“A Single Light – The Light of Hope”


Here are my thoughts for the 1st Sunday in Advent (Year A), 1 December 2013.

I am doing something different during Advent. Back in 2005 and re-posted it in 2011 (“The Candles of Advent”) I wrote a liturgy but never got to use it. I had hoped to write another liturgy that was a little more complete for this Advent season but that fell through. It’s not that I don’t have anything against the traditional liturgy that we use but when you use the same stuff every year, it loses its freshness and, sometimes, its meaning.

So, I am including my thoughts about the lighting of the Advent Candles with my thoughts for the lectionary readings for this year’s Advent. I do think that the lectionary readings for this 1st Sunday of Advent (Isaiah 2: 1 – 5, Romans 13: 11 – 14, and Matthew 24: 36 – 44) speak to the hope that Christmas gives us, hope that reaches all and not just a select few.

We begin with an reading from the Old Testament, Proverbs 23: 18,

There is surely a future hope for you and your hope will not be cut off.”

In this world of darkness we light the single candle of hope.

The Advent Candles (Tune: Away in a Manger)

On the First Sunday of Advent

A candle is burning, a flame warm and bright;

A candle of Hope in December’s dark night.

While angels sing blessings from heav’n’s starry sky

Our hearts we prepare now, for Jesus is nigh.

A second reading about hope, from Jeremiah 29: 10 – 11,

This is God’s Word on the subject: “As soon as Babylon’s seventy years are up and not a day before, I’ll show up and take care of you as I promised and bring you back home. I know what I’m doing. I have it all planned out—plans to take care of you, not abandon you, plans to give you the future you hope for.

Prayer – O God of Life and Hope and Promise, help us to remember that in lighting this candle, we begin to take away the darkness of our life. Help us to remember that in this little glimmer of life springs a new hope, a new promise that we are not alone and forgotten in this world. Help us to find ways to make the light of hope even brighter. Help us to see the path that leads to Christ, the true hope of the world. AMEN

It is always interesting reading the passages from the Bible that some say announce the “End Times”. As one interested in cosmology, I know that there will come a time when this world and this universe will end; it is a matter of the fuel supplying the sun running out. And this is far enough away in time to not matter much to me.

But there are those who see the “End Times” as coming in our own lifetime and coming as some cataclysmic event with death and destruction prevalent and only those select few with this viewpoint being the survivors.

I don’t doubt that the world could end in our lifetime in such a way but I don’t see it as the penultimate act of God as they do. And while there are no B-52 bombers loaded with nuclear weapons sitting at the end of the runways of various Air Force Bases ready to take off at a moment’s notice, I still think that we have the capability and the desire to destroy this world.

The passage from Isaiah for the 1st Sunday in Advent is not about war, death and destruction but rather the opposite, of peace, life and rebuilding. It is about a new life, one in which all the people of this planet live in peace and, perhaps, harmony.

In Matthew, Jesus speaks of being vigilant. Again, those who want the end of the world use this as a notion for being armed and ready. But if we were to work as hard on building the peace as we seem to be preparing for war, wouldn’t the outcome be a little bit better?

What is it that Paul says? We can’t afford to waste a minute in frivolity and indulgence but rather working for Christ.

That’s why there is hope in this world today. Granted, in terms of the lights of the Advent wreath, it is a little bit on the dim side but there is still hope. We know that Christ is coming, not in final victory but to begin working towards that new life, that life that is filled with hope and promise. It is a life of peace, of joy, and of happiness, not war, death, and destruction.

Our challenge is much like the challenge Paul put before the Romans, to work to make it a possibility. We have lit one candle this day but if we all carried that light with us, the world would be ablaze with the hope found in Christ. That is the challenge we have, to take and multiply the light of hope in a world of darkness.

“In Preparation”


This is the devotion I presented this morning (Saturday, December 1, 2012) at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen. I used the lectionary Scriptures (Jeremiah 33: 14 – 16, 1 Thessalonians 3: 9 – 13, and Luke 21: 25 – 36) as the basis for this devotional.

What was it that Simon and Garfunkel sang, “Look around, leaves are brown, it’s a hazy shade of winter.” Clearly when we woke up this morning, every side pointed to the coming of winter.

In the Gospel reading from Luke for this morning, Jesus speaks of the fig tree and how one can see the coming of summer from the changing of the leaves. Our first understanding of time came from our observations of the changing of the seasons, from spring to summer, summer to fall, fall to winter, and winter to spring again. The signs of change are always there for us to see.

There are some, of course, who see the signs that Jesus spoke about, earthquakes, fire, war and destruction, as the signs of the end times. These individuals see in the happenings of the world the destruction of the world by God, not by man. And they cheer and celebrate because they are convinced that they will be the ones to survive and prosper. Never mind that there will be no world for them to inhabit; they will be the ones who win the battle and so they celebrate.

But any celebration that focuses on the now is one without a vision of tomorrow. And if there is no vision for tomorrow, how can there be a promise of hope. And if there is no hope, Christmas loses its meaning.

Somewhere along the line we have forgotten why we have Christmas. It is lost in the commercial hustle and bustle, of the desire to make sure that everyone has a gift that will insure that the gift giver gets something of equal or greater value in return. We fail to remember that the wisemen and shepherds brought gifts to the Baby Jesus but Mary and Joseph did not give them any gifts. And when Christmas is over, the decorations are quickly put away and life returns to normal.

But life after Christmas can never be normal, if we understand what it is about and why we even think about it. And that is why we have Advent, the seaon of preparation. If life after Christmas is supposed to be something different, then we have to prepare for the change. We see the signs; we know that there is a change taking place and we can either ignore the change or prepare for what is to come.

The other day I wondered why God sent Jesus to live with us as a child. Why didn’t he just select someone else? But, God had selected someone else; we call them the prophets and the people have this nasty tendency to dismiss the words and call of a prophet. Besides, the words and call of a prophet are for today, not tomorrow. They may speak of tomorrow but they are speaking to us today. The prophets spoke of the child that would be born and would lead the people.

In a child we see the promise of tomorrow, the promise of hope. In Jesus, the child, we know that there will be a tomorrow, that these are not the end times but the beginning times. Our celebration is not for today but for tomorrow and the tomorrows that will come.

Paul asked the Thessalonians what would be an adequate thanksgiving to offer God for the joy we experience before him because of you. For Paul, it is what the people in Thessalonika are doing that speaks of the world of Christ in this world.

So too is it for us this morning? How can we show the joy and peace found in Christ to the world? Do we speak of the end times and the destruction of the world? I really don’t see how that can ever be.

