Read Romans 1:1-7.
Christmas cards have been sent and received. Our fridges are cluttered with the picture cards from loved ones. Our mantles are decorated with the Christmas wishes from families. We feel honored to be remembered and thought of. We feel loved.
Some families include a traditional Christmas letter in their holiday cards. In these letters they share what has been happening over the past year. Facebook is starting to put an end of the Christmas letter for some. But for those who do, the Christmas letter has become an art form. There are even blogs that will help you write it and give you samples.
In the Hellenistic culture of Paul’s day, letter writing was an art. There was a basic template that all letter writers used. These first seven verses from Romans 1 are the letter’s greeting. Paul’s greeting is a tad bit longer than most. Some have called these verses a “mini sermon” because he communicates grace to all.
At the time when Paul is writing this letter to the Roman church, the church includes Jewish and Gentile believers. The message is clear, the grace of Jesus Christ sets both Hebrew and Greek apart to share the good news.
Grace is for all.
All are called to share that grace.
The early Church, as the Church now, had its share of differences. There were different Jesus-experiences. There were different cultures. There were differences. This is why Paul preached and wrote about unity in the Body of Christ so much, and perhaps why we need to do the same today.
David Bartlett writes:
“Grace” is Paul’s word for the undeserved goodness we receive absolutely freely from God out of God’s great generosity, the goodness we receive in Jesus Christ. Grace means that for Christians every morning is Christmas morning, bright with gifts and wonderful surprises – bright with the gift of Christ himself.”
Every morning is Christmas morning! Every morning we receive the gift of grace from God, through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Every morning we receive a love letter from God in the form of the Word.
As Advent comes to a close, let us not forget the gift of the Christ child – a letter of love – came to bring grace to all. Let us, in that same spirit, remember to show grace to all.
Now when John heard in prison about the things the Christ was doing, he sent word by his disciples to Jesus, asking, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?” (Matthew 11:2-3, Common English Bible)
Do you remember P. D. Eastman’s book Are You My Mother? The little bird hatches out of her egg and begins searching for her mother. She walks right past the mother bird because she does not recognize her or know what she looks like. She proceeds to ask all kinds of different animals and such asking, “Are you my mother?”
We can identify with the little bird. There are times and moments in our lives when we search for Jesus. We don’t recognize him. We may walk right past him, not even knowing it is him.
Like John in Matthew 11, life can take an unexpected turn. For John, he was imprisoned, and in his way asks, “Are you my Jesus?” For us, we may be imprisoned in our addictions. Imprisoned in our fussing. Imprisoned in disease. Imprisoned in our busyness. Or perhaps we are imprisoned by the holiday.
And so we wander from here to there asking, “Are you my Jesus?” We are hungry for freedom. We are hungry for relief. We are hungry for grace.
The little bird’s story has a happy ending. The little bird finds her mother.
Advent is that time where we wait and in the waiting we train our eyes to see the Christ in our midst. The Christ that we might have walked right past without knowing it. The phone call from a friend checking in on us. A hug at that right moment. The person offering us a way out of our imprisonment.
One of the lessons of Advent is that the holy is in the ordinary. Christ is in that hug. Christ is in that phone call. Christ is in the person offering us a way out of our imprisonment.
And when we open our eyes and see Christ in the ordinary – in others – we like the little bird can proclaim, “I know who you are!”
Rev. Alan Combs serves as Pastor at Lane Memorial United Methodist Church in Alta Vista, Virginia.
Read Matthew 11:2-11.
John the Baptist is beginning to wonder what’s up with Jesus. As Stanley Hauerwas points out, John was certain that Jesus was the Messiah when he baptized him. Now he isn’t so sure. What changed? Well, for one, John’s in prison for calling Herod out on failing to keep the law. Even worse, there are a lot of folks who don’t appear to be taking to that whole “Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near” message John and Jesus have been proclaiming. 
Even John, the one who Jesus describes as “more than a prophet,” the one called to announce the Messiah doesn’t seem to be getting the Messiah he expected or asked for. So he sends his disciples to speak with Jesus. He charges them to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
Jesus’ response to the question is to ask John to look and listen, through the reports of his disciples, at what is actually happening all around them. Rather than to remain bogged down in what he thought it meant for the Messiah to come, Jesus challenges John to see the kingdom that is unfolding in their midst:
Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them (Matthew 11:4-5).
Yes, John is in prison, but those who are disabled and sick are now lifted up, rather than seen as accursed. Yes, there appear to be many who aren’t paying attention to the arrival of the Messiah, yet as Mary sings in the Canticle this week, Jesus has “lifted up the lowly” and “he has filled the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:52-53).
Despite all evidence to the contrary, the Kingdom of God has come near, and it is received first by those who are most in a position to hear it. They are the ones who most easily “take no offence” at Jesus because they have no stake in the powers and principalities that are threatened by this new kingdom in which the powerful are brought down from their thrones and the rich are sent away empty (Luke 1:52-53). 
