“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 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.