In the darkest of days we gather once more on this special night to celebrate the holiest of births. We come searching for God in a world that has lost its way. But lest we despair at the state of our world the familiar Christmas stories remind us that things were not all calm and bright that night in Bethlehem.
Jesus was born in a barn because Roman oppression forced his parents to make that painful journey. But there into that terrible situation came an incredible gift, not delivered by FedEx, but by a frightened peasant girl, wrapped in swaddling clothes, announced by a heavenly host, and sent by almighty God who still loves our troubled world.
Tonight that gift comes again silently and calmly to those who have ears to hear the angels and eyes to see the star. It comes to those who take time to pause from the hectic activities of the season, [pause] to be still and at rest in the presence of a baby who sleeps in heavenly peace.
During the Advent season we have lit candles of hope, peace, joy and love. Tonight our waiting is over; our expectations are filled to overflowing as we again dare to light the Christ Candle, the light of the world.
O God of Grace and Glory, tonight our hearts are calm and bright, not because of our cares and concerns, but in spite of the things that keep us awake at night. As your Holy Spirit came upon Mary so long ago please send it again to us this very night. Conceive in us a new birth of joy and hope. Fill us to overflowing with your peace and love. Light in us again the eternal flame of your holy presence that we will go forth bravely into the darkness to do the work of Christmas, to feed the hungry, to comfort the sick, to share with all our neighbors the light of the world that no darkness will ever overcome. Amen
It’s December 23! Christmas is two days away!! How did that happen? While the Scrooge/Grinch in me was busy wrestling with the true spirit of Christmas somebody flipped the pages on the calendar. I’m mostly “ready” for Christmas according to the culture’s standards. Cards sent, most shopping done, decorations and tree have been up for weeks, and family celebrations are planned.
But as usual the tensions between the materialism of how we do Christmas and the crazy busyness of the season are at war with the joy and peace I preach and write about. Is it harder for pastors and other religious leaders to reconcile those warring factions than for others? I’m not nearly as frantic with church responsibilities as I was pre-retirement; so it’s not that, but the struggle didn’t retire when I did.
Part of the problem is that all the “peace on earth” and “joy to the world” stuff just doesn’t ring true with what I’m seeing and feeling around me. I am genuinely fearful for the future of humanity just now. Climate change predictions are frightful and the leadership vacuum in our government on that issue is so short-sighted as to be criminal. Thousands of immigrant kids are locked up at the border, cabinet members and other key advisers to the president are dropping like flies, the stock market is on the verge of a crash, and part of the government is shut down because the little boys in DC can’t put national interests ahead of political ones.
Am I a hypocrite to proclaim good news when a deep part of me doesn’t believe there is any? Methodist founder John Wesley is credited with saying, “Preach faith till you have it.” That advice certainly keeps one humble and searching for a lifetime, even when the darkness seems to be extinguishing the last ray of hope.
And that’s why we tell the ancient story again. It’s an old story. David defeats Goliath and now this tiny, vulnerable, defenseless heir of David has an insecure ruler shaking in his boots. We know the story. Herod doesn’t win; wealth and worldly power are no match for God incarnate in a refugee child. We know the story, but we need to hear it again and again. Love wins! Love Wins! And we must tell that story over and over until we believe it.
Like expectant parents we can hardly wait for the miracle of new birth this Advent season. Our spirits are anxious about the labor pain required of us to be reborn in Christ, but the Love of God is stronger than our fears. And so like Mary and Joseph and. Elizabeth we dare to say no to hate in all its ugly forms and a resounding yes to God’s gift of Love wrapped in swaddling clothes.
It is God’s love we celebrate in Joseph’s devotion to Mary, a love so strong that even the baby John feels it while still inside his mother. It is love that dares to believe in the impossible, even a virgin birth. Love is the source of all of the Advent gifts. Hope, Peace, and Joy all flow from God’s love, but the greatest gift is Love. And so on this 4th and final Sunday of Advent we light the Candle of Amazing Love that gives Hope, Peace and Joy to a world that badly needs them all.
