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 2021
December 1, 2021
Scriptures for December 5, 2021, Second Sunday of Advent: Malachi 3:1-7b; Psalm 66:1-12; Philippians 1:2-11; Luke 3:1-14 (15-20)
“Make a joyful shout to God, all the earth! Sing to the glory of his name! Offer glory and praise!” Psalm 66:1, WEB
I have been trying for the past couple of weeks to get my house under control, to clean up my clutter and organize all my things. In the past year we have made changes to our house, so I am rethinking our Christmas decorations. We had the same issue with our outdoor display which we finished a few days ago. Now I’m trying to get the inside in order. The carpet cleaner is due today, so I moved as much furniture out of way that I could, and I can’t even start to place decorations until they are back. I am not normally easily distracted, but at times like this it seems like I’m constantly moving from one task to another without really finishing the last. I clean up the clutter and discover dust. I clean up the dust and realize I need to vacuum. By the time I finish those tasks, clutter has accumulated again. It takes constant vigilance to complete the work that has to be done, and even then I am sure I will have to continue cleaning to keep it looking nice.
All of this is in preparation for a time of joy and friendship, of happy times and pleasant experiences. We are waiting for the coming of the Christ child, but we are also celebrating the holidays with parties and we gather for programs starring our little ones who sing with great passion and gusto even if they are a little out of tune. We are lighting our homes with Christmas lights to break up the darkness and filling our kitchens with the most delightful smells of Christmas cookies, cakes and other goodies. We are listening to, and humming, Christmas songs all day long. I can’t help but think to myself, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” as I go through my day.
I wonder, though, what does Christmas look like? To the world it is Christmas trees and Santa Clause and perhaps even a nativity scene here or there. It is jingle bells and twinkling lights, candy canes and generosity. It is the Lion and Lamb lying together and peace on earth good will toward men. It is “Joy to the World” and “Silent Night.” So why do we hear scriptures like the one from Malachi during Advent?
This week we meet John the Baptist who does not portray a typical image found in Christmas cards or children’s stories. He is rough, wild, and harsh. He cries out in the wilderness for the world to repent because the Kingdom of God is at hand. We prepare for Christmas by overspending, overdrinking and overeating, but John brings us a message that makes us stop and think twice about the purpose for these days.
Malachi foretells John’s coming as a witness and messenger to prepare for the coming of the Lord. However, the messenger won’t bring a happy story or the expectation of a silent night. Instead, Malachi warns that the coming of the Lord will be sudden and that He will come like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. Something is going to happen when the Lord comes and it will mean transformation and cleansing.
These are two very different images of cleansing, however. It takes a great and hot heat, nearly 2000 degrees Fahrenheit, to refine metals, a heat that is almost unbearable even for the refiner. For the element being refined, the unimaginable heat must burn away and destroy everything that is impure. This is not a typical image of Christmas for us. Neither is the launderer’s soap. Today is laundry day in my house. There is bound to be some garment that will need extra care. I will have to spray the item with a special cleaner and perhaps scrub it a little before throwing it in the washer to be cleaned.
The image of the refiner’s fire is harsh and perhaps a little distant. Though the refiner must remain close to the metal while it refines, he does not become actively involved in the refining. The fire does all the work. On the other hand, the launderer is thoroughly involved with the cleansing of a garment, handling each item with the special care necessary. We are reminded by these two images that our God is both distant, refining with fire, but also very near, intimately involved with our very souls. He cleanses out the impurities in ways that might seem harsh, but He also does so in ways that are gentle.
When the refiner is finished and the launderer is done, the finished product is pure and clean. The same is true of the work God does in our life, and yet we never seem to be complete. The reality is that though Christ finished the work of salvation, we are also continually being refined and cleansed by our God until that day when Christ will come again. It is like my preparations: there will always be something to do until it is really finished. During this time of Advent, we long for the peace and joy that comes with the child in the manger, but we should never forget that we are longing for something even greater: the Day when Christ will come again.
Right now we are focused on the coming of Christ in the manger and the traditions that bring us such joy. One of the best parts of the season are the Christmas stories on television and in the movie theaters. I confess that I’ve tried to watch every new Hallmark type Christmas movie, which is getting harder and harder because it seems every channel is producing their own. I even watched one on Discovery Plus, a streaming service that is not known for movies. We all look forward to the childhood favorites like “Frosty,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” We love to watch these programs because we love the characters. We cry when Frosty melts. We cheer when Santa asks Rudolph to lead the sleigh on Christmas Eve. We even laugh when Burgermeister Meisterburger trips over the skate and breaks his leg. These characters, for many of us, are almost real because they have been a part of our lives for so long.
We tend to look at the Nativity in the same way, as a story with characters we love and hate. We wonder at the way things happen, but some of the details are so extraordinary that it is hard to believe them to be real. The Nativity seems to be more story than history, particularly in a cynical world.
There used to be a television show called “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.” One character named Matt was a producer and the head writer for a hit comedy variety show. He was a cynical man who lived in a cynical world. He had no real sense of the importance of faith. As a matter of fact, he thought people of faith were brainwashed wacko nutjobs. His writing often focused on the absurdity of faith and the Christian lifestyle. Some of the skits were rather funny, particularly if you can laugh at yourself. Of course, some people were offended by many of the sketches, but that added to the humor.
Harriet was a brainwashed wacko Jesus freak Christian, and she was one of the actresses who starred on the fictitious program. Matt was in love with her. Their relationship was like a roller coaster, partly because Matt couldn’t take Harriet’s faith seriously; it was an ongoing plot on the program. On one episode, Matt decided to focus the show on Christmas. Knowing Matt’s opinion of Christians, the writing team kept looking for the absurdity of Christianity. They found many websites proving the unreality of the Christmas story: the star was a comet, Mary wasn’t really a virgin, the first Christmas could not have been in December. They thought Matt wanted them to find everything that is wrong with Christmas and make fun of it. In reality, Matt wanted to do a Christmas show: funny but real.
There are plenty of people who will try to criticize the Christian perspective about this time of year, to reduce the Nativity to nothing more than a nice story with a creative plot and characters. What we see in today’s passage, however, is that Luke found it essential to include historic references, placing John in a specific time with real people.
There is so much about the Nativity that makes it seem like little more than a story, including the character of John. He was born to elderly parents and was likely very young when they died. Though he may have been raised by family or friends, his adult lifestyle is so unusual it is reminiscent of stories of feral children. Perhaps his wild man persona with horsehair clothes and bizarre diet is because he lived alone in the wilderness from a young age? We might assume that John is a myth, like the story of Romulus and Remus and the foundation of Rome. However, Luke puts John in the context of history which gives us some reference in time and space for not only John, but also the birth of Jesus. The Nativity is not just a story, Luke gives us a report of an event that changed the world. Even though some of the details seem unbelievable, we can be assured that the birth of Christ is real and is worth our time to celebrate.
God has always had a plan for us, but we have not done well to stay on the right path. We need to hear the words of the Law and the cry of John calling us back to life in God’s kingdom. Adam and Eve failed in the Garden of Eden and we fail today. Even then, however, God had a plan. He knew that human beings would need to be saved, and He promised to do so when the time was right.
Advent brings us to the moment when that plan became flesh and blood. The birth of Christ was a carefully orchestrated series of events. God planned every detail long before the day Jesus was born. The story began hundreds, even thousands of years in the past as God foretold of His birth through the patriarchs and the prophets. The story includes not only Jesus, but families whose stories are woven throughout the history of Israel.
Matthew began his Gospel with a list of Jesus’ descendants. Many people use an advent calendar to count down the days to Christ called “The Jesse Tree.” It takes a look at all the people who played pivotal roles in the story of God, men and women from the Bible who believed God’s Word and followed Him. It is based on Isaiah 11:1, “A shoot will come out of the stock of Jesse, and a branch out of his roots will bear fruit.” Jesus is the Son of God, but He was also the son of Mary, David, Judah, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham, and many others. The story of the Messiah also includes the judges, the kings, and the prophets. It includes men and women, Israelites and foreigners. None of them were perfect but God made them part of His plan for salvation. Each story leads us closer to the coming of the Messiah, the birth of Christ.
Today’s psalm is one of praise and thanksgiving; it is a hymn of salvation. The psalmist shows us that God’s power is displayed in His deeds. The world see what He has done and what He can do and they worship Him. We can see in the stories of God’s people that He uses our times of difficulty to make us stronger, healed, unified, and peaceful. After passing through trouble, abundance follows. The psalmist remembers God’s great acts of salvation, which were ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
John the Baptist was the end of an era. He was the final prophet to live and die under the Old Covenant. He came, as was promised, to point the way to the One who would make all things new. All the prophets were tasked with the same message, “God will save His people.” Some of the earlier prophets spoke to the very real needs of their own people, but in doing so, God also revealed the ultimate promise, “A Messiah will come.” John was not really different that those who came before him, and yet he was much different because he met the Salvation of the world face to face. God gave the words of hope and warning about the coming of the Day of the Lord to the other prophets, but John saw the fulfillment of those promises in the flesh.
We all fall short of the glory of God, but that is exactly why we wait expectantly for the birth of the Savior. It is by His grace that we are saved. We can see His grace so clearly in the lives of His faithful over the ages. There is comfort in seeing the same uncertainties, worries, fears, and failures in the lives of those people whom God called in the past because in their lives we see how God overcame their imperfections. Through their stories we see how God can also overcome our imperfections and how He calls us to faith and to service in His world. The stories continued into the New Testament, to those who followed after Jesus, including Paul.
Paul had an incredible ministry. His travels took him all over the ancient world and his preaching founded churches in many cities. He had a passion for the Gospel, and he wanted the world to know the love and mercy of God found in Christ Jesus. He wanted to save the world: it would be better to say that he wanted the world saved by God’s grace. So, he traveled extensively and during his travels he faced persecution, hardship, hunger, and even a shipwreck.
Paul was not concerned with numbers. He did not preach to fill pews or grow the congregations. He did not invent programs that would bring people through the door. Paul cared about the hearts of all those who became Christian because they heard the Word and believed. He cared about their souls. He cared about their eternal lives. Paul was not an itinerant preacher. He didn’t give a sermon and then move on to the next place. He left only when he was forced to move by those who wanted to destroy his ministry and his life. However, he was never far from his churches in spirit, and their well-being was always on his mind. That is why he wrote so many letters; he wrote to correct, rebuke, and to encourage the Christians into maturity of faith in the Gospel.
Paul’s flowery language in today’s passage might seem a bit overwhelming. Did he mean to be so gushy when he was writing to the church in Philippi? These verses are part of the formal greeting, typical of correspondence in Paul’s day. It included a formal word of thanksgiving and reassurance of continued relationship. This was of utmost importance for Paul. He wanted the Philippians know that he was with them in spirit, bound by the Holy Spirit, and that he cared very much for them.
I received my first Christmas card of the year today, but mine are still on my to-do list. I have everything ready; I just need to find the time! I usually include a newsletter to update our distant friends on our lives. I really enjoy reading these newsletters from other friends because they are filled with good news, highlights, and remembrances of the big events. Sometimes they are also filled with bad news of illness or death, difficulties and hardship. When you have just a small space to share a year’s worth of news, you pick the most important things. I like to hear all the news, good and bad, so I know what’s happening with those I love, but many people do not like the newsletters because they sound too boastful or depressing.
People say the same thing about Paul’s letters! Paul can sound boastful at times and sometimes his letters aren’t pleasant to hear because he does speak forcefully about living rightly and righteously. He corrects and rebukes the churches for their failures and failings. He demands much from the Christians under his care. However, he cares very deeply for each and every one of them. He cares about their hearts, about their souls and especially about their eternal life in Christ. This is evident by the way he cares about their everyday lives. He writes to encourage them to be all they can be, to continue living in God’s grace to the fullest. He writes to build up the church from the inside, so that work that Christ began will be perfected and will flow out into the world.
I don’t know about you, but every year I promise myself that I am going to make this Advent and Christmas much simpler. I promise myself I won’t do too much. I promise myself - and God - that I’ll focus more closely on “the reason for the season.” I fail, every year. This year is no exception. As I prepare for our party, it seems as though I will never get everything done that I need to do. I suppose that’s why it is good that we meet John the Baptist so early in the Church year. John reminds us of the reason for Advent.
We are being called to live a fruitful life, one that glorifies God. We aren’t meant to run away from God’s refining fire, but to experience it. We are meant to be changed, transformed into something beautiful and holy. We aren’t meant to avoid they launderer of our life, cleansed of our sinful nature. Advent is a time to talk about hope, to look forward to the coming of Christ, but historically it was a season of repentance. We tend to get lost in the chaos of our preparation, but John reminds us that now is the time to grow deeper in our faith as we draw nearer to the Christ. No matter how much we complain about the commercialization of the season, we still get caught up in it all. We get lost in the busy-ness and forget the purpose. People don’t change; we are just like the Israelites in Malachi’s day and the Jews who heard John the Baptist’s cry. We still need to be called to repent, to turn around, to wait patiently, and to seek God.
That’s why the refining and cleansing is not a once and done process. A refiner tempers the metal over and over again until all the impurities are gone. A launderer might have to rewash an item several times before the stain disappears. We have to be reminded over and over again to turn to God, to remember what He has done. That’s why we look forward to the Nativity year after year. Jesus certainly does not need to be born again, but in His first Advent story we see God’s grace and remember His promise as we look forward to His final Advent.
On the second Sunday of Advent we hear the story of John as he cries out in the wilderness for us to repent and turn to the Lord. His story is not the happy one we expect in a season of Rudolph and Frosty. The Gospel lesson ends with John’s imprisonment, but in John’s cry for repentance we hear the promise of forgiveness. Through his words we are called to return to the God who is faithful to His promise to make us new..
The traditions we follow during Advent teach us about God’s faithfulness. That nativity puts Christ in the center of our celebration. The tree is symbolic of life and growth and creation. The lights represent the Light of Christ. Baking cookies is a way of sharing hospitality. Gift giving is a way for us to reflect the generosity of God and to share our blessings with others. We may want to simplify our holiday celebrations, but these traditions are not bad unless we use them as a way to flee from the wrath to come.
During this Advent season we are waiting for the coming of the Lord, both in the manger and in His glory. What should we do? John calls us to live the life of repentance. This is not a time to run away and hide or try to find our own way of surviving the coming wrath. Now is the time to turn to God, to seek Him, to follow Him as He works on our hearts, cleansing us and transforming us into something new. By His grace we’ll respond with the psalmist by singing praise to the God of our salvation. We are to repent, but the Psalm invites us to praise the God who has done great things for us. So, let’s make a joyful noise of praise with all God’s people whose stories led to the coming of the Messiah and those who will believe in Him through the stories we tell about His great deeds.
“No temptation has taken you except what is common to man. God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted above what you are able, but will with the temptation also make the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” 1 Corinthians 10:13, WEB
Advent is often called a little Lent; it is a time when we are meant to look at our lives and consider ways God is transforming us. Just like during Lent, many of us commit to practices that help us focus our thoughts on God and the coming of Jesus. I always choose a devotional of some sort and I do different types of countdown activities. We willingly and willfully quench our thirst for God, committing to a journey we know will end. Though these disciplines have the potential to bring some change to our lives, we don’t really use it as a time to grow closer to God.
