Psalm 40:1-3

To read the whole passage for today, click here.

1 I waited patiently for the Lord;
   he inclined to me and heard my cry. 
2 He drew me up from the desolate pit,
   out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
   making my steps secure. 
3 He put a new song in my mouth,
   a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
   and put their trust in the Lord.
 Psalm 40:1-3

I waited patiently for the Lord…

He drew me up from the desolate pit…

He put a new song in my mouth…

Many will…put their trust in the Lord.

This picture of the Psalmist waiting patiently, even in a desolate place, strikes me as appropriate for this year. It’s Advent, a time when we wait. We practice this waiting every year, as we gather with prayers and songs and the lighting of candles and we remember that Christmas is not about the shopping and the parties–or even the family gatherings.

But in some ways, it seems as if we have been waiting all year. Here in Advent, the truth is that we have been waiting since Lent. Some liturgically sensitive people have mused that it feels like Lent never really ended and we are still waiting for Easter.

When we are waiting, the temptation to go back to whatever we are used to is often our companion. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness and longed to go back to Egypt. God was taking them to a new land, and they decided they preferred the comfort of the old one (Exodus 16), even if it meant death.

This year, the temptation to go back to “normal” is strong. (Whatever that means–I have a friend that always jokes that “normal” is just a setting on the dryer.) I hear it all the time as I talk to people, this desire for things to be normal again. The desire to get back to how things used to be.

I remember when I was preparing to say my goodbyes in Henderson, leaving my ministry of 18 years and so many people we love, and someone said to me, “Things won’t be the same around here.” I replied, “They wouldn’t have been anyway.” Things change all the time–we change, they change, circumstances change. Every day things are different than they were before. There are just times and seasons when the change is more profound and obvious. Change is inevitable. Normal is just a setting on the dryer.

But what if…while we are waiting, even waiting in desolation, sorrow, and an all out miry bog…God is doing a new thing?

What if the reward for our patience and our waiting isn’t that we will return to singing the old, familiar songs we love so much, but that God will plant a new song in our mouths and our hearts? What if, upon being drawn out of the miry bog, our feet find solid ground in a newer, higher, more lovely place than what we knew before?

And what if our patience yields a new song that not only turns out to be even more wonderful than the old, familiar songs, but also causes many to see, fear, and put their trust in the Lord?

I’m thinking that might be worth the wait.

Revelation 20:1-6

You can read all of today’s passage here.

Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3and threw him into the pit, and locked and sealed it over him, so that he would deceive the nations no more, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be let out for a little while. Rev. 20:1-3

The word* I have chosen today is WHAT WAS I THINKING?

Really, this passage on the last day of the third week of Advent in the year of our Lord 2020?

Lord Jesus, have mercy on me.

Gentle reader, just a reminder that Revelation is apocalypse–and “apocalypse” means an unveiling. It’s not a book of predictions, but a book that speak about the reality of the world as it was at the time of its writing and what the author can envision happening in the realm of God.

In his book Unraptured, Zack Hunt writes, “Apocalypse is a call to repent and an invitation to participate in God’s liberating, justice-restoring work in the world. Apocalypse isn’t a call to figure out secret codes that will unlock a prophetic map to the future. Apocalypse calls us to be vigilant of the signs, but only so that we will be ready to stand up to the false prophets at work in the world, name them for what they are, and resist, not through acts of violence, but through Christlike love for our neighbors. This is how we work out our salvation in the last days” (page 195).

Anyway, I repent of this holy mess. Tomorrow we will be back to the gospel. Today, may God add his blessing to the reading of even this word.

*God’s word bears fruit even still, so disregard my own cynicism if you were able to find a word and a hope that reaches to you from the text. I feel like it would have been better left for the hardcore daily lectionary readers to tackle rather than being presented without context as our reading for today. (Please note: I am the one who determined the daily readings way back in November.)

Luke 1:24-25

You can read the whole passage of scripture here:

24After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, 25“This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” Luke 1:24-25

One of the things I remind my church as we study the Bible is that our own life experiences will change the way we hear and understand and notice scripture. When we read by ourselves, there are word and ideas that will stand out in this particular reading of the text because of something that is going on in your own life. When we study and read together, there is understanding another will bring to a well-worn text in our own Bibles as they share their own experiences against it. It’s part of the pedagogy behind our Advent devotional design this year–reading scripture, allowing the Spirit to speak to us about what stands out, then gathering to briefly share what we’ve noticed about the previous 2-3 days readings.

During Corona-tide, as I have read scripture, there are particular words and phrases that stand out to me in a new way.

Elizabeth remaining in seclusion for five months is something I hadn’t exactly paid attention to before this reading. I might have passed a Bible trivia quiz about it, but I never really thought about what it meant for Elizabeth to conceive a child and then remain in seclusion for five months (until Mary arrives for her visit, perhaps?).

This year being as it is, however, I hear that loud and clear this morning. Those of us who have been able to practice seclusion during this pandemic have a new understanding of what that means, I suppose.

Elizabeth’s seclusion was not part of a public health crisis, or, I’m assuming, anything imposed on her. I plan do a little more reading about this today, but I wonder if it had more to do with what was out there or with what was inside of her? Was it because of her age and the general public’s inability to understand the miracles of God for her sake? Was it because she was determined to keep herself and her baby safe and things were always very safe in the hill country of Judah? Or was it because she was aware of the great gift she now carries and her desire to exist with this mystery? God is at work in Elizabeth’s life and she is keenly aware of it, and one way or another, she isolates herself and hides away for this season.

As we continue in varying degrees of seclusion, may we be aware that God is at work within us and around us as well.

Today’s O Antiphon:

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, pervading and permeating all creation, you order all things with strength and gentleness: Come now and teach us the way to salvation. Come, Lord Jesus.

God of grace, ever faithful to your promises, the earth rejoices in hope of our Savior’s coming and looks forward with longing to his return at the end of time. Prepare our hearts to receive him when he comes, for he is Lord forever and ever. Amen.

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?