Advent 4: Love

Just as expectant parents prepare for the miracle of birth, decorating the nursery and buying supplies for their newborn, so we prepare our hearts to receive this greatest gift of all, the miracle of God’s love.

God does not need a labor and delivery room because God is the one in whom we live, and move and have our being. But when we are wounded by others or weary from struggling against the forces of evil we sometimes forget God is close enough to taste the salt of our tears.

Today we are tired of the bad news that bombards us every day.  We are tired of senseless violence, tired of natural disasters, tired of fearing an invisible virus, and oh so tired of separation from loved ones and interruptions to our normal lives.  

[Light Candle] And yet we light this candle of love again on this short December day because we know God is always here and everywhere.  We rejoice and hope and love, not because all is well in our weary world, but because it is well with our souls.  We are warm even this close to the winter solstice because we are wrapped in God’s eternal love.

And so we pray: O Holy One, even as our days grow shorter the candles of hope, peace, joy and love burn brightly.  Even in the darkness we see the star of Bethlehem leading us to the greatest gift of Love the world has ever received.  We know you will be with us this week even if all the gifts have not arrived, even if the guest list is missing people we love, even if we are in quarantine; because nothing can separate us from your love.  We can’t begin to explain this holy miracle, but we light candles and sing praises anyway because we feel your love in the depths of our souls.  For that gift we give you thanks and praise.  Amen

Advent 3rd Sunday: Joy

As we get closer and closer to Christmas we can feel joy spreading like a wildfire from the candles of hope and peace.  This joy is not the fleeting satisfaction we call happiness.  Joy is not a pious catch phrase, but an eternal flame that cannot be snuffed out by the cares of a weary world.

These candles here will not burn forever, but true joy that lives in our souls endures eternally. It survives flood, famine, pandemic, and unbearable sorrow.  When our bodies are too tired to carry on, the songs of joy still ring in our hearts.  

Today we light this candle of joy because the Christmas story reminds us that Emmanuel means God is with us always and everywhere.  [Light candle]

And so we pray: O come Emmanuel and ransom our weary world held captive by fear. When we are calm in the midst of chaos it is because your eternal joy is in us. We dare to be joyful because the tiny babe of Bethlehem has shown us victory over all the things that frighten us. No matter how many variants the forces of evil change themselves into; we know that you, almighty God, can transform our suffering into joyful praise. You have taught us that no matter how long our mourning in darkness may last, joy will come with the dawning of a fresh new day filled with hope, peace and love. And so today we offer you our songs of praise for the one who is Joy to the World. Amen

Second Advent Candle: Peace

John, the wild forerunner of the Messiah calls us out of our comfortable sanctuaries and living rooms into the wilderness of our weary world. Our mission is to level the playing field where our poor sisters and brothers struggle to survive. We are called to be peacemakers who do justice, not peacekeepers who protect the status quo.

John foresees the birth of a new day when the first will be last and the last first.  He calls us to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, even when  we are the latter.  And we are invited to be the bearers of that good news, welcoming Christ to transform our lives; so we can build peace from the inside out and be prepared whenever the Messiah returns. 

In that hope we light this second Advent candle, the Candle of Peace.  [Light Candle]

Let us pray: Holy God, We light the candle of peace to say, yes, we accept your invitation to be bearers of light into the dark places where there is no justice and no peace. We do so with grateful hearts for the example of Christ who came to dwell among us to show us the true way to a world of inner and outer peace for all creation. We will proclaim your peace from the housetops and our laptops until all flesh shall see your salvation as a new day dawns to usher in the peaceable reign of your universal love and grace. We pray in the name of the Prince of Peace, Amen.

First Sunday in Advent

The first Sunday of Advent comes before the Thanksgiving leftovers are consumed to remind us again of the cares of a weary world. Most of us are more stuffed than our turkeys, and yet we know millions of our sisters and brothers have nothing to be thankful for. We are moved by that suffering and do our best to share out of our abundance; but we wonder if it will ever be enough.

As we prepare our hearts to receive the Christ child this Advent, let us rely on the Scriptures to renew our faith: Words that say, “Comfort, comfort my people” to God’s children in exile. Words that say, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Lighting one little candle seems so futile to our weary minds, but we dare to light it again this Advent, not because of the tiny light it gives off, but because of the hope it ignites in our hearts. We dare to be hopeful in a weary world because of a helpless peasant baby who emerges from the darkness of Mary’s womb to become the light of the world.

We know that the world’s cares and woes will pass away, but God’s word of hope will never die. And so today we stand up and raise our arms to light the candle of hope because we know that only in the strength of Christ can we survive these trying times and stand before God as redeemed people of hope. [lights candle]

And so we pray, Holy God, we come humbly to this season of preparation, not asking for the rest of the wealthy and privileged, but rest for our weary souls. We are are distressed and confused by cosmic warning signs of climate change. We are worn out from years of pandemic and paralyzed by partisan political warfare.

We are exhausted from playing the consumption game of our consumer Christmas culture, and frustrated by supply chain issues we can’t comprehend or control. We fall on our knees, O God, for we know that only the humble can hear the angel voices. Hear our prayers, we ask, during these dark December days that lead to great joy to the world. Amen

THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT LITURGY: JOY

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 PEACE

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

Advent: Hope

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

A Shepherd Lights the Christ Candle

Good evening. As you can see I make my living as a shepherd and my home is in the fields. Sheep are my business and our lives are pretty routine, even boring at times. But there was one night, much like this one, that I will never forget.

