Wreath – A Message on Luke 1:39-45

Scripture Reading – CEB – Luke 1:39-45 

39 Mary got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands. 40 She entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 With a loud voice she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. 43 Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. 45 Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.”

The Wreath DRAFT sermon slides

The Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.

wreath

Video Clip – Linus’ Speech from A Charlie Brown Christmas

Oh, how I love A Charlie Brown Christmas! You know this scene from the classic Peanuts “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” The now 53-year-old television special tells the story of a depressed Charlie Brown trying to find holiday cheer during an over commercialized season. His best efforts are mocked by the other children when the movie plot is coming to a climax, and Charlie Brown shouts out in exasperation: “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?!” Have you ever felt that way? It’s funny how little things have changed.

What is Christmas all about?

It’s a question we still pursue today in this busy season as we wade through the familiar waters of shopping trips and busy calendars, Christmas parties and holiday traffic. We rush from one thing to the next, rushing as fast as traffic will let us anyway, all the while we long in our souls to catch even just a glimpse of what it’s all really about anyway.

I don’t think I’m alone here. For me, there is always this tension about what we’re supposed to do at Christmastime. On one hand, we have the church part – special worship services, service projects, and celebrating the story of Jesus’ humble beginnings in Bethlehem. On the other hand, we have mile long to-do lists of packages to ship, photos to take, gift exchanges to participate in, teacher gifts, baking and all sorts of Pinterest-inspired ideas. It’s easy to miss the answer to Charlie Brown’s question in the holiday madness, isn’t it?

Why is that? Why do we often miss the real meaning of Christmas?

My friend Kevin put it this way – it’s like we are celebrating two holidays. There’s one holiday that’s all about shopping, presents and the latest toys. It’s a holiday full of stockings and elves – ugly sweaters and never-ending doorbuster specials.

There’s another holiday about Jesus, the Emmanuel, God With Us, being born in Bethlehem. That’s the holiday with the manger and the sweet baby.

Then my friend Kevin adds: The confusing thing is both of these holidays are celebrated on December 25th and we call them both “Christmas.” No wonder we’re confused! (His theory has really helped me to have some patience and understanding when the some of the young people in my life have sent me long wish lists!)

I have come to peace with the commercialized version of Christmas – I Wish Everyday Could Be Like Christmas – because of all of the jingle bells, reindeer, Christmas lights and excitement, eventually people will ask Charlie Brown’s big question – What is Christmas all about?

This morning, with Kevin’s theory in mind, we are going to focus on the second of the two “Christmases,” starting with today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke.

Our passage today tells of a short encounter between two relatives, Elizabeth and Mary. In the midst of the bigger Christmas story, we might miss this key story’s significance.

To set the scene: In the verses right before today’s reading, Mary had just had a conversation with an angel of the Lord. The angel announced that Mary was going to conceive and give birth to a son called Jesus, the Son of the Most High. Awestruck, young Mary agrees to her role, saying, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” She sings a song to the Lord we call the Magnificat, the band sang a version a few minutes ago.

It’s right after this angel encounter that Mary travels to a city in the highlands and enters Zechariah’s house. Zechariah’s wife, a very pregnant and older Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, greets Mary. A little background on Elizabeth – she is miraculously pregnant in her old age with the child we later know as John the Baptist. But more significant than her being John the Baptist’s mom is the fact that here, in this short little passage, she is the first to publicly declare that Jesus is Lord. Filled with the Holy Spirit, she says, “Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

Elizabeth is the first one to announce Jesus’ role to the world – he will be Lord. (pause)

Charlie Brown: Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?

Elizabeth knows. Christmas is about the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord, and we honor his birth.

To declare that Jesus is Lord (Greek: kyrios lesous (KEY ree ohs  LEE soos)) means a few things – “Lord” at the time meant your ultimate ruler – it was a title reserved for kings and emperors. To declare Jesus as Lord meant causing political and social upheaval. Jesus is Lord – It’s a bold statement of faith that today remains one of the first and shortest Christian creeds, it honors our belief that Jesus was both fully man and fully God.

What is Christmas all about? For the Christmas we are talking about here, it means we celebrate and declare that Jesus is Lord of our lives, that God lives and reigns among us. With the Christ as our leader, we are called to live full of reckless love for our neighbors. With God among us, we are called to live differently, called to live not out of fear but from a place of hope, peace, joy and love. Fear Not – that’s what Christmas is all about.

This brings us back to our symbols of Christmas and their deeper meanings.

The star leads us to this place. With the candle, we remember that we need to prepare our hearts and homes, we need to do our own “nesting” to prepare for the arrival. We need to make room. The candle also reminds us we have a light unto our path.

In the Christmas story, Mary and Elizabeth are preparing the way for Christ’s arrival. Even the little town of Bethlehem with its humble manger are “nesting,” getting everything ready for the arrival.

Which brings us to today’s symbol of the wreath at the door. There are two kinds of wreaths we could talk about. We have over here (point) an Advent Wreath – usually it’s on a table or horizontal, filled with candles to mark the countdown to Christmas. (We’re getting close!)

We also have Christmas wreaths (point) – traditionally hung on doors vertically.

Either way, the wreath is in the shape of a circle, reminding us that in God there is no beginning, there is no ending.

The wreath is a circle, and with Jesus, Scripture comes full circle. God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 12 that “all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you” comes full circle with Jesus.

The prophetic declarations come full circle in Christ. Isaiah 7:14 declares “Therefore the Lord will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel,” and the Gospel of Luke fulfills this with an angel speaking to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35) Micah places the birth in Bethlehem; the predictions of Daniel, Zechariah, Jonah, Malachi and others come full circle in Jesus.

The wreath is traditionally made from an evergreen – significantly symbolizing strength and the everlasting life we find with Jesus Christ as Lord.

Finally, the Christmas wreath today is a symbol of welcome and hospitality. We are being greeted this morning at Christmas’s doorstep. As we’ve traveled along on this Advent journey together, starting far away with the star, moving in with the candle, we are here prepared for company to arrive. Are you ready for company? Do you have room?

This is where the tension between the two Christmases seems to peak. As we feel the pressure to rush around, buying, wrapping and even more rushing, it gets so difficult to make room for the holy to arrive. How can we intentionally make the space in our lives?

The wreath is an everlasting symbol of God’s grace and hospitality greeting us. In our Scripture today, we can visualize the greeting between relatives Elizabeth and Mary. Elizabeth, further along in her pregnancy, is so excited to see Mary. The baby within her leaps for joy. Who are you in this story? Are you Mary who is being welcomed in by family? Are you the child within Elizabeth’s womb, leaping for joy, excited to be in the presence of Christ?

