The Light Shines in the Darkness

Her sight had grown dim. There was much she could no longer do. Her children had families of their own and were busily chasing after games and lessons and church activities. Her world had narrowed along with the lost ability of her senses. But she wasn’t lonely. She never felt alone. Sitting in her chair she turned on a lamp and turned on her tape recorder. Her son picked up Books-on-tape for her and she was working her way through the Bible. These were words that had nourished her as a girl in a little congregation in a small town. At the opposite end of her life they spoke to her again, with a world of experiences behind her. Relaxing in the warmth of the lamp, she listened to a deep voice that started in where she left off the night before: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…All things came into being through him…What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” Her feelings of loneliness faded as she basked in the presence of her faithful God.

A man sits in prison for embezzling funds from his church. He hadn’t meant any harm. Medical bills had piled up so he thought he would borrow from the church fund until he could repay it. But his financial life didn’t turn around and his debt silently grew. Now he sat as a former church treasurer, eating with people he would have never associated with before. He felt abandoned by his church family. Understandably, they were angry at his betrayal. His desperate circumstances didn’t excuse the theft. God felt very distant from him. It was Christmas and there was none of the usual signs in this locked-up facility to remind him of God’s gift to the world of Jesus. On Christmas Eve he attended a worship service led by a pastor who was weary, who had already led worship in his own parish and had a family waiting for him at home. But he knew God had called him to minister to these men behind bars, to offer a glimmer of hope to those who had given up on their Maker. During that service in a dreary environment, devoid of wreathes or choirs or light shining through the stained glass windows, the preacher invited the former church treasurer to come forward and light the white candle in the advent wreath, the only familiar link to his past. As he lit the Christ candle and the men joined in singing, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” God parted the darkness of his soul and he remembered the baby born in a manger long ago. Somehow, he knew that Emmanuel had been born for him in that place. “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

A woman had given up on finding the right man. She had dated more men than she had ever imagined she would. How could it be so difficult to find the right person? She felt like God had failed her. Everyone else seemed to find their mate but she remained single, date-less for social occasions. Not far from her a man prayed that God would lead him to a woman who would complete his life, who would bring greater joy. It was a prayer he hadn’t dared to offer for a long time. He had given up some years before on finding someone who would add deeper meaning to his days. Then it happened, in an instant, as if by Divine appointment, they ran into each other, their eyes met, their hearts connected and the man shared with her the prayer he had offered not long before. God had given them into each other’s care and they could not have had a better matchmaker. Her feelings of estrangement toward God seemed far away from her as they took two candles representing their individual lives and lit a unity candle in a sacred service. She could pray again to a God who remembered her. “A light shines in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it.”

It was crushing to learn that they could not have children. Those early conversations in their marriage about baby names and whose side of the family their children might resemble had long since ceased. Not only had they stopped talking with God. Their conversation with each other became strained. Other areas to their married life seemed less important as their desire for children grew and was unmet. A neighbor who went to the church down the street suggested they connect with a Christian adoption agency in town. It wasn’t what they had ever envisioned but something about the neighbor’s kind words gave them hope, shifted their expectations and led them to make a trip in their car that they never would have predicted. Reams of paperwork and months later, they tuck infant twins in at night, standing together at the sides of their cribs, cooing to them. As they leave the room, they turn on a nightlight that is perhaps more comforting for them as new parents than it is for these blessed babies. The couple is exhausted but deeply contented. God had answered the prayers of their heart and they were grateful. “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

advent sanctuary

He sat in the pews on Christmas Eve. It was his first Christmas since his divorce and his children were with his ex-wife. How do you celebrate Christmas without your family, he wondered? He felt empty, caught up in his grief. As the service began children, with eyes filled with Christmas Eve anticipation, walked forward with their acolyte robes askew to light the candles on the altar. As they stretched to reach those candles that set holy time apart from regular time, he knew that Jesus was Emmanuel, God with us. He somehow knew that he would make it through this painful transition because the God he had served in his youth, in his marriage and with his children, would be with him. “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

