Monday, December 16, 2013

Christmas Cheer is a Lifelong Joy – Advent Devotional

“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isa. 9:6)

Daily Scripture Reading: Isaiah 9:2-7

  Every year during Advent, I have the same familiar experience, one shared by anyone who goes out shopping. I enter a store and select my products and while going through the checkout line, and paying for my things, it happens. When the cashier hands me my receipt and/or my the change, they'll say "Happy holidays," or perhaps even "Merry Christmas."

  I realize the cashier's greeting might not be given out of genuine interest in whether or not I enjoy Christmas. Chances they are only following company policy and have little other options but to comply. I imagine somewhere there is a memo from corporate headquarters directing cashiers when to switch from "Have a nice day" to "Happy Holidays," on the assumption that this will somehow help cement a lasting bond between the store and the customer and build loyalty to the store.

  I'm aware of all that, and suspicious of the whole business. Then the moment comes at least once, when a cashier looks me in the eye and says "Merry Christmas," and you know immediately they really mean it. And it changes your whole day, you have a momentary experience of joy.

  There really is something genuine to this whole idea of Christmas cheer. As Dec. 25th draws near, people warm up just a bit. If you're out and around on Christmas Eve, you'll notice that people are kinder and gentler than on any other day of the year.

  People begin to warm up when they are mindful of the Christ child's birth, and make an extra effort to practice the virtues the angels sing of "peace on earth, goodwill towards men."

  Why does this surge in warmheartedness stand out? Unfortunately, for many joy has become a seasonal event rather than a standing policy. I remember the movie, “Scrooged.” Bill Murray playing the lead role at the conclusion of the movie after he has been visited by the three ghosts, gives a speech. He reminds us that Christmas provides us the moment, if only briefly to become the people we want to be. Each Christmas, we all for a short time attempt to try just a little harder and for just a little longer, when we share the greeting, “Merry Christmas!”

  When Christ entered our world, Jesus didn't come to brighten our Decembers, but to transform our lives. It is challenging to do the hard work to practice good will towards one another year round, but this is what Jesus is calling to practice daily. Jesus came as Isaiah tells us, to become our “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isa. 9:6) We are not alone in doing the hard work of bring joy to this world of ours.

  The Gospel accounts of Jesus' ministry provide the blueprint for loving our neighbor in a busy and complicated neighborhood. Christ made a point of seeking out the broken and disenfranchised people of his day - the lepers, prostitutes and tax collectors - and he saw the value in each one of them. And in so doing, He helped them recognize the value in themselves. If Jesus can do it for the most alienated of our world, we at least can start with the everyday, common people of our neighborhoods.

  This Christmas season, let us recognize that just as faith is a decision, good will towards people is a series of decisions that work themselves out not in temporary holiday cheer, but in the details of everyday life.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Stay Awake, Be Prepared – Advent Devotional

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. …... Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”  (Matt. 24:36, 42)
Daily Scripture Reading: Matthew 24:36-44

  Advent is a season with a two-fold focus. Advent is a time to recall and celebrate Jesus Christ's entrance into our world to redeem mankind and triumph over death. It is also a period in which believers look forward to the "Second Advent" - the day when Jesus Christ will return.

  For nearly 2,000 years, Christians have lived in the hope of Jesus' impending return. Jesus' description of the event spans two chapters in the Gospel of Matthew (24-25) and is usually read as part of the lectionary lessons during Advent. The Second Coming of Jesus was also emphasized in the epistles of Paul, Peter and John. Bible scholars cite more than 300 references to the Second Coming in the New Testament. In his teachings about the Second Coming, it's important to understand that Jesus emphasized spiritual preparation rather than irresponsible speculation.

  Many people have mentioned their observation of individuals on their deathbed rarely conclude that they wish they'd spent more time at work. They become focused on faith, family, how they'll be remembered and what happens when they die. Priorities that elude us in the course of our busy daily routine become crystal-clear, if our hours become few.

  In the same way, the possibility that Jesus may show up at any moment forces Christians to maintain an attitude of vigilance and preparedness. The prospect of meeting God face-to-face helps sort our priorities, and our relationship with the Lord goes right to the top of the list. Which, as Christ taught us, is as it should be, "love the Lord with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul." It reminds us that it matters whether we greet the Lord as an old friend or as a stranger.

