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 Joy”


Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday in Advent (Year A), 15 December 2013. This is the third in a series of Advent messages. The first being “A Single Light – The Light of Hope”, 1 December 2013, and the second being “A Single Light – The Light of Love”, 8 December 2013.

The Scripture readings for this Sunday are Isaiah 35: 1 – 10, James 5: 7 – 10, and Matthew 11: 2 – 11.

We begin with a reading from the Old Testament, Job 33: 26 – 28,

Or, you may fall on your knees and pray—to God’s delight! You’ll see God’s smile and celebrate, finding yourself set right with God. You’ll sing God’s praises to everyone you meet, testifying, ‘I messed up my life — and let me tell you, it wasn’t worth it. But God stepped in and saved me from certain death. I’m alive again! Once more I see the light!’”

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

The Advent Candles (Tune: Away in a Manger)

On the Third Sunday of Advent

A candle is burning, a candle of Joy;

A candle to welcome brave Mary’s new boy.

Our hearts fill with wonder and eyes light and glows

Joy brightens winter like sunshine on snow.

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Our second reading in lighting the Advent Candles comes from John 16: 27

Therefore you now have sorrow; but I will see you again and our heart will rejoice and our joy no one will take from you.

Our prayer this morning –

Gracious Lord, as we light this candle of joy this morning, let the brightness of the now lit three candles brighten our days as the Joy of Your Coming Birth brightens our lives. AMEN

As the days towards Christmas and the birth of Christ come closer and the lights on the Advent wreath shine even more brightly, we sense in many people a joy, a joy brought about by anticipation. Perhaps it is the Christmas presents that they will be getting, perhaps it is the Christmas presents that they will be giving. One would hope that there is a joy in knowing that soon Christ will be born again and that all will be right in the world.

For many people, the dark days of winter bring on a depression that they cannot shake. Speaking personally, this type of joy and happiness is tempered by remembrances of physical and personal pain that have occurred in my past. Hearing Elvis sing “Blue Christmas” at this time of year doesn’t really help many people getting in the mood.

And again the backdrop of all of this, there was another shooting at a high school where it appears (as I write this) a young man, filled with an unknown rage, decided the solution to a problem was a gun. And now another family must bury a child during the cold and dark days of winter.

How can there ever be joy at a time like this? And we know that in the time frame of Jesus’ birth, Herod will slaughter the innocent children in order to preserve his place on the throne.

Joy doesn’t seem to make much sense. And we begin to wonder if any of the things that we do will have any effect on life now or in the future.

As I was writing this paragraph, I remember bits and pieces of Star Trek episode where the Enterprise was transported back in time to the 1960s. Now, the essence of the plot at this point was that the crew of the Enterprise had to return things to the way they were before they were transported; otherwise, the course of time would be altered and there was no assurance that the Enterprise would exist in its own time frame. (Ah, the paradox of time travel)

And while the perils and problems of time travel and the paradox created by such events, there is the reality that what we do today does have an effect on what transpires tomorrow. It is reflected in the dialogue between Sir Thomas More and Richard Rich in one scene from “A Man For All Seasons.”

Sir Thomas More: Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.

Richard Rich: If I was, who would know it?

Sir Thomas More: You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.

The problem, of course, is that we often times what the results of our efforts today so that we can enjoy them and not in the future when we may not be around to do so.

In the Gospel reading for this Sunday, John the Baptizer is in prison, perhaps fully aware that he is about to be executed. There is not much joy in his life at this moment. So he sends his disciples to Jesus to find out if this man, whom John had baptized, was going to at least carry on what he, John, had started. There is a certain sense of joy that one gets when one knows that the work they have done means something to someone. John can truthfully be worried that all the work he did in preparation for the coming of the Messiah was in vain.

Jesus tells those disciples to tell John what they saw. And Jesus also tells the people that John had been sent to prepare the way. I would hope that those words brought, if not joy, comfort to John in his last days.

The words of Isaiah for today offer that promise, perhaps not today but most definitely in a time frame with which we can relate. The Birth of Jesus, not less than two weeks away, is the promise that there will be joy in this world again.

James writes about being patient, of waiting for the moment instead of expecting it right now. But we also know that John the Baptist prepared the way and that is what we have to do as well. As we patiently await the Birth of Christ, we are preparing this world to welcome Him.

We have lit three candles to show the way. The darkness is being driven away and there is a cause and call for joy.