She had lost her job. She had lost her home. She was at the lowest point she could be, living in a motel and wondering how to make ends meet. Her 2-room lodging was dimly lit with a lumpy bed and stained linens. She passed neighbors in the hall who seemed as depressed as she. Certainly God didn’t live here, in this space that she could have never foreseen, couldn’t imagine enduring. But time moved on and folks helped her at the North Kent Connect. There was a job posting that was perfect for her. Though pessimistic after an interview, she got the call. The job was hers. She saved her hard-earned income and was able to buy a small house for herself. One night she turned on the porch lights so that friends from her new church would know what house was hers as they came for a visit. Her space now was clean; it was bright; it was hers. God had dropped into her life in an amazing way and led her from the wilderness to home. Watching out her front window for her guests to arrive, she was filled with joy. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

A storm ripped through their town, tearing homes apart. In an instant, a community was decimated. One man looked out on a mangled tree in his front yard with siding from his house that had blown out into the street. No one had power in the wake of the storm and they wandered out into their neighborhoods, dazed, assessing the damage. “Why me?” the man mused to himself.  “Where’s God in this disaster?” he thought bitterly. A local church met the next day in their parking lot, with remnants of their beautiful sanctuary strewn about them. They worshiped and mobilized to go into the surrounding neighborhoods and make sure people had the help they needed. Two church members knocked on the door of the man who had decided against God. They had chain saws that spoke more loudly at that moment than any Bible could. Their smiles in the face of their own losses unsettled this man. How could they have joy when they, too, had lost their homes? Their enthusiasm for helping others helped to melt his anger. They invited him to join them in their outreach. They invited him to join them for their outdoor worship service the next week. As they stood in that parking lot, with former pews and shards of stained glass swept up into neat piles in anticipation of a future sanctuary, their joy penetrated into the resentful heart of this empty man. Jesus moved into that empty space and filled it with hymns of praise. When the power was restored nearly two weeks later, the light of his home shone forth in a restored home and restored heart. He was a new creation, as was his community. “A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it.”

Advent candles 3

Emmanuel is born on this Holy Night. He is the only answer to all our questions. He is the One in whom we find our true selves. Jesus will restore meaningful life to us. It is His light that will dispel all darkness and bring us to our knees in praise. Tonight we sing praises to Jesus Christ, the newborn King, who has overcome the darkness of the world. Thanks be to God! Amen.


‘Roid Rush

Being on steroids around Christmas time has certainly had its advantages! I was prescribed a healthy dose of prednisone as a last-ditch effort to conquer my chronic sinusitis. Four rounds of rigorous antibiotics this year have provided temporary relief from headaches and popping ears. But the pressure inevitably mounted after each prescription so my doctor suggested we attempt to expand the passages with steroids. I’m tired of being tired so I said, “Sure.”

Three nights in a row I found myself surfacing around 3:30AM, planning my life in great detail. I figured it had to do with the time of year. Coming up with an impressive to-do list around the first of December is not hard to do! But then I began to worry that my sleep habits were changing. I was morphing into an insomniac who would feel victorious with my mind working overtime at night. But, in the morning, I realized my decisive planning in the dark of night did not result in any actual, decisive actions. It only caused exhaustion. This was not a good trend! About 6AM on the third night, after cataloguing my entire Christmas-prep details in my foggy head, it dawned on me that it might just be the ‘roids. Three days in to my 6-pill-a-day dosage; three nights of no sleep. I decided there was a connection!

I kicked off the prednisone regimen with four days in a row of six tiny white pills. I reduced the amount by one pill, doing two days of five pills, two days of four, and so on. 54 tiny explosions to clear my narrowed sinuses so as to avoid surgical intervention. I believe that my passageways were effectively blown open–but so were my eyes and mind! At the break of day I set out to accomplish the intricate plan of action I had mapped out each night in the comfort of my bed. I discovered that I would break into a run on occasion, feeling as if I had Herculean fitness from which to draw. This is not normal for me! I quickly understood why competitive athletes slipped these into their own drink to get Super-Mario Star Power on the court, field or track. Ten Lords-a-Leaping had nothing on me with my energy to dart from store to store, buying presents and enthusiastically greeting people I met. I picked up my daughter one afternoon and she noticed that I sang along to all the Christmas music on the radio. I also kept rhythm by pounding on the steering wheel and tapping my left foot to the music vigorously. I was out of the car almost before it stopped at each spot on our itinerary. I told her I was all jacked up on steroids and couldn’t be held accountable for my actions. Just add it to the catalogue of her embarrassing moments I’ve inflicted upon her as her mom.

