"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57
Wednesday, December 29, 2021
Sunday, December 26, 2021
Saturday, December 25, 2021
During these weeks leading up to Christmas, I’ve been remembering how I prepared for Christmas when I was young.
For me, preparing for Christmas didn’t begin on the first Sunday of Advent. For me, it began when the Sears Christmas catalogue arrived in the mail. I would open it up to the toys section and dream about all the gifts I wanted Santa to bring me for Christmas.
Toy soldiers, an electric football game, a hot wheels race track, a space ship, a nerf football, a real football, spinning tops, dart guns, a GI Joe, board games. And while lying on the floor gazing intently at all of these pictures of toys from that catalogue, I would circle everything that I wanted. I did this all the time during those weeks leading up to Christmas!
Of course, I never got all the Christmas gifts I wanted or circled in that catalogue, but somehow Santa knew which of those gifts to bring to our house on Christmas Eve. And then on Christmas morning… WOW! I was able to find some of those gifts under the tree.
In a similar kind of way, these four weeks leading up to Christmas have given us the opportunity to focus on thee most important Christmas gift we can ever receive which is the coming of Christ into the world.
Think of the Bible as the Sears catalogue that arrives in the mail. And instead of turning to the toys section, we turn to the pages of the Old and New Testaments and the various ways that the biblical writers describe the gift that God has promised to give to us, the gift of God’s Son.
Like these past four Sundays of the Advent Season, our scripture readings tonight continue to describe the gift of God’s redemptive love for the world.
Here’s a quick summary from these past four weeks of some of the descriptive words that the biblical writers use in describing this gift.
The prophet Jeremiah says that when this gift comes, we will be saved and live in safety.
The prophet Malachi says that the Lord will suddenly come to his temple and purify us.
The prophet Zephaniah announces that this gift leads us to rejoice because God is bringing us home.
And last Sunday, the prophet, Micah announced that this gift will provide security and peace.
These are the words that describe God’s amazing gift… Safety, purifying, rejoicing, coming home, and peace.
On this Christmas Eve, the prophet Isaiah gets even more specific about this gift when he says, “For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
The gift that has been described for us all of these weeks is the gift of God becoming one with us through the person of Jesus Christ. This is what our Advent catalog has been pointing to all along, the coming of Christ into the world. We no longer need to stare at the picture of this gift because as our Gospel reading says,“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.”
Sometimes, it’s hard to shift from anticipating the gift to receiving the gift of Christmas, and this is what we are invited to do tonight. John says, “But all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.”
The gift is under the tree. The gift is here! No more waiting! This is the night to receive it, and not just tonight, but every day of the year.
More times than not, when Penny and I clean out a drawer, we will find a gift certificate to some restaurant tucked away. Some of those gift certificates are over a year old! We like to save these for special occasions. The problem is that when we finally decide to go to that restaurant, we forget to bring that gift certificate with us and we end up paying full price!
John is wanting us to not tuck this Christmas gift back in the corner of some drawer. John is inviting us to receive the gift of God’s Son now. Celebrate the gift of God’s salvation now! Don’t tuck it away for some future time when we might forget about it especially when we need it the most.
Our Titus scripture reading encourages us to receive this gift as well when he says, “He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.”
Everybody is wanting us to receive this gift! Jeremiah, Malachi, Zephaniah, Isaiah, John, Titus. All of these scriptures are inviting us to receive the gift of God’s redemptive love for the world.
Hearing about a gift and receiving a gift are two different things. And tonight, the scriptures are inviting us to receive The Gift that we have all been waiting, watching, wanting, and wondering about for these past several weeks, The Word made flesh and who now dwells among us.
What does it look like when we not only wait, watch, want, and wonder about the gift of Christmas, but also receive it?
In one of my previous churches, about everything that could have gone wrong for our Christmas Eve worship service went wrong that night. I’ll never forget it.
First of all, about an hour before the service was to begin, the director of the children’s nativity play called me to say that she had a flat tire and wouldn’t be able to make it to the church on time. And so, we called some parents to see if they could do their best to cover for her.
The service started ten minutes late because one of the worship leaders hadn't arrived on time. The soloist who was supposed to come on stage near the beginning of the service never appeared.
The bulletin listed the name of a former pastor as one of the leaders of the service. The main microphone hadn't been turned on making it difficult to hear what the worship leader was saying. It was also difficult to hear the children saying their lines during the play.
But then, an amazing thing happened. As we stumbled our way through the service with everything not going as planned, we finally made it to the end when it was time to light our candles.
As the congregation began to sing, "Silent Night" each worshipper raised their lit candle into the darkened sanctuary. In that moment, nothing could keep us from receiving the gift of Christmas. Somehow, we had forgotten about the microphones that didn't work, the bulletin that had several mistakes, the soloist who never appeared on cue.
