Reflections on 2013

Tonight we will close the final chapter on 2013. We’ll sing “Auld Lang Syne” and pray for a healthy, happy, and prosperous 2014 as we watch the ball drop from Times Square or participate in a number of various community celebrations across the nation. Personally, I always wanted to see the acorn fall when I lived near Raleigh, N.C., but never got around to it.

For now, we think back upon 2013 and ponder about what the nature of these past 365 days. When I reflect on 2013, I cannot help to think that it was a hard year to put into words. This past year has equal parts to feel good about, but  also equal parts to feel disheartened about.

It was a year we saw the first pope resign in more than 600 years. Pope Benedict XVI’s decision was one to be admired, because it came as a recognition of the importance of knowing one’s self and abilities for service. It set the stage for the election of Pope Francis, who I believe is a leader who will challenge the entire church – Protestant and Catholic – to serve the “least of these” as Christ commands us.

It was also a year that we saw tragedy and violence. The Boston Marathon was hindered by a bombing that killed three people and injured hundreds others. We saw more mass shootings across the nation. We saw violence continue in places across the Middle East and Russia.

It was a year in which we rejoiced when those who lost had been found, especially three women near Cleveland who had been kidnapped for years. We celebrated their freedom and were shocked to hear of the gruesome stories of their captivity.

It was a year, as well, that we remembered those who have found for human rights. We said goodbye, this year, to Nelson Mandela who serves as an example of redemption, perseverance, and reconciliation.

It was a year where we could see places of hope and moments of frustrations in all corners of society.

I’m not sure we will look back and consider 2013 a great year. At the same time, I’m not sure we will look back on 2013 as an entirely bad year, either. It was a year where we could find positives in the midst of frustrations.

Perhaps that is the message for us all as we head into 2014: To find the good in the midst of the bad.

May 2014 be a year of hope, peace, joy, and love for us all!


Rescued to Serve

A challenge is a test that often defines how we interact with ourselves and the world. It is forces us to look deep within ourselves and to examine what is going on, what is taking place, and how we will respond.

In my 33 years of life, I have faced many challenges. Some were easy to overcome and some took years of trial and effort to see some resolution. Some of my challenges were of my own doing and some were the consequences of the actions of others. Some of these challenges involved where I would live and how I would spend my time serving God. Some of these challenges were more complex, such as dealing with the aftermath of a divorce, bankruptcy, and the rejection and neglect I felt as a child from my step-father to classmates in school.

Each of us can think back to various challenges in our lives. Challenging moments where we felt like nothing we did seemed to make the situation better, or moments where life seemed to be too overwhelming or difficult. We could spend the entire worship, today, praying over these challenges, and perhaps one day we should.

For now, we recognize that the challenges of life can define and impact us. The way we engage these moments tell us a lot about ourselves. They can shape our future in both the positive and negative ways. We can take these challenges, as difficult as they are, and say this is how life will be. That every moment of our days will be defined and look just like this. We can also take the positive course and say this challenge will help me to live better with myself and each other.

The idea of challenges is appropriate as we look at a very challenging passage of Scripture. Matthew 2:13-23 tells how Jesus was rushed away from Bethlehem in a time of deep anxiety for his family. Herod, the King of Judea at the time, was on a rampage and wanted to kill all the boys in Bethlehem who were under the age of 2. We’ll talk about why in a moment. The way Jesus and his family engages this challenge tells us a lot about who Jesus is and how he came to serve the world.

Admittedly, we must recognize this is a difficult passage for us to examine on the first Sunday of Christmas. We want find ourselves in the manger and with the gifts all around. It troubles us to encounter a story of fear and trouble in the midst of the Christmas season. However, I think studying this difficult passage tells us something important. That is that from the very beginning of Jesus’ earthly life his ministry and work would be challenged by those who sought to prevent him from doing what God desired.

No one more so than by Herod’s efforts. We have to understand who Herod was to realize the threat he posed. He was a ruthless leader who was not afraid to harm his family if he felt they were getting in his way. Herod was scared of Jesus, because of the threat he posed to Herod’s authority and power.

