Advent 4: Love

December 21, 2020

LOVE.  Advent 4.  For Christians, one of the favorite verses we love to quote when we think of love is John 3:16 and 17 … for God so loved the world… Can you finish it?  Let’s read it from The Message:

                  16-18 “This is how much God loved the world: He gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him,  anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn’t go to all the trouble of  sending his Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts in him is  acquitted; anyone who refuses to trust him has long since been under the death  sentence without knowing it. And why? Because of that person’s failure to  believe in the one-of-a-kind Son of God when introduced to him.

How we remember this verse often resonates within us as we internalize the word “love” and often is tinted by our experience with human love.  We remember dating rejections.  “I love you” was code for “I want to sleep with you, no strings attached!”  Others have lived in and through abuse and the word “love” becomes a chain to bind us to painful, humiliating and dehumanizing relationships.  “I love you” may be an elusive dream of words you long to hear and turn you inward to reflect on your shortcomings and inadequacies.  Advent comes with a focus on love found in that babe to arrive in Bethlehem. “Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love. ( 1 Corinthians 13:13)”

         The Advent story fleshes out “gave” from John 3.  “God so loved the world that he gave..”  Love gives.  Elizabeth, Mary or John the Baptist did not need to earn love.  The sun does not shine because we are good.  God gives and so the Advent story is a story of waiting for an undeserved gift.  Another word for this is grace.  No strings attached.  No “to-do” list and no “to-be..” list.

         The Advent story is for “whoever.”  God so loved that he gave “to whoever…”  Love is not a secret code word that opens a secret door.  It is not written in only one language.  It is lived out for anyone and everyone.  Love is not exclusive or possessive or abusive.  It is for “whoever.”  Love shares and does not grab.

         The Advent story is about “life, “eternal life.”  God gives to whoever “that they might have eternal life.”  False love drains and kills but God’s love comes that we might have eternal life as we believe.  Ooops, there’s the word “believe” that feels conditional.  But in-fact the Word that was at Creation speaking the world into being, acted without our faith.  The babe of Christmas grew to walk through death on the cross to demonstrate that death is conquered by love and faith.  Believing is opening our hearts and receiving the love we talk about at Christmas.

         So this week we will see how love is expressed in the four openings of the gospel letters to us.  Advent reminds us that God gives, to anyone who wants, and for eternity.  As you spend time this week, perhaps lighting those Advent candles, may you soak in that unconditional love that does not require standing in line for a shot that lasts briefly, or needs to be voted on by Congress, but love that is available to us today!  Blessings.

Joy: Christmas Caroling

December 19, 2020

JOY.  Advent 3.  The Christmas tradition of caroling is probably the most recognizable form of expressing joy.  As a young adult, our groups would go around the neighborhood, into rest homes for the elderly, or visit anyone whom was thought needed cheer.  Large Christmas celebrations are assumed to have choirs.  The larger the better seems our motto but then that small group of preschoolers singing Silent Night steals our heart also.  Singing is not unique to Christianity.  It is oral tradition, how we pass along information we consider important, by voice rather than in written form.  The angels sang to the shepherds who probably could not read!  Carols written in Latin about the nativity go back to the 4th and 5th century, piggy-backing on existing local songs but it was in the 16th century with St Francis of Assisi that carols were brought in to Christmas services.

         Traditionally, Christmas was a season of penance, like Lent, to prepare for baptism and thus was thought to be a serious time.  The joyful songs challenged tradition and spread across Europe, becoming very popular.  We see a similar mix today as “I Saw Daddy Kissing Santa Claus” is played right next to “O Come All Ye Faithful.”  Some feel a sense of dissonance at this but music springs from many inspirations.

         Caroling has multiple explanations too.  Did it start in feudal times when poor people sang for their supper or did it arise when churches were reserved for the “serious”?  We don’t know.  But perhaps we can all agree that “quarantining” or staying home this year has deeply impacted our love of communal rejoicing through song and through caroling.  Zoom is not quite the same.

         “Joy to the World” is the song that seems appropriate for Advent 3 whose theme is joy.  It is one of the most published hymns in North America.  As I looked up the history of the song, I was surprised to find that Issac Watts who wrote the poem in 1719 was not inspired by the Angels in Luke’s Bethlehem perspective.  Watts was going through the Psalms of David and writing a poem for each one and then connecting it to the New Testament.  Psalm 95 refers to the coming of the King and Watts was originally thinking of Christ’s return, joy – the king is come, the savior reigns, no more sin or sorrow, rule with truth and grace.  The hymn actually summarizes Advent and waiting for the child who was born in Bethlehem, who is sung about today and active through the Holy Spirit, and who will return and reign.

