Advent Devotional: Dec. 3, 2019

Look Towards ‘Poor Little Jesus’

by Katie Greenwood
December 3, 2019

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

Advent Devotional: Dec. 1, 2019

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel”

by Rob Yongue
Dec. 1, 2019

Read Isaiah 11

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:

  • Sapentia (Wisdom)
  • Adonai (Hebrew word for God)
  • Radix Jesse (stem or root of Jesse)
  • Clavis David (key of David)
  • Oriens (dayspring)
  • Rex genitium (King of the Gentiles)
  • Emmanuel

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.

Lenten Devotional: Thursday, March 29

by Amanda Martin

Isaiah 42:24-43:7 (an incredibly reduced synopsis from The Message: 

But now, Gods Message, The God who made you in the first place.. The One who got you started, Israel:
“Don’t be afraid, I’ve redeemed you.  I’ve called your name. You’re mine. 
When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you, When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down.
When you’re between a rock and a hard place, 
It won’t be a dead end
Because I am God, your personal God I WILL change the world for you, I’d sell the world to get you back.
You mean SO much More than you know
So, don’t be afraid.  I’ll take care of your offspring, pull them in to me from every place and in each situation.  I’ll send them home from far away places, everyone, man woman child, who is created in my image and made to look like me, each one.
Get the blind and deaf out here and ready —

The blind (though there’s not a thing wrong with their eyes)
The deaf (though there’s not a thing wrong with their ears)
Then get all diverse nations out here and ready, what do they have to say, present their testimony
But You are my witnesses … my handpicked servant … so that you’ll come to know and trust me understand that I am and who I am, I spoke, I saved. I told you what existed long before these upstart Gods.  Yes, I am God, I’ve always been God and I always will No one can take anything from me.  I make; who can unmake it?”

Our personal God speaks. We have all been designed to listen and echo the sound.

The aural sense is the first to develop in utero, it is the last sense to degenerate before death.  Hearing its mother’s voice, the new born baby will turn its head in preference to any other sound stimulus. Those who experience profound hearing loss process sense waves of sound vibration and energy distributed from an external source.   Your ear is a complex sound chamber designed to receive signal, discriminate sound waves and echo them back to the brain to process meaning, deduce understanding, and formulate a response both emotional and many times physical.  In short, your body and mind are created to receive, poised to respond, and reverberate an external signal.  Surely you’re prepared to hear God, and EVERY OTHER cacophony of inner and worldy voices.

Isaiah reminds that God has spoken into the world (WHERE?), your name, and calls you, personally YOU to not be afraid (WHAT?) for she picks you for the team!  God is willing to go to great ends to talk to you and be close to you, you look a lot alike.

Isaiah urges in this sermon, God is speaking when there are choices that effect the FUTURE (WHEN), when your kids are sick, when far from family and friends and HOME.  God urges all nations (WHO?) can be heard without defensiveness and feel safe that we are to understand God, our creator, whom has showed us the language of love in the life of Jesus.  God is speaking, the one who knows us and loves us as we are made, who calls us to the existence that is her will. Thanks be to God.

Prayer:  Loving and nurturing creator, Thank you for this design that prepares us to sense you, help us to know we are understood by you, and can deep within understand your ways, then in turn to respond with caring your grand purpose.  Amen

Lenten Devotional: Saturday, March 17

by Shannon Mayfield

Isaiah 58: 3-10:
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
 Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, 
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, “Here I am.”

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

 A Theology that Works

Guy Clark wrote the song “Stuff That Works” about uncelebrated things in his life: an old blue shirt, an out of tune guitar, a pair of boots that fit just right, a used car that runs like a top. These, he said, constituted stuff that works. “Stuff that holds up. The kind of stuff you don’t hang on a wall. Stuff that’s real, stuff you feel, the kind of stuff you reach for when you fall.”

Unremarkable and old and used. No cache. The kind of things anyone can have. Yet they stand in sharp contrast to new and showy things which, frustratingly, often do not work and do not hold up.