There is a different story, it is one symbolized by the first candle on the Advent wreath, the light of hope. For if there is hope in this world, there is a tomorrow. For everyone who seeks a way out of the darkness of the world in which they live, a world that perhaps seems headed towards finality and destruction, the light of Christ offers hope.

The story does not end with the coming of Christ; the story begins. And on this 1st Sunday of Advent, we begin to prepare for the coming of Christ and the child who brings hope.

The Candles of Advent


I first published this on 24 November 2005. As I was preparing some thoughts for the 3rd Sunday in Advent, I thought about this piece. In looking at it, I saw a number of errors that I didn’t realize were in the post. So I have cleaned it up and am reposting it for this season.

This is the season of Advent, a time of preparation for the birth and coming of Jesus Christ. To celebrate each week of Advent, we light a candle on the Advent wreath. But what do the candles mean? There are a number of reasons but here is something to consider.

Lighting the 1st Candle

Advent begins in the darkness of the year. It is darkness both in terms of sunlight and in terms of our own lives. We see violence, poverty and oppression all around us and we wonder if there ever will be sunlight again. We wonder if the world is meant to ever see sunshine or whether we will always be trapped in the darkness that we experience. But we are reminded that

The earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day. (Genesis 1: 2 – 4)

And John reminds us that

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.

Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. (John 1: 1 -3)

We light the first candle of Advent, not so much to relieve the darkness but to bring light into the world. We light the first candle not so God can find us but so we can find our way to God. It may only be one light in the vast expanse of darkness but it cannot be hidden in the darkness. We are able to begin Advent because we have the light and in the light we find God.

Lighting the 2nd Candle

We light the second candle of Advent first out of fear but then out of joy. We are fearful because it is still dark and we are still uncomfortable being in the darkness. Like Mary, the mother of Jesus, the beginnings of Advent bring fear.

The Birth of Jesus Foretold

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her. (Luke 1: 26 – 38)

Mary was fearful because she knew how society would react upon hearing that she was pregnant. Joseph, soon to be Mary’s husband, was also worried because society would not approve of Mary being pregnant before the completion of the marriage vows. But angels told both that everything was going to be alright and that there was nothing to fear. Joseph understood and stood by his wife to be. Mary exalted in her joy and said

Mary’s Song

And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.” (Luke 1: 46 – 55)

Mary and Joseph were not the only ones to first fear and then rejoice in the announcement of Jesus’ birth. The first to hear of Jesus’ birth that night in Bethlehem were the shepherds in fields outside the town.

The Shepherds and the Angels

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 1But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. (Luke 2: 8 – 20)

So just like before the angels told Mary and Joseph about the birth of Jesus and they proclaimed the birth of Jesus to the shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem, so too do we experience fear in the darkness of the times. But our fear turns to joy because we know that Christ is being born in Bethlehem. Like the angels, we exclaim our joy in this event. So we light the second candle in joy.

Lighting the 3rd Candle

The third candle is the light of discovery. The shepherds left the manger and went to tell others. And while they were doing so, there were others who sought the new-born child.

The Visit of the Magi

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2: 1 – 2)

We light the third candle because we know others, like the wise men of the east still seek the Christ child. They have heard the Good News first told by the shepherds and they seek to find the child, just as the wise men did. But discovery is never easy, especially in the darkness of the world. So we light the third candle to bring light into the world, knowing that in the light truth will shine and in the truth, people will be set free.

Lighting the 4th Candle

We light the fourth candle in celebration. Now the light, once so feeble and perhaps overwhelmed by the darkness, glows brightly. We remember the words of John, who wrote

The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.

There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all men might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world. (John 1: 5 – 9)

Like John the Baptist, we now go forth proclaiming the coming of Christ. In lighting the fourth candle, we now proclaim the birth of Jesus the Christ child is soon to be. We have completed our four week journey and preparation, so we can begin celebrating. With the light of the fourth candle, we can see much clearer than we could a few weeks ago. Like Mary and Joseph, we began this journey in darkness with fear, but our fear turned to joy because we know what the birth of Christ really means. Like the wise men who were guided by the star in the east so too have we been guided by the light of the candles. We come seeking to find the Christ child. So we light the fourth candle in celebration.

Lighting the Christ Candle

Over the past four weeks, we have lit the candles of Hope, Peace, Joy and Love. Each week the light of the Advent Wreath has grown brighter. And now the circle is complete. The four candles of Advent remind us and direct us towards the center candle, the Christ Candle. Just as the Christ Candle is the center of the Advent Wreath, so too should we make Christ the center of our lives. In lighting the Christ Candle, we are bringing forth a light that is so bright that it cannot be extinguished. As we celebrate the birth of Christ, we bring light into a world of darkness; no longer is the world a place of fear and darkness because fear and darkness cannot survive in a world of light. As we celebrate Advent and Christmas this year, let us take the light of Christ, that light that abides in our hearts and allows us to light the four candles of Advent, out into the world. We take the Light of Christ out into the world to bring the Good News that the sick will be healed, the lame will walk, the deaf will hear and the oppressed will be set free.

What Season Is This?


Here are my thoughts for the 1st Sunday in Advent, 28 November 2010. The scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 2: 1 – 5, Romans 13: 11 – 14, and Matthew 24: 36 – 44.

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I should have posted this late last week or early this week but things have been rough lately and my focus has been on other things. Maybe I am doing what Paul warned the Romans about; focusing on my day-to-day obligations instead of by obligations to God and Christ.

But lately I have found some of my obligations being what I feel I am being called to do with my ministry. In the most recent issue of Connections, Barbara Wendland speaks of her new book, “Misfits: The Church’s Hidden Strength”. (And by the way, if you are not subscribing to Connections, you are missing some great thoughts about the nature of the church!) It could be that because I see what is happening in this world in such a different light that I am a misfit.

I see what is happening in the world and I wonder if I am seeing the same thing as everyone else. When you look at this planet on which we live; when you look at the society in which we live, and the place of the church on this planet and in this society, you have to wonder what season this is. I have no doubt that winter is coming and that we have entered into the Advent Season. But I also wonder if we understand what this season is about.

Is it the season in which we prepare for the Prince of Peace? Or is this to be another season of war and violence, not just in places where we would rather not be but in places that we once were? How can we, when we now the circumstances that forced Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem, live in a world where we are slowly taking on the characteristics of the Roman Empire and not the Kingdom of Heaven hear on earth?

How do we justify a world of military power, continued warfare, and the possibility of other countries going to war with the passage in Isaiah for this week that tells us that nations will no longer go to war and people will come together with one common view?

