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.
Scripture on this page taken from the World English Bible which belongs to the public domain.
A WORD FOR TODAY, December 2017
December 1, 2017
“The heavens declare the glory of God. The expanse shows his handiwork. Day after day they pour out speech, and night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard. Their voice has gone out through all the earth, their words to the end of the world. In them he has set a tent for the sun, which is as a bridegroom coming out of his room, like a strong man rejoicing to run his course. His going out is from the end of the heavens, his circuit to its ends; there is nothing hidden from its heat. Yahweh’s law is perfect, restoring the soul. Yahweh’s testimony is sure, making wise the simple. Yahweh’s precepts are right, rejoicing the heart. Yahweh’s commandment is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of Yahweh is clean, enduring forever. Yahweh’s ordinances are true, and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yes, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the extract of the honeycomb. Moreover by them is your servant warned. In keeping them there is great reward. Who can discern his errors? Forgive me from hidden errors. Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins. Let them not have dominion over me. Then I will be upright. I will be blameless and innocent of great transgression. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, Yahweh, my rock, and my redeemer.” Psalm 19, WEB
Advent begins Sunday, but many Advent calendars begin today. Over the years we have used many different ways of counting down the days until Christmas. We had a storybook calendar with stories of the journey to Bethlehem. We’ve had pocket calendars with candy or small toys. We’ve had chocolate calendars with surprises behind doors to open each day. We have used a variety of different Advent devotionals with themes that are both religious and secular. I’ve followed different patterns in my writing over the years, using themes such as Christmas around the World and the Jesse Tree. Some of these Advent calendars are simply ways to help the children to see that Christmas is coming, but that it is not yet here. Others help us focus on the coming of the King.
Advent is filled with so many preparations for the upcoming holiday. We are decorating our homes, baking cookies and buying presents. We can’t possibly wait until Christmas Day to do all these things, so we mix Advent with Christmas and nearly forget that the next few weeks are meant to be a time of preparing our hearts for the coming of our Savior. In the earliest days of the celebration of Christ’s birth, Advent was a time of repentance. It is hard to remember our need for the Christ when we are so focused on the glitz and glitter of Christmas.
Unfortunately, in the next few weeks many will look for happiness and inspiration in the Christmas lights and pretty packages. They’ll try to find joy at parties. Those who do not believe in God will see our celebrations and never really understand what it means to the believer that Jesus was born. They may be looking for something they can’t define, but do not realize they’ll never find it under the tree. The psalmist tells us to look toward the heavens and hear God’s voice in His creation. We can see Him in the flowers and know that the Creator designed each one out of love for you. We can look toward the rivers and know that the waters flow endlessly to bring life to the earth, like the water of life that flows from our Lord Jesus Christ.
The psalmist then goes on to remind us to see God in His Word. His Law is perfect; His Testimony is true. His Word restores our soul. December makes us think of many things; some of it is unselfish, but much is self centered as we write our wish lists and search for happiness in parties. It is fun to find a piece of chocolate hidden behind a paper door or add another ornament to a Christmas tree, but let’s remember that Advent is about more than counting the days until we get to open presents. It is a time to look toward Jesus Himself, in scripture and revelation, and know that God is not found in glitz and glitter and self-centeredness, but rather in the hearts of those who humble themselves and seek God’s grace.
“God spoke to Noah and to his sons with him, saying, ‘As for me, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you: the birds, the livestock, and every animal of the earth with you, of all that go out of the ship, even every animal of the earth. I will establish my covenant with you: All flesh will not be cut off any more by the waters of the flood. There will never again be a flood to destroy the earth.’ God said, ‘This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I set my rainbow in the cloud, and it will be a sign of a covenant between me and the earth. When I bring a cloud over the earth, that the rainbow will be seen in the cloud, and I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh, and the waters will no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. The rainbow will be in the cloud. I will look at it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.’ God said to Noah, ‘This is the token of the covenant which I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.’” Genesis 9:8-16, WEB
God created the world and everything in it. It didn’t take very long before Adam and Eve failed to live up to His expectations. They were sent out into the world to be fruitful and multiply. Generations passed and the people lost sight of the God who created them. They did evil and God regretted creating mankind. He called Noah to build an ark, gather two of every kind of animal and load the boat with his family. Then God made it rain until He destroyed everything but those on the ark.
After a time, God remembered Noah and his family. He stopped the rainwater and blew across the waters. The ark came to rest on dry ground and God ordered Noah and his family to leave the ark and reestablish the earth. The animals were freed and Noah built an altar of thanksgiving to God for His mercy. Though God knew the hearts of men would be inclined toward evil, even from childhood, He promised to never destroy the earth by flood again. He repeated His command to be fruitful and multiply and He gave them meat to eat. Then God established a new covenant with His people; the rainbow was the sign of that covenant.
And though God’s people repeatedly returned to their wicked ways, generation after generation, God remained faithful. I cannot look at a rainbow without thinking of the love and mercy of God. We still deserve nothing but His wrath, but He still gives us this reminder that He is always faithful. Now, during this time of Advent we await the coming of the Messiah, the final way of salvation to His children. The Apostle Peter compares the waters of the flood to the waters of baptism, and through God’s grace we are joined together with all those of every generation who are saved by the love and mercy of God, just like Noah.
“I speak not by way of commandment, but as proving through the earnestness of others the sincerity also of your love. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that you through his poverty might become rich. I give a judgment in this: for this is expedient for you, who were the first to start a year ago, not only to do, but also to be willing. But now complete the doing also, that as there was the readiness to be willing, so there may be the completion also out of your ability. For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what you have, not according to what you don’t have. For this is not that others may be eased and you distressed, but for equality. Your abundance at this present time supplies their lack, that their abundance also may become a supply for your lack; that there may be equality. As it is written, ‘He who gathered much had nothing left over, and he who gathered little had no lack.’” 2 Corinthians 8:8-15, WEB
God has a way of making things even. During the Exodus, God provided the people with meat and manna so that they could survive. He commanded that they gather only what their family could eat in one day; anything left over became infested with worms. This was to test Israel’s trust that God would provide them with their daily bread. Some didn’t trust Him, but they learned quickly that the leftovers were worthless. Manna for today was enough. They learned to obey and to share. “The children of Israel did so, and gathered some more, some less. When they measured it with an omer, he who gathered much had nothing over, and he who gathered little had no lack. They gathered every man according to his eating.” (Exodus 16:17-18, WEB) God ensured that everyone had enough to eat.
Advent is a time of preparing our hearts for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. It has historically been a time of repentance. It is hard for us to see it these days with the glitz and glitter of our Christmas preparations. We are so busy putting up twinkle lights and baking sweets that we forget that there are many who cannot do the same in their homes.
There is a woman in San Antonio who is known as Elf Louise. Louis Locker was a freshman at a local university when she wanted to help a family have a nice Christmas. She convinced the Post Master to allow her to read through the “Dear Santa” letters they had gathered. Louise wanted to find a child to help. She saw a lot of letters from kids who wanted the latest toys, but then she found one that read, “‘Dear Santa, I know the only reason you’ve never come to our house is because we’ve never written.’” The child asked for presents for her mom and siblings, something they had never had. Louise continued to read and discovered other children for whom Christmas was not just a quest for more stuff. By the end of the day, Louise had the letters of thirteen children.
