“The Meaning of the Seasons”- An Advent Meditation

And the Preacher wrote, “To everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under Heaven.”

There is a sense of rhythm to the changing of the seasons.  At this time of year, the changing of the colors of the leaves, the chill in the morning, the southward migration of the birds, and the loss of sunlight tells us that winter is approaching.

It took humankind a long time to understand this rhythm.  The “medicine wheels” of the high Northern plains, the stone circles at Stonehenge and the similar wooden circles in Germany, the intricate calendars of the Mayan civilization were, as it were, not created overnight but only after many years of study.  Someone or a group of people saw the changes in the Sun, the moon, and the stars and began tracking and studying those movements.  And from their observations and studies came the ability to begin planning for the special days in their lives.  And remember, it was that study of the skies and the movement of the stars that led the Magi to the Christ-child.

But it takes time to do such studies, it takes time to detect the rhythm.  It is very hard to do so in an environment where things are rushed.  In a world where the “sound bite” rules, we are not prepared for lengthy and deep discussions concerning the world around us.  In these times, we find ourselves listening to false prophets pass on false, misleading, and incorrect information.

But there were and are true prophets, prophets who speak not for themselves but for the people.  They do not tell the people what to think or who to listen to; they point to the signs and say, “Look and listen!”.

This Sunday, look carefully at the altar.  See that it is clothed in green, the color for me that symbolizes growth.  Over the next six weeks, watch as it changes from green to white on November 21st to mark the end of the church calendar year.  And look as the altar colors change from white to purple on November 28th.  When we see this change at this time of year, we know that the Season of Advent is approaching.

Advent is the season of preparing for the coming of Christ.  It is a time to stop and look around, to consider how your life has been and know there is time to repent, to change and begin anew.

Listen as the Scripture readings each Sunday prepare us for the coming of Christ.  Take time to ponder those words throughout the week.

When the Preacher wrote the words that we read at the beginning of this piece, he knew that time could not be rushed.

We need the four weeks of Advent to pause, contemplate, and prepare.  The four weeks of Advent are a way to step away from the rush of the world and give us the opportunity to truly prepare for the coming of Christ.

In the words of “Take Time to Be Holy” (UMH #395), Advent gives us the time to talk with the Lord, to see the world as it is to be and not as it is.

To paraphrase the thoughts of the Preacher, there is a time for every season and this is the Season of the Lord.

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!)

“A Single Light – The Light of Love”

This is a little late but here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday in Advent (Year A), 8 December 2013. This is the second of a series of Advent messages. The first was “A Single Light – The Light of Hope” which I posted for the 1st Sunday of Advent.

The Scripture readings for this Sunday are Isaiah 11: 1 – 10, Romans 5: 4 – 13, and Matthew 3: 1 – 12.

We begin with a reading from the New Testament, 2 Corinthians 2: 4,

But I didn’t write it to cause pain; I wrote it so you would know how much I care—oh, more than care—love you!

In this world of darkness, we light the candle of hope and add a single of light of love.

The Advent Candles (Tune: Away in a Manger)

On the Second Sunday of Advent

A candle is burning, a candle of Peace;

A candle to signal that conflict must cease.

For Jesus is coming to show us the way;

A message of Peace humbly laid in the hay.

A second reading, John 17: 26

I have made your very being known to them — Who you are and what you do — And continue to make it known, So that your love for me might be in them exactly as I am in them.”

Prayer – O God, in a world full of hatred and violence, You sent Your Son to bring Love back into it. Help us this day, as we light the second candle, the candle of Love, to make love more than a word but a truly feeling and expression of hope in this world. This we pray this day in the name of Your Son, Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. AMEN

I begin with the news of the world and how we have reacted. This week, Nelson Mandela died. It was and is interesting to see how people in this country reacted to this man’s death.

For the youngest generations in this country, they had no clue what it was that this man died or why a nation would grieve. But this generation was born after the end of apartheid in South Africa and segregation in this country, so they should have no clue as to the horrors of this social policy that stated that all men were not created equal.