I am a little late with my writing today because I have been working on decorating my house. I had the carpets cleaned yesterday, so I was up early this morning putting the furniture back where it belongs. I was tired when I sat down at the computer, and by the time I did some other work I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I took a nap, did some decorating, and then went to the store to pick up a few things I needed to finish. I put my shopping away, started my dinner and did some decorating. Then I suddenly remembered that I never did my writing!
But isn’t that the way it is for us at this time of year? There is so much going on that it is easy to miss something. We forget to rest. I have even forgotten to eat! The worst part is that we are so caught up in making everything perfect for the holidays, that we forget to spend time with God.
This is common to all people. Really. I think sometimes we start to feel guilty because we look at our neighbors and think they are so much better Christians than we are. We struggle because we know we should be more focused during our devotional time. We feel guilty because we missed today’s reading in our Advent book. We are tired because we’ve been running around trying to get everything accomplished, but we are so distracted that we miss the joy of being with God during the season.
We all have things that tempt us each day, so much busy-ness that distracts us from the things that really matter. Sometimes these things do not seem harmful to our lives, but we can be drawn into a lifestyle that is distracting our focus from God. When we are aware of the activities or things that give us the rush, then we can stand against it. Remember that God is always with you. Do you ever think, “I’m too busy”? That is the voice of God calling you away from the distractions that tempt you. God is faithful; He will give you the strength and the way out.
“Now the serpent was more subtle than any animal of the field which Yahweh God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Has God really said, “You shall not eat of any tree of the garden”?’ The woman said to the serpent, ‘We may eat fruit from the trees of the garden, but not the fruit of the tree which is in the middle of the garden. God has said, “You shall not eat of it. You shall not touch it, lest you die.”’ The serpent said to the woman, ‘You won’t really die, for God knows that in the day you eat it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took some of its fruit, and ate. Then she gave some to her husband with her, and he ate it, too.” Genesis 3:1-6, WEB
I love Christmas trees. One of the questions people ask me is “How many do you have this year?” I haven’t counted yet, but I usually have about a dozen. Some are very small, others are tabletop trees. I have some that I hang from wreath holders on my closet doors. I even have one in a bathroom. The centerpiece of our decorations is a fresh cut Christmas tree that is usually too big.
Christmas trees are the perfect temptation for cats. I’ve seen several posts recently of cats doing what cats do. One was a video that showed a cat jumping to a tree that the owners hung from the ceiling. They thought the cat would not be able to bother it, but the cat proved them wrong. Another post was a picture of a cat acting as a tree topper. How it got up that high, I’ll never know. Cat parents often experience fallen trees, something that happened at least once during my childhood. We had plenty of broken balls, too. The cats love to eat the tinsel, one of my favorite tree decorations, but I’ve given it up to protect them. Sammy loves to chew on the branches of the artificial trees; the one in the bathroom has already ended up in the sink. Dangling ornaments and wires are perfect targets for playful cats.
The Christmas trees were a similar problem when our children were young. Toddler fingers are drawn to the shiny balls hanging on the low branches. They eventually learned that they should not touch, but we were constantly vigilant during the early years. We also learned to be creative in the way we displayed the tree. We tried to set it out of reach. One year we wrapped large boxes and used them as decoration at the base of the tree, making it impossible for a toddler to get close enough to cause trouble. Boxes never helped keep the kittens away. We love the trees, but we also know we are putting temptation in front of those who are bound to cause trouble.
One of the hardest questions asked by non-believers is “Why would God put the fruit tree in the middle of the garden and then tell Adam and Eve not to touch?” They argue that it is not the serpent doing the tempting in today’s scripture lesson, but rather God himself. They say they can’t believe in such a being. There are some people who refuse to put up the decorations to avoid the problems that come when there are animals and children around. We have certainly lost some ornaments over the years, but it is always worth the joy of having the trees in the house. We do what we can to teach them to how to act around them and hope they do what is right.
The story of the fall is difficult for many to understand because they reject a God that would allow those He love to be tempted, but there is joy in learning how to live rightly according to the Word of God. They don’t understand why God would make something good untouchable. They forget that God did not ignore their needs; He gave them good things. See, there were two fruit trees in the garden: the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve could touch the tree of life; as a matter of fact it was that tree that would give them life forever and ever. The untouchable tree was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
As we journey through Advent, we recall that God has given us everything we need. He even gave Adam and Eve a tree they should not touch so that they would learn to be obedience. Disobedience caused a uncrossable chasm between the Father and His children. And yet, even as Adam and Eve were eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God already had a plan to restore their relationship. This Advent we wait, once again, for the coming of the Savior, the child to be born in Bethlehem. We are reminded by our Christmas trees that even when things are there to tempt us, God’s promise of forgiveness is true.
“And I thank him who enabled me, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he counted me faithful, appointing me to service; although I was before a blasphemer, a persecutor, and insolent. However, I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. The grace of our Lord abounded exceedingly with faith and love which is in Christ Jesus. The saying is faithful and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. However, for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first, Jesus Christ might display all his patience, for an example of those who were going to believe in him for eternal life. Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, to God who alone is wise, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.” 1Timothy 1:12-17, WEB
I like to do different sorts of devotional practices during the special seasons of the church year. I have several books I’m reading during this Advent. Besides my normal daily writing, I am doing a photo challenge with a list of words that are faith related. I take a photo and then write a brief devotional about why I chose that particular image for the word. Along with the faith-based posts, I sometimes do something from the more secular aspects of the season. I followed my “elf on the shelf” Jangles and his crazy adventures several different years. This year I am posting a “Santa A Day.” I have been taking pictures of different images of Santa from my own collection and from things I’ve seen. I’m even hoping to get a picture with Santa himself sometime in the next few weeks!
I plan on stopping at a house with one of those giant blow-up Santas. I am also hoping to find a Santa Claus hanging from his fingertips from the rooftop, a popular Christmas decoration a few years ago. It looks as if he slid off the roof and is holding on for dear life. This month-long quest for Santa will be relatively easy. Santa is everywhere. He is at the mall getting his picture taken with children who are giving him their Christmas wish lists. Santa is in every Hallmark Christmas movie and even has a few movies of his own. He shows up on floats in parades. He is all over the ugly Christmas sweaters. Television ads, music, and books include images and references to good old Santa Claus. He is a major part of the American Christmas celebration, and he is making his way into the cultures of other countries.
Santa did not start out as 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; his parents had been quite wealthy. His generosity showed from a very early age. One story tells of a poor man who was going to have to sell his daughters into prostitution because he could not afford their dowry. Nicholas threw a bag of gold coins through the window of the poor man’s house, a generous gift that saved the girl from a horrible fate. Nicholas also gave the man dowries for his other daughters. Other stories describe him as a lifesaver; sailors were saved from a storm and three innocent men were saved from execution whose deaths were bought with a bribe. Yet another story tells that one day as 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.
December 6th is the day when the Feast of St. Nicholas has been celebrated. It was traditional to give gifts to children on his feast day. Children were always an important part of the celebration of St. Nicholas’s life. A boy was selected to be bishop from December 6th to Holy Innocent’s Day (December 28). 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 December 25th.
As St. Nicholas evolved into Santa Claus, the focus continued to be on children, but now he is more like a magician than a saint. The giving of gifts became a way to bribe the children into good behavior; the presents are more like rewards than gifts. The true gifts of St. Nicholas saved the recipients from horrible lives, even death. The dowries were given not because the girls had earned the money, but because Nicholas had such great love that he wanted to save them from the life of 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.
Some form of Santa Claus is very much a fun part of Christmas in many places in the world. Gift giving also has a long tradition, for many it is the whole purpose of the holiday. We spend Advent preparing for the day, spending too much money on too many things that have little to do with the real reason for the season: Jesus. Gift-giving will always be a part of Christmas, after all the wise men gave gifts to the little Lord Jesus. We need not reject the characters that portray kindness and giving as part of our Christmas traditions but let us always remember that the center of that generosity is the LORD who gave us the greatest gift of all: our Lord Jesus. Though we should be wary of the focus on Santa Claus, there are many aspects of the St. Nicholas story we should continue to impress on our children: love, generosity and commitment. But most of all, we can look at the stories of St. Nicholas and remember the great sacrifice made by Jesus Christ, whose death on the cross won for us the forgiveness that leads to eternal life.
December 7, 2021
“Know therefore that Yahweh your God himself is God, the faithful God, who keeps covenant and loving kindness to a thousand generations with those who love him and keep his commandments...” Deuteronomy 7:9, WEB
The question for this week comes from the book of John. Jesus had been resurrected and He was appearing to the disciples. Despite His promises, the disciples returned to the life they knew before Jesus. A few of them went fishing, including Peter. This was a confusing time for the disciples; they were probably uncertain about what had happened. Peter was most certainly still feeling guilt over his denial of Jesus on the night He was betrayed. Jesus called to them from the shore; when Peter realized it was Jesus, he jumped into the water and went to him. As they ate breakfast, Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me more than these?”
What is Jesus asking of Peter? Does he love Jesus more than the other disciples? Does he love Jesus more than those disciples love Jesus? Does he love Jesus more than his fishing gear and the hard work of catching fish on the sea? Peter does not answer with specifics but simply says, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Jesus did know, for Jesus knew the hearts of His disciples as well as He knows our own hearts. Yet, Jesus asked again. And then He asked again. Three times Jesus asked Peter about his love and by the third time Peter was hurt because Jesus asked it again. “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
There are several reasons for why Jesus might have asked Peter three times. Peter denied Jesus three times, and the threefold confession of love for Jesus counters the denial. For Peter, the three questions seemed to verify his unworthiness, but for Jesus the three answers restored their relationship and reinstated Peter to his position as leader among the disciples.
There are also some subtleties in the text that are significant. One thing that is often noted is the use of the word “love” in these passages. In the Greek there are different words used for the word “love.” Two appear in this story: “agape” and “phileo.” Some suggest that there is little difference between these two words and John simply used the variety to keep the passage interesting. Others will tell you that agape refers to a deeper, more abiding sense of love while phileo is a brotherly love.
There is some comfort to be found in this passage if we recognize the difference between these words. In the first and second questions Jesus asks Peter, “Do you agape me?” Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, I phileo you.” In the third question Jesus asks, “Do you phileo me?” Peter answers, “Yes, I phileo you.” To me it appears Jesus was asking Peter for a deep commitment while Peter was not yet ready to give him that much. Yet, Jesus did not take anything away from Peter. Peter was still restored and reinstalled, commissioned to do the work of Christ in the world. There is comfort in this for those of us who have taken too many years to make that commitment to the work Christ is calling us to do. We can see that Jesus has patience, that He does not take away our commission because we have doubts and uncertainties. He loves us and encourages us until we are deeply and fully committed. Obviously, Peter’s love became deeper as he continued the work until he died the martyr’s death.
Jesus asks us, “Do you love me more than these?” Like Peter, we have our own reasons for thinking we are unworthy of God’s grace. We love lots of things that should not be our priority; we love our friends and our stuff. We love our homes and our families. We love Christmas and presents and cookies. We love so many things, but do we love Him more than these?
We know that we love because He first loved us. He is our God. He is faithful. He keeps His covenant with those who love Him. During this season of Advent, we are reminded to look at our lives and see what it is we love more than Him. We can easily say we love Jesus, loving Him with that brotherly phileo love. But do we agape Him? Maybe not today, but Jesus is patient, and He walks with us anyway until the day we have that deep and abiding love that He deserves.
December 8, 2021
Lectionary Scriptures for December 12, 2021, Third Sunday of Advent: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Psalm 85; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 7:18-28 (29-35)
“Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I will say, ‘Rejoice!’” Philippians 4:4, WEB
Advent is a season of lights. We begin with darkness, representative of the darkness of our lives. Each Sunday we light a new candle. As we draw closer to the coming of our Lord Jesus the light grows until that joyous night when we can light the Christ candle and celebrate His coming. We have finally reached the third Sunday, Christmas Day is coming quickly and we can feel the excitement building. On this day, we finally have more candles lit than are dark and it is often referred to as Gaudete Sunday or the Sunday of Joy for that very reason. Finally, the light is greater than the darkness and will continue to grow. This joy is found in our readings for the day.
The book of Zephaniah is hardly joyful. The prophet announces to the people that God will bring judgment to the nations, including His people who had abandoned their faith. Yet, the prophet does not leave them without hope. Today's reading tells of the restoration that will come when God completes His work. Zephaniah foretells the rejoicing that will go on within the city of Jerusalem. “Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem. Jehovah hath taken away thy judgments, he hath cast out thine enemy: the King of Israel, even Jehovah, is in the midst of thee; thou shalt not fear evil any more.”
To the Jews, prosperity meant God was near, misery meant that He had abandoned them. Though God was never far away, it was not hard for them to fear when things began to go wrong. When the nations could overwhelm them with their power, it was obvious that God was no longer protecting them. Yet, God has a purpose for all things, including those times of pain and suffering. They help us to turn to Him, to trust in Him. God did not intend for the Jews to be destroyed, He knew that He would provide salvation in His time and way. After judgment, God cleanses His people; He purifies their lips and they call out to their God. The day will come when He will bring them home. “At that time will I bring you in, and at that time will I gather you; for I will make you a name and a praise among all the peoples of the earth, when I bring back your captivity before your eyes, saith Jehovah.”
We struggle with trusting God. It began so long ago in the Garden of Eden when Eve believed the lie of Satan about the Word of God. She did not trust that He spoke the truth; she saw goodness in the thing He said would bring pain and took it into her own hands. The Israelites did not trust that God would take care of them. They grumbled in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. They turned to other nations for help against their enemies. They asked for a worldly king when they had the King of kings as their ruler.
God does not force Himself on us when we turn from Him. He allows the natural consequences of our mistrust to humble us before His throne so that we will cry out for the One we know can overcome our difficulties. He never allows more than we can bear, but He does allow enough that we will remember His covenants and faithfulness so that we will trust Him again. Over and over again throughout history, God did this with His people. They were defeated by their enemies and then restored when they turned to Him. They were taken into captivity, but then were returned to their home when they looked for Him. We suffer our own consequences when we turn from God, but He is always near to respond when we repent and trust Him.
The past few weeks have been crazy. My husband was out of town last week, so I had the house to myself. I usually like to do something to pamper myself when he is gone, but that was impossible last week. I am preparing for a party, so I had a lot of cleaning to do. I did a lot of shopping for the ingredients I’ll need when I begin cooking. I had to do my decorating. I also had the carpets cleaned. I stayed up much too late at night and was up much too early in the morning. I didn’t even manage lunch or dinner out. Some days I barely managed to eat. This week is going to be equally busy, but now I’m working on final cleaning, baking, and food prep. I have some more shopping to do, too. I love it; I enjoy sharing my home with my friends, but I confess that it can be exhausting. Despite it being the most joyous time of the year, I am not always happy.
Paul writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always: again I will say, ‘Rejoice.’” Paul is not telling us we should be happy all the time. He is teaching us to rejoice in the Lord always. In everything we do, in everything we are, we are to live in the joy that is found in our relationship with God; we are to trust that God is greater than our exhaustion and busy-ness. During Christmas we recognize the coming of God in flesh, we honor and remember the child in the manger. However, we aren’t waiting for God to come again. He is here now, dwelling amongst us, walking with us, guiding us, loving us with a tender and compassionate love. We can rejoice in the Lord always because He is always with us. In good times and bad, we can trust God because He is always faithful to His promises.
