What do You Want Christmas to be Like?

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What do you want Christmas to be like this year?

Some of us remember Christmas as a day when our family came together when we were growing up and we want that tradition to continue as we grow older. Other people look forward to seeing the twinkle in people’s eyes when they open the special gift that we bought for them. Still others resonate with the words “peace on earth and goodwill for all” and we long to see that happen in our lives and in the world. Yet others experience the coming Holiday as a time of loneliness, sorrow and hurt.

And then, right in the middle of our holiday preparations, the words of John the Baptizer ring in our ears (Matthew 3:1-12). John calls people a bunch of snakes. John calls us to repent and change our ways. John speaks not of the quiet coming of a little baby who is placed in a manger, but of a rather ferocious person who comes into the world to gather wheat into a barn and throw chaff into unquenchable fire. Whoa! John appears to be the biggest Christmas party-pooper who ever lived!

But, think about this. Sometimes Christmas isn’t what we hope it will be because we all have relationships that are strained and broken because of things we’ve said or done – and sometimes that’s why there are empty seats at our Christmas dinner. Sometimes Christmas isn’t what we hoped it would be because we get so immersed in the Holiday cheer and buying presents that we forget that Christmas is about love. Sometimes our Christmas isn’t what we hoped it would be because our hearts are hard; and because, even in a Season of “peace on earth and goodwill for all,” we judge people who need our help and make assumptions about the lives of people that we’ve never met. Sometimes, Christmas isn’t what we hoped it would be because we’ve gotten so swept away by the Holiday tunes and on the radio and preparing our Christmas feast that we forget about people who will spend Christmas alone and even end up throwing food in the garbage that could have been shared with a special guest.

But the Good News is that we still have a little bit more than two weeks to just stop and change course and do things differently. It’s not too late to go back to people that we’ve hurt and make amends, so that the empty seat at last year’s Christmas feast isn’t empty again this year. It’s not too late to remember that Christmas is about love and not about finding that “special gift” that is going to wear out or be broken and thrown in the trash. It’s not too late to drop some money into a Salvation Army bucket, or gather some people together to go Christmas caroling at the homes of folks who are confined to their homes because of health issues. It’s not too late to pick up the telephone and invite someone you know who is going to be alone on Christmas to be your special guest at Christmas dinner.

We all have ideas about what we want Christmas to be like. Christmas is a time of the year that’s filled with hopes and expectations and big dreams and deep longings for something in life that we don’t often experience at other times of the year. And that’s why the words of John the Baptizer are so important for us to hear.

We have a little bit more than two weeks to do the things that will help Christmas to be what we want it to be. We still have a little bit of time to stop and change course and think about ways to let other people know that the “Reign of God is near.” And that’s the message that John the Baptizer speaks to us even today.

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As You Enter a New Year

New Year

Happy New Year!

The story of King Herod and the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12) provides fertile ground for us as we enter a brand new year.  King Herod rose to power during the flurry of activity that occurred after the death of Julius Caesar. King Herod was a survivor who was bound and determined to bring Judea into the Roman Empire, and he was a man who was not afraid to use violence to get his own way. Herod ordered the death of his wife; and, then, he had her dead body preserved in honey for seven years. Herod commanded his soldiers to kill three of his sons, and Herod’s own brother escaped a similar fate only because he died before the soldiers could assassinate him.

And then, near the end of his life, Herod meets the Magi. The Magi were oriental priests who studied astrology and who interpreted dreams (which, in the ancient world, were understood to be the voice of God). Most people accept the fact that the Magi were not present on the night of Christ’s birth because the Bible tells us, when the Magi arrived, Jesus was living in a “house” with His mother – and we also know that when King Herod tried to destroy the Christ Child, he ordered the death of every boy under the age of two (to allow himself some wiggle room).

But, the story of King Herod and the Magi is a story about people who went away from the Christ as people who had been changed and as people who decided “to go home on a different road.” And that’s the challenge we find in this story today.

“As You Enter a New Year” is a message that’s meant to invite you to think about the new year and about how you can live your life in a new way in 2018.

Can we enter 2018 with a renewed sense of peace as we continue to live our lives in a world where it’s easy to be consumed by long lists of worries and concerns? Can we enter the new year with a deeper understanding of God’s love and embrace in a world where it’s not always easy to love and embrace? Can we enter 2018 with a renewed sense of what God’s doing in our lives – in our families – in our churches – and in the world? Can we enter 2018 with a deeper sense of God’s unfolding plan for our lives and world during a time when we seem to be constantly surrounded by chaos, conflict, and bad news?

The Magi didn’t return to King Herod because “dream interpreters” who listen to the voice of God understand that God’s future isn’t going to be found in people who simply overpower others to get their own way. “Dream interpreters” who listen to the voice of God understand that God’s future isn’t going to be found where people squash others under their feet to get ahead.

