Advent Devotion – December 24 – Michael Schulte

“. . . and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

 Matthew 1:18-25

 

Scripture: Matthew 1:18-25

2020 may prove to be one of the most consequential and fateful years in modern history. As I write, over 225,000 Americans have died from COVID-19. The death count already surpasses the number of Americans who died in World War I. If projections are correct, by Christmas Eve, the amount of deaths will be very close to surpassing the number of Americans who died in World War II.

In addition to a deadly pandemic, our country has been embroiled in nationwide protests which seek to reform our legal system and confront our nation’s enduring legacies of racism. We have witnessed the harrowing video of George Floyd being choked to death by a Minnesota police officer. We have witnessed radical vigilantes take justice into their own hands and murder innocent civilians. We have watched peaceful protestors be tear gassed by the state despite its illegality in international war.

Maybe like me, you have been wondering, “Where is God?”

Matthew’s Nativity narrative reminds us that Mary gave birth to Emmanuel, which means “God with us.”

Christian faith is believing in things unseen. It is a radical hope that one day God’s justice will be the world’s justice, that the peace of Christ will pervade the immoral and unjust systems of this world. It is a belief that Jesus, despite our sinful nature, loves us and uses his mighty hand to intervene on our behalf.

Lutheran theologian Cynthia Loe-Mobeda writes, “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain the believer would stake [their] life on it a thousand times.”

This year it has been hard to believe that God is with us. It has been hard to know that God’s mercy and grace still abounds.

But when we look a bit closer, I am confident that we will see the work of the Spirit, God within each of us, present in our communities. I see the work of the Spirit in Dr. Anthony Fauci who continues to communicate hard truths to the American people. I see the work of the Spirit in protestors who risked their well-being to stand up for the oppressed and the marginalized. I see the work of the Spirit in thousands of people who waited in lines for hours to vote. I see the work of the Spirit in our church as we continue to house the homeless, feed the hungry, and participate in racial reconciliation.

This Christmas let us be reminded that we believe in a God who is with us, a God who sacrificed divinity to assume the position of humanity, a God who breathes into our lives each and every day.

God is with you and God’s grace is for you. Thanks be to God!

Michael Schulte

Advent Devotion – December 23 – Max Carter

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Isaiah 9:1-7

Scripture: Isaiah 9:1-7

Advent was established as a part of the liturgical calendar late in the 4th century A.D. in response to the gnostic Priscillian movement. At this time, it was used as a season of fasting in preparation for Epiphany much like Lent is for Easter. By the 8th century A.D., a consensus for when Christmas should be celebrated was made and the focus of Advent shifted to a time to commemorate the Israelites awaiting the coming of Emmanuel.

The birth of Christ marks two eras in history. The author of Hebrews refers to these periods as long ago and the last days. Isaiah alludes to this concept describing the former time and the latter time. During the first era God was expressed through intermediaries such as, Moses and the prophets. The arrival of Emmanuel, “God with us,” marked the beginning of a new era where God is expressed directly through the incarnation. For modern Christians, Advent has a dual focus. We reflect on the time, long ago, when the Israelites were awaiting the arrival of Emmanuel. We also live in expectancy of God’s coming reign.

The ancient Israelites experienced times of chaos and instability. Isaiah describes these experiences as walking in darkness or dwelling in a land of deep darkness. The promise of light in Isaiah 9 comes in a child that is destined to live opposed to governing systems of oppression. Isaiah writes, “and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

The promise of God’s peace is a kingdom that endures from now until eternity. The kingdom is sealed with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Advent accentuates the duality of the Christian life, experiencing the gospel of Christ while waiting for the totality of God’s kingdom.

The question for the modern Christian becomes how we should wait. Life is hectic and stressful, especially, in a time of pandemic and political polarization. Anxiety can be compounded by the pressures of secular society to focus on materialism during the holiday season, but we are called to be disciplined and focused on God.

