Welcome to the December Archive. You are welcome to read the entire archive, or find a topic on the list below that is of interest to you. Just click the link, and you will be taken directly to the day it was written. Enjoy, and may you know God's peace as you read His Word.
††† You are welcome to use these writings or pass them on. All we ask is that in all things you remember the Author and give Him the glory, and remember this vessel which He has used to bring them to you. Peggy Hoppes


Topics

Holidays

Purpose

Forever

Mercy

Chaos

Blame

Generosity

Joy

Trust

Work

Glory

Division

Impossible

Gift

Details

Grace

Nativity

Faith

Salvation

Baby

Death

Hope

Wisdom


A WORD FOR TODAY


Scripture quotes taken from the American Standard Version


A WORD FOR TODAY, December 2014





December 1, 2014

"But him that is weak in faith receive ye, yet not for decision of scruples. One man hath faith to eat all things: but he that is weak eateth herbs. Let not him that eateth set at nought him that eateth not; and let not him that eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him. Who art thou that judgest the servant of another? to his own lord he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be made to stand; for the Lord hath power to make him stand. One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let each man be fully assured in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord: and he that eateth, eateth unto the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, unto the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks. For none of us liveth to himself, and none dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; or whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living." Romans 14:1-9, ASV

Things are getting back to normal for us after an extra long holiday weekend. Most of the schools were closed all week and many offices were closed both Thursday and Friday for Thanksgiving. The roads were crowded during rush hour this morning as everyone headed back to work and school. Of course, they go with the expectation that another holiday will begin soon; the child of a friend was already looking forward to Christmas vacation even before heading back to school this morning. College students will be home in a week or two, having survived finals that begin in a few days. Many people are getting ready for trips home for Christmas; we are waiting for our daughter to come home for the first time in nearly two years.

Today is not a back to school day in my old hometown. Hunting season begins today and in Pennsylvania that is worthy of a holiday. Well, perhaps hunting might not seem so much like a holy day, but in Pennsylvania it is expected to be a day off so that the hunters can go out and bag their first deer. My Facebook feed included pictures of people headed off to the woods in camouflage gear.

There are those on this list who will be terribly bothered by the idea that businesses and schools give a day off so that men, women and even children can go out to hunt deer on the Monday after Thanksgiving. The hunt is allowed by law for good reason, to cull the herd which saves the deer from starvation during the winter season. The hunters are limited to a certain number of deer and they must be careful to take only the ones allowed in their area during the time period. The hunters use the deer meat for food, so it isn't killing without purpose. I think some of my friends are shocked when I tell them there's a holiday in Pennsylvania for hunting. It is even worse for those who do not like the idea of guns or shooting sweet animals. They will quickly condemn the practice as cruel and the day as evil.

We are used to the normal holidays, often religion or nation related. Most people have off for Christmas and New Year, Easter and Fourth of July, but there are some holidays that are not marked by everyone. Some states don't consider Martin Luther King, Jr. day as a holiday. Some local communities have special festivals which closes the schools and offices. These holidays often represent some event in the history of the town that might seem bothersome to people who do not understand. Who outside Texas (even San Antonio) even gets The Battle of Flowers Celebration? Those who do celebrate these special, if not a little strange, events are shocked and disturbed that outsiders don't honor them, too. Insiders and outsiders condemn one another over something that is not really worth the argument; these special days have purpose and meaning to the celebrants.

How many of you have Advent and Christmas traditions and practices that mean a lot to you? What sorts of things do you do to count down the days until Jesus comes? I am just beginning my decorating, but when I do manage to get everything out I will include Baby Jesus in the nativities. Some people keep Him hidden until Christmas Eve, to represent when Jesus came. I will be putting up my Christmas tree next week, but others refuse to do so until Christmas Eve, or they put up the tree without decorations to emphasize the difference between the seasons of Advent and Christmas. Worship leaders in churches are having the arguments over which music to use during services; you shouldn't use Christmas carols until Christmas, but the congregation expects to hear all their old favorites.

For those outside Christianity, these arguments might seem pointless. But for those who celebrate these important events in the Church year, the differences are striking. What we have to remember, however, is that they are not so important that we should condemn one another. The person who includes Baby Jesus in the Nativity is not less faithful than the one who hides Him until Christmas. The one who puts up the Christmas tree before December 24th is not evil. You won't be condemned for singing "Silent Night" along with the loudspeaker in the grocery store. There is value to these practices and traditions, but they are not worth tearing apart a community. As we move forward through Advent toward Christmas, let's honor one another and learn about what is meaningful to our neighbor. Perhaps we'll discover something that we'd like to add to our own celebration. Mostly, let's remember that God is the focus in these days, not ourselves, and let's do everything for His glory!

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December 2, 2014

"Commit thy works unto Jehovah, And thy purposes shall be established." Proverbs 16:3, ASV

We all know the pitfalls and problems that come with our computer passwords. We know that we are supposed to make them difficult to crack so that no one can get into our accounts. Most websites that require a password now even have generator that tells you if it is good, better or best. The best passwords are those that have no rhyme or reason. Unfortunately, those are the hardest to remember. Back in the beginning, people used things like their birthdays or the address of the home where they were born. That way they could remember it easily. Now, many sites require that the password include a certain number of characters, at least one number, capital and at least one symbol. The better passwords will put those odd characters in the middle somewhere, making it hard to crack and hard to remember.

In an article called "How a Password Changed My Life," published in Reader's Digest, Maurico Estrella talked about this very problem. He worked for a company that required a password change on a monthly basis, and his password needed that variety of passwords. Now, it isn't hard to come up with the kind of password that can be remembered once or twice, but it gets impossible month after month. It didn't help that he couldn't save the password, but had to input it into his computer every time the screen went to save.

Maurico decided to make his passwords worthwhile. Recently divorced, the last thing he wanted to see on a day when he was feeling deeply depressed was that box that said, "Your password has expired." He couldn't think straight, he couldn't deal with it. He realized that he needed to get a hold on himself, to find some control, he had been ignoring the signs and was losing focus in his life. At that moment he decided to use his password to make a difference. He typed "Forgive@h3r" using all the required characters in a way that it made sense. And since he would have to type those words several times a day, it was a good way to remind himself of what he must do to go on with his own life. It worked. He found that typing those words helped him to see the situation in a new way, especially when he was feeling especially lonely or when he was reminded of her. Thinking of forgiveness helped him to heal, and after thirty days of that reminder he felt free to move on.

The next month, when the box reminder for a new password popped up, he decided to attack another area of his life which needed changing. He typed "Quit@smoking4ever." Another month the password was "Save4trip@thailand." These passwords worked, as his daily, or hourly, reminders helped keep his mind focused on the goal. The practice didn't work every time. One password reminded him of his need to cut back on food, but most of them did. Through his passwords, Maurico built up the courage to ask a woman on a date, make a commitment to her and establish a new relationship with his mother.

It might seem like a very little thing, after all we don't really think about our passwords much, do we? We try to remember them, but they are just some characters that get us to the place we really want to go. Yet, these words fill our lives, subliminally perhaps, but they are part of our daily thought process. Why not make them something worth thinking about? Why not make them phrases that glorify God or make a positive difference in our lives?

It doesn't have to just happen in our passwords. I know many people do simple things that help keep them focused on what is good and right and true. There has been a Facebook challenge to post scripture every day during Advent so that the newsfeeds will be filled with God's Word. Martin Luther suggested thinking about your baptism in the morning when you wash your face, and many people keep a seashell by their sink as a reminder. Food banks recommend buying an extra item each time you shop at the grocery store. It is amazing how quickly you can gather enough food to help a family survive. In yesterday's devotion Paul talked about glorifying God in everything we do, and though passwords, morning clean-up and grocery shopping might not seem very holy, they can be if we do them with purpose.

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December 3, 2014

Scriptures for Sunday, December 7, 2014, Second Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8

"The grass withereth, the flower fadeth; but the word of our God shall stand forever." Isaiah 40:11, ASV

The beginning of the Good News... This is how Mark begins his record of the Gospel story of Jesus Christ. The verse sounds more like a title than the first sentence of the book, and it is. When Mark says, "The beginning," he is not referring to the beginning of his story; he is simply telling us that his story tells the beginning of something much bigger. The story of Jesus is not something that can be limited to a few pages in a book, it is a story that began two thousand years ago and continues today. The story as we hear it in Mark and in the rest of the New Testament did not end with the last word written. It continues today and will continue into the future, as long as it is God's will. It will only end on that great Day of the Lord for which we wait, preparing as we've been encouraged over the past few weeks.

Mark does not begin his story with the birth of Jesus. When Mark wrote his story (and I still believe that Mark did write it, if only in oral form), the nativity of Jesus was not an important part. Mark, as the first of the Gospel writers, was laying down the vital facts. Many have suggested (and I also believe this to be true) that Mark records Peter's story. See, the disciples spent many hours together in the home of Mark's mother (Acts 12:12) after Jesus ascended to heaven. This place may have even been the same room where they ate the Last Supper with Jesus. Mark, who was much younger than the rest of the disciples, most likely overheard their conversations.

What do you think they talked about in those first days of the Church as they gathered together in that room? They told stories. They shared memories. They wondered about the meaning of the signs and the miracles. They remembered everything Jesus taught them. They probably told the same stories over and over again. And Mark listened. He put them together so that they would not be forgotten. He ordered them in a way that made sense. Most of all, he laid down the facts as they were remembered by the disciples, particularly through the eyes of Peter. Eventually this oral tale was written onto paper so that it would not be lost to time or to death.

Unfortunately, people were dying. The first witnesses got older by the day. Most of the Apostles and many others were martyred for their faith, but there were also many who were dying of old age. They were looking and waiting for the second coming of Christ and believed they would see it happen, but then they began to die. What would happen to the believers who did not make it to that great Day? They were worried, but they were also faithful, realizing the importance of passing the story on to the next generation. They knew God would keep His promises, even if it didn't happen in their time. They put the stories to paper so that the next generation, and every generation following, would know it and would believe.

In today's epistle lesson, Peter was writing to a people who were hopeful for Christ's return. They were expecting Him back at any moment. They were even beginning to doubt the words of Jesus because it seemed to be taking so long. They wondered where He might be and why He was late. There were, I'm sure, even some who were trying to find a way to hasten His coming. It has certainly been done throughout the past two thousand years. Prophets have tried to foretell the time and day when the Lord would come, and cults have built up around ideas and practices meant to spur God on to fulfilling His promises. Every generation since Peter's day has waited for and tried to hasten the coming of the Lord.

I'm sure most of us are tired of hearing about the end times. After all, we've had so many texts dealing with eschatological issues over the past month or so and it is not a subject we like to dwell upon. We live for today, we look forward to that day but we do not want to make it the entire focus of our faith. Yet, this message is not really about what is to come, but about what we are to do while we wait. Some are so anxious for the coming of the Lord that they will do whatever is necessary to make it happen in this time and place. After all, it has already been two thousand years. Isn't it time?

But we learn from Peter that a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day for God. What has taken forever for us has only been a moment for God. The time has not yet come because everything is not yet ready. God is patient because not everyone for whom the promise has been given has yet heard it. There is great hope in this message: God does not want any to perish. He is patient and longsuffering. Christ will not come until all is ready. This is why Mark and the others wrote the stories on paper. They wanted them to last for every generation to come until the Day of the Lord.

In this passage, written for the believers, Peter says that God is, "longsuffering to you-ward." There is work for us to do, and God is giving us the time. Those who have yet to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ are out there in the world, walking in darkness. We are the light, sent to give hope and peace to all whom God has chosen. God is patient, not for those who haven't heard, but for us. He is waiting until we do what we have been called to do. God's patience is our salvation. He is waiting until we have accomplished all He has commanded us to do. It might happen in this generation, but it might not happen for another thousand years. After all, a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day to God. He will fulfill His promises in His time according to His word.

Mark did his job: he told the story, a story he believed would go on long after he was gone, so that we can hear and believe. For Mark, one thing was especially important, and we find it in that title verse, "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." Mark wants to make it clear who this Jesus really is... He is the Son of God. The later Gospel writers included the stories of Jesus' birth and childhood, establishing also Jesus' humanity, but Mark insists on His divinity. Jesus isn't just a prophet. He isn't just a rabbi. He isn't just a friend or savior. Jesus is God.

Mark begins his story with John the Baptist. Isaiah wrote that there would be a prophet preparing the way of the Lord, pointing the people toward the One for whom they were waiting. That prophet was John. He came from the wilderness to preach repentance and to call the people to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins. That story continues into today. We still call people to baptism, but we have been given a greater gift than John, because Jesus Christ baptizes with more than just water. What John started, Jesus completed and made even more real because now the Holy Spirit brings a lasting, eternal forgiveness. John was cleansing the people to make them ready for the Lord. The Lord now makes the people His forever and ever.

The image in today's Gospel lesson is harsh and almost frightening. John is a bizarre character. He lives in the wilderness, wears camel hair and eats locusts. This is not a man that we would necessarily follow. He does not portray a picture of peace. His message is rough; he told people they were sinners. He called them to repentance. He baptized but admitted that his baptism was nothing compared to the baptism that would come from God. This is not comforting. It is not pleasant. It is frightening and disconcerting.

Yet people flocked to this madman in the wilderness, longing to see the one who fulfilled the promise we hear in today's Old Testament lesson. In that text, the message is not so frightening. It is not so unpleasant. God speaks comfort to His people and promises that they will be restored. Isaiah says, "Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem; and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she hath received of Jehovah's hand double for all her sins." The 'warfare' in this text is referring to the exile, the consequences of their sin against God. They served their sentence and were about to be set free to return home. This promise of restoration was especially significant to a people who were living under the oppressive hand of the Romans; they were looking forward to the day when the throne of David would be restored, when they could live again as a sovereign nation. They didn't realize that God promised an even greater freedom and a peace that is beyond human understanding.

