Whose Birthday Is It, Anyway? #9
Reflections for Advent and Christmas
Table of Contents
- First Sunday of Advent
- Second Sunday of Advent
- Third Sunday of Advent
- Fourth Sunday of Advent
- Christmas Eve
- Christmas I
by Tom Sine
As we make ourselves ready for Christmas, do we find times to make ourselves ready for the coming of Jesus? Every Christmas, we, as Christians, are called to remember the roots of our faith.
While finding meaning and joy in the midst of Christmas commercialism is sometimes difficult, there are things we can do. By setting aside time to reflect and worship together, we can prepare our hearts for the coming of Jesus.
The weekly sessions provided here are meant to offer individuals, families and other small groups a way to remember the reason we celebrate this holy season. The sessions begin the first week of Advent and follow through the Feast of Epiphany.
Before Advent begins, you will need to make an Advent wreath. Find a book with instructions for making an Advent wreath. Or follow these simple directions. Take a large, flat shallow bowl (at least 9 inches in diameter) and fill it with sand or coarse salt. Place four purple candles around the edge of the bowl. Place a large white candle in the center. Stick the candles down into the sand or salt so that they stand securely in place. Make a circle of evergreens and place them around the bowl.
You will also need a manger scene, a Bible and matches for the worship service. Depending on the ages of those in your group, adults may want to read the biblical reflections beforehand. Set aside a time each week to worship, perhaps prior to dinner on Sundays or another day of the week. Invite those who may be alone to join in your worship.
Gather around the Advent wreath. Take turns reading, lighting the candles and praying. You may want to review the service beforehand to adapt the content as needed for your group.
The services are designed to precede events during the season. Look ahead at the family calendar. Decide on the dates to use each service. The reflections may be used as part of the services or separately.
FIRST WEEK OF ADVENT
Isaiah 64:1-9; Mark 13:24-37
Waiting...we live in a world that knows much about waiting... waiting for peace in Bosnia, Northern Ireland and Jerusalem. Children in Haiti waiting hopefully for a chance to go to school. A young couple in Chicago waiting anxiously to secure a down-payment to buy a home. A pregnant teenager in Denver waiting expectantly for the birth of her first child.
The people of Israel knew a great deal about waiting, too. Isaiah pictures them waiting in 8th century BCE* inside a fortified Jerusalem for the deliverance of God. And the liberator God did indeed deliver them from the siege of the brutal Assyrians. However, years later as a result of their disobedience, the children of Israel were taken into a galling captivity in Babylon, and again they found themselves praying and waiting for the liberation of God.
Isaiah 64:1-9 tells us something of a people who had learned to wait, but also something of the faithfulness of the God on whom they waited. "Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived and no eye has seen any God besides you who acts on behalf of those who wait for him." (Isaiah 64:4)
From "ancient times" the people of God have waited patiently for the coming of the Promised One of God...confident they could trust the faithfulness of their God. In his novel The Source, James Michener pictures one small, devout rabbi who lived during the inter-testamental period, waiting expectantly for the promised Messiah. Every Sabbath, the rabbi was the first to arrive at the Synagogue for worship. He wanted to get the choice seat where he would be the first one to see the Messiah coming down the road.
He approached every Sabbath with almost breathless anticipation. He waited all day long. And at the end of every Sabbath, he was always deeply disappointed. Yet, early on the next Sabbath, he could be found in his seat waiting again with expectant hope.
"In the fullness of time," the Promised One did indeed come. As a result, our world, our institutions and the lives of millions of people have been forever changed by the coming of Jesus Christ. However, we still find ourselves waiting for the full advent of God in a world disordered and lives under stress, with this season commercialized beyond recognition.
When we fail to take time to wait in expectant hope, it is all too easy to be overwhelmed with all that is going wrong in our lives and our world. We often forget "the God who acts on behalf of those who wait for Him." I am convinced that the greatest threat to our spiritual life is not sin but despair. I suspect that is why Dante wrote about the first gate into Hades, "Abandon all hope all who enter here."
How can we wait with hope for the advent of Christ and share that hope with those who are in despair? Mark reminds us in this week's reading that we must wait with hope for the advent of Christ, and we must watch as well... for signs of God's advent. (Mark 13:24-37) What signs are there around us that show God's presence in the world?
