Saturday, December 31, 2011

A Meditation for New Year’s Eve

Jerusalem takes up a very special place in my heart, most of you know that by now.  So it is not so far fetched that I have a running, non digital clock icon, with second hand, on my computer desktop that shows Jerusalem time.  Normally it is set for seven hours ahead of us and so when I look at it I can place what my friends might be doing at that moment, or what the sunset might be beginning to look like, or even where I might have been off to at that moment in time.  It’s just a trip down
Memory Lane
and a dream to return again to that holiest of cities.

Last week though I started up my computer and the time was way off.  Instead of it being seven hours ahead, it was eight and a half hours ahead.  Disconcerting to say the least.  So I checked into it a little more and I found out that instead of the clock being set for GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) + 2-Jerusalem time, it was set for GMT + 3.30-Tehran time.  How it got changed, I have no clue.  The Trinity is not the only mystery in the world. There are many others.  So I set the clock back to Jerusalem time.  Oh if it was that easy to really set time back or forward other than daylight savings time or a mishap.  Time!

New Year’s Eve is about time too - what was, was is and what will be.  That’s what happens when we cross the threshold of midnight into a new year.  The all of our lives converge in this sacred moment.  2011 is what was, I hope that for your there was growth; life is never stagnant even though we might feel stuck sometimes.   We are who we are today because of what happened to us yesterday.  That might be good and that might not be so good.  The good news is that New Year’s Eve is also about the future, the what will be. 

Dare to dream a different reality for yourself.  Turn the page and begin to read a new chapter filled with promise and hope.  Create and build upon the joys of your life.  Remember the God who loves you deeply and dearly makes a dwelling place within you.

A reading from the Book of Revelation.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
                                    ‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
                                      He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples,
                                      and God himself will be with them;
                                      he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
                                      Death will be no more;
                                      mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
                                      for the first things have passed away.’
And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.    Amen.

Monday, December 26, 2011

In Bethlehem

Sunset over Bethlehem

I walked through the checkpoint to enter Bethlehem. The security wall was before me.  This was my first time to Bethlehem.  I knew where I wanted to end up but I did not know how to get there.  I was reluctant to get into a Palestinian cab so I began walking on a path that seemed like the way to go.

Then I hear a voice, ‘Miss, Miss you cannot walk it’s too far.’ Amazingly (or probably not) this man knew that I was headed to Manger Square, to the Church of the Nativity.  ‘I’ll get you a cab’, he said.  I said, “No thank you, I’ll walk.”  He repeated himself as did I and then he just hailed a cab for me and told the driver to get me to Manger Square.  I conceded.    By now I was accustomed to the kindness of strangers.

He opened the door to the front seat on the passenger side.  I got in.  The window was wired shut to the door that did not close properly, it was an old rickety cab. Already there were two Muslim women in the backseat, dressed in full black hijab - (hee-job).  There was only a slit so their eyes could be seen.  We all were silent as the car began to drive to Manger Square.  We stopped and two more men got into the cab, it was getting a little crowded by now.  Faith and prayer come in handy at times like these.

When we got to Manger Square, I paid the cabbie and I got out.  I was stunned and thought to myself, this cannot be the place where my ‘little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head’. 

Many people have made pilgrimage to Bethlehem since that first starry, gentle night so long, long ago.  They have witnessed Bethlehem in all of its political, physical and religious forms.  Phillips Brooks was one of them but he had a much different experience than I.  Brooks was the rector at Trinity Church in Boston in 1865. He took a sabbatical year to travel.  While he was in the Holy Land, after dinner one night, he took a horse and road to Bethlehem. 

He came to the town on the eastern ridge of surrounding hills with terraced gardens.  And before dark he rode out to the hills where he thought the shepherds might have been and there were still shepherds tending their sheep as there are even today.  He was so moved by this he wrote the words to one of our beloved carols “O Little Town of Bethlehem”. 

This carol touches our hearts like the warmth and softness of an infant’s cheek pressed against our ruddy and weathered ones.  