Isaiah writes, "All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth, because the breath of Jehovah bloweth upon it; surely the people is grass. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth; but the word of our God shall stand forever." Peace, true peace, will come when our flesh is destroyed by the breath of God, consumed by His fire and Spirit, and we are made new. This might seem frightening, but it is the hope of Christmas: that we will be transformed and restored to God. When God comes, when He rules, He will take care of us as a shepherd takes care of His flock. John's message might seem rough and disconcerting, but it reflects the promise of Isaiah. God is coming, prepare the way. He is coming to do something spectacular, make your hearts ready.

Mark knew that the Old Testament promises could not be fulfilled by just anyone; only the Son of God could provide the salvation that would restore God's people. Jesus was that Son, and through Him we have been saved; the promise has been fulfilled. Christ was born, Christ died, and Christ rose again. Christ lives. But we still await the coming of our King, the return that will complete the will and purpose of God. We live in a time that is between the fulfillment of the promise and the completion of the promise.

The psalmist presents a message of God's grace. The early church community understood this psalm to be the prayers of a people who have been saved but are waiting for salvation to be complete. We still live in this time of waiting today. That's what Advent is all about. We know Christ has come. We know that Jesus was born in the manger, died on the Cross and rose again. It is finished. But we still wait for God's plan to be complete. We are wandering in this world, waiting for the second coming of Christ when God's promises will finally be fulfilled.

It might seem like it has been too long, surely God would have completed His work by now. We worry like those in the early Church, especially when we see the world around us falling apart. "Come, Lord Jesus," we cry. We wait, we watch, we hope, trusting that God's Word is true. The grass will wither and people will die, but God's patience means that there is still time for all those whom God calls to believe.

We can't stand still while we wait; we have a job to do. Mark started the story that we are charged with continuing. There are people who need to see the light that shatters darkness and experience the life that has overcome death. It is up to us to share the Good News like John, but our message is even greater than his. God's grace has won; the baptism we share is one of forgiveness and power. We live in the time between the fulfillment of God's promises and the completion of them; this is a time of hope and expectation. So, let's shine the light that is Christ in the world so that those for whom God is waiting might be saved. Who knows: the last one God is calling might just be the next person to whom you tell the story.

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December 4, 2014

"For judgment is without mercy to him that hath showed no mercy: mercy glorieth against judgment." James 2:13, ASV

Victoria is coming home in a few weeks for Christmas; I am looking forward to her visit very much. I miss her, I miss having the whole family in the house, I miss hearing the conversation at the dinner table. We have to get used to our lives after children; they grow up, they become independent, they move on. On the one hand we are incredibly proud that they are doing what they are meant to do, succeeding in the world, becoming responsible for their own lives.

I miss being a mommy sometimes, but there are things that I definitely do not miss. I don't miss dirty diapers. I don't miss last minute school projects. I don't miss sibling rivalry. My kids always loved each other, of that I'm certain, but there are times when siblings simply don't get along. The problems often exist because of troubles outside the family. A kid can get upset with a little harmless picking if they are picked on at school. A kid can get jealous of a sibling's success if they face disappointment in their own work. I think sometimes, however, that the kids picked on each other just to annoy me.

I don't know how many times I asked the kids where they wanted to go have lunch or which movie they wanted to see and they could not agree on an answer. It didn't matter if one kid decided they wanted to go to the other's favorite restaurant, that kid would hate the idea. If they couldn't come to an agreement, I would have to decide and then someone was always upset. "We went there last time!" "It was my turn to choose!" "That's not fair!"

This cry about fairness happened often, especially when they got into an argument. I never saw the event that set them off, but I often had to insert myself into the battle to bring peace into the house. They would come at me with accusations: "He did this." "She did that." I couldn't make my judgment based on their words; it is hard for anyone to give a fair and balanced accounting in the heat of an argument. There might be truth to both sides, but both sides have their own point of view which isn't always the complete truth. I found that I often had to make decisions that did not make anyone happy. If I didn't have all the information needed to make a decision between them, they suffered the same consequences and received the same mercy. It was not unusual to hear "That's not fair!" when one child thought they'd gotten the small end of a deal.

These became teaching moments. We all like to have mercy poured upon us when we are the ones in trouble, but we have difficulty seeing others receive the same mercy. We demand justice when we've been harmed but we expect mercy when we are the guilty party. Shouldn't they suffer the consequences of their sin against me? We forget that we sin against others everyday without suffer the consequences we deserve.

In today's scripture, James looks back on lesson Jesus taught His disciples in the Temple. He was watching those who were giving their gifts to the treasury, and noticed how the richly dressed scribes walked around in the marketplace being greeted by the pilgrims, taking for themselves the best seats and places of honor, but they did not honor their neighbors. They stole the homes of widows and then acted pious in their prayers, judging others while ignoring their own sin. They favored the rich who put great sums out of their wealth into the treasury, but ignored and dishonored the widow who gave everything she owned.

James tells us that if we keep the royal law, which is the law that says, "Love your neighbor as yourself," we will have mercy on those who do us harm. We do this because we know that we can't keep the law perfectly so Christ took the wrath of God on His own shoulders for our sake. If we want mercy, then we need to look at others through the eyes of Christ and grant the same mercy we desire. The religious leaders thought they were doing everything right, but they were judging without mercy; they too would face judgment without mercy. Christ died that we might have mercy; may He give us the strength and courage to be merciful, too.

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December 5, 2014

"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control; against such there is no law." Galatians 5:22-23

I have been decorating my house for Christmas. I love to decorate my house, especially using all the special decorations that I've collected over the years. I don't have too many; my house is obviously decked out for Christmas, but it isn't an overwhelming assault. My tree will loom, I'm expecting to find a tree in the 9-11 foot range when we go out tonight. The rest of the decorations are scattered around the house: a Christmas village, a Home Interior story lady with children and toys, a Santa display, a nativity or two (or a dozen in several places) and of course, an Advent wreath. There are various other items around the house, small trees in multiple places, the tables set with Christmas linens and candles.

It takes too long to get it all put together, mostly because I do it in between all the other tasks that I have to do during the day. I pulled out the pieces to the village several days ago and finally finished it last night. Yesterday I emptied all the other pieces from their boxes and put them in approximately the right area of the house, and then moved from one place to another to organize each display. I didn't get to all of them last night, so there's still one display that's a confusing mess.

Sometimes you need to create chaos to make things right. I couldn't put each item into place until all the items were together. While my boxes are fairly organized, there are multiple displays in each box. It is easiest to just empty all the boxes and then put everything where it belongs.

Isn't it that way with our spiritual lives? Don't we need to unpack everything so that it can be put in its place? Think about your life: those moments of chaos are difficult, frustrating, confusing, but after you get through the chaos, your life is better. You learn something in that moment, you change in some way, you figure out priorities and you become more focused on what matters. We shouldn't be afraid to let our world fall apart, especially when we are trying to hold together something that isn't right.

I have been watching way too many of those made for TV Christmas movies over the past few days. Yes, they are formula stories; they all fit into a mold. There's always a boy and a girl and a problem. There's always another person or a job or a past standing in the way of true happiness. There's always a moment of decision, a catalyst that forces someone to do something that sets everything to right. They reflect, they stop fighting, they turn around, they repent. In the end the boy and girl kiss and everyone lives happily ever after. Love wins, people are transformed, lives are set onto the right path.

Our lives are not made for TV movies, but there are times in our lives when we face the same moments of decision. We experience some catalyst that makes us think about our relationships, our jobs or our past. We have to reflect on our lives , stop fighting, turn around, repent. Now, this doesn't mean giving up on jobs or relationships just because things aren't going right, but it is in the chaos that we are forced to look at the situation. Sadly, too many of us look at our troubles and lay the blame on others, never realizing their own role in the brokenness. We have to unpack it all, look at our lives as a whole, and put everything into place.

It isn't easy. It isn't pretty. But in the end we will be made new. I'm not so sure we'll see that happily ever after; the chaos will come again in a month or so when I have to pack up those decorations and put them away for another year. We will have moments of struggle throughout our lives, times when we lose those we love, when we have to change jobs, when we have to face financial, health or emotional difficulties. But the changes that were made in this chaotic moment will help us face the next and we'll grow even deeper in faith by the Spirit of God, living in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control a little more each time until the day when we when we will no longer experience the chaos of this world, but will dwell in the happily ever after of the Kingdom of God.

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December 8, 2014

"But forget not this one thing, beloved, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some count slackness; but is longsuffering to you-ward, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall be dissolved with fervent heat, and the earth and the works that are therein shall be burned up. Seeing that these things are thus all to be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy living and godliness, looking for and earnestly desiring the coming of the day of God, by reason of which the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat? But, according to his promise, we look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for these things, give diligence that ye may be found in peace, without spot and blameless in his sight." 2 Peter 3:8-14, ASV

Bruce and I helped decorate our church Saturday morning and we planned on running some errands on the way home. Construction has made some of our usual routes difficult, so we decided to go to a different location of the store we wanted to visit. We had no idea how that decision would interrupt our plans for the rest of the day.

The store was located very near to a park where that city was having a huge Christmas festival. The traffic was incredible. A stretch that normally takes (even in rush hour) less than five minutes took us nearly a half hour. We also ran into the trouble that the traffic made it impossible for us to get into the right lane. We had to get there in a roundabout way which took even more time because the traffic was bad on that road also.

The store itself was not too crowded; it was an adventure finding everything we needed, but we managed to make it to the check-out without too much trouble. The drive home was not quite as difficult, but the roads were crowded with those who had finished at the festival. Unfortunately, when we got home, I realized that I'd left my cell phone sitting on the check-out stand. I called the store and they had it (thank goodness!) I told them I'd be there as fast as I could and I unenthusiastically got back in my car to drive through the traffic back to that store. The second trip was a little easier, just because I was able to get in the right lane, but it still took me much too long. I wasted an hour of my day, an hour I really needed to accomplish everything on my to-do list.

I would like to blame someone else on my troubles. As a matter of fact, I joked with Bruce that it was his fault because I had my phone out of my purse to use it to find him when we lost one another in the store. It wasn't his fault, I know that, even if he was the one who got lost. I'm the one who set my phone on the check-out stand and I'm the one who did not pick it back up when I was finished paying for our items. I would like to blame the city for having a festival, but that's as ridiculous as blaming any or all of the cars that were stuck in the same traffic blocking my path. I'd like to blame the store for being located in such a bad place (even though it is usually not an issue.)

I can't blame anyone; everything that went wrong about the trip was my own fault. I wonder how many times we do blame others for situations that are really our own fault or are beyond everyone else's controls. Oh, there are times when we are harmed by the sinfulness of others, but most of the time we will find that we hold some of the burden for our difficulties. It would do us well to think about these things when we are making judgments, to find our own responsibility for our problems. We don't need to do this to heap punishment on ourselves or wallow in guilt, but to learn something that will help us make the right decisions the next time. Then we don't have to blame others for our inconveniences.

Peter writes, "Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for these things, give diligence that ye may be found in peace, without spot and blameless in his sight." During Advent we do look for and earnestly desire the coming day of God. We seek the new heavens and the new earth as we wait in joyous expectation for the birth of Jesus and for His coming in glory at the end of time. Thankfully God is patient with us, longsuffering in His own waiting for us to be ready. We aren't blameless, not a single one of us, but God holds back the wrath that we deserve.

Frankly, none of us will ever be blameless in this life; we are too human and we fall daily to the temptations from the world around us. However, our faith calls us to a life of introspection, considering the faults in our own lives that cause blame to rest on our shoulders. As we learn those lessons, we will be transformed into people who are not only blameless in the eyes of God, but also without blame for others who really do not deserve our wrath.

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December 9, 2014

"But this I say, He that soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he that soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully. Let each man do according as he hath purposed in his heart: not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound unto you; that ye, having always all sufficiency in everything, may abound unto every good work: as it is written, He hath scattered abroad, he hath given to the poor; His righteousness abideth for ever. And he that supplieth seed to the sower and bread for food, shall supply and multiply your seed for sowing, and increase the fruits of your righteousness: ye being enriched in everything unto all liberality, which worketh through us thanksgiving to God." 2 Corinthians 9:6-11, ASV

We replaced a television this week. The old one was in perfectly good working condition, but it was an older model that was not built to receive the components we want to use with it. I happened to see on a recycling/sharing list that someone was looking for a television, so I contacted the person and offered it to them. We made arrangements to meet, I rescheduled my week and Bruce took the time on a busy day to take down the old television and put up the new one. I was excited that I could share with someone who needed help.

Then things started to get a little strange. When you make this kind of exchange on a recycling/sharing list, it is important to be careful. The list members are regularly reminded to meet in public places and to never give too much personal information. It would be nice if we lived in world where we would not have to take these kinds of precautions, but you just don't know. I've watched enough court television that you can't trust everyone you meet on the Internet.

At first she was willing to meet me after 2:00, which was a little later than I would have liked, but I was willing to accommodate her. I suggested 2:30. She told me she could try to be there by then but she'd definitely make it by 3:30. Quite frankly, I was not willing to sit in a parking lot for an hour to give her a free television, so I asked her to narrow the time period. She came back with an apology because she'd read her schedule wrong and she wasn't available that late in the afternoon. "Why don't I just come to your house to pick it up when I can work it in?"