Father Alfred Delp, while awaiting execution for his participation in the German Resistance, wrote, “Woe to any age in which the voice crying in the wilderness can no longer be heard because the noises of everyday life drown it, or restrictions forbid it, or it is lost in the hurry and turmoil of ‘progress’ or simply stifled by authority, misled by fear.”

During this time of Advent let us take time to reflect on awaiting Emmanuel as well as how we can contribute to the establishment of God’s everlasting reign.

James M. Carter

 

Core Idea: God’s reign is abounding in steadfast love!

Advent Devotion – December 22 – Ozzy and Dot Foutch

And he came t0 her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”

Luke 1:26-38

Scripture: Luke 1:26-38

God sent an angel to Mary who told her that she would give birth to a baby and she was to name him Jesus. Her son would grow up to be a very special person who would help people learn about God.

After the angel said all of these things, Mary said to the angel, “Here I am” and “Let it be me.” Jesus was born because Mary said yes to God’s’ plan. Because she said yes, she raised a son who also said yes to God.

Ozzy Foutch
Dot Foutch
Children’s Worship

 

Core idea: When we say yes to God, we share God’s love with those around us.

Advent Devotion – December 21 – Sherard Edington

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

John 1:1-5

Scripture: John 1:1-5
The word “beginning” is such a wonderful word. A beginning is a time when everything is fresh and new with no bad habits or practices to mar the moment. Beginnings are times of excitement and possibilities— the beginning of a school year, the beginning of a marriage, the beginning of a life.

The quintessential beginning, of course, is God’s creation of the cosmos when the earth was without form and was covered in darkness. Into this chaos God forged order—the framework for creation—and ushered in life.

But as the story tells us, this creation did not remain whole for long and the inhabitants of this new world quickly introduced sin into their pristine reality and marred what God had conceived.

The opening of the Gospel of John reflects that first creation by reminding us that “In the beginning was the Word.” The Word is what happens when God speaks; it is God’s power; it is God’s being; it is God.

The Word has been with us from the beginning. And now, as the Gospel proclaims, the Word comes to us as Jesus. He is Emmanuel — God with us. God comes to us as Jesus, as one of us, to guide us beyond that sin which pollutes our reality.

In Jesus, we discover the joy of a new beginning.

Advent is an odd time of year. We call it the beginning of the church year and yet it takes place at the end of our calendar year. But Advent is a new beginning. Each year, it serves as a reminder that God is with us bringing the promise of creation, the promise to right what we have wronged, the promise to forgive us and make us new.

The Rev. Sherard Edington

Advent Devotion – December 20 – Becky Burris

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.

Luke 2:1-20

Scripture: Luke 2:1-20

The Census calls!

I received the form in the mail first. I completed and returned it, hopeful that my response would help my community.

In Luke’s Nativity, Joseph got the call to complete the Census. I imagine that he too felt a sense of hope. He answered the call by unquestioningly traveling a great distance with his expectant fiancé. He hoped to be counted and included.

The story continues with the angel’s visit to the shepherds. The angel must have been full of hope, being the one chosen to deliver such good news to the shepherds! The shepherds were treated to a ‘great company of the heavenly host…praising God’ (Luke 2:13). Imagine the Shepherd’s hope as they made their way to the manger to see the fulfillment of what God had told them! They must have been elated to hear that their hopes of a savior and deliverance from the control of Rome was coming to fruition. They were so hopeful that they must have told everyone who would listen: the Savior is born in Bethlehem.

God sent a savior to a world in pain. The Savior was revealed to ordinary folks first. The Savior was born in an ordinary place, to an ordinary couple. Both Mary and Joseph were in an unimaginable situation but hoped that the messages they received from God were real and would bring hope to the nations.

But even more amazing to me is that God became human. I imagine that God wanted to experience humanity first-hand, much like when Mary Poppins and Bert became part of the chalk drawing they had made. If the Source of Creation chose to become like us, how can we ever feel alone? Or unloved? Or hopeless? Through Jesus, God knows EXACTLY how it feels to be human and hears us with real ears!