Brooks uses poetic of phrases to express his understanding of that first night and the incarnation that saves us.  I am moved particularly by verse three

How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may his His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.

There is no fanfare, no bright lights, silently and quietly God gives us Christ.  God imparts to human hearts the blessings of heaven.  Our hearts are filled with so much emotion, joy, gladness, chaos and conflict, sorrow and sadness, and it is here that the blessings of heaven: God’s grace, mercy, peace, forgiveness, gentleness and love enters in.

Even though we live in a world of sin, a misaligned world, a world with much violence, prejudice and hatred STILL Christ comes to us. 

For Christians all you need to say is Bethlehem and instantly we think of Mary and Joseph, the lowing cattle and the shepherds, and we know God’s whole salvation story for us: Christ’s birth, death, resurrection without even having to explain.
Yet Bethlehem is a real place.  It is the Bethlehem of history, it is the Bethlehem of Brooks’ time, and it is also the Bethlehem of today.  This is what I learned when I tried to get to Manger Square and then was affronted by the Bethlehem Discount Souvenir Shop, and a Muslim majority because so many Christians have left.  I also learned, as I sat quietly in the Grotto of the Nativity that we are bound to Bethlehem through the covenant of Christ, not its locality or condition.

Christians may be leaving Bethlehem but Bethlehem never leaves the Christian.  Bethlehem is in our hearts.  Let us prepare a manger in our hearts so that God can impart this beautiful love.

Perhaps we have to have a wilderness experience that will open us up to accept this gift.  Or maybe we just have to concede to the imperfections that lurk so deep within us. We all hurt and heal, hate and love, experience sorrow and joy.  We all long.  The longing we feel at the Christmastide is not only for peace, love and happiness in the world. 

The longing we feel is more importantly, and maybe unknowingly for Christ the incarnate.  In Christ God has promised to be with us, to accept us, abide with us today and always.   The manger was less than perfect yet it accepted the baby once upon a time.  The manger was uncluttered, no pillow shams, or dust ruffles, or infant mobiles.  It was simple.  It was quiet.

The less than perfect manger gave Jesus a place to begin his life.  Our less than perfect hearts can too.

Christmas comes but once a year, Christ lives forever within us. God has met us in those dark streets where there is no light and meets us with Christ’s light each day and it all began in Bethlehem.

Bethlehem is salvation, love and blessing.

Bethlehem is the hope that our life tomorrow will be better than today.

Hold the Christ child in your heart this night, visit Bethlehem each day.
Allow God’s grace and forgiveness to enter your heart and be at peace my friends.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Whirls, Twirls and Walkovers...Just Imagine!

Luke 1: 46-56
It was in a sleepy little village just west of bustling Jerusalem that spring when Mary came to visit Elizabeth.  Today we call the place Ein Karem and it is nestled in the rolling Jerusalem hills where stone agricultural terraces echo the natural contour of the hills. 

Imagine Mary and Elizabeth sitting on an open porch on a cool morning watching the sun rise spreading out its glorious rays upon that holy land.  The natural woods surrounding Ein Karem today are called the Mediterranean Woodland because cypress, oak, carob, olive, fig and almond trees grow abundantly; no doubt they are descendant vegetation offspring of those that lived when Mary did.  

Elizabeth and Mary are both excited.  Soon they are to become mothers because they are incubating and growing a prophet and a messiah. In Israel spring is after the first rains so the greening of the browned and dry plants was just beginning.  Like a new life inside of an empty womb so too the fallow land begins to show signs of life. 

Waters flow.  Buds appear.  Expectations arise.  As a good friend of mine in Israel says, “None of that "in the bleak midwinter" here[i].  Verdant hope comes to pass and Elizabeth and Mary rejoice in their womanhood and the very unexpected gifts given to them from their God above.  This is the occasion for Mary’s Magnificat.
Hear now once again the Magnificat, the Song of Mary from the Gospel of Luke: 

"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever." 

