“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.

“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.


How Do We Get There?


Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday in Advent.  I am preaching at Dover UMC in Dover Plains, NY this weekend.  (I found out that I had posted this particular message twice so, obviously, I deleted the other one.  Also, as it happened, I didn’t make it to Dover on this particular Sunday; there was a rather bad snowstorm the night before and we cancelled the services.

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With the words of Isaiah for today (1) and what Jesus said about John the Baptist in today’s Gospel reading (2), I could not help but think about the first time I came to preach at Dover.

Like many computer/Internet savvy users, I pulled up one of the map and direction websites and put in the address for the church. The advantage for the modern day circuit rider is that you can get a map with directions from anywhere to everywhere. The disadvantage is that the way that is determined the best way may not always be the best; it may be the most direct but it is likely to be a route that takes you over hills and through the woods. What many computer map systems do not have is a sense of what is actually there. Because I have come back to this church on a number of other occasions, I have come up with a route that gets me here quickly and safely.

The one thing about finding your way to someplace new is that you have to be able to read a map and you have to be able to determine if the information that you have been given is correct. There have been a number of occasions when the information given does not match the actual situation or you have to modify the directions because your knowledge of the roads tells you to find another direction.

There are times, of course, when you just want to follow your own thoughts about where a road might take you. When I lived in Kansas a number of years ago, I noticed something slightly odd or perhaps just quirky about the U. S. highways in the area where I lived. In the southeast corner of Kansas is the small town of Oswego. If you take U. S. Highway 59 south out of Oswego, you eventually run into U. S. Highway 60. Driving eastward on U. S. 60 will get you to U. S. Highway 61. If you are careful, you will eventually drive on U. S. Highways 62, 63, 64, 65, 66, and 67. For reasons known only to the highway builders, U. S. Highway 68 runs through Ohio. But from Highway 67, you can get to U. S. Highway 70 which will take you to U. S. Highway 69. And when all is said and done, you are in Columbus, KS and 16 miles from where you started.

Based on this little journey through Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Arkansas, I thought it might be possible to go up to Maine and follow Highway 1 to where it intersected Highway 2 and continue all the way across the country. It turns out that you cannot do that because the number of the highways was not done in such a logical manner. What this little trip through the Ozarks does show is that you can take a journey and end up where you started.

Our lives are sometimes like that. We go through life headed in a particular direction because we think it is the right direction to take and we make the changes when it is appropriate but when the time comes to evaluate what we have done and where we have been, we find that we are where we started and no better off. It is at such times as these that we wonder where we are going to find any meaning to life and how we are ever going to find our way in this world.

It is human nature to seek meaning in life and we desperately want to know that what we do has meaning. Many times, we simply want someone to point out where to go or give us the right direction in which to head. But other times, we simply want someone to get us where we need to be or give us the things that we seem to be lacking.

In one sense, the question that John the Baptist had his disciples ask Jesus is a question that we often ask ourselves. Is Jesus the One who has come or is there someone else for whom we should wait?

John the Baptist is in prison for having questioned the legitimacy of King Herod’s marriage to his brother’s widow. The Baptist knows that his life is about to end and his work is over; all he wants to know is whether or not all the work that he had done was in vain. He sends his disciples to Jesus and has them ask if Jesus is the One who is to come. Is Jesus the One whom John the Baptist prepared the people for? Even though Jesus is his cousin, John is not certain if what he has done means anything to the people.

Jesus replies by asking the disciples what they see. Do they not see the lame walking, the deaf hearing, the blind seeing, the sick healed, and the oppressed rejoicing with the hearing of the Good News? The signs tell them that Jesus is the Messiah and John’s work has not been in vain.

But what does this mean for us? How can we, in the chaos of today’s world, see the signs that tell us Jesus has come or that what we have done has any meaning? Too many people want the church today to give them the answers; too many people want the church to ease the pain of living in this world. They do not want the church to tell them that their work and their lives have been in vain.

And too many churches today do exactly that; they give the people what the people want to hear. They do not give them the truth. Did not Jesus ask the people who were following him if John the Baptist was wearing colorful robes? Did not Jesus point out that John the Baptist came as he was and what he said was, if you will, the plain and unvarnished truth? The truth is often a very hard topic for the church to say and for the people to hear.

Last week, there were two shootings in Colorado. Some said that the killing of the people was part of God’s plan and nothing anyone did would have stopped the killing. I have a hard time with that view of the world because it means there is no hope in this world. It means that you walk a path through life but it is a path that goes nowhere and when the path ends, it ends. What Jesus offered was hope, not despair and I don’t think that God would allow people to die just to fulfill a plan.

