Advent Devotional: Dec. 23, 2019

Finding Joy

by Maxine Pinson Easom
December 23, 2019

John 15:11 — I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.

I believe that in our Christian lives, each of us spends periods of time in personal searches for better and clearer understandings of how God calls us to live.  Over the last few months I have been giving a lot of thought to the presence of “joy” in my life.  I am sure this quest is because, paradoxically, joy can be pervasive, and it can appear illusive.  It can be obvious, and it can also seem hidden.  It can be effusive, but it can seem scarce.  How can I live a life filled with joy?

For me this seach has not been a search for joy.  Praise God, I do feel the presence of joy in my life.  My quest has been to understand how joy seems present even amidst adversity, and why we feel it, even in times of loss.  For me, much of that purpose has been to have a clearer understanding of joy, so I can, as the children’s chorus says, expand that “Joy, Joy, Joy, Joy, down in my heart.”

Part of our difficulty with understanding joy is that we often equate joy with happiness; with a feeling.  I am coming to understand that joy is not a feeling; it is simply knowing that Jesus came to care for me (us); to give his life for me (us); and to continue to fill my life with his grace.  Because of this, no matter how much suffering we have, no matter how much evil and pain there is in the world, as Christians, we can have joy!  When joy is defined in this way, not as a feeling, not as an experience of things going right or having what one’s heart desires, but as an understanding that joy comes from the knowledge and realization that we are loved by God, no matter what.  Even in the midst of suffering or pain, we can rejoice because we are loved, and nothing can take that away from us!  This is the experience of Christian joy!

But with that said, I think that often we believe that everything about joy is dependent on God. An extension of my growing understanding is that, while founded in God’s grace, generosity, and ever-presence, joy is also something we accept; something we affirm; and something that we admit requires a response from “me.”  That joy is a result of God’s presence living in us.  I think this is what makes a joyful existence possible.  Knowing that it is about God, embraced and affirmed by us.  That gives us a joyful presence in our lives.  As a fruit of the spirit, God gives each of us the capacity to live with and grow in joy!  Thanks be to God!

Prayer:  Dear God. Knowing that you are the source of our joy, we pray for your presence in our lives.  Through our salvation, envelop us in a joyful existence, fill us with your love, and call us to express our joy in service.  Amen.

Advent Devotional: Dec. 22, 2019

Once in Royal David’s City

by Rob Yongue
December 22, 2019

Read Luke 1:26-38

Luke 1:35The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God.”

Every year, the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, opens their Festival of Lessons and Carols with “Once in Royal David’s City” as the processional hymn. The Festival of Lessons and Carols is a standardized Christmas music service: There are nine short Bible readings, from Genesis to Revelation, but mostly there’s music. When the choir begins singing “Once in Royal David’s City,” it does so in a very specific way: A solo boy soprano chorister sings the first verse, a capella. Then the choir, also a capella, joins on the second verse as the choristers process through the middle of the aisle and file into their seats. On verses three through five, the organ and the congregation join in. According to the tradition of the King’s College Choir, the soloist of this hymn is usually chosen on the day of the performance, when the choirmaster decides whose voice is the strongest on that day.

“Once in Royal David’s City,” began as a poem by Cecil Frances Alexander, an Anglo-Irish hymn writer and poet. As she told it, the hymn started out as an effort to explain the Apostle’s Creed to young children. She spun each line of this statement of faith into its own poem. (The opening words led to the hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful”.) The second and third lines of the creed—“who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary”—became “Once in Royal David’s City.” The first stanza contrasts the grand idea of “royal David’s city” with the lowliness of a cattle-shed, and the second, the glory of heaven, from where He came, with the poverty of earth to which He came. The hymn ends by reminding us that Christ has ascended once again to glory, where we shall one day see Him.

Prayer: The Apostles Creed
I believe in God, the Creator almighty, maker of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontus Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day He rose again. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Creator. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.

Advent Devotional: Dec. 21, 2019

Liberation Theology

by Alys Willman
December 21, 2019

Luke 1: 46-55
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, 
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant. 
From this day all generations will call me blessed: 
the Almighty has done great things for me, 
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation. 
He has shown the strength of his arm, 
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, 
and has lifted up the lowly. 
He has filled the hungry with good things, 
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he remembered his promise of mercy, 
the promise he made to our fathers, 
to Abraham and his children forever.

When I read this passage, I desperately want to identify with Mary. I want to imagine myself as spunky, revolutionary handmaid, chosen by God to raise a child who will fulfil the promise of liberation made to her ancestors. 

