A young-ish United Methodist pastor's perspective of how we can bring the light of Christ to a seemingly dark world in this adventure we call life. Amazing things can happen when we put our trust in God, follow Christ, and become the light.
**The opinions expressed in my blog are my own and not those of Community UMC, Quincy, CA or The United Methodist Church.
time this time of year rolls around, it’s a feast for the senses. All the smells, bells, sounds, tastes, and
sights are in the air. We see the
beautiful lights on the houses and beautifully decorated trees in the windows,
hear the songs of the season as radio stations have been playing nonstop
Christmas music (even though it’s STILL Advent), bell ringing for The Salvation
Army by volunteers (many from our church), and in a number of houses, smell the
wonderful aromas of tasty things baking (or, just step into Midtown Coffee or
Quincy Provisions and smell and see the tasty treats!). Yes indeed, this is the time of year where
the senses are fully engaged. I can’t
help but singing “do you see what I see?
Do you hear what I hear?”
our Advent study this past week on Matt Rawle’s The Redemption of Scrooge, we talked about Christmas past and one
question that Matt asked is how do you know when it feels like the Christmas
season for you? I like to begin it the
day after Thanksgiving by breaking out the CD’s, particularly Mannheim
Steamroller and Trans-Siberian Orchestra, then stringing my lights in the front
windows. Or, the season also begins when
the eggnog first appears in the dairy box at SavMore or Safeway. Or it begins when we start seeing peppermint
everything, just like Pumpkin spice everything in the Fall. Or it feels like Christmas when the pageant rehearsals
begin. Once again, it is a time for the
senses and in our texts this morning, we get a great dose of the senses of
hearing and seeing. Yet I still can’t
help singing “do you see what I see, do you hear what I hear?” when looking at
these texts, particularly our Gospel lesson. But it also begs the questions,
what do you see? What do you hear? Seeing and hearing play a major part as we
engage with our texts.
week in our Gospel lesson from Matthew, we encountered John the Baptist in chapter
3, as John is in the wilderness, crying out an early prophecy from Isaiah
“prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” in which John is
reinforcing another prophecy in which “someone more powerful“ will arrive and
will “baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3: 3, 11). Well, fast forward to this week and we now find
John in prison, starting to have doubts and wondering if the prophecy has
really been fulfilled, or not. Like
Jesus, John also had disciples which he asks to inquire of Jesus by asking “are
you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11: 3,
NRSV). This is definitely a far cry from
when John was almost certain that there would be a messiah, or in the Greek,
christos, or anointed one on the way, which many believed Jesus to be, based on
his words and actions.[i]
But now, John isn’t so certain when he asks his disciples to inquire of Jesus. So, when asked by John’s disciples if he’s
the messiah or not, Jesus’s response in verses 5 and 6 is that “the blind will
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. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at
me” (NRSV). Hmm, seems like we also just
heard something like this in our reading from Isaiah 35, in verses 5 and 6
Then the eyes of
the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
we are seeing this and hearing this correctly, it sounds pretty sure that Jesus
IS the messiah based on the prophecy, the one who was promised by what we see
and what we hear. It’s also the same
things that John’s disciples see for themselves with their own eyes and hear
when John more or less asks them what did you see? What did you hear?
even along our own faith journey, even in this time of Advent as we await the
coming of the messiah once again and continue to wait, what do you see and what
do you hear? Where do you see and hear
going on around us today? A lot of it
comes down to our perspectives and how we see and hear around us. For John, he is now in prison, which we don’t
know why until chapter 14, but John is hearing all about what Jesus is doing as
he teaches, heals, and ministers to the crowd, much along what the people were
waiting for that we hear about in Isaiah.
Yet John can’t see this happening for himself. In Isaiah, we hear a prophecy about
restoration of God’s people, returning to their land, and yearning for a
savior. Yet while while in prison, John
begins to feel doubt because now he isn’t so sure that Jesus is the one who is more
powerful to come that John was saying would happen in last week’s Gospel
lesson. However, being in prison changes
John’s perspective, as Jesus shows “works of compassion” instead of baptizing
Instead, “the story in its present context represents the beginning of doubt
rather than the dawn of faith,” in which Advent is typically the dawn of faith
when we wait, watch, and prepare our hearts for the new hope, joy, peace, and
love that we can receive and give at Christmas.[iii]
Yet, what is it that we want to see and hear?
think that given the amount of uncertainty in our world and in our nation right
now, there is a yearning for certainty among many, and at the same time, there
are times where there may be doubt present.