         Perhaps this is not your favorite carol but the challenge of joy today is to dwell in the lyrics of a “carol” that does bring joy to your heart.  The upbeat melodies of all carols certainly help balance the somberness of the news and the issues we face in our world.  Dwelling on the words of Joy to the World lift my heart and I pray the words lift yours.  We may quarantine but we are not alone and God promises a better future.  Blessings.

Joy to the World


Joy to the world! The Lord is come
Let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare Him room
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven, and heaven and nature sing

Joy to the world! The Savior reigns
Let men their songs employ
While fields and floods
Rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy
Repeat the sounding joy
Repeat, repeat the sounding joy

He rules the world with truth and grace
And makes the nations prove
And glories of His righteousness
And wonders of His love
And wonders of His love
And wonders of His love
And wonders, wonders of His love
And wonders, wonders of His love

Joy: A Hidden Identity

December 18, 2020

JOY.  Advent 3.  “Who are you?”   A case of mistaken identity brings joy or at least a smile to our face.  As a young adult I did what young adults did back then and ran away to hitchhike around Europe to drown my sorrows of a failed love and to find myself.  That was the idea, anyway.  My sister had done a year abroad in France and my college roommate was finishing a master’s at Edinburgh, Scotland.  It was my turn! I wrapped my clothes in my sleeping bag, slung it across my shoulders and climbed on a plane to see the world.  As events unfolded, the adventure of traveling with friend became hitchhiking and staying in youth hostels.  There I met fellow travelers from around the world and we would try to guess each other’s nationality.  Who are you?  Where are you from?  Being a rather nondescript sort of person the first guess was always European, then British, and seldom American for they were loud, raucous partiers.  I always felt complemented when I was perceived to be more international than I was and it brought a smile to my face.  As we scurry for presents in the Advent season, we rack our brains pondering who that other special person is and what the person would like.

         John the Baptist at the beginning of the gospel of John, after giving a cosmic definition of Jesus as the Word, God of creation, coming to reveal himself to his creation and giving power to those who wanted to believe in him to change of identity from “Joe Doe” to “child of God,” is himself grilled by the authorities, “Finally they said, ‘Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us.  What do you say about yourself? (John 1:22)’” John was mistaken for the promised Messiah or for the prophet Elijah.  He was not.  He was a messenger sent to introduce the Christ and he continues to organize his message around the question, “Who is Jesus?” with the seven “I am” statements Christ made.  He said,

  • “I am the bread of life, the light of the world,
  • the door,
  • the good shepherd,
  • the resurrection and the life,
  • the way, the truth and the life,
  • and finally the true vine.” 

All were answers to the question, “Who are you?”

         In Advent we are reminded that as we look in the mirror at ourselves or ponder the friend we are shopping for or write cards to the one who is distant from us, that all of us are those faulty people that we experience and who are seen by the world but…  But also we have a deeper identity unseen as child of God.  The Word became flesh as a baby that few recognized as God at that time, grew, was crucified but promised to return in full disclosure. We are not gods but we too are becoming and have that inner identity that is unfolding.  God does not lie and he sees our true selves.  That reminded is a source for joy, for now.  He knows, he sees and he cares!  May we look past the surface, past the mistakes, past the inadequacies and see the other with joy this Advent.  Blessings.

Joy: The Magnificat

December 17, 2020

JOY.  Advent 3.  Mary’s Magnificat found in Luke 1:46-56 shares with us the basis for her joy at this time.  Like us she lived in political uncertainty from the Romans, coping with a medical condition that would bring her isolation, and a family distanced as she had traveled to see her cousin Elizabeth pregnant with John, the Baptist.  As Elizabeth affirms Mary’s pregnancy and belief in her, Mary, in the midst of the realities of life, not denying them, bursts into this song.

46 And Mary[f] said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
    Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

She found joy because she realizes

  • God does not distain her lowly condition.  God cares about the poor and powerless.
  • God does great things in our common lives to his glory.
  • God is merciful.
  • God is strong and defeats the proud, caring about the humble.
  • God has defeated the powerful and exalted common.
  • God fills the hungry and defeats those that trust in their riches.
  • God helps and keeps his promises through generations.

