Category Archives: Advent

From Darkness Into Light: Awaking to Hope – Sermon on Mark 13:24-37 for Advent 1B

Watch a video of this sermon.

“But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. It is like a man going on a journey, when he leaves home and puts his slaves in charge, each with his work, and commands the doorkeeper to be on the watch. Therefore, keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.”

Mark 13:24-37 (NRSV)

Have you been losing sleep these past several months? Do you find yourself lying awake around 2 or 3 AM? Insomnia is apparently a side effect of pandemic stress. Researchers have even coined a term for it: “Caronasomnia”. (https://health.ucdavis.edu/health-news/newsroom/covid-19-is-wrecking-our-sleep-with-coronasomnia–tips-to-fight-back-/2020/09)

The problem with this kind of sleeplessness is that our bodies and our minds never really get the rest they need. We depend on good sleep to let our brains “reboot” and our minds to refresh. Losing sleep creates “brain fog” – we are sluggish and easily confused. We can’t think creatively. We aren’t as effective at our work. We have a hard time staying alert.

So here we are at the beginning of a new church year, diving into the season of Advent, when we should be looking forward with anticipation to Christ’s coming, and all we really can think about is how much we’d like to take a good nap. Jesus’ admonition to “keep awake” just isn’t very appealing, is it? Until we realize that the kind of exhausted sleeplessness many of us have been experiencing isn’t what Jesus has in mind at all.

It’s the first Sunday in the season of Advent. That word “Advent” means “arriving” or “coming toward” – God is coming toward us in the person of Jesus Christ, as we come toward God through Christ’s grace. And we do that “coming toward” God by means of hope.

I think it’s interesting that we begin the first Sunday in the new church year near the end of Mark’s gospel. Over the last few weeks, we heard Matthew’s version of Christ’s final teachings, and here we get Mark’s recollection of the same timeframe. Both accounts focus on the ‘end of the age’ or ‘end times.’

While these words sound apocalyptic, Jesus is making it clear that he isn’t predicting when the end will come – no one knows the day or the hour. That word “apocalypse” really means “revelation,” and this passage seems to obscure more than it reveals. So it might be more helpful to understand what Jesus is saying by remembering he is actually talking about his own end, the completion of his own ministry on earth.

One clue that we should hear this as a farewell discourse is the way Jesus uses so many imperative verbs: learn, beware, keep awake, be alert. Christ is giving instructions for his disciples to follow after he is gone. Paul does the same thing in his late writings. So perhaps we should take these words of Jesus personally, because he is speaking to all his disciples, and that includes us here and now. 

So what does it mean to “keep awake” as we wait for Christ’s return? How do we demonstrate our hope for Christ’s coming with alert anticipation? The first Sunday in Advent is traditionally called the Sunday of Hope. Where do we find hope in these difficult times? How can we see light breaking into our darkness?

The prophets of the Old Testament weren’t fortune tellers, they were truth tellers. They didn’t predict the future so much as they announced God’s presence in times when people couldn’t see it for themselves. The prophets showed God’s people where to find the light when they despaired in darkness.

We are in a time that seems quite dark. I used to check the COVID Situation Update website every day – now I don’t want to know how bad it is, how many more deaths there have been, how many more people are sick – because now I know some of those people. They aren’t statistics any more; they are friends and family.

We are all suffering from pandemic fatigue. Remember when we hoped things would get better soon enough we could celebrate Easter together? And then we hoped for summer to settle things down.

By October, we were struggling with decisions to cancel or limit traditional Fall activities like a bazaar or trunk-or-treat. Now we are so tired of being vigilant, so weary of staying isolated, so stressed that – even in our weariness – we can’t sleep through the night. Where has our hope gone? Some have given up, and abandoned safety measures altogether. Others have given up and slipped into depression. Where is the light shining into our darkness?

Part of the problem is that, while we know we must keep alert and be ready, we have no idea when Christ will come. These months and months, which we all thought back in March would be maybe a few weeks, have given us an opportunity to train for this kind of alert anticipation.

In the first few weeks of closing businesses and events, we learned how to pace our response to the COVID virus spread, realizing we were heading into a marathon, not a sprint. We learned to curb our anxiety as we sheltered in place. We found ways of adapting our normal routines to maintain safe distances from others, while we washed our hands and put on our masks. We became more disciplined. We started to pay better attention to others.