Even at this point in Jesus’ life, perhaps no older than 2, he posed a threat to the ways of this world. That is because Jesus’ way of life challenges the way power was exhibited in those days and today. So often, power is wielded by force, coercion, and aggression. For Jesus, however, his power and authority is expressed through compassion for others, a love that seeks to bring all people into a relationship with the Father, and a way of the Kingdom of God that is about self-denial in order to care for others.

Herod might have felt that this child would lead a revolution against him. This child would be the One to be called the “King of Israel,” which was a direct challenge to Herod’s own claim to that title. In response, Herod devised a plan to find Jesus and kill him. He told the Wise Men, who we will look at next week, to let him know where Jesus was so he could worship him. Herod had no plans to worship him. He only wanted to kill him. Jesus’ life was in jeopardy.

From the early moments of Jesus’ life forward, he would come under attack and would be threatened because of the words he came to teach and the mission he would fulfill. He was rejected by the world and forced to live his initial moments in a barn’s manger. During his public ministry, he was often challenged and criticized by others, even among his own disciples, for not doing as they would have liked, such as leading a revolution or interacting with forbidden people. Jesus is rejected, here, because he came to restore God’s kingdom and to show everyone the way of hope, peace, joy, and love in the world.

Nothing was going to stop this mission from being fulfilled. This certainly included Herod’s plan to kill him. A plan that would include the killing of any child under the age of two in Bethlehem. These innocent children and families would be caught up in Herod’s own rage and anger. Jesus would be protected from Herod’s plot. An angel of the Lord spoke to Joseph in a dream. This dream warned Joseph of the plot against Jesus, and told him to take his family and head to Egypt. Joseph obeyed the dream and took his family from Bethlehem to Egypt, which would be a place that would serve as an area of safety for Jesus.

It would also allow Jesus to identify with one of the most important aspects of his ministry. Matthew connects a passage of coming out of Egypt from Hosea 11:1 to Jesus. By doing so, Matthew says Jesus will come out of Egypt like Moses and rescue God’s people. The symbolism is all around for this comparison. Like Jesus, Moses’ early life was threatened by Pharaoh and his plot to destroy the Hebrew population. Moses’ life would be saved, so that he could do the work of bringing the Hebrew people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land.

Jesus would take on this role in a deeper way. His ministry and life is about bringing God’s people, all people, back into a relationship with the Father through faith. Jesus would rescue the people from their acts of disobedience to the Father and bring them to renewed faith and hope in the Lord. Jesus came to redeem us from our own acts that hurt God and each other and bring us to a deeper relationship with the Lord. This is the work Jesus came to do.

Jesus would remain in Egypt until it was safe and Herod was dead. An angel told Jospeh when it was safe to lead his family home. However, Joseph was fearful of returning to Bethlehem believing that Herod’s son, Archelaus, would continue in Herod’s plot to kill Jesus. God had other plans. An angel spoke to Joseph and told him to head to the land of Galilee, the home area of Gentiles, and live there. Galilee was a place that was looked down upon by the religious elite.

As was Jesus’ eventual hometown of Nazareth. This tiny little village was nothing to write home about. It was ignored by the people, so much so that often people asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Yet, this would be Jesus’ home. This place that was rejected among people who were often ignored. This is the place that Jesus would be defined by and serve from.

Think about what this says, for God places Jesus here to show us something about the ministry Jesus came to do. Jesus is not a king who came to sit on the high and holy places of earthly power. He came to be associated with the rejected, the downtrodden, the ignored, the forgotten, the poor, the lost, and the sinner. Jesus identifies himself with the people the world often wants nothing to do with. Out of Nazareth comes the One who would redeem the people, rescue them from their slavery to sin, and help all people see their worth in God’s eyes. The entire world see that something good has come out of Nazareth, and we can all experience this today.

This difficult passage, with all its various points and movements, reminds us that nothing can stop God’s mission and love from being seen in the world. The challenge Jesus faced would define him, because it set the course for his ministry. He would be the greater version of Moses who would come and redeem all people from their sins. He would be the one who bring reconciliation to those so often ignored. This passage, as difficult as it is, shines the line on who this child is and the work that he came to do. The challenge set the stage for the mission.

The same is true for us. On this final Sunday of 2013, we can look back and see the many ways that God has provided and cared for us in our moments of challenges. The challenges of faith enable and inspire us to do the work of ministry God has called us to do. Just as God provided a way for Jesus to do his work, so will God do the same for us.