That is a list worth pondering and finding joy in, even today.  Perhaps today just soak in this YouTube version musically of Mary’s Magnificat: .  I was surprised to find a song based on the praise and prayer of Joseph that expresses some of the same themes: .  If joy eludes you today in the cares and burdens of these days, rest in these songs and the truths they impart to us.  I do not have to feel it for it to be true!  My soul rejoices not because of who I am but because of what God has done.  Blessings, hope, peace and joy as you wait for Christmas.

Joy: An Announcement

December 16, 2020

JOY.  Advent 3.  When we hear the announcement:  the tumor is gone, a beloved is coming to visit, there will be a stimulus check, or simply “you passed,” our hearts respond with joy.  That which we thought might never happen or which we thought was a long way into the future suddenly becomes a closer reality and we rejoice.  The gospel of Mark does not start with the Bethlehem story but with adult John the Baptist, a weird looking prophet announcing that the prophesied forerunner of the Messiah was come in him.  Prepare, the Messiah is coming!  Perhaps it is hard for us to imagine the impact of those words as we do not live under foreign domination, nor do we have a long-standing prophecy of a future leader that will lead us out of our turmoils.  We hope for a vaccine.  We hope for a cure for cancer.  But still, when an announcement comes of an immanent solution to our struggle, we rejoice.

         I note that the people did not really understand what Messiah would mean.  They were thinking of the resolution of their earthly struggles, liberation.  I note they probably expected a confrontation where “the good guy” wins.  I note their role was to “prepare” their hearts through a baptism of forgiveness.  But I also note that masses of people flocked to hear this message and responded with actions.  I suspect they responded with the emotion joy and anticipation.

         Advent is a time when we too hear the cry to prepare.  We do not know exactly what the solution will look like or mean or if it will be in our life time.  I suspect we expect “good” to defeat “evil.”  And we read that we too must prepare our hearts as God will not come and force us to comply to his plan.  My friend said, “Joy is a choice.”  James says, “consider” it joy.  Joy is a mind set that focuses on the positives in the midst of that which tries to hold us down.

         So how are we focusing this Advent season?  I turn on the news and feel overwhelmed by the problems facing our world.  I turn on a cheezy Christmas movie and realize those romantic solutions of love look different in old age with failing bodies and families spread around.  I ponder what announcement would bring joy to my heart this Advent?  What about today will help me focus on God-solutions that are eternal?  May I encourage you to just rest and enjoy music or take a moment to appreciate nature.  Perhaps joy will come from a phone call to a beloved friend.  Joy comes as we realize the announcement of the solution to our problems is close even if we do not understand.  God is speaking hope and peace into our lives, preparing the way for the Messiah, and so we can be joyful.  Blessings.

Joy: A Friend

December 15, 2020

JOY.  Advent 3.  Sunday night my husband and I watched the movie, The Nativity.  It’s part of our Advent tradition.  There are two touching scenes that bring tears to my eyes.  After the angel who confirms that Mary’s pregnancy is of the Lord and fulfilling prophecy has visited Joseph, Joseph finds Mary in the field and says, “His name will be Jesus.”  He signals her that he knows what she knows and they both know that what is happening is legit. Joy bursts forth.  Mary is not alone, is believed, and is walking with someone else.  Community brings joy.

         Joseph and Mary still live under harsh Roman rule in poverty.  They still live in poverty and with the stigma of the pregnancy.  They will still have to travel to Bethlehem, nine months pregnant on a donkey!  Life is still very hard but the reality that they are not alone and are walking a path God has chosen for them brings joy.  Matthew 1:24 shares, lest you think this is all Hollywood, “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.  But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son.  And he gave him the name Jesus.”

         Perhaps this raises a sad memory of the partner lost to illness, old age, or accident, perhaps divorce and so this picture brings up sad memories at Christmas time.  Another name for Jesus that Advent 1 reminds us of is found in Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and shall name him Immanuel.”  Immanuel means “God with us.”  Joy comes with the realization that in the midst of our challenges, we are not alone.  We have someone to share with and to lean on.  God is with us and we live in community.

         May we take a few moments this day and remember the community of people who have helped us get where we are and shoot a quick “Thank you” prayer for their lives.  Remember those from the past who deeply impacted your life.  Remember those in the present with whom you share community and who bring a smile to your face.  Yes, and remember those whose future you are investing in, as you are their “Joseph.”  I am going to challenge us to also ask ourselves if there is someone we hold a grudge or misunderstanding with and with whom we need to restore relationship.  Perhaps it is time to let go of that grievance.  Community past, present and future brings joy.  We are not alone.  Quarantining can guide our bodies but our hearts are free to love and rejoice!!!  Thank you, Lord.

