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

Sermon: Take a Seat

PHOTO / @chuttersnap, unsplash.com

When Jesus is invited to a banquet by a prominent Pharisee, he is critical of the seating chart and who was invited to the party. Jesus notes the seating is specially designated so prominent guests sit towards the head of the table, and that only the elite — those who could return the favor — were invited.

If the church invites the world to a banquet, who would Jesus expect to see there? And where would they be sitting?

“Take a Seat” • Luke 14: 7-14 • Sermon by The Rev. Elaine Puckett

“Take a Seat”
Sermon by The Rev. Elaine Puckett
Luke 14: 7-14
Sept. 22, 2019

Sermon: Wounded World that Cries for Healing

The message in Luke 12:49-56 can be difficult for Christians. Jesus tells his followers that following him will cause division among their families and within society. He makes it clear that it will be difficult to live in the world as a follower of God.

Jesus is longing for a community of followers who ground their identity in God, rather than the powers of this world. Because following Jesus means we will be shaking up the power structures, speaking truth and challenging power.

Following Jesus means we will have to make people uncomfortable, because Jesus says that anyone who stands in the way of the love of God needs to be exposed — whether it’s on the streets of Jerusalem, in the halls of Congress or even in our church pews. Tribal loyalty can’t be our highest loyalty if we choose to follow Jesus.

Are we going to let our world shape our loyalty to Jesus? Or are we going to let our loyalties to Jesus shape our approach to the world?

To be a true follower, it must be the latter.

Wounded World that Cries for Healing • Sermon by The Rev. Elaine Puckett

Listen to The Word in Song, “I Am With You,” performed by the Oconee Street UMC Chancel Choir.

“Wounded World that Cries for Healing”
Sermon by The Rev. Elaine Puckett
Luke 12:49-56
Aug. 18, 2019

Sermon: Praying for God’s Future

When Jesus teaches us how to pray, he gives us what is now known as The Lord’s Prayer. The prayer emphasizes three things:

  1. God is a member of our family.
  2. There are three requests we are making — bread, forgiveness and deliverance.
  3. We should trust that God will provide.

Most Christians are comfortable with the idea of God as family and trusting that God will provide. And our for the most part, our requests for bread, forgiveness and deliverance are easy to comprehend. However, when it comes to forgiveness, The Lord’s Prayer commands us to forgive those who have sinned against us, just as God forgives us when we sin against God. Jesus tells us that forgiveness received is forever linked with forgiveness given.

Jesus is clear: prayer is effective and God responds. But it’s most effective when a prayer is paired with our willingness to act lovingly in relationship to others … all others.

Homework: Every single person here has someone they need to forgive … Forgive them, reach out and pray for them.

Praying for God’s Future • Sermon by The Rev. Elaine Puckett • Luke 11: 1-13

“Praying for God’s Future”
Sermon by The Rev. Elaine Puckett
Luke 11: 1-13
Aug. 4, 2019

Listen to The Word in Song, “To You I Call.

Sermon: Finding Balance

In Luke 10:38-42, Martha expresses frustration that while she is doing all the housework related to hosting a guest, Mary is talking to Jesus.

Martha asks Jesus if this bothers him? But rather than empathize with Martha, Jesus says Mary is doing exactly what she needs to be doing by listening.

This is pretty groundbreaking for Biblical times, because rabbis typically didn’t preach to women, but Jesus was talking directly to Mary. But he didn’t criticize Martha for what she was doing, either. Because in faith, we need both “being” and “doing.” Our challenge is to find the balance.

Homework: Make some notes to yourself about how much time you spend “being” and how much time you spend “doing.”

Finding Balance • The Rev. Elaine Puckett

“Finding Balance”
Sermon by The Rev. Elaine Puckett
Luke 10: 38-42
July 28, 2019

Sermon: Who is my neighbor?

When Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, his instructions are very clear when a lawyer asks him how to receive eternal life. Jesus says we are to love God, and also to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Jesus later emphasizes that your neighbor is not just your friend, family member or person with whom you share common beliefs. Your neighbor is also the person distinctly different from you, even someone whom you may consider your enemy.

To love our neighbor requires us to open up our hearts and minds to all God’s people.

Homework: Who comes to your mind when you envision the person you would least like to look upon as a neighbor? Pray for that person every day this week.

Sermon: Who is my neighbor? • The Rev. Elaine Puckett

“Who is my neighbor?”
Sermon by The Rev. Elaine Puckett
Luke 10:25-37
July 21, 2019

Sermon: Ascension

Sin is a topic we often try to avoid. However, the sin Christ sets is free from is the kind that requires use to genuinely change something about who we are. Sin is something we have to think about. But the good news is that when Jesus ascended, his absence opened up to us the possibility that the presence and power of God would be made available to use wherever we are.