At the same time, there are some, such as author Anne Lamott who and
others who believe that the opposite of faith is actually certainty, not doubt.[iv] This is a time of year in which we are
literally in darkness with the shorter days and longer nights, but also because
of situations in life that happen or with things that are happening around our
nation and world, there is a deep yearning for certainty, which John is also
desiring when he wants to know if Jesus is really the messiah or not. He wants to see it with his own eyes and hear
it with his own ears even though Jesus does offer affirmation of John for
preparing the way. Like we talked about
in August when we seek the unseen, we are going by faith, not so much by
sight. And for John, he is not able to
see the works that Jesus is doing as the messiah from being in prison. However, John’s doubt and uncertainty may be
because of the fact that Jesus is also not the conventional savior or messiah
people that were expecting to see or hear from, based on John’s earlier claim
of baptizing by fire in Matthew, chapter 3.
Maybe John’s doubt is because Jesus is showing acts of compassion and
fulfilling the prophecy in Isaiah 35 of restoring sight to the blind, hearing
to the deaf, speech to those who cannot speak, and giving encouragement to the
poor. Doesn’t really sound like
baptizing by fire, now does it?
It’s the actions that Jesus
shows and the truths that Jesus speaks that we see and hear and perhaps today
in 2016, a message and actions that we need to see and hear once again as we
await Christmas Day, words of kindness or comfort and actions of compassion,
much like the same actions that we saw and words we heard from Jesus. Like backing up those words with our actions,
it also takes listening carefully, as Jesus says “let anyone with ears listen!”
(Matthew 11: 15, NRSV). And it takes us
really opening our eyes to see the world around us, see poverty where it
happens, see those who are in need, and be compassionate and generous in our
actions and listening. And right now at
this time of year, words and actions are even more important to be mindful
of. As I was preparing for today’s
message, one of my friends and colleagues in Texas, Rev. Joseph Yoo had an
excellent blog post on Ministry Matters, which I read regularly online and Joe
regularly contributes to. While this is
a time of year for the senses, we also see and hear actions that can distract
us from fully enjoying this time of year, especially when we get into the whole
debacle over saying “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas,” often making
accusatory statements about taking Christ out of Christmas. However, Joe makes a very important point about
words and actions when he says
it’s not really the job of Starbucks,
JC Penney or Macy’s to spread Christmas cheer or the Christmas story.
They’re in business to make money —
and to do everything they can to bring a lot of people into their stores. So
they’re going to be as generic and as broadly appealing as possible.
Why would I expect JC Penney to
spread the Christmas story to their shoppers? Why would I expect Starbucks to
tell the story of Christ’s birth on their cups?
not their job.
ours, isn’t it?
ourselves accountable for putting “Christ” in Christmas rather than demanding
that others do?[v]
Jesus coming along that way that John prepared in the wilderness then defying
being a conventional messiah by showing acts of compassion and speaking the
truth in love, and bringing good news to those that the rest of society tended
to relegate to the margins, maybe that’s what we need to focus on as we make
our way towards Christmas, showing these actions as the hands and feet of
Christ in our world today, actions that people need to see from us and words that
people need to hear from us as people of faith and followers of Christ. As we talked about last week, we can prepare
our hearts and minds for Christmas by repenting or turning around, pruning out
the sins and baggage, and through these weeks of Advent and beyond, we see how
we need to be the ones to share the story of this messiah, this anointed one
who came to earth as our personal savior and savior of the world. Can we be the ones to share good news
wherever we go so that people can say they heard such when asked “what did you
hear?” And can we be the ones to show actions of mercy and compassion, so that
people can say they saw that when asked “what did you see?” That’s a part of
the hope, joy, peace, and love that we can give and receive at Christmas as we
prepare our hearts and minds. It’s US
who put Christ in Christmas. And it is
US and our actions and words that people will see and hear when asked “what did
you see and hear?”
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy
Blue Letter. ‘Genesis Chapter 1 (KJV)’. 2016. Accessed December 7, 2016.
[ii]The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol.
VIII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 266.
‘Faith, Doubt and Inspiration - Brené Brown’. February 9, 2011. Accessed
December 8, 2016.
Joseph. ‘Is the War on Christmas over Yet?’. Accessed December 8, 2016. http://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/7887/is-the-war-on-christmas-over-yet?utm_campaign=shareaholic&utm_medium=facebook&utm_source=socialnetwork.
beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was
in the beginning with God. All things
came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and
the light was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it
(John 1: 1-5, NRSV).
it happens each year, once Daylight Savings Time ends in early November,
darkness comes quickly and earlier in the day.