And Mary remained with Elizabeth about three months and then returned to her home.
Charles McCollough is a theologian and artist.  He was artist in residence at the time when I was a seminarian at Andover Newtown Theological School, back in the day. One of his sculptures that made a lasting impression on me is entitled, “Spirit Rejoice”[ii].  It is the first of an eight piece panel that illustrates, through sculpture, Mary’s Magnificat.

What is striking is that it is not your typical iconographic Mary sitting down and looking lovingly at her burgeoning belly. She is not donning a blue embroidered head veil nor is there any hint of a halo in sight. 

We tend to make Mary an adult in our portrayals of her but she was young and she would have reacted in a teenage way, not in an adult way.  Today, by all accounts, she would have gone on Facebook or texted her friends with the news!  If you were giving birth to a savior that had been promised for years wouldn’t you jump for joy or immediately Tweet your friends and the entire world for that matter of the joyful news??

So Mr. McCollough has depicted Mary in a much more imaginative way.  He envisions a very young Mary doing a gymnastic walkover…believe me….something that only the young can perform.  Her hair flows over her head as her arms hit the ground and her supple body follows, one leg after the other.  The continuous momentum of the walkover guides her entire young teenaged body to once again stand upright. 

Charles told me that that is how he sees Mary responding to the news of her pregnancy.  She is thrilled and she does what every other young teen would do that has just received good news – jump for joy, do walkovers and sing out praises to God.  My soul magnifies the Lord!
But really, what’s up with that?  Mary thrilled?  As compelling as this image is we have to wonder if Mary was really this overjoyed.  Let’s face it; it was a horrible time in the life of a Jewish woman in first century Palestine occupied by Rome.  Look at the facts.  She was young. She was not rich, she was probably not even middle income. She was pregnant.  She was not married.  This, my friends, is nothing short of a disaster and worse than that, probable cause for stoning.

However she conceived this was her unbelievable reality.  Her betrothed, Joseph was ready to ditch her, which in his mind was the honorable thing to do.  Folks, it can’t get any worse than that.  It is a lose-lose oppressive situation all the way around for Mary.  Why would she sing? 

Yet she is overjoyed.  Like Hannah hearing the news of her impending birth of Samuel, she sings, my soul magnifies the Lord.  She visits Elizabeth, her relative and mentor and; she sings that very same a song of praise, perhaps she does walkovers, and in that very act her hands mingles with the dirt of the land of her ancestors and the great hope of a savior.

Mary understands and believes the promises and covenants that God made to her people.  It is within her collective Jewish consciousness that, with the advent of a messiah blind people will be sighted and the deaf people will be able to hear.  Disabled people will be fully restored to wholeness and in the desert there will be streams of flowing waters.  A grand reversal was about to begin.  Hope, you see, was built into her DNA.

That is why Mary has great expectations for this little heart beating within her.  She would overcome her obstacles and he would be the Messiah who could effect this change. Mary can do walkovers all people will have the opportunities for growth and dignity.  World priorities will change.  Understanding, tolerance and inclusion will trump the status quo.  Mr. McCollough was right on, walkovers are in order when you have been given hope that life can change for the better. 

I suspect that there might be things in your life that are in need of transformation.    There are in mine.  Where do you seek change in your life? Are there demons from the past that need to be laid to rest?  Addictions in need of being tamed and arrested?  Are there relationships that long ago had been put on the curb for trash pick up; and are now in need of bringing back inside?  Do you hold a grudge so deep that it is killing you rather than the person it is intended for?

How might the advent of this baby really change your life? 

We carry our ‘hopes and fears of all the years’[iii] with us during Advent and we await the time when we can place them all at the manger. We come to the manger and lay down our heavy loads and live unencumbered into the love of God.  We come year after year to the manger of love and justice, equality and assurance, healing and hope.  We come because we believe that in Jesus Christ we find God’s grace and forgiveness, we find hope and inner peace.  We come because we can and because we must. 

We don’t know how Mary acted really but we do know that her context is not unlike ours.  Broken lives in a broken world.  And yet she rejoices with hope.  So must we. 