This is supposed to be a happy time, but the hustle and bustle of the season makes it stressful. Demands from co-workers and family give us little room to rest. Exhaustion leads to illness, which makes everything harder. There is not enough time to do everything, not enough energy to accomplish all the tasks and not enough laughter to get us through. It is made especially difficult when faced with people who expect that smile on your face at every moment. “What is the matter with you, it’s Christmas!”
Yet the joy and peace to which Paul refers is not the kind of joy and peace that most people are seeking at this time of year. As a matter of fact, it is the very seeking of an external joy and peace that makes us even more stressed. As we chase after laughs and good feelings we lose sight of the real source of our joy and peace. We forget that Paul has called us not to be happy, but to rejoice in the Lord. We forget that the peace of God does not necessarily come with peace on earth, but that it is something that dwells within the heart of a Christian who trusts in God.
We will spend a lot of time preparing for the perfect Christmas to make everyone around us happy, but we need to remember to keep our hearts and minds on God our Father. When things get out of control, when we get too busy to smile, when we exhaust ourselves into illness, we are reminded that none of that has anything to do with true joy and peace. Joy in the Lord have everything to do with our relationship with God and His place in our life. The Christian life does not guarantee a life without difficulty, so why would we think that the Christmas life would guarantee a turmoil-free idyllic state?
Instead of expecting unattainable happiness and perfect relationships, Paul reminds us to rejoice in the Lord always. When we do so, we keep our eyes, and our hearts, on the true prize which is peace in our hearts. When peace dwells in our hearts, we have a whole new perspective about the world around us. Instead of being stressed by too many activities, we realize that there is one thing that matters: Jesus.
John the Baptist came to prepare the way for Him. He came to be a witness to the coming of the Light, to testify to the gracious mercy of God. I’m not so sure we think about mercy when we think about John the Baptist. After all, he is a man who is perceived to be wild, harsh and demanding. He was very unusual and acted counter to the culture in which he lived. He lived in the wilderness, wore clothing made from camel's hair and ate locusts for lunch. He defied the self-indulgent ways of the culture in which he lived. He did not wear silk or linen and he did not feast at great banquets. He chose a simple life, a life in which he could focus more clearly on His vocation as a prophet of God. He identified with the prophets of old and lived as they might have lived. He preached about repentance and called the people who came to him a “brood of vipers.” There was nothing about John the Baptist that should draw people to him.
Yet, there was something about him. Even the temple leaders came to hear him speak. The passion story of Jesus shows us a group of men who rejected Jesus and refused to believe that He was the fulfillment of God’s promises, but that does not mean that they were not seeking the Messiah. As a matter of fact, since they were the educated and the religious experts, they knew more about the signs of the coming and they were anxious to see it fulfilled. In the end Jesus did not meet their expectations, but early in the story they saw possibilities with John. Many of them wondered if John might be the one they were looking for.
John knew he wasn’t the Messiah. In last week’s reading John was identified with the Old Testament prophecies as the one who would prepare the way for the Lord. John told them that he would baptize with water, but that the Messiah would baptize with fire. He encouraged the people to be prepared for the coming of the King by turning their lives around. His words, especially those about Herod, put him in prison.
Jesus began His ministry after John was in prison. Rumors trickled their way to John as his disciples questioned what they should do. They were loyal to John, but if Jesus was the One, should they follow Him?
John sent some of his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Are you he who comes, or should we look for another?” This seems like an odd question coming from John the Baptist, since his story is one of faith even before his birth. John leapt for joy in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary visited her relative. He identified Jesus as the Lamb of God. In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist explained to his followers that God gave him a message that he’d know the Messiah because he would see the Holy Spirit descend when He was baptized. John knew that Jesus was the One who was sent by God to save His people.
So, why did John send his disciples to ask this question? Did he do it to prove to his own followers what he already knew? Did he doubt Jesus? Did he doubt himself? Did John question his own ministry? Was he afraid that perhaps he was not the promised messenger? Did he need the encouragement of Jesus that the work he was doing was what God wanted him to do? John was in prison; he was probably facing his own fears which brought on uncertainty. He wanted to know for sure that he was sending his disciples down the right path.
I have to admit that there are often times when I could use that kind of encouragement, and you are probably the same. Do you wonder if you’ve heard God’s voice correctly? Do you wonder if you are doing what God is calling you to do? Do you ever think that it is absolute craziness that God would choose you for that task? Do you wonder if you can even accomplish it? Do you ever face the fear of what might happen in you fail? Even worse, if you succeed? After all, John the Baptist was a successful evangelist and he ended up in prison. What might happen to us today? We cry out to God in our fear, doubt and uncertainty, “Surely there is someone better than me for this!” Did John wonder if he was really the one to fulfill the promise of a messenger? Perhaps Jesus was meant to be the voice crying out in the wilderness and the Messiah would come later?
It is encouraging that John the Baptist might have needed his faith reinforced. After all, if he whom Christ called the greatest man born of woman needed to hear that he was indeed doing the work God intended, then how much more might I need to hear it? I haven’t had visions. I haven’t been visited by angels. I haven’t had any miraculous experiences in my life to verify I’m doing the work of God. Jesus verified to the crowd, and to John, that John was what he said he was. He was the one crying out in the wilderness, preparing the way for the Lord and Jesus told them to look for the signs that might reveal the truth.
The religious leaders did not believe. Unfortunately, many of the people who began following Jesus turned away at the end. Jesus sounded good in the beginning, but after a while He did not live up to their expectations. He didn’t do what they wanted Him to do. They began looking for another. They were looking for the wrong kind of Messiah. They were responding to their own worldly fears instead of trusting that God had a plan greater than their expectations. They hoped for salvation, but their expectations were too low and when Jesus didn’t climb to an earthly throne, they turned away from God. They didn’t want a Messiah that would change their faith, so they chose darkness rather than the Light.
Jesus had great words the crowd about John the Baptist. He said, “John was more than a prophet. He was the prophet promised by God.” And then Jesus said that this prophet, great as he was, is less than the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. That’s you. That’s me. That’s anyone who has come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.
It is said that fear is a powerful motivator. Take, for example, a family facing a fire in their home. Fear drives them to escape the flames by running out of the house. Fear of failure drives many people to work hard. Fear is a negative motivator, but it can have positive results sometimes. It can also have devastating results, such as when our fear paralyzes us into non-action. A deer in the headlights is afraid of the car, but the fear makes it impossible to move out of the way. This can happen to human beings who are too afraid to get out of the situation that is causing their fear.
We fear death. We fear loneliness. We fear failure. Fear is rampant in our world today, perhaps rightly so. Fear can have a positive impact if it causes us to be more watchful or careful. It can also have a very negative impact if we respond with anger or hatred or violence. Sadly, that’s how many people do respond when they are afraid. Oh, many times we will ignore the underlying fear that causes us to act as we do. Fear gets covered up by other emotions and actions. Fear is seen as weakness, and in a world where the weak are manipulated and abused, any sign of weakness is buried by attitudes, words, and actions that seem powerful and strong.
Zephaniah gives us the Good News, “You will not be afraid of evil any more.” In a world where so much is driven by fear, this is something we want to hear, but we have a difficult time believing it. We don’t know when it will happen, but we know that we will hear reports of some disaster happening to a neighbor and we will worry that it might happen to us. We’ll hear the weather report forecast potentially dangerous weather and we will fear what might happen to our homes. We’ll hear about another outbreak of violence and wonder if it could happen to us. We’ll hear about the latest health concerns and worry about our family and friends.
Whatever we do this Christmas season, we are called to rejoice in the Lord always. While it is nice to be happy, to enjoy ourselves during the festivities of the holidays, Paul reminds us that it is not about laughter and satisfaction. It is about living in the Lord, dwelling in His presence even as He dwells in ours. When we rejoice in the Lord always, we live the life that manifests God’s grace to the world even in our times of difficulty. It means we recognize God’s presence with us at all times, even when we feel like the world around us is coming to an end, knowing that God can do a good work through suffering by burning away all those things that keep us from fully living in our relationship with Him.
Blessedness is often credited as the reward for a good life, but when we suffer some sort of setback then we must have done something to displease the gods. Even the Jews believed that prosperity had to do with God’s grace, and when they suffered it meant that God had abandoned them. He would only abandon His people if they were disobedient. But God is never far away. Even when it seems like the world is winning, God is in control. He has a plan and He is always faithful.
So, if we are more than John the Baptist, even as we are the least of those saved, then perhaps we are not nobodies. Perhaps we are called to do the work we are doing in this world. While this is true, it isn’t always easy. Those who do not believe the Good News of Jesus Christ will persecute those who share it with the world. John was beheaded a short time after the encounter in today’s Gospel lesson. It is unlikely that we’ll be beheaded. Few of us will ever be martyred, but we have seen the rejection of Christianity in our world. There are those who think faith is nothing more than a fairy tale. They reject the need for salvation because “I’m ok; you’re ok.” Jesus is missing in the celebration this month which has become Ramahanukwanzmas or simply “the holidays.”
We put so much work into preparing for Christmas and it is such a blessing that we can do so. But the real blessing is not found in the parties or under the Christmas tree. Our busy schedules are not necessarily bad. Our problem is that we lose touch with the very reason we are doing all these things. We lose sight of God. We forget that He is the gift, that He is the joy. We work so hard at being happy and at making others happy that we no longer experience the joy.
God’s salvation is nearby. This is a promise that we see fulfilled not only in the manger, but also in the work we are called to do sharing the Gospel. At Christmas we see how mercy and truth have touched the world, how truth and righteousness have joined together. God gives good gifts, the greatest of which is Jesus. He is the One that they were waiting for, and we are the ones who have benefitted. We are part of the Kingdom of Heaven, greater than even John the Baptist.
Jesus asked the people what they went into the wilderness to see. We can ask the same of those who ask us about Jesus. What do they see? Do they see people frenzied with the secular activities of Christmas, or do they see Christians living in the joy of the greatest gift? Do they see people who are putting on a show with fine clothes and luxurious living or do they see humble obedience? Something drew the people to John’s ministry, and something draws people to us. We might wonder and doubt, but we can rejoice because God is near, and He is faithful. If He has called us to the work of His Kingdom, He’ll provide us with everything we need to accomplish it.
The world might not know what they are looking for, but God is ready to show Himself. Let’s be ready and willing to share His grace so that they will see Him. We begin by rejoicing always in God and trusting in Him. The world will see our faith and some will come to believe in the one John proclaimed, the one who came to save the world.
December 9, 2021
“So let a man think of us as Christ’s servants, and stewards of God’s mysteries. Here, moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you, or by man’s judgment. Yes, I don’t judge my own self. For I know nothing against myself. Yet I am not justified by this, but he who judges me is the Lord. Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and reveal the counsels of the hearts. Then each man will get his praise from God.” 1 Corinthians 4:1-5, WEB
For today’s devotion, I am going to share an old, familiar story.
“On a beautiful spring day, the animals gathered together to enjoy some fellowship. Skylark was singing, Squirrel was nibbling on some seeds, and the fawns were romping together. Tortoise slowly arrived and greeted the group with a cheery, ‘Hello.’ It was a peaceful time until another friend arrived. Bursting out of the bushes flew Hare who was filled with energy and enthusiasm. He hopped circles around Tortoise, bouncing here and there and everywhere. The rest of the animals were tired just watching him.
“‘What are we going to do today?’ asked Hare. The other animals did not have any ideas that satisfied the active Hare. ‘Let’s have a race!’ he said. Squirrel answered, ‘A race? We do not like to race against you. You are too fast and no one else gets to win.’ Hare hounded the animals until they began to get angry. Finally, Tortoise said, ‘I will race you.’ The whole group got very quiet, then suddenly Hare burst out in laughter. ‘You? You want to race me?’ asked Hare. Tortoise said, ‘Sure, it’s all about having fun anyway, isn’t it?’ Hare said, ‘Of course.’ He was still giggling as he sauntered to the starting line. ‘Well, this will be an easy race to win!’ The animals lined up at the starting line, Hare impatient as Tortoise slowly approached. Wise Old Owl laid out the path of the race and explained the rules.
“‘On your mark, get set, GO!’ hooted Owl. The animals took off. Hare was far down the path as Tortoise barely got off the starting mark. Hare ran back and taunted Tortoise. ‘Are you coming or not? Is that as fast as you can go? You can never win at that pace!’ Tortoise continued on his way. Hare stopped and nibbled on some clover while Tortoise continued on his way. Hare stopped at the pond for a cool drink of water while Tortoise continued on his way. Hare even got behind Tortoise and pushed him further along the path. ‘Just thought I’d give you a bit of help, since you need it.’
“‘I might as well take a nap since Tortoise will take all day to run this race.’ So, Hare found a shady spot along the path and fell asleep. Hare did not realize that while he was running back and forth, eating and drinking, that Tortoise continued to get closer to the finish line. Hare woke to the sound of cheers and applause. He shook his head, rubbed his eyes, and looked in the direction of the noise. There, Tortoise was just walking over the finish line.
“Hare ran to the finish and said, ‘Hey, it’s not fair. He must have cheated. Tortoise could never beat me!’ Wise Old Owl said to Hare, ‘Slow and steady wins the race. Tortoise did not let anything distract him from the task at hand. He proved himself faithful. Not even your taunts about failure would stop him. You could have easily completed the race and then did everything wanted to do. Instead, you let your arrogance get the better of you.’”
We know the moral of the story, but what does this mean for us as people of faith? As Christians, we run a race against the world. Satan taunts us with accusations of imperfection, pushes us along the way, and attacks when he does not get his way. Yet, we must prove faithful through it all, continuing along the path until we reach the finish line. We should be like the tortoise, with constancy, integrity, and hope. In the end we will know and understand all that we faced, and we will enjoy God’s glory.
December 10, 2021
“But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend; you whom I took from the ends of the earth, and called from its farthest corners, saying to you, ‘You are my servant, I have chosen you and not cast you off’; fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” Isaiah 41:8-9, WEB
My husband was in the military, so we knew the struggles of extended separations. He traveled frequently, often absent for important dates and activities. I was left home to deal with the household and the children. We always had support from friends and the military community, so we did fine. We learned things we could do to keep him close despite the distance. I joked that I looked forward to his TDYs because I used the time to do some remodeling around the house, which meant shopping! One of the most important for the children was our nighttime routine that included a conversation with a photo of their dad and a good-night kiss.
Unfortunately, these separations did not work out so well for many military families, particularly when they were stationed overseas. It was always a very lonely time even for those who coped well, and it was depressing for those who did not. Some of the spouses turned to other people for comfort, to overcome their loneliness, and sadly, too many of those relationships went beyond friendship and led to permanent separation from their spouses.
I have been reading “Letters from Prison,” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Dietrich was separated from everyone he loved for a long period for reasons that were not understandable. He struggled not only with the uncertainty of his fate, but also with the loneliness. Communication with his family and friends was unreliable, letters often took a long time to arrive, and visits were allowed by permission only. It has been interesting to see his state of mind through his words. I’m about a third into the book, nine months into his imprisonment, and he is only now beginning to show signs of discouragement, though he continued to write with faith and reassurance to his family. His was incredibly concerned for his fiancé Maria, and he constantly asked his family to care for her during their separation.