This season of joy can be a time of overwhelming demands and expectations. It is easy to forget the real meaning of the season. As we enter into a new season of Advent, you are invited to join others in a small Advent discipline of waiting and watching. Consider spending 15 to 30 minutes a day:
1. Waiting before God by meditating on the daily scripture for the renewal of hope;
2. Watching for and listing signs of hope in your life and God's world that may be signs of the loving Advent of God;
3. Considering ways you can be a sign of hope for those in despair by working for greater justice for the poor.
God of all Hope, as Advent begins, help us to challenge the various forms despair that threaten our faith. . . our faith in you and others. Help us to wait for "the God who acts on behalf of those who wait for Him" and to watch for signs of hope in our lives and your world.
SECOND WEEK OF ADVENT
Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8
Preparing...both Old and New Testament passages this Sunday urge us to "prepare the way of the Lord." As we prepare for the advent of God's new order, it is not enough that we wait in hope, we are called also to prepare in confidence.
Can we prepare the way of the Lord with confidence when many of us are struggling just to keep our lives together? Listen to God's welcome to the Israelites as their Babylonian captivity comes to an end: "Comfort, comfort my people, says your God, speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard services have been completed, that her sins have been paid for, and that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins." (Isaiah 40:1-2)
Amazingly, God actually invites this bedraggled, demoralized lot to join in preparing the way for the advent of God. Listen to the prophet's call to "prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, and every mountain and hill made low..." (Isaiah 40:3-4) Despite the often chaotic state of our lives, we, too, are invited to join with our God in preparing the way of the Lord. But what can we do?
Mary understood what was entailed in preparing the way of the Lord. And she articulates why we can participate with confidence - "for the Mighty One has done great things for me - holy is His name. His mercy extends to those who fear Him, from generation to generation He has performed mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble, He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty." (Luke 1:49-53)
A group of Christian leaders in a remote village in Haiti were desperate to see God's advent of justice break into a seemingly impossible situation. A brutal magistrate had killed one villager, wounded another and terrorized the entire community.
When the situation became intolerable, the Christian leaders called for a day of fasting and prayer on a high mountain. The whole valley, except the magistrate and his wealthy father, gathered for passionate intercession to the God who promises to bring a new order into being.
Out of that day of prayer, three village leaders, at serious risk to their own lives, took their case to the government authorities. Incredibly, in just three weeks, the magistrate was fired, and the reign of terror was ended. The villagers were jubilant that their earnest prayers had been answered. During this Advent season, how can we prepare for the way of the Lord in our communities? How can we seek to lift up those who are fallen or challenge the agendas of those in high places?
This is the season to allow our God to come to us in our personal lives, too, to lift us out of the deep valleys of fear, depression and anxiety. God also comes to pull down those high places in our lives...our self-preoccupied agendas, our anger, our distorted sexuality, our resentments towards others...to prepare the way of the Lord.
During this second week of Advent, you are invited to join in preparing the way of the Lord. During your time of mediation each day, you are invited to:
1. List one way you can lift up those who are fallen or challenge those in high places...and, prayerfully, follow through this week;
2. List areas in your own life in which you will both receive the encouragement of God, and you will, with God's help, remove those high places that set themselves against all that God purposes for you.
Preparer of the Way, we pray with confidence that this week you will enable us to join you in preparing the way of the Lord. Let us seek to bring down the high places and lift up the low valleys in both our lives and the larger society...as a sign of the advent of God.
THIRD WEEK OF ADVENT
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; John 1:6-8, 19-28
Anticipation...the children of Israel were uniquely a people of remembrance and anticipation. The Israelites were able to wait in hope, in part, because they remembered the acts of God in their past. A major reason they were able to prepare the way of the Lord in confidence was that they looked forward to the promises of God for their future.
That's where many of us are in serious trouble. We often live our lives, struggle to raise our families and seek to order our private worlds with little compelling vision for tomorrow. We can become so focused on our own agendas, we have little time for those in need around us. We seem to have little image for the better future derived from our faith. Too often, we settle for giving our lives to the high stress aspirations and addictions of our upscale culture, attending church on Sundays...if we have time.
John urges those seeking clarity and direction to consider Jesus "the true light" that gives light to every person who enters this world. (John 1:9) To understand this "true light," we can seek to embrace the vision for the future that is at the very center of the life of Jesus and that first community.
