John 1:14 — “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory as a parent’s only child, full of grace and truth.”
Have you ever gazed at a newborn baby and thought about the life to come? When the baby’s eyes have focused and can begin to see things in the world around them, have you ever wondered what it sees and what it feels? Have you ever held a very young baby in your arms and imagined all of the possibilities that life holds for that particular child? If you and I had been able to be there and to look at the newborn Jesus on that winter’s morning could we have imagined what was to come? Could we have imagined how the world would be changed through the life of that baby?
How could we have imagined the power and truth of that life? How could we have foreseen the grace and healing that filled the world because of that child? How could we have known the hope and vision and strength that would be given to generations of believers who have hungered and worked for a world of peace and love?
Well, the simple answer is that, no, we couldn’t have foreseen any of these things as we gazed upon the newborn baby lying in a stable on a winter’s night in Bethlehem. On that night, we couldn’t have envisioned those things any more that we can see the path to a world of peace and love and justice and righteousness in our own day. And yet, in the life of that Christ Child, grace and love did come into the world in a new way. God’s power and truth did speak a new word with authority into a world of violence and hate. And on this Christmas morning in 2019, in a world filled with too much violence and hate, the birth of the Christ Child bears witness that justice and righteousness and love and peace CAN live in this world, and not only live, but prevail.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen His glory as a parent’s only child, full of grace and truth.” God came down at Christmas, as a model for a faithful life and as a promise that all will be well in the end. Have faith in that promise, live a faithful life, and tell the story well!
Jesus Christ is born today!
Prayer: Dear God, thank you that you gave us a living example in Jesus, of your will and way in the world, a way of grace and truth and love and kindness. Thank you for showing us in his life, death and resurrection, that no matter how dark the time, all will be well in the end. Help us to believe and to trust and to follow you, to do justice and righteousness, and to love mercy and kindness. Help us to dwell in your promise and in your peace, this day and every day. In the name of Jesus the Christ we live and pray. Amen.
Luke 2:15 — “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
Christmas Eve … the busyness of the season is about to be behind us. These weeks have been filled with good music in worship and holiday concerts, perhaps a few holiday parties, and preparations and planning for various gatherings. You may be experiencing pressure to do things in a certain way (and purchase certain items), to create lasting memories, and to add another event to an already busy schedule.
I invite you to pause. To take a deep breath. And to consider another point of view, expressed by the author/philosopher/theologian/educator/civil rights leader Howard Thurman (1899-1981):
“Christmas is Waiting to be Born” When the song of the angels is stilled, When the star in the sky is gone, When the kings and the princes are home, When the shepherds are back with their flocks, The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost To heal the broken, To feed the hungry, To release the prisoner, To rebuild the nations, To bring peace among people, To make music in the heart.
Rather than being at the end of a busy season, on this Christmas Eve we are invited to anticipate a marvelous beginning! Indeed, we are invited to find Jesus in the here and now every day of the year (Matthew 25:40).
What might it look like for you to engage in the ‘work of Christmas’ in 2020?
Prayer:Mothering God, thank you for birthing newness into my life. Help me in my life-long journey of inviting you in and engaging in your work. Thank you for your grace. Amen.
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.
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.
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 Luke 1: 47-55 Dec. 15, 2019 • Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 40:8 (NRSV): The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
It feels appropriate to think about divine, apocalyptic transformations during Advent. We’re preparing for one of the Church’s two universe-shaking transformations: the birth of Christ, celebrated in the dead of winter, when the dark backyard at 6 p.m. can feel downright apocalyptic. This is just the time, then, to remind ourselves of Isaiah’s reminder. Everything ends. We wait for the yard to turn brown, the garden to die back, for the light to fade earlier and earlier. But there’s something after that ending. If we wait patiently, we experience the transformation of apocalypse to rebirth. We experience Christmas.
So as I go into this week, just a week and a half before Christmas, I’m working to see the familiar as something in the process of transformation. It’s not dead grass; it’s grass that’s waiting for renewal. The flowers are gone now, but they’ll push up through the ground again in spring. The lights and garlands, trees and wrapped presents all speak to waiting. Our Christmas decorations turn the rooms in our houses into spaces for glorious waiting: why wrap presents if not to enjoy the anticipation?