After the benediction and as people began to leave the Christmas Eve service, I was surprised to hear several people say what a beautiful and meaningful service it was. The Christmas Eve that I thought would be one I would want to forget, became the one that I will always cherish and remember.
If you think about it, that first Christmas didn’t go as planned either. An untimely birth while Mary and Joseph were traveling far away from Mary's home town. No-vacancy signs all over Bethlehem leading Mary and Joseph to their only option which was to use a feeding trough as a crib. A jealous king who feels threatened at the news of a newborn king. Wow, a lot of things didn’t go as planned that first Christmas.
But notice how the shepherds who had the best seats for that first Christmas didn’t seem to let these problems distract them. No, we are told that they ended up returning to their fields that night glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. And the Christmas story ends with Mary, not focusing on the things that didn’t go as planned, but instead treasuring all these words and pondering them in her heart. Treasuring and Pondering.
Even if we were somehow able to offer our very best Christmas Eve service that has well prepared Christmas music, carefully worded prayers, and a sermon that is even a little better than above average, here is what I have learned about this holy night.
As long as you have some candles or glowsticks and sing “Silent Night,” there’s not a whole lot more we need to help one another receive the gift of Christmas. And even if we attend a Christmas Eve service every year, and know the Christmas story by heart, there is just something really, really special about this story. It just never gets old!
For a little girl named Jessica, she had a wonderful Christmas. She got every single gift she wanted. Her favorite cousins were there to share the holiday with her. She had eaten her favorite foods all day long. As her mother tucked her in for bed, she looked up, smiled and she said, “Mommy, I sure hope Mary and Joseph have another baby next year.”
What a joy it is to receive the gift of Christmas every year!
Friday, December 24, 2021
Wednesday, December 22, 2021
Monday, December 20, 2021
The Advent Season reminds me of how difficult it is for us to wait for Christmas Day to finally come.
I have a pastor friend who had her worst church fight and it was about when to sing and not sing Christmas carols in church. My friend was bound and determined to not allow any Christmas hymns to be sung until Christmas Eve. The congregation wanted to sing Christmas carols during each of those four Advent Sundays and she wouldn’t have it.
She tried her best to explain to her flock that Advent isn’t a time to celebrate Christmas but to prepare for the coming of Christ into the world. Some of her members sent letters of frustration and some placed little notes in the offering plate which can also serve as a suggestion box. Others would tell her that the Baptists down the street were allowed to sing “Joy to the World” so why can’t they?
But she refused. Only Advent hymns until Christmas Eve. She wasn’t trying to be the Grinch. She was seeking to be faithful with the purpose that is behind these four weeks leading up to Christmas.
If we think it’s not easy to wait four weeks for Christmas, just think about Mary, the mother of Jesus. She had to wait nine months once she was told by an angel that the she was with child by the Holy Spirit. Nine months. Just think how long that must have felt to her.
Here was young Mary, only 12, 13, somewhere around there, and she was betrothed to Joseph. She didn’t even choose to mary him, since women were not given that choice. She was simply passed on from her father to her new husband. And yet through all of this trauma, the unexpected happens to her when an angel appeared to her and said, “The Lord is with you.”
Luke tells us that when Mary heard those words, she was “perplexed” because she was a virgin. And this angel goes on to explain that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and she will give birth to a son and name him, Jesus and he will be called the Son of the Most High.
Mary’s nine months of Advent really puts our Christmas preparations into perspective. What did Mary do for those nine months? Well, she did a lot of the things that we have been focusing on this Advent Season. She needed to wait as we are doing. She needed to be watching for God’s continued signs and leading which we are doing. And she was wanting all that was told her to come to pass which we too have been doing during this season. Waiting, Watching, and Wanting.
Which brings us to our 4th “W” word during this Advent Season and that is “Wondering.” Imagine just how much Mary must have been wondering about this news that the child within her would be the one who would bring salvation to the world.
Even when Jesus is born, we are told in the Christmas story, that Mary pondered all of these things. Pondering and wondering are what we are invited to do as we await the gift of Christmas.
We get the word “wonderful” from the word, “wonder.” And Mary was certainly filled with wonder during those nine months of waiting.
There is a positive dimension to wondering. Wondering is closely associated with dreaming and visioning about the preferred future God has in mind for us. When we forget to wonder about the future God has in mind for us, we can allow the cares and stress of our present reality to keep us from staying faithful during this time of waiting.
Just think about the cares and stress that Mary was facing during those nine long months of waiting. Worried that Joseph might reject her at any point during her pregnancy. The possibility of being stoned to death for being an unwed mother during that time period. The accusations, gossip, and rumors that would have been circulating that Mary had been unfaithful to Joseph. I can’t even begin to comprehend all that Mary had to face during that long period of time.
