Luke 1:13-17

See the whole passage for today here.

13But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.14You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Luke 1:13-17

Today, I’m simply struck by the graciousness of God, who sent John to Zechariah and Elizabeth, entrusting them to raise him, so that there would be someone (a prophet) to prepare the way of the Lord.

Yesterday, I prepared the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving for the Christmas Eve bulletin. (Yikes, by the way. Christmas Eve is next week!) In that prayer, we thank God for creating the world and for creating us in God’s image. We speak of our rebellion and God’s refusal to reject us.

“When we rebelled against you refusing to trust and obey you, you did not reject us, but still claimed us as your own. You sent prophets to call us back to your way.” (That version is from the Book of Common Worship of the Presbyterian Church USA.)

Ahead of Incarnation, God sent a prophet to embody his calling, to prepare people to understand and receive what was happening.

Out of great love for the people God created in God’s holy image, God sends prophets to prepare hearts and minds to receive him, again and again. Our memories are short. Our steps are faltering. Our ways are crooked and we get away with whatever we can some days.

And yet, again and again, God sends gifts that prepare us to receive him, to make ready our hearts and lives for his appearing.

2 Peter 1:5-11

Read the whole passage for today here.

...you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, 6and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness,7and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. 8For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9For anyone who lacks these things is nearsighted and blind, and is forgetful of the cleansing of past sins. 10Therefore, brothers and sisters, be all the more eager to confirm your call and election, for if you do this, you will never stumble. 11For in this way, entry into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ will be richly provided for you. 2 Peter 1:5-11

Faith is a gift from God. We don’t earn faith, just like we do not earn our salvation. God is the one who provides for our faith and salvation.

But it is possible to receive a gift and never really open it or use it. One year Jason gave me an inexpensive, yet complexly wrapped and seemingly difficult to use, lens for my iPhone. I hadn’t asked for it, and wasn’t sure how it worked, and it was December and I was tired, and I guess I never did open it because when we were getting ready to move to North Carolina, I found the lens, still in its original packaging, in a box in my closet.

How obnoxious of me, I know. Like really–I never even took the time to figure out how to use it? I love taking pictures with my phone, which is why my sweet husband thought to give me this accessory.

So it is with faith, which is what I think is at least part of the epistle author’s point.

Support your faith with goodness

and goodness with knowledge

and knowledge with self-control

and self-control with endurance

and endurance with godliness

and godliness with mutual affection

and mutual affection with love.

Don’t leave the gift of faith unopened and unexplored and unused. There are so many gifts within that one gift–so many possibilities, and so many ways your for faith to not be one dimensional and tightly wrapped up…but developed and released and shared.

Isaiah 61:1-3

The whole Isaiah passage for today is here.

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; 2to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; 3to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. Isaiah 61:1-3

As I read this for the fifth or sixth time today, the word that stands out to me is provide in verse 3.

I think about all the people I have seen mourning. I think about all the times I have mourned. I think about all the ones who are mourning this year…this month (goodness, so many of my loved ones have lost some of their own loved ones in just the last month).

I’ll never forget being in line at one of those superstores in December a few years ago, and the sixty-something man in front of me asking the twenty-something cashier if she was ready for Christmas.

“Oh, I don’t really enjoy Christmas anymore. My mom died in December when I was a kid, and Christmas just makes me so sad.”

Really, this sweet cashier, telling her truth to a stranger who asked her an infamous December small talk question. My heart contracted and expanded as I took in her words and her expression and her obvious pain.

The man, however, had his own response. He gave a little uncomfortable laugh and replied, “Well, don’t you think it’s time to get over that?”

Oh, the look on her face. I’ll never forget seeing his words, his demands of her to stop making him uncomfortable, really, affect her.

Of course, when it was my turn to check out, I spoke softly to her and told her I was touched by her story and I was so sorry for her loss and I understood why Christmas was so hard and that is ok. “I’m used to people like him,” she told me. “No one understands.”