Maybe it is because of my own situation but I wonder what happened to Thanksgiving this year. It was as if the only reason for Thanksgiving this year was so that we can have “Black Friday”, to spend our money on items and materials for ourselves. We hear that the economy is going great but why are there still people without jobs or working in multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet. Why is the discussion about making the minimum wage equal to a living wage always made out to be a bad idea, one that will destroy business? If people can’t earn enough to live (and that is what a living wage determines), how can they buy anything?

Is it possible that we have so misconstrued the words of the Bible that we think it is perfectly acceptable in God’s eyes to ignore the poor, the hungry, the sick and homeless because the Coming of Christ means the end of the world? We don’t mind having food drives at Thanksgiving and Christmas so that families and individuals will not go hungry one or two days a year. But why do we even have to discuss food drives, food closets, and similar drives when we say that we are the richest country in the world? Isn’t Christianity a day-to-day thing instead of once or twice a year?

The passage from Matthew speaks of that moment in time that has, I believed, become known as “The Rapture”. I think that Paul’s warning is predicated on that same notion. Too many people today are focused on a point in time that may or may not be coming. If I am not mistaken, Paul spent as much time telling the people to quit thinking about the anticipated Second Coming as he did mending fences and relationships within the various congregations that he helped start.

How can Christians have been motivated to work against slavery, for civil rights, for women’s rights and against war but cannot seemed to be motivated to do anything about these issues today? Is it because we don’t know what season it is?

Our ministry is found, not in the pews or the sanctuary, but in the fields and valleys of our cities and countryside. There are too many unanswered questions that demand a Gospel response for us to be worried about the 2nd Coming.

Let’s face it. We need to be focused right now on His 1st Coming, Christmas. We live in a society that seems more interested politically and socially on our cares than we are to what happens to others in the world. And if we don’t start focusing on what happened in Bethlehem some two thousand years ago, if we don’t start focusing on what transpired over the course of the next thirty some years in that area of the country, and if we don’t start focusing on the impact those activities had on the world then and now, this season will have no meaning.

Advent is about changing the course of one’s life. It is about being a misfit in a world that changes the words of the Bible and makes them the words of the uncaring and powerful. It is about being with the weak and the defenseless, the hungry and the poor, the places we often times don’t to be. It is about being with the young baby, born in less than ideal circumstances, certainly not in palace.

As much as we would like to use Advent as a season of preparation for what we want Christmas to be, it is more about how we can prepare for Christ to come into our hearts. Yes, if we do that, the odds are that we will be labeled a misfit in today’s society but it will be a badge of honor, much in the tradition of Paul.

Is this the season in which you continue your life as it has been? Or is this the season in which your life changes? Shall your life be one in which you fit in? Or shall you be a misfit in society but at home with Christ? These are the questions that I leave with you today. I cannot give you the answers but you will find them in your mind and your heart.

“Time Has Come Today”


It seems to me that we are a nation obsessed with time. Were it not the case, why do we have "fast foods"? Why is it so important that we get all of our Christmas shopping done on the day after Christmas? Why is it that one of the best selling books today has to do with a fictional accounting of the end of time, as perhaps first described by Saint John in his Book of Revelations? Why is it that every day, when I pick up Ann at the train station in Beacon, I am overwhelmed by the number of people who have to run off the train and drive like crazy to get out of the parking lot? You would think that people, having spent 70 minutes or so on the train ride from Grand Central Station, would want to take their time getting home as well. But they run off the train and pretend that it is the start of the 24 Hours of Le Mans auto race where drivers sprint to the cars to start the race. Still, with all the speed they put into getting off the train and getting their cars out of the parking lot, these speed demons of Beacon end up waiting in line at the light. In rushing to cut down the time of their commute, they end up gaining nothing.

We are a society that expects things now, not tomorrow. Our politics and news are built around sound bites; short little snippets of information designed to fit every decreasing attention span. We allow others to define what it is we believe so that we do not have to take the time to think things through. Are "moral values" really simple statements of opinion without any thought to consequence or outcome? It seems that our education system spends more time preparing students for a day of testing than a lifetime of thinking. Just as with news and politics, students seem to want the information presented in short sound bites, easily memorized and not requiring any analysis or thought. Could it be that our problems with the education system are not because the teachers are incompetent, bad, or ill prepared but rather because we do not give teachers the time to work with their students?

And when it comes to Sunday morning, there never seems to be enough time, at least for church and Sunday school. Somewhere along the line, we have allowed the demands placed on us in the daily workplace to control the time we spend in church on Sunday. No longer is church a daylong event; no longer are stores limited in what they can sell on Sunday mornings. I am not arguing for a return to the time of horse and buggies or the re-establishment of blue laws limiting the sale of items (especially since most of the items that were limited, I didn’t buy anyway). But as technology gave us more freedom to move about and time became more available, church attendance is no longer an expected thing in the lives of a family. Rather, it has become something that must compete with the other events of the weekend, the soccer, football and basketball games, the dance classes, recitals, housework and yard work.

The services of many churches use many techniques to take advantage of time-obsession. Services are designed to fit your schedule. Music is easy to follow and carries no thought with it. A projector shows the words of the hymn on the screen over the altar (that way you don’t have to look up the words in a hymnal). And you may think I am joking but it seems that one of the criteria for being a successful pastor in the Memphis area is the length of their sermons? The most common comment of satisfaction seems to be that we get out of church before the Baptists. This means that we get to Shoney’s before they do and can get the best seats.

We rush through life, only to get stuck in traffic along with the others seeking to rush through life. We want the answers to our problems, be the mental ones of school and work or the physical ones of food and nourishment, to be quick and easy, so as to spare us the trouble of preparation and effort. We want our church services quick and easy, as if the meaning of the Gospel can be absorbed with quick sound bites and easy visual references.

But did not the writer of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher, say that there was a time for every season and time for every purpose under heaven? Did not the Preacher complain about the quality of life that came when the spiritual needs of the body were not adequately dealt with?

In Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, Emily dies at the age of 26. She asks the stage manager narrating the play if she can return for a brief visit with her family. He grants her wish but advises her to choose the least important day in her life but will still be important enough. She chooses to return on her 12th birthday, only to find her father obsessed with his business problem and her mother preoccupied with kitchen duties. Emily exclaims, "Oh, Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, 14 years have gone by. I’m dead!" Unable to rouse her parents, Emily breaks down sobbing. "We don’t have time to look at one another . . . Goodbye, world! Goodbye, Mama and Papa . . . Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you! Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it — every, every minute?" (From "Wake-up Call" by Peter W. Marty in Christian Century, November 16, 2004)

Are we so obsessed with time that we fail to see things coming? Is this society obsession with books on the end of time based on a desire to know what the ending will be without living this life? Was the owner of the house so occupied with the other things that he did not see the thief coming?