Ascension by The Rev. Joe Gunby

“Ascension”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
Luke 24: 44-53
June 2, 2019

Sermon: None Dared Ask, For They Knew

The Gospel of John doesn’t end with Jesus’ resurrection. There’s one more story in John 21, in which Jesus appears to seven disciples as they are fishing. At its surface, it’s a simple story. The disciples are struggling at catching fish; Jesus appears to them and tells them to cast the net on the other side of the boat; they do as Jesus says and catch a lot of fish; Jesus transforms the fish into a massive meal.

This story has much more to the plot than what happened. The significance is in what didn’t happen — for the first time, the disciples didn’t question if it was Jesus. They knew it was him. They had faith. The disciples entered a new mode of seeing Jesus — not with the eyes but with the heart. And we can learn to see Christ in the same way.

This story assures us that the God who gave us physical sight at our birth can give us spiritual sight at our rebirth.

“None Dared Ask, For They Knew”

“None Dared Ask, For They Knew”
Sermon by The Rev. Joe Gunby
John 21: 1-19
May 5, 2019

Devotional: April 23

By Erin Barger

For me, the week of celebrating resurrection is the cornerstone of the year. Why this is, I share below. As I know it does for many of you, this week brings closer within my grasp the incredible promise that those who we lost in this life will be restored to us again. The following was written within hours of my sister’s death, to be read at her memorial. Nearly ten years later, I share it with you. Her name was Susie. In her last 3 years of life she cared for 18 foster children, as well as the 4 children she brought into the world. May God be glorified in her death as He was in her life.
John 1:4 — In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.

As the book of John opens we are introduced to an entity named the Word, who became flesh and dwelt among us. He brought an omnipotent kind of light to the world, and this light is strong enough to offer us all an otherwise impossible inheritance: the right to be sons and daughters of God. He also came in grace and truth, and from the fullness of that grace we have received one blessing after another.

Knowing Susie Graves as my sister was also one blessing after another. My memories of her begin with knowing a mother like figure. Thirteen when I was born, Susie was more like a mother to me than a sister: as I began kindergarten she was finishing high school. She worked after school jobs and, like my brother, shared her earnings by buying me coloring books and generally spoiling me. I could have had no doubt that I was loved, partially because of her.

As I grew into womanhood, we shared a new bond as sisters. As I recovered from knee surgery in high school, she and my brother were by my side. As they witnessed my first steps as a baby, they were there again to hold me as I learned to walk again. It was a scary time but, yet again, there she was. On my wedding day, she was to my immediate left. On her dying day, I was face to face with her, racing to find just the right words to communicate all that she had meant. Perhaps I should have simply said: “Susie, you have given one blessing after another.”
Within hours of her death, I thought of the story of Lazarus and knew that I would not read this story in the same way ever again. Today I can picture Mary running out to meet Jesus, knowing that His presence could have saved her brother’s life. The book of John says that Mary fell at the feet of Christ. Mary seemed willing to do anything to see her brother alive again, and now I can finally understand how that must have felt. We know that Jesus was so moved by her grief that He also wept. Although Christ knew that He would restore Lazarus to life, his love for these sisters and their grief compelled his perfect compassion. He restored Lazarus to life, and I know He will also resurrect my sister to life. I praise God today, not only for the power that He will share to restore us to never-ending life, but also for the compassion that drove Jesus to cry with Mary that day. This realization is powerful, as I know that today Christ is weeping with me, and that His comfort is perfect and the epitome of love.
Christ also redefined love later in the same book: when He is preparing his closest friends to live without Him, he shows the full extent of His love by washing their feet. Those of you who knew Susie well, knew that she also showed the full extent of her love in a similar manner. By opening her home to a little boy named Cooper whose parents were lost to him; by sacrificing daily for Emily, Caitlin, Hannah, and Amanda; by serving her husband Shayne; by watching over her little sister Erin; by creating a home for children that are often forgotten about and thereby, practicing pure religion: it is in these ways that Susie showed the full extent of her love. I praise God today for His grace upon my sister, which allowed this love to come to life after the example of our Lord.
Death has already been swallowed up in victory the day that Jesus fought death and won. Through this, I know that these memories with my beloved sister are a blink of an eye compared to the life that awaits us in heaven. Perhaps what allowed Christ to stop weeping the day he comforted Martha was, not just his vision of Lazarus coming back to life temporarily, but even more the sight of Lazarus rejoicing by the side of Mary and Martha in heaven. Therefore, we too “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen,” knowing that if we cling to Christ our own mortality will be swallowed up in life. I praise God for helping me to know Him more because of Susie and for his promise to protect her and keep her safe as a perfect Father until we are together again.

Prayer: God, your promise of resurrection defines our approach to death, and drives our fearlessness in life, as we remain rooted in Your love. Thank you. God, I don’t understand why death is essential, having lost so much as a result. But I look to you, and I trust You with what I do not understand. I believe that whatever I suffer, You suffered it first. Please send your Spirit and humility as a balm; deliver your resurrection promise in ways all who are hurting can see, even today. Thank you for the compassion of Jesus that led Him to restore life, no matter the cost to Him. May I follow in His steps.