I’m not really sure what to think when my house becomes dark around
3:00pm when the sun goes behind the mountain, but this is a part of the cycle
that happens each year. The darkness
comes early, but after the Winter Solstice, the light gradually returns until
we Spring forward once again in March.
comes as no surprise that the season of Advent and Christmas are during the
darkest time of the year. The darkness
is literal, but can also mean other things too.
Some may be in the darkness of the trials of life, the darkness of loss
and grief, the darkness of hopelessness, the darkness of being
overwhelmed. The list goes on and
on. And sometimes, the Christmas/Holiday
season is not always a happy time for everyone.
the darkness that may be felt at this time of year, there is always new hope
and new life that can be born and re-born in each of us. But it also takes each of us to be the ones
to bring hope and light to those who might find themselves in darkness. And there are many ways which we can do
that. We can be the ones to brighten up
someone’s day through our simple presence and listening ears. We can be a beacon of hope to the lonely by
extending invitations for dinner or to our gatherings. We can be the ones to bring joy to families
in our neighborhood who may be struggling.
We can be a comforting presence to those who are grieving. And we can be the ones who can bring food to
the hungry. There are many ways to
accomplish each, but this is one way the work of Christmas begins and can last
throughout the entire year, not just December.
think of the words of Isaiah, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a
great light” which was written during a dark time in Israel’s history during
the Babylonian captivity that lasted around 70 years. In their darkness, the people yearned for
someone to come and save them, a messiah.
However, contrast that message with John 1 where the new light comes
into the world, bringing about a new hope that darkness would not be able to
overcome. We need to be the ones who are
the light in this world when times are dark, we need to be the ones who will
bring the hope, peace, love, and joy that Christmas brings.
is a time to slow down from all of the hustle and bustle of the season, to
reflect as we wait, watch, prepare, and anticipate. For the people who were held captive in
Israel, they waited and watched for signs of the messiah, the one who would
free the people from their captivity.
But for each of us today, what holds us captive from living our lives to
the fullest and lives that are pleasing to God?
What new hope and what new life needs to be born or re-born in you this
Christmas? And what can we do during
this Advent to be the light of the world for others in our neighborhood and
world as we await the new hope that Christmas brings to each of us?
that preparation coming for Christmas?
Have you got your tree up yet?
Nativity sets? Lights? Presents?
I think it’s pretty safe to say that it’s really beginning to look a lot
like Christmas around town now that we’ve had Sparkle, which I was definitely excited
about and eagerly anticipating!! Once we
get into that first week of December, the hustle and bustle of the holidays is
in full force, but not quite high gear quite yet. Give it another week, though. I do have to say there is something special
about small towns and the holidays, as it seems like it’s extra festive here
and reminds me of something we would see from Currier and Ives, Norman
Rockwell, Thomas Kinkade, and others who love to use sentimentality to grab our
attention. I think some of the
commercials we’ve been seeing on TV since Thanksgiving also do a good job at
that, or tug at the heartstrings. Or
like Thursday night, I think we are a little closer to prepared now that “A
Charlie Brown Christmas” has been on ABC.
I feel like I’m a little closer to prepared now!
while we are maybe a little more ready to enjoy the Christmas season than we
were last week, we are in the second Sunday of Advent this morning, continuing
along our journey in the season of waiting, watching, and preparing our hearts for
the new hope, joy, peace, and love that we receive and give at Christmas. But as we engage with our texts this morning,
what are we preparing for? We see in
Isaiah God’s peaceful kingdom and a new day when all of creation is at peace
with one another with the joy of a child leading, but then in Matthew we
encounter John the Baptist as the “voice who cries out in the wilderness,”
repeating a prophecy found in Isaiah 40, “prepare the way of the Lord.”
week, we had a couple of texts that dealt more with end-times, as it was more
about the beginning with the end in mind.