There were others who said that these killings were indicative of how society is. Those who died in the school in Arvada or in the church in Colorado Springs died because of society’s indifference to the problems of the world. But, placing the blame on society still does not give us a reason or a solution. If society is partially to blame for the Colorado killings, it is because it has turned a deaf ear to the cries of the young man.

And if society did not hear the young man’s cries, it is because the church has not done its job. Despite what others may say, the church is neither the master nor the servant of the state; it is the conscience of the state. (3) The church is called today to lead those who hear the cries of the lost and the forgotten, not be among those who ignore the cries.

But in too many ways, the church does forget or ignore the cries. There are pastors today who will tell you that it is entirely proper and right for you to seek riches in this world. God has blessed you and you have the right to those blessings here and now. All you have to do is plant the seed and let the seed grow. The more you plant, the greater will be your reward. This is what is known as the prosperity gospel. It does not matter whether you have the money or not; you can always use your credit cards. But it seems to me that the only ones who are being rewarded are the preachers who ask you to send them your money and they are not too happy when you challenge them about their finances.

Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa has asked six prosperity gospel ministers to answer some questions about the money they receive and their clearly extravagant lifestyles. Two of the six have answered his questions; two of the six are thinking about answering the questions. The other two are refusing to do so, saying that to do so would be a violation of the separation of church and state.

There should be no questions whatsoever about one’s ministry. New Testament Christianity is humble, selfless, and authentic. Those who carry the truth don’t do so for selfish gain or to meet an emotional need for attention. We can only hope that God will help us root out the false apostles and false teachers who are making the American church sick with their human-centered, money-focused heresies. (4)

Not all churches preach the prosperity gospel. They just don’t preach the gospel at all. All you hear in so many churches today is what the people want to hear, not what they need to hear. Again, we hear Jesus rebuking the people who wanted John the Baptist to give it to them easy all over again. And Jesus’ rebuke to the people is a reminder that what He will ask of them is far harder and more demanding than anything John every asked.

It is one thing to have modern music in church today; it is an entirely different thing to take away the meaning of the music. It is one thing to put the Gospel into the vernacular or patois of today’s society; it is another thing entirely to take the Gospel out of the service. It is one thing to expect that we should live well or not lose what we have. It is another thing to say that what we have is ours and ours alone or that we will not share what we have with others who do not have anything. It is one thing to say that we have what God gave us and we do not have to give what we have to others.

God created the world before He created the church. The church is a part of the world but it has moved away from the world as people have sought easy answers. The church has moved away from being a church that faces conflict and suffers persecution, killings, and bombings to one that avoids conflicts and causes persecution. The church has moved from seeing Jesus as liberator to seeing Jesus as a servant of the church.

It is no wonder why people do not turn to the church in moments of crisis or turmoil; they see the church as the reason for the crisis or turmoil.

If we are to find our way again; if we are to get back on the “right” track, we have to make some radical changes in our lives. And we need to be reminded that John the Baptist’s call for repentance is a call for change. Repentance does not simply mean that we say we are sorry for what we have done; it means that we will seek to change and become a new person.

Instead of wrapping an impenetrable barrier around our hearts while we wrap the presents that we will place under the Christmas tree this year, we need to unwrap our hearts and let the Love of Christ come into our lives. Instead of thinking about December 26th as the day after Christmas and the day we return the unwanted gifts, we should begin to think about how we can take the Love of Christ given to us on Christmas Day and give it to others each day after Christmas.

The change may not come that easily but we are comforted by the words of James today who told us to be patient. (5) It is easy for us to do this because we have seen what Jesus can do; we know what we must do.

Christmas has become that time when we think we have to go to Bethlehem. But because of the demands that society places on us, we don’t think that we can get there. We ask how we can get there when everything around us tells us that we can’t get there. But there is no longer a place in our journey; it is a time. And that time is now. How do we get there? We open our hearts and let Jesus come in.

(1) Isaiah 35: 1 – 10

(2) Matthew 11: 2 – 11

(3) Martin Luther King, Jr. – in “A Real ‘Values’ Agenda” by Jim Wallis, Sojourners, January 2008

(4) “The Deadly Virus of Christianity”, http://www.charismamag.com/fireinmybones/Columns/show.php

(5) James 5: 7 – 10