Archive - Advent RSS Feed

The Fourth Sunday in Advent ©

Today, I offer a liturgy for the lighting of the Advent Wreath candles for both the fourth Sunday in Advent and for Christmas Eve. Traditionally (and usually) those are different days. This year, they fall on the same day.

In the Methodist traditions of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the Christ Candle is lit on Christmas Eve as a sign and symbol of welcoming the newborn Savior into our lives and the life of the world He came to save.  Jolynn and I will be lighting the fourth candle before our traditional Christmas Eve worship this year. We will then use the liturgy for Christmas Eve on Christmas morning. I urge families to use the liturgies in whatever way appears best for their own special celebration of the Savior’s birth. The liturgy is based loosely on an ancient sharing of the Passover meal modified and adopted for Advent. -Bishop Mike Lowry

The Fourth Sunday of Advent
(For use with a Family Advent Wreath)
Scripture: Isaiah 9:2-7

(Open by reading the Word of the Lord from the Prophet Isaiah.)

Light four candles as the family says together: “Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world, he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’”

A child asks: “Why do we light four candles?”

A parent responds: “The first candle reminds us of the hope we have in the Savior’s coming. The second candle reminds us of the love of God given to us in the baby Jesus. The third candle shares the joy of the Savior’s birth. The fourth candle stands for the peace of the Lord. In the birth of the baby Jesus, God comes in human flesh and rules among us with peace and justice.”

Read:   Luke 2:1-20

Sing: “The First Noel”
“The first Noel, the angels did say,
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;
In fields where they lay keeping their sheep,
On a cold winter night that was so deep.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
Born is the King of Israel!”

Prayer:
Lord God, we who live in a world torn by violence; we who live in a culture of clamor quietly approach a Bethlehem stable longing for your peace. As we too receive again the good news of your birth in the baby Jesus, may your peace settle on our hearts, minds, and lives. May your peace which passes all understanding encompass our world and inhabit our homes. Come Lord Jesus, Come! Amen.

 

Christmas Eve or Christmas Day
(For use with a Family Advent Wreath)
Scripture: Isaiah 52:7-10

(Open by reading the Word of the Lord from the Prophet Isaiah.)

Light four candles and the center Christ Candle as the family says together: “Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world, he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’”

A child asks: “Why do we light four candles and the Christ Candle?”

A parent responds: “The first candle reminds us of the hope we have in the Savior’s coming. The second candle reminds us of the love of God given us in the baby Jesus. The third candle shares the joy of the Savior’s birth. The fourth candle stands for the peace of the Lord. Today (or tonight) we light the Christ Candle in celebration of the birth of the baby Jesus, God with us! “What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light” (John 1:3-5).

Read:   John 1:1-14

Sing: “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.”

Prayer:
Dear Lord God, on this day (or eve) of your birth as the baby Jesus, we come to give our overwhelming thanks and praise. Your hope is with us; your love surrounds us; your joy fills us and peace settles upon us. In the birth of your Son our Savior and Lord, you declare once again your eternal love for us and for all human kind. O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray; cast our sin, and enter in, be born in us today. Amen.

A Message for Advent 2017 ©

Bishop Lowry shares an Advent message of hope for a bruised and battered world – a hope that comes in the form of a baby at Christmas.

Please share this with your church, small group, friends and family by clicking either the share icon (second top right corner of video below) or the link at the bottom of the video player.

 

Bishop Lowry’s Message for Advent 2017 from Central Texas Conference UMC on Vimeo.

 

The Third Sunday in Advent ©

Today, I offer a liturgy for the lighting of the Advent Wreath candles.  As I wrote in my blog “The Advent Wreath,” for our family, the lighting of the Advent Wreath and the sharing of the accompanying liturgy around the kitchen table became a central element in our preparation for Christmas. Even now, with our children grown and having children of their own, this remains a central part of our devotional preparation for the coming birth of Christ.