And yet, I know better. During the five years I lived in Central America, I was privileged to spend time with Christian Base Communities, who taught me about Liberation Theology. That meant, in the words of Ernesto Cardenal “reading the gospel through Third-world eyes,” and understanding my own social location in the scriptures. 

In today’s world, I am not Mary. I am not a lowly handmaid; I am on the top of the socioeconomic ladder. When I read her words, I know I will not be lifted up with her. I can expect to be cast down, scattered in my conceit, sent away empty.

Do I have the courage to see this reality, and work to build God’s kingdom all the same? Can I see my liberation as bound up in the liberation of those who are marginalized today? 

Prayer: Loving God, as I await your birth, bring me low again. Scatter me in my conceit as you bring justice to the world and liberate us all. 

Advent Devotional: Dec. 20, 2019

A Mother Waits

by Martina Bober
December 20, 2019

Read Luke 24: 44-49
Luke 24:49 (NRSV) — “And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

Jesus is commanding his disciples to wait, and they do just that, waiting in the room for the promise to be fulfilled. The Holy Spirit did indeed arrive as the gift of God. Like those who followed Jesus, we are also in a time of waiting, not just for Christmas; a time for remembering the birth of the God Man, but also waiting for the bursting forth of the Kin-dom of God on earth. How do you wait? How are you waiting this season of Advent?

Whenever I am given the opportunity to write an Advent devotional I always attempt to write for the 20th of December, a time of personal waiting. In 1993 on this morning my son, and second child, was forced into the world. He was a much-anticipated baby. Our daughter, Zosia, had been born on time and was brought into the world naturally in 1990. We had lost a baby in between and everyone we knew had such expectancy with and for us. Even the commanding General’s wife at Fort McClellan, Alabama had shouted out to a group of us who were caroling, “Is that you Martina? Haven’t you had that baby YET?” No, not yet, we were still waiting.

Conrad’s birth would be different, his due date was in early December. That morning my labor was induced and with every contraction, he would present and retreat. It was as if he felt this was not the time, Not yet! With a persistent doctor and anesthesiologist, Conrad arrived into the world and for a brief period laid in a warmer because his not so little body could not keep a normal temperature. Oh, how we had waited for his birth. Being born off post meant that there had been lots of sonograms, no surprise about his gender and anticipation of a healthy boy. We knew he was coming. Yet we waited, we anticipated.

Photo by Walter Chávez on Unsplash

Mary waited and anticipated as well. Young and probably afraid, she was in Joseph’s city with his relatives who did not want to go through the ritual cleaning of a room if she had gone into labor, no room for her among family. Joseph and Mary searched unsuccessfully for an inn. Turned away, Mary must have also thought not yet, not here, not now. The angel’s promises had come true so far, would such a lowly birth be expected? Soon her contractions arrived and with them the pain and pushing of labor. Not the scene songwriters portray of a silent night. Jesus, both Divine and human, was born in a way not expected. Yet his birth had long been anticipated, not just by Mary and Joseph but by millennium of God’s people waiting for the Promised One.

How do you wait? We have been anticipating Christmas this Advent, the season of Emmanuel, God with us. Truly God is with us here and now. The Holy Spirit within us calls us to live into this period of Advent, of a time of not yet. We know and love the story of the birth in Bethlehem. We, as United Methodists, acknowledge the presence of the Holy Spirit which Jesus told his followers to wait for in Jerusalem. As a people who follow Jesus Christ, how are we living into this time of not yet? Let us continue to love God and others, so that our actions more so than our words labor to bring about the kingdom as we wait for Jesus to return. So much to anticipate, so much work to be done in a season of not yet.

Prayer: Emmanuel, God with us, embolden us to live in this period of waiting. Strengthen us as a people of not yet, so that we may truly live as Jesus Christ, working to aid in the coming of your kingdom here on earth until yet another promise is fulfilled. Amen.

Advent Devotional: Dec. 19, 2019

Wedding Memories

by Edwina Biron
December 19, 2019

“Love came down at Christmas.
Love all lovely. Love divine.
Love was born at Christmas
Star and Angels gave the sign.” 

December is a special month for Jonathan, my husband, and me for many reasons, including Christmas, but it is also the month in which we were married. We were both students, I was in my last year of physician assistant training, and he was in graduate school. We thought Christmas break would be a practical time to get married because our friends had that time off and could attend our wedding more easily than after graduation, AND the church would already be beautifully decorated for Advent, so we would save some money!