I am a cheerful giver; I like to share my blessings with people who need help. However, that email stopped me in my tracks. I wrote back that I was uncomfortable with that idea, could we please try to do it earlier in the day. Despite several more emails and texts, I never heard from her again. I sent her one more message, telling her that I was going to visit the store where we would meet and that I'd be there between certain times. If she could make it, she should text me and I would leave my shopping to transfer the television. I finished my shopping and waited in my car until well after the time I promised, but she never came.

It all might have been innocent; after all she seemed sincerely interested in getting a television, any television. She may be telling this same story from the point of view that I needed to be more gracious and accommodating because she was having a tough time. Maybe I should have; I have the freedom and flexibility that she did not have. That doesn't mean that I have hours to waste. I was willing to accommodate; all I asked was a commitment to a specific time. Let's be honest, I couldn't help but wonder if she was trustworthy when she stopped communication after I refused to give her my home address.

My frustration and uncertainty was overturned, however, when I drove into the Goodwill donation station. The man waiting there was excited to see me, and extremely thankful for the television. He greeted me with a huge smile and happily received the television as if I were giving him a great gift. He thanked me and wished me a very merry Christmas as he waved me off to the rest of my day. In the end, the giving became a joyful experience.

Now, we don't need the recipients of our gifts to be cheerful for us to be cheerful givers. As a matter of fact, most people who are in need are burdened in ways that make even thankfulness difficult. We are blessed to be a blessing, but we are also blessed to be good stewards. Paul reminds us that it is God who makes the grace abound in us. Sometimes, perhaps even in this example, God took away the joy from one opportunity and restored it in the right one.

Sadly, too many people will have an experience like this and will stop being generous altogether. Out of the frustration and uncertainty they will learn that they can't trust the people who are asking for help. The lesson we should learn from this, however, is that God makes the grace abound in us and we will experience the joy of cheerful giving when we are being obedient to His purpose in our life. He will always make everything right, even when we fail, so that the world will be blessed by our blessings.

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December 10, 2014

Scriptures for Sunday, December 14, 2014, Third Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

"Turn again our captivity, O Jehovah, as the streams in the South." Psalm 126, ASV

Today's verse can be translated "Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses of the Negev." The Negev is a desert/semi-desert region of southern Israel. There are wadis or dry riverbeds scattered around the region; they run strong only briefly after rain. I live in South Texas and we know what it is like to see the dry creek beds across the landscape. Many of these run over the back country roads; when it rains the creeks quickly fill, leaving those who want to cross stranded until the water recedes. There are numerous creeks that are so large that they appear more like rivers, rising ten or even twenty feet above normal, but when it is try they are nothing more than dirt and rocks. Long periods of draught allow grasses and shrubs to grow. I look forward to driving over the bridges that cross these creeks after a rainstorm; it is a joy to see the water running again because that means the refreshing and life-giving rain has fallen on our region. The creeks don't last long after a single day of rain, but if we have a wet season, they can run wild for weeks.

The psalmist brings our thoughts to the joy of God's people when He has showered His grace upon them. This is a hymn sung by the returning exiles. They were happy that God was restoring them to their home; they would once again dwell in the shadow of His temple. Can you imagine the scene? These people who had been in captivity for much too long, traveling on the road back home. They were laughing and singing, a stream of people bubbling with joy along the path. They proclaimed the Good News: God set them free! It was tough to be carried away into captivity, the tears must have run strong, but God stopped the tears as He took them home, restoring their fortunes, turning their captivity. The desert filled with life.

The psalmist recognizes that the great works of God in and through His people reveal His presence in this world. When we praise God for His goodness, the nations see His mercy and His grace. ďThen was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing: then said they among the nations, Jehovah hath done great things for them.Ē In our joy we are witnesses to the Lord. We are the ones with the flashlight.

Joy. This is the season of joy and we spend a lot of time and money to make it joyful. We have parties, buy presents, and decorate. We watch happy television shows and bake dozens of delicious sweets. We take our children to sit on Santa's knee and go to Christmas pageants filled with singing. It is a joyful time. The third Sunday of Advent is often called Gaudete Sunday because it focuses on joy. "Gaudete" refers to the first word of the introit (opening of the liturgical celebration of the Lord's Supper) of the mass, and means "rejoice." Our scriptures for this Sunday certainly speak of joy. Besides the joy of the freed captives, Isaiah talks about rejoicing in the Lord for all He has done, and Paul tells the Thessalonians to rejoice always.

We get confused, though, because we live in this time when joy or happiness is tied so closely to physical and material things. We talk about the joy of the season and we do what we can to create that joy for ourselves and those we love, but we often fail, don't we? Unfortunately, there are many people who are dealing with troubles during this time and joy is the last thing on their mind. They are worried about how they are going to pay the bills, whether they will have enough money to pay the rent so that they will have a roof over their head. They know that there will be no money for Christmas presents and that their kids will have to settle for baloney sandwiches rather than a meal with roast turkey and all the fixings. They aren't planning parties, they are praying for a warm winter so that they don't have to turn up the heat.

Others are dealing with illness or loneliness. This is the first Christmas that many will spend without a parent or spouse. Mothers will mourn over the children that died in infancy. Terminally ill patients often linger through the holidays to spend one last Christmas with those they love, and their families face the reality that they will be gone soon. Some people have had to move too far from family and do not have the money to go home for the holidays, or their jobs do not allow them the time for a vacation. They will be alone for the holiday, struggling to find the joy.

Most of us are probably not facing such desperate times that we won't be happy this Christmas, but the words of Paul really strike us as impossible. "Rejoice always." I'm a pretty happy person, and not giddily happy, but content, and yet I have moments when I just can't rejoice. I get angry and I've been hurt by those I loved. I have felt so sick with a cold or flu that I was sure I would not live to see another day. I've worried about how to pay my bills and missed people who are far away on earth and in heaven. I can't be joyful all the time.

But Paul says, "Rejoice always." He goes on to say, "Pray without ceasing" and "In everything give thanks." There was an episode of "The Big Bang Theory" where Leonard and Penny got into an argument over the use of the word "always." Penny said, "You always do that," which Leonard took very badly. He said that using the word "always" is an exaggeration that makes the offense worse. In this case it isn't an offense, it is an unrealistic expectation.

Paul next says, "For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus to you-ward." See, a life of rejoicing, of prayer and of thanksgiving is what God wants for us. It isn't about the emotion of the action or the response, but about living constantly in the presence of God. The Israelites were set free from captivity, but we have been set free from something even greater: sin and death. If their mourning and tears were turned to singing and joy, should we not have even more joy? They were restored to their home; we've been restored to the Kingdom of God. We have been invited to dwell in the presence of God always; that life is one of rejoicing, conversation and praise because God has done the greatest thing for us.

Paul goes on to say, "Quench not the Spirit; despise not prophesyings; prove all things; hold fast that which is good; abstain from every form of evil." These are hard, too, because we live in an imperfect world. There are times when we can't help but quench the Spirit, both in our own lives and in the lives of others. We fear that we, or they, are on a wrong path. How do we know that a prophet speaks the truth? In our world today so many even argue about what is good and evil. Sadly, many have turned it upside down: the good is evil and the evil is good. How do we live this life? We trust in God.

Paul writes, "Faithful is he that calleth you, who will also do it." We cannot uphold all the expectations in this passage. We can't rejoice always. We can't pray without ceasing. We can't, or don't, give thanks in all circumstances. It is beyond our ability in the flesh. We will doubt what we hear, and we should question every word, until we are sure that it comes from God. Our grasp is tenuous, and no matter how hard we try we will let go of what is good and we will fall into that which is evil. But through it all, the God who calls us is faithful and He will be with us and will help us through. He was born in that manger and died on that cross to bridge the chasm we had created by rebelling against Him. He will help us to rejoice, pray, give thanks, listen, accept, grasp and abstain. And He will forgive us when we fail and give us another chance to live faithfully according to His Word.

The people wanted to know John the Baptist. They wanted to know who he was and where he came from. They were so taken by his ministry that they even wondered if he was the one for whom they had been waiting. He quickly put that rumor to rest, saying that he was not the Christ. "Well," the people asked, "if you aren't the Messiah, are you Elijah? Elijah was expected to return to announce the coming of the Christ. As a matter of fact, the Jewish people are still looking for Elijah's return. They set a place for him at their Seder tables and hope that he will come soon. It was natural for them to think that perhaps John the Baptist was Elijah. John said, "No."

If John wasn't the Christ and he wasn't Elijah, then perhaps he was the Prophet. In this case they were referring to the prophet described in Deuteronomy 18:15, "Jehovah thy God will raise up unto thee a prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken." John emphatically denied being this Prophet, too.

John wasn't being unduly humble by denying that he was either Elijah or the Prophet. Instead, John denied identification with the Old Testament promises because he knew that the work of God's kingdom that he had been sent to do had nothing to do with him. If he accepted the role of Elijah, or the Prophet, the people would put too much authority and power into his hands, authority and power that was not his to have. He denied those roles because it was never about him. It was always about Jesus.

John the Baptist was given the most extraordinary task of paving the way for Christ the Lord. Were the people ready? Too many came looking for baptism without truly understanding what Jesus was coming to do. They were ready to lift up John to be something he wasn't. When Jesus came, they did the same to Him, expecting an earthly king rather than an eternal Savior.

The priests and the Levites were concerned about John's baptism because it was a ritual of purification for which they were responsible. John was the son of a priest, the firstborn son and a miraculous one at that. The expectation would have been for John to be a priest, dedicated to the temple and given in service to God. At the temple John would have received offerings of penance according to the Law of Moses. He would have offered forgiveness to the pilgrims that came to confess their sins. However, John was called by God to a different life. Instead of being a finely clothed and well received member of the religious society, John lived in the wilderness wearing camel hair rags and eating locusts and honey. Instead of receiving sinners at the temple, John went to the Jordan River to hear their confession.

John was doing the work of a priest outside the temple, both physically and in terms of authority. He was drawing great crowds and usurping their authority and threatening their positions. John was not concerned about titles, riches or power. He was simply the voice crying out in the wilderness, preparing the way for the Lord. Someone greater was coming and was among them--perhaps even standing in the crowd that day. John's actions would eventually lead to his arrest and beheading, which the crowd did not recognize as the sign they were waiting to see. Johnís purpose was to point to the gift.

I've never thought of John the Baptist as a particularly joyful person. As a matter of fact, I would think that living in the desert wearing camel hair and eating locusts would make me cantankerous, but there was something about John that drew the people to his presence. He had a gift, an anointing, that made them want to listen to him and follow him to the banks of the Jordan. He must have had joy, although it would have been hard for us to identify it as joy.

John was not the light; John was a witness to the light. He pointed the way. He pointed at Jesus. There were those who thought John might be the Messiah, but John never said he was. He told them from the beginning about the one who would come after him. This week's Gospel lesson echoes what we heard last week: John was the one crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. John knew that he was not worthy to be called the Messiah. He did not even think he was worthy to serve Him. That did not stop John from doing what He was called to do: prepare the way of the Lord.

John the Baptist knew that he was unworthy of the task to which he had been called. He did not want anyone to give him credit he was not due or to give him a title which was not his. I wonder how often we get lost in despair and disappointment because we have tried to be something we are not. We see it at Christmastime as we struggle to do everything and be everything to everyone. We overspend buying too many gifts for all the wrong reasons. We force ourselves to attend every event, to be involved in every project, to go overboard with our preparations. In the midst of it all, we forget the reason we are doing it all.

John said, "In the midst of you standeth one whom ye know not." How many people in our world today do not know Jesus? How many of us miss Him standing in the crowd because we are too busy trying to be something we are not? Last week the message we received from John is a call to repentance, a reminder that we are nothing but grass. We will wither and die. This week we receive another message: a call to joy. It is not the kind of joy we seek by going to parties and receiving presents. It is the joy that comes from knowing the presence of Christ always. This is a joy that should be shared and so we are called, like John the Baptist, to share the light of Christ with the world.

We have been set free and are on our way to our eternal home; God has restored us to Himself through Jesus Christ, the Son whom we await this Advent. Let's be like the Israelites and the overflowing streams in the Negev, unable to contain ourselves, singing and laughing as we glorify God with our praise and thanksgiving. As we do so, we'll see the fulfillment of the promise in today's Psalm: "Then said they among the nations, Jehovah hath done great things for them."

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December 11, 2014

"But seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Be not therefore anxious for the morrow: for the morrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." Matthew 6:33-34, ASV

Back in my college days there was a room in the Student Union that filled to the brim from 3:00 to 4:00 every day. Students purposely worked their schedules to ensure that they would be free during that hour. They had to be there. The room held a fairly large (for the time) television which was tuned to ABC. We were there to follow the adventures of Luke and Laura on "General Hospital." We couldn't miss a minute of our favorite soap opera. At that time there were dozens of shows you could watch; the soap operas began in the morning and lasted until late in the afternoon. There were a few game shows in the mix, but you could spend hours watching the love, hate and insanity of those fictional towns and the characters that dwelled in them.

I haven't watched "General Hospital" in decades. I stopped partly because the real world doesn't allow you to schedule your work schedule around soap operas, but also because it became so outlandish that it was out of this world. I know, they all are, but in the case of "General Hospital" the storylines were so farfetched I couldn't even pretend that it was real life. I eventually replaced it with "Santa Barbara" which was still over the top but relatively realistic. I was disappointed when it went off the air and haven't watched a soap opera since.

