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Posts Tagged ‘Advent 2’

       “I thank my God every time I remember you,  4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you,  5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.  6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.  7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel.  8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus.  9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight  10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless,  11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” – Philippians 1:3-11

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“Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son.  58 Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.  59 On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father.  60 But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.”  61 They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.”  62 Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him.  63 He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed.  64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.  65 Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea.  66 All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

67 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:  68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.  69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,  70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,  71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.  72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant,  73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us  74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear,  75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.  76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,  77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.  78 By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us,  79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”  80 The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.”Luke 1:57-80

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Today begins the second week of Advent (already!) and we are well on our way to Christmas. In case you missed last week, we have started an Advent series called Close To Home that features a collection of home-related texts, artwork, and songs for the Advent season.

Advent

Last week the focus was on Homesickness, which talked about the feeling of being homesick on a number of different levels, and the fact that there are so many people in our world today who are far from home in one way or another – people we can reach out to with the welcome of Christ. There are also people who are home who feel homesick in other ways, like missing loved ones or missing family get-togethers.

Last week I shared with the other churches my own feelings of homesickness that I experienced a few years ago, after Mom passed and Dad came down with what would be his final illness. I’ve lived in Pittsburgh since 1976 but I was born and raised in Philadelphia, and about five years ago I was feeling homesick for Philadelphia in the worst way. I wanted to be part of the sights and sounds and smells of that noisy, crowded city just one more time. But when I went there I found the city quiet. The stores were almost deserted, Reading Terminal (the old train station) was gone, and there wasn’t much traffic either in cars or on foot. It was a little spooky. So I bought a cheese-steak from a street vendor (thank God the street vendors were still there!) and sat down to wonder what on earth had happened to my hometown.

Of course we all know it’s the passage of time. Things don’t stay the same. I don’t think what I was feeling was nostalgia, so much as it was just wanting to go home again, and coming to the realization that home isn’t there any more. Not the way I remember it anyway.

People here in Pittsburgh feel the same way about Kaufmann’s clock and Jenkins Arcade. It’s not that we want to go back to living in the 1960s. It’s just that home – as we remember it – isn’t there any more.

The thing is, for those of us who know and love Jesus, home does not lie behind us but in front of us. Back 1500 years ago, St. Augustine said “we are restless until we find our rest in thee” – and that’s really what it boils down to. As Christians we are not going back home, we are going forward home. That’s what Advent is all about. That’s the foundation.

Speaking of foundations, this week our Advent focus is on Laying the Foundation. My husband the carpenter could tell us all about the importance of laying a solid foundation.

Foundation

A good foundation takes time and thought and planning. In this week’s readings we see God, the master builder, laying the foundation for our salvation and for our forever-home. And now, finally, the building has begun and progress is being made!

Our heavenly home – the Kingdom of God – has been in the process of being built for some time. The building began when God created the heavens and the earth; but in a metaphorical sense, the first chapters of Genesis were more like getting the deed to the land. The actual building begins with the people of Israel, as Zechariah says in our passage from Luke today:

“[God] has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old…” (Luke 1:69-70)

This foundation has been in the process of being laid for four thousand years if not longer. Like any master builder, God takes time. God builds a family from the descendants of Abraham; God defines how to be the family of God by giving the laws of Moses. (The Greek word for this BTW is oikonomos – literally the “law of the house” – which is where we get our word economy from.)

God also includes plans for a redeemer who will come from the house of David; and God sends prophets to let God’s people know what the plans are and what to expect. For example in Micah 5:2 the prophet says:

“But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.”

Here in our reading from Luke for today, Zechariah is saying the time has come.  The home God is building will be a place where God’s people are redeemed. It will be a place where God’s people will be saved from enemies and anyone who hates us. It will be a place where God’s mercy can be found, where God’s people can serve God without fear, where God’s people will be holy and righteous and above all, saved from sin. It will be a place of light and peace and love.

When Zechariah says all these things, his neighbors’ jaws hit the floor. It’s important to hear what Luke is saying here about the neighborhood: when Luke says John and Elizabeth’s neighbors and relatives were witnesses to these events, he’s pointing out that these things didn’t happen in a vacuum. They didn’t happen in the privacy of someone’s house. The whole community is present. The whole community is witness. The word Luke uses in Greek is perioikoi which literally translates “anybody who had houses nearby”! Nothing was done quietly or in secret. The events of John the Baptist’s birth were very public, and the prophecy was talked about through the whole neighborhood. Luke says people were “amazed” and “fear came over all their neighbors” and news of these events spread – using whatever the people of those days used instead of Facebook – and reached all the way “to the hill country of Judea”.  Everyone who heard it asked “what will this child become?”