He was also concerned for his close friend and confident Eberhard Bethge who was married to his niece Renate. Eberhard was drafted to serve in the German army. He was part of the resistance, and would eventually be arrested for his part in the attempt to kill Hitler. Unlike Dietrich, Eberhard was rescued and went on to lead a long life with Renate. He became Dietrich’s biographer and he put together the precious letters that give us a look into the life of a man whose words have impacted the faith of so many, particularly in times of struggle.
In a letter to Eberhard on the eve of being shipped to war, Dietrich wrote encouragement to the young couple about how to hold on to their relationship during the time of separation. “There is nothing that can replace the absence of someone dear to us, and one should not even attempt to do so. One must simply hold out and endure it. At first that sounds very hard, but at the same time it is also a great comfort. For to the extent the emptiness truly remains unfilled one remains connected to the other person through it. It is wrong to say that God fills the emptiness. God in no way fills it but much more leaves it precisely unfilled and thus helps us preserve -- even in pain -- the authentic relationship. Further more, the more beautiful and full the remembrances, the more difficult the separation. But gratitude transforms the torment of memory into silent joy. One bears what was lovely in the past not as a thorn but as a precious gift deep within, a hidden treasure of which one can always be certain.”
These words struck me as I read them last night, perhaps more so because of our experience of separation due to military service. I look back on those days and I am sure that he was right: to allow the emptiness was to encourage the building of the relationship. Many argue against the old saying that absence makes the heart grow fonder, but it is true for those who embrace the relationship even through separation. In those military families, the trouble began as soon as the spouse allowed someone to fill the hole, it left no room for the marriage relationship.
At first I was surprised to read Dietrich’s words about God being unable to fill the emptiness; isn’t His presence where we get comfort during our separations? Yet, as I think about it, it is true. God can’t fill that hole, but He tells us through Isaiah that we need not fear because He will give us the strength to see us through our difficulties. We don’t look to Him to replace those we are missing, but we do look to Him to help us stay true to our vows and to build our relationships despite the distance. He fills us with love for those we love, even when they are far from our reach. With His help we can turn our torment into joy as we wait to be reunited with them. Unfortunately for Dietrich, his reunions never happened in this world but his words must have helped Eberhard and Renate survive their own separations to live a long and happy life together.
December 13, 2021
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and fill up on my part that which is lacking of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the assembly, of which I was made a servant according to the stewardship of God which was given me toward you to fulfill the word of God, the mystery which has been hidden for ages and generations. But now it has been revealed to his saints, to whom God was pleased to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. We proclaim him, admonishing every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus; for which I also labor, striving according to his working, which works in me mightily.” Colossians 1:24-29, WEB
Children often ask, “How can Santa Claus take presents to all the children all over the world in one night?” While it is an impossible task, Santa is not the gift-giving figure in every country. It is fascinating to study the different characters in gift-giving traditions around the world. He is known as Father Christmas, Papa Noel, St. Nicholas, Pere Noel, or Svaty Mikalas. The wise men deliver gifts in some places, and others look forward to visits from characters like La Befana. In Sweden, the Christmas Eve visitor is a gnome-like creature named a Jultomten. It is believed that the Jultomten live in the barn or under the floorboards of the house and take care of the animals and the family throughout the year.
In Sweden, the people decorate a Christmas tree with candles, apples, Swedish flags, glass balls, tinsel and straw ornaments shaped like animals a day or so before Christmas. The tree is displayed until January 13, Knut’s Day. The Christmas festival was established a thousand years ago when King Canute ruled. He decided that they would celebrate from December 13 through January 13. On that final day, boys dress up as “Old Knut” and play practical jokes. The tree is taken down and all edible decorations are consumed. The tree is thrown into the snow with a promise to be reunited the next year.
The beginning of that festival on December 13th is St. Lucia Day. Lucia was a Sicilian Christian virgin who lived during the fourth century, when Christians were persecuted for their faith. Lucia took food to the Christians who were hiding in underground tunnels. To light her way, she wore a crown of candles on her head. She was eventually arrested and martyred. No one really knows how the story of St. Lucia came to Sweden, but she is honored with a very special day. On the morning of December 13th, the eldest daughter in the home, dressed in white with a wreath of candles on her head, takes coffee, ginger cookies and buns to every member of her family in their rooms. While she is delivering her goodies, the family sings Lucia carols, songs of thankfulness and hope. December 13th is believed to be the darkest night of the year, so a festival with lights brings hope.
St. Lucia brought hope to the Christians who were hiding from persecution. She brought hope, not only with the food she shared, but also with her willingness to risk her own life for the sake of others. We wait anxiously through the darkness of Advent for the coming of the true light, Jesus Christ our Lord. The hope we have is because He willingly gave Himself for us, overcame sin and death and was raised to new life so that we might have the hope of eternal life. We celebrate Christ, not only with the tinsel and glitter, but especially with prayer and scripture so that we will draw closer and deeper into His heart.
Paul experienced suffering but he shared his gifts to help others know God with great joy. God blesses us, too, with the gifts necessary to continue the work to share Christ with the world. There will always be things about the Lord God Almighty that we cannot understand, but we do know the most important thing: God loved, Christ died, we believe. We are like St. Lucia, called to shine the light in the darkness of this world. It might be dangerous. It might even lead to our death. But God’s love is so great that we can step out in faith with joy and share His grace with those who need to see God manifest in their life through His Word and through our kindnesses to the people whom God sets in our path.
December 14, 2021
“Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all who are far off, even as many as the Lord our God will call to himself.’” Acts 2:38-39, WEB
Our question for this week comes from the book of Acts. After Peter gave his first sermon, on Pentecost!, the people who heard were cut to the heart and asked, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
The Jews had three festivals that were tied directly to agriculture and the harvest. These celebrations also had historical remembrances attached, so they were celebrations in thanksgiving to God for His daily care for His people as well as His goodness to their people throughout the ages. Passover occurs first, and is a remembrance of the Exodus. On the third day of Passover, a sheaf of the first barley is given at the Temple as a wave offering. The priest literally waved the sheaf toward God so that He might accept it and bless it. No one was allowed to eat any of the barley wheat before the wave offering. This was also called the Feast of First Fruits.
The third feast was called Sukkot or the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths. This festival occurred for a week in the fall, and it celebrated the harvest. During this festival the people remembered the journey from Egypt to Canaan and to thank God for the productivity of Canaan. The religious life of God’s people went from Passover to Sukkot, just as the agricultural calendar went from planting to harvest. The people identified God’s deliverance and His provision by celebrating the harvest of their daily bread and the remembrance of their past.
Between those two festivals was another. Fifty days after Passover, the people celebrated the Feast of Weeks, also known as Shavu’ot or Pentecost. This was a festival of joyful thanksgiving to God for blessing the harvest by giving offerings from the first fruits of their work. Pentecost was also a time to remember the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai. Just as the people stopped briefly between their exodus out of Egypt and their journey to Canaan at the foot of the mountain, so too do the people stopped briefly during the year to thank God for the blessings He has already given and to hear once again the words given to them on the mountain. The giving of the Law occurred fifty days after the Passover in Egypt, so it occurred fifty days later in the yearly remembrance of God’s mercy. The reading of the Law was an important part of this festival.
The word Pentecost means “fifty days.” Jesus was crucified during the celebration of Passover, taken to the cross as the perfect Lamb of God. It is no surprise then that the Holy Spirit would come upon the disciples fifty days later while the city was filled with people attending the Feast of Pentecost. On the first Pentecost, the people of Israel were given God’s law. On the first Christian Pentecost, the people were given the Holy Spirit, along with God’s power and authority. God’s Word was written on their hearts instead of tablets of stone.
It could not have been easy for Peter to stand in front of those pilgrims who were in Jerusalem to hear the reading of God’s Law to speak this first sermon before the crowds. It was bold and courageous. He was offering them a new promise, a different promise. As they heard his words, the people were “pricked in their heart” or “cut to the heart” and they wondered what they should do with this new story. Peter told them to repent, not only of the sins they had committed, but also of the way they were doing worship and living their lives of faith. He told them to be baptized so that they would be forgiven and receive the Holy Spirit. He said many other things, testifying to convince them of the truth of what he was saying. His boldness brought the word of God, Jesus, to thousands of people in one day.
As Christians we have already done what Peter teaches in this story, so now it is time for us to go out in faith like Peter and share the Good News with others. We may not be called to give Pentecost sermons but we are called to tell our neighbors about Jesus. The Gospel message demands a response. Are you ready to answer the question when someone asks, “What shall I do?” Are you willing to tell them that the response to God’s grace is obedience, to be baptized so that they will be forgiven and receive the Holy Spirit? You may not impact thousands, but you can help one person be cut to the heart with wonder at the Good News about Jesus.
December 15, 2021
Lectionary Scriptures for December 19, 2021, Fourth Sunday of Advent: Micah 5:2-5a: Psalm 80:1-7: Hebrews 10:5-10: Luke 1:39-45 (46-56)
“Behold, I have come to do your will.” Hebrews 10:9b, WEB
It is the season of parties and you have probably received at least one invitation to some holiday gathering. Invitations use an abbreviated form of communication, giving only the most important information, answering only the necessary questions. Who? What? Where? When? Why? We try to make our invitations as attractive as possible, so that our guests will want to come. We promise fun, good food and fellowship, adding a bit of glitz and glamour to the invitation to guarantee that we’ll have at least a few people come to be with us.
Our scriptures for this week are like an invitation. In Micah we learn where the party will take place – in Bethlehem. Bethlehem seems like an odd choice for the party, after all it was a nowhere town. Jerusalem was not so far away, wouldn’t that have been the better choice? Though Bethlehem was a humble place, it was the City of David, the city of bread. It was in Bethlehem that God’s promises would be fulfilled; the Bread of Life, the Son of David, would be born there. Micah also tells us the party will begin when the woman in labor gives birth.
The scriptures give us several answers to the question, “Who?” Mary cordially invites us to the birth of her son, whom Elizabeth tells us is Lord. God, Savior, the Mighty One is the Host, according to Mary. The psalmist recognizes the Shepherd of Israel and the Lord God of hosts. Notice how the characters, even God, are described in lowly terms. Mary is humble; Elizabeth feels unworthy to be in the presence of the mother of her Lord. God is described as the Good Shepherd, a rather unusual identity considering the shepherds were the lowest of the low in the culture of the day.
With this invitation we learn that God does not do things the way we might do them. We add glitz and glitter to everything; we think bigger must be better. We get caught up in the hustle and bustle, rich food and expensive presents. God turns everything upside down, choosing the lowly and humble above the grand and privileged.
We hang up decorations, we bake, we buy presents. We do so many things to make our world a little nicer, even if it is for just a short period of time. There is always talk about how busy we are and how far behind we are with the work of Christmas. We prioritize and sometimes ignore some of our tasks because it just isn’t worth it late in the season. “Why bother now, we won’t even have time to enjoy it.” Others skip some of the preparations because they are going out of town. “Why bother, we won’t be here to enjoy it.”
A friend of mine has decided not to decorate at all. She isn’t having any company for Christmas, so she’s decided not to bother. “No one is coming to visit, so there will be no one to enjoy it.” I know the feeling; I had the same thoughts last year. We decided put out our decorations anyway because they gave us joy; we were there to enjoy it. It was a lot of work and seemed worthless, but in the end it made the season more pleasurable. We even had a few guests, so I was glad to have everything prepared to share with them.
The past few years have made us look at the season with new eyes, and my friend is not the only one who has decided not to add the glitz and glitter. Yet there are others who have decided to do more than usual because we need a little Christmas these days. I think there can be a good balance between the two extremes. We can have the decorations while we keep the reason for the season in the forefront.
I can understand the need for a simpler, less hectic, more focused holiday. For some the old way was void of meaning, void of truth, void of heart. It had become a very shallow way of celebrating something wonderful filled with materialism, greed, exhaustion and overindulgence. That’s what Charlie Brown sees in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Instead of living and celebrating in the joy of the season and in the glow of God’s grace, Charlie Brown sees the materialism all around him and he is depressed by it all. So, he tries to direct the Christmas pageant but seems to fail at every turn. His friends didn’t help matters by acting greedy, demanding and rude. The television show was created in 1965; not much has changed over the past forty years.
Today’s psalm is a cry for God’s help. The psalmist recognized that the circumstances of God’s people in his day was brought on by their disobedience to God’s word and will, but the psalmist had confidence that God would fulfill His promises to His people. He would answer them and turn His face back to them. He would raise them up and shine His face upon them. In their darkest hour, He would come to save them.
We are invited to that moment. It is not a moment of glory as we might expect, but instead is a moment of pain in a stable in Bethlehem as a child is born. The invitation is not for the rich and the powerful, but for the poor and lowly. The invitation is to come to the birth of a lowly baby born in a stable, but ultimately it is an invitation to come kneel at the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ. When we cry out for salvation, it won’t be found in a palace, but in the manger. It won’t be in the glow of candlelight or Christmas lights, but in the shadow of the cross.
When we realize that the way we are celebrating Christmas has nothing to do with what the season is all about, we turn around and try something new. We set aside the old ways because they no longer work. In today’s epistle lesson, the writer of Hebrews shows us that Jesus came because the old way no longer worked. It was impossible for us to become righteous by obeying the Law, so Jesus did what was necessary to make all things new. The old offerings did nothing to bring forgiveness, but Christ was born and willingly faced the cross, doing God’s will for our sake. The Christmas story is sweet and wonderful and the celebrations bright and sparkly until we realize that Jesus was born to die. It is easier to keep the manger and the cross separate. Yet, it was for the cross that Jesus was born and for our sake He came to die. In His act of obedience, Jesus abolished that which came before and made everything better. We might wonder why anyone would bother to do such a gracious thing, but for Jesus it was a total submission to God’s will and purpose for His life.
Then Jesus calls His people to lives of total submission to God’s will and purpose for our lives.
Mary’s cousin Elizabeth was heavy with child, in her sixth month, by the time Mary met with the angel Gabriel. It must have been particularly difficult for her, as she was an elderly woman. When Mary heard the words of the angel, she went immediately to see Elizabeth. Mary, who was betrothed to Joseph, had no reason to believe that she might be pregnant, except for the words of the angel. She doesn’t seem to doubt the words, she simply asks “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” The angel answers that it would happen by the power of the Holy Spirit.
I wonder if this was something Mary could feel the conception as it happened. Was there some physical or visual sign that the Holy Spirit had come? Did she experience a tingling or have a sense of the presence? We don’t really know. We only know that Mary did not question the words of the angel, but accepted what had been told to her with a willing obedience to the call of God.
Yet, there must have been some sense of uncertainty in Mary because she quickly departed her home and traveled to see her cousin Elizabeth. We don’t know her motives. She was probably scared and needed time to digest the experience and build the strength she would need to face the persecution that would come when her family and friends discovered her supposed indiscretion. I think she also went because the Elizabeth’s pregnancy was the sign that the angel gave her to confirm everything. Mary needed to know that Elizabeth was pregnant. It was too ridiculous to believe without seeing. If Elizabeth was indeed having a baby, then everything the angel said was true. It was real. Then Mary could deal with it all knowing that God is indeed with her. It was then that she could sing her song and praise God for this gift. Without this encounter, Mary may not have ever had the certainty or the strength to stand up against the struggles she would face with her family and friends.