God placed Jesus in Nazareth to do the work he was called to do. God has placed each of us here, at Trinity, to do the work of caring for this community and sharing the message of Christ through our words, actions, and deeds. After this passage, the world would soon find out what amazing things would happen through this Nazarene. What about us? God has placed us here for a reason. I wonder what amazing things will happen out of Trinity in the coming year.

Christmas Eve Sermon: Go. See. Tell.

The shepherds were out in the fields, that night, simply doing their jobs. They were situated on a hillside just outside of Bethlehem watching their flock. We do not know what they did to pass the time. I like to think they sat around the fire and told stories from Scripture and the prophets. Whatever they did it is they likely did not expect what they experienced that evening.

It was on that hillside, so long ago, that the shepherds were greeted by an angel, who approached them as a “stranger.” A fearful sight, indeed, when someone is not expecting a visitor, especially one of a heavenly nature. The angel tells the shepherds that they had no reason to fear. That is because the angel came with an important message for all.  A message that would change the world and continues to do so today. The message was an announcement of good news of an event that had occurred in Bethlehem, the City of David. That event was the birth of a child.

This wasn’t the announcement of just any birth. It was the announcement of the Savior’s birth. The long-awaited Messiah, Jesus Christ, is born. Continue reading

What’s in a Name?

One of the hardest decisions Abbi and I have made was what we would name Noah. It took us a long time to name him. So long, in fact, that I honestly thought that the name on his birth certificate would read “Little P.K.,” which was the nickname we used for him before his birth.

Eventually we settled on the name of Noah David. His name combines two of our favorite Old Testament characters. To paraphrase what a seminary professor told us after we told him of Noah’s birth, his name combines unabashed devotion to God in Noah with David’s worshipful and dedicated heart for the Lord.

Part of the reason it took us so long to come up with a name was our recognition that a person’s name is one of the first things someone knows about another person. A name stays with a person for their entire life. So, we wanted to get Noah’s name right. We thought. We debated. We considered everything from “Alexander” to naming him after favored athletes and coaches. In time, we came up with a name that we felt is right and suits our young boy well.

Our struggle with naming Noah might be familiar to many of you. Whether it was naming your own child or watching a family member or friend struggle over a long list of names, we likely all know what is involved in naming a child. There is a lot to consider. Sometimes we think about family names. Sometimes we look for names from our favorite pieces of literature, movies, or television shows. Sometimes we find a name that just comes to us.

The experiences we have in coming up with a name for our children helps us to something that transpires in our passage, this morning, from Matthew 1:18-25. This passage is one of two that focuses on the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. Unlike the story we have from Luke’s gospel, Matthew’s version focuses entirely on the events from Joseph’s perspective. This isn’t completely unexpected. Matthew wrote to context that was influenced by the Jewish patriarchal heritage. Focusing on Joseph’s experiences helped to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ to that context. By doing so, Matthew does us something interesting. He gives us the background to Jesus’ own name. This helps us to understand, in both our heart and mind, why Jesus came to the world at Christmas and the work he came to do.

First, however, before we can look at the names that Matthew gives us there is some work we need to do to understand this passage and all that took place with Joseph. We need to interact with Joseph, who would be given the task of being the earthly father to Jesus. Joseph was an ancestor to King David, who was the great king of Israel. Matthew produces an extensive genealogy in verses 1:1-17 that connects shows Jesus’ heritage tracing back, through Joseph, to David and Abraham.

There is a reason that Joseph’s heritage is important to understanding Jesus’ earthly ministry. It was expected that the Messiah would come through David’s lineage. Part of this expectation comes from 2 Samuel 7, where God promises to build a house for David. This idea of a house had two understandings. First, it was connected to a political dynasty coming from David’s ancestors. At the same time, it also fed into the hope of a Messiah to come who would be the heir to David’s throne. This promise of a long-awaited Messiah from David’s lineage would have been familiar to Joseph. He would’ve been among those holding onto to this hope for a Messiah.

We can forgive Joseph if this promise wasn’t on his mind when he met with Mary. She was his engaged wife and had told him that she was pregnant. This would not have been welcomed news for Joseph, because, in his eyes, it could have meant that she had been unfaithful. Mary’s pregnancy, then, would have been grounds for a divorce. In those days, to end an engagement, which was a legal relationship, meant that you had to get a divorce. Joseph did want to cause any harm to Mary, so he decided to divorce her privately before anyone could notice that she was pregnant.