Daytime television is much different today. There are still a few soap operas left on network television, but they are mingled with games shows, talk shows, and court TV. Afternoon television has always been programmed to meet the needs of the stay-at-home wife and mother, so everything focused on topics and formats that served that demographic. Even the commercials were aimed at the housewife. The name "soap opera" was created because the early radio shows were sponsored by soap manufacturers. Even the television shows were peppered with ads for dish and laundry soap, as well as other products that would make life easier for the woman. After all, if she was spending hours a day preparing dinner for her husband, how could she have the time to watch all that great television?

Just as the shows are different today, the ads are different, too. Daytime television doesn't focus on the stay-at-home wife and mother anymore, perhaps because there are fewer of them these days. More women are working; those watching daytime television are those who are unemployed because they can't find work or are sick and disabled. While there are still a few soap commercials, most of the advertisements are for trade schools, drugs, lawyers and finance groups.

The trade schools want to offer the unemployed a better life. The drug companies want to offer the disabled a solution for their pain. The lawyers want to give them all a lot of money by suing someone somewhere for something. I don't mind the ads for the trade schools because I know they will help people enhance their lives and find good jobs.

I am bothered by the drug and lawyer commercials. Have you ever really listened to the drug commercials? The lists of possible side effects are so long that the narrators must speak quickly to tell them in the allotted time period; the list is often filled with side effects that are worse than the disease the medicine is meant to cure. The drug commercials are then followed by lawyers inviting people who are suffering the side effects of certain drugs to class action suits to get financially compensated for the problems they experienced.

To round out the commercials, the finance groups encourage those who have received settlements to get their money now. See, those large settlements are often divided into monthly payments that last for many years. The finance groups 'buy' the settlement and give the recipients a onetime payment. The payment is well below the actual value of the settlement, but people who are unemployed and sick or disabled prefer to have their money immediately, rather than have it help over a period of time.

The trade schools want to help, but the drug companies, the lawyers and the finance groups take advantage to those who are in need. The commercials seem to be filled with concern and compassion, but in the end they are all using people in need for their own financial gains. The afternoon television commercials try to convince those who are watching that they have the answer to their problems. If you take this drug, you will be well. If you sue that person, you will be rich. If you sell us your settlement, you can have your money now. But the reality is those commercials don't offer real solutions. The drugs are dangerous, the lawyers get a huge part of any settlement and the finance companies take a huge portion of the rest. In the end these people are still unemployed, sick and disabled and they quickly have too little money to pay their bills.

Commercials are meant to sell us something; the soap operas in days gone by would not have even been around without those soap commercials. However, we need to be careful what we buy. Will that drug really heal us? Will that lawyer get us justice? Will that finance group provide us with the cash we need? The answer is probably, "No."

I don't want to say that Jesus is the answer to all our problems because that's little more than a shallow cliche, especially when you need real help in the real world. Medicine is good, justice is right, and sometimes it is better to take enough today than to wait for years for the money we are owed. But we won't find the answer in the commercials on afternoon television. We have to be smart, to seek the right answers to our problems, to work with those who can really help without taking advantage of our situation. There is a better way; God can help. Prayer, study, and faithfulness to God's Word can lead us on the right path. The things of the world will fail us, but God is always faithful. Let us always seek Him first, for it is in Him we'll find the answers to our problems.

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December 12, 2014

"Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by the way which he dedicated for us, a new and living way, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and having a great priest over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart in fulness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience: and having our body washed with pure water, let us hold fast the confession of our hope that it waver not; for he is faithful that promised: and let us consider one another to provoke unto love and good works; not forsaking our own assembling together, as the custom of some is, but exhorting one another; and so much the more, as ye see the day drawing nigh." Hebrews 10:19-25, ASV

"She was full of faith, yet all her life had been tormented by thoughts against it. While apparently enjoying the peace and easiness of mind of souls who have reached a high state of virtue, she suffered such interior trials that she often told me her mind was so filled with all sorts of temptations and abominations that she had to strive not to look within herself... But for all that suffering her face never lost its serenity, nor did she once relax in the fidelity God asked of her. And so I regard her as one of the holiest souls I have ever met on this earth."

This quote is from St. Vincent de Paul about St. Jane Frances de Chantal. Jane lived from the mid-14th to mid-15th century. Her father was an important man in France; her mother died when she was an infant. She was educated by her father and developed into a woman of grace and beauty. She married Baron de Chantal when she was twenty-one and had six children. They had been married just seven years when he was killed and she lost three of her children in infancy. She was inconsolable for months after her husband's death, but eventually returned to live as normal. She lived with her father-in-law and did a good job managing her husband's estate.

Eventually she met St. Frances de Sales who became her spiritual director. She took a vow that she would remain unmarried and would follow his encouragement. She wanted to become a nun, but he rejected the idea at first. Eventually he approached Jane about starting a new order for women that would meet the needs of those who were rejected from other houses. The community, called the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, welcomed the elderly and the sick as well as those who were rejected for other reasons. The house did not follow the intense rigors of most abbeys; it was not a cloistered community, so the nuns had the freedom to undertake spiritual and corporeal works of mercy. They were intended to exemplify the virtues of Mary at the Visitation: humility and meekness.

It was a difficult task she took on when she began a house for those who had been rejected elsewhere. She found that some of the women thought their high birth gave them the right to reject any discipline and many of the widows were self-centered. She encouraged the women in her community to learn to lead the religious life. She did this while suffering her own spiritual anguish as her loved ones died continued to die around her. She lived until she was almost seventy and established more than eighty convents of the Visitation.

We often think that the religious life is meant only for those who are particularly holy. In Jane's day, the abbeys only took those women who fit a mold, who could physically, spiritually and emotionally handle the rigorous life inside the cloistered community of nuns. Yet, there were many other women who needed to dwell in that type of community, who needed a way to live their faith but could not kneel in prayer for many hours a day due to age or illness. There were women who needed to live in a community where they could learn to be faithful. There were women who needed a place to share their gifts but did not have the gifts necessary for the cloistered life. There were women who struggled, as did Jane herself, with doubts and temptations, even spiritual dryness, darkness and interior anguish. These are the struggles of ordinary sinners.

But aren't we all pretty ordinary? Don't we all struggle at times with doubts and temptations? Don't we have moments of spiritual dryness, darkness and interior anguish? I think we do, and we learn from St. Jane Frances de Chantal that there is a place in the work of God for all people.

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December 15, 2014

"Oh sing unto Jehovah a new song: Sing unto Jehovah, all the earth. Sing unto Jehovah, bless his name; Show forth his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, His marvellous works among all the peoples. For great is Jehovah, and greatly to be praised: He is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols; But Jehovah made the heavens. Honor and majesty are before him: Strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. Ascribe unto Jehovah, ye kindreds of the peoples, Ascribe unto Jehovah glory and strength. Ascribe unto Jehovah the glory due unto his name: Bring an offering, and come into his courts. Oh worship Jehovah in holy array: Tremble before him, all the earth. Say among the nations, Jehovah reigneth: The world also is established that it cannot be moved: He will judge the peoples with equity. Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; Let the field exult, and all that is therein; Then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy Before Jehovah; for he cometh, For he cometh to judge the earth: He will judge the world with righteousness, And the peoples with his truth." Psalm 96, ASV

When David C. Cox was twenty-three years old, he left college to join the Army Air Corps, completed flight school, and married his high school sweetheart before shipping off to Europe to fight in the Second World War. Cox's mother and father were very proud of his accomplishments and gave him a gold signet ring that featured a propeller and wings. The ring was inscribed "Mother and Father to David C. Cox Greensboro NC 10-4-18-42. The number represented his birthday and the year. It was 1942 and Cox was blessed.

He flew a dozen missions over Germany and occupied France during his service. On one run, his plane was it and many of his crew members were killed, but he managed to fly back to England and land the plane. He wasn't so lucky in July 1943 when his plane was shot down and he had to parachute to the ground. He was taken prisoner and was held for eighteen months at Stalag Luft III. Life wasn't bad at the camp, which was populated mostly by allied officers. They put on shows, managed to dig a hole and some even escaped. As I read the story, visions of Hogan's Heroes came to mind.

In January 1945, Cox and the other prisoners were moved to Stalag VII-A and life was much harsher there. Things were not good for the Germans at that point and the least of their worries was care for the prisoners. Cox and the others survived on little or no rations, their conditions were crowded and horrible. They were starving death and being eaten raw by an infestation of bugs. One day an Italian officer in the next cell managed to get two bars of chocolate. Cox, who was starving, traded his precious ring so that he might have that chocolate to eat.

In April of that same year, the allied forces under the command of General George S. Patton liberated the Stalag and with a promotion to 1st lieutenant and ribbons like the Distinguished Flying Cross, Cox went home, began a business and began a family with his wife. Cox had a replica of the ring made and wore it most of his life. He eventually gave it to his son David, who wore it until it broke. He died in 1994.

It might seem impossible, but we actually know what happened to the ring. Somehow it got into the hands of a Russian soldier who used it as payment for room and board to a Hungarian family as he traveled home from the war, probably in the northern part of present-day Serbia. It wound up in the hands of Martin Kiss, whose grandmother gave him the ring for good luck when he moved to Germany in 1971. He wore it for a time, but then kept it in a bottle for safekeeping.

The Turners, an American couple stationed in Germany at Ansbach, visited the Kiss home for dinner and he showed them the ring and asked them if they would be able to locate the owner. Mark Turner discovered a master's thesis on the Internet from North Carolina State University written by the husband of Cox's granddaughter. It was based in part on David C. Cox's war diary. The story of the ring was in the thesis. The Turners were connected with David Cox Jr. who confirmed that the ring was his father's. The Kiss family refused to take any money, but immediately shipped the ring to the younger Cox, who remembered his father and wished that he could have been with his family and friends on the day they opened that box. It was overwhelming to them; Cox had always regretted giving away that ring, and now it was back where it belonged.

This is an amazing story. It is amazing enough that the ring survived, but to be returned to the family of the man to whom it meant so much is incredible. It isn't the only story, however. Other families have stories from other wars about items that were left behind that find their way home. It is almost miraculous. Can we give credit to God for the restoration of a material object to a family?

Yes, I think we can. As a matter of fact, I don't know how this could have happened without the hand of God. Oh, I know, many people will say that the whole story was just a series of coincidences, down to the fact that Martin Kiss was so unselfish that he was willing to give the ring back to the family. Why would God even care? There was no mention of God in the story, so He hasn't even been glorified by it. And yet, couldn't God have been in the hearts and actions of all those people in the story? Was it empathy that gave one man the willingness to trade two chocolate bars to a starving man for a worthless (in that place) ring? What made that Hungarian family take in a stranger? What was the source of the love that made the grandmother to give the ring to her grandson? What made Martin Kiss so unselfish that he would let go of such a valuable ring?

It was a God-incidence because God moved in the hearts and the lives of those who touched it. He even used that simple item, in an extraordinary way, to remind us today that He has power over everything, even the seemingly insignificant things. We might not think God cares about a family heirloom, but even these stories can become about God's grace if we give Him the glory.

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December 16, 2014

"And working together with him we entreat also that ye receive not the grace of God in vain (for he saith, At an acceptable time I hearkened unto thee, And in a day of salvation did I succor thee: behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation): giving no occasion of stumbling in anything, that our ministration be not blamed; but in everything commending ourselves, as ministers of God, in much patience, in afflictions, in necessities, in distresses, in stripes, in imprisonments, in tumults, in labors, in watchings, in fastings; in pureness, in knowledge, in long suffering, in kindness, in the Holy Spirit, in love unfeigned, in the word of truth, in the power of God; by the armor of righteousness on the right hand and on the left, by glory and dishonor, by evil report and good report; as deceivers, and yet true; as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and behold, we live; as chastened, and not killed; as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things." 2 Corinthians 6:1-10, ASV

Perhaps you've seen the letter that is circulating the Internet from a mother to her daughter's step-mother. It is a story of grace and wisdom. It is, of course, very difficult to be in a divided family. The emotions that are experienced by everyone run deep when a relationship that is meant to last forever dies too young. Many women become angry, resentful, jealous, not just the moms, but also the step-moms. How do you let go of the daughter you love to be loved by another women? How do you love another woman's daughter?

The woman was brutally honest in the letter; she began with her hope that her ex-husband's new would be the typical stereotype of a wicked step-mother. She hopes that she would be mean and ugly, a sloppy second to her. She wanted her ex-husband to settle for someone less than perfect, to hold herself up as the one who got away. She wanted her daughter to hate her so much that she'd never seek her step-mother's love or advice.

She was disappointed. It turned out that the new woman was beautiful and gracious and humble. She was lovely in heart and in spirit. She had no desire to replace the daughter's mother, but always sought to work with her in raising the girl to be a beautiful, gracious and humble young lady. The woman realized, immediately, that her world is much better because of the relationship that the two moms have been able to build. They are raising a daughter together; the mom even calls the girl "our daughter."

Divorce is never ideal. Any kind of division between people is less than God's intent for us. Sadly, we dwell in a world where division is rampant. The people are divided by political differences. Families are divided by irreconcilable differences. Even the Church is divided into denominations that disagree on so many things, many of which are adiaphorous (meaning neither harmful nor beneficial or spiritually neutral.) Unfortunately, we often disagree about what is adiaphorous and so we divide to worship with those who see the Kingdom through a similar faith.

Our disagreements often lead us to see other Christians as a mother sees the step-mother to her daughter. We see them as mean and ugly, a sloppy second. We hope that others will see them as less than perfect, a sloppy second and come running to us. We hate them and treat them with less than the beauty, graciousness and humility to which we are called as Christians.