To understand Jesus' vision for the human future, let's turn again to Isaiah's advent vision. In Isaiah 65:17-19, the prophet shows us a God intent on giving birth to a new heaven and a new earth. In Isaiah 2:1-4, the scene shifts to a new mountain and a new city. We see people coming from every tongue, tribe and nation to the great homecoming of God on the mountain of God. Then in Isaiah 25:6-9, we witness the enormous banquet of God that breaks out with jubilation celebrating a new age of justice and peace.
In this week's reading of Isaiah 61, we see a compelling vision of God's purposes for the human future. We hear of a future in which the poor hear good news, the broken-hearted find healing, the captives are set free, those who mourn are comforted, a God who gives us beauty for ashes...all because the Creator God "loves justice and hates iniquity."
Jesus made this advent vision His personal vocation. "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Luke 4:18-19) How are we called to follow Jesus in "proclaiming the year of the Lord's favor"? How can we transcend the commercialization of Christmas and the addictions of the American dream and put first things first?
As this third Week of Advent begins, are you looking for a renewed sense of purpose for your life and family? You may wish to join Jesus in making the advent vision of Isaiah your personal vocation by:
1. Writing a personal family mission statement drawing on the imagery of Isaiah 61;
2. Discussing how you and your loved ones might reorder your timestyles and lifestyles in light of your new personal mission statement.
God of Loving Vision, enable us to follow the "true light" that has entered the world by making Jesus' vocation our vocation...preaching "good news to the poor," proclaiming "freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind."
FOURTH WEEK OF ADVENT
II Samuel 7:1-11 and 16; Luke 1:26-38
Walking...one of the absolutely astonishing claims of Christianity is that in the incarnation God literally walks with us in Jesus Christ. It has been called the "scandal of particularity." During this fourth week of Advent, it is time for us to welcome again the coming of Emmanuel...God with us.
We are reminded in II Samuel 7 that the God of the Israelites was neither a deity made of wood nor a God out of touch, but a deity who journeyed with the people of God. "Now then, tell my servant David, 'this is what the Lord Almighty says: I took you from the pasture and from following the flock to be ruler over my people Israel. I have been with you where you have gone...' " (II Samuel 7:8-9)
One cannot read the story of God in the Old Testament without being impressed with how intimately this Creator God journeyed with this difficult, stiff-necked people, sharing in the lives of their families, settling in a new land, and the all too frequent bouts of disobedience and rebellion. Here we find a God who not only travels with God's people, but a God who never gives up on them.
And this God was not content simply to journey with a small recalcitrant band. The Creator's love was destined to embrace a world. From the beginning, this God was intent on not only journeying with us, but entering, quite literally, into this creation...through the life of one small infant.
The announcement comes for one frightened young Jewish woman in Nazareth: "Don't be afraid Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a Son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord will give Him the throne of His father David and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; His kingdom will never end." (Luke 1:28-33)
In the incarnation, the Creator not only enters into human flesh, but experiences the worst life has to offer, including humiliation, torture and death. As Jurgen Moltmann points out in The Crucified God, this is a God who knows first hand and close up the horror experienced by victims of death squads in Guatemala, the sense of abandonment experienced by a young mother deserted by her husband in Los Angeles and the health crisis facing a middle-aged couple in Milwaukee. This is a God who walks with us in all of our struggles and griefs. This is a God who, through Jesus Christ, fully enters into the worst the world can throw at us.
As we read further in the Gospel, this Jesus, this "God with us," repeatedly invites us to walk with Him...whatever our circumstances. On this fourth Sunday of Advent, we can decide once again if we will accept this invitation and share with our companion God all the griefs and all the joys of our lives. And we can decide if we will embrace the disciplines that come with walking with Jesus.
You are invited, with your family, with a companion or on your own, to set aside an hour this week from the busyness and consumerism of the season to walk with Jesus. Read over today's Gospel reading first, then go on a "prayer walk," seeking to enter into something of the jubilation, companionship and discipline of journeying with the God who asks to walk with us and never gives up on us.
God Emmanuel, we welcome with great thanks your visitation in Jesus Christ, and we gladly accept His invitation to walk with Him and learn from Him in the rigors of discipleship and the joy of friendship.
Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-14
Receiving...tonight we anticipate the ritual of receiving and giving. Flickering lights, the fragrance of pine bows, packages spilling out in all directions. However, tonight's scripture invites us to come apart from the last minute busy-ness, wrapping of gifts and cooking of meals...to receive from God.