Thoughts for the 3rd Sunday in Advent


This morning, as I prepared for our breakfast ministry, I looked up the color of the candles in the Advent wreath. Now, I will admit that I am still learning about the various aspects of worship, especially when it comes to the seasons of the church calendar.

I discovered this morning that the colors of the candles of the Advent are purple because of ties between Advent and Lent. The color of the 3rd candle is pink to give a sense of joy to an otherwise dark and somber setting.

I also discovered that there are a variety of names for the meaning of the candles. I prefer hope, peace, joy, and love though there are other meanings as well. I used those four titles for an Advent reading that I prepared and posted back in 2005 (“The Candles of Advent”).

What names are used in the lighting of the Advent candles at your church or place of worship? Do you only do the lighting in the major service or is it part of other worship services as well?

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.

“But Where Will We Go?”


Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday in Advent, 12 December 2010 (originally posted this as 17 December 2007 but that was because I copied the first paragraph and forgot to change it). The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 35: 1 – 10, James 5: 7 – 10, and Matthew 11: 2 – 11.

Sorry that I didn’t get this posted on time but things have been a little hectic. My post for the 4th Sunday of Advent will also probably be late as I finish up the grading for the adjunct teaching position I had this semester. I may have some thoughts about Christmas posted next Saturday and definitely will have my sermon (“The False Gift”) for 26 December up as well that day.

I am also putting together my list of top ten blogs for the year. Right now, not many of my 2010 posts are in the top ten which is understandable; it was that kind of year. If you have any favorites that you would like to nominate, let me know before the 28th. I will probably work on the list while watching the Iowa – Missouri bowl game. This is the only bowl game that I have any interest in watching and it is one of the few times where I have no interest in the outcome. As a Missouri alumnus (M. Ed. ’75) I like it when Missouri wins and as an Iowa alumnus (Ph. D. ’90), I like it when Iowa wins. So this is one game where I watch one half as a Missouri alumnus and the other half as an Iowa alumnus and simply enjoy the game. 🙂

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As I was thinking about this message and reading the Scriptures for today, I began to think of a conversation between the disciples Thomas and Nathaniel Bartholomew that might have taken place sometime after Easter. Now, tradition tells us that Thomas and Nathaniel left the Galilee for the Caucasus Mountains of Georgia and India. Nathaniel would die in Georgia while Thomas would die in India.

Nathaniel and Thomas were talking about where to go now that Jesus had commissioned to go out into the world and teach everyone they meet what they themselves had been taught.

Thomas speaks first “Where do you think we should go?”

Nathaniel – “That’s sort of funny since a couple of months ago, you weren’t even sure where Jesus was going.”

“But its different now. I know where Jesus has gone and He left us with some instructions to carry out.”

“We can go anywhere we want to go. It is typical that Jesus showed us the way but then left us to continue the work.”

Why don’t we just play it safe, stay here in the Galilee, and keep on doing what we have to do.

Do you really think that the authorities will let us stay here? I think it would be best if we left this area and go somewhere else.

And so it was that two friends, bound together for three years as students of Jesus, made a decision to leave the Galilee, their home and classroom for three years and take the Gospel message out into the world, teaching all those that they met and telling all who would listen the Good News of Jesus the Christ. They left the Galilee knowing full well that it would not be an easy life and they may very well die harsh and cruel deaths. But still they went and the Word was spread.

How many times have conversations such as this imagined one actually taken place in churches around this country today? How many times has a church refused to carry out the Gospel message because of some sort of fear of the unknown?

It is only logical to be unwilling to venture beyond the walls of the church because the world is a dangerous place and can often be foreboding. After all, it is called a sanctuary after all and it does allows us to be safe when we are inside.

We look at what it might cost and say that we cannot take on a new task because it would cost too much when our expenses are already too high. Too often, our church discussion focuses on the upkeep of the building as if having the building insures that people will be there.

But if nothing is done to bring new people into the church, then one day the church will be an empty shell and people will wonder just went on inside that building. But how many times did Jesus allude to those who were exactly just that, empty shells?

There’s a part of the conversation between Nathaniel and Thomas that I didn’t record. It was that part that spoke of knowing the words of Isaiah and his prophecy of the roads straighten, the valleys filled, and the path made smooth. They, as well as the other disciples, knew that the road they walked would long and dusty, that their lives were probably in danger every minute of the day. It was not an easy world in which you were from a different town or village, let alone another country.