It’s comforting to be reminded when we see the wreath that God offers hospitality and grace to all of us. Even if we feel unworthy, if we feel like there is no way God could accept us, we can remember that God’s grace is available to all people. God wants to be in relationship with humanity – so much so that God dwelt on earth among us. God wants us to be in relationships with one another – especially acknowledging that there are people around us who are hurting and mourning this time of year. God cares deeply for the poor and the marginalized, and God cares deeply for those of us who feel marginalized because we are so busy rushing around.

In the same way, may we remember as Advent and Christmas people that we are challenged to extend God’s grace and hospitality to all who come to our own doorsteps. We are called to live differently, to make room for our neighbors, and, like Elizabeth, to forever acknowledge that Jesus is Lord.

Let us pray:

Lord,

In all the excitement and anticipation that comes with this season, remind us of the real meaning of Christmas. Forgive us when we get sidetracked by all that glitters and jingles. Remind us that we are people who declare that Jesus is Lord because we want to live differently, we long to be people who share God’s gift of grace and love to all of our neighbors. We thank you for the ultimate Christmas gift, the gift of our savior Jesus Christ. It is in his name that we pray, Amen.

As we close our message this morning, I want to return to the message of Charlie Brown’s Christmas.

Times have not changed all that much since this television special was created. We still live within this tension between the pressures to buy just the right presents for our loved ones, to decorate and celebrate just right, and to sit in stillness and worship as we watch for our Savior’s arrival. May our hearts be transformed this Christmas as we remember what Christmas is all about. Let’s revisit the clip:

(Video clip through “And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown”)

Manger – A Christmas Message

Merry Christmas, friends. Here is my Christmas Eve message from the 6pm worship service at New World UMC Arlington:

Luke 2:1-20 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Birth of Jesus

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

The Shepherds and the Angels

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,[a] the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host,[b] praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”[c]

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

The Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God!

Let us pray: God of Love,

Open our hearts and minds for the words you have for us to hear tonight. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

 

Meditation – The Manger

“because there was no place for them in the inn”

Oh, how we know this Christmas story! It’s an honor tonight to be the one who shares the story of what Christmas is all about. The baby Jesus was born in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn, and tonight I want to reflect on a story of hospitality.

 

Have you ever had to depend on the hospitality and kindness of strangers? 

 

As I reflect on my life, I can recall a few key moments (three to be exact) when I counted on strangers making space for me – a few times I could relate to Mary and Joseph’s search for lodging. While a college student, I spent my summers selling books door to door for The Southwestern Company. I usually describe the program as “like an exchange program,” because, like an exchange program, we would be assigned to work in different parts of the country that were unfamiliar to us. I think the strategy is that if we were away from all of the temptation of being around our friends and local hangouts, we’d be more focused. I went to Baylor in Texas, so three summers in a row I was assigned to the Midwest – I lived in St. Louis, Missouri, Battle Creek, Michigan, and Des Moines, Iowa.

 

Now, decidedly unlike an exchange program, we didn’t have host homes lined up ahead of time. The company does things differently now a days, but for us, our first assignment upon arriving in a new town was to find a place to live.

 

In order to save money and be safer, it was recommended we live with host families. So, the first thing we did was literally knock door to door, asking if anyone might have a spare room for 2-3 hardworking college students for the summer. We were able to pay a small amount of rent and worked long hours, so we just needed a safe place to sleep, shower and keep our things.

 

Of course, my parents taught me things growing up like “never go hitchhiking,” so I’m sure the prospect of her 19 year olddaughter finding a place to live like that gave my poor mom a near heart attack. (sorry mom) J Amazingly, three summers in a row we found people who met us and let us sleep in their homes starting that same day.

 

When I read tonight’s Scripture, it strikes me as a story about making room for hospitality.

 

Have you ever had a chance to extend hospitality and kindness to strangers?

 

I shared this story once before so it may sound familiar: In Fall 2010 my mom was retiring and moving to Texas and, earlier that Spring, she had the opportunity to buy the house directly across the street from us when our friends were moving out. We jumped on the opportunity, but had not anticipated that our friends would move out months sooner than we expected. We ended up with a vacant house across the street and an extra mortgage payment. Unlike the Scripture, you might say we had too many rooms!

 

In July, when we learned that a night-shift working Kenyan man was staying at the Life Shelter with his two sons, and he just needed a place to sleep besides his hot car that summer, we knew what we needed to do.  God placed an opportunity in our lives to offer that space to help a family in need, we were able to make room in our inn so to speak, and we were so blessed to be able to set up a humble space. Our lives have been so much richer because we were able to offer hospitality and kindness to strangers. 

 

It makes me wonder if the person in charge of the manger in Bethlehem felt the same way.

 

Hospitality, in its simplest terms, is about how we greet and welcome strangers or guests into our lives, into the places we live and work. It’s often about welcoming others without expecting a reward.

 

“because there was no place for them in the inn” reminds us that, Into this world in which there is very little room for God to dwell, Christ comes uninvited. It was a birth in obscurity, quiet, on the margins of town. This is how God-with-us, the Emmanuel, chooses to begin on earth, on the margins and in obscurity, trusting that there will be space and hospitality.


As Jesus grows and matures, beginning in ministry, he reaches out time and again to the people on the margins. The tax collectors, the heathens, the sinners, the lame, the women, the mocked and the world’s most hated – these were the types of people Jesus reached out to with love and dignity, hope and healing. These are the people with whom Jesus stayed, counting on their hospitality to welcome them.

 

On Christmas Eve, may we remember the significance of the manger. God doesn’t require something fancy and elaborate, God doesn’t need our lives to be picture perfect or our homes to be just right. God just needs space in our lives. 

 

May we all remember this Christmas that God reaches out to us – to all of us who are pushed to our margins by our own busyness, distraction and preoccupation. My deepest prayer is that God may find room in your heart this Christmas. Be blessed.

 

Let us pray:

Most Loving God, thank you for this night and for all it represents. Thank you for the hope you give us, the peace you bring, the love you pour out and the deep, abiding joy that you alone can give. We praise you most of all for Jesus, your Word made flesh. May Christ light our way as the holy star lit the way to Bethlehem. May we open our hearts to receive you this holy night. Amen.

 

Love – A Christmas Eve Reflection

We love because he first loved us.
“Love” and “because” showed up in bold because those were the search terms I used on Biblegateway. I think that pretty much sums up the call of Christianity – Love because.
Merry Christmas love from our family to yours!

