“The Meaning of the Seasons”- An Advent Meditation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding Advent in the 21st Century

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

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

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

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

“A Pre-Advent Bible Study”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A Single Light – The Light of Peace”

A Single Light – The Light of Peace

Here are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday in Advent (Year A), 22 December 2013. This is the fourth is a series of Advent Readings (“A Single Light – The Light of Hope”, 1 December 2013, “A Single Light – The Light of Love”, 8 December 2013, and “A Single Light – The Light of Joy, 15 December 2013).

The Scripture readings for this Sunday are Isaiah 7: 10 – 16, Romans 1: 1 – 7, and Matthew 1: 18 – 25.

Let us begin with a reading from the Old Testament, Ezekiel 37: 26:

I’ll make a covenant of peace with them that will hold everything together, an everlasting covenant. I’ll make them secure and place my holy place of worship at the center of their lives forever. I’ll live right there with them. I’ll be their God! They’ll be my people!

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

On the Fourth Sunday of Advent

A candle is burning, a candle of Love;

A candle to point us to heaven above.

A baby for Christmas, a wonderful birth;

For Jesus is bringing God’s Love to our earth.

Our second reading in lighting the Advent candle is John 16: 31 – 33:

 “Do you finally believe? In fact, you’re about to make a run for it—saving your own skins and abandoning me. But I’m not abandoned. The Father is with me. I’ve told you all this so that trusting me, you will be unshakable and assured, deeply at peace. In this godless world you will continue to experience difficulties. But take heart! I’ve conquered the world.”

Our prayer this morning,

Heavenly Father, You sent Your Son to be our Lord and Savior, to bring peace to the world. As we light the fourth light this morning, help us to be the light that helps to bring peace into this world. In the name Jesus the Christ, Our Lord and Savior, we pray. AMEN

As I was reading the passage from Isaiah for this morning, the thought of Patrick Henry and his declaration that men were calling for peace at a time when there was no peace came to mind. The fourth candle of the Advent wreath represents the Light of Peace, yet most of the news for today will be about war and acts of violence, anger, and hatred.

We make speak of peace but the like the leaders who heard Isaiah’s words three thousand years ago, our thoughts seem to turn to war as the means of achieving peace. Our leaders today seem to want war at all costs, thinking that somehow, someway we can achieve peace. But what does war accomplish besides death and destruction?

Peace can only be accomplished in one way and that is through freedom. And freedom cannot be accomplished if our focus is on war, anger, and hatred. Freedom cannot be accomplished when one group seeks to exert control over another group.

Peace can only grow when people are given the opportunity to expand beyond their boundaries, to seek things which may only be visions in their minds. When I began high school in 1963, we were entering space with the intention of going to the moon and, perhaps, even beyond. But some fifty years later, we are still on this planet with only a limited presence in outer space (provided by the Russians and the International Space Station which they began), a rover from China that landed on the moon, and our rovers on Mars. A rover on the moon and rovers on Mars are nice and are giving us great information about what is going on but that is not the same as sending people into outer space and doing things in outer space.

There are those, I know, who say that we have more pressing problems here on earth and I would have to agree. But when you stop thinking outside the box, it is very difficult to even think inside the box. And right now, we are not teaching our children to think inside the box and that means that they will not be able to do any thinking, inside or outside the box. And when one cannot think, even the most mundane problems are insoluble.

To have the ability to solve problems requires vision and vision only comes from freedom. If Joseph had not had his vision, he most likely would have left Mary to the vagaries of society and where would we be today?

But Joseph, being a righteous man, was free to be open to the vision offered by the angels and his choice of a path to walk came from his own freedom. Jamey Prickett pointed out that in deciding what to do, Joseph understood that this child would need a father who would teach him to take risks, to stand with character in face of disapproval and to believe the unbelievable. As Jamey noted, how will Jesus be able to walk to Calvary if you are not able to walk to Bethlehem? (From “Believing in Dreams”)

Do we have that same ability or have we become so blind and deaf that we fail to recognize God’s work in our midst?

For us to have freedom, there must be peace in this world. There cannot be peace in this world when our focus in on war and violence. The problems of the world will not go away but only get bigger and harder to solve if we do not change our focus.