This is exactly the kind of ‘being awake’ Jesus asks of us. Instead of fear and worry, we respond with discipline and compassion. “There’s a difference between “keep awake” because everything is out of your control, you can’t fix most of what happening, and it’s getting downright scary—and “keep awake” because God never ceases to be at work, the Spirit is doing a new thing, and you don’t want to miss any of it!” (Diane Strickland)

In today’s epistle reading, Paul greets us with those familiar words we hear every Sunday: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ,” and we wonder if he knew, nearly 2000 years ago, just how much we would need to hear those words now.

Then Mark interrupts again with the admonition to “Keep awake!” Another way to translate this is “Be awake” – Jesus isn’t telling us to wake up from sleep, but to stay alert. Be in a state of readiness. When Christ comes – and we learned last week in the parable of the sheep and goats that Jesus comes when we least expect him, in ways we least expect him, and through people we least expect to bear his image – but when Christ comes, we are to be ready for him, because he does come. Your hope is in the Christ who comes to you in the here and now, bringing light into your darkness, calling you out of despair and weariness into his strength and peace.

Four times in this passage, Jesus says, “Be awake.” He doesn’t say, ‘drowsily prop your eyelids open’ or even “wake up!” with a jolt. He says, ‘remain in a state of readiness, of eager anticipation for the joy that is to come. Live in hope.’

Hope gives us the fuel we need to stay alert. Hope gives us the energy to remain ready to welcome Christ into our midst. It is hope that keeps us awake and rested.

Have you ever watched a Texas A&M football game? Did you notice the entire student body standing for the entire game? The spirit of the “12th man on the team” goes back to 1922, when the Aggies had suffered so many injuries, there was no one left on the bench. One version of the legend says that a student jumped down from the bleachers to take the field when the next injury occurred, running in the final touchdown to win the game.

The facts aren’t quite that dramatic. E. King Gill had recently left the football team to concentrate on basketball. He was at the game that day, and put on an injured player’s uniform, standing on the sidelines for the entire game in case another player might get injured. But he never had to go in. The Aggies rallied and won the game, and from that time on, the student body stands throughout each game, partly to honor Gill’s selflessness, but also to demonstrate their readiness to hit the field if needed.  

This is the kind of ‘staying awake’ Jesus asks of us. It’s the kind of alert attention that anticipates victory, and remains willing to participate at any moment. Over the next four weeks, we will celebrate Advent in ways we never have before. Traditions we hold dear will be laid aside, as we look for the light of Christ to shine into us in a new way. We need to be awake to see that light. And there’s another kind of alert wakefulness that demonstrates our hope as we move from darkness into Christ’s light. A mom was driving along when her 8-year-old asked,” Do you want me to throw the confetti in my pocket?” “No, not in the car! Why do you have confetti in your pocket?” the mom asked. Her 8-year-old answered, “It’s my emergency confetti. I carry it everywhere in case there is good news.” (private Facebook post)

As we move from darkness to light during this season of Advent, this time of ‘coming toward,’ may your hope be anchored in the good news that Jesus comes, just as he promised, and when he comes, he hopes for something, too. He hopes you will be alert, that your supply of emergency confetti will be ready to announce his coming.

November 29, 2020 Advent 1B

Magnified Joy – Advent 3A

December 15, 2019

I think it’s curious that we hear about John the Baptist’s doubt about Jesus on the same Sunday we sing Mary’s song magnifying the Lord and rejoicing in God our Savior. “Are you the One,” John wants to know, “or should we be waiting for someone else?” You can read an earlier message on Matthew 11:2-11 and Luke 1:47-55 here.

Martha Spong reminds us that joy and doubt are not necessarily mutually exclusive. I recommend you read her thoughtful reflection on this week’s lectionary readings. May you be released from whatever binds you, or stalls you, or holds you captive, so that your joy – like Mary’s and John the Baptist’s – may point others to Jesus.

Holy Lord, our hearts leap in our chests when we experience your nearness. We cannot help but know ‘the joy of the Lord’ when you are in the center of our lives. But how easy it is, Jesus, to slip into doubt and despair when we take our eyes off you.

Give us the kind of steadfast faith that Mary had when she said, “let it be to me according to your word,” even though she had no idea what she was getting into. Give us the courage to seek you out when our doubts overcome us, just as John did. And remind us, as you did John, that the evidence of your kingdom is right under our noses. You are working through us to magnify your name. Let our joy be complete and point others to you, Almighty God.

Making Room – Sermon on Matthew 3:1-12 for Advent 2A

December 8, 2019

Blessings on your Advent journey! You know, some folks aren’t even aware there is a season called ‘Advent.’ For them, this season leading up to Christmas is Christmas. We get that message loud and clear everywhere we go, in every store where we shop.