Neighborhood

What will this child become? His father, Zechariah, said John would become “the prophet of the Most High” who would “go before the Lord to prepare his ways and to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sins.”

This was talked about all around the region. What I wonder – and what the Bible doesn’t tell us – is how much of all this people remembered 25 or 30 years later when John began his public ministry. Did they remember the miracles that took place at his birth? Did they remember the miracle of Zechariah being able to speak again? Were people still watching to see what this child would become? Or had all that cycled out of the news by then and been forgotten? I’ve often wondered the same thing about Jesus: after all the angels and shepherds and wise men had gone home, how many people remembered these events 30 years later?

I raise these questions because often times things that happened in our lives 20, 30, 40 years ago – things having to do with God – should be remembered and talked about.  For some of us maybe it was a trip to a church camp, maybe it was a time that we went forward to say “yes” to God, or maybe it was a time in nature when we sensed God’s presence, maybe it was something we read that changed how we see things. Whatever it was, these things are important – they are part of the foundation God builds in our lives, and they should be remembered.

But back to Luke’s gospel. This is where the Christmas story begins: with the fulfillment of prophecy, with the fulfillment of God’s promises, and with work progressing on God’s blueprint.

But… all these things in Luke’s gospel happened 2000 years ago. When we look around at our world right now, and what a mess it is, and how much the churches and people of faith are struggling, people are starting to wonder what happened to that blueprint? Where are the heavenly construction workers? Why does it seem that progress on our heavenly home has slowed to a crawl?

This is where the rubber meets the road with our Christian faith. Two thousand years ago Jesus came to earth. Two thousand years ago Jesus lived and died for us to open the door to God’s kingdom – as Zechariah said: “God has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them…”. Two thousand years ago Jesus died on the cross, fulfilling the words of John the Baptist, who “[gave] us knowledge of salvation… by the forgiveness of sins.”

And ever since then we’ve been waiting. Empires have come and gone… kings have been born and died… wars have been fought… thousands of years have passed… and still we wait.

Waiting

As one theologian recently pointed out, our faith in God’s promises – our trust in God’s promises – is what makes us Christian. Even though 2000 years later the world is still a mess, and the quest for greed and power still rules history and human life, and tragedies still happen all too frequently.

Luke’s gospel can too easily be read or heard with a sentimental holiday glow about them. It’s important to keep his words in context. Zechariah’s prophecy was spoken to a people whose nation was occupied by a foreign army, and was ruled over by a family of collaborators (the Herod family), where everyday life was a struggle just to find food and to stay healthy.

It is into this world that Zechariah speaks God’s promises. Into our world.

In Luke’s gospel, God’s promises are accompanied by miracles. Zechariah and Elizabeth, like many prophets before them, had been unable to have a child after trying for decades. And when they finally are told by God they will have a baby, Zechariah doesn’t believe it! So God tells him “you won’t speak again until you give this child his name” – and it happens exactly that way. All the circumstances around John’s birth are so extraordinary that the neighborhoods are buzzing for miles around.

The words Zechariah speaks will remind everyone who listens what God has done: God has sent prophets over the centuries; God has raised up David as king, and David’s family as the royal line; God has saved the people from enemies; God has shown mercy even in times of rebellion; God has given his people a covenant of love and faithfulness. And then Zechariah adds what God will do: God will save the people from their sins, God will show mercy, God will bring light to those in darkness, God will guide us into peace.

Those of us who have been attending the Zoom Bible study have been sharing insights about the meanings of names in the Bible. Zechariah is another to add to the list. His name means “God remembers.” And isn’t that really what we want to know? We want to be assured that God remembers us and sees what’s going on around us, and is still working.

the-god-who-remembers 2

One of the great mysteries of God’s plan is that salvation comes to us not by power but by forgiveness of sins. Jesus never promised to give us military or political victory – as another prophet by the name of Zechariah once said, “not by might, not by power, but by My Spirit, says the Lord.” Forgiveness opens the door of our hearts to God’s Spirit.

God’s plan is not just to save us: it’s to save us from and to save us to.  We are to be saved from sin, and death, and hate, and enemies. We are to be saved to mercy, and holiness, and righteousness, and peace.