For those who knew of apartheid and segregation, the reactions were mixed. I happened to listen to a discussion on the radio on Friday and one of the “talkers” commented how many people were lauding Mandela in his death but who, when he was alive, worked against him and in support of the government of South Africa and their policy of apartheid.

I don’t know how many of this individuals changed their minds because it was politically expedient or because they finally understood what it was that Mandela worked against and what his goals were.

What bothers me more though is not the reversal of thought but that so many people will not admit that they were wrong and that he might have been right in his opposition to that policy. They will not admit that they could have done more to reverse the policies of oppression and inequality, not only in South Africa but here in the United States and elsewhere around the world.

There is one group that quietly and continually sought to remove apartheid in South Africa and segregation here in this country but I sometimes thought that it was more a social thing that an actual movement. If one is working against wrong, then you have to be involved totally and completely.

There is a group in this country today who will tell you that Mandela was a Marxist, a Communist, and/or a terrorist. They will speak about the horrors that the African National Congress inflicted on the people of South Africa and say that represented the true Nelson Mandela. I cannot support violence of any means by any group but I also know that when violence is been the method used by any group to impose its will on others and is used to suppress any group, it is categorically wrong.

But then again, I also cannot support the argument that many people make that the oppression of a people is sometimes needed to strengthen liberty. The argument was made by many of our leaders that we needed to support South Africa because it was working against communism in Africa but I always felt that it was more because we needed and wanted the gold and diamonds that came out of South African mines.

The problem is that segregation in this country and around the world has not been removed from society; it simply exists in other forms. When Martin Luther King, Jr. came to Memphis in the spring of 1968, it was as much about income equality as it was about racial justice. Even today, the people of South Africa will point out that the great divides in the country are economic in nature. And think about where many of the goods bought in the 1st world and the higher levels of the 2nd world are made. They are made in the 3rd world countries by workers earning, at best, subsistence wages in conditions that are unsafe at best.

The passage from Isaiah is one of those that is often used when speaking out against war. But is the peaceable Kingdom that Isaiah has in mind simply one in which we study war no more? Or is it one where every person, no matter who they are in economic, racial, or sexual terms, has a chance?

What will it take to have the lion lay down with the lamb? What will it take to have a world of equality? It is perhaps a cliché but the answer is represented by the 2nd candle of Advent, Love.

Why would God even think about sending His Son to this place some two thousand years ago? He didn’t send Jesus here to destroy the world or warn us that disaster loomed if we didn’t change our ways? We ignored the prophets before so sending another prophet wasn’t going to do the job. And God certainly didn’t need Jesus to destroy the world; that’s the type of job that He would do Himself and one that He had done in the past.

No, as the disciple John will write, God sent His Son to save us because He loved us that much. He loved us enough to send His Only Son, knowing that in the end, people in this world would kill Him.

Our task is perhaps the most difficult task ever envisaged and that is to take the message of Love into a world that doesn’t want to hear it or even think about it. Our task is to take the message that was given to us some two thousand years ago and make it a reality.

It is difficult to do because it is so much easier to hate people and then use violence in as many ways as we can think because we ultimately think that violence is and will be the only answer. But listen/read this words that Rabbi Michael Lerner wrote about Nelson Mandela,

Some people on the Left reject Mandela’s strategy. “How can one be openhearted toward one’s oppressors?” they say. “Fostering compassion toward oppressors will undermine the revolutionary spirit needed to defeat the evil ones.”