Christmas helps us not only bear, but relish the wait. It reminds us that even in the cold dark winter, the word of God is waiting for us, and the Word of God, Jesus Christ, arrives to bring us out of waiting into grace.
Dear God, help us be eager in our waiting. Help us see our world as a place in the process of becoming, and help us celebrate with Jesus when our long winter wait is over.
Psalm 40:1 (The Message) I waited and waited and waited for God. At last he looked; finally he listened.
Are we there yet? When will dinner be ready? As a child, my dad would frequently remind me that “patience is a virtue,” and I would usually snap back, “a virtue I don’t have!”
Having patience when you’re waiting is not easy. The other evening our family was waiting for Matthew’s 3rd grade production of the Nutcracker to begin, and I was asked three times about when the play was going to start (of course, after about song number six that same person also asked me when the play was going to end).
As I reflect on this year’s Advent them waiting with purpose, the concept of waiting seems contradictory to all of the hustle and bustle happening in preparation for the holidays. At work, people are rushing through end-of-the-year tasks to get to winter break. Schools have scheduled classroom parties, field trips and other events in the race to end the semester. Stores are filled with customers trying to hurry through their lists to wrap up their Christmas shopping.
It is for those reasons that I never really saw Advent as a time of waiting. The world around me seemed way too busy this time of year, and I felt way too impatient to take a pause. It was just easier to rush through Advent to get to Christmas as if I was checking things off my list. I wanted to jump to singing carols and opening Christmas presents as if the Advent candles each Sunday served as a countdown to Christmas rather than a chance to focus on the preparation for the arrival of Jesus.
Most people are not good at waiting. Waiting is often uncomfortable, and at times, boring. Sometimes when waiting for the unknown, fear can enter in. Patience during the waiting is often difficult because things feel out of control. It’s no wonder why we want to complain when we have to wait for things! Yet because we know God is in control, we can be patient. We can relax and we can wait because we know that God loves us. We can take time to pause during Advent to remind ourselves to prepare not just our homes for Christmas, but more importantly our hearts and our minds.
Prayer: Loving God, I appreciate that you are in control and that I can let go. Although everything around me feels so busy, I pray for the patience to wait with purpose this Advent season. Please grant me a calm and present heart to allow me to truly prepare for your coming.
Matthew 6:30-34 (NKJV) Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
The holiday season brings so much to stress about. I wonder how I can possibly pick a gift that my godmother will want and that she hasn’t already gotten for herself. Won’t she already have it if she wants it? What do I need to know to be ready for the chemistry midterm next week? Should I sacrifice the rare family harmony to correct my uncle’s wild political incorrectness? There are meals to plan, gifts to buy and wrap, and gatherings with family and friends. We have all of these things, and more, to stress about this season. It feels like there’s so much to do and not nearly enough time to do it.
But every Christmas, we can be thankful for so much. We reflect on the season and feel blessed by all of the good times and regret the times we spent stressing when we should have just handed the stress over to God. The scripture says, “do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things.” Instead of worrying about what the next day will bring, we should take the time to show love to our friends and family. We should take the time to feel the intense love of God. And we should allow God’s love to carry us through each day, and this season.
This season, we should stop to ask ourselves, “Where am I in this moment?” Am I stressing about the future, regretting the past, or am I really living in the present? Am I really hearing the Christmas carols, feeling the cold wind on my nose and cheeks, and enjoying the hot cocoa as it warms me? God is trying to make us smile with these little gifts, but are we even taking the time to notice them? The kingdom of God is all around us, we only have to live in the moment to experience it.
During Advent, we can remember to be in the moments that God has given us, and enjoy the blessings of the season. When the stress takes over and we forget to appreciate God’s little, and not so little, gifts to us, we can meditate on this prayer:
A Prayer to Savor the Moment by Rachel Wojo Dear God, Thank you for this exact point in time. Sometimes I struggle to enjoy the gift of the present. I push forward before your timing is perfect And then feel the pain of rushing. My spirit longs to savor the moment While my mind scrambles to snatch the next minute. Will you slow my heart to beat your rhythm? Will you sync my step to mirror your tempo? May my spirit fail to chase after the next beautiful experience Until I’ve unwrapped the gift of right now- The present. Amen.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us. Hebrews 12:1
This is not really an Advent passage. It was read at my wedding … which was in the spring … it is my father’s favorite, who celebrates his birthday today, December 5 … so we are at least closer to Advent there. But what do these words mean for us in a season where our church is “waiting with purpose?”
