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 2020
December 1, 2020
“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which will be revealed toward us. For the creation waits with eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to vanity, not of its own will, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of decay into the liberty of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and travails in pain together until now. Not only so, but ourselves also, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for adoption, the redemption of our body. For we were saved in hope, but hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for that which he sees? But if we hope for that which we don’t see, we wait for it with patience.” Romans 8:18-25, WEB
I love Christmas. I love to decorate and bake cookies. I love to give gifts. I love the tinsel and glitter. I have to confess, though, I’m not very motivated this year to get my work done. Many of our neighbors have had their lights blazing for a couple weeks now, and though we are well into the process, we are not yet ready to turn them on. I did work on the doorway yesterday and those lights are connected, so we have a little shine on our home. We’ve had to make changes to our display because of landscaping changes this year, so it is taking extra time. There’s so much more to come, but since Bruce does most of the outdoor decorating, it will have to wait until he has time to finish.
I do the inside, and I have boxes full of decorations I use. Most of my pieces have specific places in our home, the same every year. I emptied the boxes quickly the other day when Bruce brought them in so that the empties could be returned to the garage. I tried to put items close to where they belong, but there was no rhyme or reason for how they were placed. In one spot I had a pile of pieces just thrown together. I have been organizing ever since. Though still not completely set, I am to the point that I can focus on making each area pretty without searching for the proper pieces.
I have noticed a trend in my work this week, however. I have found many broken pieces, more than even in moving years. An articulated teddy bear’s legs fell off. A “Merry Christmas” piece of ceramic broke. A block elf’s head came off. I have had to deal with one pre-lit tree and one pre-lit wreath, both of which half the lights didn’t work. Pre-lit pieces are convenient the first year, and may for a few years after that, but in the end lights stop working. The wreath and the tree are still usable, but I spent a long time taking the old lights out so I could put new lights in. Unfortunately, I lost a lot of “needles” from the wreath as I did so. Fortunately, the wreath is outside and it will hardly be noticed except at night when the lights are lit.
I want the glitz and glitter. I want to enjoy the pretty lights and the reminders of the season, but I am struggling with the work. I know part of the reason is because I don’t have a deadline like I do most years. We usually have a party the second Saturday of December, but because of the pandemic we have decided to cancel. I am less motivated not because I don’t want to do it but because I don’t have to get it done today. I can procrastinate because there’s no reason to rush.
As we enter into this Advent season, we are reminded that Jesus Christ is coming again. These first few weeks are filled with apocalyptic texts reminding us that King will come and Victory will be His. We are to watch and prepare. We are to wait, but to wait with living, active faith. There is work to do. Yet, after two thousand years, we’ve lost that sense of immediacy that they had in Paul’s day. The early church thought they would see the coming of the Lord in their day, but began to lose hope as their loved ones died. Two thousand years later, we’ve interpreted the second coming in different ways. It is spiritual. It is personal. Some even claim it has already happened, that the promises of Jesus’ return have been fulfilled. Whatever the case, we aren’t nearly as motivated to do Christ’s work in the world because tomorrow is another day. “I can share the Gospel tomorrow,” we think, forgetting that this very night our lives could be taken from us.
Jesus Christ gives us a hope that is real, a hope that is assured. It is also a hope that is meant to be shared. We look forward to the day when we will have true peace not only in our hearts but in the whole world, but we are called today to live in that peace as witnesses to the reality of God’s kingdom. There will come a day when even the creation will live to the glory of God, this is the promise that began at Christmas. We wait through Advent to see the birth of true hope. But we don’t wait idly; we are called to get moving. We do have a deadline, though we do not know when it is. It is hard sometimes to go about with the business of hope when there is nothing but struggle and despair around us. No wonder we are unmotivated. But God’s hope is real and we can look forward to the day when Christ will come again to complete His work in this world. God is faithful and His promises are real. We struggle with the brokenness of the world, but we are meant to go forward in faith anyway, doing whatever we can do to help the world turn to Him. Then, when Jesus does come, He will find a world ready to worship Him forever.
Scriptures for December 6, 2020, Second Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8
“Show us your loving kindness, Yahweh. Grant us your salvation.” Psalm 85:7, WEB
I like having cut flowers around the house. My husband and I went on an adventure last week to a cute little town about an hour from home. There’s a farm along the way that sells cut flowers and other plants. They had poinsettias for sale as well as pansies, herbs in pots and plenty of bulbs to plant. They also had cut marigolds and lilies to decorate the visitors’ fall tables. We purchased a couple unusual poinsettias and some of the lilies. I put them in a vase and we have been enjoying them since.
We kept cut flowers in our home almost all the time when we lived in England. The farmer’s markets ran year round and there was a market in a different town within easy driving distance every day of the week. The flowers for sale were extremely affordable, so I constantly had vases of flowers. If you’ve seen pictures of English country homes, you know that flowers are important to their landscaping. You might think that it is a creation of someone’s imagination, but the flowers are really everywhere, especially in the spring.
Flowers are such an important part of the English lifestyle that many English churches host floral festivals. They were planned for spring to welcome the warm weather and to bring the color of the country into the drab interiors of those ancient stone churches. They weren’t competitive; the floral designers were members or friends of the church and the event was used to fundraise so that they could take care of after-winter maintenance of their buildings.
I participated in one of these festivals. Though I’m not a professional, I enjoy doing more with flowers than just putting them into a vase. I’ve dabbled over the years with fun flowers and odd containers. I was excited about the challenge the floral festival offered. The theme for the festival was Pentecost and the displays were magnificent. Some reached incredibly high, others had sprays of flowers. Some people chose to fill their containers with red flowers, others white and yet others had a burst of many colors. I found an unusual pot stand made of wicker with three arms for holding plants. I put floral foam on trays that fit into each of the arms and found flowers with every color of the rainbow. I had the flowers spraying from the top to the bottom, about five feet high altogether. Along with all the other arrangements, it was a beautiful and very memorable experience.
My lilies are beginning to fade. That’s the problem with flower arranging: eventually the flowers die. We live in a world that is perishable. People come and go, grass turns brown in winter, turkeys get eaten until they are nothing but bones. Yet, God is steadfast. And that faithful and loving God reminds us constantly, in the creation and through our gifts, that He is gracious and merciful, always present in the midst of our lives.
Today’s Psalm is a community lament. It begins with words of praise and testimony. “God has done these things.” He restored their fortunes. He forgave. He withdrew His wrath. The first verses look to the past. They know that the cause of their suffering is their sin, but they ask for the restoration of their community to God. Then the psalm asks “How long?” They have been suffering for a long time. We can understand this phrase to mean “Enough is enough!” They are looking toward the future. The psalmist asks God to do again what He did in the past. Though their fortunes were restored, something has happened and they are struggling again.
As Christians we look back to the redemption at the cross but we continue to experience struggles. We are restored and forgiven, but we continue to sin. God's grace is for the past, present and future. We HAVE eternal life, we ARE forgiven. But we still need to be forgiven and we need to wait until we actually pass from this life to fully experience the eternal life that God has promised to all who believe.
Though they are suffering, the psalmist and the community know the mercy of God. There Hebrew word that is translated lovingkindness, steadfast love, mercy, or faithfulness, depending on the version of the translation. This word is “chesed” and it is a covenant love, the covenantal loyalty of God. He has made promises to His people and He will be faithful even when they are not. This word is found throughout the psalms, and the rest of the Old Testament, and it is in this psalm twice. The psalmist based the plea for salvation on God’s covenantal love and loyalty.
The covenants of God are two way streets. God calls us to live our faith in this world to glorify Him with our obedience to His Word. Yet, He knew from the beginning that we would fail. In today’s Psalm, we hear 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 at Christmas and that He died on the Cross and rose again at Easter. It is finished. But we still wait for everything to be complete.
Peter lived in that day when the people were hopeful for Christ’s return. They were expecting Him back at any moment. They were even beginning to doubt the words of Jesus because it seemed to be taking so long. They wondered where He might be and why He was late. There were, I’m sure, even some who were trying to find a way to hasten His coming. It has certainly been done throughout the past two thousand years. Prophets have tried to foretell the time and day when the Lord would come, and cults have built up around ideas and practices meant to spur God on to fulfilling His promises. Every generation since Peter’s day has waited for and tried to hasten the coming of the Lord.
I’m sure most of us are tired of hearing about the end times. After all, we’ve had so many texts dealing with eschatological issues over the past month or so and it is not a subject we like to dwell upon. It doesn’t help that so many have judged that we are in those end times, with all the struggles we’ve faced this year. We are tired of the doom and we want to live for today. We look forward to heaven, but we do not want to make the end times the entire focus of our faith. Yet, Peter’s message was 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. We may not want to wait, but our waiting is God’s mercy.
In this passage, written for the believers, Peter says that God is, “longsuffering to you-ward.” There is work for us to do, and God is giving us the time. Those who have yet to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ are out there in the world, walking in darkness. We are the light, sent to give hope and peace to all whom God has chosen. God is patient, not for those who haven’t heard, but for us. He is waiting until we do what we have been called to do. God’s patience is our salvation. He is waiting until we have accomplished all He has commanded us to do. It might happen in this generation, but it might not happen for another thousand years. After all, a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years is like a day to God. He will fulfill His promises in His time according to His word. We will experience true peace when God says it is time.
When we think of the concept of peace, especially in our world today, we think of peace between nations. Wikipedia says, “Peace is a state of harmony characterized by the lack of violent conflict. Commonly understood as the absence of hostility, peace also suggests the existence of healthy or newly healed interpersonal or international relationships, prosperity in matters of social or economic welfare, the establishment of equality, and a working political order that serves the true interests of all. In international relations, peacetime is not only the absence of war or conflict, but also the presence of cultural and economic understanding and unity. There is also a sense of tolerance in international relations for the realization of true peace.”
The Latin word from which we get the word peace means “freedom from civil disorder,” so there is some justification for our thinking of peace in these terms. Christmas has become a time to cry out for peace on earth; now more than ever people want to live without fear, with hope and joy. It is hard to be happy when your world is literally exploding around you.
I want to focus on one particular part of the Wikipedia definition, however. “Peace also suggests the existence of healthy or newly healed interpersonal relationships.” That is more appropriate to the text for this Sunday and for the preparation of Advent. Christ came to restore us to our Father and to one another, to overcome the darkness and sin that has created conflict between people. This can be pursued on a large scale as is done through international treaties, but the cry for peace for most people is a desire for something more personal. We are looking for peace in our own lives, in our hearts. Of course we want peace on earth, but true peace begins inwardly.
The first verse of today’s Gospel passage does not sound like a sentence. It appears to be a title, “The Beginning of the Gospel (Good News) of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” 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 himself did not write anything beyond the Gospel, but he was telling us from the beginning that there was more. Last week we heard Jesus speak at the end of His ministry, and this week we get to see the beginning. Last week we saw Jesus telling those of faith to stay awake, to keep watch, to be ready. This week we learn the beginning of the story.
Mark does not begin with a nativity narrative. He doesn’t tell us what happened at the stable or with Jesus as a child. He does not tell us about wise men or shepherds or angels. Mark begins 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 the Baptist. He came from the wilderness to preach repentance and to call the people to be baptized for the forgiveness of sins. That story continues into today. We still call people to baptism, but we have been given a greater gift than John, because Jesus Christ baptizes with more than just water. What John started, Jesus completed and made even more real because now the Holy Spirit brings a lasting, eternal forgiveness. John was cleansing the people to make them ready for the Lord. The Lord now makes the people His forever and ever.
The image in today’s Gospel lesson is harsh and almost frightening. John is a bizarre character. He lives in the wilderness, wears camel hair and eats locusts. This is not a man that we would necessarily follow. He does not portray a picture of peace. His message is rough; he told people they were sinners. He called them to repentance. He baptized but admitted that his baptism was nothing compared to the baptism that would come from God. This is not comforting. It is not pleasant. It is frightening and disconcerting.
Yet people flocked to this madman in the wilderness, longing to see the one who fulfilled the promise we hear in today’s Old Testament lesson. In that text, the message is not so frightening. It is not so unpleasant. God speaks comfort to His people and promises that they will be restored. Isaiah says, “Speak 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, “All flesh is like grass, and all its glory is like the flower of the field. 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 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 wanted to make it clear who 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.
Many have suggested that Mark records Peter’s story. The disciples spent many hours together in the home of Mark’s mother (Acts 12:12) after Jesus ascended to heaven. This place was 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. We are the current generation meant to share the Gospel with the world.