However, there was another more important reason that became very clear during the ceremony. My friend Theresa sang “Love Came Down at Christmas” with only guitar accompaniment, and it was simple and touching. As we said our vows and promised to love, comfort, honor and be faithful to each other, and to enter into union with one another through the grace of Jesus Christ, I realized the real reason for getting married during Advent and what Advent means.

God comes to us and seeks us and is among us in many ways, including marriage, and also in friendships, worship, illness and death. This December we will be celebrating 32 years of marriage, but most importantly, we will be celebrating the coming of Christ’s birth and Christ’s coming again. Praise be to God! 

“Love shall be our token. 
Love be yours and Love be mine.
Love to God and neighbor.
Love for plea and gift and sign.”
Amen. 

Advent Devotional: Dec. 18, 2019

Making Choices

by Sean Beckwith
December 18, 2019

Read Psalm 119:33-40
Psalm 119:33-34 (ESV)
Teach me, O LORD, the way of your statutes;
 and I will keep it to the end.
Give me understanding, that I may keep your law
and observe it with my whole heart.

C.S. Lewis

People often think of Christian morality as a kind of bargain in which God says, “If you keep a lot of rules I’ll reward you, and if you don’t I’ll do the other thing.” I do not think that is the best way of looking at it. I would much rather say that every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

O Lord, who has mercy upon all, take away from me my sins,
and mercifully kindle in me the fire of thy Holy Spirit.
Take away from me the heart of stone, and give me a heart of flesh, 
a heart to love and adore You, a heart to delight in You, 
to follow and enjoy You, for Christ’s sake. Amen.

-Ambrose of Milan, 4th century

Advent Devotional: Dec. 17, 2019

by Joe Dennis
December 17, 2019

Fear, faith and Oconee Street teenagers

This devotional is repurposed from a sermon I delivered on Laiety Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019.

2 Timothy 3:10-17 — You, however, know all about my teaching, my way of life, my purpose, faith, patience, love, endurance, persecutions, sufferings—what kinds of things happened to me in Antioch, Iconium and Lystra, the persecutions I endured. Yet the Lord rescued me from all of them. In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evildoers and impostors will go from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures,which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

I have the pleasure of working with the high schoolers every Sunday morning as their Sunday School teacher.

With a full-time job, several side hustles, three kids of my own, coaching baseball, and serving as the church’s webmaster, I’ve often been asked how do I find the time in my schedule to teach a Sunday School class? But I can’t imagine not spending each Sunday morning with these students. It’s been the biggest aspect of my faith development.

As I child, I thought of God as some larger-than-life character in the sky looking down on us. While many may envision that concept as comforting, that concept scared the heck out of me. You mean there’s this guy in the sky who knows my every move, my every thought, and there’s nowhere I can go to hide from him? No wonder why there’s mention of “fearing God” more than 100 times in the Bible. 2 Timothy 3:16, says “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness …” I definitely feared God, finding myself terrified every time I misbehaved or even had bad thoughts. At any minute, God could rebuke, correct and/or train me. The Catholic guilt was deeply embedded in me.

So, when I went to college, I developed a practice I’ve since perfected – avoidance. If I avoided church, if I avoided thinking about religion, I could avoid God. And I wouldn’t have to think about God watching over me. In the back of my mind, I knew God was there, but I could shut God out. I was getting really good at that until I fell in love with Carla, who of course had a great relationship with God. Great. It was clear to me that if I wanted to have a relationship with Carla, I would have to have a relationship with God.

Over the past 20 years, my faith development has tremendously grown — and Scripture has become clearer to me. The words of Timothy are striking when viewing religion through the lens of current events. Timothy says that “the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”

I can’t help but think about the atrocities happening in the world today at the hands of leaders who use God as a prop to gain votes and power. And their followers, who proudly claim Christianity, trade the words of Scripture with the talking points of their political leader. When Timothy says that “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for ever good work,” he means that the foundation of all good deeds must be rooted in God. And if you forsake the word of God, you’re in danger of turning aside to myths. You’re in danger of supporting the genocide of Kurds. You’re in danger of advocating for the separation of immigrant children from parents. You’re in danger of promoting cuts to programs that benefit poor children in favor of tax breaks for the wealthy.

Every Sunday morning I get to talk about these issues with some combination of Colin, Casey, Chandler, Elizabeth, Lucy, Jaydon, Violet, Jackie, Melanie and Sienna. Every Sunday they remind me not to keep my faith separate from my deeds, or my deeds separate from my faith. Every Sunday they challenge me with questions I don’t know the answer to, and we talk about it together and maybe don’t come up with a definitive answer, and that’s OK. Every Sunday they confirm to me that God is always with me, but is not some mythical figure in the sky watching over me. God is in them, in me, and in all of us.