The liturgy is based loosely on an ancient sharing of the Passover meal modified and adopted for Advent. This Friday, I offer a liturgy for use as a family (whether it be one person or many) in preparation for the birth of the Christ child on the third Sunday of Advent. Those wishing to receive the liturgy for the First Sunday in Advent may email my Executive Secretary, Mrs. Pattie Wood, (PattieWood@ctcumc.org) and she will send you the liturgy for the First Sunday. 

Bishop Mike Lowry

The Third Sunday of Advent
(For use with a Family Advent Wreath)
Scripture: Isaiah 35:1-2

(Open by reading the Word of the Lord from the Prophet Isaiah.)

Light three candles as the family says together: “Jesus said, ‘I am the light of the world, he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’”

A child asks: “Why do we light three candles?”

A parent responds: “The first candle reminds us of the hope we have in the Savior’s coming. The second candle reminds us of the love of God given us in the baby Jesus. The third candle shares the joy of the Savior’s birth. The Prophet Isaiah said, “The desert and the dry land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the rose [KJV translation].”  This is why the candle is often pink. We come to a Bethlehem stable with great joy and celebrate the birth of our Savior in the baby Jesus. May we prepare for Christmas with joy in what God has done and is doing in our lives.

 “The desert and the dry land will be glad;
       the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the [rose] crocus.
They will burst into bloom,     
      and rejoice with joy and singing.
They will receive the glory of Lebanon,     
     the splendor of Carmel and Sharon.
They will see the Lord’s glory,     
     the splendor of our God.” (CEB translation)

Read:   John 1:6-8, 19-28

Sing: “What Child is This?”

What child is this, who laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet,
While shepherds watch are keeping?
This, this is Christ the King,
Whom shepherds guard and angels sing;
Haste, haste to bring him laud,
The babe, the son of Mary.

Prayer: “Lord Jesus, we come to you with joy as we prepare again to celebrate your birth.  May praise, laughter, and goodwill fill our hearts and burst forth in sharing. May the songs of this season engulf us with the joy of your presence, care, and all-consuming love. You are indeed the baby Savior and the Lord of all life born among us. With glad hearts and excited minds, we come to the celebration of your birth. Lead us to share your joy, hope and love with those who stand in great need and even greater want during this season. Let the goodness you instill in our heart and minds spill forth in joy for all people in your name and at your coming.  Amen.

Recovering Doctrinal Greatness Through Advent/Christmas Hymns ©

Even when announced and printed in the bulletin, as I turn in my hymnal to #211 “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” (The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 211), the words from this great hymn slip in on me and catch me by surprise. They manage to be at once both a caress and a jolt. I suspect that there is no greater Advent hymn than this one. The music is sublime, the words poetic, and the theology arresting in its greatness.

A footnote in The United Methodist Hymnal tells us that it comes from the 9th century. It adds that the original verses were in Latin. A modest amount of internet digging reveals that it has roots even deeper than that. Wikipedia notes that it probably came originally from a series of “plainchant antiphons attached to the Magnificat at Vespers over the final days before Christmas.” More, so much more, than just a catchy tune, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” plunges us into the depth of Christian doctrine.

Consider the first verse:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

Springing from the biblical texts of Isaiah 7:14 (“Therefore, the Lord will give you a sign. The young woman is pregnant and is about to give birth to a son, and she will name him Immanuel.”) and Matthew 1:23 (Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, And they will call him, Emmanuel. [Emmanuel means “God with us.”]), the song not only captures our longing for a Savior but denotes our exile from our proper home with God. It does all this through adherence to the Hebrew Text (Old Testament) and the historical reality of the Babylonian exile. Taken as a whole the longing evokes a theological awareness of how lost we are without a Savior.

Thus in a few short verses this great hymn shatters any self-help notions of personal salvation. We too are Israel; we too are lost and stand in need of a Savior.