Even though I had pep in my step there is such a thing as cumulative sleep deprivation. So this was the down side. My momentary thoughts of finding a sport in which I could excel were diminished. Artificially inflated power surges seemed advantageous at first. But I was weary of continual revving from deep within. It was hard to concentrate on writing a sermon or preparing to teach a class. My head continually wanted to bob in time to any number of unlikely outside noises. Feeling as if I had the soaring power of Prancer and Vixon seemed freeing for a time. But then I realized that I wanted the traditional gifts of Advent: peace and quiet joy. Headbanging probably never caught on with Christmas carols for a reason.

So today I took the last of my little white pills. I took it later in the day so that I would be able to focus on writing a sermon that held together theologically. Fifty four pills taken and I’m still going to need some sort of procedure to clear out and calm down my poor sinuses. If Neti Pot and steam treatments, antibiotics and nose-blowing couldn’t do the job, it was time to let a professional take charge. I’m hoping I won’t be charged with sinus abuse after all my efforts to clear my head! I can hear my ENT doc commanding, “Step away from the nostrils!” Gladly, sir.

So I thought having ‘roid rush in December would give me the edge I needed to conquer my Christmas-prep list. But I learned what I’ve always preached: Advent is not about running in circles to set the trappings of Christmas in perfect order. The weeks leading up to the celebration of Christ’s birth are for peaceful moments with family and quiet reflection on God’s willingness to bust into our world with the greatest love letter ever written. Last Sunday forty youth and children in our congregation told the beautiful story of Jesus’ birth through drama, music and scripture. This is a necessary step in my Christmas preparation and all it requires is that I sit in the pews with my people and allow our children to lead me in grateful reflection.

So much of the season is about gifts. Not the kind that you hunt down on amazon, wrap in a frenzy and throw under the tree before moving on to the sugar cookie production. The gifts come from folks who, like me, are trying to wrap their hearts around the promise God made in Jesus to love us for who we are and redeem us from the messes of our own making. That doesn’t require a treadmill or a prominent drumbeat for me. The promise invites me to sit in the loveliness of the season with the people I love and a heart filled with holy wonder.



On the Margins

Each year in Advent we bump into John the Baptist. It’s always a surprise—why should someone like him ruin our holiday spirit? It’s awkward and we don’t know what to say because he’s blunt, way too comfortable being confrontational. He dresses funny so that folks make snarky comments about what an oddball he is. To associate with him is social disaster. Who is this guy to think that he can call our values into question? Of yeah. He’s Jesus’ relative, a cousin of sorts. And God sent John ahead of Jesus to help prepare our hearts for the Messiah. This makes it an even more difficult encounter. We don’t want to let him interrupt our Christmas preparation. But we know we should listen to this spiritual guru who is an unlikely melding of Howard Stern and the Arch-Bishop of Canterbury.

The lectionary directed us to Matthew 3: 1-12 this past Sunday:

John the Baptist Prepares the Way

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:

“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.’”[a]

John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

11 “I baptize you with[b] water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

Part of what turns us off to poor, crazy John is his exhortation. For 2000 years he has called out for folks to do some serious spiritual self-examination and to subsequently confess their sins. Our warm, fuzzy feelings for the Christmas season diminish as John asks us to remember what God has done for us.

“Yeah, I know! I remember!”, we want to yell back at him. “God is good. Jesus is awesome. Now go back to the place you came from and leave me alone! I want to string up a few more lights!”