It was likely after Joseph made this decision to divorce Mary that he was visited by an angel in his sleep. Matthew’s illustration of Joseph receiving an important visitation in his dreams brings to mind the dreams and visions that Joseph’s namesake had in Genesis while in Egypt. This particular angel comes to Joseph and says that he does not need to fear taking Mary as his wife. Everything that Mary told him was true, the angel said. She is pregnant with a child from the Holy Spirit. This child is the One that they had been awaiting. Mary would give birth to the Messiah, who would rescue the people from their sins and bring about God’s kingdom on earth. Joseph was being asked to take Mary as his wife and to care for both her and this child. Joseph would be Jesus’ earthly father.

This isn’t the only thing that the angel asks of Joseph. The angel also asks Joseph to give the child a very specific name of Jesus. It was a name that is not found in his genealogy. In those days, the father would likely have chosen a name for his son, especially the first born, that has a history within the family. But, the name the angel gives to Joseph is important. It is a name that tells us something about why Jesus came to earth. Jesus came to save all people.

Jesus is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for Joshua. The name of Jesus, and Joshua, means God saves. We see this in the story of Joshua, who followed after Moses and lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land. More importantly, we see this in how Jesus fulfills the very calling of his name. Jesus came with the specific purpose to fulfill the promises of salvation for all people. All of salvation history prepared for this moment where Jesus would enter the world. From the redemption in the Garden of Eden, to Noah and the ark, to Moses in Egypt, to the prophets of Judea, it all built up to this moment when the Son of God came to offer true hope, peace, joy, and love for all people.

Christmas looks forward to Jesus’ mission, because it was a mission that began in the most lowly of places of a manger. At his birth, Jesus began the work of making right what was wrong, and restoring hope in the world. The manger looks ahead to Jesus’ three-year ministry, to Good Friday and, especially, to Easter and his work offering himself for our wrongs.

That name given to Jesus is our promise today. As we await the celebration of Christmas morning, we celebrate not just this birth but the work Christ did and continues to do in each of us. Jesus came to do a work in us and our communities of redemption and restoration. That is the greatest expression of love. Jesus voluntarily came to show us the way to the Father and to offer himself for our acts of wrong. It is our faith that allows us to experience this hope and to truly surround ourselves in the joy of what took place at Christmas.

There is still one more name to consider and that is the name Matthew quotes from Isaiah 7:14. That passage included a promise from Isaiah to King Ahaz at a time when Israel was being threatened by Syria. The promise was a sign that said Israel would be out of a trouble by the time a child would be born and raised to maturity. Matthew takes this promise of a child and attaches it to Jesus. By doing so, Matthew says Jesus is the fulfillment of this promise of peace.

We see this in the second name attached to Jesus, which comes in this quotation from Isaiah. This child would be called “Immanuel,” which means “God is with us.” It is a word that signifies God’s presence. Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, is the embodiment of God’s presence. He is God. God came and dwelt among the Lord’s people when the Son of God humbled himself to taking on humanity. This name reminds us that God is always with us. There is not a moment in our lives where God is not already there, already beside us, or there after a situation has ended. Wherever we are God’s presence is there.

That is the thing about Jesus. There is never a moment in our lives where God’s presence is not available. He never lets us go. Christmas is the message to the world that God is here and active in our lives and this world. Christmas announces to the world that we are never alone. God is present in our lives.

The name of Jesus is truly the name above all names. A name that signifies that Jesus came to save us from our pains, hurts, frustrations, doubts, fears, and sins. The name of Jesus reminds us that God came to redeem all of us to a deeper relationship with the Lord. At the same time, the name of Jesus is the promise that God is always with us. There is not a moment, a situation, or a day where God is not with us. It may not always feel like it, but we can trust that Jesus, our Immanuel, is always there.

As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, this is the message that we need to share with our friends, our neighbors, our community, and the entire world. The name of Jesus is the message that we need to share. A name that promises hope through faith. A name that promises a loving and peaceful presence. A name that promises that God is the way to a truly deep relationship with the Lord and true salvation. A name that promises a joy among all joys.