  Christianity is a faith that takes the long view of world events. It believes that understanding the beginning and end of time provides us with perspective on everything in between, and reminds us that God is in charge throughout.

  God defines "soon" much differently than we do. God's desire is for "everyone to come to repentance" - for us to form a relationship with God as revealed to us in the work and person of Jesus Christ through prayer, study, worship and following Jesus. On a Bethlehem night 2,000 years ago, God, as Jesus came to us as a babe. One day, He will come in glory.

  Christ means for us to join him in eternal life. For now, His will for us is to be here, loving our neighbor until they ask us why, and then pointing them toward the Christ of the manger and the Cross. Christ always made a distinction between the temporary nature of our worldly existence and the permanence of the Kingdom of Heaven.

  During Advent, we celebrate the beginning of Christ's mission in our world, “God with us,” which will be completed at His Second Coming - to free us from our dependence upon this world; to secure eternal life for each and every believer through his work on our behalf. Until his coming Jesus assures us, "In this world you will have tribulation, but take heart - I have overcome the world!" (John 16:33) Our task is to “Keep awake” and do the work Jesus has given us to do, until that day in which he returns.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

With God Nothing is Impossible – Advent Devotional

"In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”  (Luke 1:26-28)

Daily Scripture Reading: Luke 1:26-38

  Yesterday, we looked at Gabriel’s appearance to Zechariah in the gospel of Luke. Luke also presents the account of Gabriel’s appearance to Mary.

  In Luke, Gabriel says to Mary, "You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."

  And if the angel's news for Zechariah seemed astounding, it was trivial compared to the announcement Gabriel was about to reveal to Mary. Let's consider her situation when confronted with the news that she would bear God's Son through the virgin birth. What might this mean to her?

  Mary was probably about 16, perhaps even younger. She becomes pregnant. Given the social moral view of her time, she could have fully expected that she would be disgraced. Her fiancee, Joseph might very well have abandon her, which would have been an expected social response to the situation. Being a single mother would likely mean she would never marry. A young, single woman making a claiming that God had made her pregnant would have encountered trouble. Jewish society in the first century took a real hard line on "blasphemy," as later accounts of Jesus' ministry and death make clear.

  We can try to imagine ourselves in Mary's shoes, but I don't expect we can really grasp the magnitude of her situation. Mary knew the problems were real and overwhelming. As Mary expresses her doubts to the angel Gabriel about the reality of his announcement, he explains and concludes his statement with the phrase, For nothing will be impossible with God.” In response, rather than focusing on the size of her problems, she chose to trust in the size of her God.

  Mary's response to the angel Gabriel's message is straightforward: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word" (Luke 1:38). In these words, Mary discovered and defined her life forever by giving herself fully to God's purposes. Mary offered up herself, all of her, to God's mysterious will and way.

  God did provide for Mary in what God knew would be a difficult time in her young life. God gave Mary the strength and companionship of her relative Elizabeth who was awaiting the birth of her own son by Zechariah. God gave her the strength of her future husband, Joseph who went against normal social convention and believed in what God could do after his own angelic visit recorded in Matthew 1:20.

  What we do have in these glimpses of Mary are some important aspects of what it means to be a disciple of Christ: living with vulnerability, reflecting with care on the advent of Jesus Christ, and witnessing God’s actions in the world. In that sense, Mary remains a model for discipleship. Neither our choices nor our circumstances make us. God does, when we give ourselves to God’s will and purposes.

  God touches our lives often, in ways we almost never expect. We can relate to Zechariah's confusion, but we must aspire to Mary's faith. We need to try, as best we can, to be the Lord's servants, entrusting ourselves to His care as we walk through each new day in God’s world. As it was with Mary and is now with us, do not be afraid, for we have found favor with God through the coming of His son, Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Don't Miss the Wonder – Advent Devotional

“When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.” (Luke 1:12-13)

Daily Scripture Reading: Luke 1:12-20

  What would happen if one morning, during the middle of your daily routine, an angel appeared and told you that God had a plan that would completely change your life? How would you respond? Would you even believe what is now happening to you?

  Luke's account of the events leading up to Jesus birth includes two appearances of the angel, Gabriel before Zechariah and then Mary. These two appearances contain important truths and lessons for us during this Advent season.