The psalm ends on a confident note, with the psalmist including a powerful reflection on God’s covenant character: His love is without fail and He fulfills His promises. God is righteous and thus peace prevails. These all come together in an intimate embrace in the person of God. God prepares the way. God alone is the possessor and giver of salvation, righteousness, truth, mercy, peace. We are indeed unable to live up to the covenant, but God is more than able and has fulfilled it in Jesus Christ. Though we do turn to folly, God teaches us so that we will learn to rely on Him. Just like that community begging God for His grace, we still plead against His wrath and seek His grace.
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.
“So we also, when we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental principles of the world. But when the fullness of the time came, God sent out his Son, born to a woman, born under the law, that he might redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as children. And because you are children, God sent out the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, ‘Abba, Father!’ So you are no longer a bondservant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ. However at that time, not knowing God, you were in bondage to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, why do you turn back again to the weak and miserable elemental principles, to which you desire to be in bondage all over again?” Galatians 4:3-9, WEB
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, the oceans and land, the plants, fish and birds, the animals and people. He created everything and it was good. Everything belonged to Him. It did not belong to Him in the sense that our property belongs to us. We possess things. We use things. We even abuse things. But they are ours, so we can do whatever we want to them. God does not possess the world, but all creation belongs to Him.
Unfortunately, in the beginning Adam and Eve accepted the word of the serpent and ate the fruit from the only tree in the Garden that God said they should not touch. At that moment the serpent stole all creation from God. The heavens and earth, the oceans and land, the plants, fish and birds, the animals and people were held captive at the hands of that which stands against God and His goodness. Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden to dwell in a world that was ruled by sin and death.
This might seem like a harsh punishment for eating a piece of fruit, but God loved His creation so much that He did not want them to live eternally in a broken relationship with Him. So, He cast the man and woman out of the Garden, but He never intended it to be permanent. From the moment they rejected God, He planned to redeem the world.
To redeem is to free from captivity. We are held captive by sin and death, and God planned to set us free. He planned to recover His ownership of His creation by paying a ransom. We belong to Him, then, now and always, even though we have been imprisoned since that day in the garden. When the time was right, He paid the price. If we think being cast from the garden was harsh, how much harsher was the ransom? We deserved to be cast out of the garden because we did not believe God’s Word, we turned from the one to whom we belonged to go out on our own and follow our own desires. But Jesus was always obedient to His Father. He never turned, He never sinned. He remained faithful. He went to the cross to die even though He did not deserve death. He did so for our sake, to redeem us for His Father.
And now, in Christ, we have been returned to our Father. We are no longer separated from Him as we were when we were slaves under the rule of sin and death. We are now children, adopted by God to dwell with Him as we were meant to when we were created. He paid the price to set us free, and now we can live with the one to whom we belong forever.
“Be strong and courageous; for you shall cause this people to inherit the land which I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous. Be careful to observe to do according to all the law which Moses my servant commanded you. Don’t turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go. This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it; for then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall have good success. Haven’t I commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Don’t be afraid. Don’t be dismayed, for Yahweh your God is with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:6-9, WEB
I saw a story about four teenage boys who became heroes. They were surfing the waves along a shoreline when they heard the cries of two brothers who were struggling caught up in the currents of the ocean. They knew that they had to go help or the boys would drown. One boy paddled to shore to get someone to call 911, and the other three went directly to the brothers. The younger brother was easily lifted on to a surfboard but the older brother was much larger and was very afraid; he was desperate and grasping for anything that might save him. This made him dangerous.
The fourth boy returned to the group and the three calmed the brother down enough to get him on a board. The paramedics were already on the beach when the four surfers worked their way through the waves to the shore. The paramedics said that they usually arrive too late to save victims like those brothers, but thanks to the speedy response by the surfers, they will live. One teenager said that they were afraid, but they didn’t have time to think about it. They did what they knew they needed to be done and it saved two lives in the process.
I’ve noticed that there is focus these days on being brave. Perhaps it began with the Disney movie “Brave” that came out a few years ago, but there are a number of recent publications that are centered in helping young people become brave. I am sure some of those books have come out of the fear that we’ve all experienced this year with the virus and the violence. We have been encouraged to be brave, but I wonder if perhaps it is more important to be courageous.
Bravery and courage might seem like the same thing, but I found this on the Internet, “Bravery is the ability to confront something painful or difficult or dangerous without any fear. It’s a quality, not a state of mind; it doesn’t need a cause to awaken it. Someone is brave - full stop. To the person who has it, it’s effortless; it’s eating a caterpillar on the playground because a friend dares you to, without a second thought. It’s jumping from the highest diving board without any hesitation.” I have known people who are brave. It is not always a positive quality in people because it leads to unnecessary risk.
The article continued, “Courage, on the other hand, is the ability to confront something painful or difficult or dangerous despite any fear. It’s not a quality, but a choice; a person feels the fear or pain or danger, but chooses to persevere anyway. Unlike bravery, courage is driven by a cause; the courageous person believes that cause is worth standing up and fighting for, despite all the clear reasons not to. It takes a great effort, because what’s on the other end merits it.”
Bravery is not a quality that could be used to describe me. I would rather hide my head in the sand like an ostrich than face something that makes me uncomfortable. The writer of the article compared the roots of the two words. “Brave” comes from the Italian word “bravo” which means “bold.” Courage, however, is from the French word that means “heart” which is “coeur.”
It will never be effortless for me to be bold, but I can be courageous. I can face painful or difficult situations despite my fear. There might be some heroes who are brave, but I imagine that most of them are more like those teenagers on that day in the ocean. There was fear, but they were also courageous. They were willing to face the danger because they know that the outcome is worth their effort. We need more courage in the world today, not bravery. God called Joshua to do something and promised He would be with him always. When He gives a command, He provides all we need to obey. When He sends us into the world to preach the Gospel, He provides the voice and the ears to hear. It does not matter who walks in front of us, who we follow through life. God is with each of us in the here and now, giving us His grace that we might serve according to our own gifts and abilities. We might not need the courage to save drowning brothers from the ocean, but we can have the heart save a drowning sinner with God’s mercy and forgiveness.
“But don’t forget this one thing, beloved, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow concerning his promise, as some count slowness; but he is patient with us, not wishing that anyone should perish, but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fervent heat, and the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up. Therefore since all these things will be destroyed like this, what kind of people ought you to be in holy living and godliness, looking for and earnestly desiring the coming of the day of God, which will cause the burning heavens to be dissolved, and the elements will melt with fervent heat? But, according to his promise, we look for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells.” 2 Peter 3:8-13, WEB
More than twenty-five years ago, Oklahoma City was the center of a tragic event. A domestic terrorist bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, killing at least 168 people, including many children, injuring more than 680 others, and destroying more than one third of the building, which had to be demolished. The city built a memorial garden around the site, a place to remember and to consider the reasons why something like this could happen.
The garden at the Oklahoma City Memorial is beautiful and filled with symbolism. There is an old tree which is called “the Survivor Tree” because it has survived destruction several times, including the bombing. There is a field of chairs, one for each person who died that day. The chairs are on a grassy hill, right where the building once stood. The chairs have the names engraved and are lined up according to where the people were when they died. Most of the chairs for the children were on the second floor, and those tiny chairs are a constant reminder of the innocence that was lost that day.
In the centre of the garden is a reflecting pool where the street once ran in front of the building. At either end of the pool are gateways. One says 9:01; the other says 9:03. The significance of this part of the garden is to recognize how much can happen in just one minute of time. The bombing occurred at 9:02, and lives were lost and changed forever in that one minute. Though just a minute, it must have seemed like an eternity.
Everything happens so quickly these days, doesn’t it. News is instantaneous. Children are growing up too fast. We can microwave a cup of coffee in a minute and cook a turkey in less than an hour. We are living on the fast lane of life, moving quickly from one thing to another. Ideas change like the wind because new information can be passed from person to person in seconds.
There have been many changes within the body of Christ. New ideas, new doctrines, new ways to live our faith are coming into the open faster than we can study them. This seems especially true in this year when it has been so necessary to adapt. We are worshiping online, finding new ways to minister, fellowshipping and doing bible study via Zoom. On top of that, cults and cult-like teachings are flooding the airwaves. People are so desperate for answers, they easily turn to new ideas hoping that they will find the answers they seek. It seems to be happening so fast, beyond our control.
In our world today, everything seems to be happening too fast but we must remember that God is always faithful. God will fulfill His promises to us no matter what changes occur in our lives. Those promises are made for all people, though some today do not yet believe. The patience of God means salvation for at least some because God does not desire anyone to die. He gives them time to repent, to trust in Him. He also gives us time to be His witnesses in the world. Walk in faith today, knowing that one minute of your life living according to God’s promise can make changes for good and bring life rather than death to this world.
There is a Christmas song that is loved and hated with equal passion. “Mary, Did You Know?” asks questions about whether Mary knew the incredible things her son was going to do. Some don’t like the song because they insist that Mary absolutely did know. After all, God revealed so much to her during the visit of Gabriel and then during the nativity story. God revealed much to Joseph, too. The Shepherds, the wise men, Simon and Anna all spoke words of prophecy to the new parents. The song ends with the question whether she knew “that sleeping child you’re holding is the great I Am?” Yes, I think she knew.
Yet, the scriptures repeatedly tell us that Mary pondered these things in her heart. I think the question here is not about knowledge. She knew, yet she pondered. These things were too great for any person to grasp completely with their brains. How do you explain the fullness of God dwelling in the womb of a young woman in ancient Israel? How do you explain people as diverse as shepherds and magi drawn to a seemingly insignificant baby born in an insignificant city? How do you explain a child so incredibly gifted that He was found learning and teaching in the Temple to the amazement of the religious leaders in Jerusalem?
We can have head knowledge, but when it comes to matters of faith, we need to have heart. We can have the scriptures memorized. We can have studied the passages and understood them from an intellectual point of view. We can know the context, the history, the geography, the language, and the theology, but it is pointless unless that knowledge reaches our heart. We must ponder these things. Today’s verse is translated in the NIV as “But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” She treasured these things. She may have known but not completely understood, yet she treasured all these things in her heart.
I suppose that’s one of the purposes of Advent. It is a time of preparation and a time of repentance, but it is also a time for us to ponder the story. Someone suggested reading a chapter of Luke each day of December until Christmas (there are twenty-four chapters) and to prayerfully consider Jesus’ whole story as it relates to His birth. We don’t often think of it this way, but Jesus came to die. He did many other incredible things. He was a role model we should emulate. He was kind and faithful. He taught us to pray. He healed the sick and raised the dead. He taught us about forgiveness. Despite all these wonderful actions, Jesus’ whole purpose of life was to die.
We look forward to the birth story, to worshipping Jesus in candlelight, singing the beautiful carols of Christmas, but let us ponder for at least a moment the reality of Jesus’ birth. He was laid in a manger for a cradle one silent night more than two thousand years ago, but even from the beginning Mary knew her baby boy was sent for a purpose that would break her heart. Still, she treasured every word from God and pondered them in her heart. As we journey toward the manger, let’s remember that we are also journeying toward the cross that saved us from sin and death and ponder this in our hearts. These things are too great for us to grasp completely with their brains; when it comes to matters of faith, we need to have heart.
Scriptures for December 13, 2020, Third Sunday of Advent: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
“Yahweh has done great things for us, and we are glad.” Psalm 126:3, WEB
This was such a strange year that I found myself doing new things, especially for the sake of the neighborhood children. We live on a street corner and many of the neighbors walk past our house, even more so this year as everyone was trying to get some exercise and a change of scenery. There is a garden bed right at the corner, and it came to be known as the “Kindness corner.”
I had different gifts or activities for anyone who wanted to participate. At one point we did a “vote” between a Luau and Christmas. The kids voted by taking either a Hawaiian lei or a Christmas light necklace. We did an activity around the book “A Very Hungry Caterpillar.” I bought a bunch of rocks that were about the size of a grapefruit and told the children to take the rocks home to paint them. They were to return the rocks so we could build a caterpillar with their rocks. At the end of the activity, I added a butterfly to each and told the children to take their own rocks home. I gave away coloring books, silk flowers, school supplies, and other fun items. I left paper and a pen and told the neighbors they could leave their prayer requests.
It was a double blessing because besides the opportunity to pray for my neighbors, the children sometimes left notes for me on those pieces of paper. One family made thank you cards. I was sad to stop, but I had run out of ideas and the children returned to school, so I gave away the last of my treats and left the corner empty.
It was empty until this week. I decided to do a special Kindness Corner for Christmas. We put some lights in that garden bed, but left a small holly bush empty. I covered it in Jingle Bells with a sign that said, “2020 has been a tough year but there are always silver linings. Take a Jingle Bell and think about the good things that have happened. Ring the bell to remember JOY. Merry Christmas.
Joy. It is hard to be joyful when our world seems so out of control.