It is the name of Jesus that we will celebrate on Wednesday. A celebration that looks to the manger and looks forward to what this child would do: Save the world, redeem us all, and bring forth God’s presence and kingdom in our lives and in each other. Truly, no other name is above that of this child who is our King.

The Polarization of the American Church

For decades now, the American political system has been defined by an ever-growing state of polarization. It is a state of division and separation that claims there is no worth in the opposing view and that those who are not “like us” are really out to harm “our way of life.” This attitude divides us into camps of “left” or “right or “red” or “blue.” It has also led to our modern governing structure where there is little respect for someone on the opposing side and limited opportunities for compromise.

The polarization of the American political system has affected each of us and how we see worth in each person. Because this polarization exists in an area of life that affects each of us, it was only a matter of time before this polarization impacted the church.

Today, sadly, the American church is defined by its polarization. We are divided body. We are more likely to be defined by our favorite camps and viewpoints than we are our shared love and faith in Christ. The polarization of the American church has left us unwilling to seek compromise and work together as one body. Instead, it has pulled us further apart and separate from the vision of the Great Commission to go out and share the love of Christ with others.

Instead, we want to claim that the person who disagrees with us in wrong. We want too much time arguing over the values of my theological view, instead of seeing the worth in the various traditions of the faith.

The reason for this, much like our political dialogues, is that we cannot stand to be proven wrong or be challenged. We expect to be right on all things about God and cannot wrestle with the fact that we might misunderstand something about the wonder of God’s grace and love. This prevents us from hearing from someone who challenges us and, as well, from considering that they are a person worthy of being heard.

When the church is defined by this attitude we are not doing a good job of sharing the message of Christ’s love. Instead, we are sharing the message of a church that is more defined by the things of our culture than about the message of Jesus Christ, who came into the world in the most humble of ways to share hope, joy, peace, and love with all people.

I yearn for the end of polarization in America, whether it is in our political conversations or in our churches. For that to happen, we must take the lead in ending the attacks and divisions within our churches. We must see each other as loved by God. We must see each other as having worth and value in God’s eyes. Until that day happens, we will be further separated from each other and unable to see the value in someone else’s opinion.

The day of polarization in the American church must end. Let it end with me, first, so that it may end in others, as well.

Finding Reasons to Rejoice

Bah humbug!

Ebenezer Scrooge does not hide his feelings about Christmas. In the scene we just watched, Scrooge tells his nephew, Fred, that Christmas is a humbug. He basically says Christmas has no value or good to it. Fred tries to change his mind, but to no avail. Scrooge will not have any of it. To him, Christmas is a humbug. Even the loyal Bob Cratchit couldn’t understand Scrooge’s disfavor to Christmas.

As we watched this scene, I wonder what character we identified ourselves with. Do we see ourselves as Fred, the energetic and loving nephew who is filled with joy because of the season? Are we Bob Cratchit, who is able to find joy even in the middle of a difficult time in his life? Or, do we see ourselves at Scrooge’s desk simply wanting this season to be over with and wanting to be left alone?

While we may want to see ourselves as Fred or even Cratchit, we need to recognize that each of us have the potential of being like Scrooge. There is a little bit of Scrooge in all of us. I’m not saying we are greedy or discourteous towards others. I am saying that all of us, and I am looking at myself as well, have the potential to be like Scrooge and live life without a sense of true joy.

The reason we struggle with joy, this sense of inner happiness that is outwardly expressed, might be the same reason Scrooge struggled with joy. For Scrooge, his lack of joy was not just because he valued money over his relationships with other. The main reason for Scrooge’s lack of joy was that he allowed his hurts and disappointments, whether abandonment from his father or a failed love, to be what defined his relationships with others. This is also true for us. Often we allow our past hurts and disappointments to define how we interact with each other. We struggle to have joy, because our outlook on life is clouded by our inability to let go of previous hurts and pains.

Like Scrooge, we need to be able to find reasons to rejoice in all seasons of life, whether in times of good or difficulty. We need to look within ourselves and see that there is a joy that lives within us. A joy that cries out it to be expressed in how we care for others. For this to happen, we need someone to show us the way of living with joy. We need someone to show us what it means to live with a daily sense of praise, celebration, and life in response to what has occurred in the depths of our soul. To find reasons to rejoice in our lives we need the assistance of Mary.