That is why we celebrate Advent and why we do it over a period of four weeks. We cannot prepare for the coming of the Lord in fifteen minutes or even a day. Rather, we must be in a state of mind that requires patience and time, qualities not often seen in today’s society. There is no urgency to the celebration of Advent but it almost seems as if society demands that it be done now.

But we have to see that Advent is more than just one Sunday. We sleep through God’s signals of alarm and act as if today is like every other day. And if we are casual with today, what chance is there that we will be careful with our lives? What hope is there that we can live less selfishly and more peacefully? (From "Wake-up Call" by Peter W. Marty in Christian Century, November 16, 2004)

We ask for things now but are unwilling to put in the time and effort to make them happen. Isaiah’s prophecy speaks of a hope that there will be a day when God will get God’s way. Isaiah knew that the hope of which he spoke in today’s passage from the Old Testament would not necessarily come in his lifetime. So he wrote in the future tense and pushed the people to walk in the light. (From "Wake-up Call" by Peter W. Marty in Christian Century, November 16, 2004)

Our hopes for the future must not be dashed because the time it takes is too long. Our hopes for the future must be based on the fact that, today, we begin the process that will make the future a possibility, that there will be peace in the coming days, that people will beat their swords into plowshares.

Walter Brueggemann wrote, in reference to Isaiah’s time and ours, "The key question is whether the promissory possibilities of God have a chance in the face of the entrenched geo-political realities." The book of Isaiah expresses profound confidence that God’s promises will prevail — against, within, despite, and through geo-political realities. But this means that it will take time; this means that it cannot occur overnight. It also means that it will take many people working together. What the words of Isaiah offer are the energy and the sustenance necessary to carry out this long journey. (Adapted from The Soul of Politics by Jim Wallis)

It may seem contradictory for me to say this but this journey cannot begin on some other day. It must start today. The time has come today when we must step forth and say that even though we may not know when the Lord will come, we are preparing for that day, no matter the time and the place. Paul’s words to the Romans today tell us that we can no longer wait and expect a quick solution at some other time. Paul is telling us that this is the time to begin and prepare, to lead lives that more reflect the presence of Christ than the lack of presence.

Isaiah encouraged those that heard his words to walk in the light, with the expectation of seeing God’s will enacted. Paul said that now was the time to cast aside all the aspects of your life that prevents you from being a disciple of Christ. As we sing our invitational hymn this morning, I invite you to come to the altar rail this morning. Take a few moments and ask Christ to come into your heart, if not for the first time, again. Take some time this morning as we sing our invitational hymn to consider how you, in the coming weeks, can best prepare for the coming of the Lord. Time has come today for you to make the choice that will allow Jesus to come, not only into your household but also into your life and into your heart.

“How Can I?” – The meaning of Advent


Here are my thoughts for the 1st Sunday of Advent, November 29, 2009. The scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 33: 14 – 16, 1 Thessalonians 3: 9 – 13, and Luke 21: 25 – 36.

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Advent is meant to be the season of preparation for the coming of Christ but as I look around, I can’t help but wonder if I can write about the meaning of Advent.

How do you speak or write of preparation for a day in December when there are so many people in the world today for whom getting through today is more important than anything else? What do you say to a person whose Thanksgiving dinner was, perhaps, nothing more than a bowl of soup and some crackers? What do you say to the person who wonders if they will find a warm place to spend the night, let alone the next few days? What do you say to the family whose son, daughter, father or mother has been told that they will be sent overseas to fight in a battle that doesn’t appear to have an ending? What do you say to the person or the person’s family when they have been informed that they need immediate medical care but the health insurance company refuses to pay for it?

How can you preach a message of preparation when the message of society is to live only for yourself and for today? How can you preach a message that speaks of hope and opportunity for all of God’s children when so many ministers and religious leaders say that only a few are chosen and the rest will be cast aside.

It is no wonder that so many have left the church and there are so many who see the hypocrisy in the words and actions of the church. It is no wonder that so many people view Christmas as a co-opted pagan holiday and Christianity (and probably all religion) as mythical in nature.

As long as the focus of the church, denominationally and individually, is on the members of the church and only on the members of the church, Advent will be nothing more than four weeks of marking time until the church decides to die.

The church, for the most part, has forgotten what the Gospel message is and to whom it was given. It wasn’t given to the rich and powerful; it was given to those that the rich and powerful hated and despised; it was given to those who the rich and powerful could not see. It was given to those that society had cast aside or thrown away. It was a message for the ones that society had forgotten.

The church, for the most part, has built walls to keep people out when they should have been opening the doors so that they can come in. We sing of the shepherds, the lowest social class at that time, visiting the babe in the manager but we will not let the lower classes into our sanctuary.

The church is leaving the places where it should be present. You can’t build a successful mega-church in the inner city because the people will not come. You have to build the mega-churches out in the rich suburbs where the money is. And there are more churches concerned with their own well-being than they are the well-being of the people. And if you are out in the suburbs, you don’t have to come into the city, so you can ignore the problems.

And most importantly, as the number of homeless and hungry and poor increases, the church has remained remarkably silent. The church should echo the message of Jesus who spoke of seeking the one lost sheep while our corporations and their supporters tell us that such a loss is acceptable.

The church should be more concerned with the number of people who are hungry and without shelter than worrying about a person’s sexuality and lifestyle. The church should be more concerned with banks and financial firms that reap excessive profits and charge unreasonable and high fees than they are with the music that is sung in church.

Because Jesus was tortured by the political authorities of His day, the church today should be more concerned and not so silent that our country has tacitly approved the torture of individuals simply because their skin is darker and their faith is different.

Because Jesus fed the multitudes and healed the sick, the church today should be more concerned and not so silent that one in six today goes hungry and that the number of people without adequate healthcare increases everyday. But it seems that too many churches, individually and denominationally, feel that poverty and hunger are still signs of sin, not society. And too many churches today, individually and denominationally, feel that it is more important to tell someone who they can or cannot marry and what they can or can do with their body than insure their health and well-being.

There are many churches today making a difference in this world but there are as many churches where the words of Christ are said in a service on Sunday and forgotten before the person has even left the building. It is as if what a preacher says on Sunday has no meaning the rest of the week. Those who say that religion has no meaning or place in today’s society only need to point to what people see in churches today to prove that they are right. Unfortunately, those in church today can’t see the same thing because of the logs in their eyes.

It will take more than just remembering what Jesus said about taking the log out of our own eye before we take the splinter out of someone else’s eye.

