Weekly Lectionary Readings

4th Sunday of Advent
December 23, 2007

Christmas is literally around the corner. The Fourth Sunday of Advent is upon us. This week’s scriptures get us another step closer to the story. The prophet Isaiah tells us the baby’s name will be Emmanuel — God with us. Think of the implications — here is God of very God — and he came down to earth to dwell among us — pretty amazing, I think. We tend to forget that Christ came willingly and this was not plan b. I love what Paul writes in Romans:
1 This letter is from Paul…to preach his Good News. 2 God promised this Good News long ago through his prophets in the holy Scriptures. 3 The Good News is about his Son. In his earthly life he was born into King David’s family line, 4 and he was shown to be the Son of God when he was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. He is Jesus Christ our Lord. 5 Through Christ, God has given us the privilege and authority as apostles to tell Gentiles everywhere what God has done for them, so that they will believe and obey him, bringing glory to his name.
I’ve said this over the past few years — we tend to romanticize the Nativity story, but the story is incomplete without the cross and incomplete without Easter — we cannot divorce the Child in the cradle with the Christ on the cross. It all comes together in one marvelous story. It’s our job as Paul tells us to tell the story — That Jesus came to earth — that Jesus would be with us — that He would save us from our sins — so we would tell others about Jesus and give glory to Him when they believe and obey Him. We make the gospel so complicated and Romans simplifies it for us. Let’s go out and seize the day!

Weekly Lectionary Reading

3rd Sunday of Advent
December 16, 2007

This week’s verses continue to anticipate the coming of the Lord. We are getting closer to Christmas in our Advent journey. I’m reminded as I say that that each day, we are getting closer to the Lord’s return. The passage in James reminds us of that. Matthew reminds us that Jesus is the promised one, just like John the Baptist was the promised one. Messiah is coming and when he does, things will be different. This Sunday we will light the third candle which traditionally has meant joy — that’s why in some traditions the candle is pink. The Psalms and Isaiah passages are joyful passages — they are filled with great expecation and hope that when the Lord comes (both the first time and the second time) there will be great rejoicing for those who have believed in Him. I’ll finish with the writing from the psalmist:
5 But joyful are those who have the God of Israel as their helper, whose hope is in the Lord their God. 6 He made heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them. He keeps every promise forever. 7 He gives justice to the oppressed and food to the hungry. The Lord frees the prisoners. 8 The Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are weighed down. The Lord loves the godly. 9 The Lord protects the foreigners among us. He cares for the orphans and widows, but he frustrates the plans of the wicked. 10 The Lord will reign forever. He will be your God, O Jerusalem, throughout the generations. Praise the Lord!

A New CD

Last week, I gave you a list of my personal 10 ten favorite Christmas CD’s. Last Saturday, I had a rare day off, so the family and I went to Greensboro to do some shopping. I’m still having trouble getting into Christmas when it’s 70 degrees outside!

One of our favorite stores is Target, so we spent some time shopping for Christmas presents. While we were shopping, I came on a music display. The final CD of the Trans Siberian Orchestra Christmas trilogy was there and the price was right. So we picked it up and put it in the CD player for the ride home. This CD is definately in my top ten already if not in the top three. What I love about TSO is their ability to craft music around a story — a narrative if you will. Even if there wasn’t a great story to go with it the music is great. If you don’t like rock, you will not like this CD. I was a little dissappointed with the 2nd CD, but this one is no dissappointment.

The (short) story is about an angel sent to earth to find a human who best represents Christ. He finds several who fit this description but continues his search. He happens upon a miserable man — a man whose heart we find out is broken over the tragic lost of his wife and son. But on this Christmas eve all changes. Through an encounter with a little girl, he calls to check up on his son, whom he had sent to a mental institution at his birth. This puts him on a search to find the grown up son. He finds him working in a maternity ward for crack babies. His job is to rock the babies to sleep. As soon as the boy sees his father, he immediately forgives him and gives him a hug, while the boy still cannot speak, he understands perfectly. The boy and the father are reunited and make up for lost time. The angel returns to heaven and tells God about the boy and the others he found and then tells him about the father. The music is the soundtrack for this story. Is it dark at times, yes, but very powerful!