The people of Jerusalem worshipped and fasted in showy ways, practicing the kind of faith they could “hang on a wall,” for all to see. And they despaired that it did not impress God. In Isaiah 58, God pulls out the theological equivalent of Guy Clark’s list. Well worn. Time tested. Still effective.

These powerful verses point us, I think, toward the conception of a God who is not moved by pious displays. They tend to hit a little close to home as we labor over our lent commitments.

The ancient Israelites wondered why God was unimpressed as they fasted and wore ash. God seems to wonder why they bother with the form if the substance is so lacking. Why fast if only to justify yelling at one’s kids? Why smudge ash when simultaneously oppressing one’s employees. It’s all show and no go.

God spells it out for them, and us, in words that deserve always to be shouted or sung:

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?”

A theology that works for us, in other words, is a theology that works on behalf of others. God does not wish for us to heap misery upon ourselves, but rather to alleviate the misery of those who can’t avoid it. Break the chains, free the oppressed, feed the hungry, open our homes to the homeless.

That, God says, is the stuff that works. Kind of old and threadbare as theology goes. It hasn’t been new and shiny for a very long time. It doesn’t get us noticed in the fancy places. But it just happens to catch the attention of the one we seek.

“Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”

Stuff that works.

Prayer: Loving God, as we Christians use this season to develop skills to help us turn away from ourselves, let us remember that these are means and not ends. Let us approach them as exercises which build the muscle we need to break chains that oppress. Let fasting shrink our stomachs so that we might be satisfied with half a loaf and happy to share the other half. Let us rejoice that we worship a God who calls us not to suffer but to work joyfully to heal and reconcile. Thank you, God, for showing us through Oconee Street, a theology that works.

Lenten Devotional: Monday, Feb. 19

by Benjamin Whetstone

Isaiah 44:9-20 (click here to read full verse): All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit … He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” … He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?”

Ever pondered upon ash is a symbol of repentance?

I’ve been thinking about it some after our Ash Wednesday service.

The image that came to me most frequently, actually, is the ash at the end of a cigarette. I guess because I like thinking about cigarettes, especially now I’ve quit for the fifth time. Non-smokers might not immediately understand (since they’re so nasty to anyone who doesn’t want them), but cigarettes are like food to a smoker.

And they do satisfy, let me tell you! On top of all the immediate “my brain needs this chemical” stuff going on, there’s also a sense of anticipation that’s pretty great. Whatever unpleasant thing I might be doing right now, I’m only a short ways away from rewarding myself and taking a break. I know it’s bad and wrong and blah blah blah. I just kind of like it.

Allow me to connect this thought, about ashes and desiring some short-term pleasure, to another. From Isaiah:

All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” He feeds on ashes; a deluded heart has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself or say, “Is there not a lie in my right hand?”

I can say, “I just kind of like it” every day, all day and it’s 100 percent true. But in the end, there’s a more subtle truth. That’s me in the passage up there, and in quiet moments I know it. My certainty is ash. My need for control over my precious minutes is ash. Every little pleasure ungainly got is … ash! My ash can’t talk back to me or comfort me; it leaves a bigger whole than it filled. And it can’t give me hope, or peace, or love.

From experience I can say that putting aside idols is no easy task. I’m not sure how to do it, really. Well, that’s not entirely true. The most effective thing in the past has been to think about how I really do want the hope, and peace, and love that an actual, real God can give. Really, I do! (And I bet you do too!)

I’m not going to speculate on what or where your idols are. The things that might take your time and your energy and don’t give anything back. The things that you love because they help you feel better and more in control for a minute. But if you’ve got some like I do, ponder on them a little.

Here’s to sitting in ashes for a month or two.

Prayer: God, you alone are not ash. Here we are, your church, and we’re sitting in a pile of it. We’ll be content to sit here for a long while, because we know that you can remake anything you want. Please help us be patient and willing to wait, because we love you and really do want your good things. Amen.

Sermon: Watch for the Hook

The American idea of “hope” is a concept that people use like a sweet jam, spread ever so lightly, over the bitter bread of injustice. We use sentimental language about the hope of the future as a way to ignore the injustice and oppression of the present.