Can we enter 2018 with a deeper understanding of the gentleness and compassion that stands at the heart of God’s message to the world? Can we enter the new year with a deeper understanding of the fact that God’s Reign breaks into the world when divisive rhetoric is replaced with a spirit of cooperation and goodwill for all people? Can we enter 2018 with a deeper understanding of God’s path of love that calls us to bear each other’s burdens and to lift each other up?

How will we be changed by the encounter with Christ that we’ve just shared? How will the voice of God call us to “go back home on a different road” – walking together on new and exciting paths as we enter the new year?

 

Getting Ready for Christmas

Christmas Fireplace

Lots of people are getting ready for Christmas these days.

Merchants have stacked their shelves to capacity; and they are, now, awaiting the arrival of the Master Cards, Visa cards, and Discover cards. People are baking cookies. Folks are buying presents, stringing lights on the outside of their homes, and wrapping gifts. Little children are writing letters to Santa Claus while their parents decorate the Christmas tree. We have parties to plan, gatherings to organize, houses to clean, and big bowls of eggnog to dust with nutmeg. And, it seems, that it all has to be done “right now.”

Preparation is a normal part of Christmas, and we all know that our time of preparation is limited because Christmas is going to arrive whether we’re ready or not. Can you image a Christmas morning where there aren’t any gifts under the tree because nobody took time to wrap them? Can you imagine attending a Candlelight Service on Christmas Eve and watching the room go totally black when the lights are dimmed because nobody bought candles? Preparation is not just about getting ready. Preparation is about getting ready before it’s too late.

John the Baptizer came into the world to “prepare the way” for Jesus Christ. John called people to stop, and look at their lives and relationships. John called people to admit that we all have relationships that aren’t what we want them to be. We all have things in our lives that we need to push into the past, so that God can do something new. We have things that block our vision. We have things that stand between us and God. We have fears and challenges that overshadow God’s plan for our lives and futures. We all have valleys and craters that can make God seem far away.

In this week’s message, “Getting Ready for Christmas”, we’re challenged to admit that, as a well-known Christmas song proclaims, we grow a little leaner, a little colder, a little sadder, and a little older as we travel through life. Circumstances in our lives can steal the twinkle in our eyes and take the spring out of our step. And that’s why we need this special time of the year.

Perhaps, we can use the next few weeks to prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ by spending a little bit more time in prayer and reflection? Perhaps we can use the next two weeks to mend some fences and to tear down some of the walls that we’ve place between ourselves and other people? Perhaps, we need some new perspectives? Perhaps, we need to reflect upon what it means to be a child of God in crazy times, and to allow the storm in our souls to be calmed?

Oh, yes! We need a little Christmas – right this very minute! But we, also, need a time of preparation that continues to challenge us to look at our lives in an honest and authentic way; and, perhaps, to challenge us to make some changes – as we long for the Day when God will renew His entire Creation, and bring healing into our lives and into our world.

Read Through the Bible – Week 40

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Welcome back to “Read Through the Bible”

This weekend, many Christians will enter the season of Advent – a time of hope when we listen to the promises of God and a time of expectation when we hear God’s promises to renew His creation.

The news is filled with many stories that create fear and uncertainty these days. We hear about gunmen randomly shooting innocent people, and we hear about bombs rocking mosques in the Middle East. We’ve all heard about the increasing tensions between the United States and North Korea, and we’ve witnessed missile launches. We’ve seen people of great prominence fall from public grace as the #MeToo Movement has exposed stories of sexual harassment, and we’ve wondered what Congress’ new tax bill will mean to our lives in the coming years. Fear and uncertainty seem to be all around us. Some of us are asking questions that we’ve never asked in the past. And we need hope. We need to find a source of hope and peace that reminds us that God’s still in control and that the forces of good are, ultimately, going to win.

Advent is time of hope when we listen to the promises of God and a time of expectation when we hear God’s promises to renew His creation. But Advent is, also, a time when we are called to reflect and to honestly admit that, at least sometimes, we’re part of what’s wrong. We don’t always treat other people kindly; and, when people step on our toes, we don’t always forgive quickly. We want to sit in the driver’s seat and self-direct the course of our lives; and, when we do that, we can be blind to opportunities that God sets before us. We sometimes misinterpret the actions of others and we’re not always willing to admit that people can change. That’s the story of Jonah. And that’s one of the stories that we’re going to encounter in this week’s readings.