Prayer of Confession: Please pray with me: O God of holy expectations, we are humbled when we ponder the faith and trust of all the Christmas story characters who trusted and believed in the power of your incredible love to change the world. We confess we don’t say yes to your Holy Spirit like Mary did, we don’t believe like Joseph, we don’t leap for joy like Elizabeth. The pressure of deadlines and responsibilities are enemies of love. Fear of getting outside our comfort zone keeps us from sharing the most precious gift of your love. Help us in the middle of this hectic season to recognize acts of kindness in others and face honestly our own failures to trust and obey your radical claim upon our lives. Help us keep Christ in us. Give us eyes to see the star, ears to hear the angels and the courage to obey and go where you say. Our Christmas prayer, O giver of life, is that we will be open to your amazing love being conceived in us this Holy Season. Amen
Amid the cacophony of the mad world, in the darkest days of the year, in times of personal stress or sorrow, when we most need the peace that passes all human understanding, that’s exactly where God chooses to break into our world. Praying that you will feel that holy presence wherever you need it most this Christmas.
First Reader: On the third Sunday of Advent we ponder and celebrate the gift of Joy. We remember that life was not all calm and bright for Mary and Joseph either. The Holy family lived under oppressive Roman rule. Because there was no room in the inn Mary’s labor room was a barn. And yet baby Jesus slept in heavenly peace there in his manger bed.
Second Reader: From day one Jesus shows us that Joy does not come from external circumstances. As he would later sleep through a storm at sea and face crucifixion with steadfast faith, Jesus shows us that joy is an internal state of being, and He is the way to true Joy. He was at home in God’s universe no matter what was going on around him. (As reader 1 lights 3 candles) And so today we relight the candles of Hope and Peace and add the third candle, the candle of Joy.
Unison Prayer of confession: O God who loves us so much you came to a humble stable. You sent John to warn us to turn back from the things that bring us no joy. We confess we have not always listened to your prophets. We have not always lived lives that bear good fruit. We have failed to receive the power of your Holy Spirit. This Advent, fill us to overflowing with true joy. Let us follow the true Messiah who sets us free to share joyfully with our neighbors. Teach us to be humble bearers of Good News so our lives may be signs that proclaim Joy to the World. Amen
Advent is a season of waiting – not waiting for Christmas, but for Christ to come again. We wait and hope for a Savior to come into a world hungering for peace. We wait for God to set us free from the cares of the world that keep us awake at night. We long for a life that is calm and bright.
But sometimes we look for peace in all the wrong places, or we give up looking at all. We feel trapped in jobs that frustrate us, in classes that seem useless, in negative habits that do not serve us well. We confuse peace with comfort and security.
God’s peaceful kingdom is not anything the world can give us. It is a gift to those who know where to seek it, who follow the right star and listen to the angels instead of King Herod. God’s presence does not spare us from life’s problems, but is a peace of mind available everywhere in any of life’s circumstances if we make room for Christ.
And so today we light the second candle of Advent, the candle of peace, to remind ourselves to prepare while we wait for the Prince of Peace.
PRAYER OF CONFESSION
O Holy one who comes to set the captives free, we confess that for too long we have allowed ourselves to be imprisoned by guilt, shame, fear, anger or hopelessness. We have put our trust in things that thieves can steal and rust can consume, and we are always disappointed. Our souls long for peace, but we have been led astray by false prophets of prosperity. We pity ourselves because of adversity and expect peace to just be provided for us. Speak to us again in the stories and songs of Advent. Come Emmanuel, be with us here and now and help us trust you enough that we can give up our foolish pursuits and find true peace that only comes when we are at home in your kingdom. Amen
As in the days of Jesus’ birth we live today in times of distress and fear. Our nation and world are so deeply divided it is sometimes hard to sense God’s spirit among us. News of violence and suffering bombard us on all sides. The holiday traditions are great, but they keep us so busy we may miss the signs of God’s kingdom right before our eyes.
The Advent season calls us again to raise our heads and be alert so we don’t miss the most important parts of Christmas. Advent is time for us to quiet our hearts and see clearly what we really need from God. We do not long for more stuff that does not satisfy, what we long for are hearts full of Hope that the world cannot give or take from us.
And so today we light the first Candle of Advent, the candle of Hope.
Prayer of Confession: Gracious God, we confess it is so easy to lose hope. Family conflicts, grieving hearts, loneliness, aging, and illness seem to rob us of the things we hope for. The Christmas lights shine into the darkness of December, but they can also be so bright they overshadow the light of the world. We are tempted to trust Amazon to be our deliverer instead of the Messiah. We decorate the halls earlier but fail to make room in our hearts for the Christ child. As we hope for the calmness that surpasses all human understanding, remind us again that we don’t just need a little Christmas; we need to be more like Jesus to truly be people of Hope. Amen