Last week, we celebrated the first Sunday in Advent with the 34th annual Hanging of the Greens. I mean, it looks like Christmas in here, doesn’t it? What are we waiting for? Let’s cut to the chase and start singing “Silent Night” and get that Baby Jesus into the manger where he belongs!

But we aren’t there yet. Continue reading

Redeeming Grace – Sermon on Luke 3:1-6

December 16, 2018

We’ve been following the hymn ‘Silent Night, Holy Night’ through this season of Advent, and today’s focus is on the third stanza, where ‘love’s pure light’ radiantly beams forth at the ‘dawn of redeeming grace.’ Love and redemption go hand in hand. We call it ‘grace.’

Here’s a great definition of grace: love we don’t deserve and can never earn.

Redeeming grace is that un-earn-able love that saves us. It saves us from our sin, our darkness, and the eternal separation from God that our brokenness deserves. This is the grace that saves us from ourselves. Continue reading

Leaping for Joy – Sermon on Luke 1:39-45 for Advent 2C

December 9, 2018

Here’s the back story: Elizabeth has become pregnant in her old age, after the angel Gabriel tells her husband, Zechariah, that this will happen. Zechariah questions the angel’s grasp of reality – they are both long past child-bearing age, just like Abraham and Sarah, or Hannah and Elkanah in the Old Testament. Because he doubts the angel’s word, Zechariah is unable to speak for the next nine months.

Here’s another little detail about Zechariah and Elizabeth you might find interesting: they both come from priestly families. In fact, Elizabeth is a direct descendant of Aaron. But Gabriel tells Zechariah that the child they will have is to be a prophet, not a priest. Continue reading

It All Starts Here – Sermon on Mark 1:1-8 for Advent 2B

December 10, 2017

Imagine you are in Palestine. War is everywhere. You are surrounded by violence. The military leader who just got promoted to imperial dictator happens to be the same general who was responsible for destroying your village last year. Friends and family have scattered, and you aren’t sure what you should do next.

Someone bumps into you on the street, and presses a pamphlet into your hands. For a moment, your eyes meet, and you are struck by two things: first, the intensity of this stranger’s gaze, and second, by the fact this intensity does not seem to be rooted in anger or fear, but … joy. You glance at the pamphlet in your hand, and read the title: “Good News.”

You could use some good news. Is the war over? Has the dictator been overthrown? You find a safe place to open the pages, and you begin to read…

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Continue reading

When Dreams Become Reality – Sermon on Matthew 1:18-25 Advent 4A

December 18, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here. 

We’ve been reading Adam Hamilton’s book The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem in our Wednesday Family Night adult groups. It’s a five part study of the events leading up to Jesus’ birth, and it explores those events from the perspective of different participants in the story. Chapter Two is about Joseph.

We don’t know much about Joseph – he never says a single word in the entire Bible. But like his Old Testament namesake, he has some pretty intense dreams. You might remember that Jacob’s son Joseph made his brothers angry whenever he told them about the dreams he dreamed. He was good at interpreting other people’s dreams, too. That’s how he got on Pharaoh’s good side. This Joseph never rises to power the way Old Testament Joe did, but his dreams are just as powerful, and even more direct.

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”

which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. – Matthew 1:18-25

 

Author Suzanne Guthrie writes,

“How do you know when to listen to your dreams? When are your dreams truthful and when are they simply ridiculous? When does the trickster or the devil or your own malformed desires undermine your journey toward the good and lovely? How soon after falling through a trapdoor into a wider consciousness can you scramble to your feet, find your balance and head in the right direction? 
How did Joseph know to turn aside from righteousness as he knew it, to follow a dark, non-rational, alternative righteousness? Something in his life must have prepared him to pay attention to that particular dream that night: do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
Such a statement can make perfect sense in the context of a dream. But not upon waking. … But the messenger in the dream sweetens the message with a scripture passage familiar to the dreamer: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
A poor man working as an artisan (probably building for the Roman oppressors) Joseph drew hope from … this promise, this dream of all dreams. What righteous dreamer upon waking would not lay down his prejudices for such a dream?”

And that brings us to the first lesson Joseph has to teach us about dreams that become reality:

You have to abandon your old dream.

Joseph had a dream for marriage with Mary. We don’t know how long they had been officially engaged, but we do know that the common practice in that time was for a couple to sign a contract for marriage, then wait about a year before the bridegroom brought the bride home to live with him and start a new family.