The third Sunday of Advent is often called Gaudete Sunday because it focuses on joy. “Gaudete” means rejoice. Our scriptures for today speak of joy. In Isaiah, the people rejoice about the good things God has done. The psalmist sings about God restoring the fortunes of His people. Paul encourages the Christians to always rejoice. John the Baptist brings Good News.
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.
And though most of us aren’t dealing with those problems, we have our own worries and frustrations this year. Friends can’t gather. Families can’t travel home for the holidays. Many shelves in the stores are empty. Though we love the idea of gift giving, we’ve come to appreciate the simpler things in life and Christmas presents seem so trivial when so many are struggling with life and death issues.
This isn’t about the usual question whether or not Christmas has gotten too commercial, though that can definitely be a problem. There is one commercial on television that drives me crazy. A woman approaches her husband and puts too fitness watches on the counter. “I bought one for both of us for Christmas.” The man says, “I bought something for both of us, too.” He directs her outside where there are two brand new vehicles in the driveway. I can’t imagine buying one car, let alone two cars, for Christmas. Yet, the world tries to make us feel guilty if we don’t spend enough money on those we love. We don’t have to feel guilty; we need to remember to approach the season with the right attitude.
Joy isn’t the same as happiness. The world tries to make us think that getting bigger and better presents will make us happy, but we are reminded that we aren’t meant to be chasing happiness as our Advent journey leads us toward Christmas. This is a time for joy.
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 also 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 profit 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 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 solve all the 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 impress, fulfill a duty or keep things fair, 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 experience joy. Too much of the good feeling of this season come 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.
I can’t help but wonder what Paul was thinking when he wrote his guide of faithful and faith-filled living suggestions in today’s epistle lesson.
“Rejoice always.” How is that possible? We have good times and we have bad times. Even Jesus wept. It is foolish and unhealthy to ignore those feelings which are opposite of joy. 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 so much in the world 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? We are spending so much of our time busy with Christmas preparations - shopping, decorating, baking and wrapping - that we forget to spend time in prayer and thanksgiving. We are 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? Remembering, as so eloquently worded in Luther’s Small catechism, 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 our neighbor. 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 too much to ask, but there is comfort in this passage. 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 is just beyond our ability. 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, 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 from whence he came. 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. Jesus does refer to John the Baptist as Elijah in Matthew’s gospel and John seems to fulfill 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.
Have you ever gone visited a cave? That’s one of my favorite touristy things to do. There is something fascinating and beautiful about the formations. The stalactites and stalagmites are formed by dripping water leaving behind miniscule amounts of calcium; drop by drop the water leaves behind delicate structures like soda straws, cave bacon and even crystal in the shape of fish tails. Flowstones and cave popcorn are formed when water runs another way. Some caves have miles of tunnels and rooms of dripping water and beautiful ‘living’ stone.
One typical activity during a cave tour usually happens at a spot where the group can sit for a moment. The tour guide explains that the visitors will learn why it was so dangerous for the first explorers to be in the cave and help the group to understand what might have happened if they lost their light source. Then the tour guide turns off the light, leaving the visitors in absolute darkness; it is so dark that you cannot even see your hands in front of your face. We live in a world where there is always some source of light, even if we turn out all the lights. The moon and stars provide some light. Streetlights, clocks, computer screens, even the thermostat that regulates the temperature. Light sneaks through the cracks or under doors into windowless rooms. We do not really know what it is like to be in total darkness. It can be a frightening experience to sit there in the darkened cave, but the visitors know they are safe. Imagine what it might have been for those first explorers, crawling through the dark, through puddles and mud.
After a few moments, perhaps just when the tour guide senses our extreme discomfort, he or she turns on the light again. Sometimes they will begin with just a flashlight, and we can see how hard it would have been for those explorers with so little light. The light of a flashlight only reaches so far, making it difficult to decide which direction to go or to see what else might be in the cave. Then the wired lights are turned on to give a full view of the cave again. The visitors can see the little nooks and crannies and that there is nothing dangerous sharing the cave with us. They can see the way out. The tour guide is not the light, but provides access to the light.
John was not the light, but John was a witness to the light. He pointed the way. He pointed at Jesus. There were those who thought they knew who John was, but he told them from the beginning about the one who would come after him. This week’s Gospel lesson echoes what we heard last week: John was the one crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord. John knew that he was not worthy to be called the Messiah. He did not even think he was worthy to serve Him. 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. 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 could only turn on the flashlight: the Light would shine by God’s power.
The words of Paul to the Thessalonians seem 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, pointing to the Light. 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 not the light; we bear witness to the light.
The psalmist returns 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 had been in captivity for much too long and they were 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 and removing their captivity. The desert filled with life.
The psalmist recognized 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 our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing. Then they said among the nations, ‘Yahweh has done great things for them.’” In our joy we are witnesses to the Lord.
It is said that laughter is the best medicine. I think that may be true, but even more so, joyful laughter shows the world the condition of our hearts. Joy comes from God, and we feel the joy of His salvation when we know He loves us. The people of God had been through tough times. They were returning to home after exile, and though that home needed to be rebuilt after tragic destruction they rejoiced because they remembered the saving grace of God rather than the heartache of the past. They looked to the future, to the chance to make a difference in their world. They remembered that they were God’s chosen people and they laughed.
God has a sense of humor. Jesus often joked when he preached about God’s Kingdom, though often the humor is lost in today’s understanding. Jesus and the disciples are often found around a table with a meal. These were social events with friends. I’m sure they often laughed and enjoyed each other’s company. It is impossible not to laugh when you know the joy of the Lord. The world sees the great things God has done for us when we rejoice and praise Him. We are journeying through Advent to the beginning of that great thing when Jesus Christ was born to die for our sake, to save us from everything that keeps us from real joy now and forever.
“Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings forth chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: ‘Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise.’” Isaiah 43:16-21, WEB
I don’t know about you, but I have found myself blaming 2020 for everything that has gone wrong in the past month or two. A lot of things have gone wrong in the last month or two. We’ve had difficulty finding things we need for our Christmas display. The grommet in our Christmas tree stand was cracked, and we didn’t know it was so until after it was standing in our living room and we started to fill it with water. We stopped counting the number of Christmas light sets that were only half working. I strung the lights on the tree one day, and the next day we discovered the string at the very top of the tree stopped working. I’ve discovered more broken pieces in my storage boxes than ever before, even in years we’ve moved. Some pieces were reparable, but others were just thrown away.
“It is 2020,” I have said after every set back. However, I realized it was absurd to blame a year on all this trouble. There are good reasons why these things have happened. We might be able to blame the pandemic on the shortage of certain things because it has changed production and distribution, but people have also been crazy about emptying shelves. We should have carefully checked the tree stand before putting in the tree. Many of those sets of Christmas lights were old. This year is not the first time that the light set at the top of the tree went out; last year it happened after the tree was decorated. I have to take the blame for the broken pieces because I did not pack them right when I put everything away last year.
We like to play the blame game, and the year 2020 is a great scapegoat, but we have to remember that we suffer the consequences of our actions. This is not to say that our troubles in 2020 are the consequences of some great world-wide sin, but certain aspects can certainly be blamed on people’s sinful actions. The pandemic is partly to blame for the lack of toilet paper because production and transportation was down. However, it was the greediness of some people in the beginning who hoarded the paper that made it impossible for others to get what they need.
The last few weeks of any year are a time to look back and think about everything that happened. What did I do right? What did I do wrong? What should I change about the way I am living? What should I repent? How can I make next year better?
We are foolish if we think that the troubles of 2020 will fall away with the dropping of the New Year’s ball in three weeks. The pandemic will not disappear with the change of a number. The differences between people in our country and in the world will not be healed by the turn of a calendar page. Now is the time for us to look back and realize how we are to blame for our own difficulties. Oh, some of our troubles are beyond our control, but we can take this time to repent, to seek God’s grace, to listen to His word, and to make changes that will make things better beginning with our little corner of the world.
As we look back on this year, the most important thing for us to remember is God is greater than any troubles we face, and He is faithful to His promises for mercy and forgiveness. Even if our troubles are caused by our own failure, God is able to make things right. We have been formed to give God the glory so that the world will see Him and know that the blessings come from Him. Unfortunately we often miss seeing God’s hand in our struggles. We not only lay the blame on all the wrong things, but we also give credit and seek the help from all the wrong places.
We have, perhaps, turned to God more in this past year than usual, praying for Him to stop the pandemic and to turn hearts, but have we praised Him for all the good things He has done? It seems that we turn to God only in our times of crisis and forget that He is also Lord over our ordinary needs. We praise Him for the miraculous, but ignore His hand in the everyday. God has done great things, but we worship Him not just for the miraculous. The biggest change we can make in the coming weeks and new year is to worship God not just for the evidence of His grace, but because He is God. It is time to put aside the old and begin anew, trusting that God is working in our lives and in our troubles to make all things right and new again.
“Therefore I tell you, don’t be anxious for your life: what you will eat, or what you will drink; nor yet for your body, what you will wear. Isn’t life more than food, and the body more than clothing? See the birds of the sky, that they don’t sow, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns. Your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren’t you of much more value than they? Which of you by being anxious, can add one moment to his lifespan? Why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They don’t toil, neither do they spin, yet I tell you that even Solomon in all his glory was not dressed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today exists and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, won’t he much more clothe you, you of little faith? Therefore don’t be anxious, saying, ‘What will we eat?’, ‘What will we drink?’ or, ‘With what will we be clothed?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things; for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first God’s Kingdom and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore don’t be anxious for tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Each day’s own evil is sufficient.” Matthew 6:25-34, WEB
Someone once said a weed is just a wildflower that is growing in the wrong place. After all, many of those plants we try to remove from our manicured lawns is nothing more than a wildflower: an uncultivated flower or plant. Clover is lovely covering a meadow, but it is annoying to the neighborhood gardener. Even dandelion has a certain beauty, every child sees it when they pick those flowers for mom, but we hate to see them in the yard.
Poinsettias are a wildflower. Or perhaps we should call them a weed. That may be difficult to believe considering we spend hundreds of millions of dollars every Christmas season to put them in our homes and to decorate the sanctuaries in our churches. Yet in Mexico they grow alongside the road. Of course, the poinsettias we buy are now hybrids, carefully bred to produce blooms of many different colors and shapes. I even saw a plant that looks like a mini tree. The stem looks like a trunk and the blooms have been shaped into a round ball on the top of the trunk. It is a beautiful plant and it is impossible for me to see as weeds.
Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, was interested in botany. While wandering in the countryside of Mexico he found a large bush with red flowers on the side of the road. He took a cutting and began growing the flower at his South Carolina home in 1825. Paul Ecke is considered the father of the poinsettia industry because he discovered a grafting technique that caused the seedlings to branch. He began selling them at a roadside stand but eventually branched out through shipping and marketing. At least thirty-five million plants now are sold annually. December 12th is National Poinsettia Day in the United States.
This is all pretty amazing considering that this Christmas staple is really nothing more than a wildflower or a weed. Yet, even weeds can have a purpose in this world. The poinsettia was used by the ancient Incas to make red die, and its sap was used to treat fevers. Pointsettias can grow into large bushes 10 to 15 feet tall.
There is a lovely legend about the poinsettia. It is said there was a girl named Pepita, a poor Mexican girl who had no gift to present to the Christ child. On Christmas Eve, the worshippers gave gifts to Jesus at the church. She was very sad, but her cousin Pedro said, “Even the smallest gift, given in love will be acceptable in Jesus’ eyes.” Pepita knelt by the side of the road and gathered a bunch of weeds - wildflowers - which she made into a bouquet. She fought tears because she knew that these were not worthy of the Lord, but as she took the bouquet to the front of the church the weeds were transformed into beautiful bright red flowers. The other worshippers knew they’d witnessed Christmas miracle. The plants are now called, “Flores de Nocha Buena” or “Flowers of the Holy Night” because they bloom each year during Christmas.
During the Christmas season, it would be difficult to miss seeing one of the beautiful poinsettia plants because they are everywhere. Most of us have probably even purchased one for our own home or as a gift for someone else. We see them as beautiful and find it difficult to believe that they were at one time nothing more than weeds on the side of a road.
We aren’t much more when you think about it. We are unworthy and have nothing worthwhile to give to the Christ child as a gift; even those who are wealthy have nothing of value to give to Him. Yet, Christ did not come to collect gifts from us, but He came to be the greatest gift ever given. He came to give His life for us and through Christ God sees us as more than weeds. He transforms our lives, like He transformed the bouquet of weeds for Pepita, and makes us heirs to the Kingdom of heaven. He provides us with all we need and everything we have is His. As we look at the poinsettias, we are reminded that we need not worry about tomorrow because God loves us enough to provide everything we need, and He will be glorified by even our simplest gifts.