But they understand what Isaiah was writing in today’s Old Testament reading – they had been with Jesus and they had walked the roads. They also understood that just as John the Baptizer had prepared the way for Jesus, so too had their way been prepared by Jesus. They had been sent out before and they knew that it could be done.

It would be very easy for many people today to say that it is all fine and good but such work is for the young and eager. But to those who perhaps scoff, James offers words of encouragement, pointing out the need to stay the course, as it were.

So the words of today, which all speak of the paths that we walk, ask us “where shall we go?” And the answer may be that we should just go outside the walls of the church. We are not called to go to far away and strange lands but we are called to leave the sanctuary that we have built for the sanctuary that God has provided. We will go where we are needed and we will know where we are needed when we leave the safety of the present for the certainty of a future in Christ.

What Comes Next


This is a sermon that I gave for the 3rd Sunday in Advent on December 12, 2004 at Tompkins Corners United Methodist Church (Putnam Valley, NY). (First published on 12 April 2008).

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I think you would all agree that there is something frustrating about getting a handle on a concept or a thought only to have a new concept or thought come along to replace it. And the area of church growth and how to go about it is no exception. The dominant model for church growth has been politely called the "megachurch" model and Willow Creek Church in suburban Chicago has been its flagship.

But now a new model for church growth is emerging and it is known, coincidentally, as the emerging church matrix. The proposed goal of many in this movement is to provide an alternative to the "seeker-driven, big church" model that blankets the evangelical countryside like kudzu on a southern hillside. For those of you who have never encountered this ubiquitous southern weed, kudzu grows anywhere and everywhere under almost any kind of condition. It has been said that if you parked your car on the roadside next to a hill where kudzu was growing, it would be enveloped by the kudzu within twenty-four hours.

If "seeker services" were considered contemporary worship and looked more like a Christian version of a rock concert, then emerging church worship could be considered more like a Christian version of Starbucks with its small spaces, comfortable seating (preferably couches) and interactivity. The things that have been stripped from the contemporary worship services of the seeker service (the cross, candles, bread and win, altars) are very much a part of the scene in this new style of worship. In addition, just as in the contemporary worship service, there is a heavy emphasis on the modern technology.

What I found most interesting is the use of words such as post-conservative and post-liberal. There seems to be a discussion of the relevance of the church in a world that has been divided by the church and its adherents, both liberal and conservative. This discussion focuses on using the methods of today in conjunction with the traditions of the past to bring about a more relevant relationship with God. But for all its new style and return of old traditions, the emerging church model will fail as an alternative if it does little more that offer a newer, more hip version of the current culture. (Adapted from "The Emergent Matrix" by Scott Bader-Saye, Christian Century, November 30, 2004)

As I read about the emerging church, and knowing what the Gospel message for today was, I could not help but think of John the Baptist sitting in his jail cell and wondering what was going on outside the walls of the prison.

John was in prison because he had angered Herod. Isolated from the world outside his cell, John had no idea what was going on. Yet he was hearing rumors, rumors that disturbed him. The Coming One that he had baptized was now beginning to proclaim His ministry to the world. In his mind and knowing that he had called for a major revival in the world, John was certain that the smiting of the evildoers would soon commence. Soon God’s judgement would be pronounced in no uncertain terms. But the rumors said this wasn’t true. Jesus was saying things like "See, I send you out like sheep in the midst of wolves . . . They will hand you over to councils . . . and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me. When they persecute you in one town, flee to the next . . . Do not fear those who kill the body . . . Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet no one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father" (Matthew 10: 16 – 31, passim)

And yet, the sparrows do fall. John was soon to be among them. As he hears of Jesus’ ministry, he begins to ask himself if Jesus really is the Messiah. Was Jesus going to prove that everything John did was wrong? So he asks his friend and his cousin, "Are you the One? Or do we look for another?"

Jesus tells John’s disciples, sent to query Jesus about what is going on, to tell John what they see and what they hear, how the blind now see and lame walk, how lepers have been cleansed and the deaf regain their hearing. Tell John, Jesus says, how the dead have been raised and the poor have received good news. (From "Cellmates" by Frederick Niedner, Christian Century, 30 November 2004) Then, after they leave, Jesus tells the crowds that John’s mission to prepare the way has been accomplished.