Joy – today? in our world?

December 14, 2020

JOY.  “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know the testing of your faith develops perseverance.  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:3).”

         Week 3 of Advent, named Gaudete Sunday back in the fourth or fifth century, shifts the Advent theme from prophecy/hope and peace to rejoicing.  Advent is a time of waiting, of waiting for the return of Christ, of waiting in our humanness for hope, peace, joy and love to develop in our character – or the other’s!  It is a time of waiting for Christmas in the midst of a pandemic and political angst.  It is not that different than the first Christmas with Rome’s harsh enslavement of the Jews, Herod’s paranoia of a prophecy of a new king, and Joseph and Mary living with a questionable pregnancy traveling.  Many of us wish we were traveling and are dealing with the grief of separation of family at this important time, the time of birth. 

         Advent 3 signals that we are halfway through the Advent season and focuses us on the promised redemption.  (I am tempted to post Michael Jackson’s YouTube song, We’re Almost There, 1975.  The lyrics start, “No matter how hard the task may seem, don’t give up our plans, don’t give up our dreams. No broken bridges can turn us around, ‘cause what we’re searchin’ for will soon be found.  Cause we’re almost there just one more step.  Cause we’re almost there, just one more step.  Just one more step, don’t give up, Cause we’re almost all almost there.  Cause we’re almost there.”)  Joy is a shift of our focus from the prophecy of those ancestor who came before and persevered in similar trials to today, shifts our focus from the conditions of our world that drive our hearts to plead for peace, and shifts our focus to God.  The Living Bible, a modern translation, phrases Philippians 4: 4-6 this way, “Always be full of joy in the Lord; I say it again, rejoice!  Let everyone see that you are unselfish and considerate in all you do.  Remember that the Lord is coming soon.  Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything; tell God your needs, and don’t forget to thank him for his answers.”

         The Christmas story is embedded and fleshed out in the lives of people living in a world as confusing as ours.  We will look at those stories found in the four gospels this week but to prepare our hearts, may I suggest we take a moment to write a brief list of what weighs our hearts down right now.  A second column might list possible resolution, answers.  Some of the situations cannot be resolved with vaccinations or environmental controls, or zoom meetings.  Where would you like to see God’s hand working in your life this Christmas?  Make your list and check it twice, then offer it up in prayer with thanksgiving. He is present, listening and is able: joy!

Hark the Herald Angels Sing

December 12, 2020

PEACE.  “Hark the Herald Angels Sing, ( is one of those “ole Christmas carols” we sing at this time of the year.  It highlights he angels message at the time of the birth of the Christ child – peace on earth. 

Glory to God in the highest,

And on earth peace to men on

Whom his favor rests.  Luke 2:14

The lyrics to this familiar song were written by Charles Wesley in 1739.  George Whitefield modified the words slightly so that both of these founding fathers of Methodism are given credit for this carol.  Interestingly, Felix Mendelssohn wrote the melody a hundred years later.  “Wesley envisioned the song being sung to the same tune as his Easter song “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.”  William H. Cummings spruced up Mendelssohn’s tune and we have our song today.

         As we finish week 2 of Advent, may I encourage you to read the words of this hymn.  We find peace when we realize God walks through our trials with us like Joseph of old.  We find peace in praise as music draws together and clarifies like Mary and the Magnificat or Zechariah’s song.  We find peace as we confess and receive forgiveness and reconciliation as Mark through John the Baptist challenged us.  And John tells us that then we have to power to become the children of God we were designed to be, each unique and purposeful.  This hymn sums it up in the closing lyrics, “Gory to the newborn King!”

Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled.”
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies,
With th’angelic host proclaim:
“Christ is born in Bethlehem.”
Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Christ by highest heav’n adored,
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come,
Offspring of a Virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see,
Hail the incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with man to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Peace: Receiving

December 11, 2020

PEACE. It is the second week of Advent.  Only 14 days till Christmas.  The ads are already warning us that we cannot buy and have gifts delivered in time.  I have finally found my video, The Nativity, and will play it Sunday evening to review the narrative of the historical story and again see God’s hand moving in history.  My music is playing.  I still need to send cards to the “beloved” and well, those I am trying to stay in relationship with and find peace with in spite of our differences.  Sigh.  The gospel of John, similar to the gospel of Mark we looked at yesterday, offers a perspective on Christmas peace but tracking back to creation.  John 1:10-13 shares about Jesus’ birth,

                  10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him;     yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and      his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who        believed in his name, he gave power to become children of   God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the          will of man, but of God.

