God calls us to the Waters.
to find our place in the body of the Church
to do the work of God’s salvation of creation
to be given new birth, new heart, new vision.
All this is God’s gift, offered to us without price.
Free but not Cheap.
A Gift to be Shared.
God calls us to the Waters.
Remember you baptism and be thankful.
There are some Christmas Traditions that just won’t die – like shaking the package and trying to guess what’s inside. As a child we all did it. We waited until our parents weren’t in the room. We began sizing up the packages in our mind with imaginary x-ray vision, prying at what might be inside. We took out our list and checked it twice. Checking the size and shape of each package.
And if we were really quiet, and really sneaky, and really brave – we actually touched the packages. With the same care an antiquities professor in a library handles a rare and fragile manuscript – we would pick up those mystery gifts wrapped in colorful paper with ribbons and bows. Quieter than our parents could ever remember us being, we would gently shake the package, and if we were lucky, we would hear something rattle or rock within giving us giddy emotion about possibilities.
Could it be that new video game that everyone wants this year? Would it be that doll we saw in the store? What about the Drone or new phone we asked for? Would Christmas day find us tearing off the paper to find exactly what we wanted? No matter how we shook it, not matter what noises came from within the wrappings, we couldn’t and wouldn’t be sure until Christmas morning.
Mary must have been feeling like that after the angel left. There are two words that when you say them or hear them will change your life forever. “I’m pregnant.” For some, those words come as a shock. As in this wasn’t the plan. Attached to them are chains like “My life is over” and “I’m not ready.” The future is cloudy with sudden realization of responsibility, nurturing, providing, and caring for another living being.
“I’m pregnant.” For others these words come with hopeful surprise. Attached to them are dreams of doll houses and catching balls. The future is a bright sunny day with endless possibilities about what might lay in store for the new family.
Like a gift wrapped under the tree, one that we weren’t aware that we might be receiving, Mary goes through a flood of these emotions. “I’m pregnant.” At first, she was in shock. “How can this be. I’ve never been with a man!” “God this isn’t the way things are done down here.”
We’ve all told God this once or twice in our lives, maybe we’ve just used other words. “Lord, if you’ll just let it happen this way…” “God, what I really need is…” “Jesus Christ, why can’t anything ever go my way!” We shake the package. We size it up in our minds. We try to tell our parents what it should be because we have this sinking feeling that it isn’t what we wanted it to be.
I’m sure Mary instinctively put her hand to her stomach as she said those unsure words, “I am God’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.”
According to Google Maps and most commentaries, it would take a person about one week to walk from Nazareth to Jerusalem in the ancient world. We actually don’t know where Zechariah and Elizabeth lived. Scripture only says, “Judean Highlands” which describes a lot of territory. But it probably was around or near Jerusalem – Zechariah being a priest. It may have even been near Bethlehem as Adam Hamilton suggests.
So put yourself in Mary’s shoes. An angel just told you your life is ruined. “I’m pregnant.” You run to family, but preferably not mom and dad. Maybe go and check out what the Angel said about cousin Elizabeth. And you’ve got 7 to 9 days walk to think this thing through.
It’s amazing how taking a walk can change your perspective. All the research these days says that sitting is killing us. Sitting in chairs at our offices, sitting in lazy-boys in front of television and devices. Our sedentary lifestyle is killing us. And it’s not just our physical health – walking is emotionally healthy.
Mary probably thanked God for the walk. I imagine that Mary was deep in thought the whole way to Elizabeth’s house. I imagine her praying to God and going through the different stages of grief. “I’m pregnant. Not, that’s impossible. Nothing is impossible with God.” “I’m pregnant. Why did you pick me God? Isn’t there a princess somewhere who’s better suited?” Denial, Anger, Depression, Bargaining, Acceptance. Mary must have traveled the gambit of the wheel of emotional response with each step she took south.
Walking helps her. Her perspective does change. She looks at her stomach with growing anticipation. She sizes up this gift, wondering how it will fit into her life’s dreams. She rubs her stomach wondering who he will be? No matter how she shakes it, no matter what feelings come from within the wrappings, she couldn’t possibly be sure until Christmas.
But that doesn’t stop her from dreaming. After her walk she praises God “With all my heart I glorify God.” After her walk she realizes that this burden she thought she was carrying has become a blessing, “From now on, everyone will call me blessed.” She realizes who God is and who God’s son will be
- A man of mercy
- One who lifts up the lowly and pulls the powerful off their thrones
- Feeding the hungry
- Coming the aid of the oppressed
- A Savior – Jesus – Emmanuel – God with us.
Mary realizes that she has been given a gift.
No matter what is under the Christmas Tree for you this year, one thing is true. It doesn’t matter what kind of wrapping paper is on it. It doesn’t matter how perfect the bow is tied or how big the box is. It doesn’t even matter what it cost for the person to give it to you. What matters is once you’ve opened it, how will you use it?