Many thanks and much love to my friend Allison from Seven Arches Photography for these photos. Not only does she consistently make us look like we came straight from an Old Navy ad, she’s also one of my favorite friends.

Worship – Thoughts from Guest Kate Baird

kate baird pic from Levitt

My concept of worship has evolved over time.  For so long, as a musician, I thought it was about how we expressed ourselves through song—hymns and modern music.  I participated on praise teams who appeared to take 100% responsibility for every congregation member’s worship.  Are we trying to contrive a feeling of elation through music for everyone?  I don’t believe so.  Though, I love when I have that ‘feeling’.  This seemed too narrow a definition.

After much contemplation, it seems to me it’s about wanting to live our lives out of delight for what has been done for us.  Our daily work is worship and ministry.  You don’t choose between being a missionary or a teacher or a business person.  We are all on mission, we are all teachers by the example of our lives and we are all in business by how we steward resources.  Doing something for someone else out of gratitude and abundance is worship.  I give thanks to my dear friend, Dave Stone (founder and Chief Worship officer of First Rate), credit for expanding my thinking about that.  “Work is Worship!”  I will one-up him and say “Life is Worship!”

Also, I questioned, as C.S. Lewis did why we need to worship an all-powerful God.  Google his responses if that has puzzled you.  But, here was the personal revolution for me from C.S.’s book ‘Reflections on the Psalms’.

“The world rings with praise—lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game—praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. 

It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch; to hear a good joke and find no one to share it with.”

“The delight is incomplete until it is expressed.”  Selah.  The worship is FOR OUR DELIGHT!!  SMH!  Then, Lewis goes on to say, that Heaven will be a place where this resounding expression of delight will be with the fullness of worshiping God in spirit and in truth.  Glorifying the (triune) God by enjoying Him forever.   Sign me up for some ‘forever enjoyment!’

I wish for you a presence of mind & spirit this holiday season.  This is so that you can enjoy to the fullest your daily walk and those you share it with.  When you share that enjoyment, it becomes complete and is worship.  

I’ve included a picture ‘Paul Thorn with the Blind Boys of Alabama’ who were at the Levitt this summer.  Hearing live music is the where my husband and I find ourselves ‘expressing delight’ and making the enjoyment complete.

Open – A thought from the “cutting room floor”

Last Sunday I preached a sermon called “The Candle” that included a sermon illustration about getting ready for when company is coming. John the Baptist is preparing the way for Jesus ministry in Luke 3:1-6, we too can use Advent to prepare our hearts and minds for an arrival. There’s only so much a person can fit in a sermon. (Well, I imagine I could make my sermons longer and fit in as much as I can, but nobody wants that!) Today’s Advent devotional is from my “cutting room floor,” a part of the sermon that I didn’t quite get to fit in last Sunday’s message.

Today’s Advent word is “Open” as part of our Advent Photo Challenge. I am interpreting the word as an Open Door, a place of welcome.

As people filed out the sanctuary door last Sunday, shaking my hands as they do, at least one person said, “now I feel like I need to get home and clean the house!” Giving folks stress wasn’t the sermon goal.

I want to share today about my “messy house friends.”

See, my sermon was about getting the house clean, and I mentioned that if I know you’re coming, my house will be clean for you. But my closest and dearest friends fall into a special category – they’re my “messy house friends.”

By that I mean that we’ve agreed we’re going to love each other no matter the condition of our homes. We are going to have the kind of friendship that values relationship over a sparkling clean house (think of the story of Mary and Martha with Jesus in Luke 10:38-42 to get the idea.)

In the same way, Jesus loves us no matter where or how we are. Jesus can be like a messy house friend, full of grace for you and accepting you with all of your imperfection. The door is always open.

Even better, Jesus is not only a messy house friend, Jesus will not leave you drowning and suffering in the mess. You are accepted, loved and welcome how you are and you are loved enough that you’ve got company who’ll help you and love you through the messiness of life. That is grace.

Prayer:

God, help me to get past the temptation to get caught up in making my life seem perfect. Instead, God, help me to open my door and my heart to offer hospitality and love to all God’s children. Thank you for the grace you offer me. Amen.

Peace like a River Pastoral Prayer

God of Love, God of Peace and God of Joy, 

We praise you for the many ways you fill our souls with what we need.  

You are a God of love, a God of agape. When we feel alone, you are ever-present. When we feel unworthy, you wrap us in a deep love that knows no end. Forgive us for when we are in the habit of rejecting one another, of rejecting our own self even. You cherish each of us as your children, no matter how imperfect and fallen we may be. We pray for those who long to know your love, and we pray that you can use us to offer love to even our hard-to-love neighbor.  

You are a God of peace, a God of shalom. When we feel torn apart and divided by the conflict of the world, you give us a peace that transcends all understanding. Our hope can be found in your calming Spirit. Forgive us for when we fall into the trap of believing we should look down upon or separate ourselves from one another. Although we cannot understand the big picture, although we cannot understand why some things happen, we can rest assured knowing that you have got it all within your grasp, your love will undeniably conquer our brokenness. 

You are a God of joy, and with that we have hope. We pray that you, our God of hope, will fill us with all joy and peace as we learn to trust in you, so that we may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Allow us to become instruments of your joy and hope in a world that so desperately seeks the Good news you alone can offer.  

We pray all of these things in the name of the one who modeled your sacrificial love on earth, the one who taught us to pray saying, “Our Father….”

Pastoral Prayer – originally delivered 11/11/2018 at New World UMC Traditional service

Being Content – A Sermon on Philippians 4:10-14

This sermon was originally shared on November 11, 2018 at New World United Methodist Church as part of a series. Here is a link to the audio recording.

Philippians 4:10-14 (source: Biblegateway.com)

10 I rejoice in the Lord greatly that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned for me, but had no opportunity to show it.b11 Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me. 14 In any case, it was kind of you to share my distress. 

Sermon: Being Content 

I don’t want to get your hopes up, but I am not giving you each $100 today. 

I do want to tell you the most exciting stewardship sermon I have ever heard about, but just to reiterate, I’m not handing out money. 

The sermon was given at McKinney Church (now Doxology Bible Church) in Ft. Worth. Our family friend Jake was working as a deaf interpreter there, I was out of town, so Jake invited my husband Dennis to church.  

When Dennis walked in the sanctuary, there was a giant, larger-than-life dollar sign covered in twenty-dollar bills hanging prominently over the stage where the cross is supposed to be 

Dennis had never been there before, so we can imagine he was just wondering what on earth he got himself into.   