Yet Mandela showed us the opposite—that one can generate more solidarity and more willingness to take risks in struggle when one can clearly present one’s own movement as morally superior to the actions of the oppressors. Mandela’s anti-apartheid movement claimed this moral superiority through being able to respond to the oppressors’ hatred with great love. When Che Guevara said, “A true revolutionary is motivated by great feelings of love,” he was alluding to this same truth. And this is what the Torah teaches when it instructs us to “love the stranger” (the “other”). (Lerner, Tikkun – 6 December 2013)

Every thing that Jesus said and did during His three years in the Galilee were predicated on doing that which no one expected, to show concern and care for all the people, including one’s enemies. Paul points out that what we have to do is hard work. But if you are not willing to do the extra work, how can you expect anything to happen? If you want to change the world, it must be done in ways that build the world, not destroy it.

We look at our Advent wreath with its two burning candles, the candle representing hope and the candle representing love. The world is not as dark as it was before Advent began and we know that there is hope in this world as long as we are willing to walk with Jesus. We can offer the promise of hope because we are willing to love each other as we have been loved by Christ.

Our challenge, once again, is very simple; to take the Gospel message and see that it is carried out and to do so with the same love and compassion that Christ had when He did what He know asks us to do. The world is a little brighter now and the light will continue to grow in brightness and intensity as we get closer and closer to the birth of Christ.

“In Preparation – 2”

This is the devotion that I presented on Saturday morning for the 2nd Sunday in Advent (8 December 2012) at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen. I used the lectionary readings (Malachi 3: 1 – 4, Philippians 1: 3 – 11, and Luke 3: 1 – 6) as the basis for the devotion. We also tried something this morning with Mo Orozco reading the passage from Luke in both English and Spanish; I want to thank Mo for his help as we seek to build a bi-lingual ministry at Grace.  My notes for the 2nd and 3rd Sunday of Advent will be posted sometime this weekend.

We begin this week by lighting the 1st candle of the Advent Wreath, the candle of hope.

Luke speaks of John the Baptist who went around Israel telling people to repent of their sins and begin anew. Luke wrote of every path being made smooth, of their being no detours on the road to Salvation.

This doesn’t mean that life becomes easier when one follows Christ. In fact, it is probably a harder life. The other day I was speaking with someone about the nature of Christianity today and how many people feel that if they do certain things a certain number of times, they will earn enough “points” to get into Heaven. But that isn’t what gets you into heaven and you cannot “buy” your way into heaven. Good works are nice but not if you are doing them for your own personal gain. If you are not leading a life that reflects the love that Christ had for us, all that you do will have no meaning in the end. Second, when you do something in this manner, it is entirely possible to do it without emotion and in an almost mechanical manner; what kind of life is one where everything is almost robot-like?

When John the Baptizer and Jesus spoke of repentance, they weren’t telling the people to say that they were sorry. Repentance is not an apology to God or others; it is a change in one’s life. It comes with the realization that one is headed in the wrong direction and that you have to stop whatever you are doing and change the direction of your life.

When we first opened Grannie Annie’s Kitchen some two years ago we had to tell everyone to leave their baggage outside the building. Remember, though this place is a kitchen, it is still part of a church and the baggage of the outside world has no place here. Repentance means, to some extend, to drop all of that baggage that is holding you back and leave it behind.

The Baptizer spoke of the one who was to come, who would change lives. The prophet Malachi said that this individual, this Messiah, would be

like white-hot fire from the smelter’s furnace. He’ll be like the strongest lye soap at the laundry. He’ll take his place as a refiner of silver, as a cleanser of dirty clothes. He’ll scrub the Levite priests clean, refine them like gold and silver, until they’re fit for God, fit to present offerings of righteousness. Then, and only then, will Judah and Jerusalem be fit and pleasing to God, as they used to be in the years long ago.

Now some, locked into today’s world view, would say that the Messiah will have a mighty army and will defeat the forces of darkness on some great plain. But we are preparing for a child to be born; how can a child lead a great army? How can one who will be called the Prince of Peace lead a great army?

Repentance requires that we change our way of thinking. To accept Christ is to accept a new life, a life based on hope, love, joy, and peace. It means giving up the ways of the world, of finding solutions through violence and greed; it means doing things because they need to be done, not because you will receive some great reward.