No matter how you shake it, once you’ve opened the gift, you’ve got to decide what you will do with it now. Will it be put on the shelf with other ‘things’ you own but never use? Will it be put in storage with other gifts you’ve been given that you didn’t really want to receive but can’t quite bring yourself to get rid of because “even an ugly sweater from Aunt Cathy is still a gift from Aunt Cathy.” Or will this gift be the gift that changes your life.
A father took his two children to the mall to do a little shopping. As they drove up, four eager eyes spotted a Mack Truck parked with a big sign on it that said, “Petting Zoo.” The father knew what was coming. The kids jumped up in a rush and asked, “Daddy, Daddy. Can we go? Please. Please. Can we go?”
Wanting to give his children a gift, the father said “Sure,” flipping them both a quarter before walking into the department store. They bolted away, and the father felt free to take his time looking for a Christmas gift for his wife.
A petting zoo consists of a portable fence erected in the mall with about six inches of sawdust and a hundred little furry baby animals of all kinds. Kids pay their money and stay in the enclosure enraptured with the squirmy little critters while their moms and dads shop.
A few minutes later, the father turned around and saw his little girl walking along behind him. He was shocked to see she preferred the department store to the petting zoo. Then he saw that she was crying. He bent down and asked her what was wrong.
She looked up at him with sad brown eyes and said, “Well, Daddy, it cost fifty cents. So, I gave my brother my quarter. It was an early Christmas gift for him.”
Together, the father and his daughter walked over to the Petting Zoo and watched her brother enjoy the gift she’d given. The father watched as they stood there. There was another two quarters burning a hole in his pocket that he was about to give her. But as he watched his daughter, something changed. The sadness disappeared. The burden was lifted and became a blessing. The gift she had given became a gift of joy for her.
She had opened an unexpected gift. Without sizing it up beforehand, no shaking it, no guessing at what it could be. She had simply tore open the gift of love and shared it with her brother, and in the sharing she had been the one who was blessed.
Church, we’ve been given a gift. “We’re pregnant. We’re pregnant with baby Jesus.” This unexpected gift has shocked us, surprised us, and got us wondering. It doesn’t matter what kind of wrapping paper is on it. It doesn’t matter how perfect the bow is tied or how big the box is. It doesn’t even matter what it cost for God to give it to us. We’ve been shaking it, guessing at what it might be, dreaming about what could be.
Christmas is coming. Once we’ve opened this gift, how will we experience Jesus? How will we share Jesus? After all, that’s all that really matters anyway.
There are some traditions that won’t die. If you were like most Americans – you’ve been searching for the perfect gift. Maybe you started your search this week: gravy still dripping down your chin, turkey still digesting in your stomach as you leapt through crowds and dodged quicker than any running back to get to that last one, limited time, Black Friday sale.
Maybe you’re more savvy than that…Back when Halloween costumes and Christmas Trees came out together, you saw the signs of the times. You read between the lines when the minions came knocking at your door saying “Trick or Treat.” You knew what they were really saying was “Trick or Treat – only 55 days left till Christmas – buy me a gift!”
Whether you do it online or in person, whether you prepare all year for it or let it sneak up on you with a bite of mistletoe – Brace yourself – Christmas is coming. If you are like most – you’ve begun searching for the perfect gift for that person who is impossible to shop for.
There are some traditions that won’t die – and finding the perfect gift is one of them. We all know what it’s not. It’s not the ugly sweater from Aunt Cathy. It’s not the yellow polka dotted suspenders I sent my dad this year. Nor is it the gift basket of soaps and bathing oils – what are your relatives trying to say by giving you things to make you smell better?
And we know how to start fights about gifts. Recently on Facebook a man posted this:
One year, I decided to buy my mother-in-law a cemetery plot as a Christmas gift. The next year I didn’t buy her a gift. When she asked me why, I replied, “Well, you still haven’t used the gift I bought you last year!” And that’s how the fight started.
In trying to find the perfect gift we drown in consumerism and hunger for meaning. When we purchase more and find ourselves emptier than our wallets. When we give till it hurts only to find the hurt is credit card debt. When we realize we’re worried about schedules, menus, and forget to realize with the Grinch that Christmas is something that can’t be bought after all.
Finding the perfect gift is a lot like trying to decide which of the Seven Wonders of the World is the most wonderful. A teacher assigned a class to write down a list of what they thought were the current Seven Wonders of the World. Most of the students came back the pretty much the same list:
- Egypt’s pyramids
- Taj Mahal
- The Grand Canyon
- Panama Canal
- Empire State Building
- Peter’s Basilica
- The Great Wall of China
One little girl had a difficult time with the assignment. The teacher asked her, “are you having trouble with the assignment.” “Yes,” she promptly said, “there are so many that it is hard to choose which should be number one.” The teacher said, “Well, why don’t you share your list with the class and we’ll help you decide.”
