Fourth Sunday in Advent, Year A

Inspired by Matthew 1:18-25

“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.  When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.”  Matthew 1:18-19 (NRSV)

By all accounts, Joseph was a good man.  Luke describes him as righteous, and in Matthew and Luke’s telling of the Christmas story he is always depicted as being gentle and caring towards his young wife.

Yet despite his righteousness and faithfulness, he still experienced hurt.  He was engaged to Mary, an arrangement that expected and assumed sexual faithfulness.  Yet before they were married his bride-to-be was discovered to be pregnant.  Surely Joseph felt deep hurt and betrayal.  According to the social customs of the time, Joseph was entitled to publicly disgrace her for her sin.  The laws of Moses even allowed him to demand her public execution.  Yet in the midst of his hurt and betrayal, Joseph was still merciful.  Marrying her was out of the question, certainly, but he would not humiliate and disgrace her.  He would simply let her go peacefully her own way.

Joseph is often celebrated for how he responded to learning the truth about Mary’s pregnancy.  He chose to join with her in raising this strange son who wasn’t even his own flesh and blood, and that indeed is worth celebrating.  However Joseph should also be celebrated for how he responded before learning the truth.  He didn’t let his feelings of hurt and betrayal lead him to seek Mary’s humiliation or destruction, even though the law and culture of his time expected such a response.  In the midst of his pain, he chose to be merciful.  God didn’t just choose Mary to be Christ’s mother; he wanted this man to act as his earthly father.

Let us pray.  God of mercy, you desire your people to be merciful.  Help us to follow Joseph’s example when we experience betrayal and disappointment, that we may end the vicious cycles of violence and retribution.  Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Advent 4, Saturday, Year A

Inspired by John 3:31-36

“The one who comes from above is above all; the one who is of the earth belongs to the earth and speaks about earthly things.  The one who comes from heaven is above all.  He testifies to what he has seen and heard, yet no one accepts his testimony.”  John 3:31-32 (NRSV)

From the day we were born we began experiencing this world.  We experienced both kindness and cruelty from those we encountered; we discovered that what people said and what they did were sometimes two entirely different things.  We learned that most individuals are ruled by their own self-interest, and that while the world claims to value love and kindness, it actually rewards apathy and exploitation.

All of us are of the earth, and all we know are earthly things.  Everyone we encounter, everyone we interact with, is of the earth.  But Jesus, though a human being and seemingly also of the earth, is also the Christ, the Son of God, who came from heaven above.  He has experienced the world as we have, but he has also experienced the perfection of heaven.  As the incarnate Christ, he knows the world as it is and as it could be.  And he has shared with us the fullness of God’s love and his vision of human potential.

We have trouble accepting what Jesus tells us.  Our own lived experience contradicts his assertions of unconditional love and endless mercy.  While we like the idea of a world based on justice, humility, and generosity, we also dismiss such notions as naïve and unrealistic. We know the world doesn’t really operate according to those principles, and we’re quite certain that it never will.

But heaven is the domain of the God of truth, and Christ has seen the truth.  While his words may not reflect our reality, they do reflect the ultimate reality.  God created us and the world we live in, and he knows better than we do what we are capable of.  Trust in the testimony of Christ; let his view of us begin to shape our reality.

Let us pray.  God of truth, you sent your Son to proclaim your love.  Grant us the courage to believe in his promises, that we may dare to accept your vision of who we are.  Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Advent 4, Friday, Year A

Inspired by 2 Samuel 7:18-22

“Then King David went in and sat before the Lord, and said, ‘Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?  And yet this was a small thing in your eyes, O Lord God; you have spoken also of your servant’s house for a great while to come.  May this be instruction for the people, O Lord God!’”  2 Samuel 7:18-19 (NRSV)

So many people think of God as though he were Santa Claus, sitting up in heaven (the North Pole), making his list, checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty and nice.  They hope their good deeds outnumber their bad deeds, entitling them to God’s blessings and salvation.

But God isn’t Santa Claus.  He doesn’t keep a list of our deeds, good or bad.  There is nothing we can do to earn his blessings.  No matter how hard we try, we can never be good enough to obligate God to save us.

Fortunately God never intended to make our salvation dependent upon our actions.  God knows our limits, our shortcomings, and our failings.  God knows we’re not capable of choosing righteousness consistently enough.  And God chooses to love us and bless us anyway.

David was the youngest of his brothers, a mere shepherd when God had him anointed as king over Israel.  Yet for no reason other than God’s grace, God blessed David abundantly and established his house as a legacy.  God also takes notice of us in our lowliness and blesses us not according to our deeds, but according to his grace and mercy.