This legally binding contract was not just a social arrangement. The only way to get out of it was through death or divorce. Joseph’s dream probably included having children, and raising a family with Mary, but that dream was shattered when she became pregnant, and he knew he wasn’t the father.

Joseph also had a dream of what righteousness looked like – adherence to the Law of Moses. In that view of righteousness, Mary had obviously committed adultery – how else could she explain the bulge in her belly? This is where the conflict arises for Joseph. By Law, she should be publicly humiliated, stoned to death. That would preserve Joseph’s own righteousness under the Law. But Joseph also loved Mary enough to not wish her any shame or death. He solved his dilemma by deciding to divorce her (to maintain his own righteousness) but to do it secretly, with only a couple of witnesses, instead of publicly. She might have experienced some embarrassment when the baby was born, but people would probably blame Joseph, not Mary, for her predicament.

Joseph had to abandon his old dream for a family with Mary, and his dream of maintaining a righteous reputation for both of them, when he learned that Mary was pregnant. It wasn’t something he wanted to do. He wasn’t happy about it. But he thought divorce was the only option available to him under the circumstances.

What dreams have you, personally, seen dashed? What dreams have you had to abandon, because it was the only option you saw available? Maybe it was a dream of what you wanted to be when you grew up. Maybe it was a dream to become rich and famous. Maybe it was a dream to live happily ever after with a particular person. Whatever your dream, something happened and you had to abandon it. Reality checked in, and you realized your dream would never come true. At least not the way you dreamed it would.

Like Joseph, you experienced disappointment. Like Joseph, you wondered what you should do next, and you maybe even came up with some sort of makeshift plan to save your dignity and not cause too much harm to anyone else. Abandoning a dream can be difficult, but it’s a necessary step if we are to learn Joseph’s second lesson:

Abandoning the old dream makes it possible
to embrace a new dream.

Joseph didn’t argue with the angel who appeared to him in a dream. In fact, Joseph doesn’t say a single word anywhere in the whole New Testament. He simply does what he is told. He is obedient. When given a new dream, one that he could never have anticipated, he embraces it immediately. Joseph responds to the angel’s message by taking Mary to be his wife, so that the dream can be fulfilled.

Mary (passively) says, “Let it be with me according to your word.” But Joseph isn’t passive; he acts. He does what the messenger tells him to do. He embraces a new dream.

This new dream includes a new name, and a new meaning for that name: Yeshua, short for Joshua, means “the Lord saves.” This was always the dream for Messiah, that the Lord would save his people from their oppressors. But the angel gives this name a new twist, explaining that it means God will save people from their sins.

This is a whole new dream. This is bigger than anything Joseph could have imagined. We aren’t talking about winning a war against some oppressive regime or emperor. We are talking about changing peoples’ lives. We are talking about a totally new way of thinking and living. We are talking about a holy transformation, saved from sin – all our sin, forever.

When I came here, you were eager for something new and fresh. You wanted change, but you weren’t sure what kind of change, or what it might look like. You were given a pastor with no experience in leading change, but a willingness to learn, and a deep desire to answer God’s call into ministry. Like Joseph, I wanted to be obedient. Like Joseph, none of us knew what to expect when we put ourselves at God’s disposal.

We have started the process of becoming a healthy and missional congregation. Part of that process is to imagine how we see our church thriving. We have dreamed dreams of welcoming new families into styles of worship that we already find comfortable and familiar. We have dreamed dreams of finding more able-bodied people to do the hard work of keeping this church alive and functioning smoothly.

But what if that is not God’s dream for us, any more than settling down to raise a simple family was God’s dream for Joseph? What if God is calling us into something we cannot imagine, something that doesn’t match what our view of the way the world should be? What if God is asking us to be obedient, as Joseph was, in living into a new reality, one that others might scoff at, or find objectionable, a way of being the people of God that isn’t neat and tidy and familiar?

What new dreams have you begun to embrace about the life and purpose of this church? And how will those dreams begin to show others how God is present among us, Emmanuel? This brings us to Joseph’s third, and final, lesson:

When God’s dream for us becomes reality,
we are changed.

Joseph’s dream transformed him – it changed his mind and his heart. Joseph’s dream changed his view of the world, his idea of how things should be. It shifted from preserving the status quo and upholding existing expectations. Joseph’s thinking expanded to accept something radically different from anything he had known or believed before. Joseph’s transformation set a series of events into motion that changed the world.

Jesus was born, Emmanuel, God with us, just as the angel had told both Mary and Joseph. The dream became reality. It wouldn’t have been possible without the quiet faith and obedience of the man who would teach Jesus how to be human.