  In the first appearance, the angel Gabriel appears to the priest Zechariah in the temple as he conducts his duties. Zechariah “was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him." We might want to think, we would respond differently, but the fact is we would probably respond the same way.

  "Do not be afraid, Zechariah," Gabriel tells him. "Your prayer has been heard. Your wife, Elizabeth, will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John ... he will be great in the sight of the Lord. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous - to make ready a people prepared for the Lord." (Luke 1:13-17)

  Zechariah has been confronted with the heavenly glory of God's messenger, a clearly supernatural interruption into his day. Yet his response to the angel's astounding news is to try and fit it into his existing assumptions about his life and his future.

  "How can I be sure of this?" responds Zechariah. "I am an old man and my wife is well along in years." Zechariah can't believe that he and Elizabeth could have a child. The fact of a child coming to a older couple is simply more than a person can comprehend. Still, Gabriel continues the astonishment by stating this new child will be an amazing child making it difficult to grasp the magnitude of John The Baptist's mission in the world.

  Gabriel, who was pretty sure he was being clear, is unamused by Zechariah's response. "I stand in the presence of God," he says. "You will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time."

  When God communicates with us or takes action in our lives, it is rarely with the impact of the angel Gabriel's appearance. Though I do believe our reaction might actually be much more similar to Zechariah's response. We too, would question whether the event was real. "Was that God speaking to me, or a hallucination? Was that a miracle, or just a coincidence? And if that really WAS a message from God, could that really be what God meant?"

  While we may relate to Zechariah's confusion and skepticism, we must be aware that it has its cost. It's not so much that we might be struck dumb if we doubt God's authority or interest in us, but we might miss the blessings and peace God desires to share with us. We might miss the wonder, the grace, and the miracle, God wants us to witness.

  Whether messages from God come to us through a heavenly messenger or a passage of Scripture, in the midst of prayer, during worship, or hearing the voice of God in the silence, God's promises are trustworthy. Our ability to accept these messages and live them is limited primarily by our ability to believe them.

  As Zechariah's story demonstrates, God is never predictable, but God is always faithful. "Do not be afraid, Your prayer has been heard.” During this Advent season don't allow yourself to miss and doubt the wonder and grace God wants to share with your this time of year.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Advent is about time spent with God – Advent Devotional

"More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Phil. 3:8a)

Daily Scripture Reading: Philippians 3:7-9

God loves each of us as if there were only one of us. - Augustine

  If our "face time" with one another is dwindling, our time spent one on one with God is on the endangered list. Our busy world with endless to-do lists challenges the notion of the importance of quiet time with our Creator. Advent invites us to turn that life-draining pattern upside down.

  Advent celebrates the incarnational, Word-becomes-flesh God. Advent announces that God was not willing to have a distant, arms-length relationship with us. Advent is all about God's willingness, even insistence, to be vulnerable, accessible, reachable, and attainable. Advent breaks down the barriers between the created and the Creator.

  God begins the process by delivering a message. God sends the silent, distant star in the sky; it's not clearly understood by everyone and is open to misinterpretation, just read how Herod responded. Yet there it is, an open invitation to anyone who will receive it.  God sends other messengers to deliver this urgent, good news. God has the corner on the market when it comes to the best messengers. Gabriel and a company of angels announces the upcoming birth and sing their alleluias for the shepherds and anyone else who will listen.

  God's desire was to deliver the Good News of mercy, love and hope in person through the incarnation. God chose face time in a way that would change the world. God spoke to the hearts of the people through Jesus, the son of the living God.

  The apostle Paul in our scripture reading for today, speaks of his longing to know Jesus Christ. He says that whatever else he might have gained in life meant nothing apart from the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Phil. 3:8)

  Not only does God yearn to communicate deeply and intimately with God's people, God chooses the perfect way to slide into our lives by appearing as a small baby to enter into our lives. Whom among us do not love children and take the time to speak with a child. God invites us to greet Him as a small child, approachable, joyous, and smiling.

  Frederick William Faber speaks to us about God's desire to have us hear the evidence of His presence in our lives: There is hardly ever a complete silence in our souls. God is whispering to us well-nigh incessantly. Whenever the sounds of the world die out in the soul, or sink low, then we hear these whisperings of God... He is always whispering to us, only that we do not always hear, because of the hurry, noise, and distraction which life causes as it rushes on.