When Mary greeted Elizabeth, the child in her whom leapt for joy and Elizabeth wondered at how she could be so blessed to have a visit from the mother of her Lord. Mary saw that the words of the angel were true and she burst out in praise to God. Her song is called the Magnificat. Mary sang, “For behold, from now on, all generations will call me blessed. For he who is mighty has done great things for me. Holy is his name.” Mary knew her blessedness was not found in the great things she had done, but in the things that had been done for her by God. She’s not great because she was the mother of Jesus Christ, Son of God, she is remembered because God chose her to be the God-bearer. She is glorified not in her own works or accomplishments, but because God’s hand had touched her life. Though she is remembered for her humble faith, it is because at the moment of upheaval in her life she sang the words of praise about God’s goodness. She glorified God, and in her song we see God’s glory shining right back on her.
During Advent we take a moment to remember the woman who was chosen to carry the baby Jesus in her womb and then in her arms. She is an incredible example of faith, but we should be careful to not raise Mary to too high a pedestal. There are those who make Mary almost god-like and perfect. She is equated, in some circles, with the goddess of pagan faith.
However, Mary did not need to be perfect to be blessed of God. As a matter of fact, all those chosen by God were imperfect. And the blessing of God does not mean that her life would then be perfect. Her life certainly was not pain free. She was just a child when she became pregnant and she was mistreated as a whore. She gave birth in a cold stable, and then went on the run with her husband and young child to save his life. She deeply loved her son, but at times he seemed to disregard and disrespect her. Think about the stories: He went to the temple and they could not find him, He told her that it wasn’t time at the wedding in Cana, she went with Jesus’ brothers to talk to Him because they thought He might be crazy. He told her that those listening were His mother and brothers. And then, after all this, Mary watched her son die a horrible death, executed on the cross.
Mary’s story is not one of a goddess or a woman of sinless perfection. She was a woman, chosen by God to bring the Good News of salvation into the world in the most unique way. She had the rare, single honor of being the one to bear His physical body, but this is not why she is called blessed. She is called blessed because through all these trials, Mary remained humble and faithful to the God she loved.
Mary has been raised to a pedestal that is not hers. She has been made by some to be equal to Jesus in virtue claiming it is necessary for Jesus to be perfect. But this rejects the reality that Jesus is also fully human. Mary gives Him that part of His character. She gave Him the flesh and blood, the will that can be tempted and the heart that can cry out in agony on the cross. God, the divine aspect of His character, gave Him the ability to stay perfect and sinless. In this passage, Mary herself tells of her failings, crying out in thanksgiving to her Savior. If she were perfect, why would she need to be saved?
Mary deserves our respect, not because she is greater than you and me, but because she is just like us. She was specially chosen to bring the Gospel to the world as no one else could, but she is a sinner just like us. There were times her actions as the mother of Jesus made her as an obstacle to His ministry. She was a sinner in need of a Savior.
When you read the scriptures, it is obvious that her son came for the poor, the sick and the humble, those who need a Savior to change their lives. He did not reject the rich and healthy, but it was those who had a real need that found refuge in the words and actions of Jesus. There are people in this world who call themselves Christian because they find something in the life of Jesus that they want to emulate. They often see Jesus as a friend, as a role model. Yet, when asked about sin and their need for a Savior, they will deny they have any such need. They do not truly understand the reason Jesus came into the world.
Mary knew. Mary knew that Jesus offered a life-changing gift, the gift of forgiveness and eternal life. If a person sees themselves as good, they have no need for forgiveness and salvation. This is why true faith comes to those with a humble heart. It comes to those who recognize their true need, the need for mercy and grace which is found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel is not an example of how we are to live in this world; it is the gift of life for those who are dying from their sin. He gives us everything we truly need.
Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months, probably to help her elderly cousin in those final months of her pregnancy. Mary could do so much for Elizabeth, to allow Elizabeth to stay off her feet and yet still provide for the care of Zechariah. It gave Mary time to pray and to grow accustomed to her situation. It also gave the baby time to grow in her womb until her pregnancy was just becoming visible to the world. It was then that she went back to face her family, her friends and her betrothed. It wouldn’t be easy, but God gave her the strength and courage to walk in faith.
Mary was just one of many we see in the Christmas story who willingly submitted to God’s will and purpose for her life. They were all faithless and faithful at the same time, sinners and saints. Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth, Zechariah, the wise men and shepherds. Like them we are called to willingly obey the will and purpose that God has ordained for our lives. We aren’t meant to suffer the pain of the cross in the way that Christ suffered, but we are meant to follow in His footsteps, living in the shadow of the cross and in the light of His glory. Though they may seem very different, they are the same thing, for it is in the cross that Christ is glorified and it is there we find our peace. And as Linus said, “That’s what it is all about, Charlie Brown.”
The psalmist asked God to save Israel from her enemies and from His wrath for their sin. “Turn us again, God. Cause your face to shine, and we will be saved.” There is no salvation apart from God’s presence. God’s people do well when God’s face is shining on them. Though God is never far from us, we have a tendency to turn from Him, to walk away. We turn to others for our help; we sin against God’s Word. The wrath we suffer is deserved.
Try as we might, we can’t restore ourselves to God. We can’t make ourselves righteous enough. We can’t redeem our lives. We can’t do anything to make ourselves worthy of God’s grace, to gain His forgiveness, despite the ways we try. We can’t make God come any closer, even through prayer, because our God is never far. Our petition is not for God to change anything about Himself, but for God to turn us back to Him. “Turn us again, O God.” Mary knew this; she was a humble handmaid of the Lord singing praise to God her Savior.
By the time Jesus was born, it had been four hundred years since God had last spoken to His people. They forgot the prayer of the psalmist and tried to turn to God on their own. They tried to make themselves righteous through obedience to a bunch of rules, to cleanse themselves with the sacrifice of animals. The temple priests were busy day and night slaughtering birds, sheep, goats and bulls, begging for God’s mercy. The people gave generously to the temple (oil, incense, grain and coin) hoping that God would be pleased with their offerings and shine His face on them once again. God was not happy with those sacrifices. Instead, Jesus Christ offered Himself to do the will of His Father. Born of flesh and blood, Jesus would never rule from a throne made of gold and fine wood. Jesus was born to die. Through Him we are all made holy, not by our good works or our righteousness, but by His sacrifice.
During Advent and Christmas we are very aware of the presence of God. Many of the signs are secular, but even those signs point to the baby in the manger, for those of us who wait for the Savior. Twinkling lights remind us of the Light, the gifts under our trees remind us of the best gift, and our parties are experiences in hospitality. We are generous not only with those we love, but with strangers as we give to charities serving those in need during this season. Santa Claus might not seem very religious, but his story has a foundation in faith. We can see our God everywhere if we pay attention. God is with us in the most human ways.
The writer of Hebrews shows us that Jesus came because the ways of the world do not work. We think bigger is better, but it isn’t always. We think we can earn our way to heaven, but we can’t. We think that if we are good enough, if we do everything right, if we obey the Law, then we’ll experience the blessings of the righteous. But it is impossible for us to become righteous by obeying the Law. Jesus came to do what we cannot.
This fourth Sunday of Advent we remember the life and faith of Mary, the mother of our Lord Jesus Christ. As we look at the stories of Mary and Elizabeth, we see how God is able to use even the perishable flesh of man to bring forth great things. Yet, even greater than the miracle of the birth of Christ is the reason for His coming. With the birth of Jesus Christ, God brought forth the Savior whose blood would restore us to our God. "By which will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." He fulfilled the hope found in the psalm, "Turn us again, O God; And cause thy face to shine, and we shall be saved."
Christ died once for the sake of those He loves. As Christmas day approaches quickly, with the birth of Christ only moments away, we are excited and anxious for the coming of our King. We look forward to the day when He will come in glory to take us forever into His presence. Yet, in a few days or weeks, as Christmas fades and the glitz and glitter disappear, we will forget the hope we have known throughout this Advent season. We may even go back to living our daily lives with little notice of God’s presence.
Mary’s song reveals that Mary was a humble recipient of God’s grace. She sang, “...for he has looked at the humble state of his servant.” God does not choose the rich and the mighty, but the poor and the lowly. He chooses the humble, the unimportant and even the unworthy. For it is the unworthy who look to one who is greater, they are the ones who humble themselves before God. It is the humble who listen to God’s word, believe, and respond willingly to His will and purpose for their lives.
Jesus didn’t come to be a king, but to be a humble servant. He came to be a shepherd, to take care of God’s people in their deepest needs. He came to save us, not as a conquering hero, but as a son sent to do His Father’s work. That work is the most shocking part of the story. The Son did not come to rule on an earthly throne or lead an army into war. Jesus came to die. We have made the Christmas story to be one of sweetness and light: a mother and a baby, the farm animals close by keeping the happy family warm on the cold night. The pictures have beautiful angels singing praises to God and kings dressed in robes of spun gold fabric. We are excited that we have been invited to this beautiful moment. Then we realize that Jesus came to die. God turned the world upside down, using the wrong people in the wrong places to do what He knows to be right.
When we think that the world is upside down, we can look to God’s promises and know that if it is, He will turn it right in His time and in His way. This is the promise of Christmas: that despite our insistence of making God fit into our expectations, He does the most incredible things to bring us back to Him. Jesus came to do God will and He calls us to do the same, sharing His Good News according to His will and purpose for our lives.
December 16, 2021
“After these things I looked and saw a door opened in heaven, and the first voice that I heard, like a trumpet speaking with me, was one saying, ‘Come up here, and I will show you the things which must happen after this.’ Immediately I was in the Spirit. Behold, there was a throne set in heaven, and one sitting on the throne that looked like a jasper stone and a sardius. There was a rainbow around the throne, like an emerald to look at.” Revelation 4:1-3, WEB
There is a story about a little boy who was drawing a picture in Sunday school. His teacher asked him what he was drawing. He told her, “A picture of God.” The teacher said “But no one knows what God looks like.” He answered, “They will when I am done.”
I have said, “Ask twelve theologians to describe God and you’ll get thirteen different answers.” The same can be said about artists. If you asked them how they would portray God, you would get many unique pieces of art. For thousands of years men have tried to give physical attributes to a divine an image to help understand and identify the unknown. For many religions, the images that are presented in the form of sculpture or paintings become idols, things to be worshipped. Sometimes the idols are given human attributes. Parts of animals are often added to symbolize strength, power or whatever the god is known to control. Even Christians have sought to put a face on God throughout the history of the Church. The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel gives the story of God’s people, but Michelangelo included his idea of God in several of the pictures. God is often portrayed as a old man on a throne, probably based on the description in the Book of Daniel of “one like a son of man coming before the ancient of days.”
The problem is describing the indescribable. How do you create a picture of something no one has seen? What words can you use to illustrate something that is beyond human imagination. I have been participating in an Advent Photo Challenge this year, and some of the words are very hard to photograph, especially if you are trying to keep it appropriate to the spiritual or religious aspects of Advent and Christmas. How do you photograph a soul? How do you show the word “everlasting”? Some words in previous photo challenges were even harder.
Imagine if you were John. John is one of the few people from whom we have a record of a personal encounter with God. His description sounds strange to our ears. What does it mean that John saw one sitting on the throne that looked like a jasper stone and a sardius? How can a rainbow look like an emerald? I am sure what John saw defied all human experience, so he used human words that came as close as possible to what he was seeing with his eyes. The whole book of Revelation is filled with this type of description, things that don’t make sense to us but used words that we can picture in other ways. I suppose that’s why so many people have interpreted the strange symbols in the book with modern images.
The reality of God is a mystery we will not fully understand until we stand where John stood, in a personal encounter with God at the throne in heaven. We will have no better words to describe what we see, but that’s ok because God is bigger than we can ever imagine. We will be left speechless when we finally see His face, and that’s ok.
There is one thing that we do know, even if we cannot truly imagine the face of God. We know that it is in Jesus Christ that we can see Him fully. We may not have photos or paintings of Jesus. The disciples spent three years with Him, and not of the evangelists even provided a physical description of Him. We would probably not recognize Him if we met Him on the street. We do know, though, is that Jesus is near us and that the indescribable God dwells within our hearts. He was revealed to John in a spectacular way, but we can rest in the knowledge that God continues to reveal Himself to us in ways that give us hope, peace, and joy. We may not be able to describe Him so that people know what He looks like, but we can tell them about His grace and love so that they might one day join us at the foot of that throne, seeing Him with eyes of faith for eternity.
December 17, 2021
“Therefore I urge you, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service. Don’t be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what is the good, well-pleasing, and perfect will of God. For I say through the grace that was given me, to every man who is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think reasonably, as God has apportioned to each person a measure of faith.” Romans 12:1-3, WEB
I don’t talk about politics very much for two main reasons. First of all, a majority of my readers are not from the United States and don’t really care about American politics. Secondly, my readers come from a wide range of political leaning. It isn’t that the issues of our day do not matter to me, but this devotion has always been about growing our faith so that we will live and work according to God’s will in our lives. And as much as I wish all Christians thought about the issues as I do, God has actually called and gifted some to think exactly the opposite to keep us in balance. Oh, there are issues that God’s Word give clear direction, but I need to leave those discussions to a much better forum.
We may not like politics, but it is important that as Christians we engage in the process and discussion of the issues. We are to vote. God even calls some of us to run for office. Martin Luther and other reformers understood that there are two kingdoms: the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of God. They believed that God ruled both kingdoms, but He did so in the kingdom of the world through temporal authority. The left hand of God is found in the hands of kings and presidents, church leaders, bosses, parents and others who hold positions of authority. These temporal authorities have the power to rule through law, including the use of military power as necessary. The right hand of God rules the spiritual, and this authority is not given to man, but to the Holy Spirit whose power is the Gospel. A Christian can (and should) serve in the kingdom of the world but should never allow the kingdom of the world to usurp the authority of the kingdom of God.
The thing we need to remember is that we deal with our callings in the world with our Christian point of view. This is sometimes hard; take for instance of the vocation of a judge. How do you act as a judge when the scriptures tell us not to judge? Martin Luther explained that we live and in the two worlds. Worldly judgment is necessary. We have to judge in the secular world when someone has done something wrong, but a Christian judge must approach his or her vocation with particular care to do so with truth and righteousness. The same is true for every Christian who works in the kingdom of the world.
Unfortunately, many Christians keep their two worlds separate; they fall into the trap of living in the world as the world expects rather than as God commands. How many politicians do we hear claiming Christian faith who then do not act as Christians as they serve in their vocation? I had an experience this week that is the perfect example. I was working a charity event and a local politician had scheduled a visit to “help.” He sent a few of his people ahead of him, thank goodness because we could not have served our clients without them, and they did a good job. The whole time in between clients, however, his people were concerned about timing. There was some miscommunication, and the politician was busy with other things. He finally showed up with an entourage, but it was too late for him to help. We were already done.