Our reading from Isaiah almost reads more like what you would see in a
Norman Rockwell or Thomas Kinkade painting, an idealized, sustaining image of
what a peaceable world would look like, as the prophet is pointing at new life
that is possible. I think about pruning,
which many of us need to do as winter approaches, in order to make space and
prepare the bushes, shrubs, and trees for new growth to take place in the
Spring. But also seeing how animals that
would ordinarily be part of another’s food chain, such as the lion and the
lamb, or wolf and ox laying down together also strikes up a beautiful image, as
“these verses articulate the deep and persistent human hope for justice and
peace, and within the Christian church, this text expresses the promise of a Messiah
who will establish peace on earth.”[i]
When we ask what we are preparing for, we are preparing for the day when we can
see justice and peace here on earth. But, we have a lot of work to do and
that’s going to mean rolling up the sleeves to show how a peaceable kingdom
that we hope to prepare for is possible.
another way we work towards preparing our hearts to establishing a peaceable
kingdom is to repent from our wrongdoings and our shortcomings before each
other and before God. We hear John the
Baptist saying this in verses 2 and 3 of our Gospel lesson, as John says
“repent, for the kingdom of Heaven has come near” and to “prepare the way of
the Lord, make his paths straight,” in which John is quoting from Isaiah 40: 3
(NRSV). Like preparing our yard for
Spring by pruning our bushes, trees, and plants, we also prepare to take part
in the sacrament of Holy Communion in a little while by having the opportunity
to confess altogether our sins and shortcomings. When we are willing to repent and make room
in our hearts for God’s presence through the sacrament, we prepare our hearts
for the amazing, wonderful gift of grace that is available for us to receive
through taking part in the sacrament.
There are many instances where sin is sometimes swept under the rug for
convenience, but sin also brings us down.
That’s why it’s necessary to repent and prepare our hearts for Christmas
by unloading some of the baggage we may carrying with us that bring us down so
that like receiving the grace available through Communion, we too can receive
the hope, joy, peace, and love that Christmas can bring to us.
I was preparing this morning’s message, I got a little laugh from my colleague,
Rev. Dr. Dawn Chesser at Discipleship Ministries in Nashville. In her preaching notes for today, Dawn
describes John the Baptist as “a scary dude in a scary place.”[ii]
Quite honestly, if I saw someone come screaming “repent for the Kingdom of
heaven has come near,” and wearing an outfit of camel hair, I would probably be
a little unsettled (Matt. 3: 2, NRSV).
Okay, I’d probably have some not so nice things to say, but during this
time period and during the time that Isaiah is writing in, there was already
enough happening in the world. John lives in the wilderness, but even amidst
the scary appearance, people still listen and for them, “John first brought the
Good News: A much more powerful one was coming” which foreshadows the new way
and new kingdom that Jesus will ultimately teach about in his earthly ministry.[iii]
But as we wait, watch, and
prepare for Christmas, we have this good news that we can take and share with
others, and I think even more so today, we need to repent, but also prepare the
way of the Lord once again. Repent gets
such a bad rap and it oftentimes gets associated with that message of hellfire
and damnation, but as Professor Ron Allen points out, repent literally means to
“turn around, or to have a dramatic change of mind and direction.”[iv]
That’s one of the wonderful things about Advent, that we have this opportunity
to turn things around. This past week,
several of us began our Advent Study, The
Redemption of Scrooge by Rev. Matt Rawle based on Charles Dickens’ timeless
classic, A Christmas Carol. As I talked about in a sermon in September on
Lazarus and the Rich Man from Luke’s Gospel, I talked about the story of
Ebenezer Scrooge and how he was selfish, miserly, sad, lonely, and downright
miserable with only his money as his companion.
Without giving too much away of the plot, Ebenezer Scrooge has the
opportunity to repent, to turn himself around, and become a new person at
And perhaps that’s what we
need to do as we prepare our hearts for Christmas and the arrival of Jesus once
again, by turning around our lives where we need them to turn around in as we
prepare the way of the Lord and prepare our hearts and minds for the hope, joy,
peace, and love that Christmas can bring.
While this is typically a happy time, or supposed to be, some are still
in the wilderness of grief and loss, but the good news is that despite all that
happens around us, the discord, the conflict, the violence, we have a voice
that still cries out from the wilderness to remind us that something more
powerful is on its way and that a new day is still ahead. That’s good news we can share as people of
faith, that we have this opportunity to repent and receive God’s abundant grace,
which we can also share with others. We
also have our work cut out for us if we are to ever see a peaceable world where
the lion will lie down next to the lamb and not have the lamb for dinner, but
it is possible, naïve and foolish as that may sound given the darkness of the
world around us. So as we continue along
our journey in Advent, what are you preparing for as we continue moving towards
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy
[i]The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol.
VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 139.
Discipleship. ‘Second Sunday of Advent — Preaching Notes’. 2016. Accessed
December 1, 2016.