  It would be tragic if in the hurry and rush of our lives during Advent, if we arrived on Christmas Day and discovered we missed hearing the Christ child speaking to our hearts and minds. It would be tragic, if we missed the opportunity to experience the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Phil. 3:8)

Monday, December 9, 2013

Recommended Faith Requirements – Advent Devotional

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

Daily Scripture Reading: Micah 6:6-8

   When you buy some new software or hardware, one of the first things you need to check is, does your computer meet the minimum system requirements. If your computer meets the minimum requirements then does it exceed these by having what is recommended for optimal performance. Minimum. Recommended. This is the language used in the world of computers.

  In today's scripture, Micah is talking about the language of faithful living. If you want to excel as a Christian - not just with Microsoft Excel - you need to know the minimum and recommended requirements.

   Paul in Galatians, tells us a person is made right with God "not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ" (2:16). The minimum Christian system requirement is faith. This means that we enter into a saving relationship with God through our willingness to trust Jesus, to rely on him to be our Lord and Savior. We are saved through faith, and Paul assures us that there is "no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1).

  Faith is the minimum system requirement. Then we might say that for optimal performance, we recommend you do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)

  Recommended requirement one: Do justice. The recommendation to do justice applies to every aspect of life - it means treating others with fairness, equality and showing concern for people who are weak, powerless and exploited. "Do justice," says Micah. Not simply "support justice." It's a high-commitment, hands-on, everyday activity.

  Recommended requirement two: Love kindness. The English word "kindness" is actually a weak translation of the Hebrew word hesed, which means love, loyalty and faithfulness. You might say, you are to “love love” or “love loyalty” or “love faithfulness.” It lies at the heart of healthy relationships, whether the bonds are marriages, close friendships or the relationship between God and his people. To "love kindness" is to keep this loyalty and faithfulness at the heart of all your relationships.

  Recommended requirement three: Walk humbly with your God. If we are going to excel as Christians, we must travel with God over the course of life. Faith may begin with a momentary decision, but it matures through a long journey of following God over many ups and downs, through mountaintop experiences and valleys of deep darkness. Along this path, we are challenged to walk humbly, knowing that God is - and always remains - ahead of us leading the way.

   When Jesus describes himself as "the way, and the truth and the life" (John 14:6), he is echoing this image of a journey. Jesus is our way, showing us exactly how we are to walk with God. When he first calls his disciples, he doesn't say, "Agree to these fine points of theology." Instead, he says, "Follow me" (Matt. 4:19).

  In the life of faith, unlike the world of computers, we should never be satisfied with the bare minimum. To have the strongest possible relationship with God and with each other, it is important to reach for the recommended system requirements: Doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly in our journey with Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

To Wait in Hope – Advent Devotional

"Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD.
Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications!
I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;
my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.” (Ps. 130:1-2, 5-6)

Daily Scripture Reading – Psalm 130

   This week with the death of South African Nelson Mandela, there are a host of topics that come to mind when I think about Mandela's life and the good news of the gospel. The topic of waiting and forgiveness was important in Mandela's life and to the meaning of Advent. I find the story of Mandela's life inspiring in regard to what he would not let happen to him. With all the years he spent imprisoned, it would have been easy to understand how he would have only wanted to get even and seek revenge upon his captors, but no, he chose to seek peace and forgiveness. His choice helped to lead a nation to reconciliation rather than hate and warfare.

  In Mandela's story he was forced to wait, until that time when he might someday be released, though that was never guaranteed. The years of waiting could have turned him bitter and hateful, but he used the time to seek another path. He said once to former President Bill Clinton that his captors took many things away from him and could have taken his life, but he realized they could never take away his heart and mind. He would have to voluntarily give these away and he was not going to give them up, but develop both his heart and mind so they would help him through this time of imprisonment and the years ahead.

  To endure the struggles and the periods of waiting, similar to Mandela's would be unimaginable to us. Most of the time, we have great difficulty in waiting. And we certainly don’t wait in silence. Most of the time, we hurry and we push. We split time into tenths of seconds. We complain when a traffic light turns red and holds us up longer than we would like. The press of hurrying creates harried and hassled souls, disconnected from life and from kindness itself. There is a way of being and knowing that dimly remembers that waiting in hope is an attitude of faith.