By the time he arrived, I was the only person in the room who was not part of his team. He walked up to me, in full campaign mode, introduced himself with a huge smile. He walked into the room, looked around, had a bunch of his people pick up toys and get the photo as if they’d been there all along. I guess that’s part of the job, or keeping the job, but it seemed so insincere. I know we aren’t supposed to judge, but he did not act like a man who cared about the people he was supposedly serving. As a matter of fact, the room where we held the event had a basketball hoop and there was a box of balls to give to the children. He grabbed one of the balls and started shooting hoops, not considering that ball was meant to be a gift for a child. I don’t live in his district, so I won’t be able to vote for or against him anyway, but his actions didn’t give me reason to encourage others to vote for him.
Paul reminds us not to think too highly of ourselves. He calls us to think of ourselves with sober judgment according to the faith we have received. We aren’t to judge, but we are to make good decisions based on what we see. Is the politician living according to the faith he or she claims? Our faith is not meant for just Sunday morning in the kingdom of God, it is meant to guide us in our daily living in the kingdom of the world, doing what God has called us to do. Though I don’t talk about politics, I know I have to be involved by making choices that will glorify God and transform the world according to His good and perfect will.
December 20, 2021
“Now Yahweh’s word came to me, saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you. Before you were born, I sanctified you. I have appointed you a prophet to the nations.’ Then I said, ‘Ah, Lord Yahweh! Behold, I don’t know how to speak; for I am a child.’ But Yahweh said to me, ‘Don’t say, “I am a child;” for you must go to whomever I send you, and you must say whatever I command you. Don’t be afraid because of them, for I am with you to rescue you,’ says Yahweh.” Jeremiah 1:4-8, WEB
Today’s question comes from the story of Saul of Tarsus. He was a devout Jew intent on destroying the Christian sect. He’d already commanded Stephen’s death and was on his way to stamp out Christianity in Damascus when he met Jesus. His life was transformed. Instead of killing followers of the way, he became the Apostle Paul. It was a frightening experience, but he knew that it was real. The question is not asked directly in Acts 9, but Paul wanted to know what the Lord would have him do. It was a story about purpose. Paul was on the wrong path and Jesus set him on the right way.
We have to make a lot of decisions in our life. Some of them are small and unimportant, like what will we wear today or what we will make for dinner. Some of them are much bigger, like what career we will pursue or what person we will marry. All those decisions are easier when we have someone who can encourage and guide us, to give us reasons to make certain decisions. Unfortunately, they aren’t always right or helpful.
Art has always been a part of my world. My mother was very crafty, so she encouraged it. Art was my favorite class in school from a very early age. I took art classes as an elective in junior high and high school. Some of my art teachers gave me room beyond the projects to extend myself. They also pushed me to do more than I thought I could do. One teacher assigned a pen and ink project and encouraged me to create an oversized picture. I worked on it many hours but could not finish in time. He gave me more time, and even gave me permission to work on it in class even though I might miss another project. I loved it and began thinking of ways to make art a career.
The time came to decide on education tracks in school. We had options for college prep and vocational training. The VoTech school had a program in commercial art but the school did not have a good reputation. My counselor told me I was too smart to go to VoTech and suggested I should take the courses designed for college. She thought I should be a teacher, and that if I liked art so much, I could be an art teacher. I agreed and never pursued a career in professional art.
I never ended up pursing a career in education, either. I finished high school and went to college focusing on elementary education. I love kids. I had been helping teach Sunday school for years. It was a choice that was encouraged from every perspective, even mine. That is, until the semester that I was assigned to student teach. I was awful. I did not belong in a classroom with six-year-olds. I took enough credits to finish my degree and graduate, then I went into retail management. I loved teaching my own children. I volunteered to do story time. I helped with Vacation Bible School. I helped in my children’s classrooms. I mentored a young girl whose life was upside down. I even tried to enter the classroom again as a preschool teacher. I was still a horrible teacher.
I always thought I had a gift for teaching, but it wasn’t working out in my life. As I grew older and my children became independent, I had the time to try new things, including writing and bible study. This led me into a different type of classroom: adult bible study. I love teaching the bible and while I do love children, I realized that the purpose to which God has called me is to be focused not on children, but on grownups.
Saul thought he was honoring God by the work he was doing, but Jesus called him to something better. Jeremiah did not think he could accomplish his calling, but God promised to give him everything he needed to do His work. God had a purpose for him, and God had a purpose for Paul. He also has a purpose for you, but sometimes it isn’t clear. Sometimes those around us don’t help us make the right decisions. Sometimes we have to ask God the question, “What would you have me do?” And then we listen and trust because He has known us before we were born and He has had a plan for our life from before He formed us in our mother’s womb.
December 21, 2021
“But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, wasn’t with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.’ After eight days again his disciples were inside and Thomas was with them. Jesus came, the doors being locked, and stood in the middle, and said, ‘Peace be to you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Reach here your finger, and see my hands. Reach here your hand, and put it into my side. Don’t be unbelieving, but believing.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen, and have believed.’” John 20:24-29, WEB
“The Polar Express” is a story about a boy who has reached the age of questioning about Santa Claus. As he is falling asleep on Christmas Eve, a magical train arrives to take him on a special journey. The train is filled with other children about the same age. The train takes them all to the North Pole where they get to meet Santa Claus and see the reality of the one they doubt exists. They go home to discover special gifts under their trees and they believe, at least for a little while longer.
There is a scene in the movie when the boy is trying to see Santa Claus, but the elves are all too excited and are blocking his view. He walks over to the sleigh where the reindeer are waiting to take Santa on his worldwide journey, and one of the jingle bells falls onto the ground. The boy picks up the jingle bell but can’t hear it. According to the story, that’s the sign of the loss of innocence we see in these children who no longer believe - they can’t hear the jingle bells on Santa’s sleigh. The boy holds the bell to his ear, closes his eyes tightly and whispers, “I believe, I believe.” He cautiously shakes the bell and hopes. At first it is very quiet, but then the jingle-lingle of the bell is clear. It is real. He still believes. When Santa chooses the boy as the special recipient of a gift, the boy wants only that bell. He doesn’t want some big toy or trendy gift. He wants a simple reminder of the gift he’d been given, the gift of belief.
December 21st is observed by some as the feast day of St. Thomas the Apostle. He is an interesting character to consider in these final days of Advent. Thomas is the very image of doubt. He searched for truth, demanded proof and refused to believe unless he had tangible evidence. He wanted clear answers to questions that still remain a mystery to us today. In John 14, Thomas wanted to understand how they could follow Jesus to a place they did not know. We wonder the same thing today. After the resurrection, Thomas insisted that he had to touch the wounds on Jesus’ hands to believe. Thomas is like the boy who has begun to question the existence of Santa Claus.
The more deeply we study the story of the nativity and incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, the more unbelievable it becomes. The more mature we become, the harder it is to continue to believe in things like the virgin birth and the star that guided the wise men. These things are as ridiculous as Santa Claus and flying reindeer. The more modern research reveals about the world, the more difficult it is to accept the mystery of God’s plan for faith. But in the end that’s all He asks of us: to believe. We are called to be like children, to hear the jingle of the bells and know without a doubt that everything God has spoken is real.
We might argue about the value of the stories of Santa Claus and the affect that he has on the lives of our children, but in the story we see a parallel with faith. Children believe without proof. Children have the most passionate and precious faith, both in Santa and in Jesus. They are our model for living faith because they do not doubt, they simply believe. Mary was little more than a child when she was faced with the most impossible truths, but she believed. May we all believe in the Christmas story with such faith and praise God for His blessing.
December 22, 2021
Lectionary Scriptures for December 26, 2021, First Sunday of Christmas: Exodus 13:1-3a, 11-15; Psalm 111; Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:22-40
“Yahweh’s works are great, pondered by all those who delight in them.” Psalm 111:2, WEB
I was preparing for a Christmas party by cleaning my house a couple weeks ago and I decided to listen to Christmas music. The CD I chose was one that had humorous songs, including the classic from Bob and Doug McKenzie (played by comedians Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas), “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. They used their favorite items from the Great White North as the items their true love gave. In the song they asked the question, “Where do they get twelve days?” They try to figure it out by counting Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve, New Year’s Day and then the weekends, but are left we several “mystery days.” Since the twelve days of Christmas is not really a tradition most of us follow anymore, it is hard to know what they mean. If you count from Christmas through Epiphany, you come up with twelve days. Christmas is not really over until we get to January 6th.
So, according to the world the party is over by Sunday; some people will even have their trees on the curb as soon as possible. This is not true everywhere; in England December 26th is a holiday called Boxing Day. The Boxing Day tradition goes back about eight hundred years and is a time for remembering and taking care of the poor. In ages past, and even in some places today, Boxing Day was when the alms boxes located in churches were opened to distribute the gifts to the poor. It has also been traditional for the large landowners to give their servants the day off to spend with their families, with gifts of food from the family’s Christmas dinner to share.
Sunday is also St. Stephen’s Day. Stephen was the first Christian martyr; his story is found in Acts chapters six and seven. In the early days of the church, the apostles tried to take care of all the work that needed to be done in the growing fellowship of believers. They studied and taught the scriptures and the stories of Jesus, and they took care of those in need. They realized that it was impossible for them to do everything, that they needed help if they were going to be able to focus on preaching the Word to the world. They chose seven deacons to do the tasks of administration, the business of the church. Stephen was one of those seven.
Stephen wasn’t just a servant, however. He was a man of God who also did works of great wonder and spoke with the grace of God. He was seized by the authorities because they opposed the spread of “the Way” as Christianity was called in the beginning. They claimed that Stephen spoke blasphemy and persuaded some men to testify against him. Based on lies, Stephen was found guilty and was sentenced to death by stoning. “All who sat in the council, fastening their eyes on him, saw his face like it was the face of an angel.” (Acts 6:15, WEB)
Stephen gave the most eloquent speech, laying out before them the story of God’s love. He reminded them of the works of God’s power in the life of Israel and the promises of God that still lay before them. Then he placed the one whom they crucified in the midst of the story, showing them that everything was fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He showed them how they missed the Messiah, and how they betrayed the God they claimed to love. They stoned him for his words, but even while Stephen received such brutality he knew the peace of God. He prayed for Jesus to receive his spirit and fell on his knees to ask for forgiveness - not for himself, but for the ones who were killing him.
The days following Christmas are filled with aspects of God’s story that do not make sense to us. How could God allow a faithful servant like Steven to die such a horrific death? Imagine being stoned? It is not a quick and easy passing. If they were lucky, the person being stoned would die when pushed into the hole, but it is a form of capital punishment by which a crowd throws stones at the person until they died of blunt trauma, they would suffer incredible pain as they were buried under stones. It is interesting that the first time we meet Paul, who was then called Saul, was at the stoning of Steven. Paul was stoned later in the book of Acts.
The other surprising event is remembered on December 28th, the day set aside for the Holy Innocents, the children massacred in Bethlehem at the hands of Herod. Though we are to remember these two horrific moments, in the midst of it all we are called to praise.
One this first Sunday of Christmas, we listen to another horrific part of God’s story. It is no wonder that many look back onto the Old Testament texts with questions and doubts. We prefer to believe in a God who is loving and kind; any stories of death and destruction is difficult for us to juxtapose with our understanding. We have a hard time believing that the God who sent us the baby in the manger could possibly allow the death of all the first born of Egypt. That’s what happened at the Passover, when the angel of death passed over the homes covered in the blood of the lamb and took the sons of Egypt as the final plague to convince Pharaoh to set the Hebrews free. There must have been a better way.
The Old Testament passage comes in the midst of the story of this final plague. The Exodus was the first of many great works and a foreshadowing of the greatest work that He performed in and through Jesus Christ. The deliverance was not easy; Pharaoh’s heart was hardened against the Hebrews, and he refused to let them leave despite his promises. So, God made the ultimate demand, the demand that the other gods had no right to make. He gives life to all, include humankind, so only He has the right to take that life away. As a last resort, God took the first born of Egypt, man and beast. But as proof that He is God, He saved the firstborn of the Hebrews. He saved His sons.
After Pharaoh ordered the Hebrews to leave, God gave the people instructions about the journey. He told them to remember the Passover regularly, to remember how God delivered them out of Egypt. Then He called His people to consecrate all their first-born males, human and animal. This consecration was to happen not only on that night, but in all time after they enter into the Promised Land. The animals were sacrificed; it was not a command to sacrifice to death for the first-born human sons, but to life. This was a command to dedicate their first fruits to God’s service. The first born belonged to God.
According to Numbers 18:16 there was a redemption price of five shekels that could be paid to a priest when the first-born son of a mother was thirty days old. This redemption price would have ‘bought’ or ‘redeemed’ or ‘paid the ransom’ for the child so that they could be restored to their family. If a father could not pay the redemption price, the child had to do so when he became a man. It is expected that Joseph paid, although we do not hear about it in the scriptures. Perhaps in the case of Jesus, the ransom was never paid by humankind because Jesus was sent to pay the price Himself, not with shekels but with His own blood.
In other words, the very command we hear in today’s Old Testament lesson was truly fulfilled in the life, ministry, and death of our Lord Jesus Christ. Mary and Joseph dedicated Jesus to God’s service, and Jesus served in a way that only He could serve. Ultimately we know that Jesus was the final sacrifice, and it is His blood that is now painted on our doors so that the angel of death will pass us by.
Jesus was circumcised at eight days according to the Law and when the forty days of purification was over, Mary, Joseph and Jesus went to Jerusalem so that He might be presented at the Temple. They gave a pair of doves or two young pigeons. A wealthy family would have given a lamb and dove or pigeon; this offering is a reminder of the humble state of Jesus’ family and perhaps further reason to believe that Joseph didn’t pay the redemption price for Jesus.
In the Gospel lesson we meet two people, a man and a woman, both were waiting expectantly for the coming of the Messiah. The first person was a man named Simeon who was righteous and devout. This description of Simeon as both righteous and devout is interesting. Matthew Henry suggests that righteousness is lived for the sake of other people and one who is devout is devout toward God. “...these must always go together, and each will befriend the other, but neither will atone for the defect of the other.” In other words, we love God and neighbor, not one or the other. If we hate our neighbor we cannot love God. And if we love God, we will always love our neighbor. Simeon was a man who gave his life to God’s service; he loved God and his neighbor.
The Holy Spirit was upon Simeon. There are not many examples of the Holy Spirit on men before Christ finished His work, and yet we see the Spirit clearly in the Luke’s Gospel. Luke, being a man of science and medicine was focused on the miraculous works of God, as we see in the telling of Jesus’ birth and in His presentation at the Temple. Simeon apparently lived in Jerusalem; he prayed often. He lived in thanksgiving of God’s works. He was an example to us of the life that glorifies God. Simeon had been given a promise; he would not die until he saw the Messiah.
There’s a Paul connection, here, too. The bible tells us of a man named Gamaliel who was a Pharisee, an honored teacher of the Law. He was in the Temple when Peter and the apostles were taken in for preaching the Gospel. He told his fellow councilmen to be patient and 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. 39 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, however, 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. Tradition holds that Simeon, the old man in the Temple who recognized Baby Jesus as the Messiah, was Gamaliel’s father. If this is true, he most likely told his son about Jesus. Did Gamaliel know 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.