It means working for peace and justice in this world. The second candle of the Advent Wreath is always a different color. On our wreath, it symbolizes peace and it has to stand out in a world that often wants to hide it. We have lit the light of hope; now we light the candle of peace. In a world so often darkened by the worst of mankind, let this light of peace shine so that we can see and prepare for a new life in Christ.

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.

Thoughts for the 2nd Sunday in Advent

I really hadn’t planned on doing more than post links to my previous posts for the 2nd Sunday in Advent (B). But some things have happened that make me wonder about this season of Advent.

First, in a sermon I posted back in October (“Who Shall Feed My Sheep?”) I posted the following thought,

There is a balance between what we do for the church and what we do for God. It has become more of a social thing where we worry about paying the bills or the color of the carpet or when to have the next fund-raiser. If we were more in terms of what the Thessalonian church was doing, then the societal issues would be easily resolved. If the church today were more focused on providing that which the people truly need, then many of the issues that so dominate this world would probably disappear.

The cynic and the skeptic will tell me that this is all well and good but the church has to pay the bills or it cannot do the work. But people don’t talk about the church that pays its bills; they talk and they visit the church that welcomes them as Christ welcomed us. They talk and visit churches where the spirit of the Lord is alive and present in the thoughts, words, deeds, and actions of the members of the church. And I, unfortunately, know from my own experience that visitors to the church don’t want to hear about the financial problems of the church or the need to get involved in the next big church project/fund raiser.

Some comments have been made recently that made me think about this, especially with the Gospel reading for yesterday telling us of John the Baptizer and his telling us that Christ was coming.

So my thought this Monday morning – how do you know if the spirit of the Lord is alive and present in the words, thoughts, deeds and actions of the members of the church?

What signs do you look for that tell you that you will find Christ in the church?

A second note – as we enter deep into the holiday season, I hope that you will not wait until Christmas Day to provide food and meals for the least among you. As I pointed out two weeks ago (“A Particular Point in Time”),

I find too many examples today where that is the case, where the church, despite its teachings and its history, ignores the poor and needy and favors the rich and powerful. Oh, I know that there probably isn’t a church in this country who is not conducting a food drive this week. But what are they doing next week? What are the people of the churches today doing to insure that the Kingdom of God has a chance in this world?

We don’t expect those we feed at “Grannie Annie’s Kitchen” to join our church. But we hope that those who come find Christ in their own way and we hope that others will see the power and presence of Christ in the work that we do. Perhaps someone will come to our church because they know that Christ does work there. (If you are interested, it costs us approximately $600 a month to offer breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays; we get some donations but not always enough. If you would like to help, contact me.)

Here are my previous thoughts for the 2nd Sunday in Advent (Year B):

“The Messiah Is More Just a Piece of Music”– – sermon given at Walker Valley UMC, 5 December 1999

“The Messiah Is More Than A Song”– sermon given at Tompkins Corners UMC, 8 December 2002

“Who Is Coming?”
– posted 4 December 2005

“Preparing the Way”– posted 7 December 2008



“The Meaning of the Season”

Here are my thoughts for the 2nd Sunday in Advent. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 11: 1 – 10, Romans 15: 4 – 13, and Matthew 3: 1 – 12.

The genesis of this began last week with a comment made to my last post (“The New World”). It wasn’t so much the comment itself but what the statement that I had written (“If we are to have a world of peace, it will because we have repented of our old ways and began to live a true life in Christ.”) that began my thought process.

So that we can understand what John the Baptizer is calling for in today’s Gospel reading and what Jesus will later say, perhaps we need to understand what the word “repent” really means. I really think that too many people think of repentance as an act of contrition, of saying one is sorry for doing something bad and promising not to do it again.

Our image of repentance is reinforced by street corner preachers we encounter in our lives. You know the ones; the ones that stand on the corner of a busy street with a Bible in their hands and literally scream at the people passing by of their need to repent. Perhaps they see themselves as reincarnations of the Baptizer. But John the Baptist was a country preacher and the people came to hear him; we tend to stay away from these 21st century versions.