If an angel came looking for one who exemplified Christ, would he find you? What does it mean to exemplify Christ? What does it mean to be the hands and feet of Jesus? Again, as I look at this dark world, they are so much in need of ones who are like Jesus — it’s our job to minister to them and to build the Kingdom of Christ.

A Decembered Grief

What comes to your mind when you think of the time between Thanksgiving and New Year? Most of us are caught up in the “holiday” season. We are thinking of buying presents, putting up Christmas decorations — fancy lights, trees and so on and so on, and happy, jolly Christmas music. And yet for a segment of the population, the season that occurs between Thanksgiving and New Year is anything but happy and jolly.

One of the songs that isn’t liked very well around our house this time of year is “It’s a Holly, Jolly Christmas,” because it brings up bad memories. One of the reasons that Dale tends to preach and emphasize Advent is because of the things that have surrounded our life, especially during the holiday season. Advent is our preparation time for the season of Christmas — yes, it includes playing Christmas songs. We were listening to them this morning as I was baking cookies.

We can empathize with those who are going through difficult times at Christmas, because we have been there. Several years ago, my mom had a heart attack the week after Thanksgiving. My sister who is a pastor’s wife and brother who is a pastor, recommended “A Decembered Grief.” This book was written by Harold Ivan Smith. The purpose of the book is “living with loss while others are celebrating.” There have been several deaths and severe illnesses during this season in my family. I highly recommend this book and we have given several copies to those in our church this year who have lost loved ones.

The first year is the hardest — this is the first year during our ministry that we have had to minister to others who have lost loved ones during the year. So I do I handle this season — that can sometimes be difficult to deal with?

  1. Prioritize what is important during the holidays. Only do what you can handle — others may have difficulty understanding why you are pulling back (especially when you are a pastor’s wife) — but it is important for your sanity.
  2. Focus on the real meaning of Christmas. I hold my focus on Christ. Christ was not only 100% God, but 100% human. He knows every part of the human emotion and he knows what we go through. The Bible is filled with many promises. Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31 NLT) It is possible to get through it with the Lord’s strength.
  3. Even in the darkest hours of Christmas (and last year was a pretty dark hour,) I try to focus on the family that God has given me; not by buying lots of gifts and spending a lot of money but by making traditions. One of the newest traditions we have, it to see which Christmas card comes from the furthest distance. In the past we have received cards from Italy, Iraq, and Japan. Another tradition is to open the Christmas cards at the dinner table, but only when everyone is there — this year we have had to modify it a little because we still have a daughter at college, but once she gets home, the rule includes all five of us.
  4. Another thing I do is to take care of others in need. Since our children are getting older, have have all taken this to heart. When you truly look at others who’s needs are much greater than your, you tend to forget about your own problems.
  5. Enjoy times of laughter. I grew up in a family where part of the grieving and healing process is laughter. The gift of humor was taught to me by my grandmother, Mamaw (who died at Christmas 1997.) When we gather for funerals, there is a time for tears, but also a time for laughter. These might not be happy times, but they are joyful times, especially when we consider that some day, when Jesus calls us home or comes again for us (which is the second Advent) we will be reunited with those who died in Christ.

If you are one who is going through a difficult time this year, because everyone else is celebrating and it doesn’t seem they care, I encourage you to get this book.

Missional Advent

Today was a unique day in that we had several Advent service projects that we completed. This is one way that we are preparing ourselves for Christmas (heart, mind, and soul).

The first is that we collected food for one of our high school’s JROTC program. They will be giving the food to needy families in the area.

We also finished collecting cards for military personnel. We are going to send them to our friends in NC and then Josh and Niki will distribute them. This is part of our ongoing encouragement project — which by the way is Pam’s heartbeat — our family has written to several of our Wesleyan military chaplains to encouraged them especially when they are deployed.