She had very little money and her family was not wealthy, but they took on the challenge of finding 200 presents for 65 children in just two days. They searched their own home and found things to give, but through her persistence managed to create a miracle with the help of some friends. That happened in 1969, and the Elf Louise Project has continued every year since; they have delivered gifts to more than a million children. Louise has had to struggle through many difficulties over the past nearly fifty years, as has the charity, but somehow God has provided Christmas joy to many children through the generosity of people with abundance.
As we prepare our homes for Christmas, let us remember to think about our abundance and those who do not have so much. There are plenty of opportunities at this time of year to share what we have. God uses our abundance so that others with less will have enough. He doesn’t take away and give to others, but rather calls us to be generous with what we have for their sake. We don’t have to spend hours reading through the “Dear Santa” letters at the Post Office to find someone; there are plenty of organizations who do that hard work for us.
How are you going to let God use you this holiday season? We can choose an angel off an angel tree or buy a toy to put in the Toys for Tots bin. We may know someone who is struggling this year that can’t afford a Christmas tree. The first responders who are always on call and face danger on a daily basis enjoy sweet surprises. A neighbor who does not have faith needs to hear the story of Jesus. Generosity does not need to be a struggle for God is able to make things even. He can take our abundance to fill someone else’s need, ensuring that everyone has enough.
Scriptures for Sunday, December 10, 2017, Second Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8
“The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God stands forever.” Isaiah 40:8, WEB
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. 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. The Nativity was not important when Mark wrote. Mark put down the vital facts. Many have suggested 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 was younger than the disciples; he was a boy overhearing their conversations.
What do you do when you gather with family after the loss of someone you love? You tell stories. So did they. 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. It began as an oral tale and was eventually written onto paper so that it would not be lost to time or to death.
Unfortunately, people were dying. 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.
Are you 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, “patient with us.” 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. 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 was 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 comfortably to Jerusalem; and call out to her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received of Yahweh’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, “The grass withers, the flower fades, because Yahweh’s breath blows on it. Surely the people are like grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God stands 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.
“Behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. He came in the Spirit into the temple. When the parents brought in the child, Jesus, that they might do concerning him according to the custom of the law, then he received him into his arms, and blessed God, and said, ‘Now you are releasing your servant, Master, according to your word, in peace; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared before the face of all peoples; a light for revelation to the nations, and the glory of your people Israel.’ Joseph and his mother were marveling at the things which were spoken concerning him, and Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary, his mother, ‘Behold, this child is set for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which is spoken against. Yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.’” Luke 2:25-35, WEB
“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.” We are constantly bombarded with promises on our televisions, our computers and even on our phones.
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 every year producing and airing commercials that will attract the greatest number of people to purchase their product. Unfortunately, these promises often go unfulfilled. Contractors promise that work will be done perfectly in a certain amount of time; it usually takes at least double that and never quite lives up to expectations. We have become so conditioned to the probability that promises will be broken, that we take, and make, them lightly. Even a promise as important as marriage is often entered into with the understanding, “If it doesn’t work, we’ll just get a divorce.”
There is one who does not take His promises lightly. Eight days after the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph took Him to the temple to present Him to the Lord. Waiting there, with the Holy Spirit upon him, was a man named Simeon. God had promised him that he would see the coming of the Messiah. When Simeon took Jesus in his arms, to circumcise Him according to the Law of Moses he praised God.
God has made many promises. He promised Noah and the world that He would no longer destroy the whole world by water. He promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. He promised David that his kingdom would rule forever. This final promise was fulfilled in Christ Jesus, born from the line of David, and whose birth, death and resurrection has made those who believe in Him heirs to the Kingdom of God. The world takes promises lightly, but God does not. We can be assured that whatever He has promised, He will fulfill.
“This is the message which we have heard from him and announce to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him and walk in the darkness, we lie, and don’t tell the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ, his Son, cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us the sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we haven’t sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” 1 John 1:5-10, WEB
It snowed in South Texas last night. We only got an inch or two, but we got enough snow to cover the grass and cause icy roads this morning. It was a surprise; the weathermen did not expect it at all. They called for a few flurries north of us, but they did not expect anything to stick and certainly not to fall so far south. The temperatures were far colder than forecast, so many families were out in the darkness covering pipes and plants because of the expected hard freeze. It was below freezing for several hours all over our area.
The problem is never the snow; the problem is always the ice that forms. The ground is still warm in Texas, so the snow melted immediately. Unfortunately, structures like bridges tend to be colder than roads built on the earth. The greatest threat this morning was black ice on the highway ramps around the city. The most used ramps were treated, but the storm came so suddenly they were unable to take care of all the bridges. That became a problem for more than a dozen cars early this morning. All it takes is one car and within seconds everyone following end up in a pile of twisted metal. The ramp was four cars wide, and in the middle of the pile-up four cars were wedged in a line, with one car facing the wrong direction. I don’t know how it happened, but it took hours to clean up all those cars. The people in those wedged cars could not even get out of their cars without help.
It doesn’t take much to create chaos; just one slip and everyone who followed were affected. We think there are victimless sins, or that there are sins that just affect our own person, but the reality is that all sin affects others. One slip and the chaos that follows will cause problems for others in our lives.
Take, for example, the mistake of a cashier. The sales people at cash registers at this time of year are extremely stressed and mistakes happen. Items are not properly scanned or change is wrong. If you willingly take advantage of that person’s mistake, you are sinning against them. It might not seem like a big deal. An extra quarter is not going to hurt anyone, right? Actually, that quarter would mean a short drawer and it could cause that cashier to be fired. Then their family will be affected; they may not be able to pay rent or buy groceries. Taking that extra quarter is a sin, it is stealing. And that small slip can change the life of a family.
These examples all began with an accident or a mistake, which we don’t really think of as sin. However, we have to remember that we are all sinners who do not always do what we should. The ice is definitely to blame, but the driver was probably driving too fast for the conditions, as were all who followed. The cashier’s mistake was not on purpose, but they are probably not paying attention as they should. The same is true of those who walk out of the store with the extra quarter. We are careless and our carelessness affects the world in which we live. We are called to live life in a way that we do not cause others pain.
We are reminded at this time of year that we are sinners in need of a Savior. There may be many reasons why we have accidents and make mistakes, but we should also consider how our carelessness affects those who follow us. What is most amazing about our Lord is that His mercy is great for those who recognize their sinfulness and who admit that even the smallest failures are sins against Him. We are in the darkness when we seek excuses instead of pondering our role in the pain we have caused to others. But we are in the light when we admit our carelessness and accept the responsibility for the chaos we have caused.
“You are the salt of the earth, but if the salt has lost its flavor, with what will it be salted? It is then good for nothing, but to be cast out and trodden under the feet of men.” Matthew 5:13, WEB
We are indeed sinners in need of a Savior, and we do not always realize the impact even the smallest transgressions can have on others. Advent is a time for confessing our sins as we wait and prepare for the coming of Jesus Christ. Yet, we don’t just make a negative impact on the world. We can have a positive influence on our neighbors. As Christians, we are called and gifted to do what we can to glorify God by making the world a better place.