  Waiting in silence, creating space for steadfast love to grow within, may be the most essential practice of all. It is in many ways the spirit of Advent, that time of the Christian liturgical year when we practice the waiting for hope, faith and love and trusting in new life not yet fully known.

  Trappist monk Thomas Merton remarked that life is a perpetual Advent. He sensed that in that waiting, trust began to grow. Trust in God, trust in the Holy One who is beyond all that is created and is the source of all things, seen and unseen. Trusting and waiting allow the loving-kindness that is the essence of God’s own Life to grow in us, and to bear fruit that we never expected.

... one of the essential paradoxes of Advent: that while we wait for God, we are with God all along, that while we need to be reassured of God's arrival, or the arrival of our homecoming, we are already at home. While we wait, we have to trust, to have faith, but it is God's grace that gives us that faith. As with all spiritual knowledge, two things are true, and equally true, at once. The mind can't grasp paradox; it is the knowledge of the soul. - Michelle Blake, "The Tentmaker," 1999, p. 153
“I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;” (Ps. 130:2)
  Grant me O God the capacity to wait in hope, to allow your own loving-kindness to grow in me, for the life of your world. Amen.

Friday, December 6, 2013

We Are the Light in the Darkness – Advent Devotional

“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Matt. 5:14-16)

Daily Scripture Reading:  Matthew 5:1-16

  While growing up in the church, singing the childhood song, "This little light of mine ... I'm going to let it shine ...." was a common experience. Jesus clearly tells us we are the light in the world that shines forth his love and grace. Not hiding our light and letting this light shine before our community is an important task as a disciple of Christ. Though it is important to us to do this as individual disciples, it is not a singular individual task, but a task of the whole body of Christ. The song tends to focus exclusively on a single beam of light emitted by our small candle.

  Jesus' words in the Sermon of the Mount speaks not just of the individual but the whole community. Jesus wants us to think corporately about the illuminating power he generates in each of us and all of us collectively. Jesus speaks about the "city built on a hill cannot be hid" not just the one lone light flickering in a single window. The combined light emitted from an array of homes, each burning in its own place, all for a common purpose is what that sets the city ablaze in the midst of a dark and dreary night. Former President George Bush may have said more than he realized when he touted the "thousand points of light" theme. When you have hundreds and thousands of individual lights burning to break through the darkness does it impact the world and brings forth the hope found in Christ.

  Theologian Robert Alden writes that "There is not enough darkness in all the world to put out the light of even one small candle."

  There are no lamps that cannot throw some light on some darkened portion of a fellow-traveler's pathway. Take confidence in the potential power of your lamp, for its light source is truly unquenchable. The psalmist reminds us that the Word of God is always available to us, "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path" (Psalm 119:105). Don't make the mistake of thinking that you are somehow not "mentor-material." In Luke 6:40, Jesus reminds his disciples that while "A disciple is not above the teacher, ... everyone who is fully qualified will be like the teacher."

  As disciples of Christ, "lights of the world," we have been "fully qualified." Instead, we need only let our lamps shine, that others may see and find the way, the truth and the life.

  Jesus comes to give light and he wants us to be the light of the world as well. As we think about Advent, let's pray that our lights will shine so brilliantly that it will be as Isaiah said, "all flesh, all humanity, all people throughout the world and all of creation shall see the salvation of God."

  I often used the following words of the St. Francis of Assisi when I need to remind myself of the significance of the light I shine upon the world.

You are the Light of the world
Where there's hatred, shine love
Where there's injury, shine healing
Where there's darkness, shine light

You are the Light of the world
Where there's doubt, shine faith
Where there's despair, shine hope
Where there's sadness, shine joy

You are the Light of the world
Prepare ye the way of the Lord.

It is my prayer that we will have the presence of the Lord to help us, prepare a way for the Lord this Advent, into our hearts.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Waiting, All Day Long - Advent Devotional

“Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.... Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.” (Ps. 25:3, 5)

Daily Scripture Reading: Psalm 25:1-10

  The Psalmist in today's passage speaks of himself as one who waits for God in Psalm 25:3, and later in verse 5 says, "you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long." What does this mean, to wait for God? What is it that the psalmist expects? By waiting for God, the psalmist is acknowledging that he cannot continue on without the Presence of God. He cannot win against those who would put him to shame; he cannot save himself; there is nothing for him to do except lay aside his struggles and wait.