Alexander Whyte was a fiery preacher whose parish was Free St. George’s in Edinburgh. His preaching was so direct it unmasked any pretenses the congregants had carefully put in place. Author John Kelman stated that to hear him preach was to take your life in your hands! Remember Dr. Laura on the radio? People called in for her advice and she gave it! I remember some people would nervously preface their story by saying, “Now don’t yell at me but….” Or “Please don’t get mad at me but I did this…” And she would lay into them—and her words made sense—and more people called in the next day. As hard as it is to hear criticism, when we hear the truth preached with forceful conviction we often come back for more. In their book, Resident Aliens, authors Willimon and Hauerwas write, “Indeed, one of us is tempted to think there is not much wrong with the church that could not be cured by God calling about a hundred really insensitive, uncaring, and offensive people into ministry.” Do we need more preachers who imitate the style of Simon Cowell of American Idol who could blurt out hurtful truth to some skinny, awkward singer without batting an eyelash? We cringed to hear his harsh critiques but we knew he was right and tuned in for more!

Israel mountain

John is an odd duck. The loving acceptance we treasure about Jesus is offset by John’s fierce admonition. In this strange pairing of young men we learn that 1)we are cherished by God but also, 2) responsible to the One who created us. John’s message was too dangerous to be spoken from a pulpit in the Jerusalem Temple. So, in his scratchy burlap overcoat with a partially chewed cricket leg lodged between his teeth, he migrated to the wilderness so that the only people who would hear him were those who wanted to. In John’s time–and ours–folks migrate to the cities to earn their living. Cities offer connections, conveniences, options. John chooses the desert for his lecture series, a pulpit on the margins, and folks flock to him! The Jews knew the wilderness as a place of judgment—where their ancestors had wandered for 40 years because of their independent spirit. But it was also a place of redemption. So John urged folks to submit to a good cleansing through confession of sin and immersion in the Jordan River, calling it baptism. The sun beat down with inescapable heat as they hiked out to John’s parish praying for a new life.

Ozymandias was the Greek name for the Egyptian pharaoh, Ramesses II. He erected a monument to himself to ensure that his name would go on into perpetuity. He chose the wording, hired royal stone masons who carved these glowing words onto the massive leg of a statue carved in his image:  “King of Kings am I, Ozymandias. If anyone would know how great I am and where I lie, let him surpass one of my works.” The broken remnants of this statue were discovered in the desert of Egypt, surrounded by burning sand and only the toughest of creatures who can endure the heat. This ancient ruler is now remembered for his pride rather than his power. The kingdom about which he boasted was devalued from major to seriously marginal!

Some people don’t want their paths straightened out. They don’t see themselves as crooked. The nature of politics hasn’t changed in the course of human history much, has it? In Matthew 3, verses 7-10 of this passage, we witness the power brokers of the Jewish people making an excursion out to the desert to scope out this nut case who was getting such rave reviews. John spotted them from afar and didn’t make their arrival easy. They were, after all, on his turf so he preached at them, calling them a brood of vipers who assumed they were entitled to extra protections and privilege. If they thought a second term was their due, they had better rethink that because God could pull new recruits seemingly out of nowhere who would pick up where they left off. His language is characteristically strong. I remember hearing a story about folks hanging onto trees for dear life as a tsunami swirled beneath them. These terrified human beings, whose circumstances changed in one terrible freak moment of nature, found that they were sharing those upper branches of trees with snakes whose slithering trails were awash with raging waters. That image stayed with me, a double terror of flood waters and vipers desperately hanging in trees together. “You brood of vipers!”, John yelled in front of the crowds. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Some people don’t want their paths straightened out but John gives everyone a chance.

The wilderness sermon is delivered in the present tense: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” We don’t need to wait for some future date when God breaks into our story. God is here now in the person of Jesus so we better make sure we are ready. From John’s ministry we know that those most receptive to God’s Word tend to be found on the margins. Those of meager stature act out of their conscience and sometimes a movement is born that shifts from the margins to center stage.