You have been bought at great price, by the blood of the Lamb of God. You have been given the gift of true life because of His love for you. He has also given you many gifts, which are to be used to His glory. By His power you are called to speak His Word into the world, to share His love and His truth with all those who you meet along the way. What good are you if you do nothing with the gifts of God? He has wonderful plans for you. You have been blessed to be a blessing. You are salt.
Salt is a very stable chemical, and it is only by a chemical reaction that it can lose its saltiness. However, it has been discovered that some salt, especially that which is harvested from marshes along the seashore, can lose its saltiness when it is in contact with the ground or is exposed to rain and sun. It isn’t that the salt itself loses its saltiness, but that the salt is contaminated with impurities collected with it. It is likely that this is what happened to the salt that they ate in Jesus’ day, as their salt generally came from the shore of the Dead Sea.
The disciples knew the importance of salt, its rarity, its significance, its value. They also knew that if salt were left drying too long on the side of the sea, it became useless. They could not keep impure salt in the house, and they could not throw it into the fields or gardens because it would wreak havoc on the growth of the plants. It was not just tasteless; it was dangerous, and good only to be trampled underfoot, so it was thrown into the streets.
Jesus warned the disciples that they have a purpose and that they should not wait around too long before they go out to do His work. See, we are tempted to wait too long. We want to be ready. We think we need to be smarter, to know the scriptures better, and to overcome our sins. We think we need to be perfect to go out into the world to share the Gospel message, but Jesus warned the disciples that if they wait too long they will no longer be of value. While they are trying to make things right in their own lives, they succumb to cares and worries of the world. Or they fall for the temptations that abound. Or they conform to the ways of the world around them. These are the impurities that make us, like salt, worthless.
We are reminded during Advent to confess our sins and we are made new by His forgiveness. In our new life we have a calling to take God’s grace to the world. This is a great time to glorify God with our words and our actions. We don’t need to make grand gestures; there are a million little things we can do during this season to share God’s grace and make a difference. We don’t put a pound of salt on our food; just a sprinkling makes a difference. But, God calls us to salt the world with kindness and grace, and Jesus warns us not to wait. Today is the day to be a blessing.
“In all things I gave you an example, that so laboring you ought to help the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” Acts 20:35, WEB
I spent the better part of last evening and a part of this morning working on our Christmas cards. Yes, despite being connected to most of our family and friends online, we still send Christmas cards. I don’t know about you, but I am thrilled at this time of year that there is mail in our box that isn’t an advertisement or a bill. I love to receive the pretty cards, read the newsletters, and see the family photos. Sadly, those Christmas cards are the only connection we have to some of our friends, but it is nice to know they still think of us.
I usually find the task a bit tedious; writing the same greeting and signature dozens of times is not very exciting. However, I really enjoyed addressing the envelopes. It was an opportunity to think about those friends. I made a list of people for whom I am going to write a personal note in the next few weeks or in the new year. I wondered about their health and thought about their struggles. I remembered their kids, knowing that they are grown adults now, just like mine, but I still see them as children. I’m connecting with them via the cards, but the task made me connect with them in prayer.
We don’t get as many Christmas cards as we used to get. I found myself wondering if I should or should not send cards to the people who have not send any over the past few years. There are many reasons why. Our older family and friends find it more difficult to do the work. Others do not have the money to spend on the cards or the stamps. Others struggle at this time of year with illness or depression and they can’t deal with the task. Most of us, however, simply don’t have the time to sit down and do the work. I decided to send the cards anyway; sometimes it is important to give when there is no chance for return. The card you send might just help someone who is struggling experience a brief moment of the love and joy of Christmas. It may make them happy to know that they are remembered.
This Advent season is filled with opportunities to bless others with gifts and contact. We’ll go to parties, gather with family, share presents with co-workers and friends. Some places with do Secret Santa. It is fun to pick names and find something that will make others happy, although not everyone is as enthusiastic. I recently read that someone got a can of creamed corn! While we enjoy receiving gifts throughout the season, let us remember that our Christian calling is to give according to God’s will and purpose for our lives. We cannot expect others to give as we give, but we should give with our whole hearts knowing we are blessed for being generous and full of grace.
Scriptures for Sunday, December 17, 2017, Third Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
“He who calls you is faithful, who will also do it.” 1 Thessalonians 5:24, WEB
I have to admit that I’m struggling over the problem of what to get my family for Christmas. Gift cards seem so impersonal, and yet I’m leaning toward them this year. I have a few ideas, but nothing that would be particularly special on Christmas morning. I have the added problem of ensuring my daughter can take her presents with her on her flight home. I suppose I haven’t been any more helpful with ideas. I don’t need anything that others can buy for me and I have gotten to the point that I simply don’t want more stuff.
We have had Christmases in the past with piles of presents under the tree. Family from far away always sent money so we could buy the children gifts. We also bought them several from us and from Santa. I worked hard to make sure that we used every available resource to ensure the children had the same number of packages to open. One year I realized that they had more than twenty gifts each under the tree! From that day we decided not to go overboard and the money was saved for another time. I still find myself trying to keep things balanced. Even Bruce and I worry about whether we are keeping things equal under the tree.
The struggle was real on a Christmas episode of “Everybody Loves Raymond.” Raymond and Robert were planning a weekend trip to play golf, but Raymond had to convince Debra to let him go. He decided the best way to do so was to make her very happy and then ask her when she was in a good mood. If she was happy, she would surely want him to be happy. Christmas Day was the perfect opportunity. Robert happened to walk in a room when Debra was wrapping his present. She lied and said that it was for Raymond. Robert excitedly told Ray about the gift, and so Ray chose a present for Debra that would be better than an ugly tie. It was a nice gift, two actually. Debra was thrilled. Then she gave Robert his present: the tie. The men were shocked. Debra admitted her lie and then brought Ray his gift: a DVD player and a bunch of movies. Ray was disappointed because he thought he had to buy something worth more money than what she bought him. Sadly, he missed how happy she was that he bought something she really wanted. She was happy, but he was sad because he was happy about his gift, too.
Isn’t it silly how caught up we get in the Christmas present race? We buy too many gifts out of duty or because we are using it to get something for ourselves. We think we have to spend so much money and buy for everyone. We are so concerned with giving something, anything, that we don’t even both buying a present. We buy gift cards. And while we might be purposeful in choosing the store, what point is there in giving a gift card to someone who will probably just give us a gift card back. That’s not much different than just handing each other twenty-dollar bills.
But it is hard. We all have so much. Christmas is no longer about getting that one special toy for a child because the child has probably convinced Mom and Dad to buy it for them on a regular trip to the grocery store. Does anyone really need another dust-catcher? Clothing is hard because we don’t all have the same taste and what size should we buy? A gift card is a simple solution to an age-old problem.
We are right to consider how Christmas has become too commercial and the misplaced focus on the day. I’ve heard many people talk about how they are going to cut back every year so that they can center on the real reason for the season: Jesus. But gift-giving is very much a part of Christmas. The first and most important gift is Jesus Christ, born for our sake and salvation. The nativity story has examples of gift giving. Gift giving is a part of the ministry of Jesus and the early church. Consider the woman with the alabaster jar of perfume, Barnabas who gave the prophet from the sale of property to the Apostles and Dorcus who gave handmade robes and clothes to the poor. Our problem is not gift-giving, but rather the motivation of our gift giving.