It started out as a normal night. I was watching the stars, one of my favorite pastimes. When suddenly, a light shone all around us, and we felt a, well…a presence. We turned, and there stood an angel! Frankly, it scared us out of our wits!

But the calmness in the angel’s voice quieted our fears as he told us of an incredible event that had just happened over in Bethlehem. The angel told us that our savior had just been born! Christ the Lord! Then he said a very strange thing. He said that we would find the messiah in a cattle stall, lying in, of all things, a manger. Then the sky filled with angels, all of them praising god for this marvelous gift. [Pause] and then they were gone and it was very quiet again.

Our people had been waiting for the messiah for a very long time, and we’ve had a lot of false alarms. But after talking it over, we decided we had to go check this out for ourselves. And, believe it or not, when we got to Bethlehem we found a little family in the stall and quietly approached them. We didn’t want to wake the baby. And there he was…the sweet little baby who would become our King of Kings, our Lord of Lords. The hope of all creation.

After a little while we returned to the fields full of hope and praising god for what we had heard and witnessed firsthand. We had seen the good shepherd who will always lead us back to god when we get off the path. [pause]

And so tonight, I light the Christ candle, to celebrate the gift of God’s son, the light of the world.

[Christmas Eve, Northwest UMC, Columbus, OH, concluding a series on the “Supporting Cast of Christmas.”

Mary: 4th Advent Candle

Pastor: On this 4th and final Sunday of Advent we continue our journey toward Christmas. And today’s supporting cast member in the marvelous Christmas story is a woman of tremendous Faith, Mary the mother of Jesus.

[Mary enters in contemporary dress]

Mary: Words cannot describe how I felt when I first learned you were to be the mother of God’s Son.

Mary: I was totally shocked when an angel showed up out of nowhere and told me I was to be the mother of the Messiah! Me! A poor young woman engaged to a carpenter. Why would God choose us to raise his son? I was scared to death!

Joseph and I were engaged but not married yet. You can’t imagine what my family and the townspeople would say about that. And what could I tell Joseph? He’d never believe God was the father of my baby! Nobody would. Joseph would assume I had been unfaithful to him. That was considered adultery, and the punishment for that was death by stoning! I was really scared!

But the angel told me that God was with me. He said, “Nothing is impossible with God,” and being a devout Jewish girl, I knew this was true. Faith came over me and calmed my fear. I suddenly just knew that I could trust God completely. And from a place deep inside me I said, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

Then the angel told me about Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy, and I went to visit her so we could share our joy and excitement. But the joy I felt with Elizabeth couldn’t compare with what came later in that stable in Bethlehem. When Jesus was born and the soft moonlight gently fell on the one who was to be the light of the world, then we knew what real Joy was.

[Goes to Advent Wreath]

I hope my story reminds all of us that we are called to be faithful servants who know that with God all things are possible. As we light the fourth Candle of Advent may it light the way on our journey from fear to faith.

[4th in a series of Advent dramas by supporting characters in the Christmas Story, Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio]

Advent Drama: Joseph

Pastor: Can you feel the anticipation as we draw close to the big day? Two candles are already glowing on our Advent Wreath. As we continue to think about the supporting cast of people in the Christmas story our special guest today is a carpenter from Nazareth.

[Joseph enters dressed in contemporary work clothes wearing a tool belt, pencil behind his ear]

Joseph: My journey began with our prearranged marriage. Our parents certainly picked well for me. Mary was so beautiful and she has such a strong faith. I was truly blessed to have a wife of such noble character. The custom for us is to wait an entire year after we were engaged before the marriage vows are finalized. That year of being apart and waiting seemed like forever. But Mary was worth the wait because I loved her.

But then the waiting became much harder than I could ever imagine. There was a night that left me feeling so cold and alone, in total shock. Mary’s news broke my heart when she told me she was pregnant. My head was spinning and my heart pounding. I knew I wasn’t the father? I was so hurt and angry and confused. I wrestled with my decision all night long. How could I marry her now? I wanted to just divorce her quietly. But I knew the punishment for adultery was death by stoning. I couldn’t let that happen to my dear Mary.

It was a terrible dilemma! How could I ever decide what to do? And then the answer came to me in a dream. An angel appeared to me and said, “Joseph, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child conceived in her is the result of a miracle performed by the Holy Spirit.” The angel said, “You will name the baby Jesus, because he will save the people from their sins.” When I woke up I knew what I should do. The stars were brighter and my heart lighter as I ran to tell Mary my decision. I decided I would be the best husband and father I could possibly be.

But that wasn’t the only time God spoke to me in a dream. I got an urgent message from God when Jesus was very tiny warning us that Herod was going to kill all the baby boys, and we had to flee to Egypt to save Jesus’ life.

Being a father to such an unusual boy wasn’t easy, but through it all God has taught us so much about love – love for each other and God’s love for us. The real miracle was that God’s son became my son too. He was bonded into my life by love.

As we light this 3rd Advent candle, may that kind of love grow in each of our hearts as well.

[Northwest UMC, Columbus, Ohio]