When Greta Thunberg was 8 she heard about environmental warming and urged her parents to change their lifestyle. Her mother, an opera singer, agreed to give up flying thereby sacrificing her career to follow her young daughter’s convictions. They adopted a vegan diet and Greta began to preach her message in her hometown of Stockholm, Sweden. A diagnosis of Aspergers and Obsessive/compulsive disorder at age 11 only sharpened her focus on what she is willing to stand for. Standing outside the Swedish parliament building, she held up a sign stating “School strike for the climate.” Other students followed her lead and a global effort was born called Fridays for Future. Now 16 she has the attention of world politicians, has inspired grassroots movements around the world and received more awards than most of us will earn in a long lifetime. From the margins of Sweden to televised world summits, Greta moved from the margins to a global stage.

After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, students banded together to make a statement to the nation that enough is enough. They organized March for our Lives, thereby emboldening similar student groups to demand action by adults to protect our school children. Students Against Gun Violence is a campus movement aiming for change in Michigan State University’s policies. From the margins of Parkland, Florida and a central Michigan campus to national news, students march their message for change and inspire other young people to take action for their futures.

The keynote speaker at the Michigan Conference Annual Meeting (of the United Church of Christ) in October was Rev. Doctor Starsky Wilson. He was the pastor of Saint Johns (the Beloved) Church in St. Louis at the time of the Michael Brown shooting. Starsky is an African American, United Church of Christ pastor who responded to this racially charged situation by getting involved. He was asked to serve as co-chair of the Ferguson Commission whose report in 2015 unmasked the breadth and depth of racial inequality in that part of our country. While serving on the commission he was sometimes bailing people out of jail. In an interview he shared his theology: “…I’m very clear that the place of the church is always on the side of people with the least power…the church was a way of making sure that I was still connected to issues related to marginalized poor children.” (Faith and Leadership, April 19, 2016) From the margins of an inner-city United Church of Christ to the policy makers of Saint Louis, Starsky and others urged repentance for social sins and redemption for those on the margins.

Not all of the reforms I’ve mentioned stem from spiritual convictions. But, as Christians, the changes we seek to make in our world stem from our commitment to serve in the name and power of Jesus Christ. Like John, our message echoes Christ’s calling to serve the least of these who have been overlooked. On the margins of the city of Grand Rapids, in a town called Rockford, we stood for justice this past week. Last week we opened our building and hearts to three families who were given food and sanctuary here. In our worship service, when I asked folks to raise their hands if they had helped in some capacity, every part of the sanctuary had hands held high. Folks from the United Methodist Church next door were be another set of hands that took care of the shelter needs two of the week nights. We have covenanted as two neighboring congregations to work together to cover the needs of our Family Promise guests on the weeks we are assigned. Two people slept at the church each night just in case they were needed. The night I stayed over there was noise in the kitchen after 10PM. The other “chaperone” checked and met up with one of the guests, a woman who was staying the week with her three young boys. When he asked if he could help her with something she answered that she was looking for where she could place her “Elf-on-a-Shelf.” She carried traditions with her from her past, when they had their own space. Our church building became their home for one week with needs being met and traditions being carried on. Her boys would know to run around this new space to find their little friend. Perhaps this made the transient life of living in a shelter feel a bit less threatening. We are prepared to host up to 15 guests each week that we host so this could be described as a marginal movement. What is 15 beds when faced with staggering numbers of homeless families who need safe lodging? But we, who experienced it, know it was not marginal. It was BIG!

John preached that God was at work in the here and now changing things, calling us to repentance for the ways that we have failed to live out our faith. Advent is this beautiful season that reminds us to renew our trust that Christ is at work. He is working even now to transform our broken world into a place that showcases His glory. In Advent we reflect on the unbelievably good news that God came down to our level, broke into our world in the birth of a helpless baby born to poor parents for whom there was no room at the inn. Never again, we affirm in Advent. We will make sure that our hearts are ready for Him. We will sort through our lives so that the chaff—the fluff, the spin, the detritus, the propaganda and flattery—can be blown away and only the holy substance that has potential to grow will be left. The images John uses assure us that this process is no cake walk! So we focus on the promise that, no matter how far we may have wandered from God’s plan for us, God-in-Christ keeps pointing the Way back home. Wilderness is never far from mainstream traffic. Wilderness can be found in the pews and in families whose smiles on Christmas cards make it look like everything is fine. But we learn in the course of our days that brokenness is our common denominator, the hushed unifier of humanity.

