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!)

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?

Finding the Hope


Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday in Advent.  The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 61: 1 – 4, 8 – 11; 1 Thessalonians 5: 15 – 24; and John 1: 6 – 8, 19 – 28.

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When I first looked at the readings for this Sunday (Isaiah 61: 1 – 4, 8 – 11; 1 Thessalonians 5: 15 – 24; and John 1: 6 – 8, 19 – 28) and especially at the passages from Isaiah, I saw words of despair and gloom. Perhaps that was because those have been the dominant words and thoughts in my life these past months. But in my second reading of the Scriptures (and we all know how important it is to read any passage at least twice) I found a different take on the words.

When you re-read Paul’s words to the Thessalonians, you perhaps get a sense that while there may have been gloom in their minds, there was also a faint glimmer of hope. And it is that faint glimmer of hope that one needs to focus on.

Now Isaiah says, in verses 5 – 7, which are not part of the Old Testament reading for today, that the people of Israel will hire outsiders to herd their flocks and bring in foreigners to work in the fields (verse 5). Isaiah also proclaims that the people of Israel will feast on the bounty of other nations (verse 6).

It is hard to hear Isaiah’s promise of hope contained in verses 1 – 4 and 8 – 11 when you look at verses 5 – 7. That’s because we have already outsourced many of our jobs and we quite willingly let foreign workers work in our fields. We have mostly definitely feasted on the bounty of other nations and on the bounty of this world, to the point that we have become fat, lazy, and self-centered.

Now, I am not arguing against abolishing the various free trade agreements that are so much a part of the global economy. Nor am I arguing for the banning of immigration into this country or a ban on the hiring of undocumented workers. We, as a society and a country, have allowed that to happen because we want the benefits of that cheap labor. We want cheap goods; we will go to any length to keep the costs of our goods low. We do not care about the quality of working conditions in factories in the third world nor do we care about the conditions immigrant workers (legal or otherwise) have to endure while working in some of the worst jobs in this country. All we care about is that we get our goods at the lowest possible price.

It is our unwillingness to demand quality and to pay the price for quality that underlies the economic crisis we are facing right now. We have grown used to cheap oil and we see the only solution in more oil, not other solutions. We have grown use to bountiful harvests, aided by countless pesticides and herbicides, and we care little about what this does to the food or the workers that handle the food.

We certainly do not echo Paul’s words of sharing and working together. Our present leaders will gladly give money to big business without regard for how it is spent; but let the discussion turn to the workers for those companies and they are either cast out into the street without proper remuneration or they are told that they need to sacrifice. We have endured eight years of the rich getting richer while the poor keep getting poorer and we are told by our leaders that we need to keep doing that. I didn’t hear our leaders in Congress or the present administration tell the CEO’s of the Big Three Auto makers to take a pay cut while telling the workers that they had to do so.

My friends, as William Shakespeare might have written, “The fault lies within us.” We are like the Pharisees who come to John the Baptizer seeking a messiah who would lead them out of the wilderness. But those who came to the Baptizer were seeking a messiah for the present time, a political leader who would let them keep their power and their glory. This encounter between the Baptizer and the Pharisees echoes our own blindness, our own willingness to see in many a messiah who will lift us out of our despair but keep the status quo. We seek someone who will lead us as we continue to walk the same paths that lead us into this wilderness of darkness and despair.

The leaders back then were hardly prepared for the Baptizer’s words and we know that later they would not want to hear Jesus’ words either. I am not sure, in light of what is going on, that we are prepared to hear the words of Jesus this year either. We are still a society focused on the now, the present; we are not prepared to deal with tomorrow. If you will, we stand on the shores of a river and want to cross the river at that point in the water. But the point in the water where we focus our efforts moves before we get to it and we are swept aside by the force of the river’s current. Our focus needs to be on the other side of the river and how to cross the river, not how to get through the river.

I have two resources that I turn to when I need to refresh my thoughts. One is Faith in a Secular Age by Colin Williams; it was given to me by Marvin Fortel, my pastor when I was a sophomore in college. I have the pages of this book clipped together because, of constant use over the past forty years, it has fallen apart. The other book is A Guide to Prayer by Rueben P. Job and Norman Shawchuck; this was given to me by John Praetorius, my pastor when I began lay speaking. It hasn’t fallen apart but its pages are dog-eared and it shows the signs of use and age.

And from that second book I found this passage for the 3rd Sunday of Advent.