The pastor gets up and points out the obvious – yep, this is a message about money, a stewardship campaign, there’s new construction, and so on. 

But then the message shifts to the unexpected. 

The pastor says, “God doesn’t need your money. God has all the money God needs. God needs your heart and God needs you to share your faith with others. So this morning we want to invest in your ministry.” 

To prove that they believed this, the ushers came around and did a reverse offering. What’s a reverse offering? Basically, blank envelopes were stuffed with different amounts of money in them, some had $5, some $10 or $20, a few even had $100 or more, and then they passed the plate around for each person in the congregation to get an envelope. In all, they gave out something like $16,000 to the congregation that morning. 

(SLIDE CHANGE: Woman thinking of money) 

The pastor continues with instructions for this money. 

Whatever dollar amount you received, whether it’s $5 or $100, it’s not money that is meant to be spent on yourself. It’s not money for nothing. You don’t take the $5 to the nearest Starbucks and buy yourself a grande Peppermint mocha. Instead, you pray about it & then perhaps you ask that friend or neighbor you’ve been meaning to reach out to to join you at Starbucks, and you buy that person’s drink and talk about faith over coffee.  

The people of the congregation were instructed to use the money to be the church at work in the world, and then report back with stories of how God was at work through this.  

I invite you to imagine with me what an entire congregation could do in ministry like this. 

 (Slide Change: Garbage Truck in neighborhood photo)

This morning I will share a few stories about giving that may feel like that: 

On Monday, our youngest son, Lucas, turned three years old. It was an especially exciting day because it was a Monday and, in our neighborhood that means something very exciting to our now-three-year-old.   

Monday is garbage day! 

It’s hard to explain the excitement our little boy has about garbage trucks. He can be in his room asleep, in the bathtub, engrossed in a video, hard at play – but when he hears the distinctive rumble of the truck in our neighborhood, he stops what he’s doing, eyes wide open, “Oh the garbage truck!” and he takes off for the front door.  

He jumps up and down, eagerly waiting for the truck to turn the corner and come into view. 

This excitement has not gone unnoticed by the garbage men. First, they honked and waved, eventually we learned each other’s names.  

Frank and Lawrence learned about a month ago that Lucas was having a birthday on November 5, a Monday…and they too were happy to figure out that they’d get to see this excited little guy on his birthday. 

Lucas wanted to make sure Frank and Lawrence could celebrate his birthday. So, much to my surprise, I was making cupcakes the night before for our garbage men so we could include them in a tiny birthday party to go. 

(Slide change – Lucas, Frank and Lawrence) 

How cool is this? On a day that is usually reserved for receiving gifts and being the center of attention, the greatest joy Lucas had was in giving cupcakes to our garbage collectors. He was so happy to give. How beautiful would our world be if we could all just approach giving to others with such complete joy and without reservation? (pause) 

I wish I could say that I always give with that kind of joy and without reservation. 

(Slide change – donate computer) 

I will share that I give 10% of my salary to the church – it is set up to give automatically so I don’t ever have to think about it. I never see it so I never miss it, and I don’t even have to think much about it. 

I have to say, it doesn’t quite feel like having the same kind of joy I saw Lucas have on Monday, but I get to be generous, and I have to trust God will bless my giving. I’m working on the joy part. 

So why am I talking about my giving? 

I’ve been blessed by giving to others, when I’ve been able to get generosity right, filled with joy and without reservation. I have two examples for you: 

(Slide change – Shoes)  

The first story that comes to mind was with a high school student in my youth ministry about 10 years ago. She was a remarkable young woman. Surprising to most, she had the most challenging home life of any teens I knew – her parents and her siblings were a bit of a mess, so much so that at the age of 16, she was living on her own instead of at home. 

Imagine – she was a full-time high school student, working to pay her rent, and still made time for youth group. 

As you can guess, she also was short on cash, although too proud to ask for help. So, when she shared at youth group that she was freezing as her apartment’s gas heat had been turned off in winter, my husband and I knew we had to help somehow. We bought her an electric blanket, wrapped it with an anonymous gift tag, and had a friend of a friend deliver it to her apartment. 

There was another time we sneakily worked to find out her shoe size so we could help her replace her worn out sneakers full of holes. 

She didn’t ask us for help, but it was a total joy to give to her, to anonymously meet some of her needs. We probably would have found a way to let her live at our house if she ever asked. 

Which brings me to the second example of when God gave us an opportunity to be generous with others. 

In the spring of 2010, our neighbors across the street from us informed us that they were moving to Colorado – did we know anyone who might want a one-story house in our neighborhood? 

We definitely did! My mom was retiring that coming Fall and planning to move to Texas a few months later. We jumped on the opportunity to have mom/grandma move across the street.  

What we didn’t expect was that our neighbors would then move out as soon as possible right after the last day of school, leaving us with a vacant house and an extra house payment for a few months more than we anticipated. We tried unsuccessfully to find a college student or someone who might need a short-term place to stay… 

So that summer, when I saw a Facebook post from a clergy friend, Sheila, “What would you do if you found out that a working dad of two was sleeping in his car during the day in 104-degree heat in July?” we knew what we would do. 

It turned out that Peter, a Kenyan refugee, and his two sons were living in the Arlington Life Shelter that summer. The shelter by policy doesn’t allow its adult residents to be there asleep during the day, but Peter worked third shift at the airport and just needed a safe place to sleep between being at work all night. 

Well, it’s not very often that people have spare houses, but that summer we did. There wasn’t a question in our mind – we got in touch with Sheila, met Peter and his two sons George and Allan, and opened up our mom’s vacant house as a safe and quiet place where Peter could sleep in air conditioning on an air mattress during the day and get a clean shower before heading to work. It wasn’t much to us, but I think we can all agree this would be way better than sleeping in a car in Texas during the summer.  

In the weeks that followed, With the shelter and church’s help, we were able to help get furniture to help the small family set up in their simple two-bedroom apartment before the boys started school that year. 

But the best part is that Peter, George and Allan became friends with our family. Our kids all played together, they ended up having their first American Thanksgiving at our house and we were their first houseguests for a dinner of the traditional Kenyan ugali (YOU gall ee). Years later, George graduated top of his class and is a student at UTA, and Allan has a full ride scholarship his first year at Notre Dame. They’ve even come to visit us here at New World. I’m so proud of our dear friends and grateful that God offered a way for our family to say yes to generosity. 

I hope you know that I am telling you these stories not to impress you, but to impress upon you the importance of changing your heart about giving. God will open up opportunities for you to be generous.  