israeli sign

The life of faith is a challenge. But the promise through the birth of Christ, a baby born in the margins of the Roman Empire, is that the God who brought the Israelites out of bondage and into freedom, will save us from our preoccupation with chaff and reorient our focus to the grain, the substance, the life-giving faith that continually brings us from the margins of society to the embrace of a Savior in the holy company of the overlooked and forgotten. No work could be more important!


What Kind of Calendar?

So the rush has begun! We each grip an endless list of pre-Christmas responsibilities! Dates are set on our calendar for family gatherings, children’s concerts, Christmas tree cutting excursions and the like. We turn the page of the calendar to December and borderline frenzy sets in! Not only was it the first day of the month on Sunday. It was also the first day for Advent calendars, when children open little windows that build up excitement for Christmas. And we kick off another church year with the season of Advent which began on Sunday! Additionally there’s the elf-on-a-shelf calendar that has undoubtedly begun in many households! So our Roman, Christian, and cultural calendars coincide this year! What is clear with the convergence of so many means of counting down time is that something significant launched on December 1!

The Common Lectionary places before us a passage that speaks of the end times: Matthew 24: 36-44. There’s such a clash between the advent texts and our cultural Christmas hype! As we get excited about putting up traditional decorations and purchasing gifts for loved ones, the lectionary confronts us with a passage that speaks of the end of the world as we know it! I’ve observed two typical responses to conversation about the apocalypse: we either roll our eyes and totally ignore it or become obsessed with pinning down the day and time. So how do we make sense of a passage that perhaps seems irrelevant to how we spend our time leading up to Christmas?

It’s interesting to note as this passage begins that Jesus acknowledges that no one knows when the culmination of human history will arrive. He Himself, both divine and human, does not know the plans of God. The Greek word for this is kenosis, an emptying that Christ voluntarily offered so as to limit His divine knowledge. It is only in doing so that He is able to experience life fully as a human being. The good news is that Christ doesn’t expect us to know everything! That’s a relief, isn’t it? There are folks in our community who claim to know it all. I wonder why it is that we never read the headline, “Psychic Wins Lottery”? Even those who boast of great spiritual insight seem to have limited access to enviable databases! Jesus lets His disciples know in this teaching moment in Matthew’s gospel that uncertainty is a condition of even the most devout followers.

Noah shows in this lesson that Jesus is teaching. I’m struck with the number of places in the Bible where forebears in the faith, including Jesus in this case, refer to the time of Noah. Christ’s point is that people in that time were going about their usual rhythms when God swept in with judgment. It was a time when folks had no concern for their own spiritual well-being or for bringing about justice in their world. And so, as when a thief breaks into a home, that time is not known and is therefore all the more dangerous. If we knew it was coming, we would shape up. But the end of this era, Jesus instructs, will arrive unexpectedly.

Jesus gives a couple of examples of how suddenly this judgment will be meted out. He describes two relationships: two women meeting at the shared mill in their compound, women who have worked alongside of each other presumably all their lives. He describes two individuals who work together in a shared field. In either case each pair knows each other well and is engaged in regular daily labor. God swoops in according to Christ’s hypothetical narrative. One person in each duo is ready and passes the test. They are swept up into heaven while the other is left behind. This one passage prompted the writing of a whole set of books that became known as the Left Behind Series. Needless to say, the authors took plenty of creative license given that they wrote hundreds of pages of fiction based on this picture that Jesus painted in one brief moment of his ministry. Folks have obsessed over knowing when God will break into our history so that they can guarantee their admission into the great beyond. But Jesus’ lesson flies in the face of this tendency to labor for our own salvation. The unexpectedness of the return of Christ will emphasize who is ready and who is not. There is nothing in between. It’s a Pass/Fail class. Sometimes there are advantages to that. In this case, the division is stark and frightening!