And perhaps that is what Advent is about. Maybe now is the time for the wakeup call; maybe now is the time to begin preparing our hearts and minds and souls for Christ.

No matter the situation, we are reminded of a promise made to us through the prophet Jeremiah to the people of Israel that one would come who would execute righteousness and justice. We are reminded by Luke that no matter what may happen in this world, the words remain true.

Time and time again, it has been we who have reneged on our part of the covenant with God. Time and time again, we have walked away from God, turning to Him only when we needed Him. We see Christ not as our Lord but as our servant, to grant to us that which we want. But, time and time again, God has given us another chance.

And that is why we have Advent. We have to prepare for the coming of Christ, not on any particular day but in our hearts and in our minds. The promises are true and we who have heard those words must make sure that they are not forgotten and that the promises made are kept.

The Holy Child will not come to us; we must seek, as did the shepherds that night, the Holy Child. We must cast aside the trappings that society insists we bring with us; Christ will remove the burden of our lives from sin and death but only if we seek Him. Burdened by the trappings of society and unwilling to let go of them, we cannot make the journey.

This is not about doing good works in hopes that such works will get you into heaven. That is a debate for another time and for another place. What it is about is the fact that we are Christ’s representatives on this earth and we are the ones who by our acknowledgement that we are such must do his work. One time, many years ago, I saw the passage to heaven through the good works path. And my minister pointed out that it was still God’s grace, not anything that I could do, that would get me in. But because I had accepted Christ and because I proclaimed myself a Methodist, I had an obligation to work for Christ, to work in the way that Christ worked, and to do what Christ did.

If the birth of Christ is to have meaning in this world, it is because we have decided that Christmas is more than one day out of the year. And that is why we begin the season of Advent, not to prepare for one day but to prepare ourselves for a life in Christ, with Christ and for Christ. We can offer hope to those without hope, who have been forgotten in today’s society. But we must first cast aside the ways and trappings of a society that speaks of wealth and power as a sign of righteousness and pick up the mantle of the servant that Christ offers to us.

The promise of Advent lies in what we do these coming days, not what lies at the end. To speak of the promise is to speak of a new reality, the fulfillment of the Gospel. How can I speak of Advent as the promise of Christ? Because it is, it will be and because we must.

The Tree By The Side Of The Road


Here are the thoughts that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 1st Sunday of Advent, November 30, 2003. The scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 33: 14 – 16, 1 Thessalonians 3: 9 – 13, and Luke 21: 25 – 36.

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It has often been said that you know you are really in a rural part of this country if the directions given you so that you may find a particular person’s house or business includes trees, rocks, or old buildings. And invariably the tree, rock, or building that is a reference also includes the conditional phrase that "at least it used to be there."

We look for signs to help in our journeys, both through time and distance. A lot of times, we make reference to those signs. Understanding the signs is often the problem.

When I first moved to New York back in 1999 and was driving up I-84 through Pennsylvania, I kept thinking that the trip was shorter than it really was. You see the exits off Interstate highways in most of the mid-western states are numbered according to the mile marker closest to the exit. So if you are looking for exit 334 and you pass mile markers 330 and 331, then you know you are headed in the right direction and have only three miles to go. But if you are looking for exit 334 and the order of mile markers that you pass is 331 and then 330, you know you are going in the wrong direction.

In Pennsylvania back in 1999 and even today in New York, the exits are numerical but not related to the mile makers. I noticed last spring as we drove through Pennsylvania that they were in the process of changing the exit numbers to match the mile markers. But in 1999, as I drove north, I kept wondering how far I actually had to go because my knowledge of the mile marking system was not helping me with the signs that I was seeing.

It is not just on the highway that we look for signs. We use the Dow Jones and NASDAQ summaries as an indication of our economy (even if it is not always accurate). The temperature outside on a particular day of the year is, or should be, an indication of what the weather will be. The Farmer’s Almanac is full of the signs that we use to predict what the weather will be like many months in advance.

It is not just in our secular, daily living that we look for and seek signs. Many people use the number of people who attend a church on any given Sunday as an indicator of a church’s vitality. Somewhere in the vast reaches of my memory is a statement that a church can begin a second service when its sanctuary is 70% filled.

I cannot say what the other Annual Conferences of the United Methodist Church do but in the New York Annual Conference the measure of a church’s vitality is in how it meets its annual apportionments and its mission activities. Our Annual Conference has already given a sign that it considers a church in trouble if it cannot meet its annual apportionments. It is going to be interesting to see what will happen when a particular congregation falls behind in its missionary obligations and is faced with the rather draconian measures imposed by the Conference. It will also be interesting to see what happens with those congregations who feel that their apportionments are too high or the money given is wasted in the bureaucracy of the United Methodist Church.

Back in September, we started the birthday collection. We haven’t collected much in the fund, since we haven’t celebrated many birthdays. I have proposed that we send any monies that we do collect to Habitat for Humanity, which does have a presence here in Putnam County. I have also suggested that the offerings collected on the four fifth Sundays of the year (of which this is one) should go to specific ministries in this area. To that end, I ask that you think about which organizations in this area should get those offerings. We have included additional mission support in our budget for the coming year; now, we must decide who shall receive the monies and we must decide if we are going to support them with more than words from the pulpit.

We need to be reminded of the people in the past that gave all that they had and how they received much more in return. In his book, A Walk Across America, Peter Jenkins wrote about the church in North Carolina that he attended while pausing on his trip across America.

Jenkins decided after graduating from Alfred University in New York, that he needed to find America or at least signs that what America was in the history books was still present. So he embarked on a walk, first from Alfred to Washington, D. C., and then southward along the Appalachian Trail into Alabama. In North Carolina he had to stop and find some work so that he could continue his trip. He found work at a sawmill in western North Carolina; interesting work for a liberal arts graduate from Alfred University.

But more interesting was that he, a white boy raised in the confines of Greenwich, Connecticut, found a place to stay with a black family in Texana, North Carolina. And where he was used to loafing around on Sunday mornings, this family made it a practice, a habit, and perhaps a ritual to attend church. And if he, Peter, were to live with them, he too would have to go to church.

He describes in this book an event that only those who have lived or are living in the south can truly appreciate; i.e., the coming of a tornado and that aftermath of death and destruction. And this included the total destruction of the new Baptist Church in the area. So it was that the people of Mount Zion Baptist Church, an all black church in rural North Carolina, invited the members of the Ranger Baptist Church, an all white church, to worship with them on the Sunday following the destruction of their new church. And, in a part of the country where poverty was the norm, the members of Mount Zion gave their offering that Sunday to the members of this other church so that the rebuilding process could begin.