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we are urged to be content with whatever we have, and to be grateful. Imagine with me if we all sought out ways to give to others with the deep joy and without reservation, like Lucas giving away cupcakes to our garbagemen on his birthday? I pray that God blesses you with openings to give to others. 

I love the idea of the reverse offering that other church did – it’s a powerful reminder that the money we receive, whether it’s from an unmarked envelope or in the form of a paycheck, all of it is a gift from God we are called to steward and use for God’s work.    

But what would you do if you were given $5 today to use in ministry? What about if it was $100? How could you use that money to be a blessing to another person? (pause) 

While I don’t have money to hand out to you, I hope you consider using some of the money you already have in the way you just envisioned. 

In conclusion, here are a few questions to consider in personal reflection: 

 

  • What does it mean to you to be content whether you have a lot or a little? 
  • Is something keeping you from giving with joy and without reservation? 
  • If that wasn’t preventing you, what you do and how would that feel? 

Please pray with me: 

God, we thank you for all that you have given us. Please help us to be content with what we have, whether it seems like too little or too much. We pray that you will free us from worry, that you will open our hearts so that we can give to others with great joy and without reservation. In Jesus name we pray, Amen. Invitation 

 

The Candle – A sermon on Luke 3:1-6

Luke 3:1-6 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

The Proclamation of John the Baptist

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was rulerof Galilee, and his brother Philip rulerof the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias rulerof Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
    and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
    and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”

The word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.

Video:

https://www.ignitermedia.com/products/8569-out-of-the-darkness(

Sermon: The Candle

Key Point: Advent is a time to get ready for an arrival.

Advent is a time to get ready for an arrival. Do you have company coming in the next few weeks? Or are you the company that other people will be hosting? The holidays are upon us, and for many people, this means getting ready for the arrival of company.

And what do we do when we know that company is coming? (pause)

We clean the house! On top of all of the other things we try to accomplish between now and Christmas, if we have company coming, it’s time to get the house ready. Now, I know some of you may have a house that is sparkling clean all of the time…If you’ve come to visit, and my house was sparkling clean, you can safely guess that was only because I knew were coming and I made sure the house was clean before you got there.

From time to time, I get a question that usually goes something like, “With both parents working full time and having four kids, especially with three involved in sports, how do you do it? How do you keep up with everything?” And so I debated about putting this extra secret information out here. But, here’s the answer to the question I get asked all of the time,

In spite of the image I try to put out there, the answer isn’t that I put on my superhero cape and whisk through it all without breaking a sweat…I don’t do it alone, we sometimes hire help. A couple times a month we have a cleaning crew come in and help us get everything really clean.

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t grow up with having this kind of pampering, so I feel a little self-conscious sharing about it. Because I didn’t grow up with this, there was something I didn’t know about having a cleaning service. My kids can probably tell you because they are heavily involved in this part.

When Irene and the rest of the cleaning crew is coming, the day before it’s all hands on deck to have everything picked up so that the crew can do their jobs of scrubbing and cleaning.

We clean up the house just to prepare the way for the cleaning crew. I never expected I’d ever use this as a sermon illustration!

(Slide Change: Picture of John the Baptist circa 1600)

You see, strangely enough, this brings us to our scripture for the day about another person getting ready for company, although not in the same way we were thinking.

John the Baptist, sometimes called John the Baptizer – now he’s quite a character, isn’t he?

The various gospels describe him as a man who is shouting out in the wilderness, he lives alone. I like this painting because he’s pointing to Jesus – that’s a big part of John’s role. He is found wearing clothes made of camel’s hair, eating locusts and honey – he’s wild and eccentric.

He’s a relative of Jesus, possibly a cousin, and I imagine him like a pretty out there hippie cousin. Maybe you have a relative like this too.

(Slide Change: Jen Norton John the Baptist -used with permission from artist)

I imagine him with crazy hair, a bit of an oddball who maybe smells like the wild and nature. You can smell him coming. “A smellative” Do you have one of those? Know what I’m talking about? You don’t – is it you? J

He’s a prophet, not afraid to say what needs to be said. Maybe you have relatives like him who apparently are unafraid to speak passionately about whatever is on their mind? No? Maybe you’re that relative? (Smile)

So in this story, John is preparing the way for Jesus to start his ministry. We tell this story at Christmas time because Advent is a time to get ready for an arrival. It’s like he’s getting the house ready so Jesus can come in and do the real, deep spiritual work.

So let’s set the scene: In this story, God’s people have become pretty comfortable and complacent…If we kept reading in today’s chapter, we’d see that John calls the crowds “children of snakes,” and warns them to repent, be baptized and have their lives changed. It seems he is a bit of a wet blanket.

Now I imagine few people ever want a sermon on repentance – it’s like being scolded for all the bad things you’ve been doing and being told to knock it off.

(SLIDE CHANGE- Repent & be baptized meme)

John’s message to “Repent & Be Baptized” includes two parts – a “no,” and a “yes.”

Repentance is the “no.” Repentance isn’t a word we use in everyday language, so I’ll explain it. To repent is to turn the other way. We all make mistakes and have regrets, when we repent we turn from sin and move toward making things right. You can think of repentance as a big “U-Turn” sign on your life.

It’s worth pointing out that the people in the crowd John was talking to weren’t caught up in big sins, causing trouble. Their biggest problem was that they were beginning to be settled in their faith, just resting on the fact that they were “born” into the faith & just going through the motions of faith. For me, this description hits a little too close to home. It’s tempting to sometimes claim the identity of “Christian” and then not think much about it.

The problem is that being a Christian isn’t always supposed to be comfortable, feel-good stuff. We are not called to a comfortable, lukewarm, safe faith.

John knows that when Jesus starts his ministry, people will have to have a deep faith. Jesus is going to start a new world order. So John’s call here to repent is designed to make us uncomfortable when we want comfort. We need to turn from ways that keep us from God.

We talked last week about how Advent is the in-between time – it’s a time for reflection on things that have already happened, and preparation for things yet to come. Advent is a time to get ready for an arrival. It’s a time for cleaning up our spiritual house, so to speak. We can use this time to consider the condition of the world, even consider our own wrongdoing and regrets. We can reflect on what we’ve said and done (or perhaps what we have not said, not done) to make the world a better place. John the Baptist makes the way for Jesus’ ministry – this morning we will consider how we can prepare the way for Jesus’ arrival too.