If we want to be honest about Scripture, we will not participate in that brand of sentimentality, and be willing to look oppression, evil and sin square in the eye and say, “Yes. We have a problem here.”

But using human-made weapons like violence and power will never work. Throughout the Bible, there are stories of God using imperfect people to do God’s work. Today, God will use people like us and uses our weakness to make God’s power made known. Yes, there is hope. But we have to follow it up with prayerful action.

“Watch for the Hook”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
Isaiah 59
Dec. 24, 2017 • Fourth Sunday of Advent

Sermon: Rebuilding the Ruins

The book of Isaiah is the story of how the Jews dealt with the collective trauma of their exile. Isaiah consistently reassures his people that they will be restored by God, and promises that there would be a servant who one day would restore creation.

The Spirit of the Lord never leaves us alone and is always searching the land to restore what we have broken. God is calling us to participate in what God is already doing. In the midst of darkness, do not despair — there is a hope more radical than anything our human minds can conceive of.

The problems of our world can be overwhelming, but we are called to rebuild this world. America is littered with institutions that are ruined. There is something each of us can do — right in our own community — to help.

God is looking to us to help rebuild this city. How will we respond to God’s call?

 

“Rebuilding the Ruins”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
Isaiah 61: 1-11
Dec. 17, 2017 • Third Sunday of Advent

Sermon: Love on the Way

We all have the ability to love. But the difference between our love and God’s love is that our love comes and goes, while God’s love is constant.

When we recognize that our ability to love comes from God, then we will be able to practice constant love with humanity. God wants us to love every member of our family, and that extends beyond our immediate family to our community and the world.

Our love must extend to the Syrian refugee, the war-torn family in Egypt, and the immigrant separated from his children due to deportation. That is the only we can get our family back together.

 

“Love on the Way”
Sermon by Dr. Robert Foster
Isaiah 40: 1-11
Dec. 10, 2017 • Second Sunday of Advent

Sermon: Despite Appearances

People who “pray in the runs” tend to get desperate when they pray, and sometimes it may feel like God doesn’t answer our prayers. We may feel that God is not with us.

There are a lot of times in Scripture where God’s presence is obvious to the reader, but the attention of the people is elsewhere. When Jesus was born, many people saw him as just another refugee child.

For us to see God today, we must slow down. Instead of asking how can God appear to us, we need to do ask ourselves what can we do differently to see God.

“Despite Appearances”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
Isaiah 64: 1-9
Dec. 3, 2017 • First Sunday of Advent

Lenten Devotional: Friday, Feb. 12

by Sally Curtis AsKew

Lent began as a way for Catholics to remind themselves of the value of repentance. The austerity of the Lenten season was seen as similar to how people in the Old Testament fasted and repented in sackcloth and ashes (Esther 4:1-3;Jeremiah 6:26Daniel 9:3).

The 58th chapter of Isaiah (CEB) verses 6-8 speaks of fasting and says “Isn’t this the fast I choose, releasing wicked restraints, untying the ropes of a yoke, setting free the mistreated, and breaking every yoke?  Isn’t it sharing your bread with the hungry and bringing the homeless poor into your hose, covering the naked when you see them, and not hiding from your own family?

The key is to focus on repenting of sin and consecrating oneself to God. I can remember I was a teenager and first heard of the idea of giving up something for Lent.  Most of us focused on giving up chocolate, desserts, chips, or something like that.  We talked to anyone who would listen about how good we were to be doing this.  Later in life I came to understand that Lent should not be a time of boasting of one’s sacrifice or trying to earn God’s favor or increasing His love. God’s love for us could not be any greater than it already is.

These days my focus is on a new practice of devotional reading.  I try to read a devotional book which is different from the regular devotional book I use each morning. I make time to spend in prayer and meditation.  This year especially I want to focus more on God’s love as I learn a new way of living so that I can continue to learn to accept God’s love as a part of my entire being.

Prayer: God, help me learn to be a disciple who shares your love with all the world.  Amen.