So we light the single Light of Peace but instead one light burning in the darkness, it is accompanied by the lights of Hope, Joy, and Love. Instead of one light, the world is now ablaze with the promise that tomorrow will be the day we seek instead of fear. And when the light of Christ is lit on Tuesday evening, we will know that the our world has a chance and that peace, hope, love and joy are the reality of the world and not just words in a dictionary.

“What If Jesus Had Never Been Born?”

This is the message I gave at Neon (KY) United Methodist Church on 20 December 1998 for the 4th Sunday in Advent (A). The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 7: 10 – 16, Romans 1: 1 – 7, and Matthew 1: 18 – 25.

Some years ago I bought a book entitled “What If Jesus Had Never Been Born?” (“What if Jesus Had Never Been Born?”, D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe) It is an interesting outline of the impact Christ’s birth had on this planet and on our society. Of the various areas that the authors identified, there were two that were especially interesting to me.

Were it not for Christ and the development of Christianity, the university system that we are familiar with today would probably not exist. Education at all levels flourished because of the need by the common people to be literate so that they could read and understand the Bible. The development of Sunday School is a singularly significant outcome of the early Methodist church. With children as young as 11 or 12 working 60-hour work weeks along side their parents and other adults in the factories and mines of industrial England, Sunday was the only day that they could get any schooling. John Wesley started the first Sunday School so that these children could get some education and to show them that God had not forgotten about them.

And lest we not forget, the first universities in this country were founded to prepare individuals to be preachers. And John Wesley continually encouraged preachers to be literate so that they could study and further understand the Gospels.

Another area where Christ’s presence on earth was felt was in the area of science. It stands to reason that as we become more educated, we become capable of asking more questions. The central point to any research is to answer a specific question but we have to realize that 1) not all questions are answerable within the framework of science and 2) for every question that we do answer, we are likely to discover two more questions. And while science and technology may offer many solutions, they can also create additional problems.

In Genesis 11: 1 – 9 is the story of the Tower of Babel.

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. As mean moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.

They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” The used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language that have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

So the Lord scattered them from there over all over the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel – because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

Here the people of the world at that time sought to build a tower that would reach to the heaves; in essence, making them equal to God. The commentary for verse 6 said that if the whole human race remained united and successful in this proud attempt to take its destiny into its own hands, the earthly kingdom of man would replace the heavenly Kingdom of God.

If we begin to think that the solution to all our problems comes from a faith in ourselves, then we will quickly find ourselves failing. For a world seen through a primarily empirical viewpoint is a life devoid of spirituality. And in this world, we quickly find ourselves like Ahaz in the OT reading for today.

Ahaz was too busy to listen to God that day feeling that problems such as a threat to invasion should be taken care of by more practical means. To merely trust in God, as Isaiah suggested, was naive. Ahaz was not the first king of Israel who felt that protection for the kingdom of Israel lie in the material world. And every king that felt this inevitably lost the battles he was preparing for. As the prophecy of Isaiah suggests, the battle that Ahaz was preparing for would also be lost.

Ahaz choose not to listen to God. But it is proof of the grace of God that He continued to try and communicate with this errant king. Many times we are like Ahaz, choosing to following our own paths and ignoring the presence or signs of God’s presence in our life.

God is not real to most of us because of the conditions of our consciousness. He is closer to our minds every moment than our own thoughts. He is nearer to our hearts than our own feelings. He is more intimate with our wills than our most vigorous decisions. If we are not aware of him, it is not because he is not with us. It is, in part, because our consciousness is so under the sway of other interests that it cannot turn to him with the loving attention which might soon discern him.

Did you ever encounter, on the street, a friend whose physical eyes looked at you without seeing you? You walked right into him before the alien look on his face changed into one of recognition. Then he confessed that he had been so absorbed in thought about some other matters that had not been aware of you, until your intentional collision with him. You were there, yet he did not see you. Though actually in your presence, he was nevertheless as unconscious of you as if you did not exist.

That is a persistent failure of the unemancipated consciousness. It can be so preoccupied by lesser realities that it does not sense the presence of the divine Reality surrounding and sustaining it. Something has to happen to end that absorption in other affairs, so that it can turn its attention to God.

Sometimes events will do it. One encounters God in a crisis that, as we say, “brings one to one’s senses.” Death, disaster, sickness, the collapse of friendship, are like the collision on the street. They shatter the tyranny of an idea or a dream, and release consciousness for the awareness of something greater than the idea or the dream – God himself.