The contemplation of God is not effected by sight and hearing, nor is it comprehended by any of the customary perceptions of the mind. For no eye has seen, and no ear has heard, nor does it belong to those things which usually enter into the heart. One who would approach the knowledge of things sublime must first purify one’s manner of life from all sensual and irrational emotion. That person must wash from his or her understanding every opinion derived from some preconception and withdraw from customary intercourse with companions, that is, with sense perceptions, which are, as it were, wedded to our nature as its companion. When so purified, then one assaults the mountain.

The knowledge of God is a mountain steep indeed and difficult to climb — the majority of people scarcely reach its base. If one were a Moses, he would ascend higher and hear the sound of trumpets which, as the text of the history says, becomes louder as one advances. For the preaching of the divine nature is truly a trumpet blast, which strikes the hearing, being already loud at the beginning but becoming yet louder at the end. (From Gregory of Nyssa)

We cannot see God in the darkness if we are afraid of the darkness; we cannot see God in the world if we see the world as it is. Our despair grows out of our fear of the darkness. And we may feel abandoned by God because we let the darkness overcome and surround us. Those who preach or speak to our fears cannot lead us out of this darkness but only take us further into it. The Baptizer tells us that there is someone coming who will lead us out of the darkness but only if we are prepared to make the changes in our lives. And the change that must occur is a change in our own lives, in our own soul.

From A Guide to Prayer, we read

God is no longer the Friend I meet, the Father with whom I hold converse, the Lover in whom I delight, the King before whom I bow in reverence, the Divine Being I worship and adore. In my experience of prayer God ceases to be any of these things because he ceases to be anything at all. He is absent when I pray. I am there alone. There is no other.

If this experience persists — and is not the effect of the flu coming on or tiredness — it means that something of the greatest importance is happening. It means that God is inviting me to discover Him no longer as another alongside me but as my own deepest and truest self. He is calling me from the experience of meeting Him to the experience of finding my identity in Him. I cannot see Him because He is my eyes. I cannot hear Him because He is my ears. I cannot walk to Him because He is my feet. And if apparently I am alone and He is not there that is because He will not separate His presence from my own. If He is not anything at all, if He is nothing, that is because He is no longer another. I must find Him in what I am or not at all. (From Tensions by H. A. Williams)

The transforming moment of Advent is when we open our hearts to the coming of Christ, not as a moment in time on the calendar. In the darkness and despair of the present times, we will not find God, for God is not there. He has come and is coming into our lives through Christ. A little child will be born and with His birth will come the promise of a new tomorrow and the hope of a better day. It is the hope expressed by Isaiah in the rebuilding of the Israelite nation; it is the hope that Paul offers to the people of Thessalonica when there appears to be none. It is the hope that the Baptizer offered to the people by the banks of the River Jordan when it seemed that there was no hope.

It is the hope found in Christ. We are invited to see that hope in the darkness, to let that hope into our hearts and our souls, and to share that hope with others. We can find the hope we need if we but look to Christ.

Bowling Balls and Bowling Bags


This is the message I presented for the 3rd Sunday in Advent (December 15, 2002) at Tompkins Corners UMC.  The Scriptures were Isaiah 61: 1 – 4, 8 – 11; 1 Thessalonians 5: 15 – 24; and John 1: 6 – 8, 19 – 28.

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I have a confession to make, “I am not a gracious loser.” I realize that I not competitive in every area where I compete but in those areas where I do compete and excel I do not take losses easily, especially when I can point to errors on my part that contributed to the loss. And John’s statement about not being able to wear the shoes of the one that is coming reminds me of a particularly galling loss some twenty-three years ago. For as I fumed over the loss and walked out of the bowling center, I turned to the person who beat me and just said that he shouldn’t gloat for he couldn’t even carry my bowling bag.

Now, this may not be particularly interesting to anyone but me but a few months later as we prepare to travel to another tournament, he came with a bowling bag on wheels. Not only could he not carry my bag, he couldn’t carry his own.

No matter how it is done, we need to be reminded about what John said that day in the desert outside Jerusalem. We are not worthy to walk in the shoes of Jesus and we shouldn’t even begin to think that we could.

The spring of my sophomore year in college, I went to the pastor at First United Methodist Church in Kirksville about taking communion before leaving for spring break. Reverend Fortel was taken back by this request for no other college student had ever made such a request. But he agreed to do so and we met in the chapel just before spring break. The ritual for communion spoke of not even being worthy of collecting the crumbs from under the table. Since this communion was not of a formal service, I asked Rev. Fortel why this was. “Didn’t Christ’s sacrifice and death on the cross give us the right to sit at God’s table?” I asked. Rev. Fortel pointed out that by ourselves we would never have that right and it is only by God’s grace and the salvation of Christ that we are able to come to the table.