  When a situation gets out of control, we need to determine what can we realistically control in our life and determine what other things, we must give over control to God and say, "God, in this one you need to intervene."

  But to wait is not passive, nor is it simply hanging around waiting for God do it all. It is the time to call on the Presence of God. It is coming to God in the moment to receive God's wisdom and direction.

  When we come with open, empty hands, no longer under the illusion that we can do anything worthwhile outside of communion with God, we become open channels for God's wisdom. In this sense "waiting" is actually a sustained act of listening, of letting God continually flow in and through us. In the very act of deciding to wait for God, we find God immediately there. When we bring our attentiveness, our openness, and our release of control, then all that is necessary will be accomplished in union with God, "all day long."

  If our "face time" with family, friends and neighbors is dwindling, our time spent one on one with God is on the endangered list. Our busy world with endless to-do lists challenges the notion of the importance of quiet time with our Creator. Waiting is not big on our to-do-lists, we don't like to wait. We don't like to wait in lines, wait for spouses, wait for responses, etc.

  Advent invites us to turn that life-draining pattern upside down. Advent celebrates the incarnational, the Word-becomes-flesh, God moves into our neighborhoods, our family and our lives. Advent announces that God was not willing to have a distant, arms-length relationship with us. Advent is all about God's willingness or even God's insistence to be vulnerable, accessible, reachable, and attainable. Advent breaks down the barriers between the created and the Creator.

  God's desire was to deliver the Good News of mercy, love and hope in person. God chose face time in a way that would change the world. God spoke to the hearts of the people through Jesus, God's son.

  Not only does God yearn to communicate deeply and intimately with God's people, God chose the perfect way to slide into our lives by showing up in person. Sometimes, we need to wait to receive the gifts, because it might be the only way we will appreciate the gift and be instructed in the way that leads to truth and life.

  “Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.” (Ps. 25:4-5)

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

So Your Love May Overflow - Advent Devotional

"And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” (Phil. 1:9-11)

Daily Scripture Reading:   Philippians 1:3-11

  There is a story told about St. Francis of Assisi. One day as he was digging in the garden, Francis was asked, "If Jesus were to return to earth today, what would you do?" Without hesitating, Francis answered, "I would continue gardening."

  Would we be so calm if we heard Jesus was coming back today? Or would we be desperately scrambling to get our lives in order? Confident enough that he was ready to meet the King, Francis would peacefully keep on about his business until Jesus' arrival.

  In today's text, the apostle Paul expresses a similar confidence in the people in Philippi. Seeing all the good that God had begun in them, he was certain that God would continue bringing it to completion until "the day of Christ Jesus." (1:6) or also called in other scripture passages, “the day of the Lord.”

  As we take this journey again toward Christmas and we recall the events surrounding the first coming of Emmanuel, we need to remember: "God is with us!" We must prepare our hearts and minds to humbly welcome Jesus into our lives today and each and everyday.

  No place is this understanding more important than in the matter of our faith. Many of us may have grown up in the church. During this time we might have one or many defining moments of faith or as some might say a mountaintop spiritual experience. A high point of faith where God's presence was made more clear and real to us, perhaps it was at summer church camp, a youth retreat, a mission trip, Bible study, etc. Whenever it was, it stood out as a spiritual mountaintop experience. We were excited about our faith and may have made our most important commitments to follow Jesus Christ as a disciple.

  But later, we were likely disappointed when we discovered that the peak of spiritual emotion we felt doesn’t last. We went from a mountaintop spiritual experience and then had to return to the valley to live out our lives and we found the excitement of conversion or commitment dissipates. What followed may have been the exact opposite, a spiritual low point when our faith seemed as dry as dust and our commitments seemed a little foolish.

  In time, if we persevere in following Jesus, we come to understand that neither the highs nor the lows describe what the ongoing life of faith is. Some of us may see only despair in the cyclical nature of our emotions and faith, but to paraphrase the psalmist, they saw hope in it: “Okay, I’m down today, but God constantly renews life. I will be up again.”