It would be a very poor sort of life that was aware of people only when it collided with them, or was brought up standing by some decisive act of theirs. And it is a tragic life that becomes conscious of God only in those events that shatter its habitual thoughts and dreams and compels it to recognize his presence and activity.
What makes life splendid is the constant awareness of God. What transforms the spirit into his likeness is intimate fellowship with him. We are saved – from pettiness and earthiness and selfishness and sin – by conscious communion with his greatness and love and holiness. (From Discipline and Discovery by Albert Edward Day)

Such a collision of thoughts occurred when Saul went to Damascus to persecute the followers of Jesus. But meeting Jesus on that road not only softened Saul’s heart and opened it to the Word, it changed his life and Saul became Paul, not the persecutor of Christians but rather the first missionary to spread the Gospel. As Saul, he was lot like those he wrote to in Romans.

Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God –the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his son, who as to his human nature was a descendant of David, and who through the Spirit of holiness was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord. Through him and for his name’s sake, we received grace and apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.

To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.

The people of the world had heard the prophets, they knew that God was going to keep his promise to send a sign, a young child who would be named Immanuel. But though the people had heard the word, they did not know what it meant because they had strayed from God and would not listen.

Joseph could have easily divorced Mary, either through public humiliation and stoning as was the law of the time. This was the case in John 8 when the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery before Jesus for judgement, though the Pharisees changed the meaning of the law in Deuteronomy to meet their own needs. But Joseph chose not to do that because he was a righteous man. And because he was a righteous man, he heard and understood the words of the Holy Spirit who told him why his betrothed wife was pregnant.

God made us a promise. This week we celebrate that promise. But what if our mind and heart are not open to the message of that promise? By being open to the Holy Spirit, both Joseph and Mary were able to understand all that was to take place at this time so many years ago. No longer should we ask what would have happened if Jesus had not been born, for that is a discussion for the philosophers. What if Jesus is trying to talk you today? In this time of celebration and reflection, are you prepared to hear his voice?

“Completing the Circle”

Here are the thoughts that I presented as the devotional at Grannie Annie’s Kitchen for the 4th Sunday in Advent. The Scriptures were Micah 5: 2 – 6, Hebrews 10: 5 – 10, and Luke 1: 39 – 55. We will be continuing the devotions after Advent is complete.

Four Saturdays ago, we began lighting the Advent Wreath, candle by candle. Today, after lighting the candles of Hope, Peace, and Joy, we will close the circle by lighting the candle of Love. The circle is complete and the wreath will be finished on Monday when we light the Christ Candle in the middle.

There is always something special about circles, the geometric object with no beginning and no end. You can pick a place to start but when you are done you are where you began. If Advent is the season of preparation of the coming of Christ, it means that we have that opportunity to begin again, to start over, refreshed and renewed.

In a world that seems so bent on continuing the old ways, of trying things that haven’t worked in the past, we have the opportunity to try new things. This journey of Advent has been especially trying for many people this year. In a journey that was meant to focus on the birth of a single child, violence and death struggle to take us away from that focus.

But we hear the words of the prophet Micah who speaks of the child that will be born in Bethlehem and whose birth will signal a new time for the people of Israel, for all people. It will be a new time with a safe home. This child will be the Peacemaker.

This child will be a shepherd, protecting the flock. He will not be the mighty warrior many people expected, to lead an army and overthrow the occupiers of the land.

In the Gospel reading for today, Mary speaks of the child that she will bear and how the world will change because of his birth. She speaks of the poor sitting down to a banquet while the rich are left out in the cold, of how the downtrodden and forgotten will be lifted up from the mud. It will be through God’s mercy that the world will change.

In the Book of Hebrews, the writer points out that Jesus offers a new plan, a different way, and not just a continuation of the old. The ways of the Old Testament have been found wanting, of being incomplete. The Coming of Christ offers a new plan, a new way, a way of making life complete.

But will we change because Jesus was born? We have this wonderful opportunity to change our lives, to get away from the old ways, the ways that speak of greed and selfishness, of violence and destruction, of oppression and move towards what this Advent wreath represents, Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love.

That is why the Advent wreath is a circle and why lighting the candle of Love makes it complete. All that is left is to light the Christ Candle on Christmas Eve and bring Christ into your heart.