What Jesus does not tell John’s disciples is the story of His own time in the wilderness, that time when a decision was made about how the new kingdom would be built and what kind of messiah Jesus would be. Jesus could have opened the prisons where the hungry were starving; Jesus could have overthrown the tyrants that rule the nations of the world; Jesus could have been the king of all the earth. But would any of that really been the promise of God to bring peace to this earth?

When Jesus left the wilderness and came to the River Jordan to be baptized by John the decision had been made. The stones that could have been bread remained stones. The tyrants of the world still ruled and physical death was still a part of the people’s daily life. But someone was going to have to pay for all of this that makes life so cheap. And Jesus would be the one to pay it. He would go to the cross, He would be like a sheep among wolves. And He would die, just as John would die before Him.

But in his death, we would find life. John had prepared the way for Jesus though not in the manner that perhaps John thought it would be done. What we know from Matthew’s Gospel is that Jesus leads us deeper into the wilderness, deeper into a land that at times is void of hope and promise.

But it is only void of hope and promise if we are there because we are not with Jesus. If we are there because we have followed Jesus, we know that the land will grow again, that hope will return. We hear the words of the prophet Isaiah telling us that God will come and we will be saved. We hear Isaiah’s words telling us that the blind shall see again and the deaf will once again hear. We will see the lame walk again and those who cannot speak pronounce the words of God themselves. In the wilderness will be a path, a straight path that is only for those who have followed Jesus.

We are at a time when the church is struggling. You cannot help but think that there is a struggle when you read and hear about models of church growth that rely more on hype and marketing than an understanding of the Gospel. Maybe the emerging church matrix, with its attempts to bring the old ways back will do that; I do not know. What I do know is that we hear the words of James, telling us to be patient, because we know the time of revival is near.

But we have to ask, as the title of this sermon suggests, "what comes next?" How do we find patience in a world that demands immediacy? How do we find hope in a world that seems to have forgotten there is such a word?

In the sixties young people sat at lunch counters in North Carolina, only to be arrested. Other young people rode buses into the Deep South, only to be beaten and abused by angry crowds. Young children marched in Birmingham, Alabama, only to have dogs set upon them. Not one of them probably ever felt they were ready to take on the world and they all probably had some degree of fear in their souls. And they probably knew the words of Christ who told them this would be the reward they would gain for following Him.

Yes, they were all afraid, as have been the countless others before them who stood up for justice, witnessed for peace or gave their lives for freedom. But each one had heard the call, the voice inside them that said, "There’s a job for you to do." Let the Pharaohs, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the scribes of today be warned. New calls are being heard this day and they are calls for a new vision of this world.

We probably already know what we need to do but, like Moses when God called him to go see the Pharaoh holding the Israelites in captivity, we feel inadequate and overwhelmed by our weaknesses and fears. But, in the end, that is okay because we don’t have to be ready. We don’t have to have immense strength or power, we just have to hear God calling out to us, saying, "I have a job for you to do." (Adapted from The Soul of Politics by Jim Wallis)

We come to the table this day because we know that Jesus experienced those same fears. We come to the table this day because we know that Jesus was certain that he was too weak to carry out the task. We come to this table, as we will confess in a few moments, knowing that it is only because of God’s grace that we can. What comes next? It is for us to realize that, just as Jesus turned his soul over to God, so should we. As we follow Jesus deeper and deeper into the wilderness, we see life clearer and more certain.

“What Are We Waiting For?”


This was the message I gave at Neon UMC (Neon, KY) for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, 13 December 1998.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 35: 1 -  10, James 5: 7 – 10, and Matthew 11: 2 – 11.

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When I read the scriptures for this week, I could not help but think of the time I spent in Missouri and Iowa working on my undergraduate and doctoral degrees. The area around Kirksville is essentially farmland and as you drive from the Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa to Iowa City all you see is acres and acres of corn. So I was learning about chemistry and science education, I was also learning a lot about farming and the people who are farmers.

What I did learn was that farming is a job of patience; waiting for events that one cannot control. Many times, it is waiting for the rains to come to nourish the crops, not unlike the first part of today’s reading from Isaiah.

We are not by nature patient; we hate waiting. At this time of the year, it seems like we cannot wait for Christmas to get here so that we can find out what presents we have received.

The idea of today’s scriptures is about waiting. In his letter, James wrote

Be patient, then brothers, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!

These are words of patience and firmness. But in this passage, you can almost hear the grumbling of the people crying “When?”