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to…provide for those who mourn…

It’s not on those who mourn to get it together and put on a happy face and just get over it already. It’s part of our calling to provide for the ones who mourn. To bring to them the goodness, grace, peace, hope, joy…the garland, the oil, the mantle.

It’s on us to demonstrate that their mourning is tender to God. That God will meet them in their grief and sadness and not demand that they feel differently, but rather, give them gifts within their mourning and grow them into something beautiful, rooted in where they began.

I still pray for this woman I met at the superstore in December. And I think about her as I think about so many others who struggle with the season. It’s more people than seems obvious–I know that because, as a pastor, I hear those stories. And i know that lots of people put on a brave face for family or friends or society in general, and pretend to be jolly and joyful as the days darken and the holiday draws near.

May we be those who partner with God in providing for those who mourn.

Psalm 147:15

You can find the whole text for today here.

[God] sends out his command to the earth; his word runs swiftly. Ps 147:15

I love the imagery of this Psalm.

In particular, for today, I love the imagery of God’s word running swiftly on the earth.

A few weeks ago, as we finished the 22 Sunday sermon series from the book of Acts, we read about Paul’s journey to Rome to stand before the Emperor in Acts 28. As he neared Rome, farther than it seemed he had been yet in the world–outside of his missions to Asia and Macedonia and Greece–he was greeted and cared for by people who already had become followers of Jesus.

God’s word had run more swiftly than Paul had.

In reflecting on that truth, and the rest of Acts, I said this: “The good news [God’s word] is carried in an outward direction still. It is unhindered by our flawed attempts to live faithfully and share it. It is unhindered by our lack of understanding and inability to grasp how wide and how deep and how great is God’s love. It will not be contained in the boxes we have created and behind the lines we have drawn to keep others away from it. It will cross every line. It will break every barrier. The good news will not wait for us to get there first. When we decide to go that far, we will see that God is already there, changing lives, upending plans, rearranging hearts.”

In my experience, God’s word is often running more swiftly than I am able to run, and more swiftly than even the whole church can manage.

Two thousand years into this, we are still finding that God’s word is bigger, wider, and faster than we could have imagined and it seems like we are catching up only to find that it has already been everywhere we determine to go (or not go). While we were drawing our lines or making our lists of who was in and who was out, God’s word was running swiftly to be with people we were trying to exclude and keep out. When we finally decide to venture out and find people to declare loved by God, we find that God has loved them all along.

I suppose if I could catch up, if I were able to run swiftly enough to keep pace with God’s word, I might begin to suspect that what I am chasing is not God’s word at all, but my own slow ideals and words.

And so I keep training and running a little bit farther and faster all the time.

(I kind of love that my word for today is “word,” and that when God’s word is mentioned in scripture, our default is to think about scripture itself, but we also know the mysterious reality is that God’s word is Jesus Christ. When we allow God to call us farther into our understanding of what this means, we will once again be stunned by the swiftness of God’s word.)

Luke 21:37-38

You can read the whole passage for today here.

37Every day [Jesus] was teaching in the temple, and at night he would go out and spend the night on the Mount of Olives, as it was called. 38And all the people would get up early in the morning to listen to him in the temple.

It’s not that I’m skipping over the apocalyptic part of this text. It’s that I preached Mark’s version of it on the first Sunday of Advent. And what was missing from Mark were all the people who got up early to go to the Temple and listen to Jesus teach. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus is speaking to his closest disciples. I’m not surprised when they get up early to hear Jesus–they were his crew. Where he went, they went. What he did, they did.

But let’s talk about these people getting up early in the morning to meet with Jesus in the temple. He’s presumably there teaching all day, but some people get up early in the morning to go hear him.

Maybe they wanted to be sure not to miss anything. Maybe these are people who can sit in the Temple all day and listen, and that’s what they are doing from the earliest hour until Jesus finishes, however late that might be.