Do not worry that your shortcomings will disqualify you from God’s love.  God is love, and there is nothing we can do that will ever separate us from his grace.

Let us pray.  Loving God, you bless us not according to our achievements, but according to your grace.  Help us to recognize your grace in our lives, that we may understand just how much you value us.  Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Advent 4, Thursday, Year A

Inspired by Galatians 3:23-29

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  Galatians 3:28 (NRSV)

Our world is very good at separating people.  We divide ourselves up according to cultural norms, socioeconomic status, religious beliefs, gender identities, even preferred leisure activities.  We define ourselves by how we differ from others, and without even thinking about it we make subtle judgments about people’s value based on how similar they are to us.

God in Christ judges us only according to his love and mercy.

When we choose to identify ourselves as Christians, we commit to seeing the world through God’s eyes.  We recognize that whatever designations the world has assigned to us and to others no longer apply.  We are called to work with one another, serve one another, and love one another, just as God in Christ worked with, served, and loved us.

There is tremendous freedom in Christ.  We must recognize the value of all people regardless of how the world defines them.  And we are invited to live in the knowledge that no matter how the world defines us, our true identity comes from being beloved children of the living God.

Let us pray.  Lord of all peoples, you created us with wondrous diversity.  Help us to recognize our differences as complimentary strengths, that we may all come together and serve you with unity and love.  Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Advent 3, Wednesday, Year A

Inspired by Zechariah 8:1-17

“Thus says the Lord of hosts: I will save my people from the east country and from the west country; and I will bring them to live in Jerusalem.  They shall be my people and I will be their God, in faithfulness and righteousness…These are the things that you should do: Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath; for all these things are things that I hate, says the Lord.”  Zechariah 8:7-8, 16-17 (NRSV)

Throughout history God’s people have wandered from his ways and suffered the consequences of their own self-serving actions.  And throughout history, God has called his people back to him and reminded them how to follow him.  He does not require complicated rituals or strict adherence to certain behavioral codes.  He does not mandate cultural practices or societal roles.

God is the God of truth, so he desires us to speak truth.  God is the God of justice, so he desires us to be just.  God is the God of peace, so he wants us to be peaceable.  God cares for the wellbeing of all people, so he does not want us plotting against each other or creating situations in which someone will be marginalized or exploited.  And God wants us to value him above all else, because only he has the power to give our lives dignity, value, and meaning.

When we turn our hearts away from him, we hurt ourselves and each other.  But God in his faithfulness will always call us back and remind us of his ways.  Seek his righteousness, and help make this world reflect his love.

Let us pray.  Faithful and righteous God, you desire your people to live in truth, justice, and peace.  Turn our hearts to you, that we may obey your will and participate in creating the world you desire.  Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Advent 3, Tuesday, Year A

Inspired by Psalm 42

“As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  When shall I come and behold the face of God?  My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?’”  Psalm 42:1-3 (NRSV)

As mortal beings, we have powerful material needs.  We need food and water to survive, sunlight and clean air to thrive.  We need positive relationships with other people in order to grow and mature.  And as children of God, we have spiritual needs, as well.  Just as our bodies need food and water, our souls need a connection with the One who lovingly fashioned us and placed us on this good earth.

Even if we have all the food and water we need, even if we have healthy relationships and worldly success, we still need the Lord our God.  People will disappoint us, tangible resources will fail us, and food and drink will leave us sustained but unsatisfied.

And sometimes it’s difficult to see the Lord in our lives.  Sometimes it feels as though we’re praying to nothing, and nothing is what we hear for answers.  Many in this world will try to convince us that we’re hearing nothing because there is no God to hear us, and in times of spiritual distress we’re tempted to believe them.  But though the Lord may sometimes remain hidden from us, he is never apart from us.  That longing we feel is in fact a connection, because there’s a part of us—perhaps the part of us that was made in God’s own image—that knows there’s more to life than our physical reality.

Trust the Lord to hear your prayers, and know his love sustains you even when you’re not aware of his presence.  He has not forsaken you, and he stands with you in your triumphs and your struggles.

Let us pray.  Ever-present God, you will never forsake your people.  Strengthen us to withstand those times when we feel distant from you, that we may still take comfort from our knowledge of your eternal faithfulness.  Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Advent 3, Monday, Year A

Inspired by Acts 5:12-16

“Now many signs and wonders were done among the people through the apostles.  And they were all together in Solomon’s Portico.  None of the rest dared to join them, but the people held them in high esteem.  Yet more than ever believers were added to the Lord, great numbers of both men and women.”  Acts 5:12-14 (NRSV)

There are many needs in the world, and many people praying to God for his help and mercy.  While God can answer prayers in miraculous ways, he more often chooses to answer prayers through his followers.