I am not saying that we should listen to them; they tend to be too loud and too obnoxious. Their view of the world says that the only course of action is the one that they offer and if we fail to follow that pre-set path then we are condemned to a life in purgatory or elsewhere. Now, let me first point out that there is no guarantee that our lives will not end in purgatory or elsewhere. If we live a life without Christ, in fact, if we live a life without some sort of religious belief, I don’t see how there can be any hope for the future. A life without hope becomes a life of the here and now, of living for the moment and I cannot see how that is any sort of life. Yet, that is the life that many people today express, some willingly, some unwillingly. No matter what your core belief is or might be, a life of the present, of the here and now is a condemned life. Yet, the promise is made that if we take on a life with Christ and in Christ, our life can and will take on a new meaning.

We would like the world that we live in to be the world that Isaiah describes in the Old Testament reading for today but we honestly do not see how we can achieve such a utopian world. But we must also realize that compassion, justice, and peace are not possible if we insist on living our lives as we do today.

Such a world requires major changes in our lives; it requires more than simply saying we are sorry and promising never to do it again. To repent means to turn around and take a new direction in life. It means turning away from the powers of sin and death, from selfishness, darkness, idols, habits, and bondage to demons, both public and private. It means turning away from the violence and evil that we are a part of in this world and from the false worship that controls and corrupts.

Yes, this is very hard to do. It would be nice if it were easy to do but then, at best, we would have what Dietrich Bonhoeffer labeled cheap grace. If we are not willing to make major changes; if we are not willing to radically redirect our lives to new directions, then we cannot expect changes to be accomplished. As Paul wrote, even Jesus waded right into the mix in order to make the changes.

Our cynical society says that we cannot make the changes in the world today. Some will say that it is impossible to make the changes because the system is too corrupt and too evil for anything to happen. But the changes that Jesus spoke of for three years as He, the disciples and the rest wandered through the Galilee did not take place overnight. It began small and it grew slowly but surely.

Movements do not take effect overnight; they take time to grow. There is, in this country and throughout the world, a call for change. I think it is an angry call simply because the people crying out have no plan. But the Gospel message does offer a plan and it is more than simply having everyone say they are sorry and that they won’t do it again. It is a plan to change their life, their attitude, and the view of the world. It is a plan that says we must feed the hungry, heal the sick, build houses for the homeless, find clothes for the naked and needy, and work to bring justice and compassion into this world. It will take more than just a few nights of effort. I am not saying that we shouldn’t get together and put together food baskets for the hungry on Christmas Eve so that they have food for Christmas Day. But what will these people eat on the day after Christmas? (And I as write those words, I am beginning to think about what I will say on the day after Christmas – I will be at the Dover Church (Location of church) and the title of the message is “The False Gift.”)

We schedule four weeks for Advent, not to just fill up time but to prepare. It is not an overnight thing but a long process and it does take time. And then it must continue. So we hear the voice crying in the wilderness of our soul calling for us to repent and begin anew. That is the meaning of this season and it is time to answer the call.

The New World

The Old Testament reading for today (Isaiah 11: 1 – 10) has been used by many to describe a world at peace. It is clearly not an image of the world today nor is it an image many people think is even remotely possible. Too many people feel that war is an inherent part of society and it is best to deal with war rather than try and eliminate war.

I believe that war can be eliminated and that is must be eliminated. But to eliminate war does not mean to just remove the instruments of war (as described in last week’s Old Testament reading, Isaiah 2: 1 – 5 ). To eliminate war you must eliminate the causes of war. When Jesus came and began His ministry, he proclaimed that the sick would be healed, the lame would walk, the blind would see, the deaf would hear, the homeless would find shelter, and the oppressed would be set free.

Sickness, homelessness, and oppression are and have always been the root causes of war. IF we do not remove the causes of war, then we will never eliminate war.