In our passage, Mary, the earthly mother of Jesus, is with her cousin, Elizabeth. This visit comes a short time after Mary learned she would give birth to Jesus, this child who would fulfill the hopes for a Messiah and Savior. Elizabeth, in her advanced age, was also pregnant with John, whose ministry would prepare the way for the Lord. This child leapt at the very presence of Jesus in Mary’s womb. This led to Elizabeth proclaiming that Mary would be forever blessed because of her child and faith.
Mary responded with words that are very familiar. Known as the Magnificat because of the Latin translation of the first word, Luke 1:46-55 is Mary’s song of praise. It is her response to all that has taken place to her and others through God’s love. She uses familiar words likely to her that are similar to those found in 1 Samuel 2, where Hannah praises God for the birth of her long-desired son, Samuel. Here, however, Mary is responding to not only what God has done for her, but for what God has done for everyone.

Her song of praise starts with words that focuses on her own feelings. She is a 13-year-old, poor, engaged woman who had just been told she would give birth to the Messiah. This could have brought fear into anyone, but not Mary. For her, it gave her a sense of joy to know God would chose someone like her to take on this important task. She “rejoices in God” because God looked upon her and called her blessed. Mary’s joy was central to who she was and she wanted to share this with Elizabeth and others. It was a joy that expressed her love and trust of God in all things.

At the same time, Mary also expresses her joy because of what God has done for all people. Mary’s song takes a turn away from herself and towards a time of praising God for all that he has done. Her joy is because the humble will be favored. The rich and powerful will be humbled. The powerful will be removed from their places of authority. The hungry will be fed. Mary has joy, because of these life-changing and world-altering events.

Mary expresses these things as if they have already taken place. That is because Mary knows that God’s previous actions are proof that God will continue to act and will do something new and wonderful through this child, Jesus. Mary’s words announce that the promise Abraham and the prophets claimed would be fulfilled. She knows Jesus would be the one to fulfill all the promises of redemption and restoration and would bring about God’s kingdom in a powerful way. She had joy, because she knew the Messiah, Jesus Christ, would usher in God’s ways of power, justice, hope, and peace.

The Magnificat reminds us that Mary was a person of deep joy. She could look within herself and see God’s love for her and the world. This gave her a sense of inner happiness, peace, and, truly, joy. Her joy came out of a deep trust for the words and promises of God that sustained her through all moments of her life and encouraged her as she took on this important role.

What about us? Are we able to look within ourselves and see the same joy for God, and perhaps others, that Mary had? Can we look and see a love of God that comes in response to what the Lord has done for us and the world? Can we sing praises, through our words and actions, because of God’s great name? Can we live in joy, because we see God’s creation in each person and all throughout this world?

So often our temptation is to live another way. We face daily temptations to allow the activities of this world to cloud how we respond to God and each other. When we are frustrated, disgruntled, stressed, hurt, dismayed, scared, nervous, and anxious among other things, we can allow these feelings to take over and define us. Like Scrooge, when they do they often come out in negative ways in how we interact with others. Instead of joy, when we experience these moments, we often express disgust, aloofness, anger, or even dislike towards others.

In order for the joy that is found in Mary to be found within us, we must be willing to look within our own hearts to see that there is something more to us than the negatives we let define us. We must find the reasons to rejoice like Mary and see, as she did, the things God is doing. We must find ourselves in God’s story, see the joy God has for us, and claim it as our own.

This happens when we allow the joy of Christ to be at the “center of our being” and the joy we share with others. This means to allow Christ to become incarnate, to be made real, in our lives. For us to share joy we must experience the joy of knowing Christ and loving the Lord. We cannot share joy if we have not experienced the truest and greatest joy of a relationship with the Lord. Joy comes when we, like Mary, connect ourselves to a hope that is beyond any hope we could imagine. The joy Mary has and we can have is a joy that says our hope is found in the One who came in the lowliest of places to serve in the most holiest of ways. Joy comes through our love of Christ.

It is this kind of joy that transforms us from a person like Scrooge to someone like Mary who expresses a joy with others that is beyond anything we could imagine. This is a joy that cannot be taken away by the pains of this world. A joy that shares love with others if for no other reasons than for the simple fact that they are a child of God. A joy that finds a reason to share expressions of hope, love, and peace every day, because each day is an opportunity to express our joy in response to the great things God has done.