When you have hope you can sing or maybe even perform whirls, twirls and walkovers…..just imagine!


[i] Dina Tsoar, email correspondence December 5, 2010.
[ii] Charles McCollough, “Spirit Rejoice”, part of an eleven piece sculpture at Drew Theological Seminary.
[iii] “O Little Town of Bethlehem”, Brooks.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Squeaky Souls

Luke 2: 1-20
Sitting in the pews of St. Catherine’s Parish at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is not quite the spiritual experience that you might expect.  The ebb and flow of pilgrim groups bring a hushed awe into the sanctuary.  They come from all over the world, to worship the newborn King and see the place, where tradition says, Christ was born.  Cameras flash as they look upon the stained glass rose window of the Holy Family.  They endeavor to record this beautiful work of art and moment for the years to come after they have returned home. Who can blame them?  It is a beautiful church and there is something magnificent about being in Bethlehem.
As one group of pilgrims exit there is just a split second of silence.  I try and have a moment of meaningful reflection but that’s just not going to happen.  Squeak, squuuueak, squeak, sq, sq, squeak! The silence is broken by the squeaking of sneaker soles shuffling on the stone floor.  Another group has entered the sanctuary where the acoustics are extraordinary.  And then they too stop to admire the window.  Some of them light a candle for peace and some stand there with their eyes wide open simply looking up.  
As I sat in the Church in Bethlehem I gave it a new name in my mind.  Rather than St. Catherine’s, a more apropos name is the “Church of the Squeaky Soles”.  Every person that walks into the church without even realizing it leaves his or her individual squeaky sole (S_O_L_E) sound in the great sanctuary, a symphonic offering given faithfully to the Holy Family.  So too, we leave our squeaky ‘soul’ (S_O_U_L) mark upon that tiny Savior.  If ever there was something that would keep the baby Jesus awake it would be all those squeaky sneaker soles and our heart souls.  Forget the lowing cattle or the angels flying high above singing glory in the highest.  It is our souls. 
Our squeaky souls are exactly what Jesus was born to hear.  Me and you, each one of us squeaks loudly out of the circumstances of our lives and we are saved with each sound that we make, each cry that we let out, every lonely night that we spend, or each jump that we take in the name of joy.  This is what our Saviour was born to hear, to listen to, to understand, to heal… – our squeaky souls.  We are squeaky, we fear, we doubt, we bargain, we are human and this he understands completely.
Hear now the story of that Savior’s birth as recorded by Luke:
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Isn’t it good that in the holiest of places, in the quietest and darkest of night of the soul we can show up in our noisy sneakers and find acceptance, love and grace for our souls? 

Leonard Cohen sings in his song, ‘Anthem’,
“Ring in the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”.

The light has come into this world.  He longs to be lulled by your squeaky soul.  It is a paradox we will never understand but it is one that we can embrace fully.  Let us rejoice and be glad.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

There is a Way

Isaiah 40: 1-11
It is the beginning of the 6th century BCE.  Babylon has just invaded Judah and has destroyed much of Jerusalem.  The beloved temple was demolished, commerce horribly interrupted, and God’s chosen people, the Israelites, were whisked off to Babylon.  Their exile has begun.  And in that deportation the occupiers settle in. 

Far away from home.  They were far away from the old familiar ways of doing things.  Perhaps they were separated from family or friends. They cried and lamented: “Alongside Babylon's rivers we sat on the banks; we cried and cried, remembering the good old days in Zion.” (The Message, Psalm 137:1)

They yearn, they long for someone to save them, to release them from their bondage and their captors.  “Come, God, soon, be with us.  Buy us back, redeem us.  We sit mourning because we are lonely, we are in exile.  When will you come?”  And then, like a healing balm applied to a wounded soul, the poetic voice of the prophet Isaiah speaks out……

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”

See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

Unfamiliar places.  Like the Israelites, we’ve all been to unfamiliar places.  We go from comfort to a place of discomfort.  We are unearthed from a place of ease and catapulted to a place of dis-ease.  Not a person alive has been spared from changing conditions; everyone has found themselves traversing uncharted waters. 