The letter has gone viral because everyone knows a step relationship that has gone bad. We know the step families that bicker and fight, that tear up the children because they can't get along. It is more unusual to see the parents get along, to share responsibility in a way that gives the children peace but also teaches them how to be beautiful, gracious and humble in their own relationships. The mother ended her letter with the hope that her daughter would never have to deal with the brokenness of divorce in her own relationship, but also that she's glad that she has had a good example by which to live.

There are differences that matter, reasons why we should separate from other Christians. However, in the midst of our differences stands one thing that is real: the love of God in Christ Jesus. We share Him, and because we share Him it is important that we treat one another with love and grace. We will be hurt. We will be confused. We will be angry. But we can still love one another, live in hope together and trust that God will make everything right in the end. Though we are divided, we are still one body. Our differences many seem overwhelming, but we can trust that God is working on all our failures and using all our gifts for His glory.

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December 17, 2014

Scriptures for Sunday, December 21, 2014, Fourth Sunday of Advent: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Psalm 89:1-5 [19-26]; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38

"Now to him that is able..." Romans 16:25a, ASV

Now to Him who is able... nothing is impossible. These two phrases are found separately in today's lectionary; the first part is from Romans, the second from the Gospel. Yet, they seem to go together. Of course, Paul is telling the Romans that God is able to save them by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the angel is telling Mary that the impossible news she just heard was possible because it came from God. He is able to do the impossible.

There is so much about Christmas that is almost hard to believe, none more so than the Virgin birth. How is it that God would use this young girl as a vessel for the salvation of the world? How could God select her to bear the flesh of the Savior? God's ways are higher and greater than our ways; it is beyond our scope to fully understand His purpose and His plan. One of the most incredible things about Christmas is that it is a time of the miraculous, a time to believe in what cannot be. The Savior Immanuel, God with us, is born in Bethlehem. No wonder it is such a time of joy.

Yet, there are many that want to explain away the miraculous. They give science more credence than the Word of God. They diminish the impossible by making it possible through natural means. Take, for instance, the crossing of the Red Sea; some have suggested scientific explanations for the parting of the water such as an earthquake or the tides. They refuse to accept that it was God who made it happen, but also refuse to consider the fact that it happened at exactly the right moment, that the ground was dry enough for carts and that it ended at exactly the right moment.

Christmas is no different. What was that star that led the wise men? Was it a comet or some other astronomical body? Was Mary a virgin, or does the language indicate something very different. We don't like to have mysteries because we have so much more scientific knowledge. We have sent rockets into space to take pictures of the heavens; we can see the universe in ways that the people of Jesus' day could not even imagine. As for the birth of Jesus, we know a virgin birth is impossible. Even Mary knew that human reproduction required sex because she asked "How can this be?" She wanted to know how God would prevail over nature.

The angel Gabriel gave her an answer, "The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Most High shall overshadow thee: wherefore also the holy thing which is begotten shall be called the Son of God." This is not an answer that a modern intellectual will accept; after all there is really no explanation in it. Mary didn't need a physical answer; she accepted the word of the angel and willingly submitted herself to God. It was enough for her to believe.

Is it enough for us today? Are we willing to accept the Word we've been given through the scriptures by those who lived the stories and heard the promises with their own ears? Even the scriptures have been doubted and explained away by those who try to make it say what they want it to say. Surely Mary could not have been a virgin, science tells us that, so some twist the language of the scriptures to say she was a young girl and reject the miraculous story of the virgin birth.

I don't reject science; think about all the incredible things we have been able to do because of the scientific advancements that humanity has achieved. I think we've gone too far with some things; we've tried to play God with some things that we should not have played with at all. However, don't we all enjoy the technological and medical advancements that have made life easier and longer for us? I also don't reject modern scholarship and the advance that have been made in biblical understanding. Language changes, new information is discovered, we learn to see the ancient world through a more powerful lens. In many cases, these new points of view have help clear what were once confusing and misunderstood biblical texts.

However, too many times we use new knowledge in both science and religion to take way the mystery that is God. We want rational answers to our questions, and quite frankly the whole idea of God is anything but rational when compared to the reality of the world in which we live. This is why it is so easy for non-believers to suggest that God is nothing but a myth, a crutch made up by weak people. If we can't prove it with physical or logical means, then it must not exist. It was ok for people two thousand years ago to believe in angels, they didn't have the knowledge we have, but they tell us that we should not continue to believe in fairy tales.

Our knowledge of the world has certainly changed over the last two thousand years, but God has not changed. While we can now understand Him in new and wonderful ways, He is the same God who sent an angel to Mary to announce that she was the favored one. Mary had enough knowledge to ask "How can this be?" but when she received her answer, she submitted willingly even though it seemed impossible.

He who is able can do the impossible.

Mary is so different than Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. We don't hear his story in today's texts, but I like to compare the two. Both were visited by Gabriel. Both heard the incredible news that there would be a baby in their future. Zechariah was old and his wife well beyond child bearing years. It was impossible. Mary was young and had not yet known a man. It was impossible. But with God everything is possible. When Zechariah heard the message, he didn't question the Gabriel the same way. Mary wanted to know how it would happen; Zechariah asked, "How can I be sure this will happen?" he asked. Mary asked in faith, the faith of a child; Zechariah wanted proof.

Aren't we more like Zechariah these days? Shouldn't we be more like Mary?

God can do the impossible, and it is ok that we don't always understand. Christmas is a magical time of year. I think, sometimes, that it is easier for us to believe in Santa Claus and flying reindeer than in the story that the King of glory was born to a virgin and laid in a lowly manger. We allow a little mystery in the arrival of our Christmas presents, but we refuse to allow any mystery in our faith. It is an upside down world, isn't it?

Sadly, sometimes even the magic of Christmas is lost because the burdens we bear are just too hard. We can't be joyful because we are hurt or angry or lonely. We can't be generous because we have nothing to give. We can't believe in anything because science and rational thought make faith impossible. There is no Santa Claus, there is no God, there is nothing to believe in. Bah Humbug. This is what happens to those who demand proof of the miraculous; it is impossible, so they refuse to believe.

Mary believed the word of the Lord given to her by Gabriel and she willingly accepted the work He called her to do. Whether we believe it or not, we are blessed because Mary believed. The word "bless" is interesting, especially in our day and age. We think of people who are financially well off as 'blessed', but that is not always true. I'm not even sure we can count on happiness being equated with blessedness, although it is much closer. Blessedness is much holier than we make it out to be in our common language. As a matter of fact, the Middle English origin actually means "to consecrate with blood."

Someone once told me that "to bless" means "to speak well of." It can also have something to do with the bestowal of divine favor and good things. God blesses us. This we know is true. Now, if we think of blessing in terms of worldly goods or happiness, then there need not be any shedding of blood or divine action. But the lasting blessing comes at great cost. The lasting blessing is God's favor upon us. It is God's eternal gift of life through His Son, the son He brought through Mary.

Our blessing comes through blood, not only the blood Jesus Christ shed on the cross, but also the blood shed at His birth. Mary was an ordinary woman, not even a woman. She was little more than a child when the angel spoke to her. She was given this most extraordinary purpose, to bring the Savior into the world. This was indeed a blessing. As a matter of fact, Elizabeth said the same. "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!" They were consecrated with blood, blessed by God's divine favor. And we are blessed forever through them. This is a most extraordinary thing.

This is not something that needs a rational explanation. It is something that we just believe.

Now, Mary really did not need to do anything. She was favored by God with a great purpose, but nothing to do. He would take care of the situation. The Holy Spirit would come upon her and God would overshadow her. She did not have any work to do to become the mother of Jesus. Oh, she'd have work to do; Jesus would need to be fed and cleaned and loved. But all that was needed for this to happen was faith.

We have a problem with this. Our natural inclination is to 'do something.' When someone is sick, we ask what we can do. When someone is going through a tough time, we want to do something to help them through. When we face a time of struggle, we want to do something to get out from under the struggle. Even when things are good, we have to find something to do. We are blessed to be a blessing, so when we are feeling blessed, we strive to find a way to be a blessing. The trouble is, we often decide to do something for the sake of doing it, instead of waiting to discover what God intends for us.

David was blessed. He was king over all of Israel. He had brought them to a good place, built a palace and a city. Meanwhile, the God he worshipped was stuck in a tent in the desert. He was blessed and rightly wanted to bless God. He wanted to build a temple where they could place the Arc of the Covenant and so that God could rest within their midst.

How could a temple be a bad thing? It would be a place where God's people could gather and give Him honor and glory. God obviously was not against a temple because He gave the responsibility to David's son Solomon to build it. David could even collect the materials that were necessary for building it. Yet, David was not given that responsibility. God asked, "Did I ever ask you for a house?" He didn't need four solid walls because He stayed among His people wherever they went. He led them through the wilderness and into the Promised Land. The day would come when David's seed would build that house, but that's not where the promise really lies: the promise is that God will build the house and the kingdom. Out of David's seed would come a kingdom that will never end, a throne that will last forever.

The time came for a temple, but it was not up to David or even Solomon to decide when it would be built. God is our guide, our true King. He is the one to whom we should turn when trying to discover our mission and ministry in the world. I know this is impossible, especially since you can ask a hundred people in a congregation and you'll get a hundred different answers. But the reason we come up with so many answers is because we are asking the wrong question. We ask, "What should we do?" when we should ask, "What is God doing?"

We would rather rational answers to our questions, physical proof for what we claim to believe. God's work in the world is too mysterious; sometimes we do not even realize He has been at work until long after He is finished. We look for rational answers when all we need is faith.

Of course, we are not very good at listening. How can we know for sure that what we are planning is, or is not, God's will? I'm not at all surprised that Zechariah asked for proof; I would probably ask, too. How can we be sure that the impossible message is actually coming from God? How do you have faith like Mary, to believe and submit to God's will without fear and uncertainty? It seems so much harder today than ever since we have science telling us how it probably happened and modern scholarship telling us we just didn't really understand what was being said. We can't always make decisions about how to live our faith by rational means; sometimes we just have to believe.

You have a hundred dollars to share. You sit down and make a list of all the charities that could use that hundred dollars and then consciously decide which one deserves it more. In the meantime, you discover your neighbor just lost his job and doesn't have enough to buy groceries for the week. Charities are certainly wonderful ways to share our blessings; helping those organizations is good stewardship of our money. But we have to ask ourselves, is this a call from God? Is He inviting us to join Him in creating a miracle for someone in need? We want to answer the questions rationally, but sometimes we have to respond in faith.

Mary certainly didn't ask for her blessing. Mary was an ordinary woman, not even a woman. She was little more than a child when the angel spoke to her. She was given the most extraordinary purpose: to bring the Savior into the world. This was indeed a blessing. As a matter of fact, Elizabeth said the same. "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!" Mary did not question God's power to do the miraculous, she wanted to understand what would happen and she believed. She did ask, "What shall I do?" She asked what God would do.

Yet, it is natural for us, in our faith, to feel like we need to do things for God. David was king. By God's hand, the obstacles to establishing a strong and independent kingdom were overcome under David's rule. With a city in which to live, a palace for the king and roots being planted by the people, Israel was finally settling down into a golden age of peace and security. David was greatly blessed, and since he was a man who sought after God's heart, it is natural for him to want to give God an offering of thanksgiving and praise. For David, whose life had been characterized by upheaval, the security of a place to live is the most logical gift. David finally had a home thanks to God, so he thought God deserved a home, too. We do the same thing in our own way; we work because we think we have to give back to God all that He has given to us.

Advent has always been a time of reflection as we wait the coming of the Christ. It was used as a time of penitence during the ancient days of the church, ending with baptism at Christmas. It is natural to wonder about our purpose as we think about how we have failed. What is God calling us to do? What does He want us to accomplish as we wait? We never expect it to be extraordinary, because we are ordinary people. It is God's work, not ours, that makes the miracles in this world. It takes faith to walk in this reality. We have to believe that He is able to do the impossible and allow Him to do miraculous things in, with and through our lives.

Gospel of Jesus Christ is a mystery. Paul knew that God was working miracles in people who were not of Israel. He saw Gentiles being moved by the Holy Spirit into faith, active faith. It wasn't just a confession of the mouth, but it was a movement of spirit and flesh that was changing the world. One person's testimony led to a community gathering together to praise God. That praise was testimony for others who joined along in the song. The scriptures tell us that hundreds, even thousands, came to believe just on the word of one or two witnesses. This seems impossible to us, especially when we think about the differences in culture between the apostles and the gentiles. Yet, God is able to do this thing.

We don't need to use the things of the world to convince the world that God exists. God simply asks us to believe and willingly accept whatever He is doing in our lives. We can trust that He will use us to His purpose. We won't bear the baby Jesus as Mary, but we can have the same child-like faith and be witnesses that take Him to the world in faith.

This is the last Sunday in Advent; Christmas is just around the corner. The children are getting excited about the Santa and families are anxious for reunions. The trees are decorated, the presents are wrapped, and the cookies are baked. The magic of Christmas is making even the humbugs smile. We might argue about the value of those secular Christmas traditions like Santa Claus, but in the stories we see a parallel to the faith of Mary. Children believe without proof. Children have the most passionate and precious faith, both in Santa and in Jesus. They are our model for living faith because they do not doubt, they simply believe. Mary was little more than a child when she was faced with the most impossible truths, but she believed. She believed that He who is able will do the impossible.

May we all believe in the Christmas story with such faith and praise God for His blessing.