We are reminded that the type of gifts that God gave were not material. In the passage from Isaiah we see the miraculous things God has done. Jesus came to accomplish these things for His people. Jesus came to preach good tidings to those humble enough to listen. The Gospel is the greatest gift because it is eternal life for those who believe. Jesus healed the sick, but dis-ease is more than just physical. Jesus heals our bodies and our souls. Jesus freed those who were imprisoned, not behind bars of iron but those trapped by sin and death. Jesus brought grace. He comforted those who mourn. He gave sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf and feet to the lame.
We may not be able to give physical healing to the people suffering in this world, but we can share Jesus. And we can consider our gifts more carefully. Instead of trying to get a gift that will fulfill our duty or keep things equal, let us look more closely at those to whom we wish to give ourselves, that we might touch their hearts honestly and deeply, so that they will truly be happy. Christmas is a time of joy, and much of that joy comes from what we place under the tree, yet the joy that God desires for us has nothing to do with the stuff we buy and wrap to give one another.
The psalmist brings our thoughts to the joy of God’s people when He has showered His grace upon them. This was 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. “Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing: then said they among the nations, Jehovah hath done great things for them.” In our joy we are witnesses to the Lord.
Joy. 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, but we often fail. Unfortunately, there are many people who are dealing with troubles that 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, but the words of Paul in today’s epistle text really strike us as impossible. I’m a pretty happy person, and not giddily happy, but content, and yet I have moments when I have difficulty finding joy. 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. Paul writes, “Rejoice always.” How is that even possible? We have good times and we have bad times. Even Jesus wept; it is foolish and unhealthy to ignore those feelings. Sorrow is a natural part of life and can offer healing and growth.
“Pray without ceasing.” Paul must not have had a day job. How can we spend every minute of every day in prayer? Most of us have trouble coming up with five minutes a day to set aside to talk with our Father in heaven. Oh, many of us will pray while we are doing other things: I like to pray while I’m driving and doing the dishes. But is it enough to chit chat with God while we are doing other things? Don’t we get distracted by the other drivers on the road or that stubborn greasy stain on our pot?
“In everything give thanks.” Everything? Should I give thanks when the cats spit up a hairball on my newly cleaned carpet? How about when my checking account is near zero and I still have bills to pay? Should I be thankful when the storms flood my house or a drunk hits my car? How can I be thankful when I am afraid of what tomorrow holds?
“Quench not the Spirit,” Paul says. But do we really know when it is the Spirit talking? My church, along with many other churches, are dealing with the questions we face living in today’s world. Where do we go from here? Are those who want change speaking for the Spirit? Or is the Spirit speaking through those who believe that we should hold to traditional values? Is God speaking through that dirty, smelly stranger on the street corner preaching a message of repentance? Or is He speaking through the protesters who are marching on City Hall? Which message does He want us to hear? Should we allow those other voices continue to cause confusion in an already chaotic world?
“Despise not prophesyings.” I have to admit that I find this one especially difficult because I have experienced prophets who prophesy messages that fall far from God’s good and perfect Word, and they love this text. Anyone who questions the authority of their words is labeled as an unbeliever and destined for hell. Paul says to “prove all things” and yet this is often difficult. How do we prove faith? How do we prove the things of faith when there is so much in the world which seemingly disproves everything we believe?
“Hold fast to that which is good.” This sounds easy, and yet how often have we lost touch with the things that are really good? Even now, as we wander through Advent, are we really paying attention? Are we spending so much of our time busy with Christmas preparations that we forget to spend time in prayer and thanksgiving? Are we so worried about whether or not we have picked the perfect presents that we forget that God first gave us the perfect gift: Jesus?
“Abstain from every form of evil.” This makes sense, and we try. But how many of us can honestly say that we can abstain from every form of evil, even for a day? In Luther’s Small catechism we are taught that every commandment is not only a message of what not to do, but what we should do to keep our neighbor from suffering. In other words, it is not enough to obey the “shall nots”; we are expected to also do the things that will make life better for others. We shall not murder or endanger or harm our neighbors, but instead help and support our neighbors in all life’s needs. To keep food from the hungry is to do them harm.
This is a great deal to ask of us. Yet, there is comfort in this passage, the greatest comfort we can be given. Paul writes, “He who calls you is faithful, who will also do it.” We cannot uphold all these expectations. We can’t rejoice always. We can’t pray without ceasing. We can’t, or don’t, give thanks in all circumstances. It just is beyond the ability of our 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 will we 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 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.
John the Baptist was a faithful one, and despite his oddness the people wanted to know him. 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 described in Deuteronomy 18:15, “Yahweh your God will raise up to you a prophet from among you, of your brothers, like me. You shall listen to him.” John emphatically denied being this Prophet, too. Now, Jesus refers to John the Baptist as Elijah in Matthew’s gospel and John certainly fulfilled the description of the Prophet in Deuteronomy. Why would John deny being either? He wasn’t being unduly humble; John knew that if he had accepted the role of Elijah or the Prophet, the people would have 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 was not the light, but John was a witness to the light. He pointed the way. He pointed at Jesus. 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. Yet, that did not stop John from doing what He was called to do: prepare the way of the Lord.
His task, besides preaching, was to baptize the people for the remittance of sin. The priests and Levites were offended by his boldness. Who was John to baptize? John answered that his baptism was nothing. “I baptize in water, but among you stands one whom you don’t know. He is the one who comes after me, who is preferred before me, whose sandal strap I’m not worthy to loosen.” The baptism to come would be far greater than anything John could do. Even now, though, John warned them that they would not even recognize the Messiah. The Messiah was in their midst. He was standing with them on that shore, and they did not know it.
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, “Among you stands one whom you don’t know.” How many people in our world today still 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 exchanging 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.
When we read the words of Paul to the Thessalonians, it seems like an impossible expectation to which we’ve been called. Yet, we are reminded of John the Baptist who 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. We are like John, sent to share the light of Christ. We are reminded that we are not the light. We are simply sent to bear witness to the light.
It isn’t about us. It is about God. We are going to fail. We are going to get too caught up in the commercial aspects of Christmas, buying gifts for all the wrong reasons. We’ll hang too many Christmas lights and bake too many cookies. We’ll forget to pray and we’ll get so wrapped up in ourselves that we will miss the opportunities to live, love and serve God’s creation in a way that will glorify Him. But God is faithful and He will use our gifts to His glory despite our failure to live up to the purpose for which we have been created and called.