When my father’s father was a young boy, his older brother was drafted into the Second World War. Bob left for training in November 1943; the family faced the bleak prospect of Christmas without him. On Christmas Day, they opened a record instead. Like many troops, Bob recorded a holiday greeting for family. Just as his voice began to play through the speaker, Bob himself walked in the door, having received last-minute leave and traveled through an ice storm to make it home.
Still reading? You are farther in the story than Grandaddy ever got. He always started crying well before the end; Daddy, too. I cried writing it, even though my brief telling doesn’t really do it justice. I never knew Bob, but I know that story. Understanding its importance to my family means I’ve known “Uncle Bob” is part of my great cloud of witnesses for quite some time.
This Advent, we prepare to hear another story: a miracle of our faith, the story of our greatest witness, the story about a son showing up unexpectedly. In the context of that familiar tale, we find that the ordinary stories we hear everywhere remind us of the miracle. The best part? Everyone can tell the story. We are called to be witnesses to those we do not even know—like shepherds, angels, and wise men.
This is my family’s first Christmas without Grandaddy. I’d like to hear him tell that story again. Of course, I don’t have a record and he won’t walk through the door. But, as it turns out, I’ve spent the last year finding Grandaddy everywhere, and realizing that my great cloud of witnesses—our great cloud of witnesses—really is a miracle.
Maybe it is an Advent verse after all. “Running with perseverance” seems a lot like “waiting with purpose” to me.
Prayer: Dear God, when we feel bleak, help us be active: running with perseverance and waiting with purpose. Fill our clouds, reveal everyday miracles, and make us faithful witnesses.
Isaiah 8:11-17; 9:1-7 “The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy, he is the one you are to fear, he is the one you are to dread, and he will be a sanctuary, but for both houses of Israel he will be a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” Isaiah 8:13-14a
My first deep encounter with the season of Advent came in 2007, when Bryson and I were living at Jubilee Partners as an engaged couple. Jubilee is a Christian community just down the road in Comer, Georgia, on a rural campus of almost 300 acres. For the past 40 years, Jubilee’s primary work has been to receive newly-immigrated refugees and accompany them in the first steps of their transition to permanent resettlement in the United States. Staff at Jubilee commit to (trying to) live, work, and worship together in the spirit of the early Church, and share chores, prayer time, and meals together 5-6 days a week.
During Advent at Jubilee, everyone gathers at 6:15 for a brief pause before community dinner. We sit in the main community building that doubles as cafeteria and worship hall, and form a semicircle around the Advent wreath and crèche. We take turns leading the group in two Advent carols, then read a short excerpt from the Messianic prophecies. At that point, all lights in the room are extinguished and we wait, in the darkness, in silent meditation.
Although only held for a few minutes, this waiting in the dark often stretches a little longer than feels comfortable. The silence is maintained even as curious children begin to stir or visitors file in late. Then the Advent candles are lit, and into the darkness we sing “Come thou long expected Jesus,” to the lilting Celtic melody Hyfrydol, usually with a little guitar or fiddle accompaniment. We close with prayer, which usually includes thanksgivings and petitions both big and small. It’s a simple practice, and manages to encompass many elements of the Advent season: earnestness, impatience, wonder, anxiety, hope, and acceptance.
“Bind up the testimony and seal up the law among my disciples. I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob. I will put my trust in Him.” Isaiah 8:17
The prayer concerns of the prophets, it turns out, overlap greatly with our own—refugee crises, food insecurity, environmental disaster, rising militarism. When I struggle to see, or trust the existence of, the face of God, I am comforted by the knowledge of my kinship with people through the ages who share this longing for the urgent breaking forth of God’s transformative kingdom.
