“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.

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.

What Is The Guarantee?


Here are my thoughts for the 1st Sunday in Advent.  May this be a season of happiness and peace for you and your family.

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There can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that the two most important dates on the Christian calendar are Christmas and Easter. But why are they so close together? Wouldn’t it be better to have scheduled the two events six months apart in order to maintain a semblance of balance in the calendar? Wouldn’t it have been better to have scheduled these two events in such a way as to maximize the impact of each date?

Christmas is the day we celebrate Christ’s birthday. It is interesting that when the church was in its own infancy, there was a feeling that we shouldn’t even celebrate His birth. Since the church was living at a time when the birthdays of other gods were celebrated, many felt that to celebrate Christ’s birthday would diminish its meaning.

Of course, the suggestion that the shepherds were in the fields the night of Christ’s birth puts his birth either in the late Fall, say November, or early Spring, say March. The actual date of December 25th wasn’t chosen until 336 AD, after Emperor Constantine made Christianity the Empire’s favorite religion. It was also chosen to co-opt the pagan celebration of Saturnalia. But prior to that time, January 2nd, March 21st, March 25th, April 18th, April 19th, November 17th, and November 20th all received consideration. (1) Now, if it had been up to me, I would have picked one of the spring dates.

But, if we celebrated Christmas in March or April, then there would be times when Easter and Christmas are at the same time (and even on the same date) and it would not be right or logical to be celebrating both Christ’s birth and death at the same time.

But why is Easter when it is? And who came up with that wonderful method for calculating when Easter occurs? (2) It seems to me that because the first Easter was held during Passover, Easter and Passover should occur at the same time. And while this does occur every few years, the methods used for the determination of the two dates do not match.

While it seems that Christmas was the decision of a single individual, Easter was decided by a committee. After the Council of Nicea met in 325 AD and settled the Arian controversy, they began debating how to determine the proper date for Easter. Other than stipulating that Easter be celebrated on a Sunday, the council could not resolve the matter and left it for another committee to make the final decision.

In part, the difficulty was due in part to the nature of the church. Churches in the eastern part of the Roman Empire wanted to follow the Jewish calendar because the majority of their members were Jewish converts; churches in the western part of the Roman Empire favored a date that matched the spring equinox because the majority of their members came from pagan roots.

It wasn’t until the beginning of the 18th century that churches in the west began using the method of Dionysius Exiguus where Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox. The problem of when Easter is scheduled wasn’t completely resolved because of flaws in the Julian calendar which had the beginning of spring (as determined by the spring equinox) slowly moving back into February.

Even with the development of the Gregorian calendar in 1582, there are still going to be differences between Easter as celebrated in western churches, eastern churches and Passover still exist. The actual date for Easter will vary over a period of some thirty-five days. That is because Easter is essentially based on a lunar cycle and the combination of lunar and solar cycles can get very complicated. (3)

Now, it really doesn’t matter who scheduled Christmas and Easter or when they actually occurred. What does matter is that it is not the day that we hold holy but rather because of who made it Holy. (4)

As it is right now, we spend six months of the year in “ordinary time” and then, when Thanksgiving rolls around, we madly rush through the four weeks of Advent to Christmas. We pause very briefly in January and February in order to set up things for Lent and Easter and follow it with the Easter Season leading up to Pentecost. Then we coast from June to November when we start it up all over again.

We see people who haven’t been to church in six months but who feel that somehow attendance now “validates their parking ticket” or somehow justifies their inactivity during the rest of the year. For so many people, the church and Christianity are these two dates and it is what you do on these two dates that matters most. But Christianity is not set by the calendar; it is set by what is in one’s heart.

So it is that we begin the Season of Advent, a time when we prepare for the Coming of Christ. And despite what some may say about the Gospel reading for today (5) being a description of the Rapture, we are not preparing for the end of the world but for the coming of the one person whose presence in this world can change the world. Too many people speak of these days as being part of the end times and use this passage from Matthew as part of their justification.

But the Rapture and any consideration of the End Times do not come from the Bible but from a single interpretation by a 19th century minister, John Darby. Granted, the concept of the Second Coming is not new. The people of the churches to whom Paul wrote (6) felt that the Second Coming was close at hand and they had stopped doing the work of the church. That is the basis for Paul’s warning in the Epistle lesson for today.

People were expecting Christ’s return and they had quit doing their own work and the work of the church in preparation for Christ’s Second Coming. But to stop doing what you should and are expected to be doing because you expect to be called into God’s Kingdom at any minute is as foolish as not expecting the Kingdom at all. One of the reasons for today’s Gospel reading is to point out that you need to be prepared at any time for the call.