This was a time when Christians were enduring much suffering and retribution for their beliefs. As the believers looked around, they say the rich and powerful seemingly enjoying life while they, the believers, were being punished. To the believers then, the only hope was in Jesus’ Second Coming. But James, in James 5: 1 – 6, had already made it clear what would happen if one stayed with the life directed towards riches and self-indulgence.

Now, listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fatten yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you. (James 5: 1 – 6)

It is times like this that we are the most vulnerable, when we are at our weakest. John the Baptist’s disciples came to Jesus asking “Are you the one who was to come or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11: 4)

John the Baptist is undoubtedly one of the most powerful characters in all of Scripture. He came to Israel as a prophet, condemning the sin and corruption of the nation and calling Israel to repent and prepare for the coming of the Messiah. When Jesus came to him, John knew that he had seen the Messiah.

Yet for all the truth of his words and action, John was in prison, perhaps somewhere east of the Dead Sea. Jail in itself is a lonely experience but it must have been very lonely for John at this moment. No doubt the jailers had put John in a cell by himself and sitting there in his cell, John must have had doubts about not only his work but whether the Messiah was to come. It is often a question that we ourselves ask, “How can I be here, suffering when my enemies are living in comfort and enjoying the good life?”

But Jesus told John’s disciples to look around them. What did they see? Did they not see the miracles that Isaiah had prophesied about? Did they not see the healing that had taken place?

The challenge that Jesus made to John’s disciples then applies to us today. In our impatience, do we miss the signs of God’s presence in our lives? We have to realize that

God presents himself to us little by little. The whole story of salvation is the story of God who comes.

It is always he who comes, even if he had not yet come in his fullness. But there is indeed one unique moment in his coming; the others were only preparations and announcement.

The hour of his coming is the Incarnation.

The Incarnation brings the world his presence. It is a presence so complete that it overshadows every presence before it.

God is made human in Christ. God makes himself present to us with such a special presence, such an obvious presence, as to overthrow all the complicated calculations made about him in the past.

“The invisible, intangible God has made himself visible and tangible in Christ.”

If Jesus is truly God, everything is clear; if I cannot believe this, everything darkens again. (From The God Who Comes by Carlo Carretto)

The passage in Isaiah this morning is one of hope,

“say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” (Isaiah 35: 4)

holiness,

The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow. (Isaiah 35: 8)

and the redeemed

And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way; wicked fools will not go about on it. (Isaiah 35: 9)

Isaiah spoke of the rain that brought life back to a parched dessert land. Jesus spoke of the water that brings eternal life.

Jesus came to a town in Samaria one day. While his disciples were doing some tasks, he sat at the well when a woman came there. The woman at the well was a Samaritan, not welcome in the social life of her town. That is why she came to the well at the time of day that she did; it enabled her to get her water without having to deal with the other people.

Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)

The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink.” (For Samaritans do not associate with Samaritans.)

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and his herds?”

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4: 7 –14)

The gift of everlasting water is part of the gift that God gives us during Advent. No longer should we wonder; no longer do we have to wait. If we listen carefully we can hear Jesus asking each of us if we have seen the signs,

As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written:

“’I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’

No longer can we stand on the sideline waiting. When people wonder if anyone cares about me or if it matters what I do in this world, we know that the answer, according to Advent, is a resounding “Yes, it matters!” God’s son came to give our life and meaning and hope to all who would trust in him. As we go out into the world this week, as we prepare for the coming of the Lord, we know that we no longer have to wait for Him.


Cast Aside the Old


Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, 13 December 2009. The scriptures for this Sunday are Zephaniah 3: 14 – 20, Philippians 4: 4 – 7, and Luke 3: 7 – 18.

I was delayed in getting them posted this week.

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And John the Baptizer called those who had come to watch the baptisms that he was performing a “brood of vipers.” He asked them who had warned them to flee the coming wrath. There haven’t been too many days when I did not feel the same about many of today’s sectarian leaders, those who proclaim themselves to be bearers of God’s truth but whose only interest is in the preservation of their own comfort and power.

And while I may not have thought so in the past, I have come to look at many in the secular world with the same contempt that the Baptizer had held for the religious leaders of his day.