“Simon Peter, a servant and apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who have obtained a like precious faith with us in the righteousness of our God and Savior, Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace be multiplied in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, seeing that his divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and virtue, by which he has granted to us his precious and exceedingly great promises; that through these you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world by lust. Yes, and for this very cause adding on your part all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence; and in moral excellence, knowledge; and in knowledge, self-control; and in self-control perseverance; and in perseverance godliness; and in godliness brotherly affection; and in brotherly affection, love. For if these things are yours and abound, they make you to not be idle or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For he who lacks these things is blind, seeing only what is near, having forgotten the cleansing from his old sins. Therefore, brothers, be more diligent to make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never stumble. For thus you will be richly supplied with the entrance into the eternal Kingdom of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” 2 Peter 1:1-11, WEB
We lived in England for four years. Our friends and family took advantage of our good luck by coming to visit. Though still expensive, having a place to stay and free tour guides made the trip more affordable for some. One friend was a flight attendant who could fly very inexpensively, so it made the trip even more affordable for her. She decided to bring her daughter to London for a few days. We were friends on the internet and had never met in person. We had spent hours together in the chat rooms and in Instant Message, sharing our hopes and fears, praying for each other. We have even talked on the phone and knew each other fairly well, but only by our words. We’d never gone out to lunch or a movie. We’d never looked each other in the eye or given each other a hug.
Since this friend was going to be in London, we decided that we should had meet and spend some time together. I drove to the airport to pick them up for our very short visit, uncertain whom I was meeting. I’d seen a picture, but people change and photos can be deceiving. I made a little sign so that they would know who I am, but I didn’t use it because I was certain I would recognize her. After all, I thought we knew each other well enough.
I arrived at the airport a few minutes early, but found their plane had landed even earlier. I stood expectantly at the gate, looking at each woman, hoping something would click. Most people I could easily dismiss because they had small children or male companions. I saw several pairs of women pass, but none seemed right. I went to the monitor to check on the status of the flight, and it showed the flight had not yet come through customs. So, I went back to watch.
Two lovely women kept walking by, standing close, looking at me. I had seen these two women as they came out of customs, but for some reason I didn’t see them as my friend and her daughter until I realized they were there standing near me whispering back and forth. Neither wanted to ask me if I was Peg. Finally, I looked straight at Vivian and she said, “Are you Peg?” I said, “Vivian?” And we laughed at how close we were without knowing for sure who we were.
I was blind and in my effort to recognize her, I refused the opportunity to make it easier on both of us by using my sign. How often do we do that in our Christian walk? We know how much God loves and knows us, and we know there is nothing we can do to make Him love and know us any better, yet we don’t do the things that would help us to know Him even better.
George Whitefield, the 18th century evangelist, once wrote, “Walking with God implies our making progress or advances in the divine life. Walking, in the very first idea of the word, seems to suppose a progressive motion. A person that walks, though he move slowly, yet he goes forward, and does not continue in one place. And so it is with those that walk with God. They go on, as the Psalmist says, ‘from strength to strength’; or, in the language of the apostle Paul, ‘they pass from glory to glory, even by the Spirit of the Lord’. Indeed, in one sense, the divine life admits of neither increase nor decrease. When a soul is born of God, to all intents and purposes he is a child of God; and though he should live to the age of Methuselah, yet he would then be only a child of God after all. But in another sense, the divine life admits of decays and additions. Hence it is, that we find the people of God charged with backslidings and losing their first love. And hence it is that we hear of babes, young men, and fathers in Christ. And upon this account it is that the apostle exhorts Timothy, ‘to let his progress be made known to all men’. And what is here required of Timothy in particular, by St. Peter is enjoined on all Christians in general. ‘But grow in grace, (says he), and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ’. For the new creature increases in spiritual stature; and though a person can but be a new creature, yet there are some that are more conformed to the divine image than others, and will after death be admitted to a greater degree of blessedness. For want of observing this distinction, even some gracious souls, that have better hearts than heads, (as well as men of corrupt minds, reprobates concerning the faith) have unawares run into downright Antinomian principles, denying all growth of grace in a believer, or any marks of grace to be laid down in the scriptures of truth. From such principles, and more especially from practices naturally consequent on such principles, may the Lord of all lords deliver us!”
God has indeed given us everything we need, but we can’t sit with that knowledge and expect anything to happen. We need to grasp God’s gifts so that they will grow in us or we are like the blind man who does not really see what is right in front of him. I thought I knew my friend so well that I didn’t have to do anything special to recognize her. Do we think we know God so well that we don’t have to do anything to recognize His hand in our lives? It won’t make Him love us more if we make the effort to know Him better, but it will help us to know Him better and live more productively in His grace.
“Having therefore, brothers, boldness to enter into the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by the way which he dedicated for us, a new and living way, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh, and having a great priest over God’s house, let’s draw near with a true heart in fullness of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and having our body washed with pure water, let’s hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering; for he who promised is faithful.” Hebrew 10:19-23, WEB
I baked some Christmas cookies this week. I’ve been hesitant because we don’t need to be eating all those sweets, and we won’t have as many opportunities to share them as usual. We make them because it is traditions; some cookies are only baked at this time of year and we enjoy the memories that go with them. A few years ago, after my husband’s mother died, I created a cookbook with recipes from both our mothers to give to the grandchildren so they could continue the traditions. I found myself using that same cookbook as I made my cookies this year.
It occurred to me that I’ve always focused on my own traditions and I haven’t tried making any of my husband’s childhood memories. So, I asked him what he would like. I went out, bought the ingredients, and started the process. These are complicated cookies, using a technique I never tried, so I hope they work out alright. I’ve always been intimidated by the idea of making these cookies. I don’t want to disappoint since these are a memory for my husband. He has always been respectful and enjoyed whatever I made for him, but now that both his parents are gone, I want to be able to give him that taste of his past.
I think these cookies will work out well, but I won’t know for sure until I bake them. They have to cool in the refrigerator overnight and then we’ll see. I do pretty well in the kitchen, but I’m definitely not a perfect baker. I have burned more cookies than I care to admit and I remember one year I forgot to add the sugar to my mom’s cookie recipe. I always taste a cookie after it has been baked/cooked and they didn't taste right. That's when I realized there was no sugar. I tried to add some to the remaining dough, though that year those cookies were not my best.
One of my favorite memories with these cookies came from my first year of marriage to my husband. The recipe from my mom had the ingredients but no instructions. I think she assumed I would remember how they were made; after all, I watched her make them year after year. Unfortunately, I didn’t remember and it was long before I could make a quick search on the Internet. So, I guessed on oven temperature and time. The cookies were good, but I knew there was something different about them. My mom and dad visited us the next Christmas and she was there when I made those cookies. She was confused by my process and asked, “What are you doing?” I confessed that I didn’t remember how to bake them and that her recipe wasn’t clear. She laughed and reminded me that they are cooked on a griddle. The next batch was so much better and I’ve remembered ever since.
Traditions help us remember the past, but it is wonderful creating new traditions, too. I made several new types of cookies this year. I’ve been collecting recipes for the past few months. The new cookies are delicious, and though I will miss some of my old favorites, it is fun to try something new. When it comes to matters of faith, it is important for us to remember the old. The lessons of the Old Testament teach us about the God of grace who is revealed in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He did something new, and we are made new in Him. While we should never forget the things of the past and cherish them, we are journeying through Advent to the life that God promised in those texts. Jesus is the something new and our faith is given so that we will see God’s faithfulness and the fulfillment of all those old promises in Him.
Scriptures for December 20, 2020, Fourth Sunday of Advent: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16; Psalm 89:1-5 [19-26]; Romans 16:25-27; Luke 1:26-38
“For nothing spoken by God is impossible.” Luke 1:37, WEB
“Believe in the science” is a phrase we hear often these days. I am by no means a science denier, but I have to admit that I am at times a skeptic. It isn’t that I reject scientific findings, but I have noted that those findings can change from day to day. There was a time in history when the world was flat, according to the scientists, but we know today that it is a big round object floating in an incredibly large universe. One day coffee is not good for you, but the next day there are health benefits. Weather science has gotten better, but even now the meteorologists change their forecasts over and over again until the event is finished when they can finally tell us what happened. We have been told for ten months that masks are the key to stopping the pandemic, and yet there are at least a dozen studies from respected scientific sources that prove otherwise.
The problem with science is that for every problem there are a dozen theories and a dozen scientists who have proof their theory is the right one. While we should listen to science, we have to remember that science is not always reliable because it changes with new information and people will only report the science that fits their point of view. When they say that we should “believe in the science,” they are asking us to accept something as true or feel sure that it is the truth. It might be the truth today, but tomorrow we may discover something proves the exact opposite. Should we believe in science?
Again, this is not a question of rejecting science, but of how much confidence we put into it. After all, science would tell us that we should not believe what we know about the Christmas story.
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. Even if there are natural explanations, we have faith that God made it happen at just the right moment, causing the ground to be dry enough for carts, and ending it at exactly the right moment when the Israelites were on land and Pharaoh’s army was in the danger zone.
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 can the language explain away the miracle? 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.
He is able.
The story of John the Baptist is no less miraculous. John’s parents, Elizabeth and Zechariah, were very old. Zechariah received the promise that John would be born while he was ministering in the temple and he was struck dumb by the angel who’d been sent to give the message because he doubted the angel’s word. At John’s birth, when Zechariah obediently gave him the name John, despite the questions from family and friends, Zechariah’s voice returned. It might not seem so miraculous with today’s modern medicine, but for a barren woman of advanced age in Elizabeth’s day to have a child was impossible. Yet, God is able to do this thing, too.
The Jews were expecting a Messiah. They were waiting for the good news that God’s promises were fulfilled in a mighty king who would lead them into another golden age. They knew the promises and expected them for themselves. Paul, however, saw that there was a mystery in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He saw 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.
Why is God worthy of praise? Because He is able to bring the obedience of faith through the words offered by those He has called to share the Gospel. He is able to give strength to His people to face extraordinary odds, to do the impossible, to tell stories that are unbelievable and yet true. The purpose of the Gospel is not only the salvation of those lost in the darkness, but to bring the obedience of faith to those who hear the message. God is able to make His hand move in the lives of those who were never expected to hear or understand the Gospel message. God gives us the strength to continue taking that message into the world. This is the obedience of faith, living an active life of praising God by sharing His Gospel, and His heart, with those we least expect will hear.
There was a show called “Cash in the Attic” that came out of England. The object of the show was for a family to search through their home for objects that could be sold at auction to earn enough money for a special family project. One family wanted to have a party, another wished to purchase some goats, another wanted to renovate an ancient bathroom.
One woman on the show had been a servant at Sandringham, Queen Elizabeth’s country home. The royal family always spends Christmas at Sandringham and they visit there at other times of the year. It is a favorite field trip for school groups and site for tourists to visit. We went a few times, enjoying the tours and tea in their shop.
The host of the show asked about her work and any experiences she had with the royal family. She told a story about a moment with Prince William when he was young. She thought no one could see her while she played peek-a-boo with the child. She suddenly realized that someone was watching her from behind and turned to see Prince Charles. He was very gracious as she curtsied and greeted him. It was a memorable moment for her, and the story reminds us that despite their extraordinary position in the world they are ordinary people.
Prince William now grown with children of his own and it is hard for us to imagine that he was once a little boy who liked to pay peek-a-boo with the household staff. He has been trained to be a man of power in this world and will probably wear the crown of a king some day. He will sit on a throne much like David’s.
David was a man of power and authority. He was the ruler of Israel during a golden age when they were a strong, independent nation. By God’s hand and under David’s care they established their place in the world, laying down roots in the Promised Land. David is among the greatest of biblical characters, placed on a pedestal by numerous faith traditions. Yet, David was an ordinary shepherd when God called him to serve. He was the youngest of his house; there was nothing exceptional about him. But God does not see His people from a human point of view. He knows hearts and He gifts according to His purpose.
The obstacles to establishing a strong and independent kingdom were overcome under David’s rule by God’s hand. 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 and he thought God should not be living in a tent. He thought God deserved a home, too.
David’s heart was in the right place, but he was thinking like a man. God sent Samuel to show him how His kingdom works. It is not for David to provide a home for God. God does not need a home. He commanded the tent which traveled with the people, and when the time was right He would command the building of a permanent structure. But the timing had to be according to God’s plan. And the design would be according to His purpose. David could not choose to build God a house. Instead, God had a house to build for David.
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. Yet, all those whom we have lifted onto the pedestals of faith were not exceptional. They were just like us, but God called them to something greater. It is God’s work, not ours, that makes the miracles in this world.
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.
