year and we’ll make a commitment to help build another one next year.

     Facing a global pandemic? No problem. We’ll provide weekly curbside meals to our community.

     Facing a global pandemic? No problem. We’ll offer online small groups through Zoom to help people in our church stay connected.

     Facing a global pandemic? No problem. We’ll continue to pay 100% of our conference apportionments because we believe that these funds will be used by our West Ohio Conference in missions and ministry throughout the world.

     Facing a global pandemic? No problem. We’ll still send out prayer requests every week and include the prayers from our outside prayer box.

     Facing a global pandemic? No problem. We’ll still make and deliver prayer shawls to those who are in need of some love from our church.

     Facing a global pandemic? No problem. We have our church toys who are kind of taking over our church in a fun way.

     Facing a global pandemic? No problem. We’ll still collect Festival of Sharing hygiene and school kits for people in need all around the world.

     You are some of the most hope-filled people I know. Evidently you already received the memo from II Peter to keep waiting for new heavens and a new earth.

     I think that over the past several months we have been learning that there’s a lot that we just don’t need in order to be the church. 

     We have one of the most beautiful church buildings in the area, and even during the several months that it was closed, we adapted and continued to be the church. Even though our shiny offering plates haven’t been passed through the pews since last March, your offerings continue to pour into the church every single week.

     I can only think of one reason why you are such a tenacious bunch of believers. It’s the only way for me to describe why you are so patient and willing to stay the course. 

     We are an Advent people. We are a people of hope!

Wait for It! Hoping
Sermon Discussion Questions
II Peter 3:8-15a & Mark 1:1-8
December 6, 2020 

The season of Advent is a time for us to wait patiently for the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. We have also been waiting patiently during these past several months due to a global pandemic. 

What has helped you to wait patiently during these past several months of the pandemic?

The author of our II Peter scripture reading is encouraging us to be patient as “we wait for new heavens and a new earth.” The biblical writer is reminding us that we are to wait patiently for that time in the future when God will make all things new and the world will be filled with harmony, justice, peace, love, and unity.

What helps you to wait patiently for that time in the future when God will make all things new?

Pastor Robert shared how a letter written by civil rights leader, John Lewis just before he did this past summer gave him a sense of hope during this very challenging year. Even though John Lewis suffered greatly for standing up for racial equality, his letter encourages all of us to not give up and to keep hoping as we seek to make this world a better place.

Who has inspired you to keep hoping for a better world? 

In his farewell letter, John Lewis’s last words are “walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”

Share some ways that can help us keep hoping and working toward that time when God will make news heavens and a new earth.