Jesus tells this story to His followers so that they understand that they must be vigilant for the time and manner in which God will interrupt ordinary life with a grand finale. He urges His disciples to keep watch. This means to keep looking and to be prepared. If we use His example, we assume the homeowner watching for the thief is also prepared to rebuff any effort to get into the home. To watch as Jesus urges means actively watching and preparing for God to break into our world.

Advent, the beginning to the Christian year, calls us to a continuing relationship with Christ who meets us where we are. Every day we mark on our calendar, we seek to serve in Jesus’ name. Whether we are looking at our past and trying to make sense of it or focusing on the desires for our future, Jesus is with us in the present. Advent resets our clocks by reminding us that we live in the ready position for Christ to break in today….or not until long after we have breathed our last. So our work is less important than the attitude with which we do our work. Are we watchful for the ways that Christ nudges us into service or are we driven by the interminable list of things we have put on our calendars? Are we awake to the reality that this day belongs to Christ and is a gift for our use? Or are we simply listening for the pings from our phones that remind us of deadlines and dates? Are we so busy driving our children from one event to the next that we fail to notice how much they just want to sit with us and read a book or talk over a quiet meal? Work is not the driving force in our lives for finding meaning. Our hope will come from a faith that encompasses every moment of every day and points us to something so much greater than our own agenda. Jesus asks us in this passage what work it is that we most highly value? Do we need to change our priorities and swap out our business itinerary for a spiritual tune-up?

woman and girl standing beside christmas tree
Photo by cottonbro on

Albert Lexie died last October, 2018, ending a long career shining shoes. For more than 30 years he polished shoes for guests and staff at Pittsburgh Medical Center’s Children’s Hospital. He charged $3 per pair and donated all the tips he earned to the hospital’s Free Care Fund for children. When Christopher Gessner became President of the hospital he gathered staff early on in his tenure for a meeting. He was puzzled when he noticed that half the people sitting around the table  weren’t wearing shoes! He learned quickly that Albert showed up at the hospital on Tuesdays and Thursdays with a smile and a readiness to transform tired shoes into gleaming newness! Soon Gessner was doing business in his sock feet as well! It was no small task to get to the hospital for Albert. He would catch a bus near his home at 6AM and, after a couple of transfers, arrive at the health facility at 7:30, ready to do business. He believed that every kid who needed care should receive care. He lived on $10,000 per year and donated all his tips to the fund that he renamed simply and appropriately, “Albert’s Kids. His tips totaled more than $200,000! He sacrificially backed his conviction that all children should be treated regardless of financial means. It’s not the work we do that defines who we are. It’s the attitude with which we take on our tasks.

black casual classic clothes
Photo by Lukas on

Talk of the end times has gripped people for generations. A surreal topic that’s hard to grasp, we actually live in to Christ’s appearance on a daily basis. In our congregation we hosted our first week of guests through an overnight shelter system for homeless families. On December 1 our volunteers met Jesus in the faces of our first Family Promise guests. As we served them a meal, sat with them in conversation and provided safe, clean space for them to sleep, we welcomed Christ into our building. I expect we will be changed as the hosts.  Through our service Christ takes up residence in our hearts. Most talk surrounding the end times is intangible and ethereal. But, in fact, when we center each day on living our Christian faith, we recognize His presence in the hospital bed of someone who needs our kindness. We discern His nearness in the gentle smile of a nursing home resident yearning for conversation. Perhaps we see Him in the eager face of a shy student who brings cupcakes to share for his birthday. What sounds surreal is, in fact, the disciplined life we live each day: watching for Christ and responding to His call for wholehearted service.

So what kind of Calendar did you turn to on December 1? What Advent are you expecting? Is it the frenzied list that brings you to Christmas exhausted? Is it the elf who produces mystery and gifts on a daily basis? Is it the beginning of a church year that reminds us to live with wisdom from the past, faith for today and hope for a future of Christ’s shaping? What calendar are you following as you prepare for Christ’s birth?

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