“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ,[a] the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham became the father of Isaac. Isaac became the father of Jacob. Jacob became the father of Judah and his brothers. Judah became the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar. Perez became the father of Hezron. Hezron became the father of Ram. Ram became the father of Amminadab. Amminadab became the father of Nahshon. Nahshon became the father of Salmon. Salmon became the father of Boaz by Rahab. Boaz became the father of Obed by Ruth. Obed became the father of Jesse. Jesse became the father of King David. David became the father of Solomon by her who had been Uriah’s wife. Solomon became the father of Rehoboam. Rehoboam became the father of Abijah. Abijah became the father of Asa. Asa became the father of Jehoshaphat. Jehoshaphat became the father of Joram. Joram became the father of Uzziah. Uzziah became the father of Jotham. Jotham became the father of Ahaz. Ahaz became the father of Hezekiah. Hezekiah became the father of Manasseh. Manasseh became the father of Amon. Amon became the father of Josiah. Josiah became the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the exile to Babylon. After the exile to Babylon, Jechoniah became the father of Shealtiel. Shealtiel became the father of Zerubbabel. Zerubbabel became the father of Abiud. Abiud became the father of Eliakim. Eliakim became the father of Azor. Azor became the father of Zadok. Zadok became the father of Achim. Achim became the father of Eliud. Eliud became the father of Eleazar. Eleazar became the father of Matthan. Matthan became the father of Jacob. Jacob became the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, from whom was born Jesus,[b] who is called Christ. So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; from David to the exile to Babylon fourteen generations; and from the carrying away to Babylon to the Christ, fourteen generations.” Matthew 1:1-17, WEB
There is an advertisement on television about giving a DNA test to a loved one so that they can know their ancestry. These tests can find by the DNA in your body the region or regions of the world from which your ancestors have come. There are multiple companies that can also search for your family tree, finding information about those ancestors. We used a company in England to trace our roots and they gave us as much information as possible. There were surprises, and perhaps some questionable answers, but it was a fun thing to do. Many people spend a great deal of time and money researching the details of their past. They often find pleasant surprises, such as being a distant relation to some duke or earl of somewhere. Many times they find things that they would rather not know, such as their great uncle who was a mass murderer.
Genealogies were quite important to the Jews. Since their position was dependent on which tribe to which they belonged, it was necessary to keep careful records to establish their place. This was especially true with the Levites, since they were the men who made up priesthood.
Several of the gospels describe the lineage of Jesus Christ. The writers felt it was necessary to establish who Jesus was according to His heritage. They needed to show that He belonged in the royal line of David, since the prophecy about the Messiah promised He would be king. They needed to show that He had roots in the tribe of Levi, because He was the Great High Priest of God.
The interesting thing we discover as we look at the genealogy of Jesus in as recorded by Matthew is that Jesus had a lineage with some very interesting characters. He was a son of the patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He was a son of the kings: David and Solomon. He was also the son of a prostitute and a foreigner. The men and women who are listed in Matthew 1:1-17 were not perfect. There were murderers and cheats. There were rich and poor. There were those who were free as well as those who lived in exile. We are shown that Jesus’ lineage represents just one people but the whole of humanity.
As Christmas draws ever closer, let us remember that Jesus is just like us. He comes from a line of humans who failed in many ways. He gave up the glory of heaven and the benefits of His divinity to be born into this world as our perfect Savior. He did so out of love for all people, the good and the bad, the rich and the poor. He did it for the hungry, the lonely, the weak, and the foreigners. He did it for the sinners. He did it for you.
“Put on therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, a heart of compassion, kindness, lowliness, humility, and perseverance; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, if any man has a complaint against any; even as Christ forgave you, so you also do. Above all these things, walk in love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; in all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your heart to the Lord.” Colossians 3:12-16, WEB
Millions of people will get in airplanes, trains and cars to travel somewhere for Christmas in the next few days. College students are finished with another semester. Families are taking the kids to see Grandma and Grandpa. Couples are headed on a vacation in place with warmer weather and fruity cocktails. A story this morning has reported that a third of Texans will go somewhere else to celebrate. I’m sure the numbers are similar in the other states around the United States. For most, it is a chance to go home.
It is good to go home. We are thrilled that our daughter will be coming home. We miss her, and though we are proud of the adult she has become, we are looking forward to a few moments with our baby girl. Oh, we’ll never get back to the days of fluffy Christmas dresses and chocolate Advent calendars, but I’m glad I can make her favorite cookies and take her out for breakfast tacos. I’m glad that we can sit and watch a movie and chat about life face to face. I am glad I will be able to give her a great big hug.
Sadly, not all family reunions are so wonderful. People change and it is sometimes hard to find a place in the dynamics that have formed while they were far from home. It isn’t comfortable to sleep on a strange bed and follow a different schedule. Mom might make the foods we grew up eating, but it never quite tastes the same. We struggled when the children were young because they were stressed by the unusual meals and the strange setting. There were often hurt feelings because the perfect plan was not filled with excitement and joy.
We go with hopeful expectations, but we are often disappointed because what we find will never live up to our memories of home. We also have the difficulty of differing points of view. We don’t always hold on to the opinions of our parents or siblings and the conversations can become heated with debate. Visits at home can bring up sad or hurtful memories. While we know that we should forgive, it is hard to set aside the moments that caused breeches in our relationships. Unfortunately, we often forget the role we had in breaking those bonds.
Advent is a time of discovering our own faults to prepare our hearts for the coming of the Lord. Paul calls us to approach all that we do with a heart of humility. We might want to rush into our family reunions proving we are better than those we left behind while holding on to the grudges that have kept us apart, let us remember that we are not perfect. We made mistakes and need to repent. We need to offer forgiveness for those who did us harm. We need to see these visits (whether we are the host or the guest) through the eyes of grace and experience our time together with compassion and peace.
That might mean avoiding the conversations that will cause others to be uncomfortable. It means understanding that a strange place is stressful on children. Though we are home, we are not the same as we were when we left, and neither are those who did not leave. We have an advantage, though. We have Jesus. He is not just the baby that will sleep in a manger; He is our reason for peace. We have His Spirit to guide us to be gracious and humble, to be considerate and thoughtful. He gives us all we need to dwell in the chaos of Christmas vacation and renew the loving relationships we remember from days gone by. We might be different people when we return home this holiday season, but Christ calls us to go home with grace so that there will be peace.
“Let no man say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God,’ for God can’t be tempted by evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own lust, and enticed. Then the lust, when it has conceived, bears sin; and the sin, when it is full grown, produces death. Don’t be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom can be no variation, nor turning shadow. Of his own will he gave birth to us by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” James 1:13-18, WEB
I was in my mid-teens when my mom and I took a trip to visit my aunt in Kansas. While there, my aunt wanted to pay to have my ears pierced. Despite my mom’s concerns, she let it happen. My aunt and I were happy and my mom had a new gift idea for me. At some point following the piercing, my mom purchased a lovely pair of earrings for me. She hid them in her drawer, planning to give them to me for my birthday or Christmas.
I was a snooper. I don’t know what made me look in her drawer, although it was the one with her costume jewelry, which I loved to admire. One day I found the box with the earrings and became very excited because I knew they were for me. I returned to the scene repeatedly, looking at those earrings as I anxiously waited for the day when they would be mine. One day my mom figured out that I found the earrings, so she moved them to a new hiding place. When it came time to give the gift, she could not remember the new hiding place. We spent years searching for those earrings. We never found them, even when they moved out of that house.
It was my fault. My mom may not have realized I found the earrings if I had not continued to go back to look at them. She eventually realized that something had been moved in her drawer, and she hoped that I didn’t see that they were there. She was trying to keep the surprise that my indulgence had unveiled. It was not just the snooping that got me in trouble, but it was my self-indulgence that lost the gift for me. Temptation led to loss.