But this preparation does not mean that you should walk around with an air about you or an attitude that says that you will be going and others won’t. Jesus held his greatest criticism for those who held themselves above others and felt that they were the only truly righteous ones. Having been told on too many occasions that I am doomed because I do not live my life as others dictate that it should be lived, I can understand why Jesus would say this and have such thoughts. If there is any hope in this world, it comes from the promise of salvation through Christ and not what others may say. There is no guarantee in this life other than the one that it is given to us through salvation.

The one thing that can destroy Christianity is the attitude that so many Christians have that they will be the ones who are taken in the moment described in the Gospel. From this attitude comes arrogance and that is not what Christianity is about. We are called to bring people to Christ, not scare them away. But we have to understand what it means when we say we are Christ’s disciples and when we seek to make others disciples..

The word “disciple” does not necessarily mean “a student of a teacher” but more “a follower of somebody.” Discipleship in the New Testament means to be a follower of Jesus, to go on a journey with Jesus. Journeying with Jesus also means to be in a community. Discipleship is not an individual journey but one done in the company of other disciples. While it is a journey on a road less traveled, it is a journey done in company with others who remember and celebrate the presence of Jesus in their lives.

And discipleship also means being compassionate. “Be compassionate as God is compassionate” is the defining mark of a follower of Jesus. Compassion is the fruit of the life in the Spirit and the ethos of the community of Jesus.

The Christian journey is a life lived from the inside out, a life in which the things we experience within — dreams, memories, images, and symbols, and the presence of him whom we encounter in deep silence — are in constant tension and dialogue with all that we experience without — people, events, joys, sorrows, and the presence of him whom we encounter in others. Thomas Merton repeats a suggestion of Douglas Steere that the absence of this tension might well produce the most pervasive form of violence present in contemporary society. “To allow one’s self to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns,” Merton writes, “to surrender to too many demands, to commit one’s self to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. Frenzy destroys our inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

One of the most critical tasks of the local church is to enable people to become “journeyers” rather than “wanderers.” This suggests that the leadership of a congregation needs to be serious about their own journeys, to the point where they are willing to share their experience with others, not as those who have arrived but as fellow journeyers able to receive as well as to give. . . .

In his Markings, Dag Hammarskjold records some of the often agonizing turning points that were the occasion of the deepening of his remarkable journey. One entry in this journal describes with particular wisdom that sense of creative tension which is the mark of wholeness. “The more faithfully you listen to the voice within you,” he writes, “the better you will hear what is sounding outside. And only he who listens can speak. Is this the starting of the road toward the union of your two dreams — to be allowed in clarity of mind to mirror life, and in purity of heart to mold it?” Ultimately, this is the question we all must ask, for it is the question Christ asks of us. (7)

We are faced with a challenge today. In light of the violence that seems to be so much a part of our society today, in light of the poverty and homelessness that seems to be so much a part of our lives today, in light of the injustice and oppression that seems to be the norm rather than the exception, what do we say? What do we do?

We can say that the violence, poverty, and oppression are signs of God’s wrath for the sins of unnamed souls. But when innocent children are killed and other lives are destroyed through senseless violence, will we cry out to God that it is His fault?

Our only answer to war seems to be more war. We hear today that the present administration is moving to fix the housing crisis. But they are not doing so to help homeless people find homes or let people keep the homes that they bought; rather, they are working to help the banks whose policies have helped to fuel the crisis not go out of business. The temple stood when Jesus threw out the money changers but it fell when the people sought war as the answer to oppression.

This is the Sunday we begin the journey that ends with the birth of Christ. We may not know when Christ was actually born but we have the guarantee that He was born and He came to bring peace on earth. The Old Testament reading today (8) speaks of the people turning their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks, and working with other nations so that war will be no more. If we are part of the community of Christ, then that is what we should be doing. If we are a part of the community of Christ, then we should be working to insure the sick are healed, the homeless have shelter, the hungry have food, the blind see and the deaf hear.

If we decide that we do not want to be a part of the community of Christ, then there is no guarantee as to what comes next. But if we decide to be a part of the community of Christ, then and only then do we have the guarantee.

(1) Adapted from http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/newsletter/2000/dec08.html

(2) The Astronomical Society of South Australia offers a “simple” method for calculating Easter up to and including 4099 AD. They even offer a computer program that will do the calculations for you. Go to http://www.assa.org.au/edm.html.

(3) Adapted from http://www.christianitytoday.com/history/newsletter/2000/apr20.html

(4) See footnote 1.

(5) Matthew 23: 36 – 44

(6) Romans 13: 11 – 14

(7) From Mutual Ministry by James C. Fenhagen

(8) Isaiah 2: 1 – 5