Look at verse three:

O come, Thou Wisdom from on high,
And order all things, far and nigh;
To us the path of knowledge show,
And cause us in her ways to go.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

The words of this version of the hymn in verse three were translated by H. S. Coffin in 1916. The emphasis is on our need for divine help and for the “ordering” of all things, both far and near. The very concept of biblical wisdom is a gift from the Holy Spirit. The verse faces without flinching how disorderly our world is. Have you read the headlines or watched the news lately?

As in all the verses, the refrain brings us back to the great promise of salvation. We who live in a disordered world desperately needing wisdom from on high searching for the path of knowledge move towards a Bethlehem stable with joy. Emmanuel, God with us, will come to us. In the chaos of our day and time, this is surely the greatest news we can ever receive!

With news of North Korea conducting missile tests, the ever-continuing war in the Middle East, and violence in our own cities, the seventh verse almost demands to be sung.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
All peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease;
Fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

We are in the midst of international strife, whether the nations (including our own) realize it or not. Christ is the deepest desire of our hearts and minds. As the Prince of Peace approaches, rightly we pray for and work towards peace; “bind all people in one heart and mind!”

Notice too as you sing, how the verse bids us lay down sin both individually and collectively. “Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease.” The version of this verse contained in The United Methodist Hymnal offers a slightly different rendering: “From dust thou brought us forth to life; deliver us from earthly strife.” It recognizes and offers our highest allegiance to the creator God who comes to us in the baby, Emmanuel, God is with us! Notice how the seventh verse spills forth in a prayer, “fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.”

There is more, much more to said and shared, but I invite us to not only sing the hymns of Advent/Christmas but also to take the time to dwell in deep reflection on the wisdom and doctrinal greatness of the words. In the music, sung, chanted and prayed, God speaks to us once again.

Settling for Less ©

 I drove down to Kerrville, Texas for our family Thanksgiving gathering wearing my “Chicago Cubs World Series Champions 2017” jersey. That’s right; the shirt read “2017” not “2016.” It was a gift from Howard Martin back in early September at the celebration of First UMC Stephenville’s 100th anniversary. At the time, the Cubs were in a battle with the Milwaukee Brewers and the St. Louis Cardinals over who would win the Central Division of the National League.

The last time any team repeated as a World Series Champion was back in 2000 when the New York Yankees won for the third straight time. Between 2010 and 2014 the San Francisco Giants won every other year but never two years in a row. The theory is that, with the addition of first the Division Playoff Series, then the League Championship Series added to the World Series, teams that get into the World Series have roughly played a month more than the rest of the teams. The extra time playing especially at a hyper elite level takes a toll on the pitchers especially. Statistically there is usually a distinct drop-off (since the addition of the League Championship Series) in the pitching performance of World Series teams the following year.

With that as backdrop, I confess that I wasn’t too disappointed that the Cubs didn’t win the World Series this year. In fact, I was proud that they won the Central Division and the Division Playoff Series. Even more, I was delighted that the Astros won the World Series. After all they have been through, our neighbors down South needed a big win! I was quite willing to settle for less this year after last year’s championship.

It was a conversation with Dr. Clifton Howard (Assistant to the Bishop) that got me thinking differently. Casually I commented to him that I wondered why I was willing to settle for less. I opined that if it had been a year ago, I would have been deeply disappointed. But, the year after a championship it was okay to settle for less. Clifton challenged me by asking me to think about that spiritually. Would I be willing to settle for less in terms of missional outreach to the poor or professions of faith? He added, “Churches that grow tend to be churches that don’t settle.”

As I mulled all this over while driving, Oswald Chambers famous devotional classic “My Utmost for His Highest” came to mind. 

I think I have read his great classic of Christian spiritual guidance and devotion three times in my life (including one year as a Bishop). There is the line from the movie As Good as It Gets where Jack Nicholson says, “You make me want to be a better man.” The Christian faith does more than that for me, for us all. It actually makes us better people. Chambers’ book serves as a great devotional guide to help me be a better man, a true Christ-follower.