Yet sometimes that can be intimidating, particularly when a Christian is answering God’s call in an extraordinary way.  Those who come to believe in the power and mercy of God question their own ability to follow him in such a dramatic way, and therefore refrain from fully participating in the body of Christ.

However the needs of the world are many and varied, and each and every one of us is able to meet some of them.  Perhaps we don’t have the power to heal, or the power to persuade with our words.  Perhaps we can’t make large donations of money or time that will change the balance in a worldwide injustice.  But we can show kindness and mercy to those in our lives, both our loved ones and strangers we encounter in the course of a day.  We can love others as Christ loved us, and proclaim his love for all through our ordinary deeds.

God chose to enter into human history as a humble infant born to a peasant teenager belonging to a conquered nation.  He understands and appreciates the limitations of his people, even as he invites us to participate in something much greater than we could ever accomplish on our own.  Don’t be intimidated by how others answer the call of God; answer his call in your own way, using the gifts and abilities he gave you.

Let us pray.  God of encouragement, you call us to follow you.  Grant us confidence in the abilities you gave us, that we may proclaim your love in our own lives and circumstances.  Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Third Sunday in Advent, Year A

Inspired by Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’  Jesus answered them, ‘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 11:2-5 (NRSV)

When John sent his disciples to inquire whether Jesus was the one he was waiting for, Jesus didn’t answer with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’.  Rather he directed John’s attention to what Jesus was doing.  Jesus was doing all the things the prophets had said God’s anointed one would do; with that knowledge John would need to determine for himself who Jesus was.

Jesus said those who follow him would follow in his ways.  They would care for the sick and suffering, help the poor, and proclaim God’s love and forgiveness to the world.  People shouldn’t need to ask if we follow Christ; our actions proclaim who we are.  Like Jesus, we do what we do because of who we are, and who we are is revealed by what we do.

Let us pray.  Compassionate God, you sent you Son to bring salvation and serve the needs of your people.  Enable us to follow his ways, that our devotion to you may be made manifest in our care for your people.  Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Advent 3, Saturday, Year A

Inspired by Luke 3:1-18

“And the crowds asked [John], ‘What then should we do?’  In reply he said to them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’  Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’  He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’  Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’  He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.’”  Luke 3:10-14 (NRSV)

In attempting to follow Christ, we often make lists of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors as part of our discipleship.  A good Christian should do all ‘these’ things, but anyone who does one of ‘those’ things is not a good Christian, and is therefore not worthy of Christ’s love.

It makes sense to want some direction on how to be a good disciple; the problem comes when we get more focused on determining which behaviors are befitting of a disciple and less focused on being a disciple.

The crowds wanted to know what they should do, and John instructed them to share whatever basic necessities they had with the poor.  The tax collectors wanted to know what they should do, and John gave them specific advice.  He never told them it was sinful to be a tax collector; he simply told them to do their jobs with honesty and integrity.  Same thing with the soldiers; do what you do with integrity.

All of John’s specific instructions centered on mercy, justice, and truth.  Behaviors that demonstrate those virtues show good discipleship.  He condemned greed, injustice, and coercion.  Avoid those behaviors, and you’ll proclaim the good news of Christ’s love with your lives.  That’s all it takes to be a good disciple.

It really doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that.

Let us pray.  Lord of our lives, you love all of your people.  Empower us to live lives of mercy, justice, and truth, that your love will be demonstrated to all.  Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

Advent 3, Friday, Year A

Inspired by 2 Peter 3:11-18

“So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters.  There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.”  2 Peter 3:15b-16 (NRSV)

Many people quote verses from the bible to prove that their position on a given issue is from God.  And then their opposition will quote different verses from the same bible that seem to support their position.  And yet others will quote still other verses taken out of context to demonstrate that the bible actually bears no relevance to our lives today.  For anyone earnestly seeking God’s authoritative word, it can be extremely discouraging.

In fact, the bible does not contain God’s authoritative word on any ‘issue’ of our time.  Issues rely upon cultures and social norms to give them definition; God’s word transcends culture and society.  Instead the bible points us to the God who is actively engaged in our lives through all times and in all places, and by getting to know how people have perceived and understood God’s activity in the past we can better discern how he might be working in our lives today.

The bible points us to the authority, but the bible is not the authority.  We do not worship the bible, and we do not rely on the bible for our salvation.  All that comes from God.

Let us pray.  God of all times and places, you have revealed your will to prophets and disciples of old.  Help us to recognize your grace and wisdom in their words, that we may discern your will and activity in our lives today.  Through Christ our Lord, Amen.