Understanding Advent in the 21st Century

You are invited to join us during the four Sundays in October (October 5, 12, 19, and 26), from 5 to 7 pm, in the tradition of the early United Methodist Church, at the home of Tony Mitchell and Ann Walker for a four week Bible study to prepare for Advent.

Amidst the trials and tribulations of the world today, let us read the Scriptures for each week of Advent and consider the following questions:

  1. Why do we celebrate Advent?
  2. What is the meaning of Advent?
  3. How do we prepare for the coming of Christ in the 21st Century?
  4. What will our response be?

You are welcome to come for one, two, three, or all four sessions. Please let Ann and me know that you are coming.

“A Pre-Advent Bible Study”

All the details haven’t been worked out yet but we are thinking of hosting a pre-Advent Bible study at our place in October.

#1 Yes, I know Advent doesn’t start until November 30th but weather issues suggest having the study in October.

#2 I have come up with the following questions/thoughts:

Amidst the trials and tribulations of the world today, let us consider the following questions:

  1. What is the meaning of Advent?
  2. Why do we celebrate Advent?
  3. How do we prepare for the coming of Christ in the 21st Century?
  4. What will our response be?

#3 What questions would you cover during such a study? (For those reading this on Facebook, I would appreciate it if you would also add your comments on the blog page as well. Thanks!)

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.


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.

The Light Begins To Shine

This is the message I presented for the 1st Sunday in Advent (November 28, 1999) at Walker Valley.  The Scriptures were Isaiah 64: 1 – 9, 1 Corinthians 1: 3 – 9, and Mark 12: 24 – 37.


Back in 1984 I moved from Memphis, Tennessee, to the Quad Cities area of Illinois and Iowa. It wasn’t that dramatic move and I certainly didn’t think much about it at the time. But as I settled into my life as a college chemistry instructor I couldn’t help but notice that, as the end of 1984 came near, it got darker a lot sooner than it did when I lived in Memphis.

Of course, as winter approaches, the days do get shorter and as one goes further north, the days get shorter still. But, if you are used to the seasons changing in a particular manner, then new changes are rather unexpected.

The season of Advent comes, in part by design, as winter approaches. As the days get shorter and sunlight disappears, it is as if hope is fading away. But The purpose of Advent is serve as reminder that Christ will soon be hear and that we should begin the preparation for his arrival, the dawning of a new age, the shining of a new light.

Christ’s birthday at this time of the year, when the shortest day of the year occurs, is figuratively into a world of darkness. It is darkness created by sin and indifference, as noted in the Old Testament reading from Isaiah for today.

“All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags’

we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.

No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins. (Isaiah 64: 6 – 7)

Yet, by his birth, there is a hope that the darkness will not prevail.

Advent is more than just a period of preparation for Christmas; it is a season in itself. Advent proclaims the coming of the Lord and this is not necessarily the same as saying that Christmas is coming. The Gospel reading for today reaffirms that all Scriptures affirm: our God is the One who comes to the world. The question is “how shall the day of the Lord be?” Will it be in darkness or light, joy or dread, judgement or redemption? It should be this thought that stirs us and reminds us, as people of God, that Advent is not only a time of joy and anticipation but also one of redemption.

The Gospel reading from Mark for today speaks of the Lord’s coming in terms of cosmic and historical signs.

“But in those days, following that distress,

“’ the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light;

the stars will fall from the sky and the heavenly bodies will be shaken. (Mark 13: 24 – 25)

But this passage of doom is quickly followed by a passage of announcement.

“At that time men will see the Son of Man in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens. (Mark 13: 26 – 27)

Though this part of the Gospel speaks of the coming of the Lord, it continues by telling us that we can not now neither the time of His coming nor how He will come.

“No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with has assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.

“Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back – whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: Watch!” (Mark 13: 32 – 37)

The message of the Gospel is true for us today. As we look around our world, how will we know if Christ has come again?

You will find the living God in the pages of the Bible. You will find him also just exactly where you are. When Jesus knew that he would not have much longer with his disciples he knew that they were sad at heart and he said to them: “It is for your own good that I am going because unless I go, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I do go, I will send him to you. . . I still have many things to say to you, but they would be too much for you now. But when the Spirit of truth comes he will lead you to the complete truth.”(John 16: 7, 12, 13) Jesus does not break his promise. God has sent the Spirit of truth, he dwells in your heart. You have only to listen, to follow, and he will lead you to the complete truth. He leads through all the events, all the circumstances of your life. Nothing in your life is so insignificant, so small, that God cannot be found at its centre. We think of God in the dramatic things, the glorious sunsets, the majestic mountains, the tempestuous seas; but He is the little things too, in the smile of a passer-by or the gnarled hands of an old man, in a daisy, a tiny insect, falling leaves. God is in the music, in laughter and in sorrow too. And the grey times, when monotony stretches out ahead, these can be the times of steady, solid growth into God.