So we light the fourth candle this morning, the candle of Love. The journey of Advent is complete; our journey is just beginning.

“This Isn’t What We Expected!”

Here are my (belated) thoughts for the 4th Sunday in Advent (19 December 2010). The Scriptures for this Sunday are Isaiah 7: 10 – 16, Romans 1: 1 – 7, and Matthew 1: 18 – 25.

As I noted in my piece for the 3rd Sunday in Advent (“But Where Will we go?”) I am preaching next Sunday (26 December 2010) at Dover Plains UMC (Location of church); the title of the message will be “The True Gift of Christmas” instead of what I had previously announced. Service starts at 11 and you are welcome to attend.

There has been a constant discussion in our house lately about what it means to be a Christian. Is it enough to come on Sunday morning and nod appreciatively at what the pastor says? Or do you actually have to do something?

Lately, I have found myself doing more and listening less. The laws of physics still dictate that you cannot be in two places at the same time and we haven’t worked it out at my home church so that I can hear the Sunday morning services in the community room while I am serving breakfast. (As you know from early posts, my wife has started a feeding ministry on Saturdays and Sundays for the local children. On Sunday mornings, we hold the breakfast in the community room and anyone may have a breakfast, even if they are not a child. Because my wife teaches Sunday School, I get the task of watching the food and serving it. But it means that I don’t get to attend the first service and listen to the pastor; I do get to hear her message during the second service but I like hearing it twice when I can.)

But what I heard from one of the congregation who does attend the second service and had come early one Sunday morning bothered me. She asked if the food I was serving was for the “poor” people. My reply was that it was for all the people and there were no distinctions at this table. But her question/comment was atypical of many other comments that have been made about the viability of letting such people into our church.

Yes, we have had some visitors who have come and then stolen something. And we learned from those instances. We have also communicated to the people of the neighborhood and surrounding area that when these things happen, the attitude and air of trust has been broken. And it takes awhile to repair that trust.

I just wish the same could be said for those who call themselves Christians but then look upon others as not worthy of the same blessing they believe they have claimed. And it isn’t just in my church that I perceive this attitude.

I know of too many people who find solace and comfort in the words and preaching of Joel Osteen, Bennie Hinn, and all the other big-name, big-time, television-based preachers. They all preach a gospel of prosperity and dominion. They all imply in their words and actions that being a Christian is something special and that you will receive bountiful blessings from simply saying that you are a Christian.

We all know (or should know) that what they preach is a Gospel of the self and not the soul. It is a gospel that tells us Jesus will be a regal and royal king born in castle to people of privilege, not the son of a carpenter born in a stable. They expect Jesus to bring forth a kingdom where they have all the power and the ability to exclude those they feel are not worthy. Never mind where or how Jesus was born; they want a gospel message that doesn’t really exist.

Oh, they will get a king alright! Just like those who heard Isaiah’s word, they will receive a king but it will be the leader of an army that will destroy their world, not preserve it.

Ahaz was told that he could have just about anything that he wanted but he knew that one didn’t make demands like that on God. But the people today are quite willing to expect that God will give them anything they want, even if it is without reason or purpose. But why shouldn’t people believe this?

It isn’t just the television ministers that have done it; it is (and will continue to be) an outgrowth of what has been preached for some many years in the mainline and/or traditional churches. It is a message that was preached with and received with an attitude of “that’s fine for Sunday but don’t make me do it on Monday.” The people do not want to know that a child will be born who will lead them; the people do not want to know that a child will, as was stated in The Message, be able to make moral decisions for the people by the time he is twelve.

The people want the status quo, even when it means no hope, no promise for the future. And as they look around, in the darkness of this season of winter and Advent, all they see is darkness. There are no longer bright, smiling faces of the young to tell them there is a future. Those who would be the future of the church have left for other places, other venues where the message can be heard and told.

They know that the message of the present church is not the true message; they know that those who preach those words today are often time hypocrites in their own actions. This missing generation of church goers is willing to do the things that too many actual church goers do not want to even think about.

And when push comes to shove (or whatever euphemism you want to use), the modern day church member doesn’t do a thing. And one day, they look around and wonder what happened? They look around and exclaim that this isn’t what we expected. And they wonder what will happen next.