  Advent can help to renew and refresh our faith and show us that God is always present in our lives during the highs and the lows. I find my faith renewed each and everyday by simple acts of worship, singing hymns, taking time in prayer, reading scripture, and being in fellowship with others in the life of the church. Even if your faith has reached a low and we have distanced ourselves from others in the church, we can make the decision to get re-involved because God is compassionately, tenderly and lovingly waiting for us to return. I share with Paul this same sentiment during these day of Advent:

"And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” (Phil. 1:9-1)

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Life Under-Construction - Advent Devotional

"Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” (Matt. 3:2-3, NRSV)

Daily Scripture Reading: Matthew 3:1-10

  Live long enough in Pennsylvania and eventually you need to drive on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I have personally spent more hours on the turnpike than I would like, but sometimes it is the only practical way to travel by car to some points in Pennsylvania or neighboring states. One of the major frustrations with traveling the PA Turnpike are the frequent relays related to road construction. The turnpike always seemed like a sea of orange construction cones and consistent building and rebuilding the roadway.

  On one trip several years ago, I noticed a sign that alerted travelers that "the next five miles are the first completely rebuilt section" of the road. It seemed obvious, but you can't build better roads without some time spent in construction and you can not grow emotional, spiritually and mentally without periods of personal crisis, struggle, renewal and growth.

  Of course, no one likes the inconveniences of construction projects, particularly when we are traveling the road. Construction is what leads to smooth, unencumbered roadways that make for future convenient and safe travel. The hundreds of miles of the Pennsylvania Turnpike goes around, and even through, a series of valleys, ravines and mountains, which makes road construction challenging. Many of the major construction projects on the turnpike have been to shorten sections and widen the highway.

  In Luke's gospel, John the Baptist's ministry around the region of the Jordan, was in fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah:
"Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, And every mountain and hill shall be make low, And the crooked shall be made straight, And the rough ways smooth; And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

  John urged those who listened to prepare themselves for the coming of Jesus, the Messiah. John called the people to repentance and to come and get baptized with water and prepare themselves for Jesus who would baptize them with the Holy Spirit. You might say John is beginning a new construction project that God was bringing upon the world in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

  John tells us this construction project begins with our repentance and baptism with water and is the sign of our forgiveness. He does not stop there, he goes on to tell us to “bear fruit befitting of our repentance.” (v. 8) For me, Advent and Lent has always been about a new journey toward building a better life for myself as a disciple of Christ. Advent often is a construction project for me to better embrace the spiritual significance of the incarnation of Christ into the world. To make the paths straighter toward my heart and mind so Christ can deepen and strengthen my faith, hope and love.

  What areas of your life need rebuilt and made straighter? God wants us to travel the straight paths in life, but we often complicate them, making them more difficult to travel. During Advent allow Jesus to rebuilt your faith, hope and love during this journey toward the incarnation. May our lives be under constant construction, as we make smooth the way of the Lord.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Stand Up and Raise your Heads - Advent Devotional

"People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken..... Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:26, 28, NRSV)

Daily Scripture Reading – Luke 21:25-36

  If you are one of the many baby boomers, you might remember going to school, particularly, elementary school participating in periodic safety drills known as “duck and cover.”

  During the early years of the Cold War, when Americans feared a missile attack from the Soviet Union, it was common for teachers to instruct students on what to do in the event of a nuclear war. If the air-raid sirens ever went off, the teachers advised the students, they were to immediately duck down under their desks, pull their knees up to their chins and cover their heads with their hands.

  We look back on those days and view them as silly. A school desk would provide little protection, if a nuclear war burst forth upon the earth. Schools eventually stopped these “duck and cover” drills because they were pointless and only served to increase everyone’s fear and anxiety level.

  In the today's scripture, Jesus speaks in response to comments of the disciples on the beauty of the temple. Jesus describes a coming time of disruption and turbulence. Things which have the appearance of durability, like the temple, will begin to disintegrate. For many people this description of chaos, defines a fearful time, a time to duck and cover. But note what Jesus says, "When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads,” otherwise don't duck and cover! Something good is about to happen!