Like those shepherds, we are invited to set aside the immediate that distracts us and fears that victimize us and hear again in wonder..." 'I am bringing you good news of great joy for all 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!' " (Luke 2:10-14) How like our God to come to us in a surprising way...a baby in a cow stall.
But exactly what is this "good news of great joy"? First we can recognize it as an immensely personal gift to everyone who will receive it. I have always been a Christmas person who delights in this season of family and festivity. However, it wasn't until I was sixteen years old that I actually received the gift and entered into "the great joy."
During a church missions conference, I suddenly realized for the first time the very personal nature of the gift God was offering in Jesus Christ...an intimacy and reconciliation that I embraced eagerly with tears. Christmas has never been the same since. Now I not only share in the wonder of shepherds, but in the profound sense of all those who, throughout the ages, have chosen to follow Jesus and name Him as Savior and Lord.
This Christmas Eve, we can enter into the great joy of this evening by rediscovering how deeply loved we are by the Creator God and how eagerly this God wants to give us the gift of intimacy, salvation and renewal for our lives and world.
It is essential, though, that we not forget this "great joy" is not for us alone, but for "all people." In Isaiah 9, we are shown a Messianic vision of coronation and consummation. These recipients share a jubilation like that of an overwhelming harvest or the sharing of a treasure hoard. It is a future in which all the tools of torture, subjugation and oppression are destroyed and all military uniforms and equipment are burned in a huge conflagration at the coming of the Promised One.
"For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given and the government will be on his shoulders, and he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The seal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this." (Isaiah 9:6-7)
The "zeal of the Lord Almighty" will indeed accomplish all of this. The Creator God wants to gift us both with a relationship to the divine and a world restored...all through the mystery of the birth of a child. We are invited to join the Prince of Peace in working for a future in which all oppression and violence is eclipsed by the shalom of God.
On this Christmas Eve, you are invited to join with those you love to read these scriptures. Then in an extended time of silence, receive afresh "the good news of great joy" both for yourself and for a world that aches to be made whole. Afterwards, you may want to share with each other what you have received. Identify specific ways you can work for peace, justice and the care of creation, like supporting your denominational hunger program, the work of Habitat for Humanity or Bread for the World.
Author of Great Joy, we receive with deep gratitude the gift that comes to us and our world in the baby Jesus. We pray with all our hearts that your future will come and your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven. May you make us agents of your justice and peace in anticipation of that day.
FIRST SUNDAY AFTER CHRISTMAS
Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Luke 2:22-40
Living...of course the celebration doesn't end with Christmas. If we have received anything of the gifts of God, then we have the opportunity of living with the grace of God. In the gospel reading today, the infant Jesus has already become a young boy, and we are told that "the grace of God was upon Him."
Once my spiritual director asked me to spend a week meditating on the childhood of Jesus. At first, it seemed like an impossible task...there is so little narrative. What was immediately evident, though, is that the grace of God was on the life of this young child in a very distinctive way. In fact, it strongly reminded me of another young man...David. What they seemed to have shared was the way they both turned their lives towards their God with a singleness of heart that was unique.
Isaiah foresaw the coming of King David's heir. As you remember, Jesus chose the first portion of Isaiah 61 as his inaugural. In Isaiah 61:10-11, we are shown one who delights in the Lord because he has been clothed in the garments of salvation like a bridegroom. God makes the garden of the nations burst into praise before him. Finally, the prophet says of this one "you will be a crown of splendor in the Lord's hand and a royal diadem in the hand of your God." (Isaiah 62:3)
As followers of this Jesus and as sons and daughters of David, we, too, can know something of that special grace of God in our own lives. If any of us turn our lives towards God in even the slightest way, we immediately experience afresh the mercy of the God who delights in responsive children. But if we turn our lives singularly towards the gracious Creator, we, too, can know something of that special grace that crowned the life of David and Jesus.
My friend Tom is a man touched by that "special grace." Like his master, he is a carpenter by trade. In his youth, out of his commitment to God, he took vows as a Trappist novitiate. After eleven years as a Trappist monk working in the wood shop at an abbey in Oregon, his health failed.