As we live in the tension between awaiting the birth of our Messiah and the flowering of his kingdom in his return during Advent, we find ourselves again challenged by this Jesus who refuses to be who we try to make him into. This was true even of John, who must have wondered why Jesus didn’t make his disciples fast in the same way John did, and who hung out with people like tax collectors and sinners.
We are constantly surprised we are not getting the Jesus we asked for. Instead, Jesus challenges us to look at the places where his kingdom is actually unfolding. He meets us on his own terms, and he reaches out to people we may think don’t deserve it.
We are surprised to find a Jesus who actually makes demands on our lives, rather than kindly letting us know that the way we are living is all right with him as long as we are nice people.
We are surprised to find that he’s not upset with John for saying hard words to people in order to lead them (and us) to repentance. Jesus points out to the crowd: John’s a prophet, that’s what prophets do. They speak often unpleasant and unpopular truths to call us to repentance. (Matthew 11:7-9)
Instead, we find a Messiah whose kingdom is breaking into our world to our right and left, but the epicenter resides not in the centers of the powerful. Instead, we find it in the centers of those who are often marginalized and voiceless.
When we learn to see and hear the signs of this kingdom, we find ourselves charged in the same way as John’s disciples, “Go and tell what you hear and see.”
Rev. Adam Kelchner is the Associate Pastor at Belmont United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Adam is a former Bailey Scholar from Randolph-Macon College.
In a very rural village named Mikundi situated on the western border of Malawi, Africa, I pointed toward the window of the church. With my leather bound Bible in one hand, and my index finger outstretched toward the window, I told my congregants for the morning that the banana trees on the farm property are a sign of resurrection. Yes, banana trees are a sign of resurrection for those who live and work at the United Methodist farm owned by the Malawi Annual Conference. Last October, a wildfire ripped across the fields burning down nearly every living plant on the farm property. The earth was scorched; but the rains came in their due time in abundance. “The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains.”
In the electronic, fast paced world in which I spend most of my time, it took being 8500 miles away from home, preaching in a village church to identify how precious it is when the growing season yields new fruit and vegetation. I think every good farmer understands the need for patience when working with the earth. So here we are, a few days before Christmas, and we’re waiting. We’re waiting for new life to take root. We’re waiting for the first signs of a bud breaking forth through dry ground. We’re waiting for the Blessed Christ child!
The promise of our liturgical celebration at the Lord’s Table is: Christ will come again. Indeed! Until that day, we have the example of the ancient prophets to teach us patience and the virtue of long-suffering.
Just over a year ago, horrendous violence ripped through an elementary school in Connecticut cutting short the lives of children and teachers. That day cast a long shadow on the church’s Advent celebrations and the lives of my congregants 960 miles away from Newtown, Connecticut. For the prophetic moms, dads, congregants, and fellow pastors in my community, December 14th was another atrocious event in the journey toward God’s justice and peace.
I’ve accompanied these prophets whose patient hearts are broken by delayed justice and whose spirits suffer when armed violence destroys sacred life. Prophets are speaking, patient and strong in hope, “for the coming of the Lord is near.”
Rev. Lindsey Baynham is the Associate Pastor at Fairfax United Methodist Church. Lindsey blogs at Words of My Mouth.
There are certain times in the year where I audibly cry out, “Already?!?” And one that perhaps bothers me more than others is in November. Right before Thanksgiving, there is a shift in stores—it seems that overnight all remnants of pumpkins and turkeys are replaced with snowmen and stockings. The shelves are filled with potential presents for loved ones and the deals are posted in every window. Even the music changes! You find yourself humming familiar tunes as you pace the aisles, get your car worked on or wait in line at the DMV. There is a visible change and I would argue a change within when the turkey and stuffing are behind us that is contagious as we look to Christmas.
But I believe that the change is too sudden. We too often skip over a time of waiting and anticipation to look to the presents or what I would call the hoopla of Christmas. We miss out on an opportunity to slow down and wait. Wait with expectant hearts for the Christ that comes in the most unexpected way; as a baby. We wait with excited spirits for a young virgin girl to give birth in a society that would shame her for not being married yet. And we wait alongside others—hoping in Emmanuel, who is God with us.
Just before our passage, Mary has encountered an angel, telling her that she will bear the Son of God. She responds as I think many would, “ How will this happen?” (Luke 1:34 CEB). How will this young girl take on the responsibility that has been given to her? How will she overcome the pressures of being unmarried in her ancient society? And what has she done to deserve this honor? So many questions it seems are left to be answered and the angel replies with confidence and concludes by saying, “Nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37 NRSV). And so the angel leaves her and the young woman must wait…but she will not sit with this news alone, she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth who we learn in this chapter is also pregnant.