The money gave surely could have been used by the Mount Zion congregation but, as Peter Jenkins wrote, "they all knew how much they needed and depended on their own church for weekly recharging and cleansing, so they gave with begrudging the Ranger folks.” (A Walk Across America, Peter Jenkins, page 162.)  He ended that chapter of his journey by noting that there was a feeling of peace and goodness that came with giving from the soul rather than the pocketbook.

I would be remiss if I did not point out that Peter Jenkins’ journey did not end in the hills of North Carolina. Shortly after the tornado story, he began his southward walk and ended up in Mobile, AL, where he encountered Christ much as Paul encountered Christ on the road to Damascus. Then, after pausing to reflect on the fact that he had in fact come into contact with Him throughout his whole trip, including a stop with a black country church in North Carolina, he moved on to New Orleans and then through the western part of this country to Oregon. He has gone on to other things but with the knowledge that he found the signs that America was alive and doing fine.

And, though it may not seem like it, Advent is a sign. It is a sign of the coming of Christ. Advent is more than simply a reminder of Christ’s birth. Advent is more than the prophecy of Isaiah or the birth narrative of the Gospels; it is a reminder that God’s presence among us in the form of Christ is a world-altering event. (Adapted from "Be on Guard" from "Living the Word" by Michaela Bruzzese, Sojourners, November/December 2003)

As we read and heard the words of the Gospel today, Jesus was speaking in terms of the apocalypse that would precede the coming of "the Son of God." But the apocalypse can only be seen in terms of time being linear; that is, with a beginning and an end.

And if time is linear then we are either compelled to act out of fear or we become apathetic and resigned to our fate. For Jesus, the time is short. For it is a matter of time before He must face what must happen if His work on earth is to have any meaning. But the ending of Jesus’ ministry is not the end for us; rather, it is the beginning.

For Jesus not only speaks of the end of things, he speaks of the beginning as well. For he refers to the nearby fig tree and the renewal of life that the tree is showing. (adapted from "Pent-up Power" from "Living the Word" by Herbert O’Driscoll, Christian Century, November 15, 2003.)

My favorite verse, as I have said before is Ecclesiastes 3, “For every thing there is a season, a time to be born and a time to die." Time is not linear; it does not necessarily have a beginning and an end. Time is much more cyclical, with each beginning a renewal. Jesus speaks of that very renewal.

And Jesus tells us that we have to be on guard and not let things weigh us down. For if the things of life weigh us down, we cannot see the renewal that life brings. There must have been times when Paul thought that his work was not worth it. As many times as there was success, there was also rejection. Ultimately, of course, there was the prison sentence that took him to Rome. Yet, as he expressed in his words to the church of Thessalonika, there was a reason to rejoice, that there was a community that held the promise of good things to come. And at a time when there is otherwise disappointment and a sense of despair, the knowledge that there is such a community can give a sense of purpose and enthusiasm.

In speaking of Advent as a sign of things to come, we are speaking of that same sense of purpose and enthusiasm.

There is, in the pictures in my mind that I have collected throughout my journey, a picture of a tree. The tree is no longer there and I sometimes wonder if I can go back to the place where it once stood. It is a very singular tree, alone on the plains of north Missouri. But when I see that tree I know I am near Kirksville and where I went to school. I did not know it at the time when I first saw the tree what the future would hold; I just knew that being there would bring me something that I might not otherwise find.

Jeremiah speaks of a tree and of the branch that will spring from the root of that tree. That branch is Jesus and his coming will bring hope and promise to all of His people.

That is why we celebrate Advent. It gives us that very sense of hope and promise. It gives us a sense that something special is about to happen and that it is worth sticking around to find out what it is.

Somewhere in our life, we have stopped to find our directions. Advent is a lot like the tree by the side of the road that someone tells us to look for as we go to where we are headed.



The Hope of Promise, The Promise of Hope


Here are the thoughts that I presented at Walker Valley UMC on the 1st Sunday of Advent, 3 December 2000. The scriptures for this Sunday are Jeremiah 33: 14 – 16, 1 Thessalonians 3: 9 – 13, and Luke 21: 25 – 36.

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I don’t know about you but I found that pairing of the prophecy of Jeremiah with the prophecy of the Second Coming of Jesus in Luke to be an interesting one. As this year began, there was much talk about the new millennium and Christ’s Second Coming. Just as Advent marks His First Coming, so too does the beginning of the third millennium renew interest in His Second Coming. But as this interest rises, we should make note of the fact that many modern day commentators feel that we never adequately dealt with his first one.

Second, it is important that we try not to nor should we get bogged down in schemes designed to locate the exact date and time of this occurrence. As Luke later wrote in Acts, Jesus told the disciples that it was not for them (or us) to know the time or the season when the Kingdom of God would be set up on earth.

Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom of the Lord? And He said to them, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority.” (Acts 1: 6 – 7)

In this passage, times refers to the chronology or duration of time — “how long.” Seasons refer to the epochs or “events” that occur within time. The disciples, and thus us, were not to know how long it would be before Christ set up His Kingdom, nor were they to know what events would transpire before its establishment. Peter later pointed out, in 1 Peter 1: 11 that even the Old Testament prophets did not know the timing between the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow.

Jesus continued in verse 8 by pointing out the disciples should not be worried about the date of Christ’s return but rather to carry the message of the Gospel throughout the world. The same is true today. Our task is not to convince people but to testify to the truth of the Gospel.

Christ’s coming should be one of celebration, not fear. The truth of the Gospel should not be one of fear and retribution but rather hope and celebration. That was one of the reasons that Paul wrote the letters to the Thessalonians.

The season of Advent reminds us that Christ came to offer hope, to change the relationship between God and His people. In a society where the system of laws, rites, and institutions were the norm, such as was Israel at that time, it was very easy to forget that God was a living and constant presence in the world.

A world that relies on laws, rites, and institutions tends to forget and not see that their faith is a dynamic and living faith. The prophets of old cried out because of the conservative reliance on institutional approaches. Laws, creeds, and institutions are important. They must however, by design, be subservient to an understanding of God’s purpose for man. Laws served a purpose but laws do not define who God is. Because God is the living Lord, he can change the institutions, he can restated the creed, and he can renew the law, calling the people again to go out like Abraham. In fact, this is what happened in Christ.

It was Christ who took upon himself the form of a servant. He was the one who broke free from the ghetto of religious law and cultic regularity that had imprisoned the faithful.

It was Christ who emptied himself of all claims to timelessness and freely delivered himself up for us all — opening himself to our needs — even though that very openness lead to his death on the cross.