Among the various sites that I follow is a decidedly liberal web site. And how it treats the idea of religion is very interesting. For whatever reason, it treats religion with a certain degree of contempt and ridicule, just as a similar conservative web site would probably treat atheism. And quite frankly, many of my comments on the liberal web site are not well received because I make it quite clear that I am a Christian. And, while I have not posted much to conservative sites, many conservatives have posted their comments on my blog which bring the same degree of ridicule to my statement about being a chemist. It is as if in today’s society that you can be a Christian but you cannot be a scientist or you can be a scientist but not a Christian.

But those who make either of those claims have what I call an appalling lack of knowledge about the other side. And as long as your view is limited, it will be very difficult for progress to be made. Progress can be very limited if one is not open to other ideas or one remains closed to the possibility of new ideas.

I listened to a conversation this past week on National Public Radio that, while centering on Islam, had implications for all religion. One caller to the show identified themselves as a Mormon and commented on the fact that people see Mormonism in light of polygamy, especially the version espoused by the more fundamentalist believers. This person said that the public’s view of religion was based on the extreme edges of the religion.

During the discussion that followed, one of the individuals on the show spoke of a noted Islamic theologian who said that an interpretation of the Qur’an tells you more about the person giving the interpretation than it does about the verse being interpreted.

I am not arguing for a middle of the road approach, for I believe as Jim Hightower has said, the only thing in the middle of the road are yellow lines and dead armadillos. We cannot say the world is full of evil and then turn around and fight it with evil.

When there are people who are hungry, when there are people who are sick, when there are people who are naked or without housing, you do not shut the door on them because of their race, their culture, their belief, or their lifestyle. Yet that is what we are doing today. When you tell people that belief in God is hopeless or futile but you give them nothing to believe in, they will turn away.

The words Paul to the Philippians are very difficult to hear when it seems that those that have will keep what they have and take more from those who have nothing; it is very difficult to hear words of optimism when greed is valued more than thrift.

The words of Zephaniah echo loud and strong today. He spoke of a new age, of a time when the lame and the outcast will be saved and the shame that they felt in a society that ignored them would be turned into praise. Israel at that time was faced with an uncertain future, a future that the people have brought upon themselves by their indifference and self-centeredness. Zephaniah announces that they must change their ways or the uncertainty of the future becomes assured doom.

I cannot help but think that so many of those who proclaim themselves to be the representatives of God on hear, be they Christian, Jew, or Muslim, are similar in nature to those whom John the Baptizer criticized two thousand years ago. And to some extent, the secular authorities of today are no different from the Roman authorities of that time either. Both power groups were only interested in preserving and expanding their power; they worked with each other for mutual growth. But such growth could only come at the expense of the people.

Are we not in the same situation today? Are we not a society so self-centered that we are unable to see the other view; to think beyond and outside the box in which we live? The religious authorities of John the Baptizer’s day are accused by John of being vipers because of how they have treated the people.

I will not let the people off by blaming secular and sectarian authorities. They hold the positions that they hold because the people have let them. We have failed to be the people we should be. Each of the prophets of the Old Testament did not lay the blame at the feet of the authorities but at the feet of the people. And that is so very true today.

The people would rather spend their time listening to reports of the failing of sport super stars or budding Hollywood starlets then spend time thinking about what it will take to save this planet from its destruction by the inhabitants. I heard an interesting little tidbit of information last week; Seattle, WA, is a leading center for recycling. As such, you would think it has a very “green” attitude. And perhaps it does. But at the same time that the people of Seattle are recycling their newsprint, glass, and aluminum, the level of auto emissions has risen. You cannot expect to save the planet by recycling aluminum while having your SUV sitting in the driveway idling for ten minutes. (But don’t stop recycling; just cut down the idling).

John the Baptizer was very clear about the changes that were to come to Israel two thousand years ago. He called for those who came to be baptized to repent of their past and begin a new life. He called for the tax collectors to collect only what was required; he called up other soldiers to treat the citizens fairly. He chastised those whose words were opposite their actions. He spoke of the coming of Christ, clearing away the trash and garbage that was cluttering up and destroying society.

But change can be a fearful thing and those who hold on to power use fear as their primary means of keeping that power. Fear echoes throughout our religious and scientific discussion. A religious fundamentalist will not allow you to question their beliefs because they are afraid of the consequences. A sectarian fundamentalist may be willing to let you question their beliefs but that is because they do not have any beliefs; on the other hand, they have no vision for tomorrow because their vision is totally locked up in the present. It is their own insecurity that prevents them from seeing the hope that is now and has been offered throughout the ages by God.