Today, we lit the third candle of Advent, the pink candle, as a sign of our joy that is found in Christ. It stands out against the backdrop of lit purple candles. There is a reason for this. Joy that is found in Christ stands out in a world that is often defined by feelings of negativity, complaining, and bitterness. Joy that is centered in a life with Christ is life changing and changes our world, because it shows the world there is a better way to live.

No, living with joy is not easy. There are going to be days when we will not want to have joy. There will be days when we want to live in our frustrations. There are going to be days when it will be difficult to find reasons to rejoice. In those days, we must be willing to look towards the light of Christ and find reasons to claim a joy that is beyond all words and allows us to experience life in a new way.

So, what if every day we found a reason to share joy with someone, whether it was a kind word, an expression of love, or an act of grace? What if every day we took it upon ourselves to live with joy, because of what Christ has done for us?

What would it be like if today we decided that we wanted to be less like Scrooge and more like Mary in the ways we encounter others?

Preparing for the Lord

Getting ready for Christmas is exhausting. I knew this was the case before, but having a baby takes the exhaustion and the rush of the season to a whole new level. I almost feel that we will need a nap before Christmas morning.

First, there the decorating that is needed to get the house ready for the season. Of course, this activity focuses around the Christmas tree. A normal decorating process is fun and enjoyable. We have learned, however, that when you add a child and a cat to the mix it can be an exercise in patience and strategic planning, especially regarding certain ornaments. I have learned, this week, you cannot place some ornaments where they can be pulled, dangled with, or chewed on.

There is also the gift buying. This is the part of Christmas I find the most exhausting. I’m thankful for Internet sites that allow me to purchase gifts from the comfort of my couch. This year there is the additional gift buying element of what to get Noah. I never realized that Christmas comes with a lot of negotiating and coordination to make sure multiple gifts are not purchased of the same item. To me that is exhausting.

In general, this season and all the preparations for it is exhausting. We rush from Halloween to December 24 making sure that everything is perfect. I’m sure for many of you that this time of preparing for Christmas has already been both enjoyable and full of exhausting moments.

Can I ask you a question? Have you ever prepared so much for Christmas morning that by the time Christmas arrives you have nothing left? What I mean is that do we ever work so hard to get everything “perfect” for Christmas that it seems like we’ve missed the season? Sometimes we can get so busy with preparing for the season that we can miss the season along the way.

What if the way we prepare for Christmas isn’t necessarily the way God intends for us? What if our emphasis upon the decorations, cookies, and, yes, even the presents can can cause us to be distracted from what God desires for us to prepare for the celebration of the Lord’s birth and return? What if preparing for Christmas was like none of the preparation that we’ve already taken on? What if preparing for Christmas and Christ’s return truly touched us in the depths of our heart and soul, and, then, enables us to be more like Christ in how we care for the world?

The preparation God calls us to, in this Advent season, is nothing like the preparation for Christmas that our culture so often desires. The preparation God desires is for each of us to seek a renewed heart and a deeper commitment to the Lord. It is this kind of preparation that enables us to experience and receive the gift of Jesus Christ that came into the world that first Christmas.

This deeper kind of preparation is found in our passage from Matthew 3:1-12. It is the story of John the Baptist and his ministry of alerting people that the day of the Messiah was near. On this Second Sunday of Advent, it is traditional to examine the importance of John the Baptist to Jesus’ ministry. All the Gospel writers speak of his importance. While only Matthew and Luke describe Jesus’ birth all four Gospels have John the Baptist serving in the long-awaited role of the messenger who would announce that the Messiah was coming.

John does this through a specific message. It is a message that Matthew connects with the words of Jesus Christ throughout his earthly ministry. That message was this: “Repent of your sins and turn to God for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” Jesus would echo these words with his first words in Matthew 4:17. If we truly want to prepare the way for the Lord’s coming and return then, as John the Baptist says, we must be willing to repent of our sins and turn towards God.