When Mary asked how it could be, 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 scientist or 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 in Him.
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 they 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. I am thankful for all the incredible things we have been able to do because of the scientific advancements of humanity over thousands of years. 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 make clear 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. They say it was ok for people two thousand years ago to believe in angels because 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 was blessed by this most incredible promise. And yet, this blessing was anything but good according to the ways of the world. Mary would struggle her whole life with the consequences of this blessing, including the cross on which He died. Yet, she believed that she had been blessed.
The word “bless” is interesting, especially in our day and age. We think of people who are financially well off as ‘blessed’, but that is not always true. Blessedness is much holier than we make it out to be in our common language. As a matter of fact, as I was doing research on this word, I discovered that the Middle English word from which is comes actually means “to consecrate with blood.”
Someone once told me that “to bless” means “to speak well of.” It can also have something to do with the bestowal of divine favor and good things. God blesses us. This we know is true. Many of the worldly goods and happiness comes with sacrifice, but those blessings are never eternal. We work hard to have what we have and we thank God for everything, but the true blessings come at great cost: the shedding of blood and divine action. The lasting blessing is God’s favor upon us. It is God’s eternal gift of life through His Son, the son He brought through Mary.
Our blessing comes through blood, not only the blood Jesus Christ shed on the cross, but also the blood shed at His birth. Mary was an ordinary woman, not even a woman. She was little more than a child when the angel spoke to her. She was given this most extraordinary purpose, to bring the Savior into the world. This was indeed a blessing. As a matter of fact, Elizabeth said the same. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” They were consecrated with blood, blessed by God’s divine favor. And we are blessed forever through them. This is a most extraordinary thing.
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 think 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 in the impossible.
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.
There are good reasons to believe in the science, to follow the recommendations of those who have studied the world to understand how it works. We should not reject their work because it, too, has been given to us by God to bless our lives. Yet, we are called to believe in something even greater: the impossible Christmas story. We are called to give praise to the God who has blessed us with faith through His Son who lived and died for our eternal salvation. This is a promise that will never fail. It is a belief that will never be overturned with new information or anyone’s point of view.
May God grant us the confidence to trust in His story, praising God for His blessings through Jesus Christ our Lord who is the impossible that was made possible for us.
“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
Phillips Brooks was a clergyman who lived during the time of the American Civil War. He supported the dissolution of slavery. Despite his desire to be nothing more than a parish priest, Phillips Brooks was an author, an Episcopal Bishop and a man whose character and eloquence made him highly respected. He spoke about Abraham Lincoln’s life as the dead president’s body lay in state in Philadelphia, powerfully sharing the feelings of those who loved the man and the president.
“It is the great boon of such characters as Mr. Lincoln’s, that they reunite what God has joined together and man has put asunder. In him was vindicated the greatness of real goodness and the goodness of real greatness. The twain were one flesh. Not one of all the multitudes who stood and looked up to him for direction with such a loving and implicit trust can tell you to-day whether the wise judgments that he gave came most from a strong head or a sound heart. If you ask them, they are puzzled. There are men as good as he, but they do bad things. There are men as intelligent as he, but they do foolish things. In him goodness and intelligence combined and made their best result of wisdom. For perfect truth consists not merely in the right constituents of character, but in their right and intimate conjunction. This union of the mental and moral into a life of admirable simplicity is what we most admire in children; but in them it is unsettled and unpractical. But when it is preserved into manhood, deepened into reliability and maturity, it is that glorified childlikeness, that high and reverend simplicity, which shames and baffles the most accomplished astuteness, and is chosen by God to fill his purposes when he needs a ruler for his people, of faithful and true heart, such as he had who was our President.” Phillips Brooks in Philadelphia, April 1865.
The Civil War was a difficult time for America, and the death of President Lincoln was a thorn in the already scarred flesh of the country and the man, Phillips Brooks. In December 1865, just months after Lincoln’s burial, Brooks visited the Holy Land in the hope of finding spiritual renewal. On Christmas Eve, he rented a horse and traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. He was refreshed by the spirit of the first Christmas in that place. Three years later, as he wrote his Christmas Eve sermon, he wrote the hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
Two lines from that hymn stick out as I read it, both pointing at the reality of what Christmas has become for us. I know there are many Christians who have difficulty with the holy-day, knowing that so many of the customs and traditions that we love have older, pagan roots. After all, we do not know the actual day of Christ’s birth, the date December 25th was selected as a way of overcoming the continuing Christian celebration of Saturnalia, a pagan holiday. Until the fourth century, Christians were not allowed to celebrate the birth, and they were discouraged from participating in the fun, Roman celebrations. However, human nature as it is tended toward the excitement and joviality of those pagan celebrations. So, the leaders allowed for the immersion of Christian thought into those traditions, making what was old new again.
We might think that there is no place for these connections, but Jesus constantly took the things of the earth and gave them new and sacred meanings. Fishermen became fishers of men. Farming became an image of the Kingdom of God. Baptism takes ordinary water and makes it holy. We use everyday bread and wine in the Eucharist as a foretaste of the Feast that is to come. Jesus did not say we had to throw away the old; instead we are to embrace the old with a new heart.
Phillips Brooks wrote, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Human nature may tend toward the fun and frivolous, but we are also created with an inbred spark of God’s light. If we look at those pagan traditions that have become a part of Christmas, we’ll see why they were so easily adapted to our faith: they stand for many of the same things. In a later verse, Brooks wrote, “The dark night wakes, the glory breaks and Christmas comes once more.” The pagan traditions might have had a spark of truth, but they were buried in the darkness of the world before Christ. Christmas sets those sparks free, brings the glory of God into the world and offers the true peace and joy of life in God’s kingdom.
“Yahweh possessed me in the beginning of his work, before his deeds of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, before the earth existed.” Proverbs 8:22-23, WEB
An antiphon is a short sentence sung or said before or after a psalm or canticle as a refrain, often taken from the text. During the week before Christmas, many churches recite antiphons that are focused on the Old Testament names of Christ. These “O Antiphons” proclaim the coming Christ as the fulfillment not only of Old Testament hopes, but present ones as well. These names are O Wisdom of our God Most High, O Leader of the House of Israel, O Root of Jesse’s stem, O Key of David, O Radiant Dawn, O King of all nations and keystone of the Church, and O Emmanuel, our King and Giver of Law. We long for the coming of the Messiah and we cry “Come!” so that He can teach, rescue, free, shine on, and save us. These O Antiphons remind us as we wait for the coming of Jesus Christ at Christmas that the baby we desire is the very presence of God in this world. Jesus is not just a man born, but He is Emmanuel, the Great I AM, Wisdom and Word that was with God and is God from before the beginning of time.
The proverbs teach us common sense lessons for living in this world. Though we are spiritual creatures made new through our relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ, we also have to get through the day-to-day experiences with others and God’s great and wonderful creation. The wisdom that shines from the words in the book is invaluable to our lives, relationships, and even our faith. But that is not all we see in this book. All the Old Testament scripture establishes a foundation for the grace of God given through Christ Jesus our Lord. Even the proverbs point to the coming of Jesus as Savior.
John was familiar with the words of the prophets and the promises of God for a Messiah. He drew from those words and ideas when he wrote the Gospel that tells his version of the story of Jesus. John knew that God’s presence was in the world from the beginning, manifest as wisdom. We saw it in the life of Solomon, who is credited with the writing of many of the proverbs. Of all the things that he could have asked from God, he asked for only wisdom. God was pleased with such a request and gave more than Solomon could have desired – wealth, power and fame. Though today’s passage from Proverbs does not directly refer to Jesus Christ, it does lay the foundation for our understanding of the fullness of God dwelling in the flesh of man. John knew this as he wrote the opening words of the Gospel.
John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him. Without him, nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness hasn’t overcome it.” (John 1:1-5, WEB)
It is well and good that we know the wisdom found in the book of Proverbs and live by it daily. If only more people would follow the common sense lessons of integrity, compassion, gratitude, and humility the world would be a much more pleasant place to live. Our relationships with God, each other, the creation, and even ourselves would be stronger and better for it. But even the wisdom of Solomon would do us no good if we did not have the saving grace of God as found in Jesus Christ.
John tells us that the Word was made flesh, and when He came He changed the world. We don’t always understand the things of God. Even the most spiritual people still live in the flesh and have the daily trials and temptations to overcome. We live in a world that still knows the affects of sin and death, and we see the things of God as though through darkened glass. What we can know without a doubt, and live in faith and hope, is that Jesus is with us now as He has always been, Wisdom in the midst of foolishness and Light shining in the darkness. The Old Testament and the New Testament witnesses agree: God is with us as He has been from the beginning. We can rest assured that through grace God will build upon that great and wonderful beginning, first Wisdom as the Word and then that Word made flesh for our sake. Our lives might be made better by the wisdom we hear in the words of Solomon, but we can only have true life in Christ Jesus.
“Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus. When therefore he heard that he was sick, he stayed two days in the place where he was. Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let’s go into Judea again.’ The disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you. Are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Aren’t there twelve hours of daylight? If a man walks in the day, he doesn’t stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if a man walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light isn’t in him.’ He said these things, and after that, he said to them, ‘Our friend, Lazarus, has fallen asleep, but I am going so that I may awake him out of sleep.’ The disciples therefore said, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.’ Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he spoke of taking rest in sleep. So Jesus said to them plainly then, ‘Lazarus is dead. I am glad for your sakes that I was not there, so that you may believe. Nevertheless, let’s go to him.’ Thomas therefore, who is called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, ‘Let’s go also, that we may die with him.’” John 11:5-16, WEB
We usually hear this story during Lent, but the text used is the entire chapter. We usually focus on what happens later in the chapter, when Jesus arrives at the tomb of Lazarus and raises Him from the dead. This is the story in which Jesus reveals Himself as the Resurrection and the Life; in Him we are given a place in His eternal Kingdom. When we die in Christ, we are raised with Him.
This chapter also gives us a glimpse of the very human Jesus who wept at the death of His good friend Lazarus. We wonder with the disciples why Jesus would risk His life for a friend who is sleeping. Why would He wait until it was too late to save Lazarus? Why would He be glad that Lazarus died and how will his death advance their faith in Jesus? These are questions we ask whenever we read this story, but today we will look at it from a different perspective: Thomas’.
Thomas appears only in the list of the Twelve Apostles in Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s Gospel accountings. John, however, includes three separate mentions of Thomas. The most famous, of course, is read the Sunday after Easter every year: the story of Doubting Thomas. In this story from John 20, Thomas had disappeared from the community after Jesus’ death and he had not seen Jesus on the night of His resurrection like the others. “I will only believe if I can have physical proof that Jesus is alive.” We call Thomas a doubter because He makes those demands, and yet he was only asking for the same thing the other disciples had already received. Jesus answered his demands with comfort meant for the rest of us, those of us who cannot demand physical proof, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and have believed.”
Despite being called “Doubting Thomas,” however, Thomas is really the one of the eleven (Judas was gone and was not yet replaced) who made the great confession of faith, “My Lord and my God.” Thomas may have demanded proof, but he did not need to actually put his hand in Jesus’ wounds to know that Jesus was God.
Thomas is mentioned another time in John 14. In this passage Jesus was preparing the disciples for what was to come. Jesus was hours before His trial and crucifixion, dining with His disciples at the Passover meal and giving them His final lessons, a farewell discourse. In this message from chapters 14-17, Jesus poured His peace upon them and commanded them to love one another. When He told them that He must go away to prepare a place for them, Thomas said, “We don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?”
Here again Thomas seems like a doubter. If we don’t know which way to go, how can we follow? Yet, we need to look at Thomas from the beginning. In today’s text, which is the first of John’s three recollections of Thomas, he is the one disciple willing to follow Jesus wherever He must go, even unto death. “Let us go also, that we might die with Him.” If we look at Thomas from this perspective, he becomes less a doubter and more a man of faith willing to follow Jesus but uncertain as to where that might lead.
Isn’t that a lot like all of us? We believe in Jesus and want to follow Him, but we are just not sure where we should go. We all ask the questions: Am I living according to God’s Word? Am I doing what He is calling me to do? Will I have the confidence to do God’s work even when it seems absurd or impossible? Thomas, and the others, were being sent into the world on a mission that would change everything. Are we able to do so without having the assurance that God gives us through Jesus’ Word? Are we willing to die with Him, follow Him everywhere? In Thomas we have been given the reason to say “Yes.” Jesus is “my Lord and my God,” and in Him we have everything we need, including faith, to go even unto death for Him.