The story of Joseph as the husband-to-be of Mary is there for one reason. If Joseph had been left to his own choice, he could have abandoned Mary and no one would have though ill of him for doing so. But when it was explained to him what was to take place, he changed his course of action and stood by Mary. There isn’t a lot written about Joseph but he did what was expected of him and that should be enough for our story.

There are those of us who have the role that Joseph had, to play a part in the beginning but not necessarily the end. And sometimes we have to understand that ours is a minor role but one that is necessary for the completion of the mission. That was the role that Joseph had and one he understood.

Our role is expressed by Paul in his letter to the Romans. Not only are we to accept the gift that we will be given when Christ is born in Bethlehem, ours, like the shepherds and the wise men, is tell others what we have seen and what we have done. It may not be what we expected it to be but it is what we must do.

We can see Christmas as one day out of a year of days but then we have to ask ourselves why we have spent the last four weeks preparing for that one day. If we ignore these past four years, then Christmas will be nothing more than a single day of the year and we will get what we expected to get.

But if we take this time of preparation as it is meant to be, then we will find Christmas to be something that we didn’t expect. And it will mean all the difference in the world.

“Signs of the Times”

This was the message I gave for the 4th Sunday in Advent (19 December 2004) at Tompkins Corners UMC.  The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 7: 10 – 16, Romans 1: 1 – 7, and Matthew 1: 18 – 25.


And the Lord will give you a sign." These are the words of God to King Ahaz through Isaiah in response to King Ahaz refusing to ask God for a sign. Israel is about to be overrun by outside armies and the king refuses to trust in God. So He responded by giving the people of Israel a sign, a sign for the future. But this does bode well for that moment in time and the threat of destruction that will once again come to the Promised Land.

In the recent District newsletter, Reverend Bassinger-Ishii notes how the liturgy for Advent is very much apocalyptic and how she didn’t want to preach in this mode. Now, I can understand this; we cannot nor do we want to see the coming of Christ at Christmas in the same vein as the coming of Christ in the Book of Revelation. The Christ in the Book of Revelation is a vengeful Lord; intent on destroying all those whom would oppose Him. The Christ that comes to us at Christmas is a peaceful child, full of hope and promise in a world darkened by despair and destruction. (Adapted from "Reflections from the District Superintendent" by Jeanette Bassinger-Ishii, District Superintendent of the Connecticut/New York and Delaware/Hudson Districts of the New York Annual Conference in the December 2004 issue of CONNYECTION.)

But how can we not see the second Christ as the one that is coming today, December 19, 2004? We wake up to hear of atrocities in Missouri or the destruction of trust in a New York City classroom. We wake up to hear of more deaths in Iraq, more corruption among our political leaders. As the days to Christmas count down, there is no discussion or description of the birth of our Savior but how the consumer must save the American economy. The meaning of Christmas has been lost in a sea of dollar bills and loose change.

And the churches of this country seem to be determined to push this country towards that apocalypse. It is my firm belief that the recent events of this country will drive people away from, not bring them into the church. Those who seek to lead the various denominations of Christianity, and I include many in the United Methodist Church, seem to desire a rigid, inflexible system of religion that can only destroy the church, not build it. And this rigidity, this inflexibility will reach beyond the walls of the sanctuary as those who feel they are the true preachers of God’s word seek to define morality in their own terms. These "true" preachers will find ways to control how we live our daily lives and what we will think and learn. Anyone who dares speak out against such modern day Pharisees will soon find themselves paying the harshest of penalties.

But these views, however harsh they are, need not be the case. We need not see the signs around us as the end of the world, for God did truly send us a sign. Against the distrust and disbelief, God promised His people that there would be someone born to set the people free. God told Joseph, bound by the traditions of his people to treat Mary as a pariah instead of as his bride, what this unborn child would become.

This child, like all children, is the embodiment of hope and promise. And the fact that he was born to Mary and Joseph, common folk, rather than royalty, tells us that this hope and promise is for us. That the birth of Jesus as our Savior was first told to the shepherds is a reminder that this promise, this hope for the future was given to us, not to the royalty and power-brokers of the day. This is a time of possibility, not destruction, even if destruction seems to be the most likely outcome.