When the scribes and Pharisees came to Jesus and wanted Him to rebuke the disciples for eating wheat on the Sabbath, in clear defiance of their interpretations of the rules of society, Jesus rebuked them. “You strain at a gnat and swallow a camel,” (Matthew 23: 23) he told them in no uncertain terms. In another instance, a woman accused of adultery was dragged before him. Again, it was clear that a law had been broken. Jesus could have easily won the scribes’ approval by upholding their sense of righteousness but, instead, he asked those who were without sin to cast the first stone.

When the trembling woman looked up at him, he said, “Where are your accusers?” She said, “They are gone.” He said, “Neither do I accuse you. Go in peace.” (John 8: 3 – 7, 11)  Tradition says that later this same woman sold everything to help support Jesus’ ministry.

By changing the nature of the law and the institution, Christ was able to meet the needs of the outcast, the hopeless, and the helpless. To these, Christ offered hope at a time when there was no hope of meaningful participation in the benefits of life. To those in despair, Christ offered acceptance when the world excluded them, dignity when it was denied them and spiritual guidance when the world around them cast them aside.

Paul, in Chapter 2 of his first letter to the Thessalonians, commented on the way the Word of God transformed the people, offering them a better reality that any other god might. He noted that they, the Thessalonians, could also contrast the grace and love of God through the Gospel with the legalism and pride often produced by the Jewish religion of that day. Paul then reminded the Thessalonians, in the reading for today, that when Christ is a part of our lives, that love and grace of God would shine through. Their goal (and ours) should then be to work so that others can see that love as well.

It was written that you could find the living God in the pages of the Bible. But you will also find him where you are. Nothing in you life is so insignificant or so small that you cannot find God at its center. We think of God in the dramatic things, the glorious sunsets, the majestic mountains, the tempestuous seas, but he is the little things as well. He is in the smile of the passer-by, the yellow glint of a daisy in a field, the falling leaves of early autumn.

God may make himself known to you through the life of someone you know. It may be that there is someone who loves you so deeply that you dare to believe that you are worth loving and so you believe that God’s love for you could be possible after all.

The season of Advent offers us both a hope and a promise. There are no limits to the ways that God may make himself known. Today Christ asks us to make the First Coming more than just words in print. He says to each and every one of us, “I called you out from the world to fashion for myself a people who know my grace and formed by love. Now the hour has come for you to see the signs of new hope that are being given to all of the world and to join Me in interpreting that hope, struggling to keep it free, and helping people to know Me as their Lord and Savior.” The call is very clear that just as we celebrate this season of Advent and the coming of Christ, we should help others so that they too can know the promise and hope that know.

 


From The Darkness Into The Light


Here are my thoughts for the 1st Sunday in Advent, 30 November 2008. The Scriptures are Isaiah 64: 1 – 9, 1 Corinthians 1: 3 – 9, and Mark 12: 24 – 37 ——————————– It is very difficult to write anything about Advent this year. Those who have read my writings over the past few months know that the economic problems facing this country are more than just words written in the print media or spoken on any number of radio and television broadcasts. The housing crisis is not something that is happening to other; it is something that is happening to my family and my friends. I hear of how this government is going to bail out various large industries but those of us who have been out of work for the past year may be lucky if Congress passes some sort of stimulus bill before the year ends. And what are we to do with a sum of money that will barely cover the mortgage payment? Are we supposed to spend this money on things that will stimulate the economy or should we spend it on more practical things, like food and medicine. I don’t know if Barack Obama ever suggested that the wealth of this country be shared and quite frankly, I don’t care if he said it or not. The suggestion that one can earn obscene amount of money while there are others who have nothing just makes me sick. I know that my lack of work is partially my fault; I hold to some pretty weird ideas when it comes to teaching chemistry at the introductory college level. I expect my students to read the textbook and to remember what they read; I expect my students to work the problems out and be prepared for problems that are similar but not the same as the ones covered in class. My test questions actually require some thought and don’t simply require the students to “kick back” what I said in class. Those were the things that I was expected to do when I was a student and they are the things that I make clear to my students that I expect from them. But that makes chemistry hard and our students don’t want to take hard courses. Our society has, over the years, gotten away from the concept of thinking and analyzing things. We seek quick answers and we don’t want to think about things. We readily let others do our thinking for us. And our ignorance as a society and as a nation is now beginning to show. When George W. Bush first ran for President in 2000, I heard comments about how he was prepared to be President because he had been Governor of Texas and had a M. B. A. Now, I have lived in Texas and, if nothing else, reading about Texas politics is always good for a laugh (and a cry at times). The Governor of Texas is not the most powerful politician in Texas; there are at least five other positions with more political power. But everyone thought that because he was a governor that he was qualified. What works in one state is not always a good model for understanding how another state works. And the current state of the economy can only tell us what having a M. B. A. means as a qualification to be President. We call it socialism when there is any hint of discussion that the gap between the poor and the wealthy is too big and perhaps there should be a more equitable sharing of the wealth. When an individual cannot pay their monthly bills, we threaten them with the modern day equivalent of debtor prison. Yes, there are some who have made some bad financial decisions and have tried to take advantage of the situation for their own benefit but not everyone facing foreclosure is that way. Yet, when a company makes bad financial decisions, we allow them to get funds from the government and we allow many of them to get the funds without any oversight. Many people objected when a man and a woman who were not the same race wanted to get married. Now, many people object when two individuals want to get married but who happened to be the same gender. In both cases, we heard the cry that it was against God’s law. But was it against God’s law or what we think is God’s law? Is it that we have forgotten who God is and that we have made God in our own image instead of remembering that we are all made in God’s image? I read the Old Testament reading for today and I wonder if I am not reading something about these times. Is God angry with us and is all that we see and hear a pronouncement from own high that we are doomed? Or have our own interests and desires so overcome our soul that we don’t remember who God is? Isaiah asks God not to be angry with us and not to forget us. He says that we are what God has made us. And you can hear Isaiah pleading with God to do something to save His people. Some would say that we are beyond redemption, beyond saving. We are like the scholars who come to Jesus and want to know which of seven brothers a woman is married to when it comes to the final day and we are all in heaven. As Jesus says in the Gospel reading for today, such a discussion shows a lack of understanding of the Bible and an lack of understanding of how God works. When God spoke to Moses and told him it was time to return to Egypt and free the Israelites from slavery, He did not say he was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Joseph. No, He said that He is that God. He is the God of then, now, and tomorrow; He goes beyond our time frame. We are so wrapped up in the present time, we lose track of the presence of God in our lives. We are the ones who have forgotten God; God has not forgotten us. So we are like Paul writing to the Corinthians, waiting expectedly for Jesus to arrive. And as we wait and prepare for Jesus to come, we are reminded that God has not forgotten us but that He so remembers us that He willingly sent His Son to be our Savior, even though He knew that we would reject Him. And though we once rejected Jesus and, in turn, rejected God, we have the opportunity to change that rejection into acceptance. Even though the darkness of the days resembles the darkness of our mood and the darkness of the times, we know that there is a Light. And though it is very dim right now, each day it grows a little bit brighter. This Light grows brighter because we let it grow in our heart, casting out those things which we think are the important things. We hear Paul’s words about the value of the things that we have through Christ and we understand that the Light that warms our heart is Christ. Yes, these are dark days. But they can will be days of light and hope and promise, if only we allow the Light to come in.