“Then little children were brought to him that he should lay his hands on them and pray; and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, ‘Allow the little children, and don’t forbid them to come to me; for the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to ones like these.’ He laid his hands on them, and departed from there.” Matthew 19:13-15, WEB
Scribble snowmen is a fun activity to do with children. You begin by scribbling with a white crayon or piece of chalk on to a sheet of colored paper. Then find what looks like a head, glue some eyes and a nose, and then add decorations to make it look Christmassy. This is an unusual activity because we normally expect people to color neatly in the lines, but a scribbling snowman gives you the freedom to just play with color and line. It is interesting to note that those who are more advanced with their drawing ability have more difficulty dealing with the free form of that type of project. Some people want to automatically draw circles for the head and body; they do not like scribbling. Many people would rather it be a clear picture of a snowman. People of different gifts and abilities are able to succeed at different times and in different ways.
This is very true of our spiritual journeys. We do not all have to be in the same place at the same time. And we certainly all do not have the same gifts. There are some Christians that are mature in their faith and others that are just getting started. There are those who have discovered their gifts and are using them daily to glorify God and others who are just beginning to see how abundantly God blesses His children. We need to understand these differences and learn how to love one another despite them. A mature Christian should never consider him or herself better than another Christian based on these differences. We are brought together by the power of the Holy Spirit to guide and encourage one another. The lesson we can learn from that scribbling activity is that sometimes the things we can do make it difficult to do the things we should be doing.
I’ve heard it said that new Christians make better witnesses than age old Christians. The reason for this is the fact that the new Christian has a passionate heart for evangelism and they aren’t stuck on the details. Mature Christians often trip over his or her knowledge, concerning themselves more with getting the doctrines of faith right and perfect rather than speaking the simple word of God into the lives of those who will hear. It is necessary to grow and mature, but we have to remember that all children of God have gifts, even when they are just tiny babies. And sometimes the babies can do things better than the adults.
Even young children have something to add to the Kingdom. We need to recognize that God has work for every believer, no matter where they are on their journey with Christ. The young in age and in faith are as important as the most educated theologians. We need to look at those who are in a different place and find something to encourage them. Rather than finding fault with a young Christian’s understanding of God, we should be finding their gifts and encouraging them so that they too will use their gifts to the glory of God. I think all too often we squelch the fire that burns in the hearts of new Christians because we try to force them to be at the same place on a faith journey others instead of helping them to grow from where they are.
Scriptures for December 27, 2020, First Sunday after Christmas: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 111; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:22-40
“Yahweh’s works are great, pondered by all those who delight in them.” Psalm 111:2, WEB
Christmas will be over by the time we hear the scriptures for the First Sunday of Christmas, at least for the world. Many stores are already rolling out the spring and Valentine’s Day merchandise. Yet, despite the recommendations to “cancel Christmas” most people seem to be finding joy in the holy day and I’ve even heard people wondering if they could get permission from the home owners’ associations to keep Christmas lights up until February.
There are no more presents under the tree. The celebration may go on since the holiday means an extra long weekend, although this year with the restrictions there will be fewer parties and gatherings. Some people will remove their Christmas decorations over the weekend; we will begin seeing Christmas trees on the curb. Thoughts will turn away from Jesus to the coming of the New Year, an event that many people hope will change our lives for the better again.
It is sad that we rush through one holiday and move on to the next. Here’s the thing, you’ve heard of the twelve days of Christmas, right? Well, it isn’t just a song. The church continues to celebrate Christmas through twelfth night, the night before Epiphany. This Sunday is just the third day of Christmas. Do you think Mary and Joseph were done celebrating the birth of their baby so quickly? They were recovering from the trip and Mary was recovering from the labor, but the joy they felt at the birth of Jesus did not end with the setting sun. Mary still had many things to treasure and ponder about the little boy that had been entrusted to her care and the promises that were fulfilled in Him.
Jesus was surrounded by promises that God had giving to His people throughout their history. God promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations, which came true in Jesus. David was promised that his throne would last forever, which came true in Jesus. The book of Isaiah the prophet is filled with promises fulfilled in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is the culmination of God’s promises.
God spoke much more specific promises to the family of Jesus. Elizabeth and Zechariah were given John, the one who would make way for Jesus. Mary and Joseph were promised the incredible gift of a baby who would truly change the world. Two others were made promises: Simeon and Anna.
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 an older man, white haired and wise in appearance. Tradition holds that Simeon was Gamaliel’s father. We know Gamaliel from the book of Acts, when the counsel was discussing the problem of the Apostles. He told his fellow councilmen to be patient and to let God take care of the situation. “Now I tell you, withdraw from these men, and leave them alone. For if this counsel or this work is of men, it will be overthrown. But if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow it, and you would be found even to be fighting against God!” This was wise advice, although I’m certain the council was hoping everything would turn out much differently.
Gamaliel may have had a concealed motive for speaking such wise words. We know that this Pharisee was a Jewish scholar and teacher of the Law. His most famous student was Saul of Tarsus, otherwise known as Paul. If Simeon was Gamaliel’s father, it is likely he heard that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s promise. Perhaps Gamaliel knew that the men standing before the Sanhedrin were followers of that baby in the Temple. It is believed that Gamaliel did become a Christian and was baptized by Peter and John, but that he kept his Christianity a secret until his death so that he could remain in the Sanhedrin to offer aid to the Christians who were being persecuted. The Jewish account of his life maintains that he remained a Pharisee until he died. But his speech at the trial of the apostles gives some credence to the possibility that he had faith. His council saved their lives so they could continue to share the Gospel.
God fulfills all His promises and He does so in miraculous ways. We don’t know for sure that there is a familial connection between Simeon and Gamaliel, but wouldn’t it be just like God to do use a father to tell a son to train an apostle to change the world?
God promised Simeon that he would see the salvation of Israel before he died. One day a couple with a young boy 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; 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.” Simeon’s purpose was to see the Light, which is Christ, and once he saw Jesus he could rest in peace. We do not know what happened to Simeon after that day. I have always assumed he died immediately, but it really does not matter. Here we see the fulfillment of yet another promise.
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 would 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 go forth with the same question we have heard throughout the birth story? “How can this be?”
Anna also knew God’s promises. She never left the temple, 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? Why weren’t there more people who knew that Jesus was the one for whom they had been waiting?
Why did the Jews doubt when Jesus appeared thirty years later? In the nativity story we see the shepherds sharing the Good News. The wise men asked around Jerusalem before they met with Herod. Certainly people had heard about the birth of this new King and wondered. Yet when Jesus began His ministry thirty years later, few people believed in Him. The stories of the Nativity may have become nothing more than myth, or they were not associated with Jesus of Nazareth; the people did not see Jesus as the miracle He is because they had no proof that He was the boy about whom the wise men, the shepherds, Simeon and Anna spoke. Myths may make us wonder, but they make us ask “How can this be” and we do not believe.
We have not changed that much over these many years. People are people, after all, and we don’t believe without proof. We put our own expectations on the promises. The baby in Mary’s arms didn’t seem like a Messiah. Thankfully some people had faith to share their stories. Simeon’s telling may have led to Paul’s great work for God’s kingdom. We, too, amidst our own question “How can this be” are called to believe that God has, and does, fulfill all His promises. In faith we glorify God as we praise Him for His faithfulness.
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 we are free to share our deepest thoughts and fears? Or is our relationship with Him 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 and daughters, setting free those who are burdened by the Law and enabling us by grace to be adopted by God our heavenly Father through faith. 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 powerful king, not a poor son of a carpenter who grew up in 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 those who witnessed the baby Jesus and later remembered would never make sense 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; 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 most breathtaking, and inspiring, moments of my life have been in extraordinary places. There’s nothing like standing on top of a mountain, seeing the snow-covered range go on and on seemingly forever. At night, the sky above those mountains is filled with so many stars that they would be impossible to count. A beach at sunrise, with nothing obstructing the view of the rising sun, is amazing. Standing at the foot of a giant redwood is beyond imagination. A field full of bluebonnets, a rainbow sweeping over a plain, and a perfectly still mountain lake can raise in us a sense of wonder and praise like little else. God created all these things and it makes us ponder His greatness.
We are also awed by the power that God has given to the creation. The roar of a lion, the thunder and lightning of a storm, the constancy of the waves crashing against the shore reminds us that we are just a small part of God’s great big world. It is not always pleasant. It is fearful to be in the path of a tornado or a hurricane. The tiniest mosquito can spread life-taking disease. Yet, even those parts of creation have a purpose and are given by God to do His will. A raging wildfire that is out of control is frightening, yet a necessary part of the natural process of forest growth and renewal. We don’t always understand these things, especially when they cause us harm, but as we ponder the world around us we see that God is always worthy of our praise.
I love those extraordinary moments when I can see God’s hand in the world around me. Do we respond to God’s grace with a word of thanksgiving before going on to our normal lives or are we changed forever by what God has done? Those who trust God are changed. They were made new. Faith is not blind. The psalmist confessed his faith in the presence of an assembly, and he did so by recounting the wonderful things God had done. He praised God by referencing the works of His hands. Unfortunately, God’s people often forgot the great and marvelous things He has done and when He came to them in the final and most incredible act of mercy, they did not recognize Him. The people may have heard stories of the Nativity, but they rejected Jesus when He appeared to fulfill the promises of God.
In today’s Psalm, the writer praises God for something much different than the tangible blessings of creation. God’s work as it relates to His relationship with His people is not always obvious or even believable. We have the stories of the Exodus, but we were not there to cross the Red Sea with Moses and the rest of Israel. We can read about the miracles of Jesus and believe in His healing power, but we have not experienced His physical touch. The psalmist knew God’s mighty works among His people, and yet those works were little more than a memory, handed down by generation after generation. These stories are still worth our songs of praise. God did these things, and in them we see His power, faithfulness and grace. Those stories point us to the greatest act of salvation when God sent Jesus. This news fills us with awe; even those who were nearest to Him pondered His life and His purpose.
And so, as we ponder His story and wonder about the witnesses who shared the Good News, we are called to praise Him, not only for the beauty of His creation or for the goodness of His dealings with His people. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and that fear leads us to a deeper and fuller relationship with our God. We know of His power. We also know of His mercy and grace. We know He is faithful. Wisdom is seen in the lives of those who live according to His good and perfect Word; not in the things we can see but in the things that are. This fear – awe – leads us to delight in Him because by His power, mercy, grace, and faithfulness He is done the greatest thing of all: He made us His children and heirs to an eternal kingdom.
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 wise men, 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 bear. 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. We delight in God because He has done this great thing and our praise is our witness to the faithfulness of the God who has kept His promises for His people. This gives us reason to rejoice and to praise God today, tomorrow and always.
“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.” James 1:17, WEB
Father Christmas. Santa Claus. Kris Kringle. Papa Noel. Throughout the world, children tonight are expecting a visit from some form of this character. Who is he? From whence does he come? And what does he really have to do with Christmas? The western image of Santa Claus has become so commercialized that his true identity has been lost in the midst of red coats, flying reindeer and hearty laughter. The inspiration for this character came from a real man named St. Nicholas who is the patron saint of sailors and children. In many places he is still honored with dignity and respect.
Santa was not always a big fat guy wearing a red suit trimmed in fur. He evolved from a much older story of a Christian saint that did wonderful kindnesses. It is said that Nicholas was orphaned at a young age by wealthy parents. His generosity showed from a very early age. One story tells of a time he threw a bag of gold coins through the window of a poor man’s house, so that his daughter would have a dowry to marry. The man would have had to sell his daughter into prostitution if it had not been for the generous gift. Nicholas provided the dowries for the man’s other daughters and similar gifts for other young girls. Other stories describe him as a lifesaver: sailors from a storm and three innocent men from execution whose deaths were bought with a bribe. Yet another describes a day that Nicholas knelt in prayer in a church. An elderly minister approached him and asked who he was. The young Nicholas replied, “Nicholas the sinner. And I am your servant.” Soon after, Nicholas was made bishop of Myra.
Children were always an important part of the celebration of St. Nicholas’s life, and it was traditional to give gifts to children on his feast day, which is December 6th. They also held special ceremonies choosing a Boy Bishop on his feast day. A boy was selected to be bishop from December 6th to December 28th, Holy Innocent’s Day. This probably came from the story of how Nicholas answered the call into ministry. As Christians began to celebrate Christ’s birth around the winter solstice, Nicholas became known as Father Christmas and the traditions surrounding his feast were moved to the later date. Over the years, the image of St. Nicholas has changed, making him more like a magician than a saint.
The focus on children has continued with the modern image of Santa Claus. Today we use Santa to bribe our children into good behavior, but the stories of Nicholas should be taught with the proper focus. The gifts of St. Nicholas were gifts that saved the recipients from horrible lives, even death. He gave the dowries to the girls, not because they earned the money, but because Nicholas wanted to spare them life in prostitution. The men who were saved from death were not necessarily innocent, but Nicholas gave them the gift of life. In these stories, we see examples of the kind of love our Lord Jesus had for us. We did nothing to earn His love or deserve His gifts, yet He gave more than we can even imagine.