The second person is an elderly woman named Anna. We know that she was old. She was at least eighty-four, but she could have been more than a hundred, depending on the translation. She had been living in the Temple for many decades, living a life of pious prayer and fasting. Her life was indeed one of glorifying God. She worshipped day and night.
Simeon and Anna both recognized that Jesus was the one for whom they were waiting. They knew He was the Messiah and they praised God for His faithfulness. Simeon boldly proclaimed what Jesus came to do, that He would be the salvation of Israel and a light to the Gentiles. This was an amazing thing to say. Simeon knew by the power of the Holy Spirit that the boy Jesus would die, and that his death would pierce the very soul of His mother. Those are powerful words. Anna came upon the scene as Simeon told Mary and Joseph about their son’s future and she began praising God loudly and telling everyone about Jesus. “He’s the one we’ve been waiting for! He’s the promised King!” Simeon may have quietly shared the story of Jesus, but Anna was not going to be silent. She was ready to tell the world.
Simeon and Anna committed their lives to the promises of God. They waited patiently to see the God’s faithfulness. Their sacrifice was not blood and death, but their whole lives of hope and faith. When they received the fulfillment of God’s promise, they spent their rest of their lives praising God with thanksgiving. I think my favorite part of this story, however, is the response of Mary and Joseph. They marveled at the words spoken about their son. They knew because they too experienced the Holy Spirit and the messengers of God. And yet they marveled at everything that happened to them after Jesus was born.
God is worthy of our praise. The psalmist wrote, “Praise Yah! I will give thanks to Yahweh with my whole heart, in the council of the upright, and in the congregation.” Why praise God? His works are great, meant to be pondered, or marveled by all. He is righteous and faithful. He has provided for His people and He remembers His covenant. His works are truth and justice. He is our Redeemer, His redemption was sent to us through the baby born in the manger, who lived and died for our sake. He ordained His covenant forever. His name is holy and awesome. The psalmist continued, “The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom. All those who do his work have a good understanding. His praise endures forever!”
Psalm 111 was a hymn for Passover concerning the Lamb. We are to learn to give thanks for His wonderful works. As a result of God’s great acts, He deserves unending praise. Just as we struggle with so many images in the Old Testament, the command to fear God does not make sense to us. But we are reminded that we are not meant to be afraid of God, but to be in awe of Him. He is Creator and we are His creation. He has done great things to us. Those who fear God recognize their proper place in His creation. God provides for those who fear Him. God demonstrates His righteousness though we do not deserve His grace. During the Exodus, God even provided food for those who grumbled. He is as gracious, perhaps more so, to us.
Our God has done amazing things. He created the entire world and everything in it. He redeemed all of mankind by the blood of Christ. He brought salvation to our lives, ordained His people to service and promised to do even greater things through His Church. We might suffer for a moment. We might have difficult work to do in this world. But no matter what we face, we believe in the God of the heavens and the earth. By our rebirth through our baptism we are dedicated to a life of service for our God. It is a sacrifice of living, not death. Such a life begins with a daily sacrifice of praise to God, singing songs of adoration and admiration. As we live this life of thanksgiving, we will realize how inconsequential our troubles really are because we will be looking for the fulfillment of God's promises and His faithfulness.
Our God is great and He does great things. The most incredible part is that He does so much of it through us. He calls us to live that holy life, to live faithfully in thanksgiving, doing everything in His name. Whether it is with quiet voice or loud proclamation, His name will change the world. The peace we have in Christ does not guarantee a world without suffering. We'll see horrific moments. We'll panic in the face of danger. We'll cry when we are afraid. We will have to let go, let others take their place in the work of God, give up the things we hold most dear. But as we dwell in Christ and sing His praise together, we can live like Simeon and Anna in hopeful expectation that God will be faithful.
The text from Colossians sounds like a message filled with ‘do this’ and ‘do that’ and yet this is not a message of law, but of Gospel. You are God’s holy and beloved, you who have heard God’s word and believe. Being of God means a life of peace and joy, though this does not mean it will be a life without conflict. As a matter of fact, for many Christians the peace of God comes with the risk of violence and even martyrdom. Stephen could have appeared before the Sanhedrin and given them what they wanted: fearful trembling before their power and authority. He might have been freed, but he would never have been free. Instead of cowering before them and giving in to their demands, Stephen spoke the Word of God into their lives. The fear of the Lord was the beginning of the wisdom for Stephen, and it gave him the courage to face martyrdom for His glory.
Paul wrote, “Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father, through him.” He was not telling us how to live our calling in the world. We might be like Stephen, called to boldly stand for the Gospel despite the risks. We might be like Simeon, led by the Spirit to be at the right place at the right moment to see or hear or do something that seems rather insignificant in the scheme of things. But our quiet life of faithful living will impact others in some way. Or, we might be like Anna, loudly proclaiming the truth we know so that others will hear and believe in the good works of our God. But whatever you do in word or deed, do it in Jesus' name with thanks to God, and He will be glorified.
The life to which we are called is never going to be easy. We may be taken out of our comfort zone and put into a position of risk and difficulty. We may have to do something that shocks and upsets the world around us. We may have to say the very things that will bring scorn from our neighbors. Though we do not see any stonings in our corner of the world, Christians are still dying for the sake of the Gospel of Christ. We cry out for peace, and we strive to work for peace, but the peace that God promises is not something we can achieve by doing this or that. It comes from God. God’s works, all God’s works, are worthy to be pondered.
As we live in His peace, we are called to be the holy and chosen people whom God has made us by His grace. This means growing in the grace of God and becoming the visible manifestation of His love in the world. We are told to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. We are told to bear with one another, to forgive as we have been forgiven and to put on love above all else. As the peace of Christ rules in our hearts and we live in thankfulness, the world will see the word of Christ dwelling in our lives like Stephen. For some, this life of peace will be offensive and they will seek to see it end. We might be tempted to hide that peace or to work toward a false sense of people. But as Christ dwells amongst us, we will grow in grace and will naturally live the life to which we have been called, doing everything in word and deed in the name of Jesus, giving thanks to God our Father through Him.
December 23, 2021
“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; and without him was not anything made that hath been made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in the darkness; and the darkness apprehended it not. There came a man, sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for witness, that he might bear witness of the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came that he might bear witness of the light. There was the true light, even the light which lighteth every man, coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and they that were his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them gave he the right to become children of God, even to them that believe on his name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth.” John 1:1-14, WEB
One of the most popular gifts to give around a holiday is a new pet. Unfortunately, this is not the best gift to give, especially at such a hectic time of year. I once saw an interview with a volunteer from the Humane Society and she had some excellent suggestions. Even if the family for whom you wish to purchase a pet really wants one, you can’t know for sure if you are picking the right animal for that family. A cat or dog that seems most wonderful for you might not fit in the atmosphere of a different home. Also, the family might not be able to take on the responsibility immediately.
The recommendation was to buy all the things the family would need for a pet: a carrier, food, toys, litter boxes or gift certificates for pet stores. Then the family can find the pet of their dreams without being forced to have someone else’s idea of perfect. Getting an animal is not a once and done moment, it takes a lot of preparation. Animals are a great way for children to learn important life lessons, but it takes time and commitment.
Christmas is the culmination of the promises that God made to His people. Things changed when Jesus was born; everything was made new by His life and His love and the hope we have by His grace. It took preparation; His birth was not the beginning. The Old Testament scriptures take up nearly three fourths of the Bible, pages that are filled with the prophecy and preparation for the coming of the Messiah. Jesus’ birth was not a brand new thing but was a new step in the story of God and His people. Jesus was before He was born. Just as a new pet in a household will change the lives of those who live there, so too does Jesus change the lives of those who believe in Him. But that change is not sudden, just one moment in time when someone suddenly believes. The change began two thousand years ago when Jesus was born, and it has been happening as seeds are planted in the hearts until they finally bloom with faith. It may seem sudden, but God works in the lives of those who do not yet believe, preparing their hearts for His Word that became flesh that day in the stable.
December 24, 2021
“He showed me a river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. On this side of the river and on that was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruits, yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. There will be no curse any more. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no night, and they need no lamp light or sun light; for the Lord God will illuminate them. They will reign forever and ever.” Revelation 22:1-5
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.
A baby was born in that stable more than two thousand years ago 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 sin. However, that baby was more than just a good example or a special teacher. Jesus Christ was born on that day as the perfect Lamb of God, the perfect sacrifice for our sins. Throughout His life, He taught us how to live. At the end, however, 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. Each Christmas, we linger a moment over the infant Jesus in the manger. We sing a few carols and share our blessings with those we love. We share the joy of God’s gift with the world. Then we go back to acting in ways that are not worthy before the Lord. It is good that we take a moment each Christmas to remember Jesus, but let’s make a commitment to keeping Christ in our lives throughout the year. The baby wrapped n swaddling clothes on that first Christmas day is our hope in the future and for eternity. He is worthy of our thanks and praise. He is worthy of our worship.
December 27, 2021
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35, WEB
Today we celebrate the life of St. the Apostle and Evangelist on December 27th. He was the writer of the Gospel, three letters and the Book of Revelation. John did not die a martyr’s death, but in his life we see the faithfulness of a man who patiently endured persecution from those who did not know Jesus. John offers to us, through all his writings, an invitation to an intimate and eternal relationship with the God who loves us. John, who was the youngest of the apostles, knew that relationship in a very real way. He dwelled in the presence of God when Jesus was with them and then for the rest of his life.
The word love is central to all his writings. As a matter of fact, nearly one third of all instances of the word is found in the five books written by John. He uses it far more often than any of the other Gospel writers. One of the most beloved and quoted scriptures comes from him, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” Most people can see just “John 3:16” on a placard in the end zone of a football field and know exactly what it means. It makes sense since John was the Beloved Disciple, a close friend of Jesus and the one Jesus chose to care for His mother.
One story about St. John tells of an encounter with a huntsman. He was an elderly man and was found holding and petting a tame partridge. They were common pets in that time. The huntsman asked John why he was occupying himself with such a trivial pastime. John asked, “What is in your hand?” The huntsman said, “A bow.” John then asked him, “Why do you not carry it always bent?” “Because,” said the huntsman, “in that case it would lose its strength, and would be useless when required for shooting, from too continuous strain.” John replied, “Then, do not let this simple and brief relaxation of mine perplex you, since without it the spirit would flag from unremitted strain, and fail when the call of duty came.” John worked diligently for the Gospel, but he knew the importance of rest.
The best story comes from when John was old and feeble; it is said his senses were becoming numbed and he wanted to be taken into the presence of the gathered congregation. As entered he said these words, “Little children, love one another!” And when asked why he always said this, and only this, his answer was, “It is the command of the Lord, and if this only were done, enough were done.” If only we would love one another. John uses that phrase more than anyone else; it was so important to him that it became the center of his life.
Jesus had a sacrificial love for us/ He loved us to death: His own. He loves us so much He went to the cross to reconcile us with our Father and ensure our place in God’s eternal kingdom. Jesus told His disciples that they could not follow Him where He was going because none of them could die on the cross for the sake of the whole world. However, most of them were eventually martyred in His name. They could not go with Him at that moment, for Jesus had to complete the work of the cross before they could go on to do the work of the kingdom in this world. He left them for a moment, but they were never alone. They had each other. It seems odd that He would call loving one another something new, since God always intended His people to love. Yet, this new love is deeper. It is a sacrificial love, just as Christ was willing to love us to through the cross. This kind of love that radiates from our lives, marking us before as disciples of Christ. It might not lead to our own martyrdom; like St. John we may live to old age and God will use every act of love for His glory.
December 28, 2021
“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.” Matthew 2:16-18, WEB
The numbers are disturbing. Statistics show that about five children a day die due to child abuse, and that some form of child abuse is reported every ten seconds. In our local county, it is reported that one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday; almost one-third are not old enough to attend kindergarten. I'm not sure if those numbers include the many children that are sold as sex slaves, even here in the United States. Not all child abuse is sexual, of course, but all abuse is heartbreaking and extremely damaging to the victims. Some children are abused physically, some verbally, some emotionally. Too many children are used as pawns for adults, particularly in broken relationships. Too many children are used around the world for political purposes, trained as babies to be suicide bombers or used as human shields. And of course, all too many children are never born because many are aborted for selfish and self-centered reasons.
The abuse of our babies is not new. Ancient religions used children in human sacrifice. Historically, the children of the powerful were often used in their political games as they were given in marriage not for love, but to join kingdoms. Children didn’t matter, they were little more than property to be used for the benefit of the family, community or kingdom. Children were beaten to teach them lessons or left to die when there was not enough food. I wonder, though, if we aren’t doing as much or more damage to our kids in modern times. It doesn’t seem like abuse to give our children everything they want or to tell them how wonderful they are, but it is possible to coddle our kids into adults who do not know how to be responsible adults. They suffer at our hands; our over-protectiveness and extreme care creates people who are selfish and self-centered, leading them to abuse others in other ways.
The 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. The numbers really don’t matter; every act of abuse against a child is wrong.
Today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the day we remember the children who perished at the hands of King Herod. He heard that a new king had been born and he was so concerned for his own power and throne that he did whatever was necessary to ensure his rule. Millions of children have suffered since the beginning of time, but we are particularly taken aback by the story of these babies. 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 with an estimated population of just hundreds of people. Though some estimate the deaths in the thousands, it is more like to have less than twenty. There is no secular historical accounts of a massacre, probably because it was not noteworthy that a local ruler would kill a few children. The numbers do 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 Herod did not understand is that our Lord Jesus Christ was not born to rule as an earthly king, but He was sent to bring forgiveness, to transform our lives and reconcile us to God our Father. What we often forget is that the blood of those children is on our own hands. Our sinfulness brought Jesus into this world. We blame Herod for the death of the innocents, 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? Do we accept that our own sin can cause another to suffer? Do we do what we think needs to be done for our own benefit, ignoring what we might be doing to our children?
As we recall those innocent lives lost, we should also remember the children who suffer every day in the violence and selfishness of this world. 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.
December 29, 2021
Lectionary Scriptures for January 2, 2022, Second Sunday after Christmas Day: 1 Kings 3:4-15; Psalm 119:97-104; Ephesians 1:3-14; Luke 2:40-52
“Give your servant therefore an understanding heart to judge your people, that I may discern between good and evil; for who is able to judge this great people of yours?” 1 Kings 3:9, WEB
Our Old Testament lesson for today begins at verse four, but it is helpful to begin at the beginning of the chapter. Solomon inherited the throne of his father David, who ruled for forty years, but it was not easy an easy transition. Others, like his older brother Adonijah, sought the throne. Some of David’s key men sided with Adonijah, but Solomon was God’s chosen heir. Unfortunately, like all God’s people, Solomon was imperfect. At the beginning of his reign, Solomon took as wife Pharaoh’s daughter, making an alliance with Egypt, against the command of God. God knew this type of alliance would lead the king to worship foreign gods, which it eventually did with Solomon.
Yet, the writer of 1 Kings tells us that Solomon loved the LORD and that he walked in the statutes of David, his father.
We are bothered by the beginning of today’s passage because it says that Solomon sacrificed at the high places. We understand that the high places are where those foreign gods were worshipped. Why would God bless a king who so quickly turned from Him?