There is another thing that you need to know about bowling and its roots to Protestant churches of Europe during the Reformation. Martin Luther was a great proponent of bowling, so much so that a bowling lane was placed in the center aisle of the sanctuary. Every Sunday, members of the congregation would stand at the end of the lane and roll a ball down the aisle towards the pins. A strike was an indication of one’s righteousness and the failure to strike was an indication of one’s unworthiness. It should be noted that the lane at that time was about 10 inches in width and unless you were particular adept at throwing a straight shot down the boards, getting a strike was down right near impossible. So it was that many people were obligated to practice and work on their righteousness each week.

Of course, this theological application does not seem to have been carried through the ages. But the concept of working on one’s righteousness should not have been lost in the passage of time. And, during this season of Advent, as we prepare for the coming of Christ, we are reminded of our responsibility to others so that they can prepare as well.

The passage from Isaiah is not only a reminder that God has not forgotten the people in exile in Babylon but a reminder that the people will be restored. We read that God will “bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives and release the prisoners.” And it is important to note that it is the people who will build up the ancient ruins, repair the ruined cities and take away the devastation of the previous generations.

“For I the Lord loves justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing” is what Isaiah told the people. And if the covenant between the people and God was to be reestablished, then so too must the people.

John Wesley knew that people could not live without the Gospel. There can never be hope in one’s life if the Gospel is not there. But he also knew that Gospel was meaningless if the people were hungry or cold or homeless. What good does it do to be of good cheer if one cannot feed one’s family? Our responsibility to bring the Gospel to the world means that we must also take care of those in need.

Our own preparation for the coming of the Lord is individual in nature. It is something that only we can do, though we may do it with others. But John’s call for repentance is a call for us to look into the bags that we carry, be they bowling bags or otherwise, rollaway or hand carried, and empty them out. Repentance requires that we start over, without the baggage of our past. We cannot prepare for the coming of the Lord if we hold to our old ways, if we keep looking back to the past.

Paul spoke of what we should be doing. Celebrate that God is present in our lives. Hear the words of the prophets and test them. Hold fast to that which is good but abstain from every form of evil. Isaiah spoke of the rewards that would come with the preparation. People would gain garlands instead of ashes, be anointed with oil instead of mourning and wear a mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

This time of year is one of darkness; it can be one of gloom. But as the lights on the Advent wreath increase each Sunday, so too does the hope for the future. Take some time this week and look at the bags that you carry. Take some time this week and consider whether your life can strike out against injustice and oppression. Give some time this week to put away the old ways and look to the future.

Isaiah’s words “as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations” ring true today. It is the Holy Spirit that has been given to us and through us shines in this time of darkness. With the presence of the Holy Spirit we are empowered to help others, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and free those oppressed by injustice and finally to hear the good news of the coming of the Christ child.

What’s In The Box?


This is the message I presented for the 3rd Sunday in Advent (December 12, 1999) at Walker Valley UMC.  The Scriptures were Isaiah 61: 1 – 4, 8 – 11; 1 Thessalonians 5: 15 – 24; and John 1: 6 – 8, 19 – 28

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This is probably the time of Christmas season that I like the best. The tree is up (when I have the chance, I like to put on the lights myself), the favorite family ornaments have been carefully unpacked and placed on the tree, and all the decorations have been hung about the house. And the presents have begun to arrive.

Now, some may think that I don’t like Christmas presents. In truth, I like presents. Over the past few years, I have found some enjoyment in getting what I feel that my daughters, grandchild, brothers, sister, mother, wife, and selected others might enjoy. But I will also admit that I am not crazy about Christmas shopping. I don’t like venturing out into the wilderness and madness of the mall at this time of year and I certainly don’t like the hype of buying that comes at this time. Now, how then do I solve that particular problem? Well, if I can, I think about what it is that I am buying all year round and if the opportunity presents itself to get a present for anyone on my list; I get it then and put it away.

But I like it when the presents start appearing under the tree. Because then you get to think about and guess what might be in the box. If you are like me, you take every opportunity to sneak over and pick up a present or two and shake it to see if it rattles (hoping, of course, that is not a broken piece of crystal) and to see how much it might weigh. And when you were little, you might have even tried to stay up all night long, hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa bringing in the bicycle or train set that you had asked him for. Try as I might, I never could catch him though.