Elizabeth’s very being is altered and changed at Mary’s greeting! The Holy Spirit moves within Elizabeth and she recognizes that her cousin has been blessed to carry the Son of God. And Elizabeth’s words of praise and thanksgiving are contagious—giving joy to Mary.
And in verses 46-55 we hear Mary’s words of joy, of excitement, of remembrance and of promise. Mary trusts that God will take what seems impossible and make it into something incredible. She revisits the covenants made with her forefathers and knows that a new covenant has been made with the child that rests in her womb.
Our being during the time of Advent is one that is gradual, moving ever so slightly from person to person, home to home, church to church. In this season we wait to catch what is going around—the joy of Christ coming to earth, a joy that is peaked by waiting for the baby Messiah. We look to Christ’s birth with wonder and thankfulness for the time to prepare. And we look to Christmas with a joy that is contagious, spreading from heart to heart.
Read Isaiah 35:1-10.
When was the last time you got impatient? Was it at the store, standing in that long check-out line? Was it sitting in traffic, wondering why the light is green and nobody is moving? Was with your children, or with your parents?
This time of year, especially, I think we are more prone to get impatient. We are rushing and hurrying along to get everything in order. There are presents to be bought or ordered, presents to be wrapped, travel plans to be made, meals to be cooked, and on top of all that, because vacation time is coming, our work load seems to increase. And whenever we finally have a few moments of rest, there is someone or something that beckons our attention, and impatience sets in. And we fuss.
I’ve been there. A good fuss starts down in our toes and works its way up and out our mouths, and sometimes quicker than we realize. And we are good at it! By gosh, we are good at fussing. And when we get that fuss going, it is hard to stop it. It is hard to see anything good . . . . or holy . . . around us.
The Hebrew people, when being led by Moses out of Egypt to the Promised Land were good at fussing too. They wandered around in the wilderness for forty years, and most of that time was spent in a good fuss.
But in these poetic words in Isaiah 35, there is no fussing. The Israelites have been conquered by the great world-power of its day, the Babylonians. As a result, instead of leaving the people in their home lands, the Babylonians exiled the people, scattering them all over the empire. This resulted in families being separated and the people being forced into new cultures and new places.
Isaiah paints a portrait of the journey home from exile, through the wilderness, back home to Zion. And this journey is not a journey of fussing. The wilderness is not a punishment, it is a way of hope. It is a hope that in the midst of the wilderness of our lives, God can and will transform.
Scholar Bruce Birch writes this:
“God’s coming signals a future for those who have given in to hopelessness and sorrow [or fussing]. In God, wilderness becomes not a journey of struggle [or fussing] but of hope, and the Advent season rekindles this hope for a way through the wilderness anew each year.”
So, this Advent, remember that with the coming of Christ comes the day when there will be no more hopelessness, no more sorrow, no more struggle, and no more fussing.
This was originally posted on December 9, 2011. I’m reposting as apart of Advent Ponderings.
As a child did you get impatient waiting for Christmas morning? The anticipation of finding out what presents you got was too much to handle that you searched endlessly through the house to find anything? Yeah, I was that kid. I was anyway, until the year I found presents that I was certain were for me, only to find out on Christmas morning they were for one of my brothers.
Instead of just waiting with patience, I had to know now! I took matters into my own hands and searched the house, leaving nothing untouched. I couldn’t wait! And I was meant with disappointment.
In the life of the Church we have been in the season of Advent. Advent is a time of waiting with preparation. Just as Mary waited for the birth of the Christ Child, so we wait for Christ’s coming. And yet, Advent is a time of preparation. Each week of Advent is a time spent getting ready for the coming Christ. Waiting and preparing. Preparing and waiting.
In the “Little Apocalypse” that is Mark 13 (one of the scriptures for the first week of Advent) Jesus tells us that not even the Son of Man knows the day or time of “the Son of Man coming in clouds.” But he does know that there is a necessity for watchfulness. “Beware; keep alert,” he says in Matthew 13:33. Again in Matthew 13:35, “Keep awake,” and in 13:37, “Keep awake.” Three times, Jesus says we should keep awake/keep alert. Just in the next chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus goes into the Garden of Gethsemane to pray. He leaves three disciples to “remain here, and keep awake.” Three times Jesus returns only to find the disciples asleep.
Our Wesleyan tradition (as United Methodists), implies . . . demands . . . that there is more than saying the right words and believing the right belief. We must do something. The season of Advent reminds us to keep awake and to be watchful. It reminds us to wait with purpose. Waiting, yes, but preparing as well. Prepare implies doing. What are we doing to prepare for the coming of Christ’s Kingdom? As writer Nan Duerling puts it so well, “We live as Advent people who keep alert and constantly prepare for his coming.”