Do you remember receiving a gift, a letter, a token of friendship and the sigh deep in your soul as you realized the other did remember you, did cherish you, and was reaching out to you?  At that moment there is a deep sense of peace in the soul that all is right in the universe.  The feeling lasts only a moment but those moments when I receive, when I realize the giftedness of that moment, when I allow the worries in my soul to melt away – even if momentarily, I am at peace. 

         Sleepless in Seattle, a beloved video, captures that sense as the mother tells her daughter about meeting the man she knew she would marry and in that moment knew everything would be alright.  “It was magic,” she says.  Her daughter starts a search for that magic moment and realizes it at the top of the Empire State building as she meets Tom Hanks. Sighhh.  Perhaps it is a chick-flick but we do search for those moments.

         Christ was part of the creation of the world, the Word that was spoken, and yet as God there was a divide with the creation.  There is no more walking and talking in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the evening because of sin.  We cannot see this God we talk about.  Our senses are limited as well as our life.  We walk by faith and not by sight.  At Christmas time we are reminded that God resolves the distance by coming to us in an unthreatening tiny baby, offering us love, his life offering insight into his character, his deeds offering healing, and the cross offering reconciliation with him.  We choose to receive the gift, as we believe.  In that “aha moment” we find peace with God and the “power to become children of God…born of his will,” not ours.

         Christmas is about stories, the stories of our lives.  Christmas is about music.  Christmas is about relationships.  Christmas for Christians is about the gift of peace as God enters his creation to offer us the gift of being his children.  May we take a moment today and breath in the “aha” and peace of that truth.  Blessings as you prepare! 

Peace: Forgiveness

December 10, 2020

PEACE.  In the gospel of Matthew, we see how Joseph, the fiancée of mother Mary of the Christ child, comes to peace as he trusts that God is indeed involved and walking with him through Mary’s pregnancy.  Peace is found in faith.  In the gospel of Luke, we see how Elizabeth and Mary find peace with their pregnancies as they encourage each other and praise.  Many times peace is found through music, through praise.  In the gospel of Mark, we start the narrative of Jesus, not in Bethlehem but at the birth of his ministry. Mark introduces his gospel with the Old Testament prophecy of the coming of John the Baptist, son of Elizabeth.  John, the prophesied forerunner of the Messiah, appears in the countryside “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1: 3)”  Peace often comes from forgiveness.

     In Swahili, Christians would differentiate between “makosa” which roughly translates into English as a serious “mistake” as opposed to “dhambi” which translates “sin.”  People confess their mistakes but really those slips are not considered to be of the same magnitude as outright murder, adultery or whatever we feel is truly wrong.  Many of the actions we do that prick our conscience we are able to dismiss and compensate for – cover with a kiss, sex, a gift or a promise to do and be better next time.  Many mistakes fall in the realm of my self-control, my ability to improve.  John the Baptist is not talking about mistakes.  Working harder to be a better person rarely results in spiritual peace.  Mistakes chain me to the treadmill of works.

         Mark is talking about finding peace with those actions, those feelings, those thoughts, those habits that we know are sin and that separate us from the Holy and from others.  (Walter Waangarin spends a whole chapter in his book As For Me and My House talking about forgiveness and is an excellent resource.)  Forgiveness, as Mark shares, comes from repentance.  When we realize we cannot resolve our actions by our own efforts and we call on the Holy for help.  Christians call this Holy “God” but others refer to “a greater power.”  Repentance turns the outcome over and we admit our limitations. 

         Perhaps, at its core, the Christmas story is an internal realization that our world cannot be changed by me.  My best present will not bring love from the other.  Love is for the other to give.  We now talk about the vaccine that is about to hit the market but we realize that there will be a hierarchy of who receives and for many of us, we are at the bottom of the food chain.  Our lives are in God’s hands.  Christmas calls us to a mystery, a small baby born in Bethlehem who will grow and offer forgiveness, who will offer peace with God, not through our actions to be good and better, but through his death on the cross.  As we confess our faith in this little babe, we humble ourselves under this faith and find peace.  The peace does not come from what we have done but is a trust in what he is doing.  This is indeed a peace the world cannot offer, a peace that passes understanding.

         As we struggle with our inadequacies, our financial limitations, our social spacing, and the viruses of our actions, may we find peace this Christmas by turning to the Christ child in the manger for forgiveness.