I also discovered that others hold the idea that I have stated before, that those who are insecure in their own beliefs fight strongest to prevent a questioning of their belief. Dan Dick wrote the following in one of his posts,

The weaker the faith, the stronger the negative passion.  People who feel assurance in their beliefs are rarely threatened by someone who disagrees with them.  I find this to be especially true about ecumenical and interfaith engagement.  When Christians are strong and secure in their beliefs, they joyfully and gladly engage with people of other beliefs and faiths.  The weaker the personal conviction, the more hostility, distrust, disrespect, fear, and judgement define the relationship.  Same goes with secular phenomena as well.  Evangelicals got all up in arms about Harry Potter swaying the weak and spiritually immature.  However, it seems that this was little more than projection — raising the alarm from their own weak faith.  Those who were strong in their faith and intellectually rigorous saw the stories for what they are — stories.  Only those who believe that the devil is as strong as, or stronger than, God had anything to fear.  Doubt is not the antithesis of faith; fear is.  Where people scream loudest against opponents, it is fear that motivates them, not faith. (From “Pushing Buttons”)

I would add to those comments that it is not just faith, but faith and reason that will stand up to fear. It is the confidence that Paul writes of his letter to the Philippians for today; it is the confidence that comes from the Peace of Christ which surpasses all understanding.

Jesus never said that following Him would be easier; in fact, He said it would be difficult. And perhaps the most difficult thing is that each individual must change. The call from John the Baptizer echoes throughout the ages, to repent and begin anew, to wash away the present and prepare for a new life. It is a new life that begins when you cast aside the ways of the past, secular and sectarian, and begin anew in Christ.

“What Did You Learn in Kindergarten?”


Here are the thoughts that I presented at Tompkins Corners UMC on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, 14 December 2003. The scriptures for this Sunday are Zephaniah 3: 14 – 20, Philippians 4: 4 – 7, and Luke 3: 7 – 18.

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Over the course of our journey there are some things that we just naturally learn. For example, we know

Tribbles hate Klingons and Klingons hate tribbles;

When going out into the Universe, remember to boldly go where no man has gone before;

There is no such thing as a Vulcan Death Grip;

Enemies may be invisible, like Romulans they can be cloaked; and,

Always have your phaser set on stun. (Provided in an e-mail by Keith Shikowitz – Lt. (j.g.), USS Relentless – 9 December 2003)

These sayings come from a poster entitled "All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Star Trek." This came out shortly after a book by Robert Fulghum entitled "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten." Reverend Fulghum is a Episcopal priest out in Seattle, Washington, and he put together in this little book a collection of writings about life and living. It became a national best seller and he has gone on to write a number of other books about many things. In this premier book he wrote,

ALL I REALLY NEED TO KNOW about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate-school mountain, but there in the sand pile at Sunday School. These are the things I learned:

Share everything.

Play fair.

Don’t hit people.

Put things back where you found them.

Clean up your own mess.

Don’t take things that aren’t yours.

Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.

Wash your hands before you eat.

Flush.

Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.

Live a balanced life – learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.

Take a nap every afternoon.

When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.

Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Styrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.

Goldfish and hamsters and white mice and even the little seed in the Styrofoam cup — they all die. So do we.

And remember the Dick-and-Jane books and the first word you learned – the biggest word of all – LOOK.

Reverend Fulghum went on to see how the behavior of everyone in the world and all the basic tenets of life could be seen through those brief statements. ("All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten", Robert Fulghum, Villard Books, 1989)

I have two reasons for bringing up the "rules of life." First, there were a number of articles that I read this past week that pointed out that what we do and how we do things. Second, the people responded to John’s call for repentance with the question, "What should we do?"

Thomas Walters, a Catholic religious educator, reported that a Catholic child spends about 390 hours in parish religious education, from kindergarten through grade 12. Not a bad amount of time perhaps but barely significant when compared with the 11,000 hours the same student will spend in public school education or the estimated 15,000 hours the child will spend watching television. It is not the classroom where a student’s faith will be taught but elsewhere in the student’s life.