Repentance means asking ourselves tough questions like “How deep is my faith? (pause) Are my actions in line with my beliefs? (pause) Is my faith expectant, alert, growing, and serving? (pause) Or is my faith small, tired and lukewarm? (pause)

John is preparing the house, getting ready for company. When Jesus arrives, we can’t have legos and dirty socks on the floor – we need to be ready.

But we’re not left in the dark feeling sorry for ourselves –there is a second part to John’s message that’s really important.

The Be Baptized part – the life as a follower of Jesus – it’s a “Yes!” It’s not that John is trying to bring us down by telling people to repent, he’s trying to direct us to a new life that is richer, fuller and more meaningful.

To have a life of richer faith, it begins with discerning what actions you need to take.

What gifts/resources do you have? What is on your heart to do for God? Do you know you are forgiven? What are you passionate about? Inlight of your gifts and resources, what is your mission?

Once you have come up with answers to these questions, you are preparing the way for a life of following Christ.

Advent is more than just a time to make sure all of the toys and presents are bought and delivered on time – it’s so much deeper than that! Advent, as the beginning of the Christian new year, is a perfect time to make a fresh start and prepare for what God has in store.

Advent is a time to get ready for an arrival. Advent reminds us – we have an adventure ahead. We need a light to our path on this adventure.

(Slide Change: luminarias)

Which brings us back to the symbol of the Candle at Christmastime.  

It’s important that we turn to the right sources of light as we go on this faith journey. When we light a match in a dark room, it provides a temporary light. If we try to be the match for too long, our fingers get burnt. We also don’t want to turn to the wrong sources of light – if we put our trust in the wrong things, they will eventually disappoint us.

The candle is a symbol that reminds us of Christ.

Christ is a light that will overcome any darkness.

The candle can also symbolize God’s word found in the Bible, is “a light unto the path,” a guide that helps us to see on the journey of faith. It’s not a candle in the wind about to get extinguished.

When I was a small kid living in San Antonio atChristmastime, I remember seeing much of the city sidewalks, especially around churches, lined with luminarias –simple brown paper bags, each filled with a little sand and a small candle.

Paths lined with candlelight, a tradition started in the AmericanSouthwest, is a beautiful practice reminding us of the fabled journey of Joseph, a very pregnant Mary, and a simple donkey taken long ago. The light of the luminaria shows us the prepared path.The decoration is simple in the face of all that glitters, flashes, inflates and twinkles to music today, just as the simplicity of their journey toBethlehem is a stark contrast to the decadent and powerful Rome that ruled the day.

As we prepare the way for company, as we prepare the way for the coming Jesus Christ, we can take heart in knowing that

John 1:4 “Life itself was in him, and this life gives light to everyone. The light shines through the darkness and the darkness can never extinguish it.”

Let us pray –


God of Light,

Thank you for being a God who is faithful to show us the way of life. As we prepare for the arrival of Jesus Christ in our hearts and in our lives, be a light unto our paths this Advent. Help us to share the light of the love of Jesus Christ with people who need it. In the name of Jesus Christ we pray, Amen.

More Than Enough – Sermon on Luke 12:13-21

Listen to the audio here: scarcity abundance

The Parable of the Rich Fool

13 Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

14 Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?”15 Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

More Than Enough sermon slides

Sermon: More Than Enough

Last Monday I was driving Nate home from school, talking about his school day first, then about this upcoming sermon series on stewardship. I shared that I was hoping to bring something new to the table, some fresh take on stewardship.

“Like what? What do you mean by stewardship?” he asks.

“Well, you know, how we use our money. We’re talking about how the world teaches us that money buys happiness but that it really can’t…”

“Money can definitely buy happiness, Mom.”

Stopped me in my tracks. “WHAT?! No, it can’t.”

Maybe none of you have had the pleasure of having a debate with Nate. Nate is sharp as a tack, perhaps a lawyer in training. He is loophole finding, pedantic. He loves a literal, precise argument, and he will argue any side of any issue for fun. He has a bit of a stubborn streak too – I have no idea where he gets the stubborn streak. (smile)

Now, I’m a pastor. And there was no way this kid was going to take down his theologically trained, good-stewardship-minded pastor mom in this argument.

SO I tried talking about how money may buy you stuff that temporarily makes you feel happy, but that feeling goes away and it’s not the same as the deep abiding joy we find in faith.

“Yeah, but then I can just buy something else that makes me happy.” (pause)

Well, I am too stubborn to admit defeat, and I still know in the long run I’m right (smile). I have to admit though, this kid has been really well trained that money is the key to happiness, that money changes everything, and we may have our work cut out for us!

What do you all think? Can money buy happiness? (don’t answer!) Let’s look at this together.

This morning we are going to consider the role money plays in our faith lives as we look at the difference between a scarcity mentality and an abundance mentality.

What do we mean by a scarcity mentality? Scarcity mentality or scarcity mindset, is a term coined by Steven Covey, and is founded on the idea that, if someone else wins or is successful in a situation, it means you lose. It is based on a belief that there is a limited amount (a scarcity) of resources, so we have to constantly be on the lookout for ways to earn more, store up more, acquire more than others.

In short, the story we tell ourselves is that there’s only so much success/wealth/stuff to go around, it might run out. I don’t have enough so I want to make sure I get more, save up more, have more than others. In our American culture, you may feel this as the pressure to keep up with the Joneses, so to speak. Deep down, it’s based on a fear that we don’t have enough.

In many ways, this mentality is synonymous with pursuit of the American dream. Our success is often measured by what we acquire, where we live, what we own. Scarcity mentality is why we have a never-ending desire as a culture to acquire more stuff, and why so many of us face the constant temptation for instant gratification, temptation to buy now, pay later… and it’s almost counter-intuitive – because this mindset is based on a fear that we don’t have enough, we often end up with a tendency to rack up stuff and debt…in the book this series is based on, Adam Hamilton refers to these American problems as “affluenza” and “credit-itis.”

In today’s Scripture reading, called the Parable of the Rich Fool, God challenges the fool, challenges us, to not put our trust in wealth, but that we should trust in God. The problem wasn’t that the man had wealth. There’s nothing wrong with having wealth, but the problem is when the desire for more and more drives our lives. The faith problem is when we are not trusting in God enough and we’re hoping the stuff we acquire will take care of us.

This passage creates a tension and makes us ask ourselves in whom or what we put our trust. Do we put our trust in possessions, or our ability to take care of our self, or do we put our trust in God?

One of the biggest challenges we have as Christians in our culture is really trusting that God will provide for us. In our culture of plenty, we are often tempted to believe that we can provide for ourselves. We often believe that it’s completely up to our own hard work and accomplishment to have a sense of security.

The opposite of a scarcity mentality is an abundance mentality.