Rattling and shaking the box may be a good description of what the priests and Levites are trying to do in the Gospel reading for today.

This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”

The problem for them was that they did not know whom John the Baptist was. Could it be that he was the Messiah? Or was he just another prophet coming to stir up the people?

He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you?”

The priests, Levites, and the Pharisees who sent them out to interrogate John were uncomfortable with John’s message of repentance and his challenge directly to them that they repent of their sins and prepare for the coming of the Messiah. They had grown comfortable living in a world defined by the law, even when the law was sometimes contradictory, and this “wild man of the wilderness” was challenging everything that they stood for. They had grown comfortable living in a box.

We all do that at one point or another in our lives. We want our lives to be neat and arranged, knowing what to expect each day. And we get extremely uncomfortable when someone does something to shake up that arrangement. We find it very nice to live in a box.

Living in a box, while safe and sometimes comfortable, can also be very confining. The limits placed by the “walls” of the box define what it is that you can and cannot do and that makes it very difficult to be creative or to see what can be done. Often times, we do not see the possibilities of things that we can do because of the walls the box has put around us. Where would we be today if the disciples, simple fisherman, had not seen their task as becoming “fishers of men?”

The challenges of the world today require that we see beyond what we define ourselves to be. And the very thought of that scares a lot of people. But my friends, the reason for our celebration of Christmas is the coming of the Lord and what He means to our lives.

Jesus’ ministry went beyond what the people, not just the leaders, thought at that time. When you look at his ministry, you see him saying, “Let the children come to me” at a time when children were considered more than just a nuisance and ignored. He had a ministry that included women at a time when they were less than second class citizens. He had a ministry that went out to the poor, the sick, the brokenhearted, and those members of society who were forgotten. As Isaiah proclaimed,

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he as sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all those who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.

The message that John brought was to say that the time had come to review all that one had done and to repent and begin anew. This very thought of beginning anew, of tearing down the walls that provide us with security, is a scaring one. And it is a difficult one to accept. That, I think, is why Paul wrote the Thessalonians,

May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.

Though John called for us to make straight the path, the journey of faith for us is neither straight nor does it always seem safe. It is those anxieties and fears that keep us in the box, in a life confined by rules and regulations that are often times contradictory. This was the world into which Christ came and which He sought to change.

God offers us not a refuge from life but the courage to live fully into self and life.

For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

Christ wants us to live outside the boundaries of the box that we place ourselves in. That is why the baptism by Christ was with the Spirit. Because in allowing the Holy Spirit to come into our lives, we gain that which we need to go beyond the walls of the box.

Today we celebrate Communion. It is a chance to bring Christ into your life. But it is also something else. Communion in the United Methodist Church is at an open table. We do not limit access to it to members of just this church or just this denomination. We do not prescreen those who seek to come forward. All we ask is that you come with an open heart, accepting in the Spirit.

So, I ask you today to give every thought you have to “what’s in the box you call your life?”

Do You Hear What I Hear?


Here are my thoughts for the 3rd Sunday in Advent.

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From the standpoint of being a professing Christian and a chemist/chemical educator, I have observed some troubling things over the past few weeks. It all has to do with the issue of “intelligent design”, its inclusion or exclusion in the science classroom and the role of religion in our daily lives.

What bothers me is not the issue of this presumed “new” scientific theory. First, this is not a new theory but rather an attempt to restate an old idea (i.e., creationism) in terms that should be acceptable to both the lay public and the scientific community. If you will allow me the latitude of using Biblical references in a scientific discussion, you cannot pour new wine into old wineskins.

Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” (Matthew 9: 17)

It would be one thing if “intelligent design” were a new theory; then it could be debated on the public stage as its supporters would like. But it is not a new theory and merely an attempt to get around the legal problems those creationist theories encountered in the 1980’s.

Second, it is not, in my mind, a credible scientific theory. You cannot simply say that because something observed is too complex to be explained with present knowledge, there must be an “intelligent design’ involved. That is taking the easy way out and that is not the way of science. The history of science has shown repeatedly that when explanations of observed phenomena become extremely complex it is time for a restatement of the theory. This occurred with the change from a geocentric view of the solar system to a heliocentric view; it occurred with the demise of phlogiston and the discovery of oxygen; it occurred when the caloric theory of heat was determined to be incorrect. If certain biological explanations cannot be explained with the knowledge that we have at the present, it simply means that we need to do more research and expand what we are looking for, not simply write off the problem as being too complex or complicated for modern day explanations. We are never going to fully explain what evolution is or the mechanisms by which it operates if we don’t keep looking for the answers. In the long run, adoption of theories such as “intelligent design” will stifle scientific research and push us backwards in terms of progress, rather than forward.