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December 18, 2014

"For the wages of sin is death; but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord." Romans 6:23, ASV

Gift giving has always been seen as a source for holiday humor, especially on situation comedies. The writers use the natural inclination of human beings to put meaning to everything to create conflict between characters. In one episode of Seinfeld, Jerry and Elaine were more than friends but in less than a committed relationship. For Elaine's birthday, Jerry decided to give her $182. He agonized over the gift, not wanting to give her something that would give her the wrong idea. He thought that $182 was not too much, but more than enough, and cash leaves no room for interpretation as a gift of perfume or jewelry might. Elaine, of course, was upset because she thought Jerry put no thought into the gift. Jerry put a lot of thought, more than she'd ever realize, but his answer was much different than hers might be.

Sheldon Cooper, a character on "The Big Bang Theory" has an equally difficult time dealing with gifts. He hates gift giving because it requires reciprocation. "You have not given me a gift, you have given me a social obligation." He feels he has to match every gift dollar for dollar. When Howard got married, Sheldon bought a gift for the happy couple. Then Howard gave gifts to all the guys as a thank you for their support. Sheldon said, "This is worth $100. I bought you a gravy boat worth $88. I owe you twelve." He reached into his wallet and got out $12 and gave it to Howard. Then he remembered that he also bought a card. "That cost $2," and he took the two one dollar bills back.

In the most recent episode, Sheldon's girlfriend Amy decided to host a Christmas party. Sheldon does not like Christmas and hated that Amy was forcing him to be a part of a party. He decided to pay her back by giving her a Christmas present. They had agreed to not exchange gifts, so he thought by giving her the social obligation which she would not be prepared to reciprocate, she'd have a miserable Christmas. He gave her a picture of himself sitting on Santa's lap in a talking frame into which he said, "Happy Holidays to my dear Amy. I hope you treasure this as much as I treasure you." She was ecstatic with the gift. Sheldon said, "Christmas is ruined! Let's never speak of it again! This was fun." Amy, however, had gotten him a Christmas gift. She asked his meemaw (grandmother) for her cookie recipe and she made a tin of cookies for him. He loved them and said, "They're perfect. It tastes like her hugs. I can't believe this. You're happy, I'm happy. Maybe a holiday that's all about giving isn't so..." At that point Raj reaches for a cookie, but Sheldon refuses to share.

We do put a lot of pressure on one another to buy the perfect Christmas presents. We should not think of gifts as a social obligation, but as something that we give from our hearts. They do mean something; they tell those we love that we've thought about them and that we've listened to what they have to say, showing that we know what they like. But we often take this idea of meaning behind the gifts a little bit too far. Sheldon might be in the extreme, but we do count every penny as we compare our gifts to the others under the tree.

While we should not put too much pressure on our family and friends this Christmas by looking for some deeper meaning in every present under the tree, we should realize that many gifts do have a meaning. It might sound like a cliche but it is the thought that counts. We should not think in terms of counting the dollars or winning the competition, but in making those we love happy. Our gifts, no matter how great, will always pale in comparison to the greatest gift of all, Jesus Christ our Lord. Let us receive that gift with joy and peace, knowing that He doesn't expect us to reciprocate. We never could, anyway, because nothing we have will ever be as perfect as the saving grace of Jesus and the eternal life He won for us on the cross.

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December 19, 2014

"O God, thou art my God; earnestly will I seek thee: My soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee, In a dry and weary land, where no water is. So have I looked upon thee in the sanctuary, To see thy power and thy glory. Because thy lovingkindness is better than life, My lips shall praise thee. So will I bless thee while I live: I will lift up my hands in thy name. My soul shall be satisfied as with marrow and fatness; And my mouth shall praise thee with joyful lips; When I remember thee upon my bed, And meditate on thee in the night-watches. For thou hast been my help, And in the shadow of thy wings will I rejoice." Psalm 63:1-7, ASV

Details. I have a pile of lists sitting on my desk. One list is for my shopping at one store, another list is for my shopping at another store. The third list is all the tasks that need to be complete before 6:00 p.m. tomorrow night. We are having a party, and I have been making lists so that I make sure everything is right for our guests. I have other lists in my head, like today's work and all the things I have to worry about. I run through those lists constantly, always looking for solutions to the problems.

My biggest problem is a good one: we are going to have a fabulous turnout for this party. I'm not worried about the food, I always make too much anyway. I'm not worried about people enjoying themselves because we always do. I'm not worried about the weather or whether the house is clean enough. The list that keeps going through my head is the chair count. For most of the evening it won't matter. Guests can mingle and enjoy one another's company. I'm worried about the entertainment, however. We have invited a Christian comedian to do his Christmas show, and I don't know how we will all be able to sit to watch!

We always laugh when we have a party because there is always more than enough food. It seems like Jesus is doing the whole feeding the five thousand thing all over again. In the end we have leftovers to share and to spare. But will the same hold true for chairs? Will my huge living room seem as big when it is filled with dozens of people? We shall see.

Here's the thing: I need to stop worrying. Some folk will be glad to stand; others will happily sit cross-legged on the floor. We can ask a few friends to bring some folding chairs or we can borrow some from church. It isn't worth the worry.

Neither are all the other details. My lists are good because they help me stay organized, but in the end my guests will be happy. They won't notice if I forgot to dust a table or if there are pine needles on the floor by the Christmas tree. They won't complain if the house is a little crowded. They won't realize if I forgot to get that extra bag of chips, just in case. We will have fun and it will be something we talk about for a long time. It's all about the fellowship, and the celebration of friendship. It's all about embracing the joy of the season. And it will be all about Jesus, because without Him we wouldn't be celebrating Christmas.

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December 22, 2014

"Come, and hear, all ye that fear God, And I will declare what he hath done for my soul." Psalm 66:16, ASV

I got two phone calls today, one on my cell phone and one on my regular house phone. I did not recognize the numbers so I ignored the calls. I did do an Internet search to see if they might have been from someone I should contact. As usual, the search took me to a sight where people can tell about their experiences with those phone numbers. One, it turns out, is from a company that scams people out of their money with their credit cards. They claim to help, but in the end they end up stealing everything that is on the card. The other is from a company that is known for an IRS scam. It is a good thing that I didn't answer the phone, right?

I'm not always so lucky to find such good information about the phone numbers on my caller ID. Many of these companies have learned how to use false numbers. One even recently called me with my own number! They use local numbers, expecting people to pick up even if they don't recognize the number thinking that it might be a friend. They want to gain your trust because they can't get anything out of you if you don't answer the phone.

Unfortunately, I have become very skeptical about every phone call. One day my cell phone rang and I thought the number looked familiar, but I couldn't remember where. It was from out of town and the area code was odd. I decided to answer it anyway, and I was glad I did. It was my sister-in-law. I didn't recognize the area code because their house has changed numbers multiple times since I've moved away from the area, and I keep forgetting the number. We had a wonderful conversation and I was glad I answered.

It is sad that we have to be skeptical. We want to live in a world where we can trust everyone, but we know we can't. We want to be able to be generous when someone asks for help, but too many of those asking are looking for a way to scam us. I get emails daily from people claiming that they have chosen my ministry to be the recipient of a large sum of money. It is usually the widow of a high ranking man in a foreign government. The money is hidden in an American bank and all I have to do is help her get the money and she'll give me a large finder's fee. She trusts me because I'm a Christian and she knows I'll do great things with the money.

The process for receiving the money includes revealing personal information like social security numbers and bank accounts. The information is necessary to work through the paperwork. Unfortunately for those who fall for the scam, the information gives crooks access to your private accounts which they empty before you even realize there's a problem. In the end you get nothing and you lose what you've had.

I often wonder who would fall for one of these schemes, but it is usually someone who is in a desperate straight. Elderly people with mental deficiencies or people who are so financially strapped that they will believe anything that might help are the ones who fall into the trap. Unfortunately, they are the ones who least can afford to be fooled.

There have been scammers during every time and in every place. We live in a world that has been filled with sinners from the beginning of time. Most of us fail in ways that do not do so much damage to innocent people, but we are foolish if we think we are better than those who do try to steal from the elderly and desperate. Our sins, no matter how small, hurt the God who created us.

God knew that we'd fail from the very beginning. He knew that we'd need to be set free from our selfishness. He knew that we would need a Savior. He planned for Jesus that day when Adam and Eve did not believe His Word in the Garden of Eden. Throughout history, God's people fell away from Him, following their own hearts and seeking their own desires, but God never gave up on them. Just when it seemed like it was too late, God reminded them of His promise for a Savior. Over and over again they fell away and over and over again God gave them hope. On that first Christmas when Jesus was born, God fulfilled the promise of hope.

We still sin, and will sin until the day we fully receive the eternal promise that Jesus won for us. We aren't better than those who scam their neighbors. We need Jesus just like those who still follow their own selfish desires by taking advantage of the vulnerable. They have not been transformed by the love and grace of God. While we continue to sin, we are being transformed by God's Holy Spirit to be the people we were created to be. God calls those of us who have faith to live that faith in ways that will change lives and the world. We must take care of those who can't take care of themselves, but we must also share the love and grace of God with those who need the transforming love and grace of Jesus Christ.

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December 23, 2014

"And when they had appointed him a day, they came to him into his lodging in great number; to whom he expounded the matter, testifying the kingdom of God, and persuading them concerning Jesus, both from the law of Moses and from the prophets, from morning till evening. And some believed the things which were spoken, and some disbelieved." Acts 28:23-24, ASV

We usually look at the scriptures for the upcoming Sunday during our Sunday School, but on Sunday I decided that we should read the Christmas story. We'll hear it on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but I thought it would be good for us to share our thoughts as a group. It is a story with which we are extremely familiar; after all we hear it every year. And yet, we rarely study it in depth. Iím not sure it needs the same kind of discussion that many of our passages need, like the parables of Jesus and the letters of Paul.

However, it is good to read it again, to be reminded of what the bible actually tells us about the birth of Jesus. The Nativity story is not found in its entirety in any particular book. We get bits and pieces from different places. Mark doesn't tell us anything about His birth. John looks back, but his story takes us back to the beginning of time. Matthew tells the story more from Joseph's point of view and gives us the tale of the wise men. Luke focuses on Mary, the angels and the shepherds.

Many of the details we recall about the Nativity are not really based on the Biblical accounts. The scriptures tell us that magi came, but it doesn't tell us how many. The names they've been given. Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar, are traditional, but not biblical. The Bible tells us that there was no room at the inn, and that Jesus was placed in a manger, but it really doesn't say He was born in a stable. We assume that Mary rode to Bethlehem on a donkey, but that creature is nowhere to be found in the biblical accounts. We imagine that the wise men visit while Jesus is still in the manger, but some have suggested that they did not arrive for as many as two years.

So much of what we love about the Christmas story is not based on the stories found in the Gospel, but that doesn't make the story any less true. We have to remember that God made promises to Israel throughout her history about the coming of the Messiah. Some of the information that we have are found in the fulfillment of those promises. We assume three wise men because of the three gifts listed in Matthew, but the identification of the wise men as Persian, Indian and Arabian, as we often see in our Nativity sets, may come from the Old Testament prophecy (possibly Isaiah 60.) We can find symbolism in the images that we've come to love, such as the parallels between Jesus arriving in Bethlehem in His mother's womb on a donkey and entering into Jerusalem on a donkey. The donkey is a symbol of a humble king entering the world, so our art and literature has included that image in the Nativity for the same symbolism.

These are good stories; these stories are a way of helping our children love and remember that there is more to Christmas than trees and presents. We see how God had planned all along to send the Savior, and how He prepared His people to know when He had come. The promises of the Old Testament make sense when we see them in the context of the birth of Christ. The salvation that Jesus won for us on the cross would not be any different if there were a thousand magi or just two. He would still have lived and died for us if His mother walked to Bethlehem or if she'd ridden on a chariot.

These details we've come to know and love don't change the story one bit. They give us an image to embrace, an understanding of God's grace that we can see woven into the scriptures from the beginning of time. These images serve as a witness to how God has shown His people the promise during every generation and it gives us a further witness to share with our neighbors. "Come and see how God made this miracle happen..." Some will believe while others reject the story, but those who believe will receive the forgiveness that the Christ who was born to die won for us.

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December 24, 2014

Scriptures for Sunday, December 28, 2014, First Sunday after Christmas: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 111; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40

"I will greatly rejoice in Jehovah, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with a garland, and as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels." Isaiah 61:10, ASV

It is always a little hard writing for the first Sunday of Christmas before we actually celebrate the birth of Christ, and yet the stories for this coming Sunday continue to joy and the wonder that we will experience tonight and tomorrow.

The Gospel text tells us about Joseph and Mary's visit to the Temple in Jerusalem to obey the Law which states that each first born male child should be presented to the Lord. It was there, on the eighth day of His life, that Jesus was circumcised and named. They also offered sacrifices as required by the Law of the Lord. It is likely that Joseph and Mary were among others who were doing the same duties, people from all over the region acting on their faith in obedience to the Law.

Jesus was special, however. They knew He was special; after all He came into this world in the most miraculous manner. Both Joseph and Mary had been visited by the angel Gabriel. Mary was a virgin and yet still had a child. The child was fulfilling the prophecies that gave the people of Israel hope, and His parents saw it happening in their own little corner of the world. Shepherds came to worship Him, sharing stories of angels that led them there. There is nothing usual about the birth of this baby. Mary treasured all this and pondered it in her heart.

There is no question that Mary believed, and yet it is not hard to imagine that this young girl who has just given birth in the most miraculous manner being amazed at everything that is happening to her. She is nobody, why her? Why was she chosen? What will become of her most miraculous child? I don't know about you, but when something really spectacular happens to me, I often wonder how I could be so lucky. "Why me?" is a question we ask not only when something bad happens, but also when something good comes along. Why am I the one blessed with this good thing?