At What Point


This is the message I presented for the 1st Sunday in Advent (December 1, 2002) at Tompkins Corners.  The Scriptures were Isaiah 64: 1 – 9, 1 Corinthians 1: 3 – 9, and Mark 12: 24 – 37.

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John Wesley did not want to form a new church. All his life he was dedicated to reforming and returning the Church of England to its roots. But there came a time when he found that he must make changes that would ultimately lead to the formation of the Methodist Church in America.

If the preachers that Wesley was sending to America were to be effective preachers and ministers to the people, they had to be ordained. For without the ordination, the rites of baptism, marriage, and communion could not be performed. And if that sounds vaguely familiar, it is because it is the nature of my serving this church and the ones that I have served before as well as many other pastors who began their careers as pastoral assistants or lay pastors. For Wesley, the problem was compounded by the fact that the authorities that held the power of ordination would not ordain the preachers that Wesley was sending as ministers to the colonies, leaving the colonists without proper ministers and leaving Wesley in a quandary.

Wesley decided that he could not allow the situation to continue, thus he began ordaining ministers, empowering them to further the Word of the Gospel through baptisms, weddings, and communion. This obviously did not endear Wesley to the powers that be in the Church of England but since they would not help in the matters at hand, Wesley felt that he had no alternative.

That is the point. There are times when you must do something, when you must take action because the situation requires action and no one is willing to take the steps towards a solution. Now, I have made this argument before and there are some that say that in doing so I justify the actions of others to accomplish things that I view morally wrong or not within their view. Whatever actions one takes must be consistent with what one believes and we must always remember that it is not to either you or I that one must answer for their actions. One way to look at it is that if you are for peace, then violence can never be used as justification for peace.

For the people of Israel, such was the moment in the Old Testament reading today. They now understood the consequences of their actions. After having witnessed the many miracles of God and His awe-inspiring presence, they were beginning to realize that He wasn’t there for them at that moment. Suddenly, they were realizing that all that they had done only took them away from God. He may not have been hiding as they thought but it was clear that they, because of their sins and actions, could not see Him.

Jesus spoke of the same signs of thunder and lightning as signs of His Second Coming. But they were not signs of danger and demise but rather a hope for the future for all. Just as the fig tree blooming in the spring is a sign of the sure coming of summer, so too are the signs of the coming of Christ as sign of hope for the future. The growth of the fig tree, the sprouting of the leaves brings a sign that Christ will return and that we are not forgotten. But we cannot simply wait for the signs; after all, as Jesus said at the end of the Gospel lesson, we can never now the true time and place of His coming.

But how can we prepare? How can we know when Christ will come if He Himself has said that we will not know that time or place? It is not by listening to others who may be nothing more than false prophets.

When you read Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, you can sense the sadness that Paul must have had as he wrote the letter. But, even in sadness, it was still a letter of support and joy. Paul begins by giving thanks to God for the Corinthians, even though the church at that time was experiencing many problems. This praise for God, rather than praising the Corinthians for their work, is in deep contrast to the other letters he wrote where he commended and rejoiced in the other churches. Paul does not praise the Corinthians for their good works as he did other churches. Instead he praised God who worked in them.

Paul’s letters to the Corinthians were brought about by what was transpiring in the church. It was a seriously troubled church split by factions seeking to drag each other into court, crippled by the abuse of the spiritual gifts they had received, and easily tempted to return to the old ways, the ways before they had received the Gospel. It was a church quickly falling apart, choosing sides to follow instead of staying true to the Gospel.

This was a church that was only four years old and it would be easy to write this off to “growing pains”, of an immaturity that they would eventually grow out of. When you read Corinthians, it might be easy to get confused and think that Paul was writing to a more modern church in the 21st century. That wouldn’t be hard for me, since Corinth, MS, is just down the road a bit from my mom’s house. In this day and age, we find it very easy to exalt dynamic leaders who engage us with their charisma and own leadership abilities. We find it easy to take sides in arguments that are more about personalities than anything else.

When we focus on people’s faults, hope soon wanes and discouragement will set in. When we let the leader or speaker become the focus, we loose the focus of the Gospel message. And when we lose the focus of the Gospel message we come back to that time in Isaiah when the people of Israel feared for the future.

Is there hope for the future, even today? Are we quickly becoming like the church of Corinth, following leaders here on earth but failing to follow the Gospel? For Corinth, Paul still saw a bright future but it required some major changes in the lives of those in the church. The balance of the letters to Corinth are Paul’s sections about coming together as a church and as a congregation, of showing unity through what was inside each of them. Paul’s letters are a call for the people of Corinth to make a decision, to understand that they had come to a point in time when the future would be decided.

It is the same for each one of us. There will come a time when we will be called upon to make a decision, to decide that this is the point in our life where things must change. John Newton and his decision to turn that slave ship around came to mind when I began working on this sermon. Here was a man who probably had every thing he could want or desire; everything that is except internal peace. But something happened. Maybe it were just thoughts about how he earned his living; maybe it was just looking at the human cargo his ship carried across the Atlantic that caused him to question his own life. But it is clear that something made him question what he had done and what he should do. What we do know is that John Newton saw the future and did not like what he saw. He knew that he was at that point when a change must occur, when he had to say to Christ was his savior.

The same is true for us today. There will be times in our lives when we hear the sky rumble and see the lightning flash. But these will be events that only we will experience. There will be times in our lives when it will feel as if we are sinking under the weight of our pride. Then we will know that we have come to that point in our lives where change is necessary. But the problem is that we may not have the time to change. The signs of the Lord’s coming are not the times to change one’s life.

Advent is a celebration of the coming of Christ; it is a time of preparation. It gives us the time to prepare not only for the coming of Christ as an infant, new to the world but for Christ the Savior, our savior, our hope for peace in a world of trouble and darkness.