Do not give into the temptation. The initial decision to avoid the things you know to be harmful is the quickening of God’s Holy Spirit guiding you away from the evil. Do not choose to ignore that counsel or you will end up back in the darkness of sin and death. We do not always know the effect of the small sins that seem so harmless. They can lead to greater sins, building ever greater until it is too late to stop the harm that is caused. Though we don’t have the strength on our own to overcome these things, we do have One who gives us the strength to reject that which leads us astray. Our Lord Jesus overcame all temptations so that His Word might bring us forth into new life.
I joked with Bruce when he came home from Christmas shopping the other day. “Where did you go shopping?” “What did you buy?” I always tease him, but learned long ago not to fall to the temptation of snooping. Sometimes it is better to be surprised. There are other temptations, of course, that continue to plague my life, but thankfully I have the grace of God to get me through. Sometimes the Holy Spirit will give me the strength I need to avoid the sin, but sometimes I will fail. God’s grace is bigger than my failure; His gift will never be lost to those who turn to Him in faith.
“Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old things have passed away. Behold, all things have become new. But all things are of God, who reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ, and gave to us the ministry of reconciliation; namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning to them their trespasses, and having committed to us the word of reconciliation. We are therefore ambassadors on behalf of Christ, as though God were entreating by us: we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For him who knew no sin he made to be sin on our behalf; so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Corinthians 5:17-21, WEB
I always think about my mom at this time of year. I suppose it is because she died in December, but I am also reminded of her as I put out Christmas decorations from my childhood. I think about her when we make plans for our Christmas Eve tradition of eating pizza because she always sent us the money to buy it. I thought about her as we talked about the Nativity story in the Gospel of Luke because it was her favorite. She always had her Bible open to that chapter in her Nativity display on the fireplace. I even think about my mom when I'm standing in line.
This is the season of lines. It is a season when you have to be patient because there are always people who are a little slow. I have to admit that I was not quite so patient this afternoon at the grocery store, although it wasn't too bad. I didn't have to deal with the person who wanted to pay with exact change, counting out fifty-eight cents in pennies. Or the one that can’t decide between the blue or the green. Or, the ones who get into a deep and personal conversation with the cashier. Sometimes our quick trip can seem to take hours. Of course, we are all in a rush at this time of year, and we don’t have the patience we should have with others. We want to get our tasks done and move on so that we can go on to everything else we have to accomplish.
Now, Mom was generally seen as a proper lady, perhaps even a little prudish. She certainly had her faults, as we all do, but she was a good woman. It is funny how the things I remember are often those things that she did that proved she was also a little naughty. My mom knew how to tell a dirty joke; they were often funnier because she was seemingly so prudish. The thing I remembered in line the other day as I was waiting was a phrase she used to say when she was frustrated with waiting. “Poop” (but she used another word) she said, “or get off the pot.”
I remember once when I was in a hurry. I was frustrated by the cashier who let the sale take so long when the crowds were so deep. I wasn’t rude, and I graciously accepted her apology when it was finally my turn. And yet I know that I did not act as I should. I know that I should not have even thought, “Poop or get off the pot.” I know I should have been gracious and merciful, patient and even grateful for the chance to catch my breath. I should have been thankful to have the memory of my mother instead of grumbling about my slow neighbor. I should have stopped worrying about my schedule and enjoyed the moment. I witnessed two people being kind to one another, being friendly. I witnessed grace and hospitality. I witnessed the Christmas, Christian spirit at work. And all I could see was the clock ticking and think about how many other things I could be doing at that moment.
We know Jesus came to save us from death and darkness, to die on the cross so that we might be forgiven. We know we are sinners in need of that Savior. Yet, we often think of sin only in terms of the “big ones” or the overall nature of the human condition. Jesus did come to deal with the “big ones” and our nature, but all sin separates us from our Father, even our naughty little ones. Jesus came to help us see grace and be gracious. He came because even the most proper of ladies say and do things that shock us into realizing that no one is truly perfect. He came to transform us, to make us new creatures that are willing to experience grace in the everyday moments when we are tempted to be naughty. It is in those moments when God is truly glorified, when God’s grace flows to transform the world into what He intended it to be.
Scriptures for Sunday, December 17, 2017, 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, WEB
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. Paul told the Romans that God is able to save them by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the angel told 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 hard to believe, none more so than the Virgin birth. How is it that God would use a 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 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 will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore also the holy one who is born from you will be called the Son of God.” This is not an answer that a modern intellectual will accept; after all there is really no explanation, but Mary didn’t need that kind of 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 simply 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. Perhaps we’ve gone too far with some things; we have tried to play God. 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 advancements 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 helped to 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 now 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 the angel answered she submitted willingly to the impossible.
He who is able can do the impossible.
Mary is so different than Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. 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 as Mary. She wanted to know how it would happen, but Zechariah asked, “How can I be sure this will happen?” Mary asked in faith; 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 submitted herself to Him. Whether we believe it or not, we are blessed because Mary believed. The word “bless” is interesting. We tend to attribute blessedness to those who are financially well off, but that is not always true. I'm not even sure we can equate happiness with blessedness, although it is much closer. Blessedness is much holier than our modern understanding. 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. We know this is true. 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, both the blood Jesus Christ shed on the cross and the blood shed at His birth. Mary was an ordinary woman, barely a woman 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 fruit of your womb!” 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.
Mary was favored by God with a great purpose, but nothing to do. He would take care of it all. 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. The Holy Spirit would come upon her and God would overshadow her.
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. When we face a time of struggle, we want to do something to get out from under it. 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 necessary materials. 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 have looked for proof, 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.
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 faith and be witnesses that take Him to the world in faith. We bear His Gospel and share His grace so that others will believe.
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, but in the stories we see a parallel to the faith of Mary. Children believe in the magic of Christmas 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 impossible Christmas story with such faith and praise God for His blessing for He makes the most incredible things possible.
“John answered, ‘A man can receive nothing, unless it has been given him from heaven. You yourselves testify that I said, “I am not the Christ,” but, “I have been sent before him.” He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. This, my joy, therefore is made full. He must increase, but I must decrease. He who comes from above is above all. He who is from the earth belongs to the earth, and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven is above all. What he has seen and heard, of that he testifies; and no one receives his witness. He who has received his witness has set his seal to this, that God is true. For he whom God has sent speaks the words of God; for God gives the Spirit without measure. The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into his hand. One who believes in the Son has eternal life, but one who disobeys the Son won’t see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.’” John 3:27-36, WEB
Nearly six months ago we celebrated the nativity of John the Baptist. It was near the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. From that moment, the days become shorter and the nights become longer. We don’t really realize it until the middle of December when we celebrate the winter solstice and the longest night of the year, which is today. From this moment, the days will grow larger and the darkness will be overcome by light. It is no mystery why we celebrate the births of John and Jesus six months apart. John said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” With John’s birth the light wanes until Jesus is born and then the light waxes like the sun after the winter solstice.
Isaiah spoke of a voice crying out in the wilderness that would make the people turn to the LORD. Through Malachi, God promised to send a messenger to prepare the way for the Lord. He would preach repentance and baptize the people for the forgiveness of sin. It had been four hundred years of silence from God since Malachi the prophet and God’s people were ready for the promise to be fulfilled.