In God’s kingdom these aren’t just words, they’re actions. The Holy Spirit makes these things real in our lives. And then, as we begin to find each other, and share, and gather into communities and into congregations, all of a sudden there’s a different way of “being” in the world. It’s not the kingdom come just yet, but it’s a sign of the kingdom, a sign of the kingdom that is most certainly coming.

In the meantime we still live in this dark world. We live in the “valley of the shadow of death” as King David put it – but we fear no evil, for God is with us. Emmanuel, God with us. God’s Son our Saviour Jesus is making the way and speaking hope into our dark world. The light of Advent has entered in. AMEN.

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 12/5/21

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Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.  2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.  3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.  5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”  6 A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.  7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass.  8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.  9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”  10 See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.  11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.Isaiah 40:1-11

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The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  2 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way;  3 the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,'”  4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.  6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.  7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.  8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”Mark 1:1-8

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Advent II – God’s love

Last week, the first week of Advent, we talked about Hope: the hope that the Messiah would enter into our troubled world and meet us where we are. In last week’s Old Testament lesson, Isaiah talked about Israel’s return from exile to find their land devastated and their temple in ruins. The exile had happened because the Israelites had left God and started worshipping idols – and because they worshipped false gods, they learned to live lies.

And in last week’s Gospel lesson we heard Jesus talking about the last days, about wars and rumors of wars, and all the hardships that would happen right before Jesus returns. So the first week of Advent meets us where we are in our world: in darkness and in grief, longing for peace, longing for light, longing for God. And in the first week of Advent we begin to see a glimmer of light in the darkness.

This week, in the second week of Advent, that light grows stronger. Isaiah says, “the glory of the Lord will be revealed.” Our second candle on the Advent wreath represents Love: the love God has for us, which is a love strong enough to pay our debts, set us free, and bring new life and new light to our world.

The message this week is about God’s love – which is also God’s glory. God loves us like parents love their children. God longs to gather us in his arms like parents do their children. God wants us in heaven’s family. God is about to send love into the world in the flesh, in Jesus Christ. Jesus is often called the “King of Love” – there’s an old song that goes “the king of love my shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never; I nothing lack if I am his, and he is mine forever.”

So the second week of Advent is about love.

Love is in short supply in our world. And loneliness is epidemic. We’re all very much aware of the COVID epidemic and how deadly it is, but the epidemic of loneliness is just as deadly. Earlier this year the US government’s Health Resources and Services Administration published a document that said:

“Loneliness and social isolation can be as damaging to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day” … “the problem is particularly acute among seniors, and especially during holidays… Two in five Americans [say] they sometimes… feel their… relationships are not meaningful, and one in five say they feel lonely…. The lack of connection can have life threatening consequences…”

I share this with you today because more and more I’m coming to believe our churches need to be in the front lines of fighting this pandemic of loneliness. That’s what the Messiah does, and we follow Him.  It’s difficult to do right this minute, with social distancing in effect, but we can make plans now for when the world opens up again. We can begin to think about how better to keep in touch with our seniors, and how to reach out to people in our neighborhoods and communities, and even how to reach the younger generation and teach them how not to be lonely.  Young people especially are at risk these days: the suicide rate for people ages 10-34 has been going up for 20 years and that curve is not flattening.

Along these lines I wanted to share with you a conversation I had a couple months ago on the way home from Philadelphia. I always stop at the last rest stop before Pittsburgh because they have the most wonderful farmers market. My good friend Denise and I love their baked goods and fresh peaches! So the last time I was there, I walked up to the stand and called Denise on speakerphone and said “Ok here’s what they have…” and I described everything to her. They were out of peaches but they had five kinds of fresh-picked apples, so I asked the salesgirl to join our conversation and describe the different kinds of apples so we’d know what to buy.

For Denise and me this was just an everyday conversation: what would you like, want some of this? – but when I hung up and pulled out my credit card, the salesgirl (who was probably in her early 20s) looked at me with tears in her eyes and said, “that was the most amazing conversation. People don’t talk like that any more.” What she meant was that people don’t talk to their neighbors any more – they don’t call just to touch base about everyday mundane things. My conversation with Denise had given her a window on a world that is disappearing.

What our young people are missing, though they probably wouldn’t put it this way, is a sense of community. They don’t know what it is to belong to a group of friends and extended family and be able to say “this is us”. And this lack has created an epidemic of loneliness.