I’m so glad the Census was invented. It is proof that to Jesus we all count!

Becky Burris

 Core Idea: When all hope seems lost, God sends Jesus to say you are loved and valued.

Advent Devotion – December 19 – Jessica Fain

Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

Luke 3:1-9

 

Scripture: Luke 3:1-9

For the most part, I’m a planner. And I come by it honestly. Both of my parents are planners, too. As an adult, I often quote the phrase “you’ve gotta have a plan” about everything. Going on vacation? You’ve gotta have a plan. Cooking dinner for 90? You’ve gotta have a plan. Driving down the interstate at 75 mph on a sunny day with a new set of tires? You’ve gotta have a plan. You never know when you might have a blowout.

So in reflecting on Luke 3:1-9, commonly thought of as the “prepare the way” passage, you can see why it first struck me that John the Baptist is saying, “A Messiah is coming; you’ve gotta have a plan.”

But as I spent more time with this passage – and by ‘more time’ I mean in Googling commentaries about it – I quickly realized there’s a lot more going on here, so much in fact, that I typed nearly two pages of possible themes for a passage that’s probably worth a dissertation in more capable hands. So I’ve still as many themes left to study as those that made the cut:

1. Salvation isn’t all sunshine and roses. 
This passage isn’t exactly an invitation to a candlelit Christmas dinner. We can’t, after all, get to the nativity

story without going first through John the Baptist and his “brood of vipers” admonishment for our sins. It’s hardly a Hallmark greeting card. Only two of the gospels mention the birth of Jesus, and who do both accounts start with? You guessed it. Not-So-Jolly John. So we can’t ignore that through this passage, God is setting an expectation that we own our sins and acknowledge the harm and hurt they’ve caused us or others. In other words, while salvation is readily available, it does require repentance on our part. It’s a two-way street.

2. Power and polish are not required to speak truth.
In John’s time, it was not uncommon for a herald to be sent ahead when someone important was coming to visit a town, so his call to the people to prepare for the coming Messiah mirrors the way the Romans might have told a city or town that the King was coming, a la, “Pick up the trash, sweep the floor, polish the silver!”

In the opening of this passage, we read a litany of names of officials. They are all people in positions of power, presumably ‘in the know’ and therefore reliable, who could report that a king is coming, or send a typical herald to do it. But who does God send? A guy who lives in the woods, wears funny clothes and subsists on grasshoppers and honey. And what does he tell us to do? He doesn’t tell us to tidy up what’s on the outside. He tells us to clean up what’s on the inside – to get our hearts right. We’ve been asked to prepare for an esteemed guest for sure, but not in the ways to which we are accustomed. But then again, Jesus is a different kind of king, asking us to live a different kind of life, so it’s fitting that John is a different kind of herald.

3. Forgiveness isn’t as much about sin as it is about our freedom from it.
Say what? Hang with me – we’re about to get deep, but it’s still pretty simple, I promise. If you’re anything like me, you might think of forgiveness in terms of cataloging the things you’ve done wrong, with an emphasis on you, and wrong. But in researching this passage, this self-proclaimed “words girl” was again reminded, words matter.

In this case, we’re talking about the Greek word for forgiveness, Aphesis. And here’s the thing about aphesis – it’s closest translation is probably a word like “release,” which suggests the forgiveness made available to us through Christ offers us liberation, freedom from worry and fear and the guilt we carry about our sins. So maybe it’s more about the hope forgiveness offers us than the reasons we need to ask for it. God’s forgiveness frees us to be a better, more Christ-like person, who does not carry the shame of sin, but who instead carries the promise of a better tomorrow, a tomorrow that looks more like the kingdom than today.

Jessica Fain

Advent Devotion – December 18 – Ellie Henson and Baylor Hall

The angel said to Zechariah. . . “You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at (your son, John’s) birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.”