Repentance is what straightens the pathways and highways, to use the imagery from Isaiah 40, that allows us to receive the gift of Christ and experience a renewed relationship with the Lord. It is what brings us closer to the Lord. At first glance, it would seem that repentance has nothing to do with Advent. We are more accustomed to discussions of repentance around the time of Lent. However, unless we are willing to experience true repentance in our lives we will never be able to experience the incarnation of God being with us through Jesus Christ. Repentance is central to what it means to prepare for Christ, because it is truly about getting our lives ready for the celebration of Christmas and Christ’s eventual return.

To do so, we must be willing to engage the wilderness of our soul. The wilderness was a very significant place for the people of Israel, because it symbolically recognized their places of weakness and where they needed God. The same is true for us. Our wilderness places are the places of our deepest hurts, struggles, pains, and temptations. It is the places where we are distant from God and the Lord’s desires. It can be difficult to engage our wilderness, however doing so allows us to experience God’s presence and our need of God’s grace.

It is through the encounter of God’s presence where we can see our need for true repentance. This is not just about saying we are sorry for something we’ve done wrong. True repentance, which both John and Jesus described, occurs when we engage God’s truth in our wilderness. God’s truth challenges us, through the presence of the Holy Spirit, to examine our lives and to see how we may not be living according to God’s desires. This type of engagement calls us to admit where we’ve fallen short of God’s glory, to abandon our old ways of living, and to move towards living in obedience with God. That is repentance. It is the act of turning away from ourselves and moving towards God. It is the act of seeking God’s forgiveness and grace in a way that redefines our lives forever.

A pure and repentant heart helps us to receive Christ, because repentance is also about recognizing our need of Christ in our lives. This is what John tells the Pharisees and Sadducees. Members of these two groups approached John to be baptized, and John calls their bluff. He knew their act was not about a true repentance, because they still claimed that it was their heritage that saved them. John tells them that our spiritual heritage does not prepare us to receive Christ. It doesn’t matter if one is a child of Abraham if they have not truly repented of their sins and sought a deeper relationship with the Lord through the grace of Christ.

What does this say to us? We cannot claim our own spiritual heritage as believers of Christ and claim we do not need to repent. We cannot say we have Christ, but then live our lives as if the message and hope of Christ never impacted us. Our heritage and traditions will not save us. Only a heart that seeks after God’s love by a daily renewal act of turning away from ourselves and turning towards God will. Repentance is not a one-time act, but a part of our daily walk with the Lord. Repentance transforms us from the person we are today to the person God created us to be. It is truly how we prepare to receive the gift of Christ.

Being willing to truly repent allows us to experience the incarnation of Christ in a new way. God becomes real in our lives and present with us. By this, we are able to receive the greatest gift that came at Christmas of the living and holy presence of Christ. This allows us to do something with our new creation that comes out of our repentance. It allows us to take on Christ’s words and allow them to influence how we care for others. A repentant heart is prepared to share Christ’s love, hope, joy, and peace with those who need to hear those words.

Repentance is truly the way to experiencing a renewed relationship with the Lord this season and everyday. All of us need this type of Christmas preparation where life becomes less about us and more about Christ. A type of preparation where we turn away from ourselves, seek the forgiveness of God, and move towards what Christ desires for us.

Think about your life for a moment. How do you need to truly repent and turn to God this Advent season? What are the things in your life that you have not given over to God? What are the struggles that you have not sought out God’s grace or the temptations that you’ve not given to God? How do you need to repent, today, so you can be prepared for both the celebration of Christ and the Lord’s eventual return?

At the same time, what about our community? Repentance is not just an individual act. It is also a communal act. What are the things that we need to repent of? What are the things that we need to let go off and turn towards God in order for us to move forward as a church? How do we need to repent so that, as a community, we are ready for Christmas and Christ’s return?

The way to preparing for the Lord’s return is through repentance and a changed heart. As we experience this changed heart and renewed walk with the Lord, both as individuals and a community, we are better able to reflect the hope of Christ to our neighborhoods and world. There are many wilderness places in the neighborhoods that surrounds us. We can speak hope into these places by sharing the fruit of our repentance through our acts of love, hope, joy, and peace.

John the Baptist came and called the people to repent as a way to prepare for the coming Kingdom of Heaven. That message is true for us today. Christmas is coming. Christ is coming again. Prepare for this time by taking a deep look into your wilderness places, turn towards the Lord, and go forward in hope awaiting the day of Christ’s return.