There are those who worry about the commercialization of Christmas, much is based on the traditions of gift-giving. Yet, during this strange year, gift-giving seems as important as ever because it is one way to bring us together when we can’t be together. People are shipping gifts to their families in record numbers. Perhaps Christmas has become more about Santa and presents to the world, but I think many people have placed a greater focus on our Lord this year. I’ve even seen multiple posts showing different art pieces with Santa kneeling at the foot of the manger.
I hope Advent has been a time of repentance and watchful expectation, more time spent in prayer and study, remembering the child in the manger and looking forward to the King of Glory. There are definitely aspects of our modern holidays that need repentance, but we can still enjoy the aspects we love as we recall the origins of our Christmas traditions. The St. Nicholas story teaches our children love, generosity, and commitment. Most of all, we can look at the stories of St. Nicholas and remember the great sacrifice made by our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave us the greatest gift of all, His life so we can dwell with Him in His eternal kingdom.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him. Without him, nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness hasn’t overcome it. There came a man, sent from God, whose name was John. The same came as a witness, that he might testify about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but was sent that he might testify about the light. The true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, and the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own, and those who were his own didn’t receive him. But as many as received him, to them he gave the right to become God’s children, to those who believe in his name: who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. The Word became flesh, and lived among us. We saw his glory, such glory as of the one and only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:1-14, WEB
At Christmastime, we celebrate the most extraordinary event: our Lord Jesus was born. During this season, we have parties, give gifts, and share the message of hope and love that He brought to this earth. At times, our holiday celebrations don’t look very much like a religious experience. We drink in excess and spend too much on presents out of duty rather than love. It is a time when many people face depression and anger. Families argue over trivial matters. Divorce is rampant. What should be a time of worshipping our Lord God Almighty, is a time when our human failures are most pronounced.
Jesus does that to us. When we have a relationship with our Lord, we see the reality of our human failures. We see that we are sinners in need of the Savior. We humble ourselves before the throne of mercy and grace and ask for God to forgive our sins and make us new again.
In that stable two thousand years ago, a baby was born who would show us the truth. The truth is that we are focused on self when we should be worshipping God with our whole being. The truth is our human nature is imperfect and that we will die because of our sin. However, that baby was more than just a good example, special teacher. Jesus Christ was born on that day to be the perfect Lamb of God, the perfect sacrifice for our sins. He taught us how to live, but the end He knew we could never live according to God’s Will. In the stable, Jesus humbled Himself and became man. At the cross, Jesus Christ humbled Himself even more by dying for us. We rejoice this Christmas in the birth of our Savior. We should always remember, however, that it is in His death and resurrection that we find the hope of His purpose.
We linger a moment over the infant Jesus in the manger each Christmas and then go on to party and overindulge. We sing a few carols and share our blessings with those we love, then we act in ways that are not worthy before the Lord. As we celebrate Christmas this year, let’s spend some time focusing on His story, hearing once again the Nativity of God’s own Son.
The Story of our Savior’s Birth
On this Christmas Day, let us give thanks to God for the greatest gift of all, His Son our Savior Jesus Christ. To Him is the glory forever and ever. Hallelujah! Our Christmas wish, from our house to yours, is that you will have a blessed and bright Christmas Day.
“Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, ‘Arise and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.’ He arose and took the young child and his mother by night and departed into Egypt, and was there until the death of Herod, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’ Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked by the wise men, was exceedingly angry, and sent out and killed all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all the surrounding countryside, from two years old and under, according to the exact time which he had learned from the wise men. Then that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled, saying, ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; she wouldn’t be comforted, because they are no more.’ But when Herod was dead, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, ‘Arise and take the young child and his mother, and go into the land of Israel, for those who sought the young child’s life are dead.’” Matthew 2:13-20, WEB
We are shocked and appalled when we hear stories of innocent children who are harmed by senseless violence. We have unfortunately seen too many examples of children experiencing horrific events like school shootings. We ponder these events and wonder if there is anything we can do to make a difference. Should we make changes to the way we do things? Would new regulations help? How can we help people be better and reject impulses that lead them to do these horrific acts?
Unfortunately, children die every day as a result of violence. Statistics show that about five children a day die due to child abuse, some form of child abuse is reported every ten seconds. This number may even be higher this year; one of the hidden impacts of the pandemic is higher rates of child abuse both physically and emotionally. Children are innocent victims who have no control over their lives. They count on the adults who are charged with their care to do what is right and to raise them with everything they need, including a safe place to dwell. Even while we are concerning ourselves with the reasons and solutions to the problems that lead to larger events like school shootings, we should be considering the ways we can help abused children find peace and hope.
The numbers really don’t matter; every act of abuse against a child breaks our heart. I think that today’s story about the innocent children who died at Herod’s hand is one of the worst in the scriptures because we know that they were killed out of the greed of one man. How could he choose to kill any child just because he was afraid a little baby might one day be king?
We imagine this to be a horrid event with blood running down the streets as thousands of children are slaughtered. The reality is that Bethlehem was a small town, and even with those visiting to register, the number of those killed was probably less than a dozen children. It does not make the incident less horrific: one innocent life is one too many. One child suffering for whatever reason is one child too many.
What we often forget is that the blood of those children is on our hands. Our own sin brought Jesus into this world. We blame Herod for the death of so many, but he is no different than us; his sin is no greater than ours. I can’t imagine any of us laying a hand on a child to guarantee our job or position, but how often do we think of ourselves before we think of the effects of our actions on others? How often do we accept that our own sin can cause another to suffer?
On this day we remember the children who perished at the hands of King Herod on that horrible day so long ago. Children died because Herod was afraid of losing his throne. What he did not understand is that our Lord Jesus Christ was not born to rule as a king on an earthly throne; He was born to bring forgiveness to us, to transform our lives, and reconcile us to God our Father. As we recall those innocent lives lost, we should also remember the children who perish every day in the violence and selfishness of our world today. Even more so, let us pray that God will kill the vices in our lives that affect those around us, that we won’t bring harm to others through our selfishness. May God help us to understand how our actions affect others and think first before acting, especially when we might bring harm to an innocent child.
“Preserve me, God, for I take refuge in you. My soul, you have said to Yahweh, ‘You are my Lord. Apart from you I have no good thing.’ As for the saints who are in the earth, they are the excellent ones in whom is all my delight. Their sorrows shall be multiplied who give gifts to another god. Their drink offerings of blood I will not offer, nor take their names on my lips. Yahweh assigned my portion and my cup. You made my lot secure. The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places. Yes, I have a good inheritance. I will bless Yahweh, who has given me counsel. Yes, my heart instructs me in the night seasons. I have set Yahweh always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved. Therefore my heart is glad, and my tongue rejoices. My body shall also dwell in safety. For you will not leave my soul in Sheol, neither will you allow your holy one to see corruption. You will show me the path of life. In your presence is fullness of joy. In your right hand there are pleasures forever more.” Psalm 16, WEB
You have probably seen a meme on the Internet that says something like, “I can’t wait to put 2020 behind me and experience the peace, joy and miracles of 2021.” These statements are very hopeful, and I join in the desire to step into a new year with new possibilities. This isn’t new; I have had friends that have been desperate to leave previous years behind because of tough times, and none of their problems ever came close to what we have experienced together this year. The thing is, their problems never ended with the dropping of the ball on New Year’s Eve. Perhaps we are always looking for peace in all the wrong places.
If you type the word “presence 2020” into your google machine, you will probably get a lot of hits that talk about digital presence. This has been especially important during this past year since we have had little opportunity to be present with others. This holiday season was particularly difficult for so many because they were unable to travel home or to loved ones as they had anticipated. Christmas gatherings were small, with immediate family or only a few friends. We were missing our daughter this year, and though she does not come home every Christmas, this one seemed harder than usual.
To make up for the lack of physical presence, many of us have taken to using the Internet to gather. Who hasn’t had a Zoom meeting sometime this year? The people in my husband’s office meet regularly via other online meeting formats. Bible studies have continued using these digital applications. Even churches are using Facebook Live and other living streaming options to provide congregations with weekly worship or devotion times. I am sure many families used these programs to spend time with loved ones; our daughter joined us when we opened presents and she ate breakfast with us.
It helped, but a digital presence is not enough. How many of you long to hug someone or shake their hand? Are you looking forward to meeting that friend for a long, lingering lunch at your favorite restaurant? Do you want to invite friends over for a dinner party? Is there an elderly relative in a nursing home you have been missing? We have been able to see people through the computer, but we are incredibly blessed by being in the physical presence of those we love.
There is a story about some mice that lived inside a piano. They were awestruck by the music they heard echoing in their dark world. They all believed in some unknown player, were comforted by the thought that someone made the music. They rejoiced over the Great Player they could not see. But one day one of the mice ventured to another part of the piano and found the strings. He came back thinking he knew how the music was made, for the music came from the strings as they trembled and vibrated. Everyone stopped believing in the Great Player. Later another mouse went exploring and found the hammers that made the strings vibrate and the simple explanation for the sound became more complicated but they still did not believe in the unknown player. Eventually the Great Player became nothing but a myth to the mice.
Isn’t that the way it is for many people in today’s world? We are like those mice, living in a world where we cannot see the One in control. Many in today’s world are seeking hope in a date on a calendar, but the reality is that it will take time for everything to return to some semblance of normal. The virus won’t disappear in a minute. The political, social, and cultural issues will not be solved overnight. We can hope that tomorrow will be better, but hope will disappoint if it is not founded in the One in whom we must trust. Faith is the only thing that will get us through the times of darkness. We have to rely on God, knowing that He is faithful, blameless and pure. He is present with us and everything we do we do only with His strength. Even when we cannot see the Great Player, He is playing the music of our lives. That’s what will get us through into the new year.
The Psalmist knew that apart from God he had no good thing, that God alone was his refuge. He knew the joy and peace that comes from trusting in God rather than the things of this world. “You will show me the path of life. In your presence is fullness of joy. In your right hand there are pleasures forever more.” This is the lesson that will keep us through the hard times. Our hope is found in God. Let us have faith in Him because He is faithful to all His promises and will help us endure to the end.
Scriptures for January 3, 2021, Second Sunday after Christmas: 1 Kings 3:4-15; Psalm 119:97-104; Ephesians 1:3-14; Luke 2:40-52
“We were also assigned an inheritance in him, having been foreordained according to the purpose of him who does all things after the counsel of his will, to the end that we should be to the praise of his glory, we who had before hoped in Christ.” Ephesians 1:11-12, WEB
Many of the beaches in England are covered with small rocks and pebbles, made smooth by the constant beating of the waves on the shore. I once visited such a beach and as I walked it, I remembered the scripture from Genesis about Abraham’s descendants being as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. I realized that the rocky beach showed this truth in a more enlightening way. On a sandy beach, every grain looks alike. However, on that beach, every stone was unique: some large, some small, some gray, some colorful, some flat and some round. I even found a stone that looked like a nose. Not only has God made the children of Abraham too numerous to count, He also made each of us original.
During that trip I heard a story about King Canute which is said to have happened only yards from where we stood. King Canute was a Danish man who was king of England for nearly twenty years. There was war and controversy over his reign, but he became the first king to rule over all of England. He also ruled over Denmark and Norway. He was a harsh ruler, but England succeeded under his reign. He was so powerful that his people claimed he was like a god, able to control even the sea. He knew that was not true, so he proved it to his people on that beach at Thorpeness. King Canute took a chair and set it at the water’s edge at low tide. As the waves rolled inland, he said, “Stop.” Of course the waves did not stop. The water level rose, to his knees, to his waste, to his neck. Finally, it became impossible for him to continue. As he left the water, he said, “See, I cannot control the sea.”
The scriptures tell of the same sort of humility in Solomon, the son of David. By his time in Israel’s history, God’s promise to Abraham had been at least partially fulfilled. His descendants were too numerous to count. Solomon was only twenty when he took the throne of Israel, and he was uncertain of his abilities to govern.
The story of King Canute may not be true, but we learn an important lesson from the stories of both Solomon and Canute: even great and powerful kings must submit to the Lord. God is pleased and blesses our lives with far more than we ask when we submit to Him. Jesus died and rose again so that His children might have life. Through Christ we are made one of the children of Abraham. We are unique individuals like the countless rocks on the beach, constantly touched by the hands of God, made smooth under His power. Let us ever remember that we cannot control God, but when we submit to Him, we will be blessed. He is our Father and we are the children He has created, redeemed and called to bless the world with our gifts.