Luke 1:5-25

Scripture: Luke 1:5-25

Sometimes impossible things happen. For Zechariah and Elizabeth, what seemed impossible was made possible. Zechariah and Elizabeth must have prayed and prayed for a baby until they decided they were too old to become parents. But God had other plans. He sent an angel to tell them the impossible would happen. They would have a baby who would bring them joy and he would be the one that was predicted to come and prepare the way for the Messiah.

Ellie Henson
Baylor Hall
Children’s Worship

Core idea: God answers prayers and nothing is impossible for God.

Advent Devotion – December 17 – David Howell

. . . because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

Isaiah 53:4-12

Scripture: Isaiah 53:4-12
This reading tells of the Suffering Servant, a story which foretells the coming of Christ. The servant leads a life of suffering—despised and rejected. But at his death he receives his reward in Heaven. Similarly, the suffering and death of Jesus on the cross gives us redemption and the gift of God’s grace that we enjoy now.

Now as servants we have the opportunity to serve in many ways to celebrate the gift of grace. From being a friend, doing local volunteer work, or doing mission work in other countries, the choice of service is ours.

On a personal level, I have worked with Living Waters for the World and Solar Under the Sun, two mission projects of the PC(USA). Providing clean drinking water so children can grow up strong and healthy and providing electricity from solar panels for schools, clinics, community centers, and individual homes are two service opportunities with many possibilities. It is a joy to work with people from many backgrounds. The greatest joy for me is getting to meet and know the people, especially the children, in the international communities where we work. Through teaching in the Living Waters and Solar training schools,  I have made friends with fellow instructors and former students and followed their trips with interest.

David Howell

Core idea: Being a servant requires putting your faith into action.

Advent Devotion – December 16 – Dot Jenkins

And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”

Isaiah 49:1-6

Scripture: Isaiah 49:1-6

In this time of chaos and distress we have cried “Peace, Peace!” but there is no peace. Where can we turn for help? Like the Servant in Isaiah 49 we feel we have “labored in vain and spent our strength for nothing.”

The Servant has been prepared for God’s service since before his birth, to bring God’s people back to God. Are we, like the Servant, prepared to bring people back to the Lord?

The Lord tells the servant that God is giving him (the servant) a greater responsibility. He says, “it is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribe of Jacob and
to raise up the tribes of Jacob: I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

The Servant, created and named in the womb by God, was called to speak the word of God to other nations. Salvation would not be for Israel alone, but for the whole world. In
Advent, we wait for Jesus, confident that one day Jesus will come again to save the nations.

While the servant voices his despair to the Lord, as many of us are doing today, the Lord responds to the Servant’s despair with a call to responsibility: “Raise up the tribes . . .”

The Servant finds strength in God, so we do too. God’s strength will allow us to be a light to the nations. God’s strength will ensure salvation will reach the ends of the earth.

Dot Jenkins

Core Idea: Jesus comes to bring restoration

Advent Devotion – December 15 – Barbara Howell

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!

Zechariah 9:9-10

Scripture: Zechariah 9:9-10

These words from Zechariah foretelling the coming of the king of Israel are wonderfully sung in Handel’s Messiah. For many of us, hearing the Messiah is one of the highlights of the Christmas season. The libretto was written for Handel’s Messiah by his friend, Charles Jennens, in 1742 and was based upon texts from the King James Version. In Zechariah 9:9, the prophet instructs the people to rejoice! He then tells them that the king is coming, he is a righteous

Savior, and he shall speak peace to the heathen. Handel’s music and Jennens’ lyrics express all of Zechariah’s words in this beautiful aria.

Zechariah tells the Israelites that this new king will deal with their enemies and command peace to the nations. He will fulfill God’s promises to the Israelites. He will come with humility and gentleness. This is certainly a reason to rejoice.

The Old Testament prophets were filled with joy when God’s plans and promises were revealed to them. The Psalms tell of a joy that comes from knowing God. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises” (Psalm 98:4).

So together, let us all “rejoice and be glad,” confident that our reward will be great in heaven (Matthew 5:12).

Barbara Howell

Core idea: Rejoice in the Lord always.