Isaiah’s prophecy is a prophetic vision of hope that things will be different under a king who brings a rule of peace, a kingdom free of oppression, and an everlasting reign of justice. Maybe things will change in this day and age. The shepherds who heard the angels singing and went to see Jesus in the manger could only think that would be the case.

Maybe the birth of Jesus will bring people out of the oppression of dictators and governments. Maybe governments will rule by justice and with justice. Maybe the outcasts of society, the second-class citizens, the poor, the sick, the old, the infirmed will be welcomed into society. Maybe it is just possible that God came to this world as an indefensible, powerless infant who would grow up and save this world.

We might choose to ignore the news in tomorrow’s New York Times, we might choose to ignore the rising death toll in the Iraqi conflict as we have ignored the rising death toll of countless civil wars currently going on. Maybe we will hope that there will be good news and this good news will triumph and change will happen. But if we ignore the world around us, we will not hear of or see the birth of Christ in a manger two thousand years ago. And the apocalypse will come true. (Adapted from "We are a people of possibility" by Andrew J. Hoeksema, printed in Sojourners, 15 December 2004.)

But Paul tells us that we have received the grace of God through Jesus Christ. We received this grace, not because we ignored the story or looked elsewhere, but rather because we chose not to ignore the story and because, as the Christmas hymn, told us, we looked east, to a small town in a troubled land to hear a baby’s cry.

But the hope that comes from Christ’s birth can only be realized when we do something. It is interesting to note that in 1969 Richard Nixon was planning to escalate the war in Viet Nam. But two weeks before this was to be implemented there was a nationwide day of protest, the Moratorium when millions of Americans joined in local protest demonstration, vigils, church services, petition drives and other forms of opposition. The next month, more than half-a-million marched in Washington, D. C.. While an administration spokesperson announced that none of this would have any effect on the policies of the government, Richard Nixon concluded that this volume of protest was so loud and so much in opposition that he couldn’t carry out his plans. We may have felt that our opposition to apartheid was meaningless and that the white South African government would maintain its brutal oppression no matter what the cost. But in the end, apartheid could not last and many long oppressed gained their freedom. (Adapted from "The impossible will take a little while´by Paul Rogat Loeb, printed in Sojourners, 15 December 2004.)

So the signs of the times can be frightening. The signs around us can say that the world is coming to an end. But there was a birth, seemingly insignificant that changed all that. There was a birth that brought about a change. But we have to see the signs in order to make the change. We have to celebrate Christ’s birth and then help others to do so as well. We have to celebrate Christ’s birth, not solely as a day of the year but as a part of our lives each day. And when we do that, others will see the signs as well.

Signs of the Times

These are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday in Advent.  I will be publishing some thoughts from Christmas Day.  May the blessings of the season be given to you and your family.


This has been edited since it was first posted on 22 December 2007.


A number of years ago, I referred to the song “Signs” by the Five Man Electric Band in one of my sermons. As I was driving up to where I was to preach, I would pass a number of churches with signs in the front yard telling the title of the sermon that the pastor was giving. It was always interesting to see what other pastors were doing with what was probably the same set of lectionary readings.

While it is the last verse of the song “Signs” that I most enjoy, it is the second verse that seems appropriate this time. The second verse goes “And the sign said anyone caught trespassing would be shot on sight. So I jumped on the fence and yelled at the house, ‘Hey! What gives you the right to put up a fence to keep me out or to keep Mother Nature in? If God were here, He’d tell you to your face, man, you’re some kind of sinner.” (http://www.fivemanelectricalband.ca/signslyrics.html)

We see all sorts of signs in our daily lives. Unfortunately, they are signs that take us away from the meaning of the season. We see and hear that our businesses cry that we must buy their goods or they will go out of business. Instead of saving our souls, we are to save our economy through the gifts that we buy. It used to be that there was only “Black Friday”, the day after Thanksgiving, when shopping was impossible. But apparently not enough people have gone shopping and business are make pleas for consumers to buy and buy more or the economy will be in ruins.

We see and hear advertisements that speak of what we are to get, not what we are to give. We see and hear people cry that our civilization and society are coming apart. People say that these are the days of ruin and destruction that mark the end times. We must be vigilant and strong; we must deny people the right to exist if they do not believe what we tell them to believe. We demand that God set right this world in a way that only the so-called most righteous of society deemed appropriate.