With an abundance mentality, one believes that they already “have enough resources and successes to share with others.”[1]

In other words, people with this mindset believe they have “More than Enough” (point to title slide) The story we tell ourselves when we have an abundance mentality is we are already so blessed, we have so much and know that God will take care of us. We don’t have to try to keep up with everybody else. We have more than enough, we even feel more blessed when we share and can celebrate the successes of others.

If we were to keep reading the verses that follow today’s passage, we are told that we are not to worry about our lives, what we eat, about our bodies, or what we will wear. We are instructed to consider how God takes care of the ravens of the air, the lilies of the field – we have a trustworthy God who will provide for us more than enough, who provides for us so abundantly that we have more than enough to share. If we live like we believe this, with trust in God and faith in having abundance, our hearts are changed.

What does this look like? I have seen this abundance mindset in the most unlikely of places.

One of the things I love most about when I went on mission trips to locations like Haiti, Appalachia, and rural Jamaica, places where people live in conditions that are almost unimaginable, is the amount of trusting in God’s provision I witness there. I have seen the deepest faith and the deepest joy in people who have dirt floors, homes without plumbing, leaking roofs, children playing in insect-infested puddles, or children joyfully playing with makeshift toys made from flattened bottlecaps and string. This boy was playing with a single beat up Hot Wheel car.

In the midst of this abject poverty, I was able to get to know and worship with people who truly trust that God will provide for them. These same people who have so little, go out of their way to share what they have with me. As guests, we are careful not to make an offhand comment like, “oh I really wish I had a Coca-Cola with this,” because it is likely that someone will go to great lengths, maybe spending all they have, in order to share.

It fills my soul when I am around people who deeply trust that God will care for them.  Because these are places where people are less distracted by the pressures of competition and constantly buying new stuff, there is a bigger focus on paying attention to faith, paying attention to helping meet the needs of others. It strengthens my faith to be reminded of what matters most.

But you don’t have to go to a third world country to witness an abundance mindset. I listened to a really inspiring TED Talk this week about a woman who began a community garden project in her small, Northern England town of Todmorden. In this small town, people have planted fruit and vegetable gardens in their front yards, on city land, vacant lots, anywhere there was land available. Every plant is for sharing, no matter who planted it. It turns out everyone takes what they need and there’s still plenty for others. They are eating healthier, growing locally, sharing. This small town has inspired similar projects around the world – a great illustration of an abundance mentality. Abundance thinking begins when we practice sharing with one another.[2]

Writer and blogger Seth Godin shared this thought recently:

 “There’s one view of the world that says what all people want is as much stuff as possible for as cheap a price as possible. And that’s a world based on scarcity….”[3]

“There’s a different view not based on scarcity but based on abundance that the thing we don’t have enough of is that we don’t have enough connection (we’re lonely), and we don’t have enough time.

And if people can offer us connection and meaning and a place where we can be our best selves, yes, we will seek that out.”[4]

What I take away from this quote is that we have a unique opportunity as a faith community once we change our mindsets from scarcity to abundance. When we quit worrying about having to compete with other churches to have the latest and greatest stuff, when we quit worrying about having enough, and recognize we already have more than enough, we can live out of our abundance. We can shift our focus from ourselves to meeting the needs of others.

Although this quote wasn’t meant about Christianity, I love that the quote points out that people long for a place where they can connect with one another and have meaning. That’s church! As people who trust in God’s abundance, we can offer that gift to one another, we can share that gift with a busy, over-consuming culture. We can live into our mission to love God and love neighbor.

So, As we shift toward truly trusting that God will provide for us, one of the toughest moves we could make is to learn to depend on something outside of our own self.

I have an interesting faith challenge for you this week inspired by my seminary friend Ryan Klinck and his work with the Neighboring Movement:

 I challenge you to borrow something from a neighbor.

Why borrow something? Borrowing something from a neighbor is something that really flies in the face of American cultural norms, particularly that we are supposed to be self-reliant individuals who do not need other people’s help, because if we do, then we are perceived as “weak.”

Yet, something beautiful happens when we borrow something from a neighbor, we are:

  1. relying on someone else’s resources and wisdom
  2. giving neighbors the opportunity to share
  3. growing our relationships with the people closest to us

This practice takes more time than just running to the store, so it’s an investment in our relationships instead.

Borrowing something can remind us that self-reliance is a myth that actually leads us towards isolation, which isn’t healthy. We need other people and relationships in our life, it is a healthy thing to ask for help from others.

On a faith level, it teaches us to honor the gifts other people have and giving them space to share them with us. It reminds us of the abundance God has to offer us all, it is reminiscent of the Acts community, where they had all things in common and shared all they had..[5]

It is my prayer that we can be a community of faith who knows that money cannot buy happiness – that we can be people who can share generously because God so abundantly gives to us.

To God be the glory. Amen.

 

 

 

Giving Credit where it is due:

[1] Steven Covey, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

[2] TED Talk “How We Eat our Landscapes” featuring Pam Warhurst.

[3] Seth Godin, “Life, the Internet, and Everything”

[4] Seth Godin, “Life, the Internet, and Everything” on the podcast On Being with Krista Tippett, 9/20/2018.

[5] Ryan Klinck, The Neighboring Movement

Star – a sermon on Luke 21:25-36

scott sigrist night skyThis photo was taken by a friend of mine, Scott Sigrist, and used for this sermon with his permission. You can see more of his work at www.sigristphotos.com. (thank you, Scott!)

This is the second day of our Advent Photo Challenge and the keyword is “Star.” Since I preached a sermon with that title yesterday, I thought I’d share the text of my sermon with you today.

Scripture Reading

Our Scripture reading comes from Luke 21. Adult Jesus is talking his disciples in the temple and this is the last chapter before the Last Supper and all that follows. It’s an odd way to start the Christmas season, but we will understand why before the morning is over.

Luke 21:25-36 CEB

25 “There will be signs in the sun, moon, and stars. On the earth, there will be dismay among nations in their confusion over the roaring of the sea and surging waves. 26 The planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken, causing people to faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world. 27  Then they will see the Human One coming on a cloud with power and great splendor. 28  Now when these things begin to happen, stand up straight and raise your heads, because your redemption is near.”

A lesson from the fig tree

29 Jesus told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree and all the trees. 30 When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. 31 In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that God’s kingdom is near. 32 I assure you that this generation won’t pass away until everything has happened. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will certainly not pass away.