Many of us are probably already familiar with this epic tale. We can almost picture the frightened mariners casting lots, and we can almost imagine the look on Jonah’s face when his compatriots decided that he’s the problem. We can easily picture Jonah being swallowed by a great, big fish and being vomited-out upon the dry land. Maybe, as you read the story of Jonah this week, you’ll be able to sense the anger that he felt when God decided to have mercy upon the 120,000 people that Jonah thought God would destroy? The story of Jonah is a short one; but it’s, also, a very human story in which we can all find a part of ourselves.

What if we began the season of Advent by honestly admitting that, sometimes, we are the source of the problems in our own lives? What if we began the season of Advent by just stopping for a moment to think about the times when we’ve thwarted God’s plan for our lives and futures because we weren’t willing to give God the reins? Have you ever had a time when you struggled to accept the fact that God can forgive people that you can’t? Can Advent mark a new beginning in your life this year and help you to prepare yourself to meet the Christ whose birth we’re going to celebrate in just a few short weeks?

Advent is time of hope when we listen to the promises of God and a time of expectation when we hear God’s promises to renew His creation. But Advent is, also, a time when we recall that the renewal of God’s creation sometimes begins with us. Perhaps, we can use the next few weeks to renew our relationships with people that we’ve hurt or with the people who have hurt us? Perhaps, we can use the next few weeks to more intentionally pray and ask for God’s guidance? Perhaps, we can use the next few weeks to allow God to work in our hearts and in our lives, so that we’re more prepared to meet the Christ as He comes to us on Christmas?

Here are this weeks readings:

Sunday: Hebrews 5-7 – Monday: Numbers 29-32 – Tuesday: 2 Chronicles 11-15 – Wednesday: Psalms 117-118 – Thursday: Proverbs 28 – Friday: Jonah – Saturday: Acts 3-4

 

 

Why bother with Advent?

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Many Christians experience a sense of angst during the Season of Advent.

We see Christmas lights adorning the houses in our neighborhoods, and familiar Holiday songs are bursting from the speakers in our cars. We’re baking cookies and wrapping the presents that we’ve bought for other people. Children are getting excited. Pine trees are being strapped to the roofs of automobiles and are being dragged into homes where they’ll be decorated with lights and tinsel and ornaments. We’re celebrating the Holiday Season at parties that are being hosted by our friends, and favorite recipes are being shared. And then, we come to worship and discover that Pastor Grinch won’t allow us to decorate the inside of the church building with things we’re seeing everywhere else.  And we just can’t understand why Pastor Grinch is such a curmudgeon.

Many people in the Church celebrate Advent during the days and weeks before Christmas. Advent is a time when we’re called to simply stop and reflect upon the “gap” between the things that we see and experience in our daily lives and what God intends for our lives and our world. The Bible tells us about a Day when lambs will rest peacefully beside wolves and when bears will graze beside cows (Isaiah 11:6-7). The Bible speaks about a glorious Day in human history when swords will be beaten into plowshares, and when spears will be used for pruning hooks (Isaiah 2:4). God comforts His people with a great message of hope that is meant to encourage us and lift our spirits (Isaiah 40:1-2). And yet, we’re not there yet, are we? Our hearts and our souls yearn for better days in the midst of times that are not always easy to face. And in that yearning of the soul, we discover what it means to live our lives with faith and to look forward to something better.

The Holiday Season isn’t easy for everyone. Picture a woman, who’s being abused by the man that she once loved, desperately doing her best to tough-it-out because she doesn’t want to ruin her children’s Christmas by uprooting the family and moving into the local women’s shelter. People who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder find the days that surround Christmas very difficult because the nights are so incredibly long. The Holiday Season can highlight the sense of brokenness that we experience when we’re trying to move through difficult times with our friends and, sometimes, with members of our own family. Even the well-known Christmas carol, “Silent Night,” sounds very different when you’re hearing it for the first time after you’ve lost your spouse – or a parent – or a child.

Advent is a Season that invites us to be real and authentic. Advent is a Season that invites us to acknowledge that our lives and our relationships aren’t perfect; and that reminds us that, even on the longest night of the entire year, the light of Christ still shines. God walks beside us and lifts us up in times when we need strength and courage. God reminds us that better days are surely coming – even when we’re ready to throw-in the towel. Wars and violence will cease. Families and relationships will be restored. Even the shadow of death, itself, will be overcome by the glorious light of the Prince of Peace. Our lives and our souls will be healed by the power of God. And when it’s all said and done, we will be lifted-up by the Christ that we meet on Christmas.