Or maybe they went before they began their workdays. Or before the children were awake and required attention. Or before the chores of home and homestead began in earnest. Maybe they went when they were able to step away from their daily tasks and go hear from Jesus.

Maybe it was just men, as would be customary in the temple. But women figure prominently into Jesus’ ministry–as ones who sit at his feet and listen, as ones who fund his ministry, as ones who proclaim the good news of his resurrection. So I can’t imagine it’s just men who are there to hear him, and that women are present in one way or another in the temple courts.

In some years, my Lenten or Advent discipline has included waking up before the sunrise to study scriptures and write my daily reflection. The way I made it through seminary involved waking up at 4:30 most days to read the thousands of pages assigned for each semester, to write papers, and to prepare for exams. Now I wake up early to read scriptures and spend a few moments reflecting as a child of God before I begin my work as a professional reader and studier of scripture (and the daily tasks of ministry).

Why? Because drawing near to Jesus and living into his calling for me is worth it.

That’s not to shame people who are unable to do that, or who don’t function well early in the morning. Obviously you will find your own rhythm for meeting with Jesus. I’m naturally a morning person and getting up early is much more possible for me than staying up late or even trying to take time in the late afternoon when my brain is largely mush.

To me the point is more this: if it’s important to you, you will find the time to do it. Whether it’s early, or late, or on your lunch break, or during your commute, or when you would have been watching Netflix–you will find even just a few minutes to do the things you long to do.

May you be filled with the goodness of God and closeness of Jesus this day.

Psalm 122

I was glad when they said to me,
   â€˜Let us go to the house of the Lord!
’ Psalm 122:1

(Read all of Psalm 122 here.)

As a child, when we went to church, I was often reminded that we were going to the “House of the Lord.” I learned to speak of the church as the place where God dwelled and lived. There were things we wouldn’t do in the Lord’s house–ways we wouldn’t talk or think or act, because they are particularly disrespectful to do in the House of the Lord.

As an adult who works in faith formation, I try to not use that language in that particular way. It’s not that I don’t think church is a special place where we meet God; it’s not that I don’t think God dwells at church.

It’s that I believe that God is not bound to the church building; that God can hear the words we use and the thoughts we think even when we aren’t at church; that God dwells in our very selves (hearts?).

All my pastoring life, I have tried to find the theological phrasing/living that acknowledges the church building as a special, sacred place, but not the only special, sacred place. To keep the building from seeming like or becoming an idol of sorts. To help people understand what it means that God is with us not just at church, but at work, at play, at the bar, at the shelter.

Yes, this building is the house of the Lord, but so are you.

And then came 2020.

And I suppose we have all had to examine and consider what we believe it means to go to the house of the Lord.

Yesterday, at Peace, we worshiped in the parking lot at 9:00 a.m. We used our new FM transmitter and sound booth. I had a window to look out and see all the cars, filled with the faithful, gathered for worship. I miss the pulpit and pews, but I am so grateful for people who are willing to worship differently to keep the most vulnerable among us safe and included. I received many kind words after that service–gratitude from people who had been able to come to the house of the Lord.

We worshiped on Zoom at 11:00 a.m. We’ve been doing this since March 22, every Sunday at 11:00. Last week after the service, I reflected on how much better we’ve gotten at Zoom Worship since we began, as we have learned to mute and un-mute and read off the slides on the screen. And then yesterday was kind of a mess, at least for the beginning of the service, as some slides had become out of order and a reader forgot to print her script for the candle lighting. But when it was over, people believed they had been to the house of the Lord and were grateful for their time together in worship.

Yesterday afternoon (and between the services in the morning), about 30 families drove through the parking lot to pick up their Advent boxes filled with supplies to lead them in prayer activities and supplies for upcoming worship services. They would drive up and I would bring out their box. We’d chat about how things are going. Some brought their dogs for me to gush about. Some gave me updates about loved ones or particular situations. Some asked if we could pray together. This, too, was coming to the house of the Lord.