“I think the Seven Wonders of the World are:
- To see
- To hear
- To touch
- To taste
- To feel
- To laugh
- And to love.
The perfect gift is not made, manufactured, sold, and shipped through Amazon.com. The perfect gift is not something you can charge on your credit card, save up for through your piggy bank, or earn through hard work. If you are like most people – you are searching for the perfect gift.
The perfect gift is what we look for during the Advent Season. It was there in the very first moment of creation. “In the Beginning was the Word.” It wasn’t bought or sold, but instead was given freely as a self-sacrifice. “The Word was with God and the Word was God.” It was the perfect gift for us in our darkest hour. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot extinguish it.”
The perfect gift we long for, the perfect gift we search for, the perfect gift we need more than ever this year – is Jesus. Emmanuel. God with us. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”
This time of year the days grow short and it seems both in nature and in our spirits that the darkness is trying to overcome the light. Evil is trying to beat goodness. Commercialism, not secularism, is trying to kill Christmas.
Perhaps that is why we celebrate Advent during this time of year. To remember our need. To remember his love. To remember God’s gift.
Perhaps that is why we need candles lit in front of us each Sunday. To give us light in dark times, to give us hope in the midst of grief and despair. for hope that the light of day will end night.
Funny thing about this gift God gives. We have to be ready to receive it. Advent calls us to get ready for Christ’s coming. Be ready. We have to open the gift. Be ready to have our debt of sin paid in full. Be ready Jesus to shape and change our lives. Be ready to experience an amazing grace and a wonderful presence. Be ready to receive the perfect gift.
A young man was getting ready to graduate from college. For many months he had admired a beautiful sports car in a dealer’s showroom, and knowing his father could well afford it, he told him that was all he wanted.
As Graduation Day approached, the young man awaited signs that his father had purchased the car. Finally, on the morning of his graduation, his father called him into his private study told him how proud he was to have such a fine son, and how much he loved him. He handed him a beautifully wrapped gift box. Curious, but somewhat disappointed, the young man opened the box and found a lovely, leather-bound Bible, with his name embossed in gold. Angrily, he raised his voice to his father and said, “With all your money and power you give me a Bible? I wanted a car!” He stormed out of the house, leaving the Bible behind.
Many years passed and the young man was very successful in business. He had a beautiful home and wonderful family, but realized his father was very old. He thought perhaps he should go to him. He had not seen him since that graduation day. But before he could make arrangements, he received a telegram telling him his father had passed away, and willed all of his possessions to him. He needed to come home immediately to take care of things.
When he arrived at his father’s house, sadness and regret filled his heart. He began to search through his father’s important documents and saw the Bible, new, just as he had left it years ago. With tears, he opened the Bible and began to turn the pages. His father had carefully underlined a verse,
Matt 7:11- “If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him”
As he read those words, a car key dropped from the back of the Bible. It had a tag with the dealer’s name, the same dealer who had the sports car he had desired. On the tag was the date of his graduation, and the words…PAID IN FULL.
There are some traditions that won’t die. Advent is one of them. This Advent Season, let’s get ready to receive the perfect gift.
Christ our Lord invites himself to our Table
Calls us out of the sycamore tree, inspires us to charity.
Christ our Lord invites us to see the world differently.
Generously giving half of what we own,
Providing a path for the poor.
Christ our Lord invites us to live in peace with one another.
If we have cheated anyone, let us repay them four times!
We seek a life lived through justice.
We seek relationships filled with wholeness and peace.
Christ our Lord invites us to salvation,
to seek and save the lost.
Let us come down and dine with Christ!
Lord, we need a Savior.
Where are the superheroes?
Where can we find Superman or Batman?
Where are the Avengers or the X-men?
Listen to the screams, Lord, creation is broken!
Not just floods and earthquakes, but hunger and neglect.
The arch-nemesis of all things good wages war and pain.
Lord, have mercy! Where are the superheroes?
Friends, find strength in the Lord, he shares his power with you!
Put on the Armor.
Make a stand against the enemy – apathy, hate, war, greed.
Put on the Armor. Put on the Armor of God.
You are armed with truth, justice, the good news of peace.
Put on the Armor. Put on the Armor. Put on the Armor of God.
Carry the Shield of Faith and the Sword of the Spirit.
Wear your Salvation for everyone to see.
Put on the Armor. Put on the Armor. Put on the Armor of God.
We are Heroes in God’s Kingdom. Our Super Power is God’s Love.
Lord, have mercy! We are the superheroes with Christ!
“It is Difficult to say what is impossible, for the dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.”