Into this lonely time God speaks words of love. God says: “comfort, comfort my people… speak tenderly to them and tell them that the battle is over and all is forgiven.” God invites us to work with him in bringing this comfort to the world.

God loves each one of us. God’s power shines in care and tenderness. There’s just one problem: God and sin can’t exist in the same space. It’s kind of like putting matter and anti-matter in the same space – it produces undesirable results (to put it mildly). So along with love God also brings forgiveness.

This isn’t cheap grace. In our reading from Isaiah, the people have been worshipping idols and God doesn’t ignore that. God confronts the people about their idolatry, and the way they’re always putting trust in what is not God, and the way this causes people to see the world inside out and upside down. God says: “you… call evil good and good evil, you put darkness for light and light for darkness…”(Isaiah 5:20) The peoples’ perceptions are literally upside down and backward because they’ve abandoned God.

In Isaiah God compares human faithfulness to a flower: it quickly fades and withers away. God knows what we’re made of. God knows we have feet of clay. God loves us anyway. The Psalmist tells us God’s salvation is at hand – a salvation that requires from us faithfulness, steadfast love, and righteousness. And God makes that possible.

God tells the prophet to get up to the highest hill and shout the good news: your God is here!  He is coming with power to make good his promises; and God will care for His own, gathering us together and leading us into His kingdom.  And God’s promise is not just for us – it was for the people of Israel back then, and it’s for our children’s children’s children.

Comfort my people, says your God.

How much we need that comfort!  As a nation we have been through a tough year. We have kept our chins up, we have Zoomed our Zooms… but this year has been hard. Even those things we would typically depend on to help us keep our sanity –  our extended families, our churches, our local coffee shops – have all had limited access.

But Isaiah tells us we’re not alone. We’re not the first people to feel this way. And of course we know that other people and nations have lived through hardships; and not that we would ever want to see other people suffer, but knowing we’re not alone is helpful.

From Isaiah we also learn we need to do something about sin. The word ‘sin’ is an old fashioned word and it sounds kind of judgmental, so let me put it another way. If there’s anything in our lives more important than God, or that we love more than God, we need to tell God about it and be willing to let God re-set our priorities. If we do this, God promises to forgive.

And with this we come back full circle to the hope that Advent brings, which is God’s love for God’s people.

So what can we be doing during this time of Advent that can help bring us closer to God, and prepare us for the coming of the Lord?

Both Isaiah and John the Baptist tell us: “Prepare the way of the Lord!” But what does it mean, to prepare the way of the Lord? Google offers some interesting answers. Here’s a sampling of what some people have said:

  • To prepare the way of the Lord means to make a positive impact on those around us — seeking justice, creating peace.

I think that’s pretty good. I think it’s important to remember that in the big picture, justice and peace are God’s work, and if we don’t let God lead things get rough and we get discouraged. God can and does work through people but the game plan is God’s. It’s kind of like a Steelers game: every team member is essential, but everyone needs to be following the coach’s direction. With God as our Coach we can have a season like the Steelers are having!

Another person said…

  • Remove Santa Claus from your decorations and celebrations

The author said this because Christmas is about Jesus and not about a fictional character. To this person I wish I could say: teach your children about the real St. Nicholas, about the bishop who lived years ago. He loved God so much he gave to the poor and visited the sick, and the people who knew him said he actually performed miracles. Share this with your children and let St. Nicholas inspire the whole family at Christmas time.

Another person said…

  • We must… remove all obstacles which stand in the Lord’s way preventing him from coming. All the crooked ways in our life, and in the life of our society need to be straightened out.

I think whoever said this had good intentions but the focus is too much on us and not enough on God – because nothing can ever prevent the Lord’s coming. Nowhere does God say, “Tell the people to get ready and when they’ve set everything right, I’ll be back.” God says, “I am coming, get ready!” The apostle Peter reminds us that the day of the Lord will come unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. God’s arrival does not in any way depend on us.

Another person said…

  • We can get off track in our Christian lives… There are many temptations… It is good to make straight the path in our own hearts by examining our lives… to see where our choices and actions have not been in harmony with the Gospel… [and to bring these things to the Lord]

I think this person is a bit closer to the truth. As we turn our hearts to God, sharing with God our weaknesses and our desire to be more like Him, the path is made straight.

So the first week of Advent brings hope. The second week of Advent is all about the glory of God, who loves us, and who is sending us Jesus, to be our deliverer and our savior. May God’s hope and love be with you this week. AMEN.

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