Perhaps you get accustomed to it like the Israelites did.  You begin to lay down roots in that unfamiliar land and life gets just a little more busy, a wee bit more complicated and before long you notice that you’ve settled in and collected a few extras in your life.

But then, from that place you begin to hear some words of encouragement that all is not lost, that soon, very soon the pall of exile will lift and that you will be able to resume your life.  You feel a little bit better, comforted as a matter of fact because you remember now that old familiar place.  These words are the pin dot of light that pierces the dark.  The sound of someone coming in the distance.  This is the consolation that the words of God through Isaiah bring.  Comfort, comfort, you are going home. 

So now’s the time to make ready.  You need to prepare.  It’s not easy to leave even though it’s what you’ve been dreaming of for all of those years.  You know, sometimes we get used to our exiled place and oddly enough what was uncomfortable becomes very comfortable like a broken in shoe or slipper. 

But it’s time.  Preparations need to be made and the route needs to be planned.  There will be some street closures, some rocky roads, some high mountains engulfed in clouds or really low valley’s that you have to negotiate.  Better lighten your load or else you’ll get bogged down.  There are some things that you will just have to get rid of and unload before you can see for yourself the most direct route, the path that will safely take you home again.  The pathway to Christ will be made so much more plain when simplicity overrules complexity.

What extras do you carry around with you today that you need to set aside or perhaps just toss in the dumpster?  What very large mountains do you have to ‘make low’ in order to see the Christ ahead?  Are there valley’s that you have a hard time emerging from?  Prepare ye the way of the Lord!

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
   “Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight”’, (Mark 1:2-3)

As we draw closer to Christmas the message is clear that we have to make straight the path for Christ to come.  We have to level the highs of our living and gird up the valleys of our depravity, in order to prepare the way because surely our lives have highs and lows. 

Surely there are things that just get in our way from finding and following the path that we are to take.  If you need forgivness, then ask.  If you are in need of reconciliation, then forge ahead.  If you need rest, then take it.  If you need to clear out and let go, then please, just do it.

Waiting in expectation and longing and yearning.  Clearing out, mapping the safest and most direct route, that’s Advent.  It’s not the frenzy and preparation that begins after Thanksgiving, the decorations, the buying, the parties, the buying, the cookies, the buying, the activities, the card buying, card writing, card sending, card receiving.  This is not Advent.  Advent is not adding on hills and valley’s it’s stripping them away.  It’s simplifying, enjoying, and reflecting God’s abundance in your life and preparing for the advent of the real Savior Jesus Christ.

We must reclaim this season, this very, very sacred time of year for our own preparation.  If we do not prepare our hearts we will lose the profound impact and the immeasurable influence that the birth of Christ has upon our lives and the world.  How can you see the one light when these flashing electrical lawn displays outshine the greatest light? 

Our lives are complicated but Advent is not.  It is hope.  It is faith.  It is having the strength to be, to sit in a barren, empty, exilic place and then to prepare to come home again.  It’s knowing that in spite of our best efforts the perfect Christmas will happen.  We have no control over that.  God does.  The incarnation, God revealing Godself in the person of Jesus is the most flawless Christmas ever.  It is a miracle of the most perfect kind.  And it happens without any fanfare when our hearts are uncluttered to receive this gift. Then the hills will be made low and the valleys lifted up.  You will know that the redemption of the world is close at hand.


Friday, December 2, 2011

Strength for the Journey

1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Grace to you and peace from God the Creator and the Lord Jesus Christ!

The church in Corinth that the Apostle Paul had planted earlier in time was in deep trouble. There were several issues that caused great strife among its members.  They struggled to identify themselves as Christians in the middle of well established diasporic Jewish communities in Greece.  In the world of the first century this was a difficult task because of the pervading Hellenistic culture and thought.   