– Robert H. Schuller
“Who were the first Christians?” I remember Dr. Richard Vinson asking this in the middle of class one day. I was thinking, how silly. This isn’t profound. That should be an easy answer, but it’s not.
At first some of us raised our hands and said “Jesus” as if we were in Sunday School. The teacher politely told us good try and reminded us that Jesus lived and died as a follower of the Jewish faith. Others got creative and began talking about Mary and Joseph and the Christmas story. Still others went after Fishermen and Tax Collectors – Peter, Andrew, Matthew. One person even brought Doubting Thomas into the conversation, while another felt that maybe Judas Iscariot was the first one to really understand Jesus and the plan.
Eventually an debate began about what exactly would be the definition of a Christian. That’s when the teacher brought us all back together and congratulated us for finally getting to the point. While he never answered the question, he gave us a short list of characteristics for the first Christians.
They are a people who follow the teachings of Jesus.
They saw or believe in the empty tomb.
They shared this good news of resurrection and salvation with others.
We follow the teachings of Jesus. Yes, Christians care called to do weird stuff. Instead of being all about revenge and “my individual rights,” we turn the other cheek. When someone asks us to walk a mile with them, we go two. We love our God and everyone we encounter in our lives – even those we can’t stand and consider enemies. We forgive even when it isn’t deserved. To be a Christian is to follow Jesus.
We saw or believe in the empty tomb. One of the things I love about taking our confirmation class up to the Greek Orthodox church in Richmond is that they get to see a replica of the empty tomb. As Christians, we believe that God did the impossible. God brought a man back from the dead. No, Jesus wasn’t sleeping. No, Jesus wasn’t half-dead. Jesus was dead-dead and rose from the grave as someone who had the answers to life’s problems, brokenness, and hurts. To be a Christian is to believe in an empty grave.
We share this good news of resurrection and salvation with others. I think this is the hardest part for us in the United States. We’ve become so scared of rejection, of offending, and ashamed. It’s easy to see Christians in places like Iraq because they are being beheaded, but here in the comfortable USA, we are hard to find because we don’t let folks know we are doing what we do because of Jesus. To be a Christian is to share that you do something good because of what Jesus has done for you. To be a Christian is to share the good life of resurrection and hope.
So, have you figured out who were the first Christians? It might surprise you. Like my professor, I’m not going to tell you the answer, but the verse below will point you in the right direction.
“When they found the tomb empty, they returned and reported all these things to the eleven and all the others.”
God is in Herd
“Cows are my passion.
What I have ever sighed for has been to retreat to a Swiss farm,
and live entirely surrounded by cows – and china.” – Charles Dickens
I can relate to Charles Dickens in one way. There is peace inside the herd. Herd animals have been taught by life’s experiences that things are better when you flock together. For animals this means that only those on the edges and those who wander off are vulnerable to predators. Being in the herd means strength in numbers. Being in the herd means there are more than just your eyes looking out to protect you. Being in the herd means protection against the coldest winter wind and help finding the water hole during the scorch of summer’s sun. Sure, you have to put up with the smells and crazy mooing of others, but for most animals let’s be honest. Being in the herd means life.
This is especially true for us as Christians. We as Christians have been taught by our experiences with God in this life that things are better when we grow together. I have found that I’m a better Christian when I gather together with other people on the path of salvation. I have found that I usually find myself in spiritual (and sometimes mental, emotional, and physical) danger when I wander off too far from God’s people. The edge is a place we all go to in our lives. And hopefully while we are there, we are bringing new folks into the flock, but it is not safe to always be on the fringe. Being in the Church means strength in the number of prayers being lifted up. Being in the Church means there are more than just your eyes looking out for you, loving you, helping you raise your children, helping you care for your parents. Being in the church means protection against the loneliest winters of our souls and help in returning to the font and table of our faith to find nourishment. Yes, we do have to put up with hypocrites, bad smells, loud mooing and the occasional crazy rants, but let’s be honest with ourselves. Being in Church means life.
Recently, at Charge Conference, Rev. Dr. Rob Colwell, quoting Adam Hamilton, asked our church leaders three questions. “Why Jesus, Why Church, Why Our Church?” I was so proud of our answers. We saw Jesus as Salvation: a place of refuge, a different future, hope and love, the one who can tell us who we truly are. We saw church as the people and place where we focus on the Kingdom and experience Jesus. We saw our Church as more than just a growing family. “Small enough to be a part of it, but big enough to be a group,” one person said. That sounds to me like a herd. Life is in the herd. God is in the herd.
“42 The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. 43 A sense of awe came over everyone. God performed many wonders and signs through the apostles. 44 All the believers were united and shared everything. 45 They would sell pieces of property and possessions and distribute the proceeds to everyone who needed them. 46 Every day, they met together in the temple and ate in their homes. They shared food with gladness and simplicity. 47 They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.”
- Acts 2:42-47