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.