This wasn’t the dream Joseph had built for himself. He had to abandon his own disappointment at dreams that had been destroyed when he first learned that Mary was having a baby. But that baby, Emmanuel, would embody the One True God. God With Us.

I wonder what Isaiah’s prophecy about Emmanuel holds for us, two thousand years later. Adam Hamilton writes, “In a sense, as Christ’s followers, we too are called … to be signs of Immanuel – of God’s presence in the world – and to be visible reminders of hope.

“All of us know people who are walking through tough times, who feel besieged in one way or another. How will those people know that God is with them, that they are not alone, if we don’t embody God’s love and presence to them? … We are called to act as a reminder that “God is with you,” to come alongside someone and say, “Listen, I am here to remind you that God has not forgotten you.”[1] We are called to show Christ’s love.

Transformation happens when we trust God enough to say, “Yes,” and God’s vision for us begins to work its way into every aspect of our lives. Some new dreams are waiting for each of you, dreams God has to make you more like his Son Jesus, who came to save people from sin. Will you take hold of those dreams, and become the person God created you to be?

Will you accept the call to be Emmanuel – God with us – to someone who desperately needs to hear that word of hope? You can be a physical reminder of God’s presence and love, but only when you are willing to abandon your old dreams, embrace God’s dream for you, and allow yourself to be transformed into Christ-likeness.

Then, and only then, will God’s dream for your life become reality.
Let us pray.

Almighty God, help us to discern your dreams for us, and make us willing to obey you. Give us courage to abandon our old dreams, dreams that focus on what we want for ourselves, instead of what you want for us.

For we know that what you want for us is far greater than anything we can imagine. Help us to embrace the new dreams you put into our hearts and minds, dreams for peace, for justice, for lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things, dreams for sharing the good news that You are with us, Emmanuel, and you will save us from our sins when we turn to you.

Give us your vision, Lord, so that we can see the people around us who need to hear this good news. Most of all, transform us, Lord. Change us into people who can dream your dreams, and bring them to reality through the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] Hamilton, The Journey: Walking the Road to Bethlehem, 49

When Seeing is Believing – Sermon on Matthew 11:2-11 Advent 3A

December 11, 2016
View a video of this sermon here. 

Mary’s song, the Magnificat, echoes the song Hannah sang when she brought her son, Samuel, to the temple and dedicated him to the Lord. You may remember that Hannah had been childless, and had begged God to give her a son. When Samuel was born to her, Hannah kept her promise to God, and gave him over to the priest Eli, to serve in the temple. Samuel became the last of the judges, and it was Samuel who anointed Israel’s first king, Saul. Later, Samuel also anointed Israel’s greatest king, David.

When Mary learned that she was to become the mother of Emmanuel, God With Us, she went to visit her relative, Elizabeth, who, much like Hannah, had become pregnant after many years of childlessness. Mary imitated Hannah’s song, while Elizabeth reflected Hannah’s story. Mary and Elizabeth may have been related to one another by blood, but they were both related to Hannah in spirit. When Hannah sang, she prophesied that Israel would one day have a King. Mary’s baby would become King of Kings, and Elizabeth’s baby would be the prophet who introduced that King to the world.

Fast forward about thirty years. Continue reading

Turn Around – Sermon on Matthew 3:1-12 Advent 2A

December 4, 2016
Watch a video of this sermon here

What do you think of first when you hear the word “repentance”? What do you think it means to repent?

In today’s gospel lesson, you will hear about repenting three times. John the Baptist calls us to repent, to prepare for the coming of God’s Kingdom. We usually think about repentance in terms of what we need to repent from – turning away from our sins. But turning away from sin begs the question: What does God call us to repent toward? As you listen to John the Baptist’s words, I invite you to focus your attention on what it is you need to turn toward when you repent. Continue reading

“Praying Like A King” – Sermon on 2 Chronicles 6: 12-21

December 13, 2015 Advent 3C

Watch a video of this sermon here.


Today is Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is Latin for “Rejoice!” and this third Sunday in the season of Advent is full of rejoicing. Next week, we will hear the story of Christ’s birth, and a few days after that, we will celebrate Christmas Eve. We are on the downward slope of this season of anticipation, of waiting. This should bring us great joy!

However, if you are like me, the “To Do” list is growing instead of shrinking right about now. I have bought exactly ONE Christmas present so far, and there are many preparations to make before I will feel ready for Christmas Eve. Right now, I’m closer to outright panic than restful rejoicing. Anyone else feel that way? Continue reading