In less than a week Advent is upon us. This season of the Christian year calls us to prepare for the coming of the Savior. (Advent means literally “coming” – out of the Latin.) I have written before about how the season of Advent, and especially Christmas Eve worship, is special time when non- or nominal Christians are unusually open to the hearing the gospel of God’s saving presence with us in the person of Jesus the Christ.

I write to invite us as a church and as individual Christians not to settle for less. Use this time as a special opportunity to reach out to those eager and receptively open to hear the gospel. Offer the love of God by deeds of justice and mercy but don’t stop there; don’t settle for less. Fuse word and deed with a worship that offers new life in Christ.

As a basic first step, make sure that your website prominently shares worship times and especially the time of your Christmas eve service. Make sure greeters and ushers are prepared to offer truly radical hospitality in welcoming. Don’t miss the opportunity to register attendance for both members and visitors that all might share in grace-filled follow up.

One of the ways the infant Christ-child is referred to by the theological fathers and mothers of the faith is as a baby where Word and deed are one. Think about it. In Christ and Christ alone, Word and deed are one. During this Advent season follow the model of his life witness. Don’t settle for less. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light” (John 1:5). Share the gospel, the good news of a God who loves so lavishly that the Lord of all life comes to us in the person of a helpless baby. Let John 1:14 infuse your living as an individual; let it saturate your witness, actions and sharing as a church.

“The Word became flesh
and made his home among us.
We have seen his glory,
glory like that of a father’s only son,
full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)

The Coming of the Faithful ©

I readily acknowledge that one of my favorite Advent/Christmas hymns is “O Come All Ye Faithful” (No. 234, The United Methodist Hymnal).  John Wade’s (ca. 1743) clarion words combined with the soaring music (credited to Wade and a number of others) are at once a call and claim from Christ. When I step back and reflect on the hymn there is in its beauty a theological reflection of the essence of Christmas and the Christian faith itself.

“O come all ye faithful joyful and triumphant
Oh come ye O come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold him born the King of angels;
O come let us adore him, O come, let us adore him,
O Come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.”

Consider the first verse along with the chorus. The faithful are called. The call comes as a word of immense joy. In C. S. Lewis’ inimitable words, “we are the visited planet.” We are joyful because God himself has taken up residence in our midst! “The Word [has become] flesh and the King of angels makes his home among us.” We are those who have seen his glory, “glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (My paraphrasing of John 1:14). This great theological claim is buttressed by an assertion that foreshadows the resurrection. Come as those who are “triumphant!”

Verse two cements the great theological assertions of the hymn.

“True God of true God, Light from Light Eternal,
Lo, he shuns not the Virgin’s womb;
Son of the Father, begotten, not created;
O come let us adore him, O come, let us adore him,
O Come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.”

I invite the reader to think where you have encountered the opening words of verse two before. We find them in a slightly different form in the second paragraph of the Nicene Creed. “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, …” (The Nicene Creed, No. 881, The United Methodist Hymnal). We are not meant to miss the illumination of this great connection. The hymn offers us both great music and great theology.

Notice again how the following two lines complete the parallel. “Lo, he shuns not the Virgin’s womb; Son of the Father, begotten, not created;” (verse 2 of the hymn) = “begotten not made, of one Being with the Father; through Him all things were made. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven, was “incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became truly human” (The Nicene Creed, No. 881, The United Methodist Hymnal).

Swept up in the music, it is easy to forget that these great hymns teach great theology. Verses three and four complete the initial core story from Luke’s gospel.

Sing choirs of angels sing in exultation;
O sing all ye citizens of heaven above!
Glory to God, all glory in the highest;
O come let us adore him, O come, let us adore him,
O Come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.
See how the shepherds summoned to his cradle,
Leaving their flocks, draw nigh to gaze;
We too will thither bend our joyful footsteps;
O come let us adore him, O come, let us adore him,
O Come let us adore him, Christ the Lord.