In his 1961 speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations, President John Kennedy said, “today, every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be inhabited.” (John F. Kennedy, Address before the General Assembly of the United Nations, September 25, 1961) At a time when the threat of nuclear war was clear, President Kennedy understood that the initiation of nuclear war by any country, be it the Soviet Union, the United States, or some unnamed country, would lead to the total devastation of the world.

Today, we may not live under that same threat but the threat of the destruction of this world is still a possibility. It may be by nuclear weapons, biochemical weapons, or terrorism. It might be through global warming or through some other unknown destructive threat. But it is clear that we cannot live in a world where each country views its own interests and values as more important than any other country’s interests and values.

If we are to live in a world of peace and free from the threat of destruction, then we must work together as countries and as individuals. That is not to say that we will have one country that occupies the whole world. The nations that inhabit this world and the many cultures represented are too complex to even think that this is a possibility.

Of course, there are those today who say that it can be accomplished under the auspices of one of the great religions. We constantly hear from many fundamentalists how they wish to establish a kingdom of God under the auspices of their religion. I am not one of them.

The establishment of such a kingdom requires that we establish that our religion is the single true religion and that all other religions are false. One of the reasons Paul wrote what he did for this week (Romans 15: 4 – 13) (amazing how he knew that it would be read this week) was because he wanted to point out that Christ’s message transcended the boundary of the religions of the time. Christ’s message was for all, not just a few.

But what happens if a person has a valid belief system and leads a life that is set by that system. Are they condemned? Some might say they are but that would require that our rules be used to determine the outcome of an entirely different system. It would be like we used the rules of European football (i.e. soccer) to determine the outcome of an American football game. It won’t work.

Any individual has the right to believe as they wish, provided that their belief is based on a valid system. There are, of course, many who create their own belief systems, picking and choosing from other systems in order to get the best of all systems. But such an artificial belief system is an incomplete system. You cannot select what you want from one system and something from another system solely so that you can justify what you do. You may disagree with parts of a system but you cannot cast that part aside just because you disagree with it. It would be like saying that you follow Christ but you wish to hold onto all of your wealth and allow no one to share in it. Christ’s commandment was very clear; to follow Him require a total commitment, not a partial one. I am sure that a study of other belief systems would lead to the same conclusion.

There are those, of course, who say they are believers but their actions belie their words. When John the Baptist calls the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to hear him preach “a brood of vipers” (Matthew 3: 7), it was because their words and thoughts were not backed up by their actions.

The Pharisees and Sadducees proclaimed that by their position and name that they had received salvation. But, as John the Baptist pointed out, salvation comes only when you change your ways. Repentance is an act, not a statement. You cannot say that you have repented; you have to change what you do.

The result of repentance is that things change. The world cannot and will not survive if our words are contrary to our actions. We cannot say that we believe in peace when we continue to build the instruments of war or seek to provoke the initiation of war. We cannot say that we are a nation of plenty when people go hungry and countless others have no home in which to live. We cannot say that our healthcare system is the best there is if people have no medical insurance and are told that the emergency room is sufficient for many illnesses.

We cannot expect the world to change when the gap between the wealthy and the poor grows each year. We cannot expect the world to change when people believe that those who have wealth will receive glory in God’s Kingdom and those who are poor are sinful and are to be cast aside. And we cannot expect the other countries of this world to act any differently if we cannot do what we say we believe.

Isaiah concluded his prophecy by saying that the root of Jesse’s tree will stand as a signal to all the people and all the nations. (Isaiah 11: 10) The birth of Christ is not just a day; it is the beginning. We have a world that may not survive because there are too many threats to its survival. We have a chance through the birth of Christ to have a new world, a world in which the Gospel message becomes true and more than words in a passage of a book.

As we progress through Advent, we prepare for the Coming of Christ. We also prepare for what happens after He comes. If we are to have a world of peace, it will because we have repented of our old ways and began to live a true life in Christ.