Since I’m not a theologian or a scholar, I wanted to share one of the best resources I do know of for connecting with that kinship. That is the amazing 1960 album “Christmas Spirituals” by Odetta Holmes, known simply as Odetta. This album was recently re-released, complete with a multiracial nativity, world-music-inspired percussion, and a children’s choir. That’s not the one I recommend for this purpose. Take the time to find the original 1960 album, which features a hand-carved Black Madonna cradling baby Jesus against a dark background. It’s still available. Here’s a link to the first song on YouTube (apologies for any ads that may pop up):
Odetta’s Christmas Spirituals challenge every sugar-coated image I ever held of the coming of Christ. One glance at song titles like “Poor Little Jesus” and you realize this is not going to be the usual celebratory, somewhat smug victory march of typical Christmas hymnody. This is the resolute time-keeping of runners determined to finish with dignity a race they do not expect to win.
The opening song, “Virgin Mary Had One Son,” dives steadily down a minor chord toward the bottom of Odetta’s astonishing vocal range. There’s no peppy brass band, just a tinny folk guitar and a lonely, sorrowing bass. The song opens with a plodding groan, then abruptly shifts to an almost frantic rhythm that sounds more likely to accompany a chase or escape scene than a moment of sublime transcendence.
“Mary, whatcha gonna name your pretty little baby?” sings Odetta, in the same tone of affectionate sympathy a kind-hearted but resigned neighbor might extend to any new teen mom. Later in the album, she declares from Mary’s perspective, “Some call him one thing, I think I’ll call him Emmanuel,” with the resolve of a mother defending the value of a child the world considers to be worth-less.
These carols help orient me in the direction I understand Jesus asked us to follow him—that is, toward common purpose with the exiled and the shamed in their modern-day mangers. I don’t mean to reinforce the fantasy that the oppressed receive some supernatural glory by means of their suffering. But I realize that every step I have taken up the ladder of privilege and power—earned or unearned, desired or undesired—has narrowed my comprehension of those whose circumstances are different.
For Christmas to be the observance of Incarnation, I need my attention yanked toward Jesus, who said, “Look. You want to see me? That’s easy. I’ll always be in the places of suffering, whether of mind, body, or spirit. But look: don’t go there out of pity, or even out of a virtuous desire to make restitution. Go because that’s where you know you can find me. Go, and find your kindred by the greatness of their need for me.”
“The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” Isaiah 9:2
Prayer: O God, in this season of darkness, help us to have faith that even as the darkness is great, it will never overcome your Light. Amen
Isaiah 7:14 — “Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign: See, the virgin will conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel.”
The text for “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” comes from a seven verse Latin poem that dates back to the 8th century. It was used in a call and response fashion during the vespers, or evening service.
The poem came to the attention of Anglican priest and hymn writer John Mason Neale in the mid 1800s. Neale was prevented from serving in a parish due to lung disease, but he devoted much of his life to social ministry. He founded a nursing order of Anglican nuns and helped organizations that cared for orphans and young women. In his “spare time”, he translated early and medieval Greek and Latin hymns for his fellow Anglicans.
Like the original poem, Neale’s translation from 1851 contained seven stanzas; today many modern hymnals contain only four or five. Various names for the Messiah are used in each stanza to express the fulfillment of prophecy that Jesus brings. English choirmaster Thomas Helmore was the first person to pair Neale’s text with the tune Veni Emmanuel. He also is said to have added the familiar refrain “Rejoice, rejoice, Immanuel shall come to you, O Israel.”
British hymnologist J.R. Watson provides a context for the antiphons included on the second page after the hymn in our United Methodist Hymnal: “The antiphons, sometimes called the ‘O antiphons’ or ‘The Great O’s’, were designated to concentrate the mind on the coming Christmas, enriching the meaning of the Incarnation with a complex series of references from the Old and New Testaments.”
Each antiphon begins as follows:
Adonai (Hebrew word for God)
Radix Jesse (stem or root of Jesse)
Clavis David (key of David)
Rex genitium (King of the Gentiles)
Put together, the first letter of the second word of each antiphon spells SARCORE. If read backwards, the letters form a two-word acrostic, “Ero cras,” meaning “I will be present tomorrow.” Jesus is God with us. He has not only come in history, but he is coming again. What a reason to rejoice!
Prayer: Lord Jesus, we wait in joyful hope for you. Send us your grace this Advent season so that we can prepare for your coming. Touch our hearts with longing so that we can better love and serve you and each other. Fill us with the hope that we can be transformed by your Spirit and so help transform the world. We ask these things in the name of Jesus whose kingdom we seek. Amen.