I think the most faithful thing we can do is come and adore; acknowledging that the baby Jesus is Christ the Lord (making the proper connection with Philippians 2:1-11). In doing so we too are joyful and triumphant.

 

 

Cry Glory! ©

Sunday morning I went to worship with my wife.  As usual the sermon was excellent, the liturgy challenging and the fellowship a blessing.  What towered above the rest, as is often the case at this time of the year, was the music.  The Hand bell Choir offering a prelude of “Joy to the World” was followed by a soaring introit – “Gloria in Excelsis Deo.”  Together we traveled with the angels.  The words “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” come from the Latin version of Luke 2:14,  “Glory to God in the Highest.”

After lighting the Advent wreath, we listened in rapt attention to “The Virgin Mary Had a Baby Boy.”  The music was and is beautiful but the line that caught my attention is the refrain sung over and over:  “He come from the glory, He come from the glorious Kingdom.”  As if to emphasize that phrase, after it is repeated twice, there comes a short three-word musical emphasis, “Oh, Yes, believer.”  Then, “He come from the glory, He come from the glorious Kingdom” is repeated twice more.  Even now writing three days later, I am swept away by the power of the music and the import of the words.

Together the Children’s Choir and the Chancel Choir graced us (there is no other appropriate phrasing) with a song I was less familiar with, “How Far is it to Bethlehem?”  As I listened I thought again of the seminary lesson from Dr. Ogden, “we do theology (that is talk about God) in order that we might do doxology (that is praise God).  Here in the music led by both Children and Chancel choirs, the two were gloriously reunited.  And without even trying a derivation of the word glory reappears.

I dare say that I could travel across the Central Texas Conference and even around the world at this time of year and come again and again to a celebration of God’s glory in Christ’s birth in a Bethlehem stable.  Instinctively Christians around the world know “glory’s” majestically wonderful appropriateness.

The theologian in me just has to pause and probe the meaning of “glory.”  Why is this word and its related phrases so central to our expression of worship in the season of Advent, of preparation for the Savior’s coming, and the following celebration of Christ’s birth?

Modest research can take us far.  In The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (a marvelous five volume set put out by the United Methodist Publishing House – Abingdon Press) it is noted that the word “glory” has both an objective and subjective sense (hang with me, the technicalities are important!).  Subjectively “glory” refers to the object of worship.  It points us back to God.  When we sing “glory to God in the highest” we are giving full-throated acclamation that the Lord is God alone.  God alone is worthy of our unqualified and unmitigated praise.  Think of it as the Pledge of Allegiance on steroids.  No wonder the angels sang, “Glory to God in the Highest!”  (Luke 2:14).

Objectively, the word “glory” “denotes the object of worship (i.e., God’s revealed presence, God’s glory)  (The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 2, “Glory,” P. 576, Carey C. Newman). Thus the word “glory” is a concrete way of talking about God’s very presence in our midst!  The Glory of God means the very presence of God right now, right here.

When the angels sing they are in the same act declaring their utmost, highest allegiance to God alone as ruler and master and simultaneously proclaiming that God’s very presence is here in the baby Jesus!  When the choir sings “He come from the glory, He come from the glorious Kingdom” it leads us to the profound truth at the center of the Christian faith: that the baby Jesus comes from God.  He is God, manifest, made known in human form.  All of this is an echoing of our foundational creedal affirmation as Christians.  In the Apostles Creed we affirm: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, … and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, …” (The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 881). He [the baby Jesus] come from the Glory indeed!

Thus it is that we gather in this season and time to cry Glory!  This too is our affirmation of faith merging in worship with the beauty of the music.  More recently a song entitled “Cry Glory” was made popular in the movie Selma.  Written by American Rapper Common and Singer John Legend, it appropriately connects the very presence of God with the cause of racial justice.  We are a people who are, as very act of witness and declaration of faith, cry Glory!