It seems to me that we have forgotten that many, many years ago we were nothing more than just another animal wandering this planet. But, at some point in our past, our lives changed. Perhaps it was like the opening science in the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” where an unseen and highly intelligent race modify the conditions of the earth and changed early apes into creatures that eventually become man.

Or it may have been something entirely different. At this point, it is hard to tell what happened. But the result of this change so many years ago was that mankind became a questioning, exploring sentient being that wondered why things happened.

Some of the questions that we began asking were about the world around us. Mankind began to seek answers about the regularities that were discovered in this world. It became natural for us to even ask why these things happened. And when we asked these latter questions, we began to have a sense of gods in our lives.

It became obvious to these early people that there were gods responsible for the seasons, gods responsible for the growth of plants and so on. Mankind began to give credit to gods for everything good and to blame the gods for all the evil and bad that occurred in the world. Then God chose Abram and life changed.

Genesis, despite what others may say, is not about the earth and its development; it is about us and who we are. It is about our discovery of who God is and what He means to us.

But even today we still persist in believing that there are other gods, gods who send hurricanes to destroy cities where sin allegedly runs rampant or tornados to wipe towns off the map because they choose the right to seek free will instead of blindly following a rigid set of beliefs. And that is what all these debates about religion and life, be they about science, sexuality, or politics, have been about today. These debates are focused more on the laws we create or seek in order to create order in our lives rather than our desire to honor God in our lives.

We find it necessary and appropriate to have laws in our lives. We are afraid that if we do not have laws, there will be no order. And the one thing that mankind has always desired is order. As the world has grown more and more complex and complicated, as discoveries add more and more knowledge to our lives, we seek more and more order. It seems that life has grown beyond our capability to understand; so we create laws to help us to understand.

But as we create more and more laws, we begin to contradict ourselves. The very problem with society in Jesus’ time was that there were so many laws, it was impossible for anyone to find the right way to salvation. Remember that the Pharisees objected to Christ healing on the Sabbath because it involved working on the Sabbath; it was okay and proper to heal them any other time, but not on the Sabbath, for the Sabbath should be kept Holy.

A Crippled Woman Healed on the Sabbath (Luke 13: 10 – 17)

On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.

Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue ruler said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”

The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”

When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.

But which law takes precedence in one’s life? The Pharisees and authorities would have the law upheld, even if it means that someone is healed from a crippling disease. But Jesus points out that care for the sick is more important that a strict observance of the law. The authorities who complain ignored the liberation from pain that the woman enjoyed. All they saw was a violation of the law. There is no indication that they saw the Power of God at work in their presence. Jesus rebukes them for they were not willing to change; they were not willing to repent. It should be noted that healing on the Sabbath was acceptable, when it came to a farmer’s animals. So why should it not be allowed for the owners of the animals? This was the basis for Jesus’ rebuke.

The summary of this paragraph by Luke is that Jesus’ opponents were put to shame in front of the people. The passage ends by noting that we must make a choice about Jesus. Shall we side with the leaders who hold to a strict interpretation of the law and ignore the power of God? Or shall we side with Jesus with the exercise of power and compassion?

We find evidence in our searches that the earth is not the center of the Solar System, despite statements in the Bible that suggest otherwise. Those who speak out in favor of the new system are considered heretics and treated accordingly. Even today, the debate is on whether the Bible is a collection of laws which must be obeyed without question or a guide for the way we should live. Too many people see the Bible as the law rather than the spirit; it leads to preferring victory over repentance; hatred over love, vengeance over reconciliation.

The rise of fundamentalism in today’s society is because we look for simple answers and fundamentalism gives such answers. But the questions being asked in today’s society are far from simple. They require understanding and exploration.

The problem for me with a fundamentalist approach to Christianity is that it does not allow for me to expand my knowledge of God and Christ. It seems to me that the basic premise of a fundamentalist approach is that these are the truths and they do not change and they cannot be challenged. I have come to believe that the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ time would feel right at home in a fundamentalist church today. Everything is cut and dried, fixed and unchanging; there is no room for change or independent thought. We know that hurricanes are not the wrath of any god but the result of atmospheric conditions. We know that earthquakes, no matter how frightening they may be, are not the results of a god lashing out at an unrepentant world but a shift in plates of stone floating on a layer of molten rock.