  When something good is about to happen we watch eagerly. If we are expecting the arrival of a friend we haven't seen for a long time, we check frequently to see if they have arrived. We watch down the street. We don't leave home or go where we can't hear the doorbell or the phone. When our friend arrives we know immediately, because we are watching, we are prepared to receive them.

  Jesus is recommending we need to stay alert. Don't become distracted. "Weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness, and the anxieties of life," is how Jesus phrased it. The world is filled with chaotic activities and events that can make us anxious and fearful. But in all this there are signs of God's presence. God continues to come into our lives. If we are "on our feet looking up," we will see and be encouraged.

  In this season of Advent, of “coming,” of expectation and anticipation, we remember how a birth began to brighten a dark world. We prepare to recognize the start of a revolution that does not involve fighting or fear as we recognize our continued longing for the dazzling peace of Christ.

  As disciples of Jesus Christ we are called to view history and our future in the long view of eternity. Harry Emerson Fosdick, tells of having a conversation with the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr was convinced of the universal tendency for humans to abuse power that he was pessimistic about the possibility of society becoming moral. Though, he took a long view of the ultimate hope in God and believed that individual acts could be conducted on a higher moral level than that of the society in which the individual lived. Fosdick, however, had more confidence in humankind’s ability to progress, and thus, he urged Niebuhr to be more optimistic.

  Niebuhr responded, “If you will be pessimistic with me decade by decade, I will be optimistic with you aeon by aeon.”

  Niebuhr believed it was possible for us to “stand up and raise our heads” even in the midst of conflict, troubles and threat, for it calls for us to see the good news behind the bad news. Niebuhr believed, Good News is the gospel of Jesus proclaimed and this is where our hope lies. As Niebuhr put it elsewhere:
“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we must be saved by love.”

  Thus, if we believe Jesus, then we should not view Advent as merely a preparation season for Christmas. It is a time to remind ourselves not to misread the calamitous signs in our world as reasons to despair. Rather they are signals to stand up and raise your heads, because our redemption is drawing near.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Showing Up, Being Prepared - Advent Devotional

Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.... Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Matt. 25:1-2, 13)
Daily Scripture Reading: Matthew 25:1-13 – Parable of the Five Wise and Five Foolish Bridesmaids
  I grew up in the age when most kids would get Cowboy focused items for Christmas. Cowboy outfits, Cowboy hats and boots, etc. Playing games made you think you lived in the wild west were common as well as watching Cowboy movies. Our lives as kids were dominated by the larger-than-life images portrayed by the biggest movie cowboy-actor, John Wayne. The rough-and-tumble, heart-of-gold, good-guy character John Wayne projected the characteristics and qualities of honor, loyalty, bravery and commitment.

  John Wayne's cowboys didn't just look good. They were good. In the classic movie, "Rio Bravo," Wayne's character summed up the essence of his cowboy philosophy by declaring to a less-than-perfect sidekick "Just showing up doesn't get the job done!"

  Matthew's parable of the five wise and five foolish bridesmaids seems to emphasize this same kind of message. Good intentions are not enough for a faithful members of the Christian community, we must not just show up, but must be prepared and ready to make ourselves present before God.

  Advent calls us as Jesus tells us in the parable, the ability to wait patiently for his arrival, now and at his second coming. Though waiting alone is not enough, we need to Show Up. Getting there, no matter fast we travel, is not everything. We need to prepare ourselves and be present with God's spirit now, in order, for us to be present to Christ now and into the future, less we miss Jesus during Advent.

  For the faithful, committed disciple of Jesus, "showing up" has a God-centered meaning and is a necessary first step, but it does not end there. The worst thing a Christian can do is fail to show up to the moment God has given us and not be prepared to receive Jesus. Jesus calls us to show up to the event God has placed us and to show up to the problem life is presenting to us. Then do the work God has called to do.

  Jesus doesn't mean we have to like it. Jesus doesn't mean we have to accept it. But Jesus does mean we must show up for the moment God has given – regardless of how crazy or hard the task before us might be. You can not respond to God's call, if you don't first show up.

  God has called us to "show up" and "be present" because God has a need of the unique gifts and strengths each one of us has to offer to this place and time. Capture the wonder and miracle of Advent and the coming light entering the world through the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God with us. Show up, be prepared and discover the mysteries God is about to reveal. Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Matt. 25:13)