John came to prepare the way for the Lord. When he saw Jesus, he cried out “Behold, the Lamb of God.” He knew that his purpose was not to be great, but to point toward the One who would bring salvation to the people of Israel. He had a wide following, people who listened to his preaching and followed him wherever he went. Yet, when Jesus Christ came before him, he knew he was not worthy to even touch his shoes. John was the greatest among prophets, yet he was nothing compared to the One who would follow.
The self-righteous came before John and he called them a brood of vipers. They thought they were good enough to meet the Lord, but he reminded them of the warnings from the prophets that said the Day of the Lord would be one of judgment. They would not be saved by their own righteousness; they would be cut off from the blessings of God if they failed to see the promise fulfilled. John baptized the people, a sign of their repentance. The baptism cleansed them from their sin, but the Christ would come with a cleansing fire. The baptism of John is part of the redemption process, but that which followed was much greater. At the moment when the world was at its darkest, John announced the coming of the Light.
On this longest day of the year, we look forward to birth of our Lord Jesus and the Light He has come to bring. The darkness will never overcome it. John announced it, but Jesus Christ will bring the restoration we long to have; He will restore our relationship with God and grant us life in His Kingdom for eternity.
“Now in those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment made when Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to enroll themselves, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to David’s city, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David; to enroll himself with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him as wife, being pregnant. While they were there, the day had come for her to give birth. She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a feeding trough, because there was no room for them in the inn.” Luke 2:1-7, WEB
Many families are getting ready to make trips by planes, trains and automobiles to celebrate the holidays with people they love. The news reports this morning promised busy roads and the airports will be overflowing with travelers. Slight delays will cause anxiety for those who have to change planes with short layovers. Automobile travel provides its own struggles such as construction delays and bad weather. For many people, even a trip to the mall to go Christmas shopping is a journey. Some trips are easy; they bring such excitement and are filled with love and joy. Other trips are more of a burden, are taken out of a sense of duty, guilt or tradition. Some journeys have wonderful endpoints but are difficult to take, while others are laced with fear and anxiety. While Christmas is a time of love and joy and togetherness, brokenness often makes it a time of hopelessness and loneliness.
Can you imagine what it must have been like for Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem? We complain about a two-hour wait at the airport and some bad roads along the way. But Mary was nine months pregnant riding a donkey for a three-day journey. It seems quite odd that this journey would be necessary. Why didn’t Joseph go alone? Why did the Romans decide at that moment to do a census when they had gone so long without one? Yet, even this difficult journey fulfilled a prophecy, for the child was born in Bethlehem as God promised through the prophet Micah, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, being small among the clans of Judah, out of you one will come out to me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings out are from of old, from ancient times.” (Micah 5:2, WEB)
We are reminded that God’s Word is true and that He often uses the most unwilling participants to fulfill His plan. Caesar had no idea that he was chosen for that moment to cause Mary and Joseph to be exactly where they needed to be for the birth of their son, our Lord Jesus Christ. The journey was difficult for them both, but they got there by God’s mercy and survived the most horrible conditions by God’s grace. All this was for our sake, so that Jesus would begin an even greater journey to die on the cross for our sins.
We don’t always enjoy the trips we take home for the holidays. They are sometimes difficult to endure. We grumble about every inconvenience and struggle to find the love, joy and togetherness. I’m sure Mary had no desire to ride for three days on a donkey in her condition and the circumstances did not make that first Christmas a happy one for that little family. No one wants to sleep in a barn. Yet, the census put Mary and Joseph exactly where God wanted them to be so that Jesus would be born in the house of David. As you go to your holiday celebrations, whether they are filled with excitement or anxiety, always remember that God will use all these experiences for His glory.
“For to us a child is born. To us a son is given; and the government will be on his shoulders. His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there shall be no end, on David’s throne, and on his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from that time on, even forever. The zeal of Yahweh of Armies will perform this.” Isaiah 9:6-7
Jesus of Nazareth was born in the most humble of circumstances. His father and mother were not wealthy. Joseph was a simple carpenter from a small town in Israel. He was from the line of David and therefore had royal lineage, but many generations had passed. Joseph’s wife Mary was a young Jewish girl. During the time of her pregnancy, the Roman ruler Caesar Augustus ordered a census to be taken of the entire Roman world. The people traveled to their hometown. It was necessary for Joseph to travel to Bethlehem with Mary to be recorded. The journey was long, over harsh wilderness. We do not know the sort of transportation they used, but tradition holds it was by foot and donkey.
When they arrived in Bethlehem, the town was crowded with others who had traveled to register. There were no rooms left for Mary and Joseph. Mary was feeling the early pains of childbirth as they searched for a place to stay. At last, they found a place of warmth in a stable. There, among the smell and noises of the beasts of burden, Mary gave birth to her son. Joseph served as the midwife, a feeding trough as the cradle. The first visitors to this humble scene were shepherds, the lowest of the low in that society. This child was born into a dangerous situation. When the powerful and mighty discovered His presence, they killed many innocent children in their attempt to protect their own position.
These are humble beginnings for the child of any parent. It is even more incredible because Jesus of Nazareth was not just any child. Jesus Christ should have had the best of everything. His parents should have traveled with a grand procession. He should have been born in the finest room of a palace. He should have had the best doctors. His bed should have been more than a simple manger in a stable. He should never have feared the swords of men.
But God never does things as we would expect. Jesus Christ, the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, arrived in this world in a simple, almost frightening way. There was nothing about this event that would indicate the Savior of the world had arrived. However, God has given us the greatest gift of all… not only the Savior, but also the faith to know that Jesus of Nazareth is Jesus the Christ, born into this world for us.
I wish you a very Merry Christmas. I pray that this Christmas season will be filled with many blessings and that you will continue to grow closer to the God who has done this incredible thing for you.
“Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may spread rapidly and be glorified, even as also with you; and that we may be delivered from unreasonable and evil men; for not all have faith. But the Lord is faithful, who will establish you, and guard you from the evil one. We have confidence in the Lord concerning you, that you both do and will do the things we command. May the Lord direct your hearts into the love of God, and into the patience of Christ.” 2 Thessalonians 3:1-5, WEB
“Good King Wenceslas looked out on the feast of Stephen when the snow lay round about deep and crisp and even. Brightly shone the moon that night though the frost was cruel when a poor man came in sight gath'ring winter fuel.” This Christmas Carol was first published in 1853. The words were written by J M Neale, though the music is from an earlier time. It is often sung on December 26th, which is known as St. Stephens Day. In England it is called Boxing Day.
The song goes on to tell the story of the king gathering good things to give to the poor man he saw out his window that night. His servant was concerned about the harsh weather, but the king told him to follow closely in his footsteps. “In his master’s steps he trod, where the snow lay dinted; heat was in the very sod which the Saint had printed.” The servant found comfort following in his master’s footprints.
Stephen, the first Christian martyr, is remembered for his acts of kindness and caring for the widows of the early church. He was one of the seven chosen to take care of the charitable responsibilities of the church in Acts 6, and he was stoned because he was boldly vocal about the Jewish leaders’ unfaithfulness to the God they claimed to worship. “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who announced the coming of the Righteous One. Now you have betrayed and murdered him,” said Stephen.