All this is biblically anchored in Psalm 29.

You, divine beings! Give to the Lord—
give to the Lord glory and power!
Give to the Lord the glory due his name!
Bow down to the Lord in holy splendor!  (Psalm 29:1-2)

Appropriately our worship Sunday ended with the postlude “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” Inhale once again the message of faith.  “Glory to the newborn King!”

 

Have Mercy! Mary and Joseph in Junction, Texas

It’s Tuesday morning, December 6, as I write. I am in Junction, TX as what we call “The Peer Retreat.” A group of us has been meeting together for forty years. Most of us went to Perkins School of Theology together, and over these forty years, we have celebrated the highs of ministry and struggled over the challenges.

 As I sit on the porch, I look down a long ravine and over the low hills to I-20, a distance of about three miles. In the distance, I can see cars and semi-trucks rolling by. They appear to be slowly creeping along, even though I know most are going about 70 mph.  In the distance, even the semis appear quite tiny. Over the terrain, silence engulfs the scene as if a transparent, invisible quilt is spread over us. Reading my devotional, I imagine I see Mary and Joseph walking this way. Having seen the hills of the Holy Land and travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, it is not hard to imagine the holy couple walking by. The terrain is quite similar.

 It is here I pause in my devotional time and let the mystery we call Advent soak in. Here is Christ at a distance. God is on the move. Step by steady step, the Savior comes. Earlier I had read the first three verses of Psalm 57:

Have mercy on me, God;
    have mercy on me
    because I have taken refuge in you.
    I take refuge
    in the shadow of your wings
        until destruction passes by.
I call out to God Most High—

    to God, who comes through for me.
He sends orders from heaven and saves me,
    rebukes the one who tramples me. Selah
        God sends his loyal love and faithfulness. (Psalm 57:1-3, CEB)

 I instinctively pause as I read and think about our situation, what scholars like to call our “context.” War still rages in the Middle East. I have prayed regularly since the invasion of Iraq for the safety of the troops and their return home. I have prayed regularly for the people of those countries as well; that they may live in peace. As we slowly put things back together after a contentious election here in the United States, I pray for the healing of our nation. Our church is in the midst of a potentially schismatic debate over same-gender marriage and issues relating to who might be ordained. Families are under stress in a myriad of ways – jobs, relationships, finances, external and internal commitments, illness… the list could on.

 I glance again across the ravine and once again imagine I see Mary and Joseph at a distance, a far distance, walking this way. I hear again the words I have but moments earlier read aloud. Have mercy on me, God; have mercy on me because I have taken refuge in you. I take refuge in the shadow of your wings until destruction passes by” (Psalm 57:1).

 Luther argued that there was no greater miracle than the Incarnation – God with us in the person and work of Jesus as the Christ. It is preposterous to think that the Almighty Supreme Divine Creator of the entire universe – the galaxies beyond number, the billions and billions of stars, the trillions of planets – should come to us in the person of a fragile baby! Yet, this is precisely the Christian claim that bids us spend Advent in such ardent preparation.

 We too hold to the truth and tradition of Christ’s coming. “Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know what day the Lord is coming(Matthew 24:42).  Since we belong to the day, let’s stay sober, wearing faithfulness and love as a piece of armor that protects our body and the hope of salvation as a helmet. … So continue encouraging each other and building each other up, just like you are doing already” (1Thessalonians 5: 8, 11).

joseph leading mary

Moving into Advent ©

So now that we are moving into Advent, what Advent devotional is guiding you?  It is really an easy question.  How are you spiritually nurturing yourself in advent anticipation for the coming of Christ?  Think and pray carefully because griping about secularity doesn’t count and doesn’t help.

Sunday night I got laughing as Jolynn pulled out four different Advent Devotionals to read.  I picked one which looked different, and I thought would spiritually challenge us.  For years it has been our habit to use a nightly devotional (mostly The Upper Room), but four seemed like a little much.