We also collected sunshine baskets for our shut-ins. This are baskets of encouragement and snacks and other things.
Then finally we delivered them tonight. We went Christmas caroling to a local rehab center where one of our shut-ins is currently residing. We carolled through the hallways of the center and then went to visit our shut-in. The look on his face was priceless when we arrived. We had a good time chatting and visiting there. Then we carolled some more throughout the hallways — it was simply amazing as the people there realized that they weren’t forgotten.

We gathered the teens and went to visit another shut in and deliver her basket — she was very appreciative as well. One of the other residents saw Pam and started asking questions – she asked if Pam was my daughter — a nice compliment for Pam – but what does that say about me?

We made one last surprise visit to Mary, who is known to our students as “The Cupcake Lady.” We sang a few carols and then prayed for her. What a night — After we left the first center, there was a feeling of accomplishment — like we made a difference in the Kingdom. It doesn’t take huge churches or multi-dollar programs — but a heart to reach out with compassion. There are many hurting people — many starving people — we can’t reach all of them — but tonight we made a difference to a few and that is worth it all.

Why Advent?

Last week, I mentioned that thirty years ago, most Wesleyans would not have known what Advent is or even why we celebrate it. Most Wesleyan Churches now at least recognize the season and use the Advent candles as part of it. Earlier this week I had a little rant about the lack of Advent hymns and that most churches will use Christmas carols in light of Advent hymns. I also wrote a background of how a Wesleyan pastor has an interest in the liturgical church calendar and the lectionary.

Why is Advent so important to me? To be real transparent, I have had difficulty getting into this season or maybe more getting into the traditional trappings of Christmas. Why? I am in the midst of my eighth Christmas season in retail — being in retail has a way of making you cynical toward the season — this is the retailer’s last chance to beat last year’s numbers. The bottom line in retail is: did we make more money than last year? Are we going to make a profit? Are we going to make money? The company I work for keeps reminding us to make sure the customer has everything they need — to be quite honest, there is nothing that you or I need where I work. We don’t sell food, clothing, or shelter — those are needs. What we sell are wants. This is why Advent is so important.

For me it is a way to escape all the preparation of buying gifts, spending much more than we have, office parties, other Christmas parties — not that there’s anything wrong with that — it’s just Christmas is more than all of that. That’s why I need Advent to help prepare my heart for this season. It helps me build anticipation and expectation for the Christmas event. I think everyone needs to prepare their hearts, minds, and souls for Christmas through Advent. We spend so much time preparing for everything else about Christmas and yet we don’t prepare our own souls. That is a tragedy. That’s why I like the Advent hymns and songs — the ones that help prepare our heart and soul for the coming of Christ — both his first Advent and his second.

Is your heart ready for the coming of Jesus? Is your soul ready? Take time this Sunday to do that through the worship at your church — Prepare yourself for the coming Christ!

Weekly Lectionary Readings

December 9, 2007

This week’s scriptures continue to help us prepare the way to Christmas. As I looked over each of these scriptures, it was interesting to see the themes of justice — when the Messiah comes there will be justice. Another theme that stuck out was taking care of the poor and the hungry and the down and out. The older I get the more I realize that this is the church’s job — it is part of the Kingdom building that Christ modeled for His bride.
These themes are echoed by Mary in the Magnifcat — The coming Lord will be interested in justice — he will also be interested in mercy. Mary prophesies in her song about filling the hungry with good things and sending away the rich. Those who can provide for themselves have no need of God. While those who are hungry and poor need something to rely on — and maybe, just maybe — they’re to rely on us — the bride of Christ — the hands and feet of Jesus.
John the Baptist rakes the Jewish leaders over the coals in Matthew, calling them a brood of vipers. He tells them to prove by the way they live that they have repented. John tells of the coming judgement and that those who have relied on themselves are going to be in danger. John’s message was to repent because Messiah was coming — that’s a great message even for today. What is our message? Yes, Christ is coming as a baby, but He’s coming again for his bridge — the church. Are we preparing the Kingdom for his return?