Gibeon was the site of the tabernacle and the brazen altar made by Moses in the desert. It was not in Jerusalem as you might expect. In the days when David was fleeing from Saul, the Tabernacle was in Nob. David went there to seek help and when Saul discovered the perceived treason, he had Doeg the Edomite slaughter the priests and all the people of Nob. The tabernacle could not longer be kept there because the ground was soaked in blood. The Ark of the Covenant was lost during the reign of Saul and was never restored to the Tabernacle of Moses. When David finally moved the Ark back to Jerusalem, he placed it in a new tent he had erected for it. Therefore, there was no central place for Israel to worship for a time, so the people worshipped at high places that were dedicated to the LORD, including Gibeon. Solomon burnt his offerings on the altar made by Moses. It wasn’t Jerusalem, but it was an appropriate place for Israel to worship at the time.
In today’s text we see that the first thing Solomon did after he received the gift of wisdom was to go to Jerusalem and make sacrifices there before the Ark of the LORD. Solomon was a young man when he became king and he needed God’s wisdom to do what was right, including the right way to worship. While we are bothered by the idea of the high place, we are reminded that God was gracious to His chosen king. If Solomon did not love the LORD and walk in the statutes of his father David, God would not have appeared to him in that high place to offer him anything he wanted. Solomon’s heart was definitely in the right place because he asked what pleased the LORD, so much so that God gave him much, much more.
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.” The waves did not stop. The water level rose, to his knees, to his waist, 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.
Art Linkletter was known for being able to make people so comfortable in his presence that they were willing to be themselves, which is when people are the most humorous. He was especially able to make children feel at ease.
William Grimes wrote Art’s obituary for the New York Times in which he wrote, “Television critics and intellectuals found the Linkletter persona bland and his popularity unfathomable. ‘There is nothing greatly impressive, one way or the other, about his appearance, mannerisms, or his small talk,’ one newspaper critic wrote. Another referred to his ‘imperishable banality.’” Yet, Mr. Linkletter was exceptionally popular with the American public. He was well known for what he did; I’m sure there were few people who had to ask, “Who is Art Linkletter” when the news broke yesterday about his death. Say, “Art Linkletter” and almost everyone thinks, “Kids say the darndest things.”
He was good at what he did because he was willing to go eye to eye with whomever he was dealing with. The most common memory of him is in a room with a short table and children’s chairs, with Art sitting right next to the children. He listened. He got into the dirt. He played with the toys. He did whatever it took to make his guest (or victim) feel like he was their friend. When he asked his questions, they were ready and willing to answer.
In the obituary, Mr. Grimes quotes Mr. Linkletter, “I know enough about a lot of things to be interesting, but I’m not interesting enough in any one thing to be boring. I’m like everybody’s next door neighbor, only a little bit smarter.” He led an interesting life. His story if filled with adventures on freight trains, hitchhiking, jobs wherever he happened to stop, and times as a merchant seaman. He went to a teacher’s college, planned to become an English teacher, but discovered radio during his last year. He worked as a spot reporter at the California Pacific International Exhibition in San Diego and at other fairs. He learned to work without a script, filling time with whatever entertaining person happened his way. He made mistakes but found his nitch; he’ll always be remembered for his way with people.
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 used 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 the Gospel 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. We laughed with those children on Art’s show, but we were also amazed at their wisdom.
It is odd 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 children know it in their hearts.
We often think of Jesus as some extraordinary child. Though Jesus was God incarnate, He was also fully human. We should not think of Him as the perfect child, never crying or getting dirty. He needed his diapers changed like every other baby. He fell when He was learning to walk, skinned His knees when He played. 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 their twelve-year-old son 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.
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 speaks 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. Solomon knew that he needed more than health and wealth. He needed wisdom. 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 sought 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.
The world will be back to normal Monday. Some of my neighbors have already taken down their Christmas lights. Vacations will be over; children will be back to school and workers will be back to the old grind. For Christians, however, the holiday does not end when the ball drops on New Year’s Eve. We celebrate the birth of Christ through Epiphany. Even though the wise men have been in our nativities from the beginning, they don’t actually show up in the church year until January 6th. That’s why we have twelve days of Christmas.
The scriptures for this Sunday do not include the story of the wise men, but since most churches no longer celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6th, it is worth mentioning in today’s message. Epiphany is defined as “a sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something.” The story of Epiphany talks of wise men that saw a star rise in the east and they followed it in search of a fulfilled promise. The journey ended in Bethlehem where they saw the true Light. Isaiah wrote, “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” Jesus Christ was the rising light and His birth was the dawn of a new age.
Wherever the wise men began their journey, they likely would have entered Jerusalem by the East, or Golden Gate. It was the largest and most impressive gate into the city; an impressive caravan with wise men would likely have entered by this gate. It was the only gate that faced east, and is the gate through which the Messiah was expected to come. The gate leads to the Temple Mount and is just opposite the Mount of Olives. It is the gate through which Jesus entered on Palm Sunday for His triumphant parade into Jerusalem. The Muslims walled up the gate in 810 A.D. to halt the coming of the Messiah. The gate remains closed today, although we know that no walls will keep the Messiah from coming again.
What is it about these wise men that set them out on a strange and difficult journey? They may have had some knowledge of the Jewish scriptures, but their understanding was imperfect since they went to Herod’s palace rather than to Bethlehem which was prophesied to be the birthplace of the Messiah. They took gifts that had great value, not only financial but also spiritual. Did they know they were giving gold to the Great King, myrrh to the Great High Priest and frankincense to the perfect Lamb who would be slain? Perhaps they had knowledge, but what makes us wise?
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 and the children at the feet of their teacher, can be wise. Wisdom comes to those who seek God, who humble themselves before Him, and who live according to His Word.
It is that kind of wisdom we see in today’s Gospel story. Jesus, only twelve years old, sat with the elders in the Temple to discuss the things of God. It is hard for us to imagine a twelve-year-old theologian, but that’s exactly what Jesus was in this story. He was sharing with the learned men His thoughts and understanding about God. As the Son of the Living God, Jesus had more knowledge than the others. In this story, though, we see Him also being humble before the elders, asking questions. They were amazed, not only that He was interested, but that He knew the right questions to ask and that He had an understanding far beyond His years. Jesus had the wisdom that is more than knowledge and experience.
It was risky for those wise men, perhaps not even very wise, to go chasing after a star to find a baby born to be the king of an insignificant nation. It is risky for us to chase after the same star. After all, Jesus never sat upon a throne, and He died on a cross. What sort of king is that? The world certainly rejects Him, and it rejects those who follow Him. They call us foolish for believing and give us plenty of reasons why our faith is misplaced. The wise man of the world is the one who has great knowledge; he is the one who follows the ways of the world. The wise man of the world would never chase a star or believe a fairy tale.
But the wisdom of God is much different than the wisdom of the world. Solomon knew that he needed more than health and wealth. He needed God to give him a discerning heart so that he would rule rightly. We don't rule over a kingdom, but we do rule over our own little corner of the world, our own flesh and lives. We need wisdom as much as Solomon to make the decisions that will affect us and those around us. We would do well to be like Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson, humble enough to sit at the feet of those who have come before us, asking questions and learning about the God who has called us out of darkness into the Light. We would do well to seek the wisdom that comes from God our Father, to seek Him and to listen to His Word.
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 Solomon and Jesus remind us who to live our own spiritual journeys. They were young, but they had the mind of God. They were humble and willing to learn; they sought wisdom above all else. They understood what was truly needed to do what God was calling them to do.
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 early life are filled with unusual circumstances: visits from shepherds and wise men, a journey to a foreign land and then home again, prophets who sang for joy at His presence, and a lesson in the temple. Mary, His mother, watched Him grow through the normal phases of life, but she also witnessed all these things. She treasured and pondered them in her heart and encouraged her son as He grew into His mission and ministry.
We aren’t Jesus. However, as children of the Father, we can be like Jesus. We can be like Solomon and seek His wisdom, trusting that He will provide everything we need. As we trust God we will ask the right questions; He will answer according to His good and perfect purpose for our lives. His answers will be transformative to the very depths of our souls. Then as we live according to God’s Word, we will see the changes that not only make us healthier and more responsible, but even more so, more faithful to God. It will take a lifetime and we will fail time and again, but God will continue to work in us and through us making us into the people He created and redeemed us to be. Until that day, let us be humble and faithful, recognizing our need for God’s grace and constantly seeking the word and will of God for our lives.
December 30, 2021
“But about midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was a great earthquake, so that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened, and everyone’s bonds were loosened. The jailer, being roused out of sleep and seeing the prison doors open, drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘Don’t harm yourself, for we are all here!’ He called for lights, sprang in, fell down trembling before Paul and Silas, brought them out, and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They said, ‘Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ They spoke the word of the Lord to him, and to all who were in his house. He took them the same hour of the night and washed their stripes, and was immediately baptized, he and all his household. He brought them up into his house, and set food before them, and rejoiced greatly, with all his household, having believed in God.” Acts 16:25-34, WEB
This week’s question comes from the book of Acts. Paul and Silas were in prison for preaching the Word of God. They had been praising God with music and prayer when an earthquake struck. The jailer was afraid that he’d lose his job, or his life, because of missing prisoners but they didn’t run. He was amazed by their kindness and faith and asked “What must I do to be saved?”
I was once had a conversation with a non-believer who wanted to know why he should believe in Jesus. He told me stories of his experiences with Christians, stories of hypocrites who did not act as if they were changed. “They are just like everyone else.” He told of a time when he was driving on a highway. There was a speeding car, weaving in and out of the traffic, which nearly caused several accidents. He told me he was shocked to see an “I love Jesus” bumper sticker on the car. “Is that Christian love, to be in such a rush that the driver risked the lives of others?” He didn’t want anything to do with it.
It is hard to overcome the negative impact we have on the world. It doesn’t help with non-believers to say, “We aren’t perfect, we are forgiven.” To a non-believer, that’s a cop-out. We are supposed to be known by our love, our testimony, and our faith. When our lives show the same traits as non-believers (hurried, frazzled, uncaring, angry, bitter, foolish) they won’t even want to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is when they see Christ in us that they ask about our faith. Though we know we are forgiven of our hypocrisy, we should strive to be the best witnesses we can be so that those who do not know Jesus will want to know Him.
Paul was that type of Christian. The book of Acts gives an accounting of Paul’s journeys as a missionary. Whatever he did pointed at Christ and caused those around him to want to know more. When he healed, he did not allow the witnesses to believe he was anything other than a man. He gave all the credit to God. When he was being beaten, he rejoiced in the love of his Father. When he was persecuted, he stood firm in the Gospel of Christ Jesus. He did not live a life of hypocrisy, and many came to believe because they saw a man willing to actively live in the faith he was given, no matter the circumstances. He had been transformed, and that new Paul made an awesome witness to the love and mercy of God. They were willing to listen because he responded to the Gospel with his whole life.
Paul and Silas were unjustly imprisoned but they spend their time praising God. When the violent earthquake set all the prisoners free, they could have easily taken off into the night and freedom. Paul and Silas could have even claimed it to be an act of God setting them free from the bondage of injustice. Yet, they stayed. They saved the life of the one who imprisoned and mercilessly beat them. The witness they gave at that moment was far greater than the power of God that set them free. They showed the jailer they were concerned for his life. He was amazed by that simple testimony they gave by not running away, and he wanted what they had. So, they shared the Gospel, and he was saved along with his entire household. He cared for them, cleaned their wounds and fed them.
It is difficult to answer when non-Christians ask me questions like the young man who was disturbed by the actions of a Christian driver during rush hour. There is no excuse for that type of behavior no matter who is behind the wheel of the car. Yet, it is my prayer that whenever I am faced with such questions that my life will be a witness to the love and mercy of Christ, so that those who do not know Him will be willing to ask about my faith. Then I can give a testimony they will hear and come to believe in the one who saves us from our sin.
December 31, 2021
“So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Relent, Yahweh! How long? Have compassion on your servants! Satisfy us in the morning with your loving kindness, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen evil. Let your work appear to your servants; your glory to their children. Let the favor of the Lord our God be on us; establish the work of our hands for us; yes, establish the work of our hands.” Psalm 90:12-17, WEB
We have reached the end of another year and I have heard several people lament that they can’t wait for it to be over. We have all struggled for the past twelve (twenty-four?) months and are ready for something better. This lament is nothing new, however. I get somewhat discouraged when I hear the same people year after year saying the same thing. Every year is bad; they can’t wait to kick this year into the past and start anew. I am not sure I’m much better. I went back over my writing for December 31st for the past twenty-two years and there was a recurring theme. “Oh woe is us! Thank God for a new year.” We always have the hope that turning the page of a new calendar will make a difference in our world tomorrow. We say the same thing every year.
It is not hard to think that we’ve come to the end of the world when we consider what has been happening around us, but this is certainly not the first time. Two years stand out in particular. In 2012, a Mayan calendar was thought to prophecy the end of the world. In the final moments of that year, I pondered in my devotion whether we would even see the new one. I said it facetiously; as I was writing that day, the new year had already begun on the other side of the globe. The same thing was true in the year 2000 when the Y2K debacle was going to end life as we knew it. We were living in England at the time and the experts warned that all the computers would crash because they couldn’t handle the change from the twentieth to the twenty-first century. My friends from America were waiting to see if I disappeared at midnight our time, and if I didn’t, then they could relax. It was a funny joke, but the reality was that if the Y2K bug had been real, we would have all gone offline as soon as the computers in New Zealand hit that moment. We are so very connected these days; what happens to one happens to us all.
The fears of those years proved false, and the same will be true of the fears of today. Our struggles in 2021 have certainly been different, but it doesn’t help us to think that a clean new calendar will make a difference. Our problems in 2021 won't magically disappear at 12:01 on January 1, 2022. Unfortunately, we go into each year with the same attitude. We see every struggle as the end of the world. From the beginning we wonder when this year will end and we magnify every little thing into a lament. We hope for better times, but we don’t do anything to make our times better.
While we can’t change the past or guarantee that our lives will be restored at the coming of the new year, we can begin anew. Many people are making resolutions about the things they want to change about their lives in the coming year. Some want to be healthier; others want to look for a new career. Many are committing to a change in their relationships. New Year’s is a time for forgiveness and reconciliation. It is a time to begin new habits and follow a different path. It is a time to put aside the past and look forward to the future.
The psalmist asked God to teach us to number our days. Think about this as you go into the new year: today could be the last day of your life. Are you willing to waste today lamenting your struggles when God is using them to draw you closer to Him? We should not grumble about every perceived affliction and hope for something better tomorrow; rather, we should praise God today and be glad to dwell in His kingdom now. God does not give us pain; pain is the consequence of sin in this world. However, God is able to make good come out of even the bad. The key is not about waiting for better times, but about trusting Him and being glad despite our struggles.
What sort of year will we experience in the next twelve months? We have no way of knowing. We might have a good year filled with exciting possibilities. It might also be a year of loss and suffering. What is your attitude? Will you go forth with praise and thanksgiving, singing with joy? God intends the best for us all. Even though our circumstances do not seem very good to us, we can trust that God is working to make everything right according to His Word. May God help us to number our days and to live in gladness no matter what will come tomorrow so that we will glorify Him with whatever we do each day.