It’s this 4th Advent word of “Wondering” that was an important way for Mary to not allow the challenges that she was facing to rob her of the good news that the angel had announced to her. Mary is known for how she wondered and pondered about the gift of Christmas.
What helps you to not only wait, watch, and want the gift of Christmas, but to also wonder about what this gift means to you?
I read about another young girl, a 9 year old, even younger than Mary from our Christmas story. This young girl’s name is Grace Callwood who lives in Bel Air, Maryland and attends the Bel Air United Methodist Church.
On her 7th birthday, Grace was diagnosed with lymphoma. She ended up being in the hospital and missing a lot of school to receive several cancer treatments. While she was a patient in the hospital, nine year old Grace started wondering how her faith could make a difference for other children who were going through difficult times.
All of that wondering while she was in the hospital led her to start a movement called, Can-Serve, a positive phrase that plays off of the word “cancer.” She wanted other children to know that they can serve even when they are afraid and facing challenges in their life.
Here is a four minute video that tells this remarkable story of 9 year old Grace, and how spending time wondering about her faith, led to a new ministry in helping other children.
While she was in the hospital receiving treatments for cancer, nine year old Grace wondered how her faith could turn cancer into “Can Serve.” Her movement has helped other children her age to not feel as afraid when they are going through a difficult time in their lives.
Young Mary also spent time during her anxious months wondering about the good news of Christmas that was shared with her. She knew that the gift of God’s Son would bring hope to the world.
No wonder that when the angel announced to Mary that she was with child by the Holy Spirit, she exclaimed, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”
And the good news is that even as we await the joy of Christmas to come, we have this opportunity to join Mary in wondering about what a difference the good news of our faith can make in the lives of others. It can turn “Cancer” into “Can-Serve.” And as Mary says in the Magnificat, this good news can lift up the lowly and fill the hungry with good things.
During this Season of Advent, may this time of Waiting, Watching, Wanting, and Wondering about the gift of Christmas make such a difference in our lives that it will lead us to share the good news of our faith with others.
Wondering aboutThe Gift
Sunday, December 19, 2021
Wednesday, December 15, 2021
Monday, December 13, 2021
Today is the 3rd Sunday of our Advent series, “The Gift.”
During this season, we are looking at four very important words based on our appointed scripture readings that can help us prepare for the gift of Christmas. These four “W” words are Wait, Watch, Want, and Wonder.
Two weeks ago, we began by looking at the importance of waiting as we prepare for Christmas. On that 1st Sunday, we heard a scripture reading from the Prophet Jeremiah who lived 600 years before the birth of Christ.
They were living during a very bleak time because of an invading army. And in the midst of this time of uncertainty and fear, Jeremiah announces this word of hope, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and in that time, I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.”
In other words, Jeremiah was encouraging God’s people to be patient and to wait because God is faithful.
What makes this scripture reading so incredible is that Jeremiah was proclaiming this word of hope while he was in prison! This reminds me of the Apostle Paul who wrote four of his letters while he was confined in prison. So, the person who is suffering the most is the one who is the most hopeful in reminding us that God is faithful and will lead us into a glorious future.
Not only was Jeremiah in prison while announcing those words for the people to wait patiently for God to save them, it would be another 600 years before that promise would be ultimately fulfilled through the birth of Jesus Christ.
The four weeks of Advent are nothing compared to the centuries that the people of God needed to wait before the coming of Jesus into the world. That first Sunday of Advent reminds us that we can wait upon God because as Jeremiah tells us, “The days are surely coming.” The days are surely coming when God will make all things new.
Last Sunday, our scripture readings focused on the importance of watching. The prophet, Malachi from the Old Testament wants us to be on the watch for a messenger who the Lord will send to us announcing, prepare the way of the Lord. Last Sunday’s Gospel reading from Luke, named this messenger as John the Baptist. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” John announced.
Advent is a time for us to not only patiently wait for the gift of Christmas, but to also be on the watch for the signs God is sending us to prepare the way. Watching means that we are attentive, awake, alert, and expectant. Our Chancel Choir helped us to watch for these signs through their beautiful Advent music last Sunday.
Those first two Sundays of our Advent series that focused on Waiting and Watching remind me of the refrain from that great hymn of faith, “Blessed Assurance.” It offers one of my favorite hymn lyrics and that’s saying a lot because there are so many wonderful hymn lyrics.
Those lyrics from that hymn are, “Watching and waiting, looking above, filled with his goodness, lost in his love!” If you are ever in need of a little faith boost, just meditate on those two words, and maybe even sing those words, “Watching and waiting, lookin above, filled with his goodness, lost in his love.”