Prayer: God, thank you for our children, who challenge us every day to be the best Christian we can be. Help us in our faith development and to not succumb to the myths of this world. Amen.

Advent Devotional: Dec. 16, 2019

The Example of Mary

by Edwina Biron
December 16, 2019

Read Luke 1:46-55
Luke 1:46-47 
“And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

I was raised in Waycross, Georgia and attended Waycross First United Methodist Church my whole life until I moved away for college. I always sang in the choir. My earliest memory is when I was 5 years old and sang “Away in a Manger” very loudly, apparently. When I was a teenager, I was Mary in a Christmas music pageant, and I still remember the song I sang: 

“Sleep my child, dear baby Jesus. 
Sweet scented hay, a pillow for your head. 
Even now, as you lie sleeping, 
Angels watching, keep by your bed.” 

During those years growing up in the church, there were many times when I didn’t want to do what was asked of me by the adults at church, such as reading scripture or a prayer during worship, or singing a solo. It seemed so difficult. I think about the huge responsibility God asked of Mary and how she accepted it so willingly and graciously, for she said she was a servant of God. Even now as an adult, my daily life can overwhelm me and stress me out such that I forget that I am a servant of God. During Advent, Mary’s Magnificat reminds me that I should rejoice and reflect the love of God to others in everything I do. 

Prayer: O God, keep us mindful of your steadfast love and generous spirit. Help us follow the example of Mary, who was faithful to you and brought into this world, your ultimate gift of love, Jesus Christ. Amen. 

Sermon: “Mary’s Song”

Mary had everything going against her. She was carrying a child, walking hundreds of miles while pregnant, forced to give birth in a manger … but despite all these difficulties, Mary believed. And Her song echoes down the corridors of time to challenge us to pay attention to what God is really up to in the world.

Who is Mary’s song for? It’s for the mothers in Honduras torn by extreme poverty, the mothers in Syria and Afghanistan where war has token its toil, the mothers in the United States among the immigrants who are so far away from home who find themselves detained and separated from the children that they love. These are the ones for whom Mary’s song are good news.

The ones who are seated in the high places have too much at stake to want to sing along — their world is collapsing in the justice of God’s mercy. The ones at the bottom can hardly wait for Mary’s song to begin. Mary’s song defines for us what it means to be a faithful follower of God.

“Mary’s Song” • Sermon by The Rev. Elaine Puckett

“Mary’s Song”
Sermon by The Rev. Elaine Puckett
Luke 1: 47-55
Dec. 15, 2019 • Third Sunday of Advent

Advent Devotional: Dec. 15, 2019

Hail to the Lord’s Anointed

by Rob Yongue
December 15, 2019

Read Psalm 72
Psalm 72: 1-2 (NLT)
Give your love of justice to the king, O God, and righteousness to the king’s son.
Help him judge your people in the right way; let the poor always be treated fairly.

James Montgomery (1771-1854) began writing poetry when he was 10 years old. Like John Wesley, he was inspired by the hymns of the Moravians. Montgomery was raised from the age of six in a boy’s boarding school while his parents served as missionaries to the West Indies. He flunked out of school when he turned 14 but was working at a radical weekly newspaper, The Sheffield Register, by the time he was 21. He took over leadership of the paper when the previous editor fled the country fearing persecution for his politics. Montgomery changed the name of the paper to The Iris and served over 30 years as editor. He was a tireless supporter of social justice and was even jailed twice for his radical views. He used his time in prison to write poetry.

Montgomery wrote “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed” in 1821 as a paraphrase of Psalm 72, a well-known prophecy of the coming Messiah. It is also a prayer, in which the psalmist petitions God to grant justice and righteousness to the King…perhaps the newly crowned earthly king of Israel, but also the anticipated heavenly king. Montgomery’s poem captures the very essence of that prayer. It is paired with the hymn tune ELLACOMBE (Hosanna, Loud Hosanna, O Church of God United) in the United Methodist Church hymnal, but other denominations use different melodies. It is a perfect hymn to sing during Advent. Though it was based off of a psalm that foretold the first coming of the Messiah, we can now sing these words as we look forward to Christ’s second coming.

For a completely different take on this hymn, you should listen to a version recorded by the husband/wife Indie Folk duo known as The Welcome Wagon. It was arranged and produced by Sufjan Stevens: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUbXRMaocQI

Prayer: We praise you Lord God of Israel. You alone do such wonderful things. We will praise your glorious name forever! Let the whole earth be filled with your glory. Amen and amen!