Radical authenticity isn’t easy. Our lives aren’t always what we want them to be, and our relationships and families are far more complex than what can be described by a Hallmark card. And we want to run away from that. And, perhaps, that’s why so many of us want to run toward Christmas as quickly as we can. We want to experience the joy again. We want that feeling of hope. We want the “peace on earth” that’s announced from pulpits around the world. But, Pastor Grinch wants us to slow down and to take some time to think about what’s happening in our lives and in the world. That dastardly, old curmudgeon wants us to look deeply into the parts of our lives that desperately need God’s healing presence. And, from that deep and profound sense of authenticity, he invites us to come to the Manger – and to stand face-to-face with the God who has the power to make us whole again.

It’s not always easy for us to move through Advent when the rest of the world is filled with people who are shouting, “Ho, Ho, Ho!” We’re always going to be tempted to flee from the radical kinds of authenticity that challenge us to openly admit what’s broken in our lives and in the world. We want to flee from what makes us feel uncomfortable, and run full-speed-ahead toward what’s both familiar and safe. And, perhaps, that’s why so many of us are tempted to push Advent out of the way on our way toward Christmas? Maybe our very human reluctance to embrace Advent is caused by the fact that we don’t want to fully embrace the parts of our lives and of our human experience that God wants to heal?

Read Through the Bible – Weeks 38 and 39

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Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good and His mercy endures forever!

We celebrate a national Day of Thanksgiving in the United States this week.

People drive many miles to spend time with their family. Houses are filled with familiar smells as pies are baked and as turkeys spend hours in the oven. Some people watch the big parades and the football games that have become a part of Thanksgiving Day. Other people spend time reviewing their Christmas list, so that they can hit the ground running on Black Friday. And, at some point, we all encounter the “pregnant moment” when we gather around a great feast and prepare to eat.

Why is it important to celebrate Thanksgiving?

Many of us live our lives believing that we work hard for all the things that we have and for the food that we eat. Many of us celebrate “Turkey Day” with little awareness of God’s blessings in our lives and in the lives of those that we love. It’s easy to forget about all of the prayers that God has answered and the blessings that God has given. It’s easy for us to forget about the blessings of good health, warm homes and peace. Martin Luther once wrote that, as Christ teaches us to pray “give us this day our daily bread,” Jesus tells us to remember that it is God who gives us our food and drink, clothing, shoes, house, money, goods, husbands and wives, children, our government, good weather, peace, good health, good friends and neighbors, self-control and a good reputation. When we pray – “Give us this day our daily bread” – we recall that God’s the source of everything.

Why is it important to celebrate Thanksgiving?

Perhaps, we need to pause and think about what life would be like if we didn’t have any food, any clothes to wear, warm homes to enjoy, and good health? Perhaps, we need to pause for a moment and think about what life would be like if we didn’t have any fresh water to drink, enough money to pay our bills, good weather, family and friends?

Why is it important to celebrate Thanksgiving?

Perhaps because it’s easy to forget that we’re richly blessed? Perhaps because we need to stop – at least for a short moment once each year – to just think about the Wonderful God who fills our lives with so many good things? Perhaps in that “pregnant moment” we can think about the people in our world who are less fortunate than we are? Perhaps in that once-a-year “pregnant moment” we can simply stop and think about ways that we can be a blessing in the lives of other people who don’t enjoy simple blessings that we often take for granted as we prepare to enter another Holiday Season?

Why is it important to celebrate Thanksgiving?

It’s important to celebrate Thanksgiving because it prepares us for what’s coming next. We remember that being “blessed” doesn’t always mean “having more.” We remember that life’s about far more than getting the biggest box that’s under the tree, or the most expensive electronic device. Life is about learning to appreciate what God gives us. Life is about finding ways to share goodness with others. Thanksgiving reminds us that God fills our lives with blessings we can share with other people. We become more generous, more giving and more aware of the needs of others when we stop and realize how richly we’ve been blessed in the past year.

I hope and pray that you’ll enjoy this Thanksgiving with those you love. I also hope and pray that, when you come to the “pregnant moment” we’ll all face as we gather around the table where a great feast is set before us that you’ll take a moment to just pause – and to reflect for a moment – and to give thanks for the many blessings that God has poured into your life.

And then, as you rise from the feast and prepare to journey into the “Season of Giving,” I hope and pray that you’ll carry with you a generous spirit – filled to overflowing with the type of thanksgiving that gives birth to love, to kindness, and to generosity.

Here are the readings for the next two weeks:

Week #38

Sunday: Philemon – Monday: Numbers 21-24 – Tuesday: 2 Chronicles 1-5 – Wednesday: Psalms 111-113 – Thursday: Proverbs 25 – Friday: Amos 5-9 – Saturday: John 19-21

Week #39

Sunday: Hebrews 1-4 – Monday: Numbers 25-28 – Tuesday: 2 Chronicles 6-10 – Wednesday: Psalms 114-116 – Thursday: Proverbs 26-27 – Friday: Obadiah – Saturday: Acts 1-2