Sometimes the questions even lead to a sense of doubt. We question the goodness; perhaps we even question whether it is real. Mary is among the most faithful of God's chosen people, and yet I have to wonder if even she questioned what was happening. This whole thing was too extraordinary, it couldn't possibly be real. Faithfulness does not mean that we never question or doubt, but that we act on God's promises even when we aren't so sure. Mary treasured every sign from God that validated her trust. The amazing things that were being said about her boy strengthened her faith that this was exactly what she believed it was.

Jesus was surrounded by promises that God had giving to His people throughout their history. God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations, which came true in Jesus. David was promised that his throne would last forever, which came true in Jesus. The book of Isaiah the prophet is filled with promises fulfilled in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is the culmination of God's promises. God spoke much more specific promises to the family of Jesus. Elizabeth and Zechariah were given John, the one who would make way for Jesus. Mary and Joseph were promised the incredible gift of a baby who would truly change the world. Two others were made promises: Simeon and Anna.

We are skeptical about promises. Every ten minutes on our television sets we are bombarded by promises. "Buy our product and you will have the happiest kids, the whitest teeth, or the cleanest clothing. Our product provides the fastest connection, the most reliable service or the cheapest price. With our product, you will be more popular, more beautiful or more intelligent." A promise is defined in Webster's as "an assurance that one will or will not do something." Companies around the world recognize the incredible power of a promise to today's consumers. They spend billions of dollars producing and airing commercials that will attract the greatest number of people to their product. Unfortunately, these promises often go unfulfilled.

Even personal promises often go unfulfilled. I am certain that I failed to keep at least a few promises I made to my children. There will be some children disappointed tomorrow when that toy they wanted is not under the tree. On more than one occasion I promised my children that we'd do something, but life got in the way. We break a promise we've made every time we drive our cars and go over the speed limit or run that red light. We all know the experience of breaking a New Year's resolution. Our own broken promises make us skeptical of other promises.

Despite our doubt, we know God is faith and that He will fulfill all His promises. Our problem isn't usually in trusting God, it is in trusting ourselves. We wonder if we heard the promise or understood it correctly. We worry that it was all a dream or something from our imagination. It surely can't be real, we think. Mary may have had the same doubts.

Today's Gospel story tells about Simeon and Anna. God made them promises, too, and their encounter with the Living Christ just provides us, and Mary, two more confirming signs.

Simeon was a righteous and devout man who had the Holy Spirit on him. We do not know his age, but he is portrayed as older, white haired and wise in appearance. God made him a promise: that he would see the salvation of Israel before he died. One day a couple came into the temple to dedicate their son. Simeon saw the boy and knew God had fulfilled his promise. He praised God and said, "Lord, you now dismiss your servant in peace.Ē Simeon's purpose was to see the Light, which is Christ, and once he saw Jesus he could rest in peace. We do not know what happened to Simeon after that day. I have always assumed he died immediately, but it really does not matter. Here we see the fulfillment of yet another promise and Mary was given another gift to treasure as she pondered the reality of her child.

Perhaps in a way Simeon did die that day. The nation of Israel had certain expectations about the type of Messiah that would come to save them. Simeon was in the temple that day, not because he was waiting for the Messiah but because the Holy Spirit led him there. Imagine his thoughts when he realized he was seeing the salvation of God in the flesh of a poor infant child. Could the Messiah, the king of Israel that will bring salvation to the Jews, really be found in such a humble being? What were his expectations of the promise? Did he believe with unwavering doubt or did he have the question we hear repeatedly throughout the Nativity story, "How can this be?"

Anna also knew God's promises. She was a widow and a prophetess who had not left the temple for decades, spending all her days and nights worshipping and praying. When she saw Mary and Joseph's child, she praised God and told everyone who was waiting for the fulfillment of God's promises that she had seen the Redeemer. How many did she tell? This makes us wonder why more people didn't recognize Jesus when He came thirty three years later.

Why did the Jews doubt when Jesus appeared thirty years later? Anna shared the good news, and the shepherds shared the good news. Perhaps people have not changed that much over these many years. Though we are inundated by promises, I wonder if we are all that different from them when we doubt a promise will be fulfilled. People are people, after all, and we don't believe much without proof. And we put our own expectations on those promises. Jesus, even as a baby, didn't seem like much of a Messiah, but we know about Him because someone had enough faith to share their story. We, too, amidst our doubt and uncertainty, are called to believe that God has, and does, fulfill all His promises.

Even as we share in the joy and the miracle of Christmas, we have to face the lingering doubts of our own relationship with God, and Paul's letter brings these doubts to light. How affectionate is your relationship with God? Is He like a family member with whom you might sit around the dinner table sharing memories of your childhood? Or is the relationship strained and uncomfortable? It is interesting that the scripture for today looks at this relationship through the eyes of slavery. We were once slaves to sin, but now are set free to be sons of God. Yet, we tend to hold on to our sins. We are slaves to those things that keep us from knowing and loving God fully and freely.

Christ came, born of a woman: as human as you and I. But He is something much more. He is the Son of the Living God, as fully divine as He is human. He came to make us sons, setting free those who are burdened by the Law and opening the door so that we might also be adopted. The Kingdom of God belongs to us, we are His heirs. And as heirs we are called to be more than children. We have been adopted to live and laugh and love in that Kingdom for Godís glory. We live in an incredible promise.

We try too hard to fit God's promises into our ideas and expectations. The whole Christmas story is ridiculous; no writer would have created a story with so many miraculous moments because they make it unbelievable. We want God to fit in a box we've created. It was no different for those in the days of Jesus. They were looking for a king, not a man from Nazareth. They were looking for a warrior who would defeat their enemies, not an itinerant preacher who would defeat their self-righteousness. They were looking for David; any stories that might have been passed from Simeon and Anna, then remembered later would make sense only in the context of their expectations. Jesus didn't fit.

David knew that the promise would have to be bigger than our expectations; he had hope that the Messiah would be all that God promised. When considering the work of God we might want to reduce it to a few important tasks like giving daily bread and providing deliverance for those who seek His mighty hand. Yet, David saw that God's work goes even farther than just what we can see happening in the world. He made His wonderful works to be remembered -- passing the message of mercy and grace from generation to generation through faith. God remembers His promises, and if you are a parent you know how difficult a task that can be. He not only remembers but He is faithful. He provides justice and displays His power for the sake of those He loves. It might seem unbelievable, but it is to be believed, for God always keeps His promises.

The lesson for us this first Sunday after Christmas, and every day, is that God remains faithful even when we are not. He does not desert us because we have doubts, He doesn't reject us when we wonder. He fulfills His promises and He even reminds us over and over again that He has spoken. He tells us in the most incredible ways, through the most unexpected people. He reveals Himself to us so that we can see that it wasn't a dream or our imagination. He really has promised these things to us. At Christmas we see the fulfillment of the greatest gift, our Lord Jesus Christ, and the stories of those who were there help us to know that it is real.

The shepherds, Simeon and Anna were sent by God to strengthen Mary's faith. The life of her child would be extraordinary, and not always pleasant. She would see her baby rejected, persecuted, beaten and crucified, a promise fulfilled that no mother would want to hear. Yet Mary treasured every word and sign; she pondered them, but she trusted God's faithfulness even through any uncertainty. We can do the same. Our praise is our witness to the greatness of the God who has kept His promises for His people.

In this Christmas season and in all the days to come, we can trust that God will continue to be faithful even when we aren't; He will do what He has promised to do. This gives us reason to rejoice and to praise God today, tomorrow and always.

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December 25, 2014

"And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth." John 1:14

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. On the sixth day, He created man, the crown of His creation. He was created in the image of God. Throughout the generations, man has tried to understand what it means to be in God's image, but too often we explain it by making God in our own image. Artists have imagined Him as a wise and bearded old man on a throne. The scriptures describe God in many different ways: as a shepherd, a king, a woman, a hen, a lion and a spirit.

The most shocking image of all is God incarnate in Jesus Christ. God came into our midst; He sent His Son to take on human flesh, to live and die for the sake of the world. It is shocking enough that He came in flesh, but God came into the world in less than ideal circumstances. He did not arrive as the son of a king or in a priestly household; He came as the son of Mary and Joseph who were people of no import. Mary was very young, a virgin and her pregnancy was a source of gossip and abuse. We know little about Joseph except that he was a simple carpenter; it is unlikely that Joseph was wealthy or powerful. Jesus was born into a world of political and religious upheaval, into a country that was oppressed by a superior power.

The Christmas story is the outrageous image of God breaking into the world, not as a white haired king to rule, but as an innocent and helpless child who lived and loved and learned about the world just like you and I. Yet that infant was far different. He was not another human, born into a cruel and chaotic world. He was, and is, the Word in flesh. The whole world was created by God for a purpose and as we look all around us we can see God being glorified by everything that He made. Yet, through it all God chose to redeem the world by taking on the very image of the creature that has done the most damage - the one that was created in His image but turned away. God came in human flesh to save the world.

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December 26, 2014

"And there shall come forth a shoot out of the stock of Jesse, and a branch out of his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of Jehovah shall rest upon him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of Jehovah. And his delight shall be in the fear of Jehovah; and he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes, neither decide after the hearing of his ears; but with righteousness shall he judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall smite the earth with the rod of his mouth; and with the breath of his lips shall he slay the wicked. And righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist, and faithfulness the girdle of his loins. And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them. And the cow and the bear shall feed; their young ones shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder's den. They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of Jehovah, as the waters cover the sea." Isaiah 11:1-9, ASV

Did you survive the aftermath of Christmas Day? Did you manage to get through all the wrapping paper, eat all the treats, and visit with all the relatives? Did you take that mid-afternoon nap to catch up on all the lost sleep from the past few weeks? We did all of the above. Today we are putting together new gifts, finding a place to keep others, clearing out the leftovers. We will head out this afternoon to pick up some Christmas clearance and stock the refrigerator with normal food.

It seems as though Christmas is over, doesn't it? There are no more presents under the tree. The celebration may go on since the holiday means an extra long weekend for many, but Christmas is over for many. Some may even remove their Christmas decorations in the next day or so; we will begin seeing Christmas trees on the curb. Thoughts will turn away from faith to the end of the year; Christmas shows are over and the television will be filled with stories about the best of 2014 and predictions for 2015. People are already talking about their New Year resolutions.

It is sad that we rush through one holiday and move on to the next. Here's the thing, you've heard of the twelve days of Christmas, right? Well, it isn't just a song. The church continues to celebrate Christmas through twelfth night, the night before Epiphany. Today is just the second day of Christmas. Do you think Mary and Joseph were done celebrating the birth of their baby so quickly? They were recovering from the trip and Mary was recovering from the labor, but the joy they felt at the birth of Jesus did not end with the setting sun. Mary still had many things to treasure and ponder about the little boy that had been entrusted to her care.

The world around us might be finished with Christmas, joining Santa for a long rest from the festivities, but we are not from this world. We join Mary and Joseph in the intimate embrace of a family getting to know one another. It isn't a time of wild parties, it is a time when a mother and father get used to having a baby in their midst. It is noisy with baby cries. They are not dressed in their finest, but have bags under their eyes from lack of sleep. We don't have to listen to the cries of the child or survive the sleepless nights, but we can take this time to build our own relationship with the Christ.

We have talked repeatedly about how the manger means nothing without the cross, but the Christmas season gives us time to enjoy the baby. Lent, Passion and Easter will come soon enough; let's savor the joy of new birth, of the baby who has come into this world to be King and Savior. Let's giggle together over the gurgling noises and the amazement as the child begins to see the world in which He lives. Let's ponder with Mary the incredible things that are being said about her child. Let's love the baby for just a moment, these twelve days, before we move on to the realities of the world in which we live.

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December 29, 2014

"Jesus therefore said unto them again, Verily, verily, I say unto you, I am the door of the sheep. All that came before me are thieves and robbers: but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door; by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and go out, and shall find pasture. The thief cometh not, but that he may steal, and kill, and destroy: I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly." John 10:1-10, ASV

"On the fifth day of Christmas my true love gave to me, five gold rings." The song "The Twelve Days of Christmas reminds us that Christmas has not ended because the presents are unwrapped. According to the Church year, we celebrate until Epiphany. I suppose in many ways it is hard to continue celebrating when the world has moved on to something new, but at least in our hearts and our home we can continue to think about the baby who was born for our sake.

Today we remember that He was born to die and in doing so He calls us to a life of selfless sacrifice for the sake of others. Last week I talked about how we should take this time to get to know the baby, to immerse ourselves into the intimacy of the holy family as they got to know each other. In many churches, the focus in yesterday's worship was on the family and the joy of having children among us. This focus continues us on the happy feelings of Christmas and the hope for the future.

Unfortunately, the festivals and feast days of Christmas are not always so joyous. In the past few days the Church has looked at some of the most powerful martyrdom stories in Christianity. On December 26th we celebrated the life of St. Stephen who was the first Christian martyr. His story is found in the book of Acts, and we see him standing firmly in his faith in Jesus Christ while those around him rejected the Lord and falsely accused Stephen of blasphemy. Stephen was stoned to death after he gave a stirring sermon about the faith of their forefathers and how they lived to see the day of the Lord which had come. Stephen faced the stoning with faith, looking to heaven and echoing the call of Jesus for forgiveness. "Do not hold this sin against them," he said.

December 27th saw the celebration of St. John the Divine, the writer of the Gospel, the letters and the book of Revelation. Now John did not die a martyr's death, but in his life we see the faithfulness of a man who patiently endured the persecution of those who did not know Jesus. John offers to us, through all his writings, an invitation to an intimate and eternal relationship with the God who loves us. John, who was the youngest of the apostles, knew that relationship in a very real way. He dwelled in the presence of God when Jesus was with them and then for the rest of his life.