God may make himself known to you through the life of someone who, for you, is an ambassador for God, in whom you can see the beauty and truth and the love of God; anyone from St. Paul and the apostles through all the centuries to the present day, the great assembly of the saints and lovers of God. 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 can believe that God’s love for you could be possible after all. Sometimes it is through tragedy or serious illness that God speaks to our hearts and we know him for the first time. There is no limit to the ways in which God may make himself known. At every turn in our lives there can be a meeting place with God. How our hearts should sing with joy and thanksgiving! We have only to want him now at this moment – and at any moment in our lives – and he is there, wanting us, longing to welcome us, to forgive us all that has gone before that has separated us from him. “If anyone loves me he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we shall come to him and make our home with him.” (John 14: 23) God makes his home in you. They are not empty words. It is true. “Make your home in me, as I make mine in you.” This is prayer. Isn’t this the answer to all our yearning, our searching, our anguish, to all the longing, the incompleteness of our lives and our longing? Until we dwell in him and allow him to dwell in us we shall be strangers to peace. (From Prayer by Mother Frances Dominica)

As we begin this season of Advent and prepare for the coming of Christ, let us remember that this is a time of preparation for ourselves as well. Though we wish to celebrate the coming of Christ the King, we need to remember that he did not come into this world as a king. The place of his birth was not what one would have expected for a king nor was the life that He led what one would have expected. But Christ came to be a part of us so that we could be saved.

The days of darkness are not yet over. It will continue to darker each day. These are days when hope can be easily lost but we always know that there is hope. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians in his first letter to them:

I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in everyway – in all your speaking and in all your knowledge – because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you. Therefore do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful. (1 Corinthians 1: 4 – 9)

So, my friends, as we begin this season of Advent, as we begin the preparation for the birth of Christ, let us also begin to prepare ourselves. Though the days may be getting darker, the light is actually beginning to shine. It is the light of Christ in the world through us. The challenge for each of us today is to carry that light out into the world so that others may see it as well.

The Time and The Season

Here are my thoughts for the first Sunday in Advent.

If one only glanced quickly at the readings for today (Isaiah 64: 1 – 9; Mark 13: 24 – 37), it would be very difficult to think of them as Advent readings. But the calendar says that it is late autumn, the days are getting longer, and it is the time for the season of Advent. So how is it that readings that have almost an apocalyptic overtone are used for Advent?

Advent is the time and the season for preparation, the preparation of the coming of Christ. But it is a joyful and peaceful season. The apocalypse, especially in the writings of the Book of the Revelation of John, is neither joyful nor peaceful. But the word apocalypse simply means to reveal or to uncover. For this season we must reject the literal notion of the apocalypse and focus on its true meaning, its meaning for the here and now.

During Advent, the voices of the prophets come through loud and clear, preparing us for the coming of God in human form. Should we not hear the words of Isaiah, “we have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth,” as a wake-up call?

But just as the prophets provided cold clarity about what it means to be God’s people and what our responsibilities are to each other and to God, so too did they remind us that God refuses to give up on us.

This is what Paul is telling us in his letter to the Corinthians. (1 Corinthians 1: 3 – 9) Paul writes, “I give thanks to God always, specifically those who are members of the body of Christ.” He is assuring us that God has already given us the strength we need to bear whatever comes in our life. Perhaps we should use this blessing in those moments in church where we pass the peace of Christ between friends and strangers. Who knows what might happen if we say this and find out that we truly mean it?

The common notion of the apocalypse is one of destruction and death, of completion and ending. But the apocalypse is more a sign of things to come, a sign of hope. After all, even Christ’s words are an offering of the hope that is to come, not the destruction. Christ’s words are directed towards a destruction of our own making, not God’s work. And if the destruction that we fear is ours to make, so too is the chance for peace and hope, but only if we come to Christ. Again we hear Paul’s words, telling us that God gives us the strength we need to bear whatever comes our way.

The Preacher wrote, “to every thing there is a season, a time for every purpose under heaven.” Advent is a season of preparation, of preparing for the coming of Christ. We think of it more in terms of His birth rather than in terms of His Second Coming. But perhaps we should think of it more in terms of the rebirth of our community, of our chance to focus on a community for the new age. The words we hear today are a reminder that we, as a people, share in the same call to purpose proclaimed by Isaiah. We are the people who are the clay, to be formed by God. We are the work of God, for His purpose and His end.

Jesus tells us that just as the fig tree knows when it is time to put forth its shoots and then its fruit, so too will we know when it is time. But it is something that we know only through Him, not without Him. If we try to tell what time of the season it might be without Christ in our lives, we will never know. If we see the readings for today as a sign of the end, we will never have the opportunity to see the joy, the peace, and the hope that are to come.

We sing of God’s help in ages past but that is not all there is to the song.

United Methodist Hymnal #117

Not only do we sing of His help in ages past, we sing of His help in days to come. That is what this season is about. We do not fear what has past; we rejoice in the chance to make things right and celebrate the birth of Christ and the chance for the birth of a new community. As we reread Isaiah’s words, we see that they are words of hope, that though things may seem bad, God is still hear amidst the darkness and desolation of the time and season.

This is the season of Advent; this is the season in which we prepare for the coming of Christ. We celebrate this coming as a birth but we are reminded that we should celebrate His coming as the crucified and risen Savior, who has come to bring hope, peace and joy into the world. Let us resolve today to open our hearts and, as we look upon the babe in the manger, we let the Christ come in. And as we let Christ into our hearts, let us resolve to work in the world around us so that life begins anew, a community that seeks joy, peace, and hope.