Tom left the order and met Ida, and they shared a lovely family of four children. Despite hardships, Tom and his family have devoted themselves to working with people who are disabled through the L´Arche community, as well as working with people who are poor through their local parish. Recently, Tom lost Ida to cancer, and he is now raising his family alone. You don't have to be with Tom for very long before you discover in this quiet, unassuming man something of the special grace of God.
As a new year approaches, we all sense both new challenges and new opportunities. Chief among those opportunities is, like the boy Jesus, to turn our lives singularly towards the God who calls us. If we do, I am sure that, like my friend Tom, people will begin to recognize that special touch that graces our lives and bears witness to the God of all mercy.
Imagine what it would mean to "turn your life singularly towards God." As the new year approaches, consider setting aside time to take stock of your life, and to recommit your life afresh, with the single-mindedness of a young child, to the God of the epiphany...with the full assurance that not only the grace of God will go with us, but with the confidence that God will direct our path. Discuss with your companions how you might set aside a daily time to renew this commitment and wait in silence for the God who calls us.
God of all grace, make us again, like a young child who with single-hearted devotion, turn to you. May we in this new year walk in your grace and be sustained by your mercy.
Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
Sharing...at the very center of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the gift of sharing. As Jesus was a man for others, we are called to be a people for others. In the two readings for today, we are shown images of people sharing their treasures out of devotion to God. In the passage of Isaiah 60:1-6, we see people from all nations converging on Jerusalem at the Great Homecoming of God bringing their treasures with them.
Picture the brilliant imagery of the prophet as he describes the grand Homecoming scene in Jerusalem: "Arise shine for your light has come and the glory of the Lord rises upon you...lift up your eyes and look about you; all assembled come to you; your sons come from afar and your daughters are carried on arms...the wealth of the nations will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come..." (Isaiah 60:1-5)
In the readings from Matthew 1:2-12, we are shown the wise ones bringing their treasures to Jesus as an expression of their worship. We are still invited to bring our treasures to Jesus. There is no better time than at the beginning of a new year to reexamine how we use our resources and to discover how much we have to share.
It is clear from the gospels that those who chose to follow Jesus not only shared their treasures, they committed their entire lives both to God and the teachings of God that have filled these advent readings. What does Jesus ask of us?
Jesus' teachings tell of the inbreaking of God's new order of justice, peace and righteousness, and also call us to stewardship of our lives and resources. While Jewish teachings emphasized the tithe, a growing number of New Testament scholars tell us that the New Testament calls us to something more...to whole-life stewardship.
Recently while travelling in Britain, I learned of a couple in Cambridge who found some creative ways to reduce their lifestyle costs so they could each cut their work schedule to twenty hours a week. Their reason? They wanted to invest the other twenty hours a week in working with Jesus' mission to those in need in their community.
As we stand at the threshold of the Third Millennium, we recognize escalating human need throughout our world. At the same time, needs among people who are poor are increasing in American society, we are seeing drastic cutbacks in social programs. Furthermore, many churches in America, as in many places throughout the Western world, are slowly shrinking, and their capacity to respond to this growing need is also gradually declining.
Those of us committed to follow Jesus are called to reexamine seriously how we prioritize our use of time and resources in relationship to Christ's mission "to bring good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind and set at liberty those who are captive." I am convinced that if we each in our own ways choose to put God's purposes first, we will be surprised at how God will use our mustard seeds. I believe that through whole-life stewardship, we can create a way of life that is both more festive and less stressed, a way of life in which we have more "treasures," like those called "wise" in today's gospel, to bring in devotion to Jesus.
As we enter a new year, we are invited to reexamine prayerfully our timestyles and our lifestyles to discover how we can, like those first disciples, put God first in our lives and families. Consider drafting new stewardship goals for 1997. How might you reorder your private world to free up more time and money to invest in enabling people in need to help themselves?
God of extravagant generosity, we come to you with few treasures to offer except our own lives. We willingly give them back to you. By your grace make us determined, like the Jesus we follow, to put first things first. Lead us as we more fully invest our lives in the advancing of your kingdom in response to the escalating challenges of a new millenium.
Tom Sine, an Episcopalian layman, works in the areas of futures research and planning with major denominations. He is also the director of Mustard Seed Associates. A prolific writer, Tom has written many articles and books, including Live It Up!: How to Create a Life You Can Love (Herald Press, 1993) and Cease Fire: Searching for Sanity in America's Culture Wars (Eerdmans, 1995).
This page last updated 20 October 2012
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