December 28th gave us the story of the Holy Innocents. This story is one of the most horrific stories of the Christian church year. Herod, fearful of having his throne usurped by the king promised by Old Testament prophecy, sent his soldiers to the most likely place where he would be born. He was tipped off by the wise men of a sign in the heavens indicating that a king had been born. The soldiers went to Bethlehem and killed all the boys less than two years old. We picture this scene as a massacre of thousands with piles of babies and blood running in the streets. The real number is probably not very high, perhaps a dozen or so. That doesn't make it any less tragic: even one baby lost to the selfish fears of a puppet king is too many. The Holy Innocents tell us the story of those who suffer because of the sins of others and remind us that sin can, and does, bring harm to others.

The martyr for today jumps us ahead in history to the Middle ages and the reign of King Henry II. Thomas Becket of Canterbury was a loyal subject and chancellor to Henry. As chancellor, Thomas agreed with Henry's policies, and that's probably why he was appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury. Upon selection to this important position in the church, which he did not want, Thomas was changed radically. He did not fall for the trappings of power or office, living seriously and refusing any compromise over the rights of the Church. On December 29th, 1170, four soldiers who thought they had the blessing of the king, murdered Thomas Becket in Canterbury cathedral. Henry is quoted as saying, "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?" and the soldiers took him up on the suggestion. Following the example of martyrs before him, Thomas sited the names of those archbishops who had been martyred in Canterbury before him (St. Denis and St. Alphege) and then commended his spirit to the Lord.

All these that we remember today will have died on way or another. In the midst of this joyous season, when we are still hearing of the gifts for the twelve days, we are reminded once again that death is as much a part of our lives of faith as is life. Jesus Himself was born to die, and those who follow Him are called to lives in which we have no fear of death. Fear of death keeps us from being faithful to the God who willingly laid His own life on the line for our sakes. We have nothing to fear no matter what kind of death we face because the Lord has promised that we will have abundant and eternal life with Him.

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December 30, 2014

"I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service. And be not fashioned according to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, and ye may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God. For I say, through the grace that was given me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think as to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to each man a measure of faith." Romans 12:1-3, ASV

We have reached the end of another year. I've already seen numerous pieces looking back over the past year, pointing out the good things and the bad. We will see stories about those who died, what has been accomplished and other changes in the world. A number of my friends on Facebook have been posting how desperate they are for this year to be over since it has been nothing but trouble for them. Others are looking forward to what the coming year has in store.

One of my favorite humorists has written a lengthy article, as he does every year, about everything that happened month by month. Dave Barry always finds a way to make you see the light side of even the worst news. Take, for instance, the disappearance of the Malaysian airplane that has still not be found. Dave Barry wrote that 2014 was a year of mysteries including, "A huge airliner simply vanished, and to this day nobody has any idea what happened to it, despite literally thousands of hours of intensive speculation on CNN." The disappearance and probable death of the people on board is tragic, but even more so may have been the extensive coverage about the plane that led to nowhere.

It is good to look back, but it is especially good for us to look back and laugh at our failures. It helps us to take ourselves a little less seriously, to realize that most of our problems are really not that bad. It helps us to keep life in perspective, to realize that our attitude is half the battle. Most of those people who have posted their desperation for this year to be over have not really had anything out of the ordinary happen to them. I understand; we want the difficult times to pass quickly so that we can get to better times. However, sometimes the difficult times are made more difficult because we face them with fear, pity, frustration, confusion and anger. Two people can experience the exact same thing, but the one who lives by faith will experience it with hope and peace and will see how God is transforming something in us to make us better.

We aren't only looking back; we are also looking forward. We are thinking about what the new year will mean for our lives. Many people are thinking about resolutions. I've gone back and forth with the whole idea of resolutions. Sometimes I think they are a good idea, sometimes I think it is just a waste of time since most of our resolutions are broken within months, or weeks, or days. I heard a radio commentator say something that really made sense today: resolutions are good because they remind us that we need to be transformed. None of us are perfect, we all have things about us that need to change. We might fail; as a matter of fact, we probably will, and that's ok. Recognizing our need for change is half the battle and accepting our imperfections is the first victory.

The bad stuff that happens that is not a laughing matter. Death and illness, loss of job and friends, natural disasters and tragedies should not be taken lightly. However, as we look back over the last year, let's remember that there were lots of reasons to rejoice. As we look forward, let's remember that we aren't perfect and that there is much about our lives that can be changed. With this attitude we can see the bright side, laugh at the foolishness and face anything that will come in 2015, good or bad.

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December 31, 2014

Scriptures for Sunday, January 4, 2015, Second Sunday after Christmas: 1 Kings 3:4-15; Psalm 119:97-104; Ephesians 1:3-14; Luke 2:40-52

"And it came to pass, after three days they found him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both hearing them, and asking them questions: and all that heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers." Luke 2:46-47, ASV

Over the past day I have been acutely aware of all those people who are saying "Don't make resolutions" which is funny after my devotion yesterday reminding us how important it is to see the reality that we aren't perfect. We may fail to live up to our resolutions, but that's no reason to keep from making them. Resolutions help us to see the things about ourselves that need to change. It is a humbling experience, but also transforming. Even if we fail to change, we have seen ourselves clearly, the first step to true transformation.

See, New Year's resolutions tend to be overwhelming. We set our goals too high to attain, and we rarely look at the deeper roots of the things that need to be changed about our lives. We resolve to lose weight, but we don't look for the reasons we over eat. We resolve to be better about money, but we don't consider the bad habits that have put us into financial straits. Our resolutions sound transformative, but they usually just touch the surface problems or change the appearance of our lives rather than truly change us in a lasting way. That's why we fail.

Losing weight and setting our finances right are good things, but what we really need to do is to face the emotional and spiritual reasons we over eat and over spend. We have to look more deeply at ourselves, and in that search for the truth about ourselves we will recognize our need for God. We try to make these New Year transformations on our own. Sometimes we look to the help of our friends. We rarely put God in the mix, but it is with His help that we'll truly succeed.

The Prayer of the Day for our church this coming Sunday (taken from Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy 1894) reads, "Almighty and everlasting God, direct our actions according to your good pleasure, that in the same of your beloved Son, we might be made to abound in good works." The transformation that comes from God will not only help us become better people, it will help us become the people that God has chosen to do His work in the world. Our resolutions are so often self-centered, seeking change so that we'll look better or feel better, but God calls us to lives that are better for the sake of others. When we follow the ways of God, transformed by His grace and Wisdom, we will more willingly serve the world in His name.

Wisdom. That's what this Sunday is all about, and perhaps that is what the New Year should be all about. Isn't it funny how January 1st is really just another day, but it is special because of how we have divided the years. There are other calendars around the world that are based on different factors. They follow the moon phases or the seasons more closely. We have defined January 1st as a day of new beginnings, yet the date itself is not at a time of newness. The winter weather means everything is dark and most of the plants have died for the season. It doesn't even line up to the first day of winter. Perhaps April 1st would make more sense, when the new grass is sprouting and the flowers are blossoming. Or perhaps our New Year should begin on March 20th, the first day of spring.

But we have made January 1st a day when we commit to a new year, a new body, a new life. We put so much pressure to make and keep those commitments, and that's why we so often fail. Wisdom calls us to think about this differently. Solomon understood the importance of seeing things from the right perspective. He could have asked for anything, and God would have provided it for him. Yet, Solomon didn't ask for health or wealth. He asked for wisdom. God was pleased and granted him not only wisdom, but the rest.

Solomon was humble; he knew that he was not qualified to lead the people of Israel. The nation had grown so great, fulfilling the promise given to Abraham so many generations earlier, that God's people would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. How could a boy, barely twenty years old, lead a people so great? We might think that health and wealth are exactly what we need to accomplish our purpose, but Solomon knew that he needed something much different. He needed wisdom, and with wisdom came the rest.

The psalmist seeks wisdom, too. Psalm 119 is a devotional on the Word of God. It is divided into twenty-two stanzas, each focusing on a specific letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Each line of each stanza begins, in Hebrew, with the letter of that stanza. Throughout the psalm, the writer repeatedly uses eight different Hebrew terms, which can be translated as "law," "statutes," "precepts," "commands," "laws," "decrees," "word," and "promise." Though these may seem redundant, there are subtle but distinct differences. The psalmist recognizes the importance of knowing the Word of God and living it obediently.

I often joke about my gray hair being a sign of wisdom. It is a signal that I've lived a long life, and that I've experienced many things which gives me knowledge about how the world works. It might be somewhat true, but the psalmist writes, "I understand more than the aged, because I have kept thy precepts." Wisdom is not necessarily something for the old; the young, like Solomon, can be wise. Wisdom comes to those who seek God, who humble themselves before Him and who live according to God's Word.

It is that kind of wisdom we see in today's Gospel store. Jesus, only twelve years old, sits with the elders in the Temple to discuss the things of God. It is hard for us to imagine a twelve year old theologian, but that's exactly what Jesus was in this story. He was sharing with the learned men His thoughts and understanding about God. As the Son of the Living God, Jesus had more knowledge than the others. In this story, though, we see Him also being humble before the elders, asking them questions. They were amazed, not only that He was interested, but that He knew the right questions to ask and that He had an understanding far beyond His years. Jesus had the wisdom that is more than knowledge and experience.

In the next few days we will be asking one another, "What is your New Year's resolution?" but perhaps we are asking the wrong question. Perhaps we are seeking the wrong transformation. Solomon knew that he needed more than health and wealth. He needed wisdom. We also need wisdom as we go into the New Year, as we look at the reality of our imperfection and think about ways that we need to be transformed. What changes are needed in our hearts and spirits to become the people we know God wants us to be?

We are made citizens of the kingdom of heaven, children of the King, through our baptism into Christ. Yet, we still must live in this world, foreigners living in the midst of the sin and darkness that surrounds those who have not yet heard God's Word. It would be very easy for us to say that it is not our problem, why take the risks necessary to share the Gospel? After all, it is dangerous business being witnesses for the Christ who is hated by the world. However, our Lord has given us all we need to take those risks to share His Word so that they too might hear and believe. Jesus Christ was born to die so that we could live forever, and now He calls us to die to self so that we can live for others.

That's why on this last day of 2014, with the scriptures for the first Sunday in 2015, we are asking ourselves the better questions. Rather than resolving to change, let us resolve to seek Wisdom and listen as God leads us in the ways that we really need to be transformed. We might be able to fix the surface things, making changes on the outside, but God will help us change from the inside out. As we seek God and ask Him for wisdom, we'll receive that and everything else will come with it.

In the beginning, God spoke the world into being. He named the sun, moon and stars and put them into motion. He called out to the water and it separated, creating the oceans and mountains. From that day on, God has constantly expanded His sphere of influence over the world. He began with one man named Adam. They He gave Adam a wife. Later He called Abraham into a relationship, followed by Isaac and Jacob. Jacob became Israel and God established a bond with His chosen people. Then when they failed to live according to His Word, God sent His Son to bring redemption and reconciliation. This grace was given not only for His chosen people, but for the entire world.

Paul reminds us that we have everything we need to live according to God's Word. Sometimes we think we know what we want, or need, but we would do well to see Solomon and Jesus in light of our own spiritual journeys. They were young, but they had the mind of God. They were humble and willing to learn, to seek wisdom. They understood what was truly needed to do what God was calling them to do.

We often think of Jesus as some extraordinary child. Though Jesus was God incarnate, He was also fully man. We should not think of Him as the perfect child, never crying or getting dirty. He needed his diapers changed like every other baby. He fell when He was learning to walk, skinned His knees when He played. Iím sure He dragged mud into the house after jumping in puddles, just like the other kids. He went through the terrible twos and every other stage of life, learning and growing every step along the way.

Jesus was different, though. He was the Word in flesh, the physical manifestation of the Lord God Almighty. His Father was the Creator of all things. When Jesus' mother taught Him the scriptures, as was practiced in Jewish homes, the words had a deeper, fuller meaning for Him. He understood what they said. His mother and father loved the Lord and they knew His word, but He needed more. During a visit to Jerusalem, Jesus sought the learned men of the Temple to test His knowledge. He sought the teachers who studied scriptures to learn from them and to share His own understanding.

Jesus overstepped the bounds of His parents' trust by staying in Jerusalem without their knowledge. They did not fully understand their son Jesus and His purpose on earth. To them, He was a twelve year old who still needed their guidance and direction. When they questioned Him, He explained that He needed to be in His Father's house. Despite all that had happened to Jesus from conception to that moment, they still did not fully understand.

Though Jesus was in many ways an ordinary child, He was also extraordinary. He was the child of Mary and Joseph, but He was the Son of God. The stories of His life are filled with unusual circumstances - visits from shepherds and magi, a journey to a foreign land and then home again, prophets who sing for joy at His presence, and a lesson in the temple. Mary, His mother, watched Him grow through the normal phases of life, but she also witnessed all these things. She treasured and pondered them in her heart, and encouraged her son as He grew into His mission and ministry.

We aren't Jesus. However, as children of the Father, we can be like Jesus. We can seek His wisdom and He will give it to us. We can ask the right questions that will not only see change on the surface of our lives, but will be transformative to the very depths of our souls. Then as we live according to God's Word, we will see the changes that will not only make us healthier and more responsible, but even more so, more faithful to God's intent for our lives. It will take a lifetime and we will fail time and again, but God will continue to work in us and through us into the people He created and redeemed us to be. Until that day, let us be humble and faithful, recognizing our need for God's grace and constantly seeking the word and will of God for our lives.

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