Then there were issues.  Many issues, some religious and some political that plagued them, among them sexual and religious promiscuity and pluralism.  It was hard to maintain their exclusive claims to Christ as Lord and one God without being victims of syncretism with the pervasive Greek gods and temples all around them.

This was Paul’s fear when he receives word of this chaos in the community that he planted and writes to them from afar.  He recognizes that Christians must live in a world in which there is suffering and pain, this is his theology of the cross; that the light of God is manifest through and in Christ’s suffering.  It is this understanding that sheds light on and informs one’s suffering and gives hope.    

From Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians….

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Sometimes it’s difficult to unpack Paul’s literary style.  It’s thick and cumbersome compared to the way in which we speak.  With a slow read however we see that he thanks God above all else for the gathered community of believers at Corinth and for all that God has done for them.  He brings them back to their original purpose of following Jesus Christ even when they begin to lose heart and lose their way.

In today’s text he reminds them that their testimony to Christ, that is how Jesus Christ has changed their lives, is strengthened because of the spiritual gifts that they have been given and that they must use. They have received all that they need and God is with them.   

On Monday night, several hundred people stood on the grand front lawn of Saugatuck Congregational Church, one of our sister churches in the Fairfield West Association of the Connecticut Conference. We were reminded of God’s enduring strength in times of adversity.    

Just the night before there was a major fire at Saugatuck destroying the fellowship rooms, offices, and the nursery school.  The Sanctuary was not destroyed by fire literally, but it was damaged severally by water and smoke.  It is now just a shell of a church with the steeple still standing.  The front doors are boarded up denying access to anyone who might try to enter. 

Many area clergy, Christian and Jewish, were on hand to pray and to stand in solidarity with the congregants of Saugatuck in a prayer vigil Monday evening.  It was said over and over again in many different ways and from different voices that God is good, first and foremost.  That the church, not the physical edifice but the people are the church.  We do love our buildings yes, but we are so much more when crisis strikes.  We really do understand that relationship in Christ and in Christ’s body matters mostly.

The people of Saugatuck were saddened by this tragic event and now a part of their history.  Yet they are determined to build up their Church and worship God and God’s enduring grace through Jesus Christ.  Deacon Chair Doug Johnston said, referring to the clinging odor of smoke, "You can smell change in the air tonight, and we hope to make that a far sweeter smell in the future."  God is in their midst - last Monday night, this morning as they conduct worship at Temple Israel on Coleytown Road and into their future whatever it may hold.   

Strength in adversity comes from God’s grace in Jesus Christ.  This is our hope for all things to come.    

We find this passage in First Corinthians at the beginning of Advent to prepare us and to remind us that hope finds its home in the most unfamiliar and discordant places.  The setting for the birth of Jesus was the gritty little village of Bethlehem in a country that was occupied by the Romans.  Herodian, one of King Herod’s palaces towers over Bethlehem as a reminder of oppressive authority back in the day.   

And yet, God showed up.  God appeared to the world in this village, in that time, when Christ ventured into this world as a tiny baby.  God was there in Corinth with the lonely Christian community to speak strength and hope when they were the minority struggling to stand firm.  God was present to Saugatuck Congregation while the smell of their charred sanctuary filled the air.  God is there.  Always, God is there.

God shows up when your eyes are wide open and when they are blinded by despair.
You may feel as if you are held captive by the outside authorities whoever they may be in your life.   You may be tempted by the exterior culture who worships everything but the One who makes us whole.  You might be suffocating from the ruins of what used to be in your life.  But believe me, God is there, to bolster you, to lift you, to wipe away your tears and get you going once again.  God has a fine track record and there is no reason to believe that it will be broken.

Advent beckons us into the deep mystery of God revealed.  We wait in hope built upon the immeasurable consequences of that night in Bethlehem when Christ’s light, the star shone so brightly.  We wait in expectation that God will reveal yet again Godself into our lives and into this topsey-turvy world. 

May this season of Advent bring great meaning to your life.  Watch and wait with me that we may bless and be blessed, that we may be filled with the peace of believing, that we may abound in hope.