Advent Hymns

One of the things that I struggle with each Advent season is coming up with songs that express the expectation and the hope of the season without using Christmas carols. Advent is a season that prepares our hearts and minds for the coming of the King, but He is not here, yet! Dennis Bratcher does a great job of explaining in his article Can We Sing Christmas Carols at Advent?

Now, I am not trying to be a grinch about this and if you saw our Hanging of the Green service you will see that we sung many Christmas carols this past Sunday night while decorating the sanctuary. During the later Sundays of Advent, I do incorporate the familiar carols as we get closer to the big event. Maybe, it’s just my reaction against the commercialism of Christmas. Christmas doesn’t begin on the day after Thanksgiving, contrary to popular belief. I think it takes a couple of Sundays to prepare our hearts for the coming of the Lord.

Again, it is a dual-mode preparation; one – the coming of Christ Jesus as a babe in Bethlehem and two – coming of Christ Jesus as the King of kings and Lord of lords. I like to focus on the hope of the coming Christ child and the hope that we have as Christians of the Lord’s return. I love O Come, O Come Emmanuel (it’s Pam’s favorite carol) and Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus; I just wish there were more songs to use. Here’s my short list of Advent hymns that I’m familiar with — most are in our current “Sing to the Lord” hymnal.

  1. Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus (penned by Charles Wesley)
  2. O Come, O Come Emmanuel
  3. Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending (also penned by Wesley)
  4. Celebrate Immanuel’s Name (I have not used this one yet — and another Advent hymn penned by Wesley)
  5. Of the Father’s Love Begotten (We did this one for the first time last Sunday w/o instruments — it was beautiful — it’s a 4th century hymn put to an 11th century chant.)

Like I said, that is my short list — I suppose that any hymn that expresses the hope of the return of Christ could be used (like Lo, He Comes), so that could add Jesus Shall Reign, Crown Him with Many Crowns and others.

I have used praise and worship songs like Days of Elijah; Shine, Jesus, Shine; Sing to the King; Lord, I Lift Your Name on High; Here I Am to Worship; and of course, Emmanuel.

This week we’ll probably do O Come, O Come Emmanuel and maybe I’ll teach Celebrate Immanuel’s Name — I haven’t decided yet.

Part of posting this is to make you think about Advent a little more — to take the time to prepare your heart — I know we spend a lot of time preparing our houses (decorating) and preparing the gifts — preparing for company or preparing for going away — but what if we put the same effort and put it into preparing our hearts, minds, soul, and bodies for the coming Christ child — He is not here, yet! but he is coming, let’s wait together in expectation

Hanging of the Green

Tonight our church participated in a Hanging of the Green Service. This is probably one of my favorite services of the year. I love the pagentry and the singing of the Christmas Carols. We make it a very interactive experience, with young and older students and adults partcipating in the reading and placing the greens in the sanctuary. We had a few glitches but they did not detract from the service as a whole. The link above gives details about the whole service with all the readings. We changed a few of the Christmas carols. Below is the quick outline of the service. Check the link for the full service. Dennis Bratcher at The Voice does a great job in pulling together various resources for the church year. Be sure to check it out.

Hanging of the Greens

Opening Prayer
The Meaning of the Service

Congregational Song: Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus
Christmas In America
Lessons of Christmas

Congregational Song: Hark! the Herald Angels Sing!
Responsive Reading:
A Call to Celebration
The Sanctuary Evergreens
Congregational Song: Go, Tell It On The Mountains
The Christmas Tree
Congregational Song: Joy to the World
The Christmas Poinsettia
Congregational Song: I Wonder As I Wander
The Paraments and Advent Colors
Congregational Song: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
The Advent Candles
Congregational Song: Thou Didst Leave Thy Throne
The Nativity
Congregational Song: O Little Town of Bethlehem
The Gifts of Christmas
Congregational Song: How Great Our Joy!
The Bells of Christmas
Christmas Caroling
Congregational Song: Angels We Have Heard on High
The Christ Of Christmas
Congregational Song: The Birthday of a King
Concluding Prayer
The Blessing