“What Will Tomorrow Bring?”

This is the message I presented for the 2nd Sunday in Advent (5 December 2004) at Tompkins Corners UMC, Putnam Valley, NY.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 11: 1 – 10, Romans 15: 4 – 13, and Matthew 3: 1 – 12.


The events, politically and theologically, of the past few weeks lead me to conclude that we are a long way from meeting the prophecy of Isaiah described in today’s Old Testament reading. And despite the fact that many religious leaders see tomorrow as the coming of the New Kingdom of Christ here on earth, I think that we are moving away from that prophecy rather than towards it.

As we look to and prepare for the birth of Christ, we have to ask ourselves what will tomorrow bring? Will it be the healing of divisions between nations and peoples, will it be the welcoming of all who believe into God’s kingdom, will it be a world of peace that often accompanies the description of the lion and lamb lying down together? Or will this nation become more divided, will our churches become even more exclusive, driving away those who need the presence of Christ in their lives?

I have already seen signs that suggest many possible Christians are turning away from the church because the church will not let them it in. Perhaps it is their lifestyle, perhaps it is something they have done in the past, or perhaps it is because of what they believe. What is certain is that many people who need the church and the presence of Christ in their lives are turning away from the church because they see a church that is not open to them.

It seems to me that the religious leaders of today, and that includes those who would seek to lead the United Methodist Church, care more about establishing a kingdom here on earth based more on a rigid structure of laws than they are on seeing that the message of the Gospel is heard throughout the land. So intent are these leaders on this outcome that they have lost focus on the prophecies that foretold the coming of Christ.

Throughout the history of the church, it was the prophets who criticized, interrogated and exhorted God’s people regarding social evil. This is a tradition that began with the prophets of the Old Testament and reached its zenith with Jesus’ life and teaching.

But while today’s leaders, who claim to preach the Word of God and based on biblical teachings, focus on marriage and sexuality, there is very little in the Bible on those two topics. While we hear from prominent Christian leaders that these are the major moral issues of today, Jesus spent very little time, if any, discussing the two topics.

What did Jesus talk about in his ministry? What values does the Bible teach us? There is no doubt that if you were perusing the Bible in search of scripture that talks about the immorality of certain sexual practices or abortion, you’ll find a handful, here and there. But you’ll find far more verses dealing with economic ethics on earth, especially as it relates to the poor. As Sean Gonsalves noted in a recent column, we might want to consider the following:

“If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren within any of thy gates in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother (Deuteronomy 15:7).”

“This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles (Psalm 34:6).”

“He that oppresseth the poor reproacheth his Maker. But he that honoreth him hath mercy on the poor (Proverbs 14:31).”

The prophet Isaiah had this to say: “When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the Lord will hear them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them (Isaiah 41:17).”

“As a cage is full of birds, so are their houses full of deceit: therefore they are become great and waxen rich … they overpass the deeds of the wicked: they judge not the cause, the cause of the fatherless, yet they prosper; and the right of the needy do they not judge. Shall I not visit for these things? saith the Lord: shall not my soul be avenged on such a nation as this? (Jeremiah 5:27-29).” 

The prophet Amos declares: “Thus saith the Lord; for three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because they sold the righteous for silver and the poor for a pair of shoes; that pant after the dust of the earth on the head of the poor, and turn aside the way of the meek … (Amos 2:6,7).”

Turning to the New Testament, Jesus himself said that the nations would be judged according to how they’ve dealt with “the least of these,” and he announced his public ministry with these words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor… (Luke 4:18).”

And did you know that James, Jesus’ brother, had a few things to say wealth and poverty also?

“Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come upon you … Behold, the hire of the laborers who have reaped down your fields, which … you kept back by fraud, crieth: and the cries of them which have reaped are entered into the ears of the Lord (James 5:1-4).”  (“On Their Own Terms”, Sean Gonsalves, AlterNet, posted on 1 December 2004)

These verses are just the tip of the biblical iceberg, which is why some theologians speak of God’s “preferential option for the poor.” When Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners was in seminary, he was part of group that wanted to find every reference in the Bible to the poor and the oppressed.