The next morning I woke up thinking about it.  She had spent far more time in preparation for deep spiritual life in Advent than I had.  She at taken extra time at her church to gather some of the various resources they had offered people.  The more I thought about it the more humbled I was.

Advent offers us a profound opportunity.  Taken with an open, inviting and attentive spiritual depth instead of grim grousing, Advent ushers us into joy.  In recent reading from Bishop Ruben Job’s A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God, Bishop Job calls “Joy to the World” an advent hymn instead of a Christmas hymn.  It calls, he asserted, to an anticipatory joy.  This may sound obvious but to me it was revelatory.

Later that day for other reasons, I got thinking about the great non-negotiable doctrines of the Church.  Luther at one point in his prolific career insisted that you could do away with the miracles and if you hung on to the doctrine of incarnation (God in the flesh in the birth of Jesus entering human life), it alone was enough (see The Martin Luther Christmas Book translated and arranged by Roland Bainton).

It is here my world and attitude towards Advent shifts.  The joy of the Savior’s coming calls us to prepare in glad tidings of great love and to reflect such preparation in our attitudes and actions.  A couple of resources might be helpful.  One is a recent sermon calling for serious adult discipleship.  It is offered by Rev. Joy Moore, pastor of Mosaic United Methodist Church in Evans, Georgia, and ties into a recent blog (and sermon) I have shared entitled “Deep Calls to Deep.” Advent offers a deeper more meaningful relationship with the Lord.  You may find it here.

The second is an article I came across while reading Leading Ideas: Lewis Center for Church Leadership (November 2, 2016 edition).  I have long maintained that Advent is “prime time evangelism.  People are open to the Christian in an unusually receptive way.  This especially true at Christmas Eve.

“Pastor Carey Nieuwhof says unchurched people want to celebrate Christmas, so there is no better time to connect with friends and neighbors who rarely, if ever, go to church. He offers ten ways your church can be involved in the unique opportunity to reach people at Christmas.”  He goes on to list ten ways:

1.  Hold multiple services.
2.  Theme the event around your community, not around your church.
3.  Hand out invitation cards.
4.  Make posters.
5.  Build a special Christmas Website.
6.  Use social media.
7.  Sell (free) tickets.
8.  Love your community.
9.  Invite them back.
10. Plan a Call to Action.
(“Ten Ways to Reach Unchurched People at Christmas“, Carey Nieuwhof).

There is more, much more, to be said and offered but for now I close with brother Martin.  “The Gospel,” [said Martin Luther], “is not so much a miracle as a marvel”  (Martin Luther, The Martin Luther Christmas Book translated and arranged by Roland Bainton).  We are moving into the joy of Advent!

Come to the Light ©

Happy New Year!  No, I’m not a month plus ahead of schedule.  This coming Sunday, November 27th is the first Sunday in Advent.  Many of us know that the advent comes the Latin adventus or coming.  “This season proclaims the coming of Christ in the birth of Jesus, in Word and Spirit, and in the final victory when God’s kingdom shall be complete” (Bishop Ruben Job, A Guide to Prayer and All Who Seek God, p. 20).  It marks the beginning of the Christian year and calls us to a radical reorientation.  In the setting gloom of winter it is a question that at times can haunt the best of us.  The prophet Isaiah opens with simple descriptive phrase, which fits our times.  “The people who walked in darkness” (Isaiah 9:2).

There is a temptation in the darkness to believe that this is the worst of times.  I remember in a history class years ago reading a description of society gone downhill.  It detailed how morals were at low ebb and how a revival was needed.  The professor paused in his reading and asked us to pick the year this description was written.  We chimed up with suggestions.  Most fell with a span of the previous ten years.  Then quietly he share that the description of society sinking downward into the abyss was written in the late 14th century.  Amazingly, we were all sure it had described out time.