Christmas is over; all that is left is the clean-up. Our living room is a mess, with packages and scraps of paper all over the floor. The dishes are clean, but there are still a few signs of our holiday festivities in the kitchen. The decorations are a bit worse for the wear - the outside lights have been blown by the storms, the tree met its match when the cat knocked it over. There is no more shopping to be done, presents to be wrapped or parties to attend. For the world, Christmas is over for another year. We often joke that “boxing day” is the day when we box up all our decorations and get our world back to normal. For Christians, however, Christmas has just begun. When everything is put away, the world will not even remember that a baby was born. For us, Christmas is not the end result; the story has only just begun.
The Boxing Day is not about boxing up the decorations. It is a tradition goes back about eight hundred years, and is a time for remembering and taking care of the poor. In ages past, and even in some places today, Boxing Day was when the alms boxes located in churches were opened to distribute the gifts to the poor. It was traditional for the large landowners to give their servants the day off to spend with their families, with gifts of food from the family’s Christmas dinner to share.
Unfortunately, the spirit of Christmas is a fleeting feeling. We were very generous in the days leading up to Christmas, but our pockets are feeling much thinner today. The joy of the holidays is overcome by the concerns of the world. The generosity of the season is bound up by credit card debt. Those who were faithful to attend worship services will take a break until Easter because they did their duty through December. Even many Christians have had enough of Jesus for the moment. He is a reason to celebrate in December but that is the extent of their faith. They try to put Jesus in a box, but He shouldn’t be forgotten now that the season is over.
The baby born on Christmas calls us to a life like that of Stephen. His gracious generosity and faithful service made life better for many in his world. He not only met their physical needs; he met their spiritual needs by sharing the Gospel. He also pointed out the failure of those who claimed to be worshipping God but were focusing on their own power and position. It was a risky venture to follow Jesus; in the end he was stoned. The servant to Good King Wenceslas risked frostbite and death following his master into the woods. Yet, we are reminded that the Master does not call us to His work without providing everything we need. We might suffer, but in following His footsteps, we will be blessed.
How will we face the world today? Will we pack Jesus away with the ornaments and tinsel, just like the rest of the world, or will we remember His mercy every morning? For many people the discipline of daily reading through Advent was a new experience. Will it end now that Christmas is over, or will we all try to find the time to continue the habit that God has helped us build this season?
As Christians we do have to move past the manger and the child that is born and look toward the Lord Jesus who shed his blood for our sake. Yet, I pray that the sweet spirit of Christmas - the joy, the generosity and the faith - will remain strong in each of you as you face the world daily from henceforth. Jesus is with us as much today as He was in that manger so many years ago, and He is leading us today, calling us to serve others with grace and mercy no matter the risks.
Scriptures for Sunday, December 31, 2017, First Sunday after Christmas: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 111; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40
“I will greatly rejoice in Yahweh! My soul will be joyful in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation. He has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” Isaiah 61:10, WEB
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 had 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.
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: to 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 were surely some children disappointed Christmas morning when that toy they wanted was 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, “Now you are releasing your servant, Master, according to your word, in peace.” 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 soon after, 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. We aren’t much different than they 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. The baby Jesus 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 God’s 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, and 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.
“By this we know love, because he laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and closes his heart of compassion against him, how does the love of God remain in him? My little children, let’s not love in word only, or with the tongue only, but in deed and truth. And by this we know that we are of the truth, and persuade our hearts before him, because if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things. Beloved, if our hearts don’t condemn us, we have boldness toward God; and whatever we ask, we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do the things that are pleasing in his sight. This is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another, even as he commanded. He who keeps his commandments remains in him, and he in him. By this we know that he remains in us, by the Spirit which he gave us.” 1 John 3:16-24, WEB
Our Christmas tree has been up for more than a month. We put it up early to decorate for our Christmas party. It is still in good shape which is pretty amazing for a cut tree; it is still drinking and it has not dropped many needles. We usually keep our tree up through Epiphany, but I’m not sure it will last that long. I suppose that’s the advantage of an artificial tree, but I do love having a real one in the house. We will leave most of the decorations up even if we do take down the tree, especially the Nativity. After all, we are still waiting for the wise men to arrive.
See, Christmas is not over yet. According to the Church calendar, the Christmas season lasts through Epiphany. 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. He was born to die and in doing so He calls us to a life of selfless sacrifice for the sake of others.
Unfortunately, the festivals and feast days of Christmas are not so joyous. The Church celebrates some of the most powerful martyrdom stories in Christianity during Christmas week. 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.
The celebration of St. John the Divine is on December 27th. He was the writer of the Gospel, three letters and the Book of Revelation. John did not die a martyr’s death, but in his life we see the faithfulness of a man who patiently endured persecution from 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 is the day we remember the Holy Innocents. This 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.
On December 29th, we jump 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.
In the midst of this joyous season, 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. This hope gives us the courage to live in willful obedience to God’s call whatever it might be, such as taking care of those in need or even to giving our own lives.
“Praise Yah! Praise God in his sanctuary! Praise him in his heavens for his acts of power! Praise him for his mighty acts! Praise him according to his excellent greatness! Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet! Praise him with harp and lyre! Praise him with tambourine and dancing! Praise him with stringed instruments and flute! Praise him with loud cymbals! Praise him with resounding cymbals! Let everything that has breath praise Yah! Praise Yah!” Psalm 150, WEB
How are you feeling about the end of 2017? It seems to me, based on my Facebook timeline, that people are more content this year than last. I recall nearly everyone anxiously awaited the beginning of the new year with hopes that their lives would be better. I am sure that everyone has had some sort of trouble this year; we live in a fallen world and trouble will exist until the day Christ comes again. Yet, despite the trouble, I don’t sense the desperate need among my friends for this year to be over.
People may be content, perhaps even happy, but that doesn’t mean the world is perfect. There are still reasons to worry. Our financial situations may be better, but we may still struggle to pay all our bills. We may be healthy at the moment, but the flu is making the rounds with a vengeance. Relationships will still fall apart. There is anger and hate in our world and in our neighborhoods. The weather is threatening a horrible winter for many with extremely cold temperatures and extreme amounts of snow. It is true that there is reason to worry, but there is enough reason this year for hope. Perhaps this is why people are feeling better about the past year.
Oh, we’ve heard about all the terrible things that have happened in 2017, and we should not forget the deaths or disasters. Texas was hit with a hurricane that did billions of dollars worth of damage. There is still a great deal of work to be done to repair the worlds of those affected. Yet, even amongst those who suffered most, there is a sense of hope.
There are always storms brewing in the world. War and rumors of war leave us frightened and angry. The suffering in the world – illness, hunger and pain – saddens us. Families are divided and communities are broken. Even the church is facing more schism because there are so many differing perspectives and ideas. It is heartbreaking to see this discord among brothers and sisters in Christ, to see so many people arguing, often over the most ridiculous things. Yet, we can end this year with praise to God knowing that He brought us through our struggles to take us into a new year.
Our problems will not go away easily; the storms will not stop because we have said a few words of praise. However, we will look at things much differently if we keep God in the midst of our troubles. When we are sad or afraid, we should not let those emotions cripple us, but we should take them to the Lord in prayer. Perhaps that is the difference between last year and this year. Perhaps more people are praising God despite the struggles. He is in our midst, comforting and teaching, transforming and blessing us with all we need to bring hope and peace to the world. The storms do rage outside in our world today, but God is with us in our rooms, comforting us with words that will give us strength and courage to face the world again.