The results were slightly astounding. In the Old Testament, the subject of the poor is the second most prominent theme with idolatry the first. In the New Testament, this group determined that one out of every sixteen verses was about the poor; in the Gospels, it was one out of every ten verses. One member of the group even went so far as to take a Bible and cut out every reference to the poor. When he was done, the Bible fell apart.

If the richest nation in the history of the world is populated by millions of Bible-believing Christians, then how come issues of poverty and economic justice were barely mentioned this past election season? There are an estimated 35 million poor people in America, including nearly 13 million children. The poverty rate has increased steadily over the past three years, most dramatically among children. But it was not a moral value worth discussing in the last election. It is most interesting, and slightly disturbing, that those who claim to be following the Bible and holding on to biblical values lead a movement that follows a gospel of prosperity. When there is so much of a difference between the wealthy and the poor, why is it that the leaders of the conservative movements in Christianity are defenders of the wealthy? (Adapted from Soul of Politics by Jim Wallis)

The Bible stresses the obligation not only to care for the poor but also for others, who cannot support themselves, i.e., widows and orphans. But in today’s society, what happens to those without power.

The Gospel contains many accounts of Jesus’ healing ministry. But what is the quality of health care in the country today? The Gospel also contains many accounts of Jesus reaching out to the social outcasts of His day — lepers, Samaritans, and often times women. But how do we as a society react to the outcasts of today? And were does the Bible stand on killing? How is it that many people can oppose abortion yet support the death penalty? How is it that killing is some situations is wrong but wars are okay? Is it permissible to invoke the name of God to both prevent killing and authorize killing? (adapted from Connections, December 2004, by Barbara Wendland)

It comes down to this. What was the ministry of Jesus? Based on the Gospel message, what issues should have our highest priorities? As Christians, should we not base our moral values on Jesus’ teaching?

One can only wonder what John the Baptist might say today if the leaders of the conservative churches of this country were to come and listen to him preach his message of preparedness and repentance. Would they be able to say, like the Pharisees and Sadducees of old, that their faith was the faith of their forefathers and that was all they needed? Would they be willing to hear John the Baptist call them liars and hypocrites, vipers and worse? I think not; when your actions belie your words, when you turn away those who should be in church because you don’t like their lifestyle, how can you say that you hold to the tradition of the Bible and the message of the Gospel?

Paul writes that Christ did not die for one specific group of individuals but rather for all. It is not up to the church to decide who can come in but rather it is up to the church to be ready to accept anyone that hears the Gospel message and decides to follow Christ. Paul notes that it is up to us, as believers, to welcome all who come to Christ, not shut the door in their face.

As we progress through the season of Advent, as we prepare for the birth of Christ, we are challenged to think about what the presence of Christ in this world means? John the Baptist acknowledged that his purpose was to prepare the way for another, one who would baptize believers with the Holy Spirit.

It is admittedly hard to see Advent in terms of revival, evangelism, and repentance but it should not be. After all, Advent is a time of preparation and repentance is the first step in that preparation. If you are not willing to give up what keeps you from Christ, then you cannot repent. If you cannot repent, then you cannot prepare for the coming of Christ.

Isaiah’s prophecy speaks of a new day, a new beginning. The references are to the branch of Jesse’s tree that is to be planted somewhere. The branch of Jesse’s tree is Christ and it is to be planted in our hearts. We must begin anew if we are to welcome Christ into our lives and into our hearts.

As we prepare for Christmas today and look to a new world tomorrow, we must look within our own lives and, like those who gathered at the River Jordan to hear the Baptizer preach, repent of our past and begin anew. As we continue this celebration of Advent this day, the question remains “What will tomorrow bring in your life?”