In today’s Old Testament reading (Isaiah 7: 10 – 16) the Lord asks Ahaz to ask for a sign from God. But Ahaz said that he would not ask nor would he test the Lord. And Isaiah warns the House of David that they are testing the Lord. Not only are they causing discomfort amongst their own people, but they are giving grief to God and causing Him to be weary of them as well. If we are to believed the most righteous in today’s society, God’s weariness for this nation and this society would be remedied by a thunderbolt from the sky that would wipe all the sinners off the map. But who would be left behind? Those who speak of the Second Coming of Christ in apocalyptic terms are often the very ones who cry out against society but are indifferent to the problems of society. They may talk the talk but they do not walk the walk and too many people see them for the hypocrites that they truly are.

Time and time again, Jesus spoke out against the false dichotomies of His times. How many times did he begin by saying, “You have heard it said, but I say”? What you think God wants is not necessarily what God wants and the standard by which righteousness is measured is replaced by the reality of a new consciousness, the Kingdom of Heaven. (Adapted from Why the Christian Right Is Wrong by Robin Meyers)

Ahaz would not test the Lord, even if the implication is that he has the right to and it is all together possible that God will respond in the most authoritative manner possible. But Ahaz, who has lead his nation away from God, could not do so because his words would ring hollow.

But God chooses not to do that, which I am sure must disappointed many of that society’s counterparts to our “watchdogs” and “guardians” of our morals. Rather, Isaiah tells us that God will send us a sign in the manner of a young child. That this child will eat curds and honey by the time that he is old enough to choose good over evil is a sign of where he will be born. He will not be born to a rich or upper class family but rather to a simple family. God’s sign to His people is truly apocalyptic but not in the manner that the people desire. Instead of God’s wrath and destruction, it will be God’s love and grace through His Son.

The Gospel message from Matthew for today (Matthew 1: 18 – 25) completes the prophecy of Isaiah. In giving Jesus the additional name of Emmanuel (which means “God is among us”), we are being told that Jesus will be like us; he will be neither rich nor powerful. Jesus will be like us and our relationship with God will change.

Paul’s words to the Romans for today (Romans 1: 1 – 7) are a reminder to us that this gift, first told in Isaiah and given to us in Matthew, is all, not just the people of Israel or the world of Paul’s day and time.

It is a sign that there is a new world, a world in which the things around us have changed. We can, of course, ignore the signs and continue this season as we have been doing, living inn a consumer-oriented world more concerned about the stuff we get or we can change what we are doing and how we are thinking and become more concerned about the people around us.

At the beginning of this little piece today, I mentioned the song “Signs” by the Five Man Electrical Band. Though this song has often be called a one-hit wonder, its closing verse has much to say about where we are in this world today and where we are headed, “And the sign said everybody welcome, come in, kneel down and pray. But when they passed around the plate at the end of it all, I didn’t have a penny to pay, so I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own little sign. I said thank you Lord for thinking about me, I’m alive and doing fine.” (http://www.fivemanelectricalband.ca/signslyrics.html)

At this time and in this season, it is we who should be saying,”Thank you, Lord, for thinking about me.” We see the signs of times and we can be afraid. But if we expect death and destruction to come down upon us, we are going to be sadly mistaken. There will a change in this world and if we are not careful, we might miss the most important sign.

For the past four weeks, during this season of Advent, we have been told to look for the signs of the times and to prepare for the Coming of the Lord. These signs are not in the economy; they are not in society. The signs of the times to come will be found in a manager in Bethlehem. It is the beginning of a new world. We have seen the signs; we have heard the signs. Let us not miss them this time.

The Final Days

Here are my thoughts for the 4th Sunday in Advent, 20 December 2009. The Scriptures for this Sunday are Micah 5: 2 – 5, Hebrews 10: 5 – 10, and Luke 1: 39 – 45.


These are the final days of Advent. In a few days, it will be Christmas and then the shouting and the preparation will all be over and our attention will turned to the football bowl games, the parties and the New Year. And we will begin to wonder what happened to 2009 and what will happen in 2010.

But that is later in the week; right now we aren’t ready for the coming of Christ. And I wonder if we will ever be ready. The sectarian fundamentalists have already started their cry about the war against Christmas, which I think is sort of funny. For the sectarian fundamentalists, those who so desperately want to keep Christ in Christmas, only offer a vision of the world that favors the rich and the powerful.