As followers of Christ in the 21st century, are we staying awake and being alert or are we falling asleep? Are we waiting and preparing? Food banks are reporting that their giving has doubled within a year. Doubled! Something like 25% of children in the United States are living in poverty (this number has most likely grown in the last few years). Shelters are having to turn away people in need because there is lack of space and resources.
And we wait for the world to change. But does it? Will it?
Read Matthew 3:1-12
Is everyone ready for Christmas? I’m certainly not – I’m probably going to be one of those last minute shoppers on Christmas Eve night scrambling through row after row of store aisles looking for that perfect gift. But my grandmother was not like that. Her Christmas shopping was done before the end of August hit. She was always ready when Christmas got here.
But as Christians, how are we supposed to get ready for Christ’s arrival?
This time of year, we hear the phrase “Prepare the way of the Lord” in anticipation for the coming Christ. It is obligatory to read this passage from Isaiah 40 and Matthew 3 to prepare for the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus.
But have you noticed the full verse contains more? It reads, “Prepare the way of the Lord…make straight paths for Him.”
Of the two commands, preparing seems pretty easy; “making paths straight” sounds rougher. But they go together. “Making paths straight” is the call to everyone preparing for the coming Lord.
Does this mean that everyone is being called to work to make every literal path in the world straight? That would require a lot of time, money, and physical labor . . . . .
So if not actual physical labor, what exactly does this call require?
John the Baptist’s sermon in the wilderness focuses on this prophesy from Isaiah. Here we see John confront the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to the river where he baptized new believers.
John the Baptist was no hypocrite, so the way he reacted to these Jews would demonstrate how he expected us to make paths straight.
“Produce fruit in keeping with repentance,” John says, “and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
These are like incredibly harsh words, especially for the season of Advent, but in these words we discover what John means by “…making paths straight.”
The preparation to which John referred was the spiritual preparation of each individual heart. How do we respond? By setting aside a few precious moments to reflect, pray, and read our Bibles to ask the Spirit of God to form our hearts to better understanding His word and plan for us.
At the same time, we should strive daily to increase our own spiritual fruits, but not because it eases our way into heaven or because it is commanded of us, but because we want to be like our Savior.
And so today, we celebrate Advent and the joyous meaning behind it, remembering that the call is the same today as it ever has been – “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight paths for him.”
Although her time on earth has passed, Grandma Timmerman prepared for more than just Christmas during the year. She cultivated spiritual fruits – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – all year long.
Let us all make a renewed effort to spend more time in spiritual preparation and producing New Fruit for our Lord.
Read Romans 15:4-13
I love Christmas. I really do. But sometimes, Christmas seems farther away the closer we get to it. As if time seems to slow down as the preparations for the season threaten to block out our ability to see the coming of Jesus as the “eight pound, six ounce baby Jesus who hasn’t said a word yet.” We’ve got presents to purchase, meals to fix, houses to clean, and the work we have to get done before we can take the Christmas vacation we’ve been banking on since Labor Day. And that doesn’t even take into account Christmas cantata practice, volunteering for three nights in the sleet as a shepherd for the living nativity, delivering cookies, and singing carols to the shut-ins. And that’s if everything goes right!
Sometimes, we can lose sight of Jesus in the midst of preparing for his coming, as if the season of Advent is a grind rather than a celebration, a thought-provoking time of reflection. It’s not just about the things to do but the people we do them with, and the way those people are dealing with their own particular brand of stress and frustration. Still, time after time, the beauty of what Jesus actually did by coming as a baby rises up, and flattens those moments when our long-awaited Christmas bonus doesn’t come through, or we don’t get the presents we expect, or we end up reliving the Christmas pasts that we messed up (hopefully not, anyway!)
In Romans 15:4-13, Paul reminds the church that God can give them the same attitude toward their lives, and each other, that Jesus had. He reminds his hearers to accept each other, just like they were accepted by Jesus, so that those who do not yet believe will see their witness and recognize God. That those who have not yet received God’s truth would see God’s truth in the ways that God’s followers live their lives. He urges them to claim hope, and joy, and peace for themselves, so that hope would overflow out of them.
Is there really any better time to “overflow with hope” than right now? In the midst of our momentary troubles, our stress in the midst of Christmas preparations, in the world we live in challenged by death and decay, can we overflow with hope in the way we celebrate the first coming of Jesus? Can our preparations in Advent be so different from the way the world anticipates Christmas, that others would notice our faith and recognize the true meaning of Christmas?
I pray for you this year, that the Spirit of God would descend upon you and overwhelm you; that you would know for yourself the peace, love, and hope of Jesus’ first and second coming; that you would recognize that Jesus has accepted you and that you don’t need to outdo anyone to show your Christmas spirit. You just have to be yourself in Christ, and recognize that God’s deliverance in Jesus Christ gives us the opportunity to overflow with hope.