Later I read the story behind the professor’s question in a sermon book written by Pastor Mark Trotter.  It is as follows:  “Barbara Tuckman, the historian, has written extensively about the fourteenth century. She pointed out that it was a time in which people were certain that it was the end.  They were certain that it was the time that apocalyptic literature was talking about, that the Book of Revelation was prophesying.  It was a time, more than any other time in history, when the four horsemen of the apocalypse rode the earth. War, which was incessant; famine, which was endemic; pestilence, which decimated Europe in the form of the bubonic plague; and death, which was everywhere.

She focused on 1397, that one year, and pointed out that in 1397, Gutenberg was born, whose printing press transformed the world. And shortly after that in the next century, Joan of Arc emerged, embodying a new spirit of nationalism. … And then came Columbus who opened up a new world. And after Columbus, there came Copernicus, who opened up a new heaven. And shortly after that came Michelangelo who focused human life on a new beauty, the beauty of creation.  And by the end of that century, Martin Luther was born, who called all of humanity to a new understanding of God’s grace.

I remind you that all of this occurred within one hundred years of that time when everyone thought it was the end” (Mark Trotter, “Long Live the Weeds,” First UMC San Diego, California).

The more sage among us look at the prophet Isaiah speaking in the eighth century B.C., the Savior sharing the word of God in approximately 33 A.D., the unknown author of the 14th century, and our own pundits of today with the realism of divine guidance.  Any age is a time of real darkness.  So-called golden ages only exist in the glow of hindsight.

Similarly, the greater national preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick shared the prophetic vision.  “In 1942, Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, pastor of the Riverside Church, N.Y. entitled a sermon ‘This is a Great Year for Christmas’.  World War II was still going badly for America, and the world was in terrible shape.  But Dr. Fosdick, like that exiled messenger of the Old Testament [Isaiah], believed that it is in the darkest hours that God’s good news is best heard.  When the mountains of adversity and violence are looming before us the feet of the messenger upon those mountains are beautiful – beautiful in bringing good news of salvation.  In our world of terrorism, war, threat of nuclear annihilation, the horrible mess of drugs, etc. ‘this is a great year for Christmas!’” (Pulpit Resource, Vol. 16, No. 4., Oct. Nov. Dec., 1988, p. 45).

What is the Word of the Lord to us this day?  Come to the light!  Hear Jesus speaking directly to us – to me and to you.  “Those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 3:21).

Jesus himself challenges us with a choice.  “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.  But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (John 20-21).  Don’t dismiss this lightly.  We say to ourselves, “of course I come to the light.  It is other people who refuse to.”  But oh, oh it is so easy to wallow in the self-righteousness of darkness and live in the gloom of despair.  The deeds of evil are greater than simply personal moral failure.  They encompass injustice and indifference to the poor and oppressed.  They include anger, judgmentalism and condemnation of those who are different.  They involve our failure to really trust that God is in charge.  Hear the Word of the Lord spoke to us, to me and to you.  Amid the encircling struggle of modern life, amid the chaos of our times, in the snare of our grief, He asks us to trust him; to come to the light of His love that can redeem any person, any society, any age.

Is there any hope?  Ah, that great old preacher Fosdick is right.  This is a great year for Christmas!  The Light shines in the darkness, in our darkness.  “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.  His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore” (Isaiah 9:4, 6-7).

Ask yourself, how are we instructed to come to this time of the Savior’s birth?  With joy and rejoicing, for “For the yoke of [our] burden, and the bar across [our] shoulders, the rod of [our] oppressor, [God has] broken. . . . 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.  His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore” (Isaiah 9:4, 6-7).  The light shines in our darkness!

Come to the light!  Hear the Word of God that is set against our struggle; the headline that is not bannered in the newspaper but proclaimed in a star.  “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined” (Isaiah 9:2).  Let Christ speak again not only to your life personally but to our society as a whole.  “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).christmas star

Page 1 of 212»