And when they open their boxes at home and take out the first activity, and consider scripture and pray and do something that helps them connect to others from church (even if it’s just that they are participating in the same activity), this too will be a visit to the house of the Lord.

Maybe this is the year we begin to understand what it means that God is with us and the house of the Lord is where we are seeking God.

I was glad when they said to me,
   â€˜Let us go to the house of the Lord!
’ Psalm 122:1

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

13But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. 15For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. 16For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. 18Therefore encourage one another with these words.

This is a beautiful, hopeful passage full of wonder and the imagination of God. But the word I am reflecting on is encourage.

Paul is inviting his congregation in Thessalonica to remind one another of the truth that Jesus is coming again as a way to encourage one another.

Not to scare one another. Not as “you better watch out, you better not pout…” Not to issue a cautionary tale for the ones who have yet to get their lives together. Not as a weapon or a warning.

Encourage one another with these words.” Share these words and find hope in them! Rejoice in them! Remember these words on the dark days when it seems like this is all for nothing or grief is overwhelming.

What are the ways you can share God’s word and hope in what God is doing with someone who needs encouragement?

1 Thessalonians 4:9-12

The full passage for today is here.

9 Now concerning love of the brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anyone write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another; 10and indeed you do love all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia. But we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more, 11to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, 12so that you may behave properly towards outsiders and be dependent on no one. 1 Thess 4:9-12

I am struck by Paul acknowledging both the love the people of Thessalonica already had for one another and all the brothers and sisters throughout Macedonia, and also how he urged them to “do so more and more.” Not just the brothers and sisters, but everyone.

Sweet Lisa commented her thoughts about this passage on Peace’s Facebook page, and I appreciated her thought: “If we could still ourselves long enough to reflect on how much [God] loves us and how unworthy we are, we can see what we should do.” If God is love, and if God loves us–outsiders to him–that alone should be the reason we love more and more, and farther and wider and deeper.

Psalm 126

1When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.

2Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.”

3The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

4Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb.

5May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.

6Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

The word I chose for today is the restored/restore that begins both stanzas of this short Psalm.

God’s people knew the joy of God’s restoration–again and again in scripture, we see God restoring what has been taken or lost. Restoration of a people to a land after the Exodus. Restoration of the people to God over and over in the time of the Judges. Restoration of individuals who turned from sin and sought God even still–Sarah, Moses, David. Restoration of Israel after the Babylonian Captivity.

Again and again, God is one who restored.

Again and again, God’s people hope in coming restoration.

We long for every broken, lost, and stolen fortune to be restored in the Kingdom that is coming. God has done great things for us. God will do great things for us.

Isaiah 2:2-4

2In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. 3Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. 4He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. Isaiah 2:2-4

My word: Instruction

Here’s something I wrote in 2018 as part of my Advent word-a-day exercise:

Do you know what I never read? The instructions. I loathe reading instructions when it’s time to put something together or get a new electronic device going. I usually just dive in and figure it out and most of the time, I can do it without reading.

One exception to my no instructions rule: board games.

I read all the instructions for board games.

I want to know how to play the game correctly, ya know? And I will fight you if you try to lead us in the wrong direction because you didn’t read the instructions and you don’t know what you are talking about.

Regardless of whether I like them or not, the instructions are available for a reason. Very often, taking the time to read them makes assembly, set-up, or play of game easier, faster, and less frustrating.

The Word of God, as it comes to us in scripture, is different than board game instructions, of course. It’s a little more nuanced, requires a bit more interpretation, was written in ancient languages, has a complicated and important context, often has layers of meaning, and hopefully is inspired in a way that board game directions usually are not.

And yet, as we read the words of scripture, noticing what they say and don’t say, interpreting their meaning well, learning how we might apply them to our current context and lives, we very often find gracious guidance and inspired instruction for living and loving.