Fundamentalism sees hunger, sickness, and oppression as a sign of sin. We should see such signs as a call from God to respond. It was this attitude that Jesus fought against; it is what we are faced with today. Does not Isaiah say that the Messiah will come to proclaim liberty to the captives, release the prisoners and bring hope to the brokenhearted? (Isaiah 61: 2)  Does not God say that He loves justice and hates wrongdoing? Shall we not be rewarded when we do God’s work, not stop people from coming to God?

In a letter to his brother, Vincent Van Gogh wrote

The Jesuitism of clergymen and devout ladies no longer have any hold on me now. You see, for me that God of the clergy is as dead as a doornail. But does that make me an atheist? Clergymen consider me one – so be it – but you see, I love, and how could I feel love if I were not alive myself, or if others were not alive; and if we are alive there is something wondrous about it. Now call that God or human nature or whatever you like, but there is a certain something I cannot define systematically, although it is very much alive and real, and you see, for me that something is God or as good as God… (From a letter by Vincent van Gogh to his brother Theo, December 21, 1881 – printed in the Daily Dig for 8 September 2005.)

We seek God but we will not be able to find Him if we get trapped in simple explanations. We cannot see God in the world if we are blind to the problems of the world. Just as John the Baptist was a voice crying in the wilderness, calling on the people to repent of their sins and prepare for the coming of the Messiah, so too are the needs of the people a voice crying out in the wilderness warning us of God’s coming.

Shall we stand idly by and let the voices go unheeded? Shall we wonder why the world is the way it is when God was calling upon us to fix the problems of the world? Did not Paul tell us to test everything, to hold fast to that which was good but abstain from evil? (1 Thessalonians 6: 16 – 24)  How are we to do this if we limit our knowledge of what is good and what is bad?

Now this is not a statement that says we can go and do whatever we want, so as to learn what is good and evil. We have been shown what is good; we have been shown what is evil. We are challenged to do that which is good, help the needy, heal the sick, feed the hungry and fight oppression and injustice.

We live in a world in which simple answers are sought. If life were simple and fixed, simple answers would work. But life is neither simple nor fixed; so our answers can never be fixed or simple. Jesus told us that He did not come to abolish the law or ignore the prophets but rather as a fulfillment of the law.

If we see Jesus as solely the law, then we see Christianity without caring, without understanding. We cannot live in a world that neither cares nor understands. We need to seek both aspects of life in our world.

John the Baptist was the voice crying out in the wilderness, calling for us to repent of our ways and prepare for the coming of the Messiah. Today, the voice of the wilderness is the voice of the sick, the hungry, the homeless, and the oppressed calling again for the Messiah to appear. We would rather hear the cry of the Christ child lying in the manger in Bethlehem because we think that it will quiet those other voices we hear. A child is simple and life needs to be simple. Maybe this child will offer us the simple answers we so desperately seek.

But in a few months, we will hear the words of Jesus calling upon us to hear the voices of the sick, the needy, the hungry, and the oppressed. Try as we might we cannot silence the other voices that cry out.

As we prepare this Sunday for the coming of Christ, as the Child born in Bethlehem, let us listen carefully to the voice crying out in the wilderness, challenging us to be God’s messenger in today’s society. Let us hear the prophet call that will tell us that though He is born a King, He will be a servant so that we may enjoy the victory of His Kingdom. Hear the voice of the prophet; hear the voice of the Baptist; and last, hear the voice of Christ calling you today. Do you hear?

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Said the night wind to the little lamb,

“Do you see what I see?

Way up in the sky, little lamb,

do you see what I see?

A star, a star, dancing in the night

with a tail as big as a kite,

with a tail as big as a kite.”

Said the little lamb to the shepherd boy,

“Do you hear what I hear?

Ringing through the sky, shepherd boy,

do you hear what I hear?

A song, a song high above the trees

with a voice as big as the sea,

with a voice as big as the sea.”

Said the shepherd boy to the mighty king,

“Do you know what I know?

In your palace warm, mighty king,

do you know what I know?

A Child, a Child shivers in the cold–

Let us bring him silver and gold,

Let us bring him silver and gold.”

Said the king to the people everywhere,

“Listen to what I say!

Pray for peace, people, everywhere,

listen to what I say!

The Child, the Child sleeping in the night

He will bring us goodness and light,

He will bring us goodness and light.”