And if anything, Christ’s birth was a vision for the forgotten and the weak, the poor and the helpless. How many times is Bethlehem mentioned in the Old Testament? That, of course, is one of the wonderful trick questions because of the Old Testament reading for today. The prophet Micah is the only prophet to speak of Bethlehem as the birthplace for Jesus.

Now, if we are to accept the view of the secular fundamentalists, Christmas is an attempt by the church to co-opt pagan winter solstice holidays. To some extent, they are correct; because the evidence provided in the Gospels suggests that Jesus was born in the spring. But it would be rather difficult to celebrate the birth of Christ in the spring when we are preparing for Easter. Can you imagine what it would be like if, because of the formulation for the observance and celebration of Easter, Christmas and Easter were on the same day? It is bad enough when the 4th Sunday in Advent is also Christmas Eve (as it was three years ago).

It doesn’t bother me that Christmas was placed on the calendar to coincide with various winter pagan ceremonies. Christmas is that single moment of hope in a world of darkness. And the one thing that the secular fundamentalists with all their cries about the mythology and falseness of religion cannot offer is a hope for the future. You can place your hope in the material goods but if you are poor or sick or homeless or oppressed, it is very difficult to do so. The world is against you from the very start and you don’t want to hear some pompous atheist telling you there is no god; because he or she cannot offer you the hope that was offered two thousand years ago.

The problem for many people is that Christmas is not a time of joy. The darkness of the season hides the darkness that lies within their soul. This is the time that many counselors and psychologists probably fear because it is the time that everyone’s fears and troubles come out. And all the talk about economic rebuilding and gift giving and love and happiness found in sales merely accentuates those fears and troubles.

I understand those fears for I have had to deal with too many of them. And I know that it was because of the hope and promise that Christmas brings that I have been able to get through these dark times.

And when someone says that this is all a myth, I wonder how it has come that we are still celebrating it today. If it didn’t happen, how did we get to this point?

Secular fundamentalists cannot offer hope to the people and seek to use the actions of the sectarian fundamentalists for their justification in saying that there is no god and that Christ is a myth. By the same token, as much as the sectarian fundamentalists want Christmas to be the center piece of the “prosperity gospel” and as much as they want the Bible to be the justification for capitalism (as well as slavery and the subjugation of women and others), they too have taken the hope and promise out of Christmas as well.

Both sides have sought to make the Bible what is not and what it was never meant to be. It is not a history book; it most certainly is not a science book. Yes, it is full of contradictions but, then again, so is mankind full of contradictions. The Bible is a story about who we are as a people; it is about our journey. It is a journey that is told through the eyes of history and so it is a story about people. It is a story about friendships and relationships (good and bad); it is a story about the balance in society and how, when the balance has been upset, God through Christ has sought to restore that balance.

We live in a time when peace is measured by victory in war. We occupy a foreign land and call it liberation. We worship Mars, the Roman God of war and call it peace. But such peace comes with destruction and desolation. Our young die in lands far from home and yet we call for celebration and rejoicing, not solace and comfort for the families.

And in a small town, mentioned only once, will the true Prince of Peace come, born neither to kings and royalty nor to the rich and powerful but to the lowly and the meek. And we shall deny this King, just as those two thousand years ago.

The writer of Hebrews points out that all that we have done in the name of Christ has been futile, just as the sacrifices made at the Temple two thousand years ago were often falsely done. We have transformed the babe in the manger into a corporate identity, useful for selling things and creating divisions in the land.

For some these are the final days; the days when the world will come to an end and they and they alone will be taken up into heaven on the wings of angels. But they, like so many others, will be surprised when it is they, the self-righteous and condemning people are left behind and they see the poor, the meek, the lowly, the forgotten, and the oppressed being welcomed by the Savior.

Yes, these are the final days. These are the days when the voice is heard crying out in the wilderness, telling us to prepare for the coming of the Lord. Even the young Baptizer, still in the womb, could feel the presence of his cousin, the baby Jesus. There is time to repent and begin anew. There is time but time moves quickly when you aren’t prepared. We have had three weeks and are now in the fourth week.

In the darkest part of the year, a child will be born. And this child will bring promise and hope. The season of Advent was meant to prepare us for that moment. These are the final days; people get ready for Christ shall be born among you and for you and to lead you.