Watching and waiting, these are the 1st two themes of our Advent Season. And today, we look at our 3rd “W” word, “Wanting.”
And for this Advent word of Wanting, we turn again to our appointed Old Testament scripture reading for today, this time from the Prophet, Zephaniah. Sounding a lot like the other Old Testament prophets who encouraged God’s anxious people to hang in there, Zephaniah uses very descriptive words about the glorious future that God has in mind for them. Zephaniah uses words like “sing aloud,” and “rejoice and exult.”
The prophet tells the people to celebrate their faith in the present because the Lord is near! How near is the Lord? Near enough that we are already called to sing and rejoice.
According to Zephaniah, this is not a time to “wait until your chickens are hatched,” as the old saying goes. Consider them hatched because the Lord is near!
The other beautiful picture that Zephaniah offers us about wanting God’s gift is when he shares this good news with the people, “at that time, God will bring you home and our your fortunes will be restored.” This is what the people were wanting, knowing that God was providing them a home.
I don’t know about you, but I want that for Christmas this year. I want to feel at home. Feeling at home is probably the best Christmas gift we can ever receive.
Penny and I like to watch house hunter type shows. We were watching one of these shows that takes place in the UK. The realtor shows couples three houses from which to pick. Once in a while, the couple ends up not choosing any of them because they’re just not the right house for them.
A lot of times couples will choose the best house of the three even though the the house they choose doesn’t include everything on their checklist. After a lot of back and forth, they finally decide to buy one of those homes.
But for one of the episodes, a couple found their dream house, the house they always wanted. The first two houses were OK, not great, but when they got to the 3rd house and before they even made it to the front door, the wife started tearing up, saying how beautiful the outside of the house was.
Then they went inside the house, and she cried even more because it was the kitchen she always wanted and then the other rooms were just what she had always dreamed about for her future home. After they were done walking through the house, the realtor asked how much they thought the list price was. Thinking that it would be well over their budget, the realtor said that it was actually 50,000 lbs less than their budgeted amount.
At that point, this woman broke down with even more tears of joy. She had found the house of her dreams. It was great for us to watch her expression.
I think this is describing the joyful reaction that Zephaniah is saying that we can have even before we receive the gift. “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! At that time, I will bring you home.”
No wonder that our New Testament lesson is from Philippians, chapter 4 where we read, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. The Lord is near.”
It would be one thing if Paul would have written this while he was on vacation somewhere on a tropical beach, but he wrote these words while he was confined in a prison cell for his faith. The Apostle Paul knew that whether he was in prison or out of prison, the good news is that we are always at home with God. “The Lord is near,” Paul writes. No matter what we may be facing, the good news is that the Lord is near.
It was during my sophomore year of college when I discovered what I had been wanting in my life. Struggling with poor grades and a feeling of no direction, I suddenly realized that what was missing in my life was right there in front of me, a relationship with God.
Even though I had grown up in the church and was nurtured in the faith all my life, somewhere along the way, I had forgotten to allow God to be at the center of my life. And without God at the center of my life, I didn’t feel any sense of peace or purpose. I was feeling lost.
And so one day during my 2nd year in college, I literally fell to my knees in desperation and told God that from that point on, I would seek to allow God to lead the way and to be first in my life.
When I got up from that prayer, what had been a huge weight on my shoulders was suddenly lifted. And that weight was replaced with an indescribable sense of peace and an assurance that I wasn’t alone. God was with me. Like that hymn I mentioned earlier, I felt “filled with his goodness and lost in his love.”
It was through that difficult and challenging time during those first two years of college that I realized what I really, really wanted in life. I thought that I just wanted to know what my college major should be or what my career path should be, but I discovered what I really wanted the most in my life was a relationship with God. That was what I was missing the most in my life.
After I said that prayer, I wanted to do what Zephaniah is inviting us to do and that is to sing aloud and to rejoice and exult with all of my heart. I wanted to do what the Apostle Paul wrote from a prison cell and that is to rejoice in the Lord always.
A couple of years ago during my daily devotions, I felt led to answer the spiritual question that we are asking today. “What do I really want?” I thought about all of the things that I thought I wanted as I was preparing for the new day ahead. But after some time thinking there in my study about that question, it really came down to this. Here is what I wrote,
“What do I want? I want a faith centered on Christ, informed through study, sustained by prayer, lifted in worship, fed through the Sacraments, strengthened in weakness, contextualized through experience, open to change, manifested through serving, and welcoming to all.”
And here’s how I know that this is what I really wanted, because in that moment all of my anxieties, worries, and concerns were replaced by an overwhelming sense of God’s peace.
When you know deep down what you really want, it does lead us to sing aloud and rejoice. And if that’s true for us now in the middle of December, just think what Christmas is going to be like!
Wanting The Gift