34 “Take care that your hearts aren’t dulled by drinking parties, drunkenness, and the anxieties of day-to-day life. Don’t let that day fall upon you unexpectedly, 35  like a trap. It will come upon everyone who lives on the face of the whole earth. 36  Stay alert at all times, praying that you are strong enough to escape everything that is about to happen and to stand before the Human One.”

(scripture from Biblegateway.com)

Video: What is Advent? From SermonCentral

Sermon: The Star

I love going to places where you can see all of the stars, even the stars in between the stars.

One of my favorite things about getting away from the city is being able to see the stars. I’ve even been known to pull my car over at night on an empty Texas state highway in order to make my entire family endure my making them all look at the stars. (I’m sure they appreciate it.)

scott sigrist night sky

So, I was really excited when, about five years ago, my family planned a weekend vacation at Canyon of the Eagles in the Texas Hill Country. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a nature park west of Round Rock, in a part of the Hill Country that is an official “dark sky” area. There’s very little lighting in the park to cut down on light pollution. When you walk around the park at night, they give you special little flashlights to carry around. It is home to the “Eagle Eye Observatory” and one of the best places to see the stars at night, because, of course, they are big and bright, deep in the heart of…

Canyon of the Eagles is a migratory path for eagles, so we also hoped to catch a glimpse of one of those too. (pause)

Well, I wish I had a better star story to tell you. What ended up happening was that it was cloudy and rainy the entire weekend. The mosquitos ate us alive. And although we had a nice video tour from the resident astronomer of what we could have seen if there were no clouds, it just wasn’t the same as we had hoped. (side note: We didn’t see an eagle either – total bust.)

But isn’t this picture beautiful that my friend Scott Sigrist took at Dinosaur Valley State Park? We didn’t get to see the stars like that on our weekend, but we know they were still there.

Stars are a constant – throughout history, sailors and travelers have used stars to navigate and keep their sense of direction.

When was the last time you noticed the stars? Do you have a lucky star or a favorite constellation?

Today we begin the Christian season of Advent.

The word “Advent” comes from the latin word “adventus” which means “to come toward, to draw near, to approach.” It is a time of expectation, a time of waiting.

Waiting…How are you at waiting for things?

Now, I don’t know about you, but I am not very good at waiting. Just so you know that I’ll go to extremes to prepare for a sermon (smile) I spent my Friday afternoon waiting at the Department of Motor Vehicles so we could get my son’s driving permit. Oh the waiting! This time I paid attention to what people do while waiting – it’s no surprise that most people spent that time distracted by their phones or TV. A few people read books. Very few just sat there, waiting and watching.

Not all waiting is terrible – as we spend this season waiting, we can be on the lookout for what is to come. It’s the perfect time to look for signs as we wait.

Advent is an “in between” time of year. Obviously it’s in between Thanksgiving and Christmas, but it also marks the time between the “already” and the “not yet.” In fact, during Advent, we are waiting for three things at the same time. I’ll explain:

The first thing we are waiting for is the obvious one – the “already” – we are waiting to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ. When we celebrate this, we are celebrating something earth-shattering  that has already happened.

Think of it this way: imagine that you ordered a package from Amazon (not too hard to imagine.) You are so excited that it’s on its way. Then you check the app and see that, much to your surprise, it’s already delivered. You check your front porch and, sure enough, all of the great stuff you’ve been waiting for has been there all along. It’s already arrived.

The second thing we are waiting for is the “not yet.”

Our Scripture passage today talks about all of these signs of that the end is near. There will be signs in the sun, the moon, the stars, it says. Throughout history, there have been times when doom and gloom preachers have pointed to naturally occurring events like eclipses, earthquakes, and meteor showers to declare the end of all civilization. “Repent! The End is Near!” they’ll shout.

This is a really odd way to start the Christmas season, isn’t it? Here we are ready to hear the good, predictable news that sweet little Jesus is going to be born in a manger…but then the scripture is all about the end of time. What’s going on?

With wildfires, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes and natural disasters, coupled with human evils of wars, oppression, violence, intimidation and discrimination, dominating our news cycles, it may even be tempting to fall into “fear and foreboding,” to see what is going on and wonder, is this a sign of the end of the world? In the face of all that is going on in the world today, it is tempting to be overwhelmed by all of the brokenness we see around us.

But if we pay close attention to today’s scripture, our message is not about doom and gloom at all. It’s a message of hope!

“Look at the fig tree and all the trees. When they sprout leaves, you can see for yourselves and know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, you know that God’s kingdom is near.”

Notice that adult Jesus is talking here, pointing out the signs that something good is happening as we notice the leaves sprouting – summer is coming, not winter! As humans in an unpredictable world, we look for signs that will predict what’s coming. Yet, as people of faith, we know that there will come a time of final victory – this is the “not yet” that we wait for – a time when everything is restored and God’s reign is on earth as it is in heaven. So we wait for that day with hope.

We wait for the “already,” and the “not yet,” and the third thing we wait for during Advent is the “right now.” It’s the signs and symbols of God at work today.

It’s tempting to look at our world with fear and despair, isn’t it? But if we’re not careful, we will totally miss where God’s kingdom is breaking in to our world right now. When God’s people work for justice, for mercy, for wholeness and compassion – that is God’s kingdom on earth right now. The exciting thing is we get to be a part of that! Every time we – individually and as a community – work to restore the broken systems and people in our lives, the more we bring glimpses of God’s reign on earth, we bring the signs of hope in a world that desperately needs to be reminded.

Which brings us to the symbol of the star at Christmastime.

During Advent, the time leading up to Christmas, we often place a star on top of our trees. The star reminds us of the star that shone over Bethlehem, guiding the magi to the place where Jesus could be found. It is a symbol of something that guides us – a divine guide, a constant presence.

Especially times in uncertainty, it’s comforting to look for reliable signs to follow.

Funny thing – Do you know when it is hardest to notice the stars? During the brightness of day.

As it turns out, even during the brightness of day, they are there. It may be that the biggest challenge we face is finding God’s guidance when things are going well for us, when we are in our own bright days…when we are tempted to believe we can do all things on our own. (pause)

As we journey through advent together during the next few weeks, I challenge you to fight the pressure to rush to Christmas. Prepare for Christmas by praying, becoming aware of God’s guidance, and doing good work for God’s glory. Be the “right now.”

It is so fitting that we begin Advent with the sacrament of communion. I invite you to remember during communion today of all that God has already given you, to reflect on the promise of hope for the future, and to find ways to bring God’s restoration on earth today. Let us begin…

Be blessed,

Erin

Reflection Questions:
Where have you seen God at work recently?

What is something you are really looking forward to?