As to underscore that very point, Jerome Berryman tells the story about a time when he was a theologian in residence at a Quaker church in Portland, Oregon, when a university student came into the service one Sunday. The student, with the long hair and tattered paints of that time, could not find a place to sit in the sanctuary so he sat down in the aisle. A Quaker with white hair and wearing a three-piece suit then came and sat down beside the young student. Berryman reported that this single episode was so impressive that it changed the student’s life. (From Christian Century, December 13, 2003)

"And the crowds asked him, ‘What then should we do?" (Luke 3: 10) The people heard John’s call for repentance and wondered what they should do, not so much perhaps to prepare for the coming of the Messiah that John was prophesying but to save their own souls.

John’s response to the people was straightforward, "Give to the poor; clothe the naked; take no more than you are owed." In other words, one should treat people fairly. We can see from the reading of today’s Gospel that there was a substantial change in the attitudes of the people who came that day to hear John preach.

At the beginning of the passage, the people were merely going through the motions and their actions did not truly represent their inward attitude. John’s response to them was to call them vipers and to point out that simply by having connections through birth to Abraham and Moses was no guarantee of salvation. The only true salvation involved repentance and a change of heart.

The same is said about the Old Testament reading for today. It is hard to see how a prophecy of doom can be the foretelling of good tidings but that is what Zephaniah is. The opening passages of this little known book of the Bible tell of the impending doom of the Israelite nation, a doom caused by the people’s own actions. They had scorned God’s laws, they worshipped false gods and sinned without remorse. Zephaniah is bringing to them the announcement that they must change their ways or else.

But the words that we heard today are words of hope, promises of protection and promises for the future of those who know God truly. We read that God was going to make all things right; that their enemies would be removed and all those disenfranchised would be restored. And these promises are not made to the nation but to each individual.

I do not necessarily hold to the view of some more fundamental preachers that these are the days preceding the Second Coming of Christ. I do not believe that we can say when that will be since Christ Himself did not know that time or place. I also do not think that there will be any more prophets.

There were prophets in the Old Testament and they were needed in order to announce the coming of Christ. John the Baptizer would also be considered a prophet because he stood there in the wilderness outside Jerusalem calling for all to repent and be saved. He knew that there was one yet to come and that the time of that coming was near.

But there are no more prophets; there is, in my view, no one that can say that the Second Coming of the Lord is near. But that is not to say that we should not be doing things. The people who heard John’s words and believed that he spoke the truth asked what it was they should do.

Jesus told those who saw Him following His resurrection that the signs of His presence were all around them. And when asked, Jesus pointed out the sick, the needy, the hungry, the naked, the oppressed, the lonely and all those society would rather forget. Our preparation for Christ’s coming, be it His birth or His Second Coming, is found in how we treat other people.

In writing to the people of Philippi, Paul challenges them to not worry but rather to pray to God in thanks. He is doing so because they have been spending their time fighting amongst themselves over matters that we do not know about. IN the verses that preceded the ones we read today we read,

I implore Euodia and I implore Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. And I urge you also, true companion, help these women who labored with me in the gospel, with Clement, also, and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the Book of Life. (Philippians 4: 1)

Euodia and Syntyche were women of the Philippian community who had fallen into some disagreement that was affecting the whole church. Nothing other than what is written by Paul is known about the two women or their disagreement. Paul does not take sides in the issue but rather implores the two to seek reconciliation. For otherwise, the church would be torn apart.

It would be hard to imagine what the actual disagreement was about. But whatever the disagreement was, it was enough to threaten the church and Paul is doing his best to get the parties involved to resolve this conflict. It must have been sufficient to cause grief not just for the two individuals but for the whole church as well, because that is why Paul speaks of rejoicing.

It is not to cover up the disagreement but to reinforce the notion that the church’s existence is so that each member can renew his or her relationship with God. Paul is pointing out that in times of strife and stress, it is most important that we focus on that relationship. It is part of the doom that Zephaniah spoke of because the people had forgotten their relationship with God.

John too is speaking of the relationship the people have with God and the need to renew that relationship. As we prepare for the coming of Christ through his birth, we are reminded of the relationship that was established that last night in Jerusalem.

When he gathered with the disciples in the Upper Room that night before He was crucified, Jesus reestablished the relationship of each person with God. Our partaking of communion today does the same. In this season of Advent, you will be called to do many things, some you may not want to do and some perhaps with persons whom you would rather not be with. It is in those times and those situations that you need to remember what you have been taught, as the disciples were, by the example of Jesus.

It isn’t what you learned in kindergarten that counts the most. It is what Christ has taught you and how well you live those lessons that will determine the preparation for this season of Advent.