Solomon was young, but we know that children can sometimes be the wisest people we know. That doesn’t stop us from holding our breath when they go forward for a children’s sermon. You never know what they are going to say; it is risky to give them an open forum to share their thoughts in front of the congregation. They say shocking things, embarrass their parents, and often make us laugh. One pastor invited the children up front and noticed one girl with a very pretty dress. He asked her if it was her Easter dress. “Yes,” she answered, “and my mom says it’s a bitch to iron.” We have all probably heard something similar from our own children; they repeat what they hear and share what they know, even if we’d rather they never shared those words.
Their comments might be embarrassing, but they are just as often amazing. We don’t think that children really understand faith or the bible, after all, we have our own questions and doubts. Surely young children couldn’t possibly know more than the adults! Yet, when asked about the things of faith, many can answer in ways that seem far beyond their years. The lessons we learn from the children’s sermons don’t often come from the pastor; they come from the children themselves. They know Jesus is the heart of the Gospel and they know it is about love. They are honest and innocent, unstained by the cynicism or intellectualism of adulthood, so they share God’s grace in the most simple and pure form. We have much we can learn from them.
How odd it is for a twelve year old to go into the Temple on his own to learn and talk about the scriptures. Yet, when we think about the things our children really know about faith, it is not so unusual. Perhaps if our own children were given the same opportunity, they too might be able to share a bit of wisdom with their elders. Jesus was certainly unusual, He was the Son of God, the living Word in flesh, and had all the wisdom of God written on His heart. As adults we tend to know the scriptures in our heads, but kids know it in their hearts.
I remember when my daughter was twelve years old. She was just becoming more independent, doing some of the things that were always my job. She started making her own lunch for school and she worked on her homework without my guidance. Children begin to test their rights and learn about their responsibilities at the age of twelve. It can be difficult age for both the child and parents, particularly when the child oversteps the authority of the parents.
Parents recognize the dangers that children face, such as peer pressure. While we understand that our growing children need room to mature, we do not want them to suffer the consequences of bad decisions. Children tend to see themselves as indestructible. They are looking forward to a long life ahead and think that nothing could possibly harm them. At times they take unnecessary risks that have the potential to bring great harm upon their physical, emotional and spiritual lives. They get involved in relationships with people who could lead them down a rocky path. They try new things, go to new places, and do so without the constant supervision of their parents. We have to let them go and pray that we have provided a firm foundation from which they can make the right decisions.
We often think of Jesus as some extraordinary child. Though Jesus was God incarnate, He was also fully man. We should not think of Him as the perfect child, never crying or getting dirty. He needed his diapers changed like every other baby in the world. He fell when He was learning to walk, skinned His knees when He played. I’m sure He even dragged mud into the house after jumping in puddles, just like the other kids. He went through the terrible twos and every other stage of life, learning and growing every step along the way.
But Jesus was different, too. He was the Word in flesh, the physical incarnation of the Lord God Almighty. His Father was not a carpenter; Jesus was the Son of the Creator of all things. When Jesus’ mother taught Him the scriptures, as was practice in Jewish homes, the words had a deeper, fuller meaning for Him. He understood what they meant. One day He decided to test His knowledge by seeking the teachers in the Temple. His mother and father loved the Lord and they knew His word, but He needed more.
In this story, Jesus overstepped His parents’ authority by staying in Jerusalem without their knowledge. We have heard for the past few weeks how Mary and Joseph heard the word from so many people and how they pondered and treasured those words, but they did not fully understand their son Jesus and His purpose on earth. To them, He was a twelve year old testing His independence. When they questioned Him, He explained it was where He needed to be, but He was obedient and returned with them to His home in Nazareth.
Though Jesus was in many ways an ordinary child, He was also extraordinary. He was the child of Mary and Joseph, but He was the Son of God. The stories of His life are filled with unusual circumstances: visits from shepherds and magi, a journey to a foreign land and then home again, prophets who sing for joy at His presence, and a lesson in the temple. Mary, His mother, watched Him grow through the normal phases of life, but she also witnessed all these things. She treasured and pondered every moment in her heart and encouraged her son through His time on this earth.
The children’s sermon can certainly provide fodder for our sense of humor. Some of the children’s answers are very funny, embarrassing and shocking. Yet, there are times when they have something very real and very important to say. We should listen to our children when they want to share something about faith. There is an innocence that we lose as we grow older; there is a foundation of faith that gets buried under our maturity and knowledge. We make things so much more complex than it really needs to be. It is not that we should stop growing and maturing in our faith. We should, however, remember that God can and will speak through the weak things of this world. Children have faith too, and we should not suppose that they have nothing to share about the Gospel of Jesus Christ just because they are young and unlearned. They are also children of the Father and we should not be surprised when they want to be in His presence and share what they know about Him.
While the focus in the scriptures this week seems to be on children, this Sunday is all about Wisdom. In the next few days we will be asking one another, “What is your New Year’s resolution?” but I’m not sure that’s the right question. New Year’s resolutions tend to be overwhelming. We set our goals too high to attain, and we rarely look at the roots of the things that need to be changed about our lives. We resolve to lose weight, but we don’t look for the reasons we over eat. We resolve to be better about money, but we don’t consider the bad habits that have put us into financial straits. Our resolutions sound transformative, but they usually just touch the surface problems or change the appearance of our lives rather than truly change us in a lasting way. That’s why we fail.
Losing weight and setting our finances right are good things, but what we really need to do is to face the emotional and spiritual reasons we over eat and over spend. We have to look more deeply at ourselves, and in that search for the truth about ourselves we will recognize our need for God. We try to make these New Year transformations on our own. Sometimes we look to the help of our friends. We rarely put God in the mix, but it is with His help that we’ll truly succeed.
Solomon knew that he needed more than health and wealth. He needed wisdom. We also need wisdom as we go into the New Year, as we look at the reality of our imperfection and think about ways that we need to be transformed. What changes are needed in our hearts and spirits to become the people we know God wants us to be.
Solomon was humble; he was so young and he knew that he was not qualified to lead the people of Israel. The nation had grown so great, fulfilling the promise given to Abraham so many generations earlier, that God’s people would be as numerous as the stones on that beach in England. How could a boy, barely twenty years old, lead a people so great? We might think that health and wealth are exactly what we need to accomplish our purpose, but Solomon knew that he needed something much different. He needed wisdom, and with wisdom came the rest.
The psalmist seeks wisdom, too. Psalm 119 is a devotional on the Word of God. It is divided into twenty-two stanzas, each focusing on a specific letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Each line of each stanza begins, in Hebrew, with the letter of that stanza. Throughout the psalm, the writer repeatedly uses eight different Hebrew terms, which can be translated as “law,” “statutes,” “precepts,” “commands,” “laws,” “decrees,” “word,” and “promise.” Though these may seem redundant, there are subtle but distinct differences. The psalmist recognizes the importance of knowing the Word of God and living it obediently.
I often joke about my gray hair being a sign of wisdom. It is a signal that I’ve lived a long life, and that I’ve experienced many things which gives me knowledge about how the world works. It might be somewhat true, but the psalmist writes, “I understand more than the aged, because I have kept thy precepts.” Wisdom is not necessarily something for the old; the young, like Solomon, can be wise. Wisdom comes to those who seek God, who humble themselves before Him and who live according to God's Word.
It is that kind of wisdom we see in Jesus, even as a young boy. He was in the Temple sharing with the learned men His thoughts and understanding about God. As the Son of the Living God, Jesus had more knowledge than the others. In this story, though, we also see Him being humble before the elders, asking them questions. They were amazed, not only that He was interested but that He knew the right questions to ask. They could see that He had an understanding far beyond His years. Jesus had the wisdom that is more than knowledge and experience.
We are made citizens of the kingdom of heaven through our baptism into Christ. We are children of our Father, the King. Yet, we still must live in this world, foreigners living in the midst of the sin and darkness that surrounds those who have not yet heard God’s Word. It would be very easy for us to say that it is not our problem, why take the risks necessary to share the Gospel? After all, it is dangerous business being witnesses for the Christ who is hated by the world. However, our Lord has given us all we need to take those risks to share His Word so that they too might hear and believe. Jesus Christ was born to die so that we could live forever, and now He calls us to die to self so that we can live for others.
Paul reminds us that we have everything we need to live according to God's Word. Sometimes we think we know what we want, or need, but we would do well to see Solomon and Jesus in light of our own spiritual journeys. They were young, but they had the mind of God. They were humble and willing to learn, to seek wisdom. They understood what was truly needed to do what God was calling them to do.
In the beginning, God spoke the world into being. He named the sun, moon and stars and put them into motion. He called out to the water and it separated, creating the oceans and mountains. From that day on, God has constantly expanded His sphere of influence over the world. He began with one man named Adam. Then He gave Adam a wife. Later He called Abraham into a relationship, followed by Isaac and Jacob. Jacob became Israel and God established a bond with His chosen people. When they failed to live according to His Word, God sent His Son to bring redemption and reconciliation. This grace was given not only for His chosen people, but for the entire world.
Now we are called to join in the work of God as we take His Gospel message of forgiveness into the world. It started with just one person - Jesus Christ - and now His Kingdom reaches around the world. We might think we can’t possibly affect the world around us, but God takes us as His children, gathering us together into an ever growing people who are deeply loved and gifted by God. For this we sing His praise and share God’s grace with others
That’s why as we enter into a new year, we would do well asking ourselves better questions. Rather than resolving to change, let us resolve to seek Wisdom and listen as God leads us in the ways that we really need to be transformed. We might be able to fix the surface things, making changes on the outside to our health and wealth, but God will help us change on the inside. We are His children and as we seek God’s wisdom, we’ll receive it and then He will add everything else we need including the courage to continue His work in this world, expanding His Kingdom to His glory.
“‘For I know the thoughts that I think toward you,’ says Yahweh, ‘thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you hope and a future. You shall call on me, and you shall go and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You shall seek me, and find me, when you search for me with all your heart.’” Jeremiah 29:11-13, WEB
On December 31, 1999, the world waited breathlessly as clocks began turning to the new millennium. The fear was that a computer programming shortcut called Y2K would cause extensive havoc around the world. This was supposed to affect everything from toasters to the supercomputers that run the Internet. We learned in the weeks leading to the New Year that Y2K could shut down the world. Y2K seemed to be a very real threat. Many people prepared by filling their cabinets with extra food, candles and batteries. There were concerns about electricity and water systems. Many people thought the world as we knew it was going to end. The year 2000 was going to come in like a lion. It came in like a lamb. There were very few problems around the world with computer systems halting. The world breathed a sigh of relief as January 1st came and went without disaster.
Twenty years ago, on December 31, 2000, I wrote, “The year 2000 has not remained so calm. Throughout the year there have been incredible political, financial and religious battles. In the last month, the weather has brought hardship to many people around the world. Here in England, the medical establishment is concerned about the possibility of epidemics of diseases such the measles. In every aspect of life, the year is going out like a lion. Through it all, many people are concerned about the future. After all these problems, what is next? What will the year 2001 hold for us?”
I suppose many of us are asking similar questions as we wait breathlessly for the coming of the New Year. The year 2020 has not been calm. We’ve experienced so many of the same battles. While there were health issues in 2000, the threat of the pandemic has raised the fear level across the world. I am not sure 2020 is going out like a lion, but it sure has us looking toward the future. What is next? What will the year 2021 hold for us?
We were living in England at the time if Y2K and all my friends in the United States looked for me online. “If Peggy is still good, then we should be ok,” they thought since I was about six hours ahead of them. They expected Y2K to hit me first and move like a wave across the world. The thing is, computers all over the world are tied together by the Internet, and we all would have gone offline when the New Year began twelve hours earlier on Christmas Island. See, though it is still December 31st in my neck of the woods, as I write this it is already 2021 on Christmas Island in the Pacific Ocean. If, as some people feared, 2021 was going to arrive in some dramatic way, then it would already be on the news. We need not fear tomorrow because God is with us today.
We don’t know what will happen in the days, weeks and months to come, but we can be assured that God is faithful to all His promises and He desires for us peace. There is always hope. As you consider the events of 2020 and look forward to a new year, always remember that God is in control. Through it all, through the pain and hardship, God sees the affect that it is having on us. We may be struggling, but we are also turning to Him. God’s people are praying. They are spending time in worship, even if it looks differently right now. We are praising God for the silver linings that have come despite the difficulties. Many people are coming to know the love and mercy of God, and the incredible work of our Lord Jesus on the cross.
As this year closes, let us set aside the memories of the problems and look forward to the good things to come. God knows exactly what is in store for us, so rejoice in the hope of His goodness. May you all know the